Quiet Please, or A Year in the Sound of a Recreational Hill-User


A year ago I wrote a poem for Scottish PEN’s anthology to mark the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath. Titled ‘A Declaration of Hush’, it starts, and ends, on the bridge over the Braid Burn at Colinton Mains, in the lull between Christmas and New Year – a week when I love to stay home, go for walks, do less, gather strength for the rest of winter. More polemical that what I usually write, it is a plea for quiet (and sometimes an angry or comic one, rather than being quiet itself): for listening, for toning down ‘unnecessary racket and clamour and din’ until ‘we can start to hear again’ other species and life-forms, nuance and diversity, and ‘our own hearts beat, breath and footfall’. It is also a love song to where I live, and can be read here.

31 December 2019

I never imagined when I wrote this that the turn-of-year quiet that I find so nourishing would persist throughout much of 2020. I was not always coping well with the way the world was pre-pandemic, particularly when in crowds or on public transport. Maybe I am neurodivergent – I certainly identify and empathise with people who are; maybe this is something I will go on to investigate, but it is not the main point of this post.


I chose to move out from Edinburgh to the edge of the Pentland Hills ten years ago, not exactly predicting being locked down during a pandemic, but thinking carefully about where I wanted to be – to spend Christmases, to return to from work and other trips, to write and exercise, to welcome friends.

Thanks to a commission from Pentlands Book Festival, I have written elsewhere about my experience of lockdown locality, and how, despite fear of the virus and collateral stresses including worry about money, I was fortunate to be literally and figuratively in a ‘good place’ when we were required to Stay Home. 

After a silent start, I wrote a lot. My skin, often barometer of my wider health, was in good condition – no doubt due also to lower pollution levels. 

In easy walking and cycling distance from hills quietened in the absence of many other leisure users, I consider myself privileged to have witnessed the passage of a spring when the song of skylarks was louder than the noise of traffic on the city bypass. I was also, of course, relatively privileged in other ways during a pandemic that has exposed and exacerbated inequalities. I have a garden. I did have work, and lost less income than many freelance artists.

I wrote a poem for Beyond the Storm, an anthology published to raise money for NHS charities:


After the lockdown ‘anthropause’, the hills got noisier again and quickly became louder than they’d been before. With travel restrictions still in operation and many other leisure activities still closed, the Pentlands, like other rural areas close to urban centres, became unsustainably but unsurprisingly busy. The virus had impacted on everyone’s wellbeing, whether or not affected directly by Covid. Outdoor, green and wild places are as beneficial for mental health as for physical fitness, and there is a range of hills starting within a five-mile radius of a capital city centre.

One side-effect of the pandemic has been territoriality  – again unsurprising, with movement circumscribed in a way many had never experienced before.

A post-lockdown trope emerged, and played on repeat, on the local hill users’ Facebook group: that upland and wilder areas, which are / should be for all, were welcome-policed, not by hostile landlords, but by an old guard who considered themselves to be more worthy of them and were hostile to the influx. An ongoing online debate about access, parking, littering and more crescendoed into testosterone-fuelled rage and condescending judgementalism. There was a fair cacophony on the moral high ground.

Glad that people were able to find solace and release in the hills, at the same time I was often dismayed, and at times, shocked – for example when seeing long strands of cars parked along the verges of the lanes that lead towards the hills, their drivers disregarding advice from the Ranger service, and outdoor authorities across the country, to have alternative plans in case their carpark of choice was full. It usually was after 10am, even on weekdays and in bad weather. These vehicles blocked access for farm traffic and emergency services – fire risk was now high after a long dry spell – and later, after a long wet spell, caused drainage problems. 

I was most dismayed and shocked to hear music played out loud.

For every person who needs slow and quiet there is a counterpart who wants speed and noise, and this may not have been the best time to point out the latter’s unhelpful connection with adrenalin and antagonism to relaxation – we each cope in our own way; understandably many find being alone with their own thoughts just too difficult and need constant external distraction and stimulus. One of these does, however, have a disproportionate impact on the other; the effect of the quiet on the loud is negligible.

Disclosure: I’ll admit to some nimbyism existing alongside a more altruistic concern for people who live and work in the hills and for other species here; to some difficulty in compromising over the shared space. Simultaneous and contradictory truths are possible.


One Sunday I met  Out-Loud Family, or another iteration of them, again. I chose, unwisely, to return from a country cycle via a popular reservoir route. A family was blocking the – very wide – track from the carpark to the water. But they had young kids, who can be difficult to organise; I swerved past and smiled at the older boy, struggling to manoeuvre his bike. Then I heard  music coming from a tinny speaker on the back of the woman’s bike, glared, and rode on. The group caught up with me shortly afterwards at a bottleneck by a gate. We hung around waiting to get through, accompanied by their music, and I eventually said to the woman something along the lines of ‘can you tell me why you feel the need to play music out loud?’

Because my washing machine and car and computer and tooth were broken and my neighbour was being noisy and I’d gone out for a quiet day and made the wrong choice about the route home, my tone was quite possibly accusatory or judgy, when in fact I was just trying to ascertain their motivation and establish a civil discussion. I know that ranting at someone will not encourage them to examine their behaviour or its impact on others.

The woman replied  – this was the only thing she said – ’because it’s what we like to do.’

Her husband weighed in, saying (several times, with increasing volume and aggression): ‘It’s a free country. If you have an opinion just keep it to yourself’. They rode on and left the gate open and I’m afraid I yelled after them.

I cycled homewards, but they’d invaded my headspace. How dare he . . . but, they could’ve had as crap a week as me and I may have just made it all worse for them. . . 

That did not, in my opinion, make it ok for them to noise-pollute, but still. Patience, tolerance, understanding, compassion. Do unto others, etcetera. Let it go.

After tea, a bath, and food I logged onto Facebook. At the top of my news feed was this:

‘Anyone had any experience of the Harlaw Howler. Took the wife and kids . . . . We have a speaker and like to cycle listening to music. . .Anyway this older woman though it was in her right to question why we need to listen to music  . . . we had to endure the dirty looks and comments . . . First time in hundreds of miles with music playing dance or chart and [n]ever been insulted or questioned. This person actually thought they could say I can’t listen to music lol’

I watched ninety-plus comments drifting in during the evening, pro and con. There were 58 Likes for someone who commented ‘I actually think it’s anti social to ride or walk in the hills playing audible music. I’d prefer you kept it to yourself.’ Three comments, quickly deleted (I reported one of them to the site admins, and another woman noted she’d reported the others), were abusive and misogynist. A couple of comments encouraged seeing the situation more from the woman’s point of view, and speculated about her mental health, though not a single one mentioned neurodiversity or noise sensitivity. In a referendum I think the Quiet side would have won, but only very marginally.

The man / husband went on to claim that I’d been scaring another family. In the moment of being confronted by him I filtered out everyone else;  I hope I didn’t scare anyone, but my recollection remains that he was the one shouting – although It’s hard not to raise your voice when social distancing. I had to brace myself not to react, and alas, on finding they’d also left the gate open – the congestion had now eased, so it needed to be closed – yelled after them. 

I’m not going to go further into cyber-abuse and trolling – aurally silent, but capable of creating a cacophony from which its victim cannot escape – here, except to note the un-nuanced din of online disagreement that has been a collateral effect of Covid-19 restrictions across many  social media platforms and interest groups. As far as name-calling goes, I’ve heard worse, and was actually quite tempted to claim the ‘Harlaw Howler’ moniker. I was lucky to remain unidentified in the evening’s FB entertainment – no one had taken a photo. Harder to accept was the man’s belief that I had no right to challenge his behaviour, his choice to play music out loud; that he had absolutely no concept of this being unacceptable, or that others would find it intrusive or distasteful – or inappropriate in a place where people come for peace and quiet and to listen to birdsong.

In claiming ‘This person actually thought they could say I can’t listen to music lol’ he accused me (or the ‘Harlaw Howler’) of showing an unacceptable sense of entitlement, whilst failing toconsider his own family’s entitled behaviour.


