Expectations

We went for a walk yesterday. Scout and I. The two of us, are now we. That I like.

It wasn’t a walk I was particularly looking forward to. It started with ascent, lots of it, and added more later, and somehow my back just didn’t want that. But, I had to do the walk, deadlines awaited and the most pressing was one I couldn’t see. Would the virus shut us down again before I got my work finished and could wrap the book up. Trying to beat an unknown, uncertain shut down, had turned finishing the book into a slog of constantly checking weather reports for those sunny days, or half days, organising other aspects of our life in such a way to enable us to not be tied down should the sun shine, and grinding out the miles when we managed to get out. The days were drawing in too and that meant earlier starts to catch the most of the daylight. Somehow, my days had become pressured.

But, here’s the thing. It’s often times like this, when I am feeling the pressure of things to be done, of feeling that something of joy is drudgery, that I get a lesson in expectations.

The first part was the ascent, straight in to the hardest bit of the walk. I have developed a format now in getting up there without becoming a plastic bag filled with heat and sweat. Walk a hundred paces, then rest for a minute. Repeat. Scout gets attached to my waist harness and that gives him some resistance training, or so I tell myself. The top is always a surprise. After spending 30 minutes or so looking directly at rock and grass and soil, suddenly there is nothing, the top is just sky, and it always surprises me. We had it to ourselves, so we could take the by now obligatory trig pose photo of Scout. He has become so used to this that when he sees a trig pillar he goes and sits beside it, waiting to be lifted on. A haze hung in the air misting over the hills beyond. When lockdown happened the haze went and we had crystal clear air, you could see detail for miles. Now the country had returned to almost a normal way of life, the haze was back. It seemed to be a symbol of how stupid we were, how self destructive we were. A few people joined us on top so we packed up and set off down, working our way west into a forest.

Forest walks are lovely in autumn, the smell of leaf litter, the sound of it crunching underfoot. The leaf had not turned yet, so there was still greenery all around, but the warm air was lifting the scent tones and making a pleasant walk through a quite woodland. What was missing was water. Scout kept heading over to gullies and stream beds, only to find them dry, which meant the moors above would be dry too.

Coming out of the forest we turned for the moor and the section of the walk I was least confident about. I still hadn’t worked out where I was heading here. The old road and pub, or the unknown moor. Scout found a stream in the valley full of rushing water and raced up and down, enjoying the splashing. We passed an old farm, the ruins now almost gone, but a small flight of steps lead to what would have been a doorway and the grain or hay store. Beautiful winding tracks, now a green sward that was lined with grey stone walls that curved into what would have been the yard, came from the fields. I stopped and traced the outline of everything, picturing in my mind how people would have lived and worked and used the space. The view from the farmstead was beautiful, hills that rose into the sky, a stream in the valley floor, pasture land nearby. Across the valley was a deep cut clough, that cleaved its way up to the high point of the land and the old pub. The pub or the hill that rose into the sky was our next objective and still my mind was not made up.

As we moved up through the clough, we neared lunchtime, two hours of walking meant a break, and the eastern side of the clough had shade for Scout. The map showed that concession paths met a third of the way up, and as we approached I saw a gate, with the open access sign leading up on to the high moor. That was our way, the pub would have to be part of another walk. We crossed the brook and found a shady spot to lunch. Scout first, then my boots and socks off, lunch box out and sit back and relax. I like this little ritual, the process of settling down, time slowing, my body merging into the landscape for a brief moment. Scout was soon snoozing and I was studying a beautiful old sheepfold tucked into the clough bottom. The stones were from the land here, probably where we now sat in this shady hollow, and being local they helped the fold to sit in the landscape and be part of rather than some addition. Generations of craft had produced a work that stood against the elements and looked beautiful, natural, fitting. I laid back in the bilberry and moss watching Scout snooze, content, comfortable, in the moment.

