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Posts Tagged ‘winter’

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It was a big, white fisher-bird, smaller than a heron. It was of a similar build to a heron, but more slender, more elegant. It was an egret, I think, the first I’ve seen in the wild and an incongruous sight, out among the potato fields. I’d go so far as to say it was exotic, and had the feel of an omen about it, meaning what, I don’t know,… but something, surely?

I’d come upon it suddenly, disturbed its fishing, and it had risen silently, gracefully from a deep drainage ditch between meadows. It’s not a well walked path, the path I was on. It meanders across the flats from Rufford, towards Croston. For a right of way, it’s hard to pick up and hard to navigate. As usual the way markings had gone, and it was years since I’d last walked it, so all memory of past trials had faded. You have to check the map to make sure you’re on the correct side of the ditches, or you’ll walk to a dead end, another broad ditch crossing your path. Then you’ll see your proper way on the other side, but with no way to cross and a long way to back-track.

I’ve jumped these ditches in the past, in desperation and frustration, but at times of flood, they run deep and wide and cold. They’re also steep sided, so you’d struggle to get out if you missed your step and slipped in. Anyway there’s no dignity in it. Dignity is finding your way by means of the proper way, the right of way. There are more convenient routes around here, routes that present no difficulty at all, but those are farm tracks signposted to tell you there’s no public way,… trespass and all that. Naturally the markings on those are hard to miss and tend not to disappear.

So, it was an egret, then. Swan-white, like an omen did I say? Well, maybe a blessing. Whatever, it was beautiful.

It had been a morning of contrasts. Clear and cold, the ground beginning to thaw a little, so it was firm underfoot, without being too hard. There was still a little snow lying about, and the flooded fields were sheets of ice, with a cold wind blowing off them.

I’d just come down from the cut of the River Douglas. It had dropped twenty feet from the weekend floods, stranding a thick line of unwholesome detritus, up on the banks. There were bottles, supermarket bags, footballs, tennis balls, all manner of glass and plastic, a line of rubbish stretched from Wigan, out to the Ribble, and from there to the sea, for the sea to wash it all back up on the beaches from Blackpool to the Hebrides. The supermarket bags of course would find their way into the bellies of whales, who mistake them for jelly-fish. There’s something sinister, I think, about this man-meddled stretch of the Douglas, something godless about it.

The land here, once marshland, is pretty much an open-air factory, cut up into squares, and navigated in straight lines, north-south, east-west. I’ve long found it aesthetically sterile, interest coming only sporadically in the occasional lone tree or in the skies at the day’s extremes. Lots of it has been turning back to wetland though, these past few winters, as the water-table rises.

An egret! Really? Are you sure?

I’d had the camera, but the wrong lens, and anyway, there was no time. The bird was up and off and out of range before I even thought of a photograph. I had a wide lens on, so that bird would have been a small white dot against the winter blue, indistinguishable from a seagull. Landscapes are more my speed. They give me time to fumble through the settings on the camera. It’s our fourth year together now, master and apprentice, the camera being the master, teaching me about the contemporary art of the possible. The single lens reflex cameras I grew up with from the 70’s onwards, were a much simpler affair, and easier to get along with. These modern digital versions are a bit daunting, with more options on them than I can learn in a lifetime. Fiddle with a few settings, and you’ve a whole new camera, and that’s even before you change the lens. But it’s an interest, and it gets me out.

Spot meter. That’s what I was experimenting with today. You measure the light from the brightest area of the frame, get that exposed right, so the details of it don’t burn out, but the rest gets under-exposed, which makes it go dark. It can be tinkered with on the computer to look a bit arty. Anyway, I’d shot a dozen pictures on the way round before noticing the focus was on manual, so they were all blurred. Too many things to control. Thirty shots, and all deleted when I got them on the big screen at home, except for two or three that made the cut.

The lone tree, above, shot into the sun was one. The frozen track was ablaze with reflected light. It was part intended and part good luck. I’ve photographed the same scene a dozen times in all seasons, and mostly it looks nothing like that, except this morning, it did, and for once the camera and I saw things the same way.

Then there was the weeping tree – beech or birch, I don’t know. That was an unusual find – easier to spot in winter when most other trees look dead. This one was dreaming though. It was by this tree I saw the egret, which added to the magic of that little spot – the Egret and the Dreaming Tree? Good title for a story.

Did I tell you how dreary I find it, around here, normally? Ten square miles of assorted vegetables and mud. But I have to admit, as I’ve been forced to look closer, this pandemic year, denied the distraction of broader adventures, it’s begun to open up a little, and share its secrets.

