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.
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.
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.
On the final page of A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes: ‘the county was something I chose to return to again and again’. She is referring to Marin County, CA, and the last chapter of her meditation on loss in all its senses, place and memory, describes her involuntary revisiting, in dreams, of the ‘one story house’ where she grew up. She comes to realise that it held more narrative versions, and more connectedness to the wild hinterland she loved, than she had previously believed possible. It seemed an appropriate thing to read on my final day in the county I choose to keep returning to, Yorkshire.
I grew up in the West Riding, which had become West Yorkshire before I went to secondary school. We had many school trips and family days out in the Dales, about 40 miles north of the industrial towns, some of it administratively still in the West. My dad, a baker from Dewsbury, used to spend all his weekends cycle-touring up there, and later he took his family by car on practically every day off. I’m not entirely sure that was what his wife had bargained for, but his daughter took to it as eagerly as she took to her schooling, and it established in her a pattern of escaping the urban at every opportunity. It was the perfect place to study for O and A levels in Geography, though I suspect I actually became quite complacent about it, underwhelmed by the things that made other tourists gawp. And quite dismissive of the tourists. It was far more exciting to go up to the Scottish Highlands.
I live in Edinburgh, and go back to some part of Yorkshire every eighteen months or so. I’ve just returned from cat-sitting for a friend in Airton, Malhamdale. Airton was somewhere you passed through en route to limestone mecca Malham. A couple of miles south of the Craven fault-line which is the reason for the geological highlights of Malham Cove and Gordale Scar, it’s a farming village with a main green and several satellite ones, and seventeenth-century buildings, including a Quaker meeting house. It’s near the source of the Aire, which goes on to flow through Leeds, and which I always thought of as a more industrial river than, say, the Wharfe or Swale, more like the Calder I grew up beside.
Village green, Airton
I’m not synaesthetic, but I am highly sensitive to the way bedrock and soil colour the land. Limestone has always signified light and brightness to me, in contrast to the gritstone of the southern Pennines. Millstone grit, to give it its full name. Think wuthering heights, remains of Elmet, the small-town toxicities of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley. The green over limestone has a luminescence; that over gritstone – beautiful also, despite the grimupnorth connotations – generally produces a more matt, olive tone.
WH Auden’s poem ‘In Praise of Limestone‘ opens: ‘if it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones / are constantly homesick for, this is chiefly / because it dissolves in water’. The poem is at least as much about the karsts of southern Europe and the crises of masculinity as it is about the poet’s own formative Pennine landscapes. I have also been homesick for the red sandstone of Arran and the gneisses of the far north of Scotland and Isle of Lewis; for the coastal bluffs of the south of France. I am probably homesick for whatever sort of rock I have most recently left behind, but a real feeling of hireath is most likely to be triggered by the sight of Pennine millstone. Limestone gives a lighter sense of longing and nostalgia, and also, I think, of hope.
The first evening was quite disorienting: familiar and unfamiliar both, unhiemlich, even. I went to the pub in the next village, Kirkby Malham, for ‘home killed’ (not cured) gammon, sold by weight. I had the smallest, and it was huge. Intending to continue towards Malham afterwards, I actually took the wrong road, and headed uphill towards Settle. I was rewarded with a fresh angle on Malham Cove, and southwest of me was the Lancashire witching hill, Pendle Hill, and the dark moors that extend towards Bradford and the industrial cities. I felt caught between the two, and surprisingly far from home.
Next morning I went for breakfast and provisions at the excellent local farm shop (it’s local, artisan, everything nowadays, unlike in the 70s and 80s), and felt a bit foreign, with my strange bank notes and own shopping bags and not realising you could buy alcohol before noon on a Sunday. But it’s the post Tour de France D’ales, and you can. After a couple of days of walking, eating and looking after a lovely cat called Picasso, I re-acclimatised. Oh, I love limestone! Walking down a green lane between limestone walls has long been a favourite pastime and a source of joy.
scar, scree, walls
The contrast between the worked countryside and the wild is marked in Malhamdale, courtesy of the decisive Craven fault, though cattle graze above it, and uncultivated species blossom by the riverbank below it. Nuances within each category become discernible, when you have the leisure to savour them all on daily walks that connect places in, above and around the dale over a ten-day period at harvest-time.