We walked up the steep hillside onto the moor. It was dry today, but the carpet sphagnum moss that laid as far as the eye could see told of a wet land, one to be picked over in wetter times. There was no discernible path across the moor, no signs of tracks, just moss and grass. I realised this place was little walked on, access being out of the way. It was a beautiful place. The views across to the hill we had climbed earlier in the day were wide and expansive. All that could be seen was moor, pasture and drystone wall. We worked our way south, crossing tumbled down drystone walls, Scout mooched around, investigating smells, setting off in big arcs of the moor, catching scents and following them up. The ground was easy to walk, the vegetation short, no tussocky grass heads to dance around. To the north a ridge ran eastward and at points rocky outcrops protruded out in to the moor. Above these soared buzzards, quartering the land their movement kept in check by two crows who constantly heckled them. In the centre of the moor hovered a kestrel, its eyes fixed firmly on a pinpoint on the ground. I felt that sense of happiness that always happens at some point on a walk. A feeling of contentment.

Eventually, I reached the old bridleway, crossing it took me down a narrow high sided clough and onto the final leg of the walk. We passed a shooting cabin, cottage it was called on the map, but it hadn’t seen residence for many years. The basic kitchen, a sink and stove, had plastic bottles filled with purple fuel and cartons of paper towels. In the next room was a table and chairs and shelving along the walls. Adjoining the cabin was an open shed, plastic chairs were piled up a plank stretched across two piles of stones making a rudimentary seat. This was the beaters cabin, open to the elements and no niceties to relive a bad weather day.

We finished the walk along a green sward of a track, unused by vehicles, that was a delight to walk along. This walk, so unloved at the beginning had transformed into a diamond of the Peak District. The fact that it is hidden from view, surrounded as it is by high hills and deep valleys, adds to its special qualities of solitude and beauty. Scout and I were happy.

Changing Spark Plugs

I changed the spark plugs on my car last week. Changed each one. Took out the old one, examined it, looking for soot deposits or too thick a coating of oil that I had learned to do back in seventy eight which was the last time I had changed a spark plug.

Back in seventy eight it was on an old mark three Ford Cortina. A rust bucket that wouldn’t be allowed on the road these days, but back then no one seemed to mind what condition a car was in so long as you never knocked anyone down and even then it was debatable whether the car was a contributory factor. You could push your finger right through the wings, which seemed held together with the paint I had lovingly applied in my zeal as a first time car owner. The windscreen washer was worked with a foot operated pump that you had to press with your left foot, which could be confusing in wet weather when having to brake. Many was the time I was stunned too see blue jets of water hitting the screen but the car still sailing gracefully towards the tight right hand bend and the solid brick wall that bounded the other side of the pavement. Turning the fan heater on had me having to duck to avoid the dried oak leaf that spewed forth from somewhere deep in the bowels of the front of the car. I never knew where the leaf came from and it became a joke with my then girlfriend, each of us shouting ‘DUCK’ as I switched on the fan, so that we could avoid being peppered with particles of dry leaf. In the rear was a large bench seat where we would retire to, having found some tree covered pull in, usually a field, and then we would get to messing around having not quite got to where we both wanted to be, or maybe it was just me that wanted to be there. I don’t know. Anyway, we would have some fun and then sit in the front and watch the sun going down over the fields whilst smoking a Benson and Hedges. Then we would find something, somewhere to eat, then I would drive her home and go home myself, back to my parents house. And all this before eleven at night, because that’s when the pubs had shut and what time we had to be in before her dad started pacing up and down in front of the house trying to decide if he should get in his car and go on a search for his daughter.

Somehow, changing the plugs on a two thousand and thirteen Mini just didn’t feel like it should have done.

In lockdown the countryside went local.

As restrictions on travel in England are relaxed, the nation’s National Parks are preparing for an influx of visitors wanting a change of scenery. The release of lockdown is something that has been viewed with some trepidation by communities within national park boundaries. But it need not be a mass onslaught by town and city. One of the great benefits that has arisen out of lockdown is the countryside has returned to be a local resource. For many years, ‘The Countryside’ was that chosen to be designated special, ring fenced inside a human made geographical boundary, given status by government funding, and a nice logo. National Parks were the biggest and most prominent areas in receipt of funds from the public purse.