I’m wondering if the Environment Agency has stopped the pumps that drain the fields into the Douglas. Maybe that’s why the ditches are topped so frequently now, and the land turned to lakes. There were rumours of it some years back – austerity and all that. A guy once told me that if they ever stopped pumping, the giant mere you see on old maps of Lancashire would be back inside a decade. Sure, there’d be shortages of Lancashire potatoes and carrots if that happened, as a goodly portion of the crop looks to be ruined every year now anyway, but with the water, the birds are returning. And with everything else in a tailspin, that has to be a good sign, hasn’t it?

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The cars haven’t moved since New Year. One has a massive thorn sticking out of the sidewall, and it’s slowly leaking air. It’s due a service and MOT in a few weeks, so we’ll leave it until then for the local garage to sort out, if it’s open. If it’s not, we’ll have to SORN the thing until it is. The other car’s battery hovers somewhere close to death, and needs charging. I’m turning both engines over, but I feel I should really be giving them a bit of a run to stop the brakes from seizing up. Is that a necessary journey, though?

Just out for a spin officer, testing the brakes?

Do I look stupid, sir?

So anyway, I’m not travelling out by car, not even a couple of miles to “access open countryside” as the well-worn covid loophole goes. The Tesco man brings the groceries, and between times we make do. Dry January has also killed the need to go to the corner shop for the occasional bottle of wine. Instead, I’m wearing grooves in the local footpath network, taking the camera for long walks on the good days. Thirty-two miles and counting so far. I’ve discovered some gems along the way: unfamiliar and attractive footpaths, lone trees in their bare, winter magnificence, and birds.

On the less walked ways, however, I’m discovering obstruction. Yesterday it was a hundred yard stretch of public footpath, barely a meter wide, squashed between a hawthorn hedge on one side, and an electric fence on the other. The landed like their horses. What they don’t like are public paths across the meadows they’ve paid good money for and some will do whatever it takes to discourage you, within the law, and sometimes beyond it. I have also encountered stiles and bridges, long past serviceable, that have tested my mettle. And of course, I’ve fallen foul of disappearing way-markers, usually in the vicinity of farms, or where the paths swing by newly gentrified properties. A man on foot can, at times, be vulnerable to the vagaries of the way, and the will of others who are agin’ him. But the footpath network is an ancient right, and I’ll have my way. We need them now, more than ever, so I urge you to get out, find them, and use them.

Anyway, after a month of retirement I discover I am missing only two things: a walk over the moors, and a busy coffee-shop. Ordinarily, the press and noise of others irritates me. But I would give anything for half an hour with a Mocha and a bun, in a corner café, while watching the world go by. Takeaways are a big thing these days, of course. I’m resisting them as an unnecessary (and possible paranoid) risk, though I know they’re the only way the corner café’s can keep going under the present circumstances. Everyone is hugging a cardboard coffee now, many of which are then discarded in the hedgerows, along with masks and surgical gloves. Still, it makes a change from the monotony of hanging bags of poo.

I have not missed working. I’d thought I might – at least certain aspects of it. But now the first pension payment has arrived, and the time stretches ahead, unhurried, and every hour of it my own. The house’s various neglected corners are being freshened up. The long leaking gutters don’t leak any more. Yes, the economy is in ruins and Mr Chancellor wants my savings to prop it up, but no deal, mate. You’re getting not a penny, until I’ve had my jab – some time between May and June, according to the OMNI calculator.

In other news, I note Brexit is starting to bite where we thought it would: import, export, supply chains, tax, services, banking. The pesky Europeans are even confiscating the lorry driver’s butties. But on the up-side we’re told the fish are now happy to be British. Happy, however, will not be the British, queuing come summer in the slow lane at EU passport control, along with all the other foreigners.

Thirty-two miles and counting, Michael. There’s clearly life in you yet, and all from your own doorstep. Keep it up, mate.

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I’ve been thinking about the Muse and how indiscriminate she is. The Muse is where the desire to create comes from. It’s a mysterious thing, a surge of something from deep in the imagination that we can overlay upon reality. It makes the mundane magical, blissful, sometimes even shocking. It’s partly of us, but mostly, I think, it’s something “other”. Men personify it as a woman, an angel, a goddess, because its nature is akin to love. You hear her singing a song that can lift you to heaven, while being perfectly aware, as in the siren song, it might also lure you to your doom. The choice is yours, the risk is yours, because she doesn’t care, and your biggest mistake is thinking she does.

It’s like now, heading out across Lancashire’s Harrock Hill in this beautiful, late afternoon winter’s sun. Winter is a time for trees, for the bare shapes of them against the sky. There are some good, ancient specimens here, lone trees in a gentle landscape, something expressive about them, like the header picture, in this case a pair of pollarded oaks, grown together like lovers to form between them, a single perfect hemispherical dome. They are expressive, though of what, I cannot say, only that the Muse has lured me out here, teasing me with the notion I might catch a glimpse of her, if I tread carefully.

