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.

The living River Don, Sheffield

Heron on the River Don, Sheffield
Heron on the River Don, Sheffield

There was a time, back in the 80’s and much further back than that and nearer today too, that you would not have dipped the tip of a finger into a Sheffield river. The rivers stumbled through the city’s valley’s, those conduits of filth, filled with a chemical soup of toxic substances spewed out by industry, commerce and the less enlightened inhabitants who saw nothing but a receptacle for prams, shopping trolley’s, garden waste and that most ubiquitous of all hinterland treasures, the car tyre. Common amongst the areas anglers was the belief if you cut yourself in the brown scummy water you needed to get to the Northern General Hospital fast and have nurse pump some anti tetanus oil into your veins. Optimists to a man, and they were all men, rejects from the steel mills that were silenced and left to rot on the river banks, they fished not to catch the fish that could never have thrived but to rake back a little control over lives ruined by the money people elsewhere.

As industry left the city’s valleys the silent buildings stopped spewing their orange and brown liquids into the rivers. Derelict buildings don’t attract casual passers by or anglers with time on their hands. Men with no jobs want to sit in nature with at least a hope of catching something, rather than have to scrunch their nose at the scum that drips from the line as they reel in to try another day.  So the riverbanks fell silent, only frequented by those bent on dumping bin liners of rubbish and anything else that was cluttering the view across the patio.

The money people had abandoned the rivers like the steel mills, how can you make money from space where no one wants to go? The politicians turned away from the rivers as they turned away from the people.

Take humans away and nature will take its course. Trees along the banks of the river will flourish, weeds will colonise the edge space between water and dirt, the water will begin to cleanse itself of all that humans have done to it. At some point the city’s rivers got a little help, maybe we just cannot wait, maybe the damage we had caused was too great for the river to be able to heal itself, maybe we are still so arrogant we think only humans can clean up the mess humans make.

Then one Sunday morning whilst people were singing “All things bright and beautiful” the rivers quietly came back to life.

Humans once again frequented the river banks, this time they stepped into the water, bent down stuck their gloved hands into the cold soft liquid and pulled out not a plum but a pram or, prize of all prizes, an old car tyre. Scientists and conservation specialists planned a recovery of a near dead being. And ordinary people saw some hope that their local environment could be made better, but knew it was they who had to do it.

The settling pool on the River Don, Sheffield.
The settling pool on the River Don, Sheffield.

So they did. Local residents, families, school children, anglers, birdwatchers, naturalists, anyone who suddenly found that they could make a difference, they could be heard, were to be found on and in the river. This space lost to junk and nature was awash with voices and sounds and piles of rusting metal and bin liners, and heaps of car tyres.

Soon the river flowed and those who knew built staircases for Atlantic beasts, so they could walk up onto the moors and bring new life. Came the fish too, trout and grayling and they in turn brought the heron and the dipper and glory of all glory’s the kingfisher. Children played in outdoor classrooms in woodland glens, people walked and cycled safely away from traffic, reaping the health benefits of a cleaner, quieter, calm environment. No longer was there a smell of raw sewage no tangy essence of rusting metal melded with a concoction of noxious chemicals.

On a sunny day recently I walked with friends along its eastern bank heading out of the city following the rivers course as it worked its way to the source high upon the moors above Sheffield. We came across an old weir, the steel mill it was built for now long gone and forgotten. It was possibly built of cut Crawshaw Rock from Wharncliffe Crag. It is a wonderful piece of craftsmanship, wide enough to wander about on at low water the blocks so well made and packed together that they have hardly moved in what must be over a hundred years. At some point it must have carried traffic, like a ford, the cut stone was bordered by oak set into the stonework with holes where handrail pillars must have been placed. I stood in the centre and looked up stream gazing along a wide settling pond sitting on a bend of the river surrounded by trees the sky breaking through at their highest point, it’s almost still water waiting to slip over the weir edge. As I pondered this marvel of engineering I became aware of the quiet and stillness and peace.

The stone weir come ford across the River Don
The stone weir come ford across the River Don, Sheffield.

The Don Catchment Trust

Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust

Wardsend Cemetry

Extreme Destinations development at Parkwood Springs, Sheffield

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.