Come the Coronavirus, ‘The Countryside’ closed to all but residents, ‘stay away’ was the call to dwellers of city and town. And, we did. Forced to take our daily exercise locally Alison and I began to develop a deeper acquaintance with our local commons and surrounding woodlands. What we found was our own local version of ‘The Countryside’ and it both thrilled and relaxed us. Daily walks became an exploration of nature, botany, birdlife and local history. Alison bought and downloaded apps to help identify plants and wildlife, and found things we never expected. We recorded woodland sounds, uploading sound projects onto Twitter, creating other worlds in the ether. Instagram became a reflection of our growing sense of local countryside. Wild foraging added taste to our sensory explorations. Did you know that the young leaf of the European Birch refresh the mouth when chewed, tasting a little like Beech Nut. Nettle soup and wild garlic became lockdown delicacies on the table. We began to dwell in woodland dells, bathing in the peace and relief from a life put on hold. Our own special place where we can breath free from the anxiety of viral transmission from passing people. Staying local and immersing ourselves in local nature has become something to look forward to. Gradually, we realised that ‘The Countryside’ was a few steps outside our own front door and we love it.

What happens once life returns to whatever normal will be, remains to be seen. But having rediscovered what local nature is, may well determine how people look at ‘The Countryside’ for generations to come.

Chew Road

The Chew Road rises eight hundred feet in a little over a mile from the reservoir at the bottom in the valley to the reservoir at the top on Long Ridge Moss moor. In summer it is a hellish slog along the rough tarmac that carves its way along the northern side of the Chew Valley. There is no shade and what water is available, has spent millions of years slicing a narrow ‘V” between north and south. The side so precipitous to the streambed and so strewn with a tumble of rocks and steep scree, that it will break a leg as easily as snapping a twig. The landscape is bleak and barren devoid of what any normal person might call beauty. In winter it is hell.

            The Devil’s reign over this domain is further buttressed by the names that accompany each major geological feature. Wilderness Gully, Charnal Clough, Charnal Hole, Deadman’s Layby, Indians Head, and The Wilderness. Many people have died and have come to die here. Some brought by the thrill of climbing the vertical crags, only to be reminded for a final time that gravity makes no allowance for skill, wealth, age or beauty. There have been few escapes from the rocks that line the water below. Others possibly attracted by its remoteness fancy it as a final resting place, Deadman’s Layby being the layby of choice for at least two people.

            Scout and I now crouch down in Deadman’s . We are waiting to commence a search and getting low gets us out of a biting wind that runs up the valley and cuts straight through us. Scout chooses his position well and uses me as his windbreak, his nose pointing out into the wind sampling the scents that are being driven airborne up the road to the top. Border Collie dogs are noted for their ability to survive and thrive in harsh conditions.

            My attention is drawn to the rime ice from the low cloud that has formed on the heather and long grasses that cover the moor. The ice extends from the plant stems growing one crystal at a time in the direction of the north wind.  I study the one nearest to me. Fine horizontal icicles twinkle as I move my head around to study the structure. It is made of blocks of ice so delicate I can see how each has formed from the previous one, gradually building outwards like a suspension bridge.

            I give Scout his release command and he darts down the slope towards the water. The wind is coming up the valley so I need to guide him to the top then we can work our way down heading into the wind. His nose is around two hundred million times more powerful than mine, I use my eyes to map the ground, and he uses his sense of smell. My aim is to keep him at ninety degrees to the wind, working in a zig zag pattern as we progress down one side. I watch him carefully as he explores the boulders that lay under inches of snow. This makes my progress slow, as I have to take care not to have my leg down a deep hole or leg breakers as they are known.

            As Scout quarters back and forth I watch from vantage points to note if his nose goes up in the air indicating he has locked on to a smell. Humans shed forty thousand cells every minute. They fall to the ground forming a pool around our feet that then begins to dissipate on the wind making rafts of scent over the landscape. This is what a dog detects when you see it nosing the wind. The difference with Scout is that it tells him there maybe a body close by and if there is a body that means playtime with his toy if he gets me to the location. It sounds simple but in practice there are a thousand things that can affect that flow of cells. Wind and temperature are the most crucial. A rising temperature will take a scent up hill and vice versa for cooling air. Wind can do strange things with scent. It can lift it hundreds of feet into the air then dump the cells on to a plateau whilst the body lies on the valley floor. Water has a similar effect. If Scout starts to track along a streambed chances are that the water is transporting scent down from a location higher up.