So much rain these past weeks, the paths are deep in mud now, more Wellingtons than walking boots kind of terrain, more waxed thornproof than Goretex kind of walking. Last time I came this way, I saw a buzzard, close enough to get a picture of him. He’s out again today, but keeps a wary, camera-shy distance, circles the blue in lazy sweeps, pivoting the world about his wing-tip. No muse for him though, I’m thinking, poor creature, just the will to live, and to live he must eat, and to eat he must kill. Only we humans see the poetry in him, and then only some of us. Only we sense the magic behind his manifestation, and have the strange psychological disposition to romanticize it.

It’s quiet for a Covid afternoon. I encounter just the one family with an army of small, ferocious children and big, wet, bouncy dogs, wife with a voice like a foghorn and a friendly “hello”, husband with a face like slapped arse, sullen, trailing, and wishing he was somewhere else. I hear the children squealing from a mile away. If they’re not careful they’ll disturb the faery, and they really don’t want to do that. Mud and air, a low slanting sun and the noise of children. They’re loving it, as are the dogs, crazy, unconscious, delightful creatures. My own children are in their twenties now, and forever precious, but I miss them at that carefree, squealing age, the age before mud became irksome, and the world of men got hold of them.

Anyone can cop for this burning desire to create stuff. You don’t have to have gone to a posh school and talk like Hugh Grant. Fair enough, a good education helps you to think and express yourself, so that’s a plus. Then the posh school will instil in you a pathological self belief, so if you’re a career creative, that all adds up. But if you make it big or not, or die in obscurity – again – the Muse doesn’t care. Nor does she care if your fame spreads her gifts far and wide, or if you keep them a guarded secret along with the fluff in your pocket, it’s all the same to her. I’m not sure, but I think her motive is simply to offer you the chance to let her into your life, in some ways even to be your life. Any misunderstandings as regards the nature of the relationship that henceforth develops are all yours.

The philosopher Schopenhauer held a view that the only visible manifestation of the power behind the universe was in the blind will to life. This manifests itself in nature, which appears cruel and self consuming and, like our friend the buzzard, void of any real meaning – the sort of meaning a man might hope for against the odds, and keep the glimmer of it safe in a corner of his heart. But beyond the will, reckoned Schopenhauer, there was something else, something blissful, and that’s what artists feel, and strive to give expression to. That’s where the muse lives. Such glimpses of bliss are fickle though and, as I said before, she’s indiscriminate with her favours. She can point her finger at anyone, prince or pauper, articulate Bard or poor illiterate serf.

Speaking of princes and paupers, I’ve been reading an old biography I once wrote of the Wigan poet John Critchley Prince (1808-1866). Humble beginnings, self-educated and all that, born into grinding poverty not that far from here, and died the same way. His life was interesting, heroic in an unsung sort of way. It was also terribly hard and tragic, and a story without a happy ending. I wrote about Prince because I was interested in obscurity, and what drives men to create, even when no one is listening. He did find a little recognition along the way, but judged it toxic and irksome, so he destroyed it. Prince left behind several large volumes of poetry, but isn’t considered to be one of the greats – just a minor poet, as they say – but those volumes speak of the power of the muse, and how she can drive a man all his life to create a prolific body of work, regardless of its worth to anyone else, or to posterity. She possessed him through thick and thin, and in the end she turned him to drink, and then she killed him.

Then there’s the novel I’m reading, Niall Williams’ “This is Happiness”, and his description of the musicians in the pubs of Ireland’s west, in the early ’60’s, before electricity, and maybe for centuries before that. They were unassuming men, men who came together, and all forgotten now, but who for a night, for even just an hour of spontaneous reels, became perfect channels for the Muse, and made a music that the listeners carried in their hearts to the end of their days.

Danger, beauty, bliss. You’d better be careful courting her, but so long as you can arrive at that delicate understanding, your life will be all the better for having her in it, be it in poetry, art, the writing, or even just in the shapes of trees.

Speaking of muses, men are also prone to projecting them onto mortal females, imagining them timeless, ageless. Here’s one from fifty years ago:

Keep well, and thanks for listening.

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on pendle hill

Pendle Hill Summit, December 2019

It was about six degrees in town this morning, with a light rain. It felt bitter and unwelcoming. The parking machine took most of my change, leaving little for the homeless guy sitting there with the thousand yard stare, but he accepted my bits of shrapnel with more enthusiasm than they deserved, and he called me sir. The coppers were all I could muster as symbols of my solidarity with his lot, and I felt in the “sir” a rebuff, not from him – he was grateful for anything – but more from within myself, the distance it implies, between me and him. I have never been comfortable being called “sir”.