Venerable drystone walls in limestone demarcate ancient field systems above Malham village. From a distance, they resemble bobbly knitting (though admittedly there may be a chicken-and-egg issue here). Downdale, modern machinery worked the fields all day and into the night, and serially transported its loads to farm-yard, competing on the narrow lanes with tourist traffic. When not walking off-road (cattle! mud!), I hopped onto the verge to let them all pass and admired the wild flowers. As well as being the longest single stay I’ve had in the Dales, this was the first time I – a bad hayfever sufferer – had been resident in summer. I took my anti-histamine, and went out to find what was there, just as I’ve taken in recent years to going for walks at dawn and dusk, when you see, hear, smell, different things. The sparse vegetation capable of flourishing in the limestone grykes, that I’ve only seen in books before, was at its peak.
I’m surprised by how scant my recall could be: I remembered key sites / sights, like the Cove, that tend to appear frequently on calendars and magazine covers anyway, and I remembered details like the whitewashed – now flaking – sweetshop where the roads fork in the village. But I’d failed to retain any image of what excites me most, the sweep of the county seen from the heights, the horizons, the extent of view. This shouldn’t surprise me, as I know all about the sublime: the unrepresentable, the unrecoverable, the impossibility of retaining what we most desire, but it does. It made me wonder (given little in the broader picture will have changed), what did I actually see as a child?
My dad, though never an assertive person, used to have set itineraries and omissions that he stuck to – there were some places we always just drove past. Maybe he had more of the cyclist’s mindset than the walker’s, and of course he’d be aware of what time he had to return to bakery duties. I’d look out of the rear window, wanting to stop and explore. Malham Tarn was one of these places, and now I finally got to linger there.
Last Saturday had been hot by this summer’s standards – I walked in a t-shirt, and sat for long periods with books and ice-cream. Sunday was wild, like one of those Hebridean ‘summer’ days, and it was a delight to explore the variety of topographies in the National Trust Malham Tarn estate: upland moss (raised bog) and groundwater-fed fen, bird hide, boat house, broadleaf avenue, an orchid house which has been converted into a sustainable building for group use. I emerged tarnside to the accompaniment of waves, then crossed the flat high grassland and dropped into the shelter of the limestone valley above Gordale.
Underfoot conditions are tougher than in my local Pentland Hills, but there are also more people around participating in recreation activities. When I fell into a deep concealed ditch in the less visited southern Pentlands last month, there was no one around (actually I wasn’t badly hurt, and I was quite glad there was no one to witness my tumble). Now, scrambling down to the top of the force (waterfall) at Gordale, as I had up to its base the previous day, I knew that if I had newer boots with grippier soles and the rock was drier, I could still make the direct connection between the two, and was happy to leave it at that for this trip. When I was young and lithe, I took for granted what my body was capable of, in the same way as I took for granted the scenery I was privileged to be able to experience. Now I try to make the time to cherish both.
Gordale / above
Gordale / below
Places like Malham village were very busy on weekends and bank holidays when I was a kid. My dad’s car used to give them a swerve and head for quieter spots. Nowadays, an off-season traveller with a love of remote places, I’m even less used to tourist hotspots. One thing that struck me, though, was that in my Yorkshire youth you only ever saw white faces once you were out of the city. You still wouldn’t call it multicultural, but now there are Asians and a smattering of other ethnicities, clad in lyrcra or gortex for their chosen pursuits, or chasing their ice-cream eating children around village greens. These will be second- and third-generation children of immigrants, now at home, in this country, in this county.
I have a class in Linlithgow on the last Sunday of the month, and last weekend I cycled home from it. My plans for the 22 mile ride along the Union Canal towpath this summer had been stymied first – often – by weather, and then by engineering works which meant that I couldn’t get the bike to the start point by train. Weather and other commitments have also prevented me from building up much in the way of fitness, so this would be easily my longest ride of the season.
Over the course of a few hours (including two pub lunch pit stops – I said I was unfit), stony surfaces, where the hinterland was arable and open, alternated with squelchier ones on long wooded sections. The repetitions began to create a sense of deja vu in one unfamiliar with the route. Robert Macfarlane borrows a term that I like from American artist William Fox: ‘cognitive dissonance’ (The Old Ways, p.79). Macfarlane finds this chiefly in what he calls ‘data-depleted landscapes’ such as high moors and tidal strands, my own favourite terrains, but it can happen when any sort of defamiliarisation is induced. Sea voyage, test match, Ring cycle. With the canal a constant on my right hand I felt as though I was cycling from summer to autumn. I know what West Lothian looks like: I’ve travelled between Edinburgh and Glasgow regularly for twenty years. I watch it from up in the Pentlands on a weekly basis. But I don’t know it. Canals subvert our knowledge of terrain, linking places by the line of least resistance, the contour, and not the line of greatest efficiency (the road). Their sinuings show you the locality in a new way.