Lockdown #Two hasn’t silenced local traffic like #One did,  but snowfalls have quietened the land again several times so far in 2021, now bringing with it new hill dilemmas, including avalanche risk. It has also produced perfect conditions for skiers and snowboarders. Unable to travel to resorts, they have, often unwittingly, posed a threat to ewes, who are pregnant, as they were at the start of the first lockdown, by scaring them away from their heft (where they know how to find food under the snow). Along with wildlife they have been forced into gullies with deep drifts and fewer feeding opportunities. Sheep have been attacked in larger numbers than usual, too, by dogs allowed to run off the leash, owners not heeding notices explaining the law about pets around livestock. More information and guidelines about responsible conduct in the hills can be found here.

I walk in the hills with friends and visitors, especially over the Christmas holidays, but most of the time I go alone. I take work there when it’s still enough to sit and do some; I pace out plans for writing workshops and ideas for my own writing. I listen. I’m quiet but not silent:  one of the things I love most about hillwalking is the tradition of exchanging a greeting with anyone else you meet. I think something that has caused and escalated the Covid-era conflict is that newer hill-users don’t necessarily know about this – why would they if they have been accustomed to not acknowledging other people in the street throughout their lifetime, to telling their children not to speak to strangers, to – for a variety of valid reasons – keeping their heads down. But some are so preoccupied in their family groups, or on their phones (or, worse, playing music out loud), that I wonder why they actually bother to come to the hills and make them busier for everyone – in some places at weekends it’s actually quite hard to practice social distancing. Their sound travels far, too, when it isn’t windy, and that has been surprisingly often this winter. Some others are clearly only there for their anthropocentric adrenalin-sport and care nothing for the history or culture of the land, for those who live and work there, or for other species. I know plenty runners and mountain bikers and open-water swimmers who absolutely do not fit into this category, whose mode of travel is a means of deeply engaging with the place – and I am sure this is also true of many winter-sportspeople – but I also regularly see ‘hill-users’ who abuse the privilege of being there, oblivious to, and endangering, the hills’ natural and social ecologies.

Of course, one can never know what another person is enduring, why seeking out the hills may be a necessary outlet for them, but one especially cannot know this if they do not even make eye contact. There may have been days when I’ve been too upset or angry to speak to people in the street, but even when I cannot smile, I say hello to anyone I meet in the hills and the countryside. This very act can be instrumental in creating a shift of sensibility from distress to ease. I have a natural empathy with people in whom an ancient code of hill civility is as ingrained as the cross-hill drove routes on which they otherwise make low impact, and find their unease at the intrusion more understandable than the accusations that they are simply unwelcoming. 


Nan Shepherd’s study of the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, was written in the 1940s and first published in the 70s. Her advocacy of ‘total mountain’, comprising all its elements, life-forms, weather and seasons; for circumambulation over summit-fever, has rightly become a classic and a manual for non-intrusive being in upland areas. It is a model for how to understand, recognise and witness place; to marvel and to mourn as appropriate. Through 2020-21 it  has been easier, then harder, than ever before, to find in the Pentlands the kind of full-sensory joy she recounts, when place and mind intermingle until both are altered and ‘one walks the flesh transparent . . . out of the body and into the mountain’ (p.106). 

I’ll give the last word to Shepherd. ‘Silence is not a mere negation of sound. It is like a new element.’

A Pentland Thread

Tying and tidying up some strands from the year as we face new restrictions and an uncertain festive period and start to the new year – this was one of the most affirming things I was involved in in 2020.

Edinburgh’s Pentlands Book Festival appointed three ‘Thread Leaders’ for an online experiment to encourage community responses to the 2020 Book Week Scotland theme, Future. Panashe Nyadundu wrote about Black Lives Matter, and why they matter in Currie. Reta MacLennan started a thread on the dreams and aspirations of residents of the upper Water of Leith valley villages: Colinton, Juniper Green, Balerno and Currie. I drew on my experience of lockdown locality and daily exercise in ‘Pandemic Perspectives’ – reflections on lockdown time & place, social and other forms of distance, seasonal shifts and more. Each leader curated the thread of new work responding to theirs for the PBF website. In Book Week Scotland itself we had a panel event, with readings, discussion and a q&a on Zoom, which was recorded and can be viewed here.

As a postscript, I made a ‘sampler’ poem using words and phrases from everyone who contributed, which can be read here. With huge thanks to all of them (I would have pasted it here were the WordPress block editor not so unstable – please click on the above links to read the Sampler and other writing on the threads, and to see my photos in better resolution!)

My own articles appeared in instalments, interspersed with the community responses in the form of poems, prose, maps and art work in several other mediums. Here are my text and photographs:

March/April: The Stretched Cleughs

By the end of the month it didn’t rain and we didn’t drive, Arran and the Cairngorms could be sighted from the Pentlands. Ben Lomond had been visible beyond the Lang Whang horizon for ten consecutive days. This was (to knowingly use an overused word) unprecedented in post-industrial times. And it broke my heart – it is how things should be, could be, and yet was only possible because of the pandemic. The occasional aeroplane still took off from Turnhouse, for Amsterdam or Heathrow. I should’ve been flying to Verona at the end of March; instead I was locked down beside the hills of home. And holiday-Italy seemed unimaginable compared to Covid-Italy. For that matter, hills I could see but couldn’t reach on foot – Scald Law, East Cairn – might as well have been in the Alps. As further-afield started to feel less feasible, a kind of mourning set in.

But something differently imaginable began to happen at that that turn of year when things change visibly, daily, when the horse chestnut across the road comes into leaf and we lose sight of Hillend. There was a bit more greening every time I walked through Dreghorn Woods to the hills. I opened yesterday’s quarantined mail with my cup of tea when I got back in. I found a rhythm. I found: various versions of out-and-back, circular, from-the-door exercise. Pacing, grounding, I found lesser-trodden paths. I found a hold, a bield, below the rounded hills.

The clocks went forward. There would be no light-evening walks on Arran, but I could make a virtue of what was around, with more daylight, and good weather, to explore it. But we didn’t know what our capacity was for our own, or our household’s, company, and for staying very local – because many of us had never been tested in this way before. When I mentioned this to a disabled friend, though, she effectively responded, ‘welcome to my world’.

I was, literally and figuratively, in a good place, though very aware of my comparative privilege and good fortune. There were things about pre-Covid life I had been enduring, rather than enjoying, finding subtly but cumulatively stressful when I left this edge of Edinburgh for the city centre: crowds, congestion, pollution, noise. So much of this ‘new normal’ suited better than the old. And yet the news and fake news gave a constant reminder of why we were in this situation.

I found a rhythm. The rhythm was disrupted. I found a rhythm.

In the now emptier Pentland spaces, I developed a fresh appreciation of the valleys, or cleughs, that run south from the back of Capelaw and Allermuir hills, of the crescent swoop of the cleugh-head skylines. With sense of time increasingly distorted by the absence of normal routines and presence of some strange new ones, I became acutely attuned to the shapes, and especially the glacial incisions, of hills I have walked for more than 25 years. Beneath the seasonal, vegetational surface they could hardly – unlike the city centre – have changed much in a month, but they felt different, their glacier-sculpted forms broadened and post-glacial weathering accentuated. I became a sort of semi-feral creature of the place where the Covenanters fled from religious persecution in the seventeenth century. The air was full of skylark song amplified by the stilling, the quiet, the lack of traffic on the bypass. 

We were in a perpetual state of adaptation, to which body and mind responded at different rates – and to which front-line workers of course didn’t have the luxury of time to adjust. Body-clocks were out of kilter. Simple tasks, like unpacking the shopping, were exhausting because we were constantly in a heightened state of alert / vigilance. Routine activities became more demanding, and underlying anxiety about the raison d’etre of all this, the virus, grew. Bare shelves in Tesco brought home just how much food & shelter had become the immediate priority, followed by exercise & fresh air. There could be scant space left home-working, home-schooling, creativity. And sometimes, despite evident slowings-down, it could feel as though there wasn’t enough time. With dyspraxic tendencies that make co-ordination and being methodical hard at the best of times, my best efforts to sanitise everything in the right order felt too haphazard. In a manner more superstitious than scientific, I’d bargain that if I was extra-careful elsewhere, all would be well. 

New ethical dilemmas, a new territoriality, presented themselves in the hills as well as in shops. The question of what constituted reasonable etiquette exacerbated differences between people. Were you prepared to stay local, and not risk taking your contact-train further afield? Even if a farther field was only populated by sheep, it was lambing time, and farmers shouldn’t get sick because people go for a walk to make themselves feel better. In the nearest hills from home, the North Face of the Pentlands, I was as careful as I could be with gate fastenings, the main contamination-hazard, and became adept at using elbows and even walking poles. There was some (online) occupation of moral high ground from those sticking to the lower ground.  Fire risk increased. I tried not to think too far ahead. It became even harder to imagine further ahead.