Amid the ruins of this, my little market town, there has risen of late the paradox of a glittering high-rise that promises a “cinematic experience” and bowling, though these attractions have yet to appear. And of the quality-shopping also promised, over the years of this great carbunkle’s somewhat listless construction, only a Marks and Spencer food hall has opened. It sits uneasily like a top-hat among the ragged, alongside the vape-shops and the tattoo parlours and all the charity places.

Meanwhile I note the news-stands speak of war with Iran, the more right wing and tabloidy the title, the more strident and crass the headline, but whether to instil terror or glee I do not know. It will depend on your disposition I suppose. Me? I see only that the social fabric of the UK is in tatters, that it will improve not one jot in the decade to come, and the looming climate catastrophe is beyond help now.

Middle eastern politics never makes for comfortable reading and try as I might I’m not sure if we’ve been brought here by miscalculation or by artifice, for these are dark powers and completely beyond my knowing, but I do know another war played out as infotainment isn’t going to be fun viewing, and it’s certainly not going to fix anything that needs fixing.

Thus the New Year opens and leaves me casting round for a glimmer of hope and I am seeking it in the food aisles of M+S. A week ago I was on the top of a misty Pendle, feeling for a time that all was well. Everyone I met at 1800 feet looked fresh and happy, but that’s the tops for you and always worth the effort. It’s when you come back down to earth the shadows regroup.

I bought something for my tea, browsed the novels in Heart Foundation, but nothing took my eye. I bought a brew for the homeless guy from Gregs and walked it back up to the carpark, but he’d gone by then. So I sat in the car for a bit, watched the people cowed by winter and the flat murk that passes for daylight at this time of year, and I drank the tea myself. Milk and one sugar. That’s how I take it, but I had not stopped to think if it was all right for him.

It’s all very well, trying to help out a bit, but it’s better to pause and consider what it is that’s needed first. And maybe there’s no answer to that, no obvious place to start, which is why we’re going nowhere, and hope is so elusive.

Meanwhile I have snowdrops in the garden, green shoots appearing among the leaf-litter for the first time, and I sold another copy of The Inn at the Edge of light last night, which make two. Then I have seedlings of sweetpea to plant up for the windowsill, for planting out come spring, to bring some colour and the heady intoxication of their scent.

Small beginnings, but the best I can come up with for now.

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on the beda fell ridgeIn our closing Qigong set last night we did a thing called “open the curtains”. You do the actions slowly, mindfully, in rhythm with the breath; you open the curtains wide and you imagine something or someone of great beauty that makes you smile. It’s a powerful exercise, just smiling, something to do with endorphins. Endorphins are good for us.

Normally I imagine one of the heroines from my various novels – most recently Maggs Cooper from “Saving Grace” who I suspect is just a slightly older version of Helena Aynslea from the Sea View Cafe. Over the years I’ve come to imagine her in great detail, including her cheeky grin in response. But last night, instead, a scene popped into my head from a climb I did in 2015, when I paused to look back along the Beda Fell Ridge towards Hallin Fell, in the Lake District. It was just a flash, but stunning in its detail and the mood of soft light as it played upon the sunny uplands. Coming to me on a wet and windy night in December, it was a powerful reminder that it won’t always be dark at tea-time.

The run down to the solstice always knocks me flat. Suddenly the light has gone and we’re commuting in the dark again, mornings and evenings, driving up and down the motorway – long sections with no cats eyes now, and the white lane-markers grubbed off. Yet still the traffic rushes headlong, streaking past me as I maintain a steady pedestrian fifty-six mph while squinting mole-like into the gloom,  intermittently blinded by super-bright-luxury headlights coming at me the other way.

And then there are the trivial challenges. Things fall apart at this time of year. Things like the boiler, awakened from its summer repose, and the way it suddenly begins to make unfamiliar noises as it picks up the load for winter, and there are drips from inside the conservatory which may be a leak forced through by the hammering onslaught of extraordinarily heavy rains, or it may just be condensation – the difference is about three hundred quid. Then there are the not-so-small things like how my good lady narrowly avoided injury in a coach crash in Derbyshire this week, and how for a moment my own life hung in balance as I waited for news.

Meanwhile number two son struggles gamely out each bloodshot morn to a job that expects CEO levels of commitment for minimum pay, taking the shine somewhat from his first degree. His boss is a caricature of incivility, on whom I shall have my revenge by immortalising him as an arsehole delivered a spectacular comeuppance in a future novel. Then number one son struggles gamely to find any work at all and I wish the world would just open it’s door a crack and let him in – I mean he’s a bright lad, keen to work, and works hard, so just cut him some slack damn you! And then there’s a good writer friend of mine who’s lost his mind, and now inhabits a dream-like world where sometimes he recognises friends and family, but is generally unable to tell them apart from other characters that are entirely imagined.