The route of the Union Canal makes a lengthy detour around the Broxburn bings. The red spoil heaps are a memorial to the extraction of shale for oil in this area. Accustomed to seeing them in the distance, their denuded and increasingly biodiverse proximity experienced from cycle level startles. It’s like a passage through an otherworld, or, to use another Macfarlane term, a xenotopia, in the middle of the central belt.
Progress eastwards was slow; Edinburgh seemed as though it was getting further and further away, even when the Pentland Hills and Arthur’s Seat had become visible on the horizon. Signposts – Winchburgh, Almond Aquaduct – kept indicating the passage of a ridiculously low mileage since the previous one. It was the final weekend of the Edinburgh festival, and the journey felt a bit like a (slow) progression from one stage set to another. Woodside, fieldside, woodside alternated like scenes designed to build dramatic tension – or muscle fatigue. I wanted to switch to a higher gear and higher cadence in order to get home a bit more quickly, but wasn’t able to on the narrow track.
A couple of people had told me that there was ‘a rough section’ on the towpath. I think it would be more accurate to say there was a smooth section, a surfaced stretch around Broxburn. For the rest of the route, I and my bike, which is officially and accurately classified as a rugged hybrid, were jolted along uncomfortably. On FB* there’s a photograph of me taken at a poetry reading last week. The forearm grasping my paper, honed by absorbing shock from the the rugged hybridity of Lothian cycle paths over the last couple of years, probably has even better definition now.
And the fest? As usual, I was just getting into my stride in week 3 when fatigue was setting in for everyone else. Unusually, I didn’t attend many music events, choosing to focus instead on poetry and spoken word. Refusing to make a distinction between ‘page’ and ‘stage’, or book and fringe festivals, was liberating and enriching, though I followed with interest the debate around the dichotomy and hierarchy between them. I went to two concerts, on the final Friday, and they were very good, but my head was still (too?) full of words. Other highlights: Juliet Binoche in Antigone; gyoza from the Harajuku Kitchen stall in George St; the moon making a guest appearance above the magical lights in Charlotte Square and George Square. Still to come: the exhibitions that stay up in September, and space to actually look at them. More cycling before it gets too cold, and some hillwalking before the heather dies away. Going back to work, and my ‘Summer’ holiday.
* Never an early adopter, I was initiated into the world of Facebook this summer and as a result my blog posts have become even more sporadic. I don’t even know if it is ethical or possible to link to the photo.
I spent a lot of time this summer and autumn at the GENERATION exhibitions celebrating art made in Scotland over the last 25 years. Sometimes I was working, as a freelancer in the NGS education department, sometimes working on my own material, and others being a tourist at other exhibitions in the series around the country.
In the RSA building on the Mound in Edinburgh there were seven rooms devoted to the work of seven different artists. To my own surprise, my personal favourite grew to be Martin Boyce’s installation of a park at dusk. This comprised skeletal steel benches, bed-frames and off-kilter bins in primary colours, was divided into sections by black mesh fences placed at oblique angles, and lit by fluorescent tubes representing trees. Originally designed for Glasgow’s Tramway, a larger, more industrial space than this, the biggest room in Robert Playfair’s RSA building, it appeared to be (re)creating a sense of urban decay and fostering a feeling of menace. I’d ask my tour groups how optiimistic it made them feel on a scale of 1-10; most responses were between 3 and 5. The work’s apparently incongruous title, Our Love is like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours is the chorus of the song ‘The Village’ in New Order’s 1983 album Power, Corruption & Lies.
Music, it strikes me, is possibly more ‘generational’ than any other artform. Members of my tour groups tended to be either too young or too old to know much about the post-punk and ‘industrial’ sounds, often emanating from Manchester, that became the soundtrack to the lives of students in another post-industrial city. Boyce and a number of other artists in the exhibition studied on the Environmental Art course set up at Glasgow School of Art in the 80s. The course is credited, in the Generation Reader, a collection of essays published to accompany the exhibition catalogue, and in a BBC documentary made about the exhibition, with being responsible for the artist-led energy that produced such a diverse body of work during this time. Both stress how great emphasis was placed on socialising. I wondered what happened if you were an introvert with different tastes in music – what happened to the artist as outsider? – but maybe you just (just!) studied painting.