For the first few weeks I resisted Zoom and the apparent rush to take all of life online. As others embraced remote working, and Hillend and everything beyond it vanished, I was unable to write. Instead I stilled a constant internal chatter by reading others’ poems out loud to the emptying cleughs. Everything I read seemed somehow apposite, prescient of this time.  Then I started to become bombarded by my own words, started a journal, blogged, transcribed exercise itineraries and walk routes, wrote a dozen poems, plus dozens more haiku.  Six weeks in I became acutely aware I was speaking my thoughts, or fragments of them, out loud, as though my unconscious were seeping up from under my breath. Deprived of a normal range of in-person communication, and surrounded by the clichés and metaphors of Covid, it was as though I was finding an – uncomfortable – way to externalise a concentrated interiority. 

Weeks divided into walk-time, that could generate a kind of euphoria, and a more anxious home-time, when I worried about the collateral effects of the pandemic: income, faulty and temporarily unfixable appliances or teeth, the thought of being in a crowd, or on public transport, again. Domestic plans would frequently be postponed by unplanned therapeutic walks. At this time of year I’d normally be ready to travel further. My ambition now was to watch the very-local change over the season. Would I settle into this, contented, or find it too limiting?

April / May: Shelterbelts

Slow-forward a few weeks and mindful of the demands on emergency services, and their contacts, in the event of an accident, I stopped climbing hills. Instead I drifted – it really was unplanned – further up the Water of Leith valley. Swapping heights for lengths, I cycled, walked, and delivered biscuits to a friend in Balerno recovering from a Covid-unrelated medical procedure. 

Then, ritually, obsessively almost, I paced the cracked-mud paths of the shelter-belts and that I’d previously overlooked, bypassed, when heading for the Pentlands: the woodland grids, dating back to the eighteenth century, that right-angled round a dozen fields. They proved very fit for purpose when walking in a colder wind. I found out more about the ‘Cockburn Geometric Wooded Farmland’ from council documents (https://www.sesplan.gov.uk/assets/files/docs/supporting-studies-and-docs/GB_Landscape_Character_Assessment_December_Final.pdf ), and from knowledgeable locals. We’d engage in a sort of shelter-belt dance, improvising the choreography (and protocols) of a distanced pas-de-deux: swerve and greet, greet and swerve (judge and be judged by those who don’t observe at least two-metre distancing). Passing places were pausing places – we needed this pause, us and the planet. 

I loved the idea of a ‘Landscape Character Assessment’. Sloping Wooded Farmland! Geometric Wooded Farmland! Watercourses modified to follow field boundaries!  I became interested in where the ‘character’ of the land changes and opens out, where broadleafs thin along the lanes beyond the village. Through Cockburn, Buteland, Haughhead, Glenbrook, my personal route map from lockdown connected up the places I’d whizz past on my bike a few times a year.  Fieldside, woodside, forestside; farmstead, formal garden. I noticed lots of details for the first time, like the mossy walls. I almost didn’t mind not being able to get further afield. 

A lodge called ‘The Boathouse’ inland at Bankhead, and a memorial garden (for Charlie Cope of Goodtrees, who died in April), planted in an abandoned boat by local children, aptly symbolised the world-turned-upside-down of 2020.  Hope that it would right itself was expressed in the lovely lane and gate-art made by young people.

There was hope too in the changing verge flora: spring daffodils, primroses, garlic and bluebells, then gorse, so much glorious gorse. Later, iris and bog cotton at Red Moss. Orange-tip butterflies abounded, sensitised to the clean air and quiet. Laburnum, rhododendron and honeysuckle wilded where big house grounds met the lane. Their beech hedges re-greened. Limes and oaks leaved at different rates. Warm air released the aroma of bluebell, gorse, timber, pine. The upper Water of Leith, normally silenced by traffic from the A70, was audible in its incised channel below the gorse-bordered straight from Whelpside. There was four-part burnsong, with curlew solo, at Haughhead. 

(See also https://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/downloads/file/23010/balerno-villas)

Overhead, power-lines drew an elevated hypotenuse across the axes of the shelterbelts. Above the green belt and the Central Belt, cables charted a diagonal course to / from the capital. Punctuating rights of way, pylons plotted a line for the hills. Beyond, visibility extended, hopefully, out of the parameters of lockdown. Below the National Grid, desire paths graphed the woods. 

June: headwaters, headspace and an imaginary island

I ventured onto the ‘Leith Plateau Farmland’, the countryside beyond Balerno. I imagined this area as a small, fertile island bounded by the Pentland horizon, the visible circumference from Capelaw, Black Hill and the Cairns, round to Auchinoon and Corston Hills on the Lang Whang, down to Kaimes and Ravelrig. Centred here, around Buteland, I felt these skylines wrap around me, like an amulet: curative, protective. How much of this feeling of islandness, of peace, calm, was due to the gorse, I wondered; to the meadows, cnocs, and single dwellings?  The fineweather blue firth to the northeast made seacliffs of Dalmahoy and Kaimes. More wildflowers – yellow, purple, grass-heads, orchids – bloomed into a passable machair. This was my sanctuary: a substitute Rousay, a replacement Barra, a bield to experience the quiet of a Uist evening, that I  sought out several times a week. 

I’d continue from the Buteland road-end, through forest on one hand, past fields with growing lambs and calves, red-ploughed earth or ripening crops on the other. Where the lanes and shelter-belt paths right-angled round the fields, the track here described a dusty-earthed parabola: up to the moor, down to the ruins at Buteland Hill. Then it opened out above the buzzard-patrolled valley-bottom scraped flat by the glacial young Leith.  On the way back I could cycle through several seasons: wind and rain on the moor, gorse-scent releasing sun in the forest. 

My 2019 diary recorded where I was this time last year: often down in the Borders. Recompensed by local magic, I missed and didn’t miss these trips. On the day that 300 covenanters met at the Cauldstane Slap, I walked up to the border of the Borders again for the first time. 

Early and late exercise at midsummer fits around work and helps to offset seasonal insomnia. The lethargy of lockdown made it harder to get out of bed this year, but when I did make the effort I was amply rewarded. The imaginary island looked especially Hebridean in a haary dawn or dusk. In the evening and early morning it became clearer that we’re the guest species here. There might be hares in the first field after the road-end; the buzzard of Buteland Hill shoulder-swooped humans daring to reach Leithhead. 

It is an expanding experience to wait out the simmerdim of a clear June night, to determine when it  starts to get lighter, and hear the dawn chorus crescendo from silence. To see the sun come over the horizon at Buteland Farm, rise over the Water of Leith channel at Haughhead, risen above Whelpside. To turn to see the lit land brightening behind on the way home for breakfast.

Was it still an island? Irises were out, and so was more traffic. People came back, and with them new ethical and environmental dilemmas about parking and littering. Would the magic have served its purpose (and vanish) as the carparks re-filled and gorse faded? Dawn brought back the islandness, almost of-course-it-did, but the air, land-settled, also felt and smelled autumnal.

Like strict poetic forms such as the sonnet, lockdown could be an enabling constraint. I was glad when I could actually drive to the road-end on my ‘island’ and walk further upstream from it, pleased to have new horizons & visions again. I started to imagine having the confidence to do more, but was wary of going much further too quickly. I even wondered if my bodily and psychological readiness to emerge followed government permission to travel further. We were collectively exhausted from being in a prolonged fight-or-flight state: the pandemic had also taken its toll on those lucky enough to stay well and keep their jobs. I posted on Facebook about having a sort of simultaneous claustrophobia and agoraphobia and over 40 people agreed.

Annoyingly, if symbolically, when I tried to go away overnight, just into the Borders, my old car refused to accelerate on the open road, and had to be towed back. For a few days I just wanted to return to on-foot local exercise, to be held in hills that held me at the start of the pandemic. I took an evening walk up Howden Glen – now with a pink foxglove, rather than yellow gorse, border – and along the cleugh-head. Good to be back, amidst

the glacial channels / datytme slowing / the accelerating year

Afterword: Summing up the Pandemic Perspectives thread

Things changed visibly, daily again, as they did at the start of lockdown back in March. Hillend came back into view once more, as the leaves of 2020 fell from the horse-chestnut opposite. 