Yes, the world can take on an air of threat and hopelessness at this time of year, laying bare our vulnerability to its whims, and our powerlessness to make any lasting positive change. Thus disillusioned, we tumble down the disorientating vortex to the Solstice, and on through the stupefaction of Yule, finally to skitter out onto the thin, frigid ice of January and February where anything could happen, and our naked souls are least prepared for it.

I’m sure the ancients had a way of dealing with all of this, a way of conditioning the mind into harmony with the seasons, of creating myths of meaning and ritual that protect the head and the heart, so the spirit might still thrive. And perhaps the myth said something like: when there’s no light, stay indoors and sleep.

But that’s all gone now, obliterated by this 24/7 online world where the only thing that matters is buying stuff for next year’s landfill, and where the only way to climb the ladder is to be nastier than everyone else. If all of that’s true then we are indeed inhabiting a hell of our own making. But it isn’t true, and help is at hand if we can only think ourselves sideways a bit, and find the inner smile.

I’ve noticed my own habitual response to past tragedies, the loss of loved ones and the near misses is a kind of defiance. It’s as if there is a dark power in the world that would have us throw up our hands in despair, that would have us believe there is only suffering and hardship, that we’re all ultimately alone, that there are no rich, sunny uplands to be gained after the long climb. But while this may seem to be the case – at least on the basis of the available evidence – there is no sense in abandoning one’s optimism.

Holding to optimism in the face of mischance, so far as I can tell, is not a delusion. A delusion is something ultimately harmful while optimism, though it might seem unfounded, grants us strength and the ability still to smile, to keep a light heart. Better to welcome the sun at each rising, than to lament its setting, and to trust we shall all regain the sunny uplands again, come spring.

It’s not as daft as it sounds then, so go on: open those curtains, regard the beautiful scene.

And smile.

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marsh lane

December morning,
sluggish dawn,
of greys and greens,
and mist and mud,
where water weeps
into long hollows,
and pools like eyes,
which lidless gaze
at still sleepy skies.
And the ways,
heavy under foot,
slow my passing,
and would arrest me,
arms outstretched,
gnarled fingers grasping air,
lifeless as the hawthorn,
bare and dripping drops,
of silver dew.

 

 

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With the going of the light, and the fast fading memory of summer’s ease, Black Dog comes stalking once again. We toss him a stick, some stupid novelty or other, which he returns sodden and chewed beyond attraction. Thus, after a couple of turns, we are no longer minded to pick it up, so there he curls, our unshakeable friend, creeping ever closer until he’s in our lap, weighting down all possibility of forward movement.

Words fail in our throats, people look strange, look also strangely at us as we sink into paranoia at the apparent indifference, even of our loved ones. In pettiness, we withdraw, lose empathy, and equanimity as we huddle in imaginary self defence. We become then the worst of ourselves, favouring the lonely places, or the indoors, the impersonal, the pointless flicking at our phones,  the mindless digestion of the indigestible, the foolish, and the vain.

The soundtrack to our lives deepens to despair as Gorecki displaces once more the Red Priest from the player. A symphony of sorrowful songs de-tunes the cellos from their once ravishing Baroque concertos, splits the lustrous age-old wood, breaks the bows, shape-shifts rosin into a cold slime, and bends the dead strings into the intersecting snail-trails of man’s infinite inhumanity.

The filters of filth fail us, and we are overwhelmed by the madness of the world again, no longer able to blind-eye its deep vales of deceit, its mountains of depravity. And we see the leaders naked, as they truly are perhaps, lost or mad or utterly grotesque, letting loose their policemen, black-armoured cockroach armies to hammer blood from dissent.

Black Dog, your visions are cruel, rendered bearable only by the numbing fragrance of your breath. You are the rot of crushed leaves, the rot of wood dissolved to crumb by cringe-legged beetling lice, you are the perennial black mould on the wallpaper above my desk, you are the scratching in the night, and the sinister rustling of an infestation of mice.

We brush down our books in vain, our books of dreams, of alchemy, of transcendentalism, yet, once treasured, we find them mould-stained and dusty, and scented of you, taking with them the key to the only escape we knew, to the vast labyrinth of the esoteric. Now there is only the unsoftened day ahead, each to be taken in its turn. Thus we answer each half-lit morn the alarm clock’s shrill call, rise, stretch our stiffening limbs, pee out our aching bladder.

Is this really the only way? But what of those moments when we shook you from our lap and soared? Those days we rattled the high roads while the beatific sun beat down and tanned our faces? Where were you then? Or the glad beach-days with the soft sand and the multitudinous shades of ocean blue? Or coffee, and company, and that gentle hand to hold? Where were you then?