            Scout is heading across the wind towards me now and as he does so his nose snaps into the wind and he brakes suddenly then turns into the wind and heads with purpose through the snow. He works his way through a boulder field, moving left and right, sometimes stopping to sniff between rocks as scent works its way under the covering of snow. I support him, telling him to ‘Find him out’, and the command to intensify his searching. His concentration is now total, nothing else exists, not even me. He disappears around a rock pinnacle and I hear his falconry bell chiming as he climbs the rock face. Then, all is silent.

            If the bell goes silent when he is intensely searching I know he has found a body. The bell starts again and I see him re appear at the top of the rocks searching for me. As he spots me he starts to pick his way down the face of the vertical rock. He loves this so much. I stay still watching him as he picks his way through the boulder field towards me. As he draws to my feet he pulls his head back and speaks. A single bark, full throated, I can see right down into his insides his mouth is that wide. Once the bark is out he spins around and returns the same way he came to me. This is his positive indication that he has found a body so I follow up behind him, telling him what a good boy he is. Again he moves out of sight and again he comes into view again and heads back to me to tell me there is a body. He will repeat this until I have arrived at the location where a human lies hidden under a thick blanket of snow.

            I squeal in delight at Scout telling him what a good boy he is then I launch his toy, his reward, the one and only thing he wants out of the whole process. I shout reward, the command for him to play and the signal for the body to come alive and play with Scout.  As they play I look back over the land we have travelled and make a mental note of how the wind is playing amongst the boulders. It has been a good half a kilometre from where the body is located to where Scout first caught his scent. The strike, as we call it, has been impressive, the wind has helped but the snow has chilled the scent rafts and the boulders with their nooks and crannies have absorbed much of the evidence. It’s a good find.  I bend down and secrete two dog chews into the body’s hands. As he gives them to Scout I remove the toy and hide it back into my pocket.

Scout sits there looking around for the toy then looks at me and indicates he is ready to go and find the next body. I ruffle his forehead and I’m sure he smiles then we head off down the valley and the strengthening wind.

A wet landscape

It was a bitter morning, the sky grey, dull clouds heavy and bulbous, hung low almost touching the hill tops, keeping afloat by the mattress of air that sat between them. This winter has been a disappointment, little snow and far too mild to make any impression on the ground meant time had been spent wading along muddy paths, the soil turned almost liquid by the constant downpours and the passage of boots that were too truculent to stay clean, at home, in the dry environment. The fields cannot take anymore water with each downpour, each group of three or more days of rain, new streams that cascade down hillsides create new paths within the land. It makes me wonder if this is how all rivers are made. A drop of rain, running off a hillside, cutting away grass and soil, getting down to bedrock, then speeding on until the water hits an uphill section and by the natural laws of physics turns to the lowest point and continues its search for the sea.

            The field we were slogging over had pockets of dry land interspersed with small lakes of waterlogged and cow dung laden water that swam with a green tinge and was oily on the surface. I wondered where the oil came from, the cows perhaps or some farm process that mixed effluent with lubrication oil? Why is it that country farms can contaminate land but not cities? We had passed by a hole that had been made using a mechanical digger. Chunks of metal and plastic sat at the bottom along with old fertiliser bags and the black bin liner wrapping used to encase silage. At some point it would be filled and then soil dropped over it and grass sown to hide its existence. How many are there in this field, how much industrial rubbish is buried in the landscape people call the countryside. And will these spots in hundreds of years time become a treasure trove for some digital archaeologists.

Merry Christmas Dad

I visited my dad’s grave today, to place flowers and show some respect. He died almost forty years ago, riddled with cancer and pain and the worry of when he would be able to get back to work, because what would become of us. He was never going back to work; he never knew he had cancer. My mother forbade us to talk about it lest what would the neighbours say. Mum and I looked after him for the most of his last days.