During a November week of still air and stunning cloud inversions, the Pentland cleughs filled with mist. Partially recognisable hilltops emerged from a sky-sea, the mingled elements creating an elevated shoreline liminality. Hard not to try to find metaphors in this, as we faced an uncertain winter and new, changeable restrictions, and took in the hopeful news:  progress with a vaccine; Joe Biden as the US President elect and Kamala Harris the first woman and person of colour to be VP elect. 

Back home, PBF posters and ribbons festoon local landmarks. To mark the end of this project, I placed and photographed ribbons in (and then removed them from) locations I’d written about for this thread. 

It’s been a privilege to read, see and assemble a rich array of responses: words on memory, in-the-moment presence, and virtual reality; visual representations – drawings, paintings, photographs, maps – of our place at this time. Here’s to the magic of language and landscape; here’s to the future.

Covid-era Poems by the Thread leader

I have poems about local lockdown published here: http://pendemic.ie/three-poems-by-helen-boden/ and here. I am also a contributor to Beyond the Storm – poems from the Covid-19 era – proceeds from sales go to NHS charities: https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/bookshop.php https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=105446

Wordsworth 1770-2020 and 1984-2020

I’m not a huge fan of  anniversaries and commemorations (though I have recently contributed to an anthology for the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, and two years ago it was important for me to mark the centenary of Wilfred Owen’s stay at Craiglockhart, just down the road from here). 7 April 2020 was the 250th birthday of the pre-20thC poet who has probably influenced me more than any other.


I had a back operation when I was nineteen, after my first year at Newcastle University. Recovering a couple of days later I started on Wordsworth’s verse autobiography, The Prelude, from the 2nd year reading list (such girlyswottiness then was to contribute to other health problems later on, and I’d actually attempted to read Dryden the day before, but never mind). It was one of those transformative moments, an epiphany, or what  Wordsworth would’ve called  a ‘spot of time’ – even though for him, as for me normally, these tended to happen in quiet, outdoors, upland places. I went on to write a PhD on Wordsworth, Autobiography and 18th-century Psychology, and then to study Dorothy and Mary Wordsworth.

My thesis was supervised by the late Robert Woof, former director of The Wordsworth Trust, and I was lucky enough to be able to study the manuscripts of The Prelude, and later the Scottish and Continental travel journals of Dorothy and Mary Wordsworth, in the Wordsworth Library, Grasmere.  The re-opening of Dove Cottage (where Wordswoth lived from 1799-1808, the home with which he is most readily associated), and the anniversary celebrations scheduled for 7 April in Grasmere are currently postponed due to the Corona virus pandemic.


En route to Romanticism & Revolution conference, Lancaster University, ?1989, photo by John Goodridge

Three and a half decades on from a hospital bed in Huddersfield, it’s easy for me to understand the effect that discovering  Wordsworth had on a child of Northern England who had been scholarly and feral in equal measures. I can see how well the Romantic poet vocalised and lineated  so much of her own experience – of the rural and seasonal, of the workings of memory and of attempts to record, represent and draw conclusions from that experience (though the specifics may have altered: she didn’t steal boats or rob nests, and she wasn’t orphaned at an early age). She was, too, lacking in role models from the women writers who were shortly to become more widely taught. 

I’d read some of the Brontes – not a great deal was made of their local significance – and Jane Austen at school, but had been rather more excited by my discovery of the WW1 poets and the virtuosic style of Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Then I read Woolf’s  To The Lighthouse and was stunned by what was possible in prose (and I’ve since grown to hugely respect Austen’s syntax and to be more impressed by the Bronte novels’ connectedness to a locality),  but I still hadn’t read any women poets at that stage. My first year at uni featured a lot of drama written by men; and Anglo-Saxon, also to become a great love and influence.

My own early attempts creative writing, after I moved to Scotland in 1995, were too much influenced by extensive reading of Wordsworth and Coleridge – far too much verbal solitary wandering above seas of mist. In the last couple of decades I haven’t read much from the Romantic period at all. Wordsworth exhorted readers to let nature be their teacher, but still spoke with the authority of the dominant-species lyric ‘I’. Thanks to the work of Jonathan Bate (especially Romantic Ecology) and others who have rehabilitated him as an eco-poet  he is proving to be an important poet again in the time of climate emergency. He may be an important poet for lockdown. Certainly his work on the healing powers of nature and our relationship to our thoughts looks prescient of  21stC therapeutic techniques including Mindfulness and CBT. For the past week he’s the poet I’ve been reading on my permitted daily exercise in the hills I’m lucky enough to call home (with sincere apologies to RLS), walking to the beat of  that most measured of blank verse; reading aloud, facing southwest towards a locked-down Lake District, those unsurpassed recollections of childhood adventures and fears.

The Journal of a Plague Spring or Some Thoughts on Being Online and On the Hill

I can’t remember whether or not I own a copy of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year: I moved up here to the Pentland edge of Edinburgh, from the edge of Holyrood Park, ten years ago in May and have never properly organised my books. Looks like I may have an unexpected opportunity to do so before the anniversary. I suddenly have a desire to make home tidier – this is not new, but it feels more focused, urgent, maybe more likely to lead to action now. As we all adjust to a ‘new normal’ we didn’t want, here are some of my first reflections. Plus a couple of  links to other writers’ work, because they, and small / indie publishers, need support just now.

There feels to have been a sort of  antebellum build-up been going on a while, an unsettled zeitgeist, from the 2019 General Election and Brexit, to the poetry-world Twitter.

I cancelled classes on Monday, and spent a lot more of it and Tuesday than usual online: emailing, giving feedback on the work of a class I normally meet in person, chatting on Messenger, participating in a mad but promising first Zoom session with Other Poets.

By Wednesday my mind was too full of chat(ter). Too much composing of replies to email and FB posts in my head. Too many questions: will the availability of Zoom etc. for those who can access it actually mean more isolation for other demographics? Freelance writers and other artists maybe have a head start with the new regime, in being used to, needing even, a degree of  social isolating, and by being adept at structuring their days and workload  – but will we be the first to get bored and frustrated as others learn to adapt? Why has a Facebook post I shared about financial help for self-employed artists been taken down? It’s all well and good to go to ground between Christmas and New Year, but can we handle this in spring, and for a longer and less voluntary period? Primed to emerge from hibernation, we didn’t manage this too well in the heavy snows two Marches ago.

I started feeling some pressure (from myself, and social media generally, not students, clients, peers or friends) to move work online. I sensed the beginnings in some cultural and educational sectors of a bit of an entrepreneurial, not exactly rush, but movement to get everything re-booted virtually. As it takes a while to become market-competent in this area (where of course many good things already exist), I’m not keen to get caught up in a race: I’d rather be writing, reading, walking, gardening, sorting the house out, doing  the kind of remote editorial client and mentoring work I do already. It feels like work enough to adjust to the changes just now: self-care, rather than the piling on of additional stresses by embracing something one doesn’t have a natural affinity for, needs to take priority.

I developed a headache  from too much screen-time, and needed to medicate with one of my anyway not very big supply of paracetamol. I’m coming to realise the need to work out a new balance between maintaining enough social contact, when real contact is dwindling, and  not getting sucked into an entirely online existence when there are hills to walk and books to read and more time, and more daylight, to do these things.

My friend and Pentland neighbour, poet Dorothy Baird mentioned the  ‘stable presence’ of these hills in a recent communication on Messanger. I think Capelaw, the the one on the right when you look up from Edinburgh, fulfils this function for me best, its long summit plateau edging further away from the city than its higher neighbours Allermuir and Caerketton – but many other places serve that purpose too. Anything made of Lewisian gneiss, many locations in the Pennines and Yorkshire. I seek out these places not just for leisure, but to work, to walk out ideas, or, weather permitting, to sit with them, read and write.

One of the themes of  StAnza Poetry Festival two weeks ago was  Coast Lines, those non-stable land / sea fringes, the liminal edges. A more apt metaphor for the times, perhaps, coasts, beaches and shores will in the coming weeks be important and comforting ‘safe’ places for many who can access them. I walked back and forth along the East Sands of St Andrews,  along the fringe of the North Sea, assimilating the words of a wonderful weekend before my return to Edinburgh, sensing things were about to change pretty drastically and also unable to envision exactly how. Since then, upcoming festivals, events and performances have of course been cancelled. We’re no longer in the antebellum phase.