But these are earthly things for sure and transient as mist, the meagre sticks we toss, then you’ll chase and allow us a moment to breathe. What we seek now is the secret of another kind of cultivation, and the ability to cast it an infinite distance away.

Then go,… Fetch!

Damn you.

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thorpe-fell-top

The Weathered trig point on Thorpe Fell Top

The greatest pleasures in life are free. It’s not a particularly profound observation, but we sometimes forget. Life closes over us and we think we have to buy our way to pleasure, to satisfaction, or even just to make ourselves feel a little better. We all know this doesn’t work. What does work, is a simple walk, preferably up a hill. After a walk up a hill, no matter what life is nagging us with, we return relaxed, magnanimous, philosophical. It’s like a reset button, a thing that reliably blows away all the wormy gremlins.

Of late I’ve been seeking my hills in the Yorkshire Dales, an area unique in character and, to my mind, not as spoiled by rampant tourism, as the neighbouring Lake District. Unlike the Lakes, in the Dales we still find towns and villages that are home to a mostly indigenous population, where the trinket shops are few, and the holiday homes and b+b’s do not yet outnumber the genuine residences. Here, I find every visit yields yet another discovery, another unexpected hamlet with village green, duck-pond and homely teashop.

My most recent discovery, on this bright, frosty winter’s morning is Linton. Linton fits into the geography of Wharfedale, being just a stone’s throw from Burnsall, Hebden and Grassington. I’ve been driving up and down the Wharfe for years and not suspected Linton’s existence at all, and was drawn to it eventually simply as the starting point for this walk up Thorpe Fell. I had to check the map, and there it was.

I don’t know the stories of place here as well as I should, but this lends a touch of mystery to the land, and a void into which imagination tumbles with all the enthusiasm of the Romantic poet. I am prone to a certain mysticism in the empty places. There are many parts of the Dales, particularly what I still think of as the old West Riding, that have something of the big-house estate about them, something almost Feudal. This area is dominated by the vast Bolton Abbey Estate, and not well served with rights of way across its siren tops – we woolly hatted ones I imagine being discouraged, pre “Countryside and Rights of Way Act”, but we are now free to explore – just don’t expect many waymarked paths while you’re at it.

Thorpe Fell is one of the most stunning heather moors I’ve seen. This morning the heather is dusted with frost and presents us with rather an eerie, windswept yet curiously beguiling wilderness. I can imagine September here will be ablaze with purple, and promise myself I will return to see it.

From Linton, we make our way by meadow and country lane to Thorpe Village, from where a track begins the ascent of the moor, petering out by degrees until one is all but relying on a sixth sense. There is a feeling of isolation, of loneliness which makes all the more surprising the presence of rather a fine tea-hut on the moor’s windy edge. It isn’t marked on my edition of the Ordnance Survey map. The hut looks cosy, but is locked up tight and shuttered against intruders – I presume being solely for the use of the sons of gentlemen when they come up in their tweeds and knickerbockers to shoot grouse. But there is also rather a fine, open, grass roofed barn nearby, also not marked on the map, and in which I take brief shelter while enjoying lunch.

There is an indistinct summit to Thorpe Fell, complete with weathered trig-point, but it is not served by any path – the only path hereabouts veering off from the tea hut roughly north west, avoiding the summit which lies to the south west. The land, however, is open access, unless the gentlemen are shooting of course, and today they are not, so we are free to make a stab at its general direction. It’s a quarter mile or so of raw moor-bashing, the heather thick and springy with just the occasional weathered outcrop to provide a firmer going.

From the crumbling trig point (506 metres) the views are simply stunning. It’s also possible to see the next objective, the memorial on Cracoe Fell a little to the west of south west. It’s best to head due west from here though, rather than make a bee line, otherwise peat hags and the upper reaches of Yethersgill make for a laborious approach. Instead, due west, we pick up the line of a wall, and beside it a confident path leads us more easily to the memorial.

The memorial, a huge cairn, sitting atop a fine outcrop, adds height and drama to the fell – it bears a plaque marking the years 1914-1919, and the names of the fallen. This is the point at which we begin our descent, first to the village of Cracoe, then back through the meadows to Linton. But there is no direct route to Cracoe from the top, as I discovered in the attempting of it. I was thinking to head north west, a trackless bee-line towards an enticing bit of track that runs up from Cracoe to a weather station, but this leads quickly to bog, and for me rather a cold dip as one foot broke through the crust into something altogether less pleasant below. So, it’s better to back track a little from the memorial, back along the wall we have just come along, to where a gate gives access westwards. Either way we’re aiming for the Fell Lane track, which takes us to Cracoe, and the meadow paths home to Linton.

