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dovecrag

Dovedale

We were later than we should have been, the small blue car and I, slipping over the Kirkstone, already midmorning and by now meeting the tourist coaches lumbering up from Patterdale. We met one at the Inn, at that bit where the tarmac narrows by the Struggle down to Ambleside, a giant German tour-whale, incumbents all filming my humble passing. Thus I imagine myself now immortalised, part of the scenery, a silver fox in an old MX5. There are worse ways to be remembered, I suppose,…

Exotic it must seem, the Kirkstone Pass, to a continental European, as exotic as the Lauterbrunnen sounds to me, a northern Brit, still a die-hard European, though chastened now by this eternal BREXIT thing. All is relative,… or so they say. How many times over the Kirkstone now? Must be into the hundreds. Familiarity in this case though clearly does not breed contempt, for there is still the sense, as Patterdale opens ahead of the tumbling little road, of a spiritual homecoming.

I am here to climb Dove Crag.

So,… Cow Bridge at 11:45, and we pull into the last parking spot. It’s more than we deserve at this hour, so it’s fated, reserved for us by Providence perhaps and therefore a good omen. It’s a blistering hot day, mid-June, wide open sky of Cerulean blue, but a distinct lack of air, and a surplus of humidity. I’m thinking it’ll be better at altitude, but that’s a couple of hours away, the mad dogs and Englishmen hours, and I’m not convinced I’m going to make it that far, me feeling old and drained and unpracticed with my mountain mojo these days. If you don’t use it, you lose it. I lost mine a long time ago and, trust me, Dove Crag is not the best place to try to find it again.

But still,….

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Dove Crag

It’s grown famous of late, Dove Crag, on account of the Priest’s Hole, a slot of a cave, high on the face of the crag, indeed this must now be the most famous secret spot in Britain after being on the telly and gaining mention in travel articles for the urban selfie hungry. I have no desire to further advertise it here, except to say it’s also a dangerous place to get to, and I had no desire to join the surge of casualties, including fatalities, in recent years, making pilgrimage. We think of England as a cotton wool cosseted place, health and safety numpty’s tut-tutting everywhere and always someone to sue with our ambulance chasing no win no fee solicitors, if we so much as stub our toe. But the mountains aren’t like that, even English ones.

Anyway, a promising start was made with a glorious opening stroll along the shores of Brothers’ Water, where, I swear, a pair of sweetly rounded ladies were skinny dipping and giggling joyously like nymphs – I admit I may already have been hallucinating in anticipation of hardships higher up the fell. But even without the water-nymphs the approach to Dovedale is seductive in its loveliness, gentle on the legs too, at least as far as the first of the falls. The falls are a good place to gather breath and wits, because beyond them the going is much harder, and it has a darker vibe about it as the fells close in and the ferns give way to rock.

I seemed to have no power in the legs at all. At the first of the falls, reduced now to a trickle by drought, I paused a good long while, eyes already sweat-stung, hat dripping, shirt-soaked and my head befuddled by a cloud of horse-flies. One of them got me on the back of the hand which provided little by way of encouragement. The pack felt impossibly heavy with weatherproof gear, unlikely to be needed, but foolish to leave behind.

I had barely the spring to get back on my feet, and my legs felt like they were not my own, my feet pointing backwards and about as sure footed as a drunkard. I was encouraged though by vague memories of other walks, where the legs slowly warm and you find your pace, and the breath to keep you going. I stopped a lot on the way, drank a lot of water, talked to myself.

In Wainwright’s day the last bit onto the shoulder of Dove Cag was all loose rock and scree – must have been a nightmare of a pull, and Wainwright, this prolific pipe-smoker, never seeming short of breath. Now its a precipitous, spiralling staircase of set stone and all beautifully crafted to blend into the natural tumble of rock. I was just about able to haul myself up it, and then it was on to the summit, where all was dry as bones and not a soul for miles.