I logged out and took to the hills  with my notebook and  Eleanor Rees’ quite miraculous collection for times she couldn’t have anticipated when writing – visionary, mystical poems about the edges of experience. Perfect for my social-distancing offices on the  Capelaw plateau and the edge of Bonaly Reservoir. The skylarks are back, their song gradually drowning out  internal chatter. Later I read out loud to them, to the grass and rocks and paths and the city and firth beyond – something completely instinctive in a week dominated by planning. Two young women were singing ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ on the path below Capelaw and I joined in across the col at the top of the Howden Glen. I still haven’t looked out my copy of Defoe.





Leaving Home

Edinburgh Waverley, mid January 2010. My feet were numb, colder than I could remember since going out carol-singing in Yorkshire as a child, or to collect the Christmas meats from the butcher’s with my mum, snow drifts as tall as me. Outside the station there was snow lying, and forecast, and the Met Office advice was not to travel. I was due to complete the sale on my late parents’ house, the house in which I lived from the age of thirteen until I went to university, the house less than a mile down the hill from where I was born, the house to which I returned regularly, from Newcastle, Bristol and Edinburgh over the next three decades. I chose to travel.

Once the delayed train arrived, and departed, holdups were no worse than I’d known at many other times. Change at York. I remembered making the journey five years earlier, wondering what I’d have changed into, what would have changed irreversibly, on my return. The family friend who often met me at the station was ill. Rather than take a taxi or bus, I trudged the mile or so up from town and over the brow of the hill on foot. How many times had my parents picked me up, and driven home by this route, a short distance between two valleys, Calder and Spen?

Most of the house’s contents, my inheritance, I guess, had been subject to a chuck/charity/keep triage over the past year. This now left me free to take walks and visit friends and neighbours, and – it seemed important – to shop at the local Morrisons for a final time, honouring the weekly routine of a retired baker and shop-keeper partly put out of business by the supermarket chains he later came to depend on, even like. I would return, but not as an occupier of (t)his house.

My parents’ ashes are buried three miles away in the churchyard of the village where my mum was born and grew up, and where I spent a lot of my childhood. Her father sang in the church choir for most of his life. I’d been there three weeks earlier, when spending a final Christmas at the house, and every time – roughly monthly – that I’d been down since she died in September 2007, followed by my dad in August 2008. Now, with a developing chill from the extreme cold, and a deadline involving a removal van, I decided not to visit or lay flowers at their memorial stone, and walked across the Spen Valley to see my mum’s oldest surviving friend instead.

Monday morning, more snow. The removal van, due to take into storage the furniture I was keeping, was delayed by hours. By the time it drove off full, it was getting dark, my chill was worsening and I didn’t wish to attempt the journey back north, should that have been possible. I phoned the solicitor – old school, three-quarters retired; I’d been suspicious of him at first, but came to realise he really was ‘acting for’ me in the best sense, through quite a few complications with the sale. He contacted the buyer, who agreed to let me stay overnight before they took the keys. I took a bottle of brandy, Morrison’s cheapest, that my dad bought and nobody wanted to drink, to the neighbour across the road. We had a couple of glasses and I left her with the rest, then went back and slept in the empty house. Next morning I arranged for the landline – with the phone number we’d had all my life –  to be cut off, then gathered up my hand luggage, including the telephone, and left. I dropped off the keys with the estate agent and got a fast, efficient train back to Edinburgh. I was nearly always met off the train in Yorkshire, but invariably walked home when I returned to Edinburgh; with welcome and pleasing symmetry, a friend now picked me up at a still sub-zero Waverley, and fed me shortbread.

I’d lived in cities since 1983. Studying at, or working in, universities, this was practical, but – art galleries, opera houses, restaurants notwithstanding – I’ve never really felt at home in an urban environment. With the house in Yorkshire, I had a foot-hold somewhere that was semi-rural, on the edge of a mill town, on the edge of the Pennines. As my parents grew more frail in the new century, I visited more often.

The house, 9 Elm Road, was unremarkable (unless you were an estate agent needing to make it sound and look remarkable): three-bedroomed detached, with small front and rear gardens, identical but for variations on a theme with the thirty or so others on the estate built on a former mill site in the 60s. My mum used to decry them from the two-bed redbrick semi a mile away that was her first marital home, but grew to love number 9, and died there. When my dad died, I knew I wouldn’t sell up straightaway. I went down regularly, to check on it – several friends no doubt fondly remember my boiler-anxiety sagas – and also just to be there, and to walk in the area, and to learn to say goodbye to a large segment of my life. I spent two Christmases there, and became re-acquianted with my cousins. My first attempt at putting the house on the market felt too soon and I took it off. I considered various options of keeping it, or renting it out, but they weren’t sensible or practical at the time, and I eventually went through with the sale a decade ago, in the cold winter of 2009-10.

I returned to my fourth-floor tenement flat overlooking Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags, and set about planning moving out of town, somewhere with an extra room, maybe a garden, nearer the Pentland Hills or the sea. I’m not tough enough to live out in the middle of nowhere – that’s fine for writing retreats or holidays – and want relatively easy access for work and social life to the city centre, Glasgow and Fife: in some ways a location similar to where I grew up would suit me fine. And I found one, just inside the City of Edinburgh bypass, twenty minutes’ walk, or a few bus stops or short drive to the Pentlands, close to Colinton village but more affordable.

It was partially familiar – I’d been walking in the Pentlands for over fifteen years, knew the hill paths intimately  –  and at the same time very strange and new. I was diagnosed with moderate-severe depression a few months after moving, in summer 2010. It was quite a slow road to recovery from an illness partly triggered by several major life-changes in the space of  a few years, and by the newness of my situation, but a recovery also ultimately enabled and – precariously – maintained by the new location. For the past decade I may well have been trying to recreate in a corner of Lothian what I left in Yorkshire; on my terms, for a new era. Here’s to the 20s.

Surviving & Recovering: A Post-Script

Surviving & Recovering: A Post-Script
— Read on https://www.yesuare.org.uk/post/surviving-recovering-a-post-script

From October 2018-September 2019 I was Writer in Residence at the Yesuare Partnership, Erskine Building, Dunfermline.

The residency, funded by Santander Foundation, involved working with people whose lives have been affected by trauma. At the same time, the Erskine building, a derelict church, was being renovated for community use.

One of the requirements was to produce a blog to document the project and showcase participants’ work. The link to the final post of my creative writing blog on Yesuare’s Wix site is above. I’m about to start editing some of the original creative work for a pamphlet which will be launched at an event t celebrate Yesuare’s work.

The blog contains writing prompts that anyone can use. In the spirit of the oral tradition of creative writing exercises, many of these are adapted from well-kent, tried and tested methods and approaches. Some I devised myself, and developed for the various settings where I’ve worked. Where I have a particular debt to another facilitator, colleague or mentor, I acknowledge this. Feel free to use the prompts for yourself; if you do so in the public domain (online or at a workshop), please acknowledge the source.

Minor Road Trip

I.m. Jeffrey Boden, 28 April 1927 – 18 August 2008

‘We can walk between two places and in so doing establish a link between them, bring them into a warmth of contact’, Thomas A Clark, In Praise of Walking


The Scenic Route

I’ve just returned to Edinburgh from a minor road trip, or minor-road trip, or narrow road trip to the North of England. Or, perhaps, a Sentimental Journey to places from my past. I started driving again a couple of years ago, aware that there are already too many cars on roads not designed for them in such great numbers, on a planet not at all designed for them – having passed my test at the age of 18, but never built up much practice or experience. My friend Gill, who knew that I wanted to be able to take myself to places off the bus route, and no longer carry all my luggage / in bad weather, offered me the use of her late mother’s Micra. I wasn’t certain I could re-acquire what seemed to be skills more complex than those needed for anything else I do.  With the help of several friends, most of whom were professional educators of some description – it sure is a transferable skill – my extreme nervousness dissipated and I started to gain confidence. Last year I was able to drive down to the Borders for work and walks and short breaks, and contemplate some day moving out of the city. I took over ownership of the car. On a couple of occasions I crossed briefly over the border into England. I became very interested in the idea of  The Border itself – which will be the subject of another post, and some poems.

