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 butpromising 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, andnot 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.
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.
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.
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.
Honesty Tea Room
It’s wonderful motoring country. I expected to find the gradientsand corners and summertime congestion difficult compared to southern Scotland, but it wasn’tvery 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 UCIWorld 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.
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.
Keld United Reformed Church
Through glass clearly: Muker Parish Church
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.
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?
The Stang from Reeth High Moor
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.
‘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.
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.