Anyway, after three months I’d settled on the Boyce room as the one most conducive to writing, low light levels notwithstanding, and I started to find it uplifting. At twenty-minute intervals, a plangent soundtrack, specially composed for the installation, played as text slowly formed, then dissolved, on one of the walls. It was hard to read – Boyce devises his own fonts to blur the boundary between text and image – but seemed to say this place is dreaming. For a time I thought it read ‘this place is breathing’.
It occurs to me now that Boyce’s text could also be a reference to the phrase terribilis ist locus iste. Originally from the Vulgate version of Genesis 28.17, and most often found inscribed on door lintels, this was Jacob’s response to his vision of a ladder leading to heaven. Terribilis has been variously translated as ‘dreadful’ (King James) and ‘fearsome’ (New English); it means ‘awesome’ in the sense of sublime, terror-inducing.
This place is not terrible to me. I have partly measured out my adult life in the exhibitions I’ve seen in these rooms; sought them – and found comfort – in times of distress, shared memorable afternoons in them with friends, and been privileged to work in them. This year, Boyce’s soundtrack and text and manufactured gloaming worked against the urban harshness of his physical materials in a way that allowed memories and imaginings to float free. This place was breathing and dreaming because it was immersive, real and unreal simultaneously, a creative and potential space. Also . . . the portable gallery seats unintentionally referenced the steel and chain-link of the fencing and bed-frame components of the installation and, with a person seated on them, became a temporary part of it. (These paragraphs are in the past tense because the exhibition closed on 2 November. Our Love was de-installed and returned to homes in various collections, including Tate.)
The open thresholds between the rooms gave sight-lines to works by other artists. From Our Love you could glimpse the gorgeous purples of Callum Innes‘ Exposed Painting series, or the black and white palate of a space made over to woodcut prints and ceramic works by David Shrigley that playfully questioned the limits of black-and-white thinking. I’ve written in the company of Innes’ slow-burning paintings before, and it’s easy to find in them a meditative quality. More surprising was the effect of sitting amidst Shrigley’s army (or pantomime cast?) of torso-less boots on plinths – boots that we are figuratively invited to fill, and that Shrigley will fill when his work is sited on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in 2016.
Over at the Portrait Gallery, Luke Fowler‘s 61- minute film The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott loosens the memory in a manner different to Boyce’s parkscape. Shot in 21st Century West Yorkshire, it features footage from the 1950s of Marxist historian E P Thompson, and an original soundtrack which includes a setting of Blake’s ‘London’. A voiceover (sterner in tone than that of the charismatic Thompson himself) reads from Thompson’s reports on the WEA classes in Social History and Literature in eleven West Riding towns. As well as a portrait of a man, he’s created on 16mm film a narrative of a place where industrial and rural landscapes are held in balance. Fowler’s image-assemblage maybe even works a bit like memory itself. He shows where habitation has spilled up hillsides, like a reverse landslide. A lorry passes between gritstone walls at the pace of a horse and cart as smoke from a chimney in a field merges with cloud. Skies are punctuated with pylons and factory chimneys that look like Venetian campaniles. Fields, olive from their gritstone underlay, are overlaid with snow. At night the moving lights of cars weave amongst the still ones from buildings, creating illuminated townscapes where neon, sodium, street, factory and domestic lighting co-exist in a painterly fashion. The time it takes a car to pass across the frame seems longer than if you were standing on the pavement yourself. Fowler cuts from the shot of a factory, chimney and tower block warmed by a sunlight that makes of them a Mediterranean composition, to a close-up of the chimney’s top showing, not a cloud-capped tower, but one crowned with scaffolding. He revisits a frame from earlier in the film, but now the soundtrack has moved on. And he dwells, too, on the details: the interiors of educational institutions, from stained-glass crests in windows opening onto more West Riding masonry, in both its hewn and unhewn states, to corridors and functional seating. (This paragraph is in the present tense because the film exists even when it isn’t being watched.)
I had a four-day interlude in the West Riding myself at half term. I visited the Hepworth Wakefield for the first time and Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the umpteenth, but it retains its power to seep onto my soul. One of the other reasons for my visit was to look at and try to write about the horizon – the elongated concave profile of Saddleworth Moor, the skyline as seen from the Calder valley. I was prevented from achieving this by a mist which pressed down into the valley, amplifying the hoot of the Transpennine train, and on the upland spur where I was staying accentuating underfoot textures – flag, cobble, pebble, brick, grit, leaf, mud – on by-ways with names like Beaumont’s Bolt and Pudding Lane. It insinuated itself round the midriff of Emley Moor television mast, and chilled through several layers of clothing in the mornings, as I stood at an exposed hilltop bus stop where a big vista of high moor and industrial valley appears in clear weather. By midday sun had squeezed enough heat through the mist and onto the land for lunch to be taken outdoors at a village pub. It obfuscated plans, but it assisted memory – being up here on winter nights, high above the conurbation lights – and enabled the creation of new narratives, such as the fit between Luke Fowler’s vision of the location and my own experience if it.