This August I planned my first proper self-drive holiday, to Yorkshire, where I grew up. Three years ago another good friend, former Newcastle flat-mate Lesley, told me that her sister, who now lived in Malhamdale, wanted a cat-sitter in the summer holidays. I’d been looking for ways to spend more time in Yorkshire, where I no longer have close family,  on a budget, so this was a perfect opportunity. I travelled down by public transport in 2016 – blog post here, with better weather! – and 2017 and had an amazing  time exploring again the limestone scenery that was the destination of regular childhood trips from the (gritstone) edge of the West Riding Pennines where we lived.


From Limestone Pavement to Malhamdale


So far I still don’t drive on motorways and the larger trunk roads. You can, however, get from Edinburgh to the north of England without the A1 or M6 if you allow enough time. The plan was to use the A7 and A68 through the Borders for the first and last stages, then get off the big roads, and wander down to Malhamdale and back via places I haven’t seen since I was a child in the 70s (Kielder), since I was a student in Newcastle in the 80s (Hadrian’s Wall, the North Pennines), since I met up with elderly parents for short breaks in the first decade – their last – of this century (Kirkby Stephen, Ribblehead, Swaledale, Arkengarthdale). Plus some regular favourites, familiar from youth and  the more recent cat-sitting trips (Gordale Scar, Malham Tarn), and some completely new locations.








Of course some familiar places have changed quite a lot – popular sites now necessarily have more car parks and visitor centres. As when abroad and in places like Orkney, I prefer the charm of  visiting the lesser-visited. (And yes, as with the actual driving, I am aware of the irony if not hypocrisy of so doing. But I do contribute to the local economy, buying  home-made and home-cooked, or items from which the profit goes back into local organisations, whenever I can).

The backroads and byways were subject to several closures and diversions, and not just where the well-publicised recent Yorkshire floods had occurred. Journeys were also repeatedly lengthened due to driver error. I generally have a good sense of direction, and can judge distances well when walking and cycling – or as passenger-seat map reader. Driving alone without satnav, however, I took wrong turnings with comic regularity – for example when avoiding bigger roads after crossing the North Pennines and descending to the Eden Valley from Hartside. (So many bikers! So many seats commemorating bikers’ deaths! So many memories of  trips to the Lake District from Newcastle!)


Hartside, Cumbria: edge of North Pennines / Eden Valley, looking West

Below the Pennines between Melmerby and Kirkby Stephen, I drove through many pretty red sandstone villages with big well-tended greens and inviting pubs – to which I declined the invitation and persisted on my quite tiring way. I did need to cross the A66 trunk road at some point, and just before this I found myself driving through a strange, deserted MoD landscape that wasn’t even shown on my road-map. I started to wonder if I was imagining it even while I was there.

The core of the trip was my cat-sitting stay in Airton, Malhamdale. The village is just south of the Mid Craven Fault’s limestone showstoppers Malham Cove and Gordale Scar, connected to them on a section of the Pennine Way by a lovely hour’s walk upstream beside the young River Aire (strong enough though to merit its second mill en route to Skipton and Leeds by the time it reaches Airton, just  two miles south of its source). Walking these riverbank paths to Malham has become established as a contemplative ritual, of unwinding and arriving and then preparing to depart, over my three recent visits.


Approaching Airehead from Scalegill; Gordale ahead


The destination, the furthest point south, the cat sitting, were important – but so were the stages en route, and the route itself, including all the ‘wrong’ turns,  and all the country lanes which driving provided the opportunity to explore. I travelled widdershins, south from Newcastleton, after an evening excursion to Kielder and stopover in Liddesdale, and walked a short stretch of the Roman wall near Gilsland. On the return I planned a more easterly journey through Northumberland to Jedburgh.


Hadrian’s Wall near Gilsland


Airbnb makes booking stopovers easier and more enjoyable than it used to be, though I’m accustomed to the high quality and comparatively low-price, high-availability of the Scottish Borders: finding suitable places on the right dates in the Yorkshire Dales National Park was bit harder. So I stayed in the rather lovely Eden Valley village of  Crosby Garrett on the way down. A beck runs through it, with (slow) lanes on either bank, and there’s a viaduct on the Settle-Carlisle line at the head of the village. A farm track passes under this and up onto the hillside, where on a humid Saturday evening I started to orient myself in relation to familiar North Pennine and Dales landmarks (Cross Fell, Ingleborough).

The two consecutive nights that I wanted in family favourite Swaledale on the start of the journey back north weren’t available either, so I stayed for one in the next dale south, Wensleydale, where my host persuaded me to try the early bird menu at the local Michelin / gastropub along the road, rather than the local pub grub with real ale round the corner that I’d have been happy with. Never been anywhere that serves an amuse-bouche when travelling alone before, but it was all so lovely that I also had pudding (lavender – apparently now A Thing in Yorks – pannacotta with strawberries several ways) after the (relatively) cheap two-course menu.  I am not someone who photographs my food, in restaurants or at home, but:



Honesty, Tea & Cakes

It was an appropriate celebration of having come so far, but no more enjoyable than seeing a Cakes for Sale sign at a farmhouse gate when driving over to Ribblehead on the way down to Airton. I’d been hoping for some Eggs for Sale, common in rural areas, but this would do very well too.

In two places I encountered the phenomenon of the ‘honesty tea shop’. The first was in the hamlet of Halton Gill at the head of Littondale, after a steep  descent of Penyghent Ghyll (named for being at the foot of the most shapely of Yorkshire’s Three Peaks). I gather this is a favourite cyclists’ refreshment stop. I’d just driven over from Malham Tarn, on my first leg of the return north, and was ready for re-fuelling.





It’s wonderful motoring country. I expected to find the gradients and corners and summertime congestion difficult compared to southern Scotland, but it wasn’t very busy and I took to driving through this terrain as readily as I had, decades ago, to walking. But this is also God’s own cycling country: it hosted the grand départ of the 2013 Tour de France, and next month will host the UCI World Championships. My dad cycled these roads before he drove them, sometimes for 200 miles a day. He’d shoulder his bike and walk over the peaks, too.

Just below Katie’s Cuppas is a rowan tree, and a plaque on a stone next to it. It commemorates the 2014 TdF passage by quoting Blake, supplementing the ‘green and pleasant land’ reference with ‘the fool sees not the same tree that the wise man sees’ from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell – hard now not to invest this with Brexit-era significance (though most of Yorkshire voted Leave, something incomprehensible to most in Scotland).

The second honesty tea stop was in the Old School Muker Gallery, one of several repurposed former education buildings in Swaledale, and new since my last visit. It was nearly closing time; the afternoon had somehow gone by while I walked around lovely Keld at the head of the dale, in my own footsteps and those of my late parents, then drove down to Muker and walked back to the River Swale over the paving slabs on the famous wild flower meadows (now cut for hay). I’d already had my tea, and my cake, at the Keld farmhouse that serves them, but I found time – on a day spent productively losing it (the Keld area seems to have that reputation, of displacing time in the way that a sea voyage can) – to buy some presents. An agitated woman appeared to be pushing in behind me at the till but it transpired she was agitated for good reason: the passenger window of her car, parked along the verge near mine, had been smashed and valuables grabbed from the interior while she and her family were enjoying refreshments in the honesty tea room. With no signal in the dale, she needed to use the shop’s WiFi and landline to contact the AA and police. Thieves operate in this area / Don’t leave your valuables in sight notices are, alas, common, alongside more appealing way-markers, useful interpretive panels, and Slow Down for Red Squirrels, Do Not Interfere with the Industrial Archeology, or Eggs for Sale signs.




Agnus Dei

Stopping for the priority movement of sheep and cattle on the road can cause frustration if getting from A to B quite quickly happens to be your priority.  Luckily it wasn’t mine and I was happy to pause for the flock moments after crossing the county boundary into Yorkshire.