My lasting image is of returning from work one day to find dad in the sitting room worrying about work and money. Suddenly he broke down and I held him in my arms while he wept. I am weeping now while I type those words, a thing like that never leaves you, nor should it. 

It has taken me almost forty years to begin to understand my dad and finally I am starting to see what he gave for us and how much of a price he paid.

Merry Christmas dad. I love you.

A Myriad of Parts

“They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.” Margaret Thatcher. Woman’s Own 1987

The King family of Milton Keynes receive the deeds to their council house from Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Photograph: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Early 70’s Britain was a turbulent place to be. Rampant inflation, a declining economic base, shockingly inept management, and growing discontent in the workforce. As a country we were woefully unprepared for any onslaught. The oil producing countries of the middle east started to hike the price of a barrel and soon after Britain’s were eating cold beef dripping sandwiches by candlelight. It wasn’t good.

There have always been two standout moments for me from the period.

The first was a strike for pay by the Yorkshire Miners in the early part of the decade. There were lots of strikes in them days as people tried to keep pace with inflation and management tried to keep a lid on costs. This strike was different. The miners were not striking for themselves they were striking for nurses working in the hospitals. The nurses needed better pay just to exist but wouldn’t go on strike because that would hurt the patients. The management knew this and played on it refusing any pay increases and generally treating nurses terribly. I said management was bad and it was dire and not much has changed in that respect. The miners had power, they also had a sense of community and society, so they fought for the nurses to get their pay rise and won. It was the perfect example of working people standing together and looking out for each other because they understood social cohesion, that the whole is made up of a myriad of parts and if you harm one you harm all.

The second was the arrival of Margaret Thatcher and almost instantaneously the unseen web that held society together began to unravel. The nation became a selfish, self centred, greedy place. A place of ‘some’ being better than others and the longer it has gone on that ‘some’ has got smaller and smaller. A place where looking away was common, if it wasn’t your industry being decimated then don’t get involved. And if it was, look out for yourself and try and get the other persons job. Buy the council house, stick on a new front door and proclaim to the whole street how much better you are.

When I look back to ascertain how we got to where we are today it is in 1987 where the wedge finally got rammed home. How could a human being, someone who was part of a community of people say ‘there is no such thing as society’. That was the tipping point. The point that brought us to Trump and Johnson and Farage and Robinson.

In the next few days lecturers across the country will be taking strike action to protect their livelihood with pensions, pay, and conditions all points of contention with management. How it has come to this in a place of academia that is supposed to hold our brightest people is beyond comprehension. I do know a little, quite a lot actually, about the conditions that lecturers work under and it is bad. Put upon by management, stressed to the point of illness, this is not a safe or fruitful working environment. At some point the two sides will have to come together but in the meantime the management are not covering themselves in glory. Asking students to inform them of the non attendance of lecturers is not a good move.

Students attend university to learn, to have their minds expanded, and to experience the new and seemingly impossible. That requires the very best teachers our country has to offer. And, for what it is worth, as a student that is what I have received in my time at university. If university management is allowed to undermine the quality of teaching, the country as a whole will pay the price. I will support the strike and not cross a picket line.

We are a society. If you harm one you harm all.

The Ring Makers of Gardom

I hadn’t expected to feel such an impact of place on my psyche as happened when we visited Gardom’s Edge the other evening. Maybe it was the quiet, or the cool of the evening. Or the advancing ink black clouds of the storm rolling in from the west. Watching the dogs twist and turn there was certainly some sort of charge in the air. Or maybe they sensed something else.

We sat by the ring and cup stone that lay along a line stretching form the Menhir to the Three Old Men of Gardom Cairns. This was a good place to live back then. Flat, protected by gritstone edges to the east and west with a long flat plain in between giving good line of sight. My mind conjured up a clearing in the trees, the round house to the south with an entrance in the north from Leash Fen. And, a young man or woman carving out the delicate intricate shapes on the rock. 