The long read…Trust your dog

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Scout. Trainee border collie search dog.

Experienced handlers say that training a dog is as much about trust as anything else.

I’ve asked Paul to walk down a footpath for 200 paces then go right into woodland for 100 paces and lay down. Scout strains at the lead, knowing that the game is on; I let him off and tell him to “go find”. He barks and does his little dance and I tell him to “get on” before he shoots off making ever-larger circles searching for the scent cone of Paul, occasionally blasting past me on his next orbit as we work our way through the woodland.

Suddenly Scout disappears into undergrowth. I stay on the path listening to his falconry bell as it jingles through the bracken. Then it stops. Silence. Eventually the jingle starts again and I see bracken moving as Scout makes his way back to me. He reaches the path and looks around, spots me and heads with purpose towards me as he gets close he barks then immediately turns around and heads back the same way. I have learned that heading back the same way means he has found a person. I follow him as the woodland engulfs him till eventually I am standing by the side of Paul. I give Paul the reward command and he pops up with Scouts toy and has a game of tug, this is Scouts reward and as he plays I tell him what a great dog he is and let Paul know where to go next.

Minutes later Scout and I are heading for a logging track that winds through the forest. Paul will be hiding at it’s top end and I want to approach from the bottom to extend the amount of time for searching. Scout is ahead and I watch him closely looking for any sign that he has found a trace of Paul. He turns sharp right into trees, when I get to the place there is no sight of him. I stand on the track and wait. Minutes pass and nothing. I have told Paul to hide on my left, but Scout is on the right. I whistle for Scout to return. A minute passes then I hear the bell and soon Scout is heading to me. But it’s with a purpose, the look on his face says he has found Paul, but that cannot be right, it’s the wrong area. He barks telling me he has found. I hedge my bets and tell him to get on and he heads straight back along the same line eventually leading me to a tree, but no Paul. There is nothing here I tell him. He looks up, so do I. Nothing. I start to move back to the track 400m away. He refuses to follow, looking at me in a serious way I have not seen before, he barks again, telling me he has found then heads back to the tree. He keeps looking up or at least I think that’s what he is doing. I look around.

There is a fallen tree nearby and a wide gully with a thin stream running down and thick bracken and the outline of the upturned roots of a tree on the opposite bank. A smooth breeze slips straight through us from across the gully. There is nothing else here so I make him reluctantly head back to the track and continue the search. We pass the point where I expect Paul to be and Scout has no interest. It dawns on me that Paul is not here and that the curve in the track I told him about is not this one but the one higher up.

We reach the right curve and head down the adjacent track. Scout runs straight to the bottom then returns and indicates, but it’s half-hearted and I suspect there is nothing there. When I reach him he is down a gully drinking from a stream and I call him out, knowing we have gone too far. I start to work back. The wind is blowing from my right heading for the direction of where Paul should be. Scout is on the wrong side of the wind so will not be able to detect Paul’s scent. Then I see Scout turn sharp left and head into the bracken; I follow him through flattened leaves realising Scout is on Paul’s ground scent. Scout comes back and indicates and in another 50m and I am there with Paul.

As they play I look around. It’s a good spot beneath a huge root ball from an upturned tree, well hidden in the bracken. Downwind is a gully with a small stream and across the gully woodland. As I am looking at this Paul tells me he thought we had him 30 minutes a go when we were the other side of the gully.

What do you mean I ask?

He tells me he heard me saying to Scout that there was nothing there and he points to a fallen tree across the gully. It’s then I realise where I am. We are across from the tree that Scout took me to earlier; it’s less than 20 meters away. It all starts to fit in to place. I realise Scout wasn’t looking up; he was pointing his nose up in the air to catch Paul’s scent. And when he went down to the stream he was picking Paul’s scent up as it drifted down on the water.

I’m stunned. Scout had Paul 30 minutes ago that’s why he would not leave the tree, he was telling me there was something there, that’s where the body was. I think about this and I know I am the weak link in the team. Trust your dog they say.

Later that evening I think about what happened. I’m amazed at Scout and how good he is and I’m disappointed in my performance how my actions let the team down. It is a massive learning experience.