During this period the wonderful Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival was running, this year with the theme ‘The Power to Communicate’. South Side Writers generated the text for a great wee exhibition at the Southside Centre. I attended a screening of Regeneration at Craiglockhart campus, formerly the war hospital where Wilfred Owen met Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon, who acted as poetic mentor to the younger Owen, was treated by the psychiatrist WHR Rivers, pioneer of psychotherapeutic methods used with ptsd today, and surely one of the great heroes of WW1. Rivers also worked on the regeneration of damaged nerve tissue. In the film of Pat Barker’s novel, adapted to give more of a narrative arc (I don’t recall having any problem with the book’s narrative geometry), he is shown to experience secondary trauma. In the novels, if my memory is accurate, his own neuroses are attributed to his experiences working as an anthropologist in Melanesia in the Pacific, and a relatively minor childhood worry – one doesn’t need to have been to war to be beset by hard to-shift-demons. If one has been to war. . . well, thank the goodness that remains for Rivers and his legacy.
Afterwards there was a panel discussion involving the screen writer Allan Scott, an Afghanistan veteran and two psychotherapists from the Rivers Centre for traumatic stress at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital – where, in addition to medication and talking therapies, it seems they offer art therapy but not creative writing. Of course, there are many situations where the non-linguistic nature of art, or music, is what is needed – but wouldn’t it be a highly appropriate tribute to Rivers and his most famous patient if, as more research is conducted into the efficacy of the ‘writing cure’, this were to be adopted in the clinic named for him?
Pat Barker, unable to attend, sent a generous message, which included a phrase that went something like: ‘while you work on the material, the material works on you’. This is an excellent encapsulation of the therapeutic benefits of creative writing. To put it another way: you generate the material; it regenerates you.
I’ve had a week off – no teaching, client work or meetings. Instead I took day trips to look at art outwith Edinburgh, for once without the agenda of preparing a workshop or a poem. I returned home in the evenings to watch highlights of the Vuelta a Espana and Tour of Britain. In the land of TV cycle touring, I’ve noticed, ‘podium’ is a verb and ‘abandon’ a noun. I wish I could say I’ve also had a week off from the Referendum coverage, but it’s too close (to polling day; to call), and too important to ignore. I had to turn the volume off during an exchange between Dennis Canavan and someone else on Reporting Scotland the other night. Of course I understand that with the stakes so high, and the subject so inflammatory, interested parties will overheat. But as a voter and citizen, I’m just glad to be living in a fairly peaceable democracy. I’m starting to feel as I do when people over-identify with a sporting team: reactively neutral. Whatever the result, good and bad things will happen Meantime, thank heavens for the wit and sanity of Gary Imlach, the best sports journalist I’m aware of.
On tuesday I travelled to Perth to look at the Alison Watt paintings that form part of GENERATION, the Scotland-wide celebration of art made in the last 25 years. I love her paintings of fabric; her painstaking crafting in paint of its folds, falls and crumples in works with titles like ‘Shift’, ‘Hood’ and ‘Tuck’. The Perth show is a mini-retrospective, a dozen works ranging from Watt’s self-portaits and nudes of the eighties, through the luscious work she produced after removing the model and making the figureless drapes the subject of the work, to new pieces that approach abstraction. One, Orion, completed this year, achieves the luminosity of a lit photo studio or stage set. Watt claims it alludes to Norman MacCaig’s beautiful short poem ‘Praise of a Thorn Bush’ (I couldn’t find a link, but it’s on p.319 of his Collected Poems); poetic is one of the first, and most lingering, words to spring to mind when viewing these paintings. In some of them, flesh, or plaster, are also suggested. Huge canvases absorb you as you approach them. Some seemed to draw me in towards a vortex at their centre, where the darkest tones represent creases and folds in the mostly light/neutral/white fabrics. Once up close with the painting, our privilege is to observe the mark-making: how exactly she’s created the crack in a floorboard; shadow; toes. I may not have been working, but I was still concentrating hard. Starting to experience sensory overload, I went out for a walk.