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Dove crag summit

Normally the legs would recover now, and I’d be able to pick up the pace, regain some spring, but Dove Crag had given me a good hiding in the heat, and it was plain it didn’t matter how long I rested by that cairn, I’d be finishing the day on what was left, and it wasn’t much. I’d passed this way a few times before, on circuits of the Fairfield Horseshoe, but those days were long gone, like the youth who’d casually burned the miles in gale force winds and horizontal rain. No,… I was never so robust or bold in the fells, and any of that this afternoon and I was going to die up here. But the day was utterly stunning in its clarity, like a near death vision of an idealised afterlife – and all the fells gathered round of course, their names returning to me as I decoded their profiles from dusty archives. I’m  sure I’m not the only ageing fell walker to have dreamed of a post popped-clogg world like this and the legs to do it justice.

I headed eastwards along the Fairfield route, a fine section of breathtaking views, probably the best weather I’ve ever had up there, and the mountains catching the sun, slanting sleepy shadows into the deep dales and the ravines and raising something of the old mojo magic of the Lakes for me. But I had miles to go and feet for very few of them, and just another good swallow of water left in the bottle. Perhaps I amplify the hardship, but I was painfully aware one slip-up with navigation bringing me down into the wrong valley, and I’d nothing in reserve to correct it. But on such a clear day it would be hard to miss the path for Patterdale.

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Patterdale

I skirted the summit crown of Little Hart Crag, too far gone to waste what bit of breath I’d got on petty peak bagging. Instead I gained the gently undulating ridge towards High Hartsop Dodd, set my head to the task. This was supposed to be a four-hour round, according to the guides. It was going to take me five. But who’s counting? Here, as you crest the last rise, the tip of the fell points like a prehistoric arrow-head down the length of Patterdale, Brothers’ Water blue as the sky amid the multifaceted green of the dale, and the heart swells with delight that there can be such places as beautiful as this, and surely I have known and loved it for more than just the one life-time, for it to have such a profound affect upon the senses.

Yes, it was worth the walk, and the sweat, to say nothing of the emptying of myself to see that view – that last gift of the way before the way plummeted with a brutal steepness to the valley bottom, a twisting slalom of a route, hard on the knees and jelly-legs. Thus I descended like a fragile centenarian, alpine sticks deployed Zimmer fashion, progress slow and cautious. I could see where the car was parked, miles away; I felt it might as well have been on the moon.

The water nymphs had gone, sadly, when, with feet on fire, I made my way back along the shore of Brothers Water, pausing to allow myself a moment of respite where they had bathed themselves. Divested of boots and socks and paddling out gingerly over the pebbles, that blessed water gave me back the mile still remaining to the car, and I returned at last to my reward: that post-walk mindful calm sunk deep into the bones.

It was a memorable day, as all walking days are in the Lakes, and a triumph too, of sorts, but also a reminder of the advance of years and how the fells demand a high degree of fitness, a toughness in the gut, a resilience in the legs, to say nothing of leathered feet. I can accept the ultimate defeat of advancing years, am sanguine about it in many ways, but as I sat on the terrace of the Brother’s Water Inn, sipping on a cold Lime and Soda, first light of evening coming on, I swear Dove Crag was smiling, telling that time was not yet near, telling me also well done, lad, and Dylan Thomas, whispering in my ear, you know,… that line about not going gently into the good night!

She can be a stern mistress, this fell country of ours, but I know of nothing, no other corner of England more inspirational, more building of self-confidence, nor more rewarding to the spirit. Yes, a tough old walk for one grown so lazy of late, also a wake-up call, and a promise that I’ll not leave it so long next time.

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Lavender and the Rose Cover

Another in the occasional series, looking at the themes expressed in my various works of fiction. 

Moving on, getting on, forgetting the past, embracing change, living in the present moment – and all that. It’s good stuff, stuff I tried to get at in the Road from Langholm Avenue. And to be sure, all these things are attainable, the material world navigated safely as needs be without falling over in despair at the pointlessness of existence. At least for a time.