I fancied they did this not for art or ceremony but to leave something of themselves. Make a mark; speak down the ages to the young man or woman today. Did they have that sense of their place in time?

Something thick and heavy muffling out all other senses. I had gone through weeks of emotional extremes and that had opened a door in to a long passageway to the past. I leaned back against ancient gritstone and settled for the first time in many a day. 

Montreal

Montreal

I recently spent a few days in Montreal working on a film/poetry collaboration with fellow students from Sheffield Hallam University. Each day I walked across the city choosing a single route without deviation. I had a sense of the colour red, the cold, the rich and the poor. I discerned a confidence in the place on my first day, a day of -20 degree temperatures and a clear blue sky. As the weather warmed to +4 degree on our last day I was starting to become familiar with the city, noticing how frayed at the edges it was. The warmer weather had brought the homeless and the beggars back on to the streets.

Walking down the 8 mile Rue Ontario I passed through the layers of a modern society many times as though the road was punching out the vagaries and fortunes of human life like Morse code. At times the city seemed to hesitate, unsure of what to be. The Olympic Stadium on the edge of the metropolis nudged the edgelands between Montreal and the other worlds. It felt like something the city was trying to hide as though it’s attempt on the world stage had fallen short so the inhabitants decided to hide it away like one of those kitchen appliance fads that everyone has in the back of the corner cupboard.  Yet a community had grown up around the stadium and gave it a sense of belonging, as though people were saying you are ours we won’t abandon you like the rest have. 

Perhaps the lesson the city wanted me to learn was the fact that everything needs to belong, to have a place.


Montreal. Sheffield Hallam University Film/Poetry 2018

Biting the hand that saves you.

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Back a year ago I was volunteering as a Ranger for the Peak District National Park working out of Fairholmes in the Upper Derwent Valley. The job entailed keeping the place looking nice, I learned how to dig a post hole and put a post in that would stay upright true as a flagpole without the use of concrete. Then there was the guided walks, members of the public being shown the natural beauty of the place plus some interesting areas where, if you knew how to look, you could still see how early man had inhabited the landscape, burning platforms, rock marks, old ways. Another part was taking trainees out on patrol, I liked this bit because the newcomers were always eager to learn, until one day I met a man who’s name I now forget but I never forgot what he said.

He was a doctor from Sheffield. Due to retire at 50-ish he wanted something to fill his time and fancied himself as a Ranger. He came on a pre training day to see if he would like it before joining the official programme. As we sat in the Ranger centre waiting to be told where to go that day we talked and somehow the topic of Mountain Rescue came to the fore. The doctor says he hates them, always rattling their tins at people when everyone knew they wasted money, why only last month he’d seen around 40 people turn up on a callout just think how much that cost. I was stunned, I’d never heard anyone talk like that about MR. I explained to him how a callout works and about the fact that MR is full of volunteers, just volunteers, no one gets paid. He retorted that it was a waste of money and he wasn’t going to fund people who wanted to play hero.

I was asked to take him out on patrol and against my better judgement I did. The weather was poor, hail and snow blowing horizontally. We worked our way up to Howden Edge, him doing the nav. When we topped out he gave up and said he wanted to go down, this was no weather to be out in. What became of him I don’t know. I left shortly after that and partly because of that. If this was the kind of person the service was attracting it wasn’t for me.

This week Peak District Mountain Rescue teams received a callout to support one of the Pennine teams in the search for a man lost and injured on the Pennine moors. The operation had been going all night and it carried on into next day. A total of 100 Mountain Rescue members from teams across the north of England along with 13 search dogs and handlers, air support and police were involved in the operation. The gentleman was found safe and with only slight injuries. At the rendezvous point I surveyed the number of vehicles, listened to team members saying they had to get back to work and it was a three-hour drive back, so they best be on their way. Many had come straight from working a night shift or were heading back to do a full days work. They grabbed a cup of coffee and a biscuit and were off. None were paid; most had spent heavily to get there in lost wages, fuel and food. All for a man they had never met and probably never would. And they would do it all again because that is the kind of people they are, not heroes, just men and women who know that somewhere someone is in distress and is in need of help.