We’ve been walking for 5 hours now, the light beginning to leak away as we cross the various stiles and lush, frost dusted meadows. My feet always seem to know when I’m on the last mile, whether the walk is a couple of miles or ten, and they start to complain. But it’s a pleasant complaint, anticipating the eventual loosening of laces, and the body’s repose after a day in the field. Darkness is coming on, the temperature plummeting as we return to the car, and my boots begin to steam when I pull them off.

I’m always different after a walk. I’d left home that morning labouring under a cloud, my vehicle potentially stuffed at four years old with a major transmission problem . I’d been duped by the dealer I bought it from, was feeling fobbed off and badly served, facing now the prospect of a search for another vehicle and all the hazards that entails (dodgy dealers included – even the big glossy ones), or a very expensive repair. Ah,… cars eh?

Either way were looking at a serious hit in the wallet at a time of year when one can ill afford it. To be sure, it had felt like the end of the world as I’d dragged my bones from bed that morning, and mustered my walking gear, so much so I nearly didn’t bother setting off. But as I poured out my coffee in the Cracoe Cafe that evening, I could not have cared less.

It was a fine sunset, a clear azure sky, another keen, frosty evening coming on. The moon was up, Venus in attendance, with a distinctly coquettish gleam in her eye.

What more could a man want?

Well, let me see,… ah yes!

I ordered a toasted teacake.

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Mazda under cover I take a breath, click the clicky thing and I say: “Radio?”

The car responds. Female voice. Mature. Slightly bossy. “Radio.”

“FM?”

“FM,… frequency please?…”

“Ninety three.”

Pause. The car computes, and then: “Not possible.”

I try again: “Radio?”

“Radio.”

“FM?”

“FM,… Frequency please?….”

Best 1950’s BBC accent now: “Ninety three.”

Pause,… “Tuning,…. Eighty three. Not possible.”

“What? No,… I said NINETY THREE,….”

Clearly this voice recognition thing has some way to go. It isn’t exactly one of the stand-out features of the Ford Focus. Instead, I fumble for the little preset button that takes me to 93 FM, and Radio 4.

Radio 4 annoys me these days, but everything else on the radio annoys me more. I prefer silence as I drive, but my commute is long and boring, and sometimes I like a companionable background babble for a change. We are half way through my commute, about 7:45, traffic at a standstill, sleety rain, just coming light. I’ve had the car a few days and we’re still getting to know one another.

Radio 4 is broadcasting a political interview. Both the politician and the interviewer have tones like cheese graters. Prickly. Abrasive. Adversarial. I don’t want to arrive at work already irritated, so better to turn the radio off, but – and lets be honest here – I don’t know how to turn the radio off.

It’s either this or Rock FM.

“Radio?”

“Radio.”

“Off.”

“Not recognised.”

The voices drone on. In the end I turn the volume down all the way. That will have to do for now.

The voice of the car makes me feel like a dimwit. I daresay I won’t be talking to it very much.

And I’m missing old Grumpy.

Grumpy is now living in Wales. I know this because his new owner rang last night to ask about the service book. I thought I’d left it in the car, but it turns out it’s still in my hall-table drawer. I don’t know how the new owner got my number. I didn’t sell Grumpy to him. I traded Grumpy in to the dealer for a pittance, because Grumpy needed work, and I hope they did the work before selling the car on. The dealer must have passed on my number which was naughty of them, but they’ve like as not already sold it round the world anyway, so it hardly matters. And the new owner seems pleased with Grumpy. I’m glad he’s found a good home. Ages since I was in Wales.

The Focus is a decent car and, in the main, looking pretty sound. The blurb extols the virtues of this new-fangled Ecoboost engine with twin clutch automatic transmission – claims I can get 40 mpg in mixed motoring. But 36.4 seems to be the limit so far, even driving with a feather touch, and I was getting that out of Grumpy without trying. And Grumpy had a bigger, older engine, and a dull old torque converter gearbox. One wonders at the fuss and blather. Still, the Focus is half the road tax of Grumpy, and that’s the equivalent of a couple of tyres.

I’ve not seen it properly yet in daylight. Not even sure of the colour – sort of blue-grey. I bought it in the pouring rain, and it’s been raining ever since, except on the few occasions when it’s been dark. That’s what it’s like. Wintertime. The commuter mule is mostly invisible. You go to it in the morning, demist it, brush away the snow, scrape the frost,.. whatever. Then it conveys you to the dayjob at an average speed of 22 miles per hour.

But it smells nice inside, smells of “new car”, a scent you can apparently buy, and which the dealer has clearly been very liberal with. It’s comfortable, quiet, plenty of poke when you want it,… and the dashboard lights up very prettily indeed. The transmission is strange – the odd bump and shuffle, but I think this is normal for a twin clutch auto. Yes, it’s fine. It’ll do.

But,…

It does not exactly make me smile.