But as we get older, something else happens, some call it an existential crisis, others simply the menopause. But as I see it, youth, inexperience, and just plain ignorance has us accepting without question the allure of an essentially material life, rendering us blind to the fallacy that it is entirely sufficient for our needs – the pursuit of money, lifestyle, the bigger house, the bigger car, the exotic travel destinations. It isn’t.

If we’re lucky we wake up and realise material things don’t satisfy us for very long, that we can live an extravagant lifestyle, a life all the adverts would have us aspire to, and still be as miserable as sin, still craving the next big thing. But you can’t go on for ever like that. Clearly something is missing. We need a bigger story if our lives are to mean anything.

Some find that bigger story ready made in the various world religions – usually a story about a supreme being and an afterlife to help make sense of the suffering we endure in this one. We can then explain our lives as a trial imposed upon us, the reward for which will be riches in the next life. Or we can explain it as a preparation for a higher level of existence, again in some non-material hereafter. And all that’s fine for the faithful, because religions do provide comfort in times of need, but what if you’re not faithful? What if all of that sounds ridiculous to you? What if the logical inconsistencies of such a set-up cause you to take out that barge pole and prod all religions and their scary religiosity safely out of sight. Life simply is what it is, and then you die. Right?

Well, maybe.

But what if you sit down one day in an existential funk, and something happens? Let’s say the doors to perception are flung wide open – just for a moment – and you’re given an utterly convincing glimpse of a universe that’s somehow greatly expanded compared with the narrow way you normally perceive it? How so? Hard to describe except lets say, for example, time drops out of the equation and you’re given the impression of an infinite continuum in which there is no difference between you and whatever you perceive, that your mind is independent of both the physical body and the physical world, that indeed your mind is a subset of a greater mind that is both you and not you at the same time.

How would you deal with that?

Well, you’d probably think you were ill, or just coming out of a semi swoon or a waking dream where we all know the most outrageous nonsense can be made to feel true. So we come back to our senses and carry on as normal. Except we find our perspective on life is subtly altered. We are drawn to ideas that might explain our experience. We explore it first through psychology, because it was a kind of mind-thing we experienced. So down the rabbit hole we go,…

And there sitting at the mad hatter’s table we discover Carl Jung, sipping tea and reading a book called the Yijing, which he lends to us, saying that if we are not pleased by it, we don’t need to use it, and we’d worry about that except he also tells us famous quantum physicists have used it too, though they don’t like to admit it. Then this Oriental connection takes us to ancient China and another book called the Tao Te Ching, then to religions that aren’t like other religions, to Daoism and Buddhism which are kind of hard to get your head around. But while everything you learn explains some small part of what you experienced, nothing explains the whole of it.

So you put some rules to it yourself, create a quasi-logical structure for this strange new universe you alone have apparently discovered. Before you know it, you’ve invented your own religion and it all falls apart again, victim to the inconsistencies you’ve imposed upon it yourself. It seems the moment you put words to things you limit their potential to within the bounds of your own perception, and what you perceive actually isn’t that much when compared with what’s really out there, or to be more precise in there, because it’s an inner experience that leads us to this taste of the infinite where there’s no such thing as or in or out anyway.

The Lavender and the Rose comes out of this shift in perception, but without structure it would make no sense to anyone else – just two hundred thousand words of mindless drivel that would bore anyone to tears, so we accept the vagueness and the mystery, and we weave a story around it instead, a love story, several love stories, blur the boundaries, throw in some visions, some Jungian psychology, basically a lot of muse-stuff and conquering of the ego, that sort of thing. Add in a bit of Victorian costume drama, play about with characters having more than one identity, play the story out at different points in history, play it out in alternative universes where even the present moments can pan out differently, and then try to make it all hang together as an interesting story – about what can happen when you start living magically, and with others who are similarly inclined. Then explore ways the mystery can be coaxed to your aid, and discover how, if you get it wrong it will shun you for a decade. Learn how to navigate its endless ambiguities, how to see the world as no one else sees it, and still get by without getting yourself sectioned.

Such is the irresistible allure of something other.

And as with all my stuff, if you are not pleased by it, at least it hasn’t cost you anything!

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