Beyond the North Inch parkland, a mile or so up the Tay, beyond the grand houses with lawns that terrace down towards the river, there’s a place where the current runs fast. On the far bank – the right bank, the east side, the Scone side – is a shepherd’s hut kind of structure, quite camouflaged amongst trees. A human figure was sitting on the bench in front of it, quite camouflaged against the walls. I sat down on a public bench opposite and watched the current play. Eventually the person rose, picked up some tackle and waded in, making an arc from a gravel bank by the shore, through the shallows, until he was waist high in the midst of the fastest current. I watched him casting his line, slowly against the rapids, for maybe half an hour. When I returned my gaze to the bank, the verge in front of me was rotating, steadily, clockwise. My brain had however cleared enough to return to the gallery, and I walked back downstream.
Reflected in the seemingly static Tay, the arches of Perth Bridge completed into perfect circles, like portals to an otherworld.You could not help but imagine passing right through their centre. The trees on the banks also found their counterparts, sharp and solid below the water surface. Watt’s paintings were wonderful, and so was the scene outside the gallery. Attributing this to atmospheric conditions rather than any portent, or illusion, of what the nation might become, I returned to the capital, from where I could cycle to a sunny Portobello beach on Wednesday, and on Thursday go to Jupiter Artland in the haar.
I grew up with the big Hepworths and Moores in the big landscapes of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park; this is maybe more akin to Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta at the other end of the Pentland Hills, but differently ludic to his self-styled ‘republic’. You have to seek out some of the works more subtly embedded in their wooded context. Jupiter generously afforded opportunity for another day’s play with reality and illusion, amongst Charles Jenck’s landforms, and structures built by Andy Goldsworthy: a hut floored only with unfinished rough-hewn bedrock; an unlit interior densely furnished with floor-to-ceiling tree trunks. Boulders from the same source as the hut – the ditch spanned with a stone arch by Hamilton Finlay, and tagged ‘only connect’ – nestled like erratic tree-houses inside coppiced branches inside the woodland. Be wildered.
It was as emotional a weekend as it’s possible for a woman with absolutely no interest in football to have in front of her telly. I’d felt quite teary on hearing the announcement that the grand depart of the 2014 Tour de France would be in North and West Yorkshire, and drew big rings round the dates in my diary. Eighteen months later, last weekend, I stocked up on Wensleydale and retreated to the sofa to watch the world’s elite cyclists speeding along the routes that my father regularly rode on his day off, and which he introduced first to my mother, then me, in the car. We spent practically every weekend of my childhood driving out to the Dales or up in the local Pennines, sometimes with some grandparents, taking in a walk and lunch. This was where I learned to love landscape and place-names, to admire the way roads (and the M62) were engineered into the contours of the uplands, and to become aware of subtle distinctions in vegetation, building materials and accent as we moved from south to north of the region.
The entire race route seemed to be filled with places of familial significance. The start was of course in Leeds. This was the city where my grandmother took me Christmas shopping (to Schofields department store, the late Fortnums of pre-Harvey Nicks era Leeds) every autumn half term, and where I took my mum to Next and the Body Shop before lunch at Pizza Express on every other trip down from Scotland – a treat for her. On the alternative visit, we’d go out of town and up into the hills – a treat for me. The roles of taker and taken varied across the county, as well as across the generations.
The cyclists pushed north-west into the Dales National Park, the Tour helicopter performing its duty of diverting from the route to pick out landmarks, often of an ecclesiastical nature. Simultaneously, their names were engagingly captioned into French for the TV screen. Between the late nineties and 2005 I’d meet my parents for a weekend in the Swaledale area once a year. I’d usually travel by train to Ribblehead on the Settle-Carlisle line, where they’d pick me up. We’d drive down to Hawes for afternoon tea, then over the Buttertubs Pass, from now on in the Cote de Buttertubs, into Swaledale, where we’d spend a few days wandering around the villages of Keld, Thwaite, Gunnerside and Muker, or driving over the high moors to Tan Hill, the highest pub in England, close to where North Yorkshire, Cumbria and County Durham coalesce. At points along the road you can see over to the Lake District and the Irish Sea; at others, to industrial Teeside and the North Sea. Everywhere there is headspace aplenty, and you feel as though you really are on the roof of the country. Another day my parents would maybe drive down to Richmond while I took an excursion on foot into the hills – the walks above the Swale from Keld to Muker, and up past the leadmining scars of Gunnerside Ghyll are in my all