I have another car, not for commuting. It spends much of the winter in the garage, gathering dust, avoiding the wet and the frost. What with one thing or another I’ve not been out in it for a couple of weeks. It’s my old Mazda MX5. It’s noisy, has a gearbox that takes an hour of running before it’s silky smooth; it has an engine as tight as a duck’s bottom unless you shamelessly thrash it. It smells of venting battery and damp, is brutally hard sprung, clatters over the bumps, rattles your teeth, and the rag-top is fraying,…

The rain stopped briefly on Sunday, and a winter sun peeped through just long enough to dry the roads. So I backed the Mazda out and took her for a spin to keep her limber. She warmed quickly and began to enjoy the road. Yes the Mazda enjoys the road. I know she does. I feel it in her bones. Smooth she’s not, quiet she’s not, but, oh,… what a joy that Mazda is to drive.

And yet,…

This morning the frost was layered thick upon the Focus while the Mazda slept in, snug beneath her blanket. It was a hard sheen of ice with jewelled drops, and a fine fuzz of dendritic growth on top, like a snowy fungus. It all was a glitter under a shivery clear skied dawn. Two clicks on the dashboard and the heated front and rear screens had the car ready to go in a minute. The ice capitulated.

“So,” says the Focus, “you want to go? Well come on then. Stop messing about. Quit blathering about the road-poetry of that flipping Mazda. Let’s go!”

The back roads were a sheen of black. The Mazda would have tested my nerves and risked a nose-dive into the ditch at the first bend. With the Focus I dared to test traction with a dab on the brakes. It responded with the sure footed grind of ABS, came crouching to a straight line stop. Safe as houses.

“Well, what did you expect?” it says. “High drama? Pirouettes?”

And then: “Listen,” it says, “What you get with me is the A to B. I’m about getting you there when getting there is what matters. That flighty little Mazda is about catching up all the bits you’ve missed inbetween, and only when the sun is shining.”

Makes sense at last. Respect. If I’m not careful I’ll be giving it a name.

Just waiting for one that sticks.

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Vauxhall Astra at RivingtonMore days of endless, heavy rainfall leave the meadows sodden, rich veins of silver showing in the furrows and the ditches. Long days and nights are spent listening to the rattle of the rain against the glass. And then this afternoon, with just a few hours before it sets, the sun slides clear and the meadows take on a lush, luminous green beneath streaks of lapis blue and brilliant white. I pull on my winter coat and venture out, spirits lifting, but it’s a shy sun, dipping in again as soon as I curl my fingers around the camera for a headline shot.

And the wind bites. It has been warm thus far, but this brief clearing brings with it a more seasonal cold, and the lakes that have formed in the corner dips of the meadows are wind-combed to a nervous texture, obliterating a calmer reflected sky. Meanwhile the black earth oozes bits of red-brick, potatoes, and carrots,  all squishy and ruined, and the hay bales loosen. They buckle at the knees, shed their black wrappings and capitulate to the wet and wind. I smell mud, and rain. Walking by the farm gates I smell silage – musty, sweet. I have not smelled either in a long time – a recovering sense of smell yields unexpected memories now at every turn.

shadowmanIt’s a meditative walk, this walk across the moss beyond my gates – seizing the opportunity of oxygen before the promised rains return tomorrow. My birthday.

And I’m thinking on the fact my car is broken. I am thinking cars are second only to womankind in the litany of a man’s woes. We think about them all the time, cherish the good, lament the bad, and fear always the pain of permanent damage, of loss.

It’s been a permanently squeaky hinge since I bought it, this car, nearly new, some eight years ago. And already its age puts it beyond economical repair. This is disappointing. At 92,000 miles, I’d thought a 1.8 litre engine had a few more years in it yet. But an ominous camshaft rattle at low revs has it sounding like a diesel, and the engine management warning light is flashing intermittent excuses in a trade-code the mechanic has deciphered to “very expensive”.

lines of lightTime to move it on, he says with a shake of his wise old head, time to let the trade decide its fate – restoration or scrap. Time for the punter to buy a newer commuter mule, less miles on the clock, less of a money pit. But this continuing investment in the need to earn a living has me wondering if it would not be cheaper to stay at home, to retire, to fade out, to fizzle into the white noise of all that rain hurled against the glass, these dark winter nights, to begin the glide to death, and the inevitable return to earth among the ooze of squishy carrots and potatoes? Strange thought indeed.

I know; energy is still lacking after a bout of flu. Washing the car in speculative readiness of a trip to the dealer takes my breath away. The walk then renders my head light, and my bones heavy. I trust these morbid thoughts will pass as strength and light returns. There’s a nice red Ford Focus I’ve been half fancying on Autotrader, then dismissing in equal measure. If the dealer still has it tomorrow, I suppose I might just take a look.

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