Welcome to Yorkshire


Later at Malham Tarn, my car was engulfed by a positively Biblical, seemingly endless, ovine flood. Biblical-pastoral imagery is inescapable, and attractive, in a place so long predicated on sheep farming, and where Christian religion can still be deeply entrenched in valleys historically rooted in non-conformism – despite depopulation and the problematic increase of holiday homes. Nonetheless on my last night in the Dales I was quite surprised to hear that my Gunnerisde host’s neighbour disapproved of her hanging out washing on Sundays. Reading leaflets at Keld Resource Centre, housed in the former village Literary Institute, I was less surprised to find a softening of Old Testament-type values in favour of emphasis on compassion, mindfulness and environmental awareness (not incompatible with the core Christian message, of course, but often submerged under a more oppressive, controlling, discourse that has been internalised over generations, and is still sometimes evident in people’s speech and behaviour).

Tiny, tranquil Keld, a ‘thin place’, according to more Resource Centre interpretative borrowing from Celtic Christianity or pre-Christianity, has a high proportion of public buildings to private dwellings. The windows of the unadorned, atmospheric United Reformed Church look out on the Dale in the way the Telford kirks do on the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Several Anglican churches in the Dales have bespoke stained glass depicting local scenes, like the beautiful example at Muker.





Quite a number of people seem to have claimed Keld as one of their favourite places on earth, and I’d add my name to them. It featured in a Scotsman article in 2013 which draws attention one of the village’s most famous twentieth-century admirers, North Penniner W H Auden. In ‘Streams‘, part of the 1953 sequence Bucolics,  Auden describes, in full Wordsworthian voice,  dozing beside one of  the waterfalls at Keld, ‘where off its fell-side helter-skelter, Kisdon Beck / Jumps into Swale with a boyish shouting’, and having a surreal dream that coloured the rest of his day: ‘fortunate seemed that  / Day because of my dream and enlightened’.



Centuries of Transport and Industry

Gunnerside, Muker, Thwaite and Keld: names with the sonority of a liturgical chant; they certainly have the power to regulate and improve my mood. But as well as being a magical place with an undoubted aura of spirituality, this is also a former industrial landscape. Abundant remnants of the lead mining that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are assimilating with natural screes in places like Gunnerside Ghyll. Together with  place-names like Surrender (as in give up your land to the mine owner)*, they add considerable interest to today’s walks. Like in Orkney, the presence of the past is everywhere: evidence of changing uses of the land – and, with a little imagination, especially in bad weather, of the hard lives of those who worked it.

* The Surrender Mining Company is one of several that operated commercially  in Swaledale in the eighteenth century. ‘Surrender’ is also a legal term internationally associated with the handing over of mining rights and land.




In addition to numerous drove roads – the lovely ancient walled lanes, sometimes incorporated as part of modern long-distance walking paths – and the tracks that have become metalled roads, the Settle-Carlisle railway line famously travels up and down the Dales. For about a decade from the mid-90s I’d meet my parents, at Ribblehead Station, for short breaks and celebrations in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale –  including their 40th wedding anniversary and my mum’s 80th birthday. When they set off back to West Yorkshire I’d go for a walk around the iconic viaduct, sit on the limestone scars, have a poke around the sink holes where  water seeps underground through the soluble limestone (when do ‘sink holes’ become ‘shake holes’ as you travel northwards? When do Swaledale sheep become Cheviots?) before boarding a train back to Scotland.

Ribblehead Viaduct was built, at considerable human cost, by navvies who lived in the temporary accommodation constructed for / by them on Blea Moor. It now has surfaced parking spaces and access paths and little evidence of the ‘shanty towns’ save a memorial plaque. I stopped off  to pay homage en route between the Yorkshire border at Aisgill on the upper reaches of  the River Eden, and Airton. As ever the presence of a fair number of bikers and cavers and families queueing at the ice-cream van made little impact against  the scale of the built and natural environment.





Eden Regained

Talking of Blake, and faith, the well-planned trip turned out to have some unplanned symmetries and highly pleasing synchronicities. My final stopover was, like the first, to be in the Cumbrian district of Eden according to local government demarcation – but somewhere that felt less like a garden than Crosby Garrett, in one of those high moor villages with which I feel great affinity, near the source of the South Tyne.

I left Swaledale by making the low-gear ascent onto Reeth High Moor, then down steeply to Surrender Bridge, up again, across more open moor, down again,  through the original  All Creatures Great and Small ford, back steeply up onto Reeth High Moor – where I  pulled up and looked down over Arkengarthdale. I’d stayed in this most northerly dale with my late parents on maybe half a dozen occasions in the years before they became too frail. Then I quickly crossed the dale bottom, over the Arkle Beck.  Steeply up once more, this time over The Stang and into Country Durham – stopping again at the top to look back, and forward, as I had repeatedly, ritually, at other summits, high points of passes, and county boundaries, over the course of the trip. If I didn’t know, and in a few months’ time, would I be able to tell which of my photos look forward into the dale, and which back at it?




So I returned to the North Pennines on my way back to the Border via Haltwhistle. I’d intended to head in a north-easterly direction, directly to Haydon Bridge on the final day, but I – who am supposed to Know the North – took a wrong turning, somehow confusing the two place-names beginning with H . . . my mistake at least gave me the opportunity to drive – straight-  along the rollercoaster Roman road parallel to, sometimes on the course of, Hadrian’s Wall. Thence to  Bellingham, where I bizarrely both cut a finger quite deeply on the door of an old railway carriage repurposed as a cafe, and got stung on the back by a wasp.

This was a road trip, enabled by having four wheels for the first time in my 54 years, but I am foremost a walker, a pedestrian (and secondarily a cyclist). The Pennine Way and my path had appropriately, it felt, intersected at several points. It ran adjacent to where I was staying both in Airton, and finally at Garrigill, just south of  the north Pennine crossroad-town Alston. I encountered the Pennine Way signage, and walked a few paces, or a few miles, along it, in both of these places and wherever else we met: at Malham Tarn, the foot of Penyghent, Keld and Muker, Dufton, by the Roman wall and the A68.



Weaving in and out of North Yorkshire, Cumbria, County Durham and Northumberland,  I relished too the modulation of accents from the north, south, east and west of the region – and was bemused that mine, which I take to be a fairly readily intelligible Northern English, could not always be easily understood: on several occasions I did not get the ice cream, or the beer, that I thought I’d ordered. But I did get to savour instead some pleasant surprises for the palate, as well as for the ear and other senses. A twenty-first century sentimental journey, aye; a grand tour of sorts, yes.

These are places that Auden loved to re-visit; they are places where my West Riding baker dad drove, cycled and walked. He introduced me to them when I was young and I’ve loved them all my life, but as I got older we didn’t have much else in common. We argued, as is common, when he supervised my teenage driving practice; otherwise I ignored him. I don’t think he ever really understood what it was I did after I left home. When my mum died in 2007 he tried to persuade me to take up driving again, and added me to his motor insurance. I discovered when I saw the documents after he died eleven months later, eleven years ago today, that he didn’t know what my title or my job title were. But there were places where we were able to connect in his later years, especially the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near where they lived; and Swaledale. I inherited his car and wanted to keep it on and bring it up to Scotland, but (having no choice but to deal with the house) driving still felt too much to take on at that point; for this and other factors connected with the estate I sold it. I like to think that in making this commemorative trip, he would have understood my reasons for doing so, and my experience of place, as much as anyone; and that in driving safely on the roads he loved for twelve days of August (ok, the car sustained minor damage to number plate and wheel hubs when I was trying to park when tired, but I’m not the perfectionist he was), I would have made him a little bit proud.

mum and dad

A Midsummer Night’s Walk

‘To walk for hours on a clear night is the largest experience we can have’ Thomas A. Clark, In Praise of Walking

At Midwinter I walk in the Pentland Hills between dawn and dusk(ish), on as many days as work and weather allow, with the intention of walking between dusk and dawn at Midsummer. Come June, the theory of mirroring my walk through daylight hours with one through the hours of darkness, doesn’t make it into practice. I walk early (but rarely early enough to catch  the 4.30am sunrise), I walk late (weighing up making safe descent from Caerketton against making last orders at the Hunter’s Tryst) – but not on adjacent days.


Cauldstane Slap, looking north-west, 11.30pm, 21 June

This summer, curiosity about the nature and quality of these few hours of darkness got the better of me.  Can you see to walk without a torch if there isn’t a moon? Does it feel scary? Where exactly would I go? (In the daytime, I tend not to plan an answer to the latter question much; I set out and see what the wind and temperature and my energy feel like, and go where my feet seem to want to take me – in marked contrast with many other areas of my life where I exist very much in my head, ruminating, weighing options. The right walk for the occasion works itself out along the route.)

