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.

Old Ways – Peak District

The old salt route at Humber Knolls. Upper Derwent Valley. Peak District
The old salt route at Humber Knolls. Upper Derwent Valley

It is a couple of years now since I walked along the old way to Salter’s Brook from the Derwent Valley. The path has existed since the 13th century and closely follows the county boundary between Derbyshire and Yorkshire and before that Yorkshire and Cheshire, Salter’s Brook being the main access point into Yorshire and from there the port of Bawtry and on to Europe for the salt from the Cheshire mines.

The old way heads south from Salter’s Brook over the watershed and down into the Derwent valley where it closely follows the river’s course. At Humber Knolls the path is paved indicating it was so heavily used at some point the ground needed protection. Now the slabs are disappearing under the grass, the passage of feet is so infrequent. It is a lovely quiet spot and an unexpected one too, the Humber Knolls are a surprise when a walker first comes across them, closing in on the path as they do. They seem manmade but are merely deposits from the silt that flowed down the river millions of years before, the nearby Long Barrow in Barrow Clough is a similar deposit and not as the name suggests an ancient burial mound.

Following the path along eventually leads to the foot of Hoar Clough. Ascend this and you will meet up with the ghosts of the shepherds who met at the Shepherds Meeting Stones to exchange errant sheep, it is a wonderful place to sit and talk with friends specially in the dead of night.

Woodland management

These summer days have been stifling, particularly in the afternoon, so we have resorted to dog walks early and late in the day through the forest. The later walk I suspect is the most favoured by the dogs as it always involves a dip in the river and a game of sticks.

There are no other humans around that I can see this morning, but I can hear chainsaws working somewhere deep in the interior. I choose a favoured route along wide forest roads that gives long vistas down through the trees. Scout works from side to side, sniffing out the scent of numerous animals, sometimes darting into the trees and disappearing for several minutes. I listen for the rustle of the leaves and bracken, the tell tale signs he is following some scent track. Eventually he will re-appear back on the track, sometimes he comes from behind his paws cantering along like a racehorse as he blasts past.

The track takes me through plantations of pine, larch, oak and birch. In small clearings ash is also evident and in the older woodlands there is a preponderance of Holly from the days when this was a hunting forest and holly was a mainstay winter feed for cattle. We skirt the edge of grazing land; there is no stock today. I notice near the fence a charred and blackened area where fire has taken hold. It isn’t too large so must have been extinguished quickly, but maybe this is why the stock have gone.

The chainsaws are louder now so we must be near them. Turning the corner of the track we enter an area of birch and ash, lots of saplings and young trees. Piled along the side of the track is a long line of twigs, bundled together and stacked chest high. This is what the chainsaws are cutting. The twigs are all the same length as I look at the ends a breeze brings their scent to my nose. It smells of freshly brewed tea. I stand there and take it in. The aroma ranges from fresh green tea of the newly cut saplings to full on thick builders tea of the oldest stacks.

I notice Scout has gone ahead and is sniffing around a car parked at the side of the track. Then I see a man knelt on the ground filing a chainsaw. I call Scout back before he starts to make a nuisance of himself. As I get up to the man he stands and says hello. I ask about the twigs and he tells me it is brush for racecourse jumps. I see it now; it makes sense.

Footpaths in the Peak District

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I have been spending a great deal of time in the last 18 months walking the footpaths across the eastern side of the White Peak area of the Peak District National Park. I am writing a new guidebook about a landscape that is rich in natural and human history. Two of the aims of a guide-book is to entertain and inform, another is to produce routes that are pleasurable to walk along. It is a major task in the White Peak for two reasons.

The first is the lack of open access. This means that you are confined to public rights of way footpaths and trails. Where there is open access land there is often no access to the land itself, thereby obliterating the need for the access land. There is also a weird setup to access monuments of local and national importance.

Look at the map above and notice the two footpaths coming south out of Cales Farm. They both end at a road. A person may expect a footpath to be at the opposite side of the road. But this is not the case. The paths just end. There is no linking up with other footpaths so that a journey can be carried onward without resorting to walking along a road. This is not walking in the countryside, its walking along a road. The second thing to notice about the map is public access to Arbor Low. There is none. In fact a donation is solicited by the landowner. And access is only at certain times of the day. There are no footpaths leading to the site and parking for only a minute number of vehicles nearby. Yet this is a national monument of significant importance, so why make it so difficult to get to.

The second reason is one that is easy to rectify, if there was a will to do so. The state of many of the stiles and access gates in the white peak area is a disgrace. A person may have expected that the dark peak area with far fewer visitors and stiles may see more of the poorly maintained infrastructure but this is clearly not the case. Note the two stiles above, a random selection of the many thousands that I have encountered. The wooden stile is falling to pieces, creaking and swaying as a person attempts to stride over. The stone stile is much cleverer because it lulls the walker into a false sense of security. Only when the walker steps down on the opposite side and the stone step swings out of the way is the walker appraised of the stiles failings. These stiles are not unusual, nor is it unusual to find access blocked by any amount of metal. Signposts missing are par for the course. Stiles hidden beneath mountains of bramble and thistle are plentiful in supply.

The question has to be who is responsible. If it is the national park authority then what have they been doing since 1951 in achieving a footpath network that is complete in all aspects with footpaths linking up to make access much easier. And what about those stiles. Is this a cutback measure, are we waiting for someone to come a cropper before a defective stile is replaced. Is that now the plan. Or is the ranger service not aware of the problem, because they have not visited the paths due to a lack of time, or funding or desire.

Whatever the reasons there is much work to be done in the white peak to open up access to the public and make it safer for walkers to enjoy the land. The national park has its work cut out, whether it is capable is another matter.