I left for West Linton about 9.30pm on Friday 21 June 2019, armed with two flasks, a couple of books, a lot of food, and some winter walking gear. Set off walking from the end of the public road below Baddinsgill Reservoir, at about 10pm, with the initial intention of just having a wander across the dam and the around environs of the reservoir.  Continued into the horizon light along the old cross-Pentlands drove road, the ‘Thieves Road’. Curlews called. Cattle, which sometimes huddle around the path, grazed at a fading distance on my right. And on, feet at some point deciding to try to aim for the Cauldstane Slap, the col between East and West Cairn hills, where you can see over to West Lothian and the north – a site of the conventicles, or outdoor religious gatherings, of the persecuted Covenanters in the seventeen century.  Reached it in about an hour, finding the path, which I haven’t walked in daylight for some years (once walked up from W Linton, over E Cairn and down to Balerno in my 30s) fairly easy; took out camera.



Coming back across the moor was a darker, slower undertaking; the path less distinct. Less surefooted, I switched on my torch. Once or twice I wondered if I’d taken a wrong turning, or missed a fork that would be obvious in daylight. Was I heading too far west and off-course? Why uphill when I should be descending? Didn’t really matter: it wasn’t cold, and would get lighter again soon enough, but yes, I was experiencing a bit of what  William L Fox calls  ‘cognitive dissonance in isotropic places’ (as discussed in Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways, p.79). The terrain, of a type with which I’m very familiar, felt slightly unfamiliar. I also started to feel a bit sleepy, possibly due to the low light at this point, in addition to the late night / long day.

Reached the reservoir again after an hour and a half, disturbing its avian population, and therefore possibly the sleep of the human population of the handful of cottages at Baddinsgill. Walked along the top of the dam and sat looking at the still water for a time. Laid down and looked at the stars.



At  about 1.15am a  yellow half-moon rose over the plantation behind me. I walked back down to the car as it ascended. The sky out of the passenger window was perceptibly lightening, I had some food and tea, then went back up to the reservoir for another hour. My camera records the time, but (I) did not take useable photos.

Before coming home, I drove alongside West Linton golf course. On the verge are grasses to which I seem to be more allergic than to any other I know. My memories of returning from summer walks in the area, to the Covenanter’s Grave, or up from Dunsyre, are of  itchy and sore eyes, of just wanting to reach the Gordon Arms at West Linton so I could bathe them. In fact, the threat of  hayfever was probably the major factor in not  hitherto attempting an all-nighter in my local hills. Last year all my allergies were bad, and I had a very debilitating eczema flareup. One evening I walked from home, south-west over the shoulder of Harbour Hill and was so uncomfortable that I took no pleasure from it, and stopped hillwalking altogether for several weeks. For the hay-fevered, one compensation for this cold, and often wet, June, has been a very low pollen count.


Homewards. Daybreak.  Near Rullion Green, where a Covenanter uprising was brutally routed in 1666, it was no longer night.


I drove north into morning. My timing was unplanned, but perfect for turning off at Hillend to watch the sunrise, over Arthur’s Seat and the Firth of Forth, from beside the ski centre.



Then home, the north face of the Pentlands fully re-lit. Tea, book, bed. It wasn’t exactly possible to walk for hours, as Clark recommends – the Lothian midsummer night simply isn’t that long – but I did find it a large, an enlarging,  experience. More satisfying than sitting up for General Election results (certainly an excellent diversion from the current Conservative prime ministerial election); obviously less distressing than the disturbed sleep patterns of hospitalisation or bereavement – but not without a sense of sadness that I don’t quite understand. Perhaps it’s down to some combination of the inevitable shortness of the season, of the northern simmerdim; to inability to process the experience (already reduced to this record, and the photos I took); to a political situation that regardless goes from bad to worse. Or maybe it’s just due to  body-clock disruption, which like my awareness of the impermanence of the moment, is not entirely unwelcome either.


Tales from Two Residencies

Not been on here for a while, though I feel to have been fairly ubiquitous on other forms of social media, mostly promoting workshops and posting photos from my walks. My apologies if that’s become annoying – I am pleased to have what looks like quite a lot of work, but the freelancer is often working on short-term or one-off projects, whilst trying to make new contacts and find new clients and funding (and this may not be their strongest skill, or have much to do with their ability to deliver the actual work). And I’m pleased to be well enough to walk and cycle and visit the out of town places I love, given that a year ago I was not; and that I have several friends whose health and mobility problems mean they are not.

I’m also genuinely excited to be  involved in two writer residencies. One is in Dunfermline, for 150 hours over a year, with YesUAre Partnership.This is a charity that is renovating the derelict Erskine Building, a former town centre church, for community use. It’s already running several projects, one of which is Creative Writing. Funded by Santander Foundation, with working title Survive & Recover, this is a work-in-progress which offers writing workshops for those  whose lives have been affected by trauma – including early life experiences, mental health problems, addiction, homelessness, the criminal justice system. I have wide experience of working with groups of vulnerable people, but usually there’s a common denominator  –  the group comprises mental health service users, or carers, or refugees, or survivors of sexual abuse, for example. They meet in a familiar place and often already know one another. My challenge here is to bring into a new environment individuals from very different backgrounds, who may have little in common other than an interest in or curiosity about creative writing.


We have regular meetings on Tuesdays, where we use existing texts and visual images as starting points or prompts for new writing, as well as  proven Writing for Wellbeing and Bibliotherapy approaches. I also give 1:1 mentoring, and go out to other organisations in the town, whose members may initially feel uncomfortable about coming to a new place to work with new people and embark on something they may not have tried before.

I’m particularly interested, though, in responding to the physical environment of the building, itself surviving and recovering, as it is repurposed for twenty-first century Dunfermline.



Every time I visit, more progress has been made with the building works; more materials and furniture have been donated. The writers previously met (round a lovely table, photographed above) in the office, now there is a dedicated group room. A cafe will be up and running this summer. We are developing a blog, which features work by participants, documents the writing project as it documents the wider project, and offers a resource of creative and therapeutic writing ideas – please take a look:



And during March I did a residency to mark the 50th(ish) anniversary of the Moredun high flats in south Edinburgh. The aim was to produce text for a booklet (designed in the shape of a tower block) that will be distributed to each of the 540 apartments in six blocks of 15 floors. It was a project that could well, but for limited (council) funding, have run for much longer. It was not a project where you advertise a creative writing workshop at a specific place and time and expect a lot of people to show up. I worked one-to-one with many residents, and visited groups that already meet in Goodtrees Neighbourhood Centre and Moredun Library. Thanks to introductions from members of the  dynamic residents’ association, community workers  and the local minister, I heard the stories of residents ranging from the first tenants from the 60s to the newest occupants, and visited 15th floor flats. Social media also played an important part – I posted about the project on various Facebook groups, initially requesting the sharing of old photographs of Moredun. This didn’t really happen, but what did happen was that residents and former residents started to chat  to each other across generations, across the green between blocks, across the city and beyond. Common themes that emerged include: stuff you can get in lifts and chuck out of windows, getting stuck in lifts, sunbathing and drying laundry on the roof before the days of health & safety, extreme weather & the wind tunnel effect. The resulting booklet, containing reminiscences, new writing and photographs, will be available soon.




I’m working on new poems from both residencies, and loving my regular Tuesday commute to Fife.


Some Seascapes by Helen Boden

My poems responding to Emily Learmont’s exquisite ink and egg tempura miniatures Sixteen Seascapes https://emilylavinialearmont.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/sixteen-seascapes/

Emily Lavinia Learmont

Some Seascapes    Helen Boden

  1. Graphic

‘She gets so attached to things’

they’d say in other rooms, thinking,

or not, she was out of earshot.

It’s true she insisted on keeping

the wrappings from Christmas presents,

tried to hold onto holidays, clutching the rail

at the back of the boat as islands receded


begins her newest fable

from this July’s fortnight

in a shore cottage in Sleat


an inkblot cloud pursues the Ardvasar


galleon         sail         cloud

all speech bubbles

flurries of vowels        morphemes       ideas

on a punctuation-flecked sea

swirls       whorls

of inverted commas

conversation billows

between  the Ardvasar and the Glenelg

a thought detaches from the former          memory sprays

a wake for the clearances

will they consolidate

into a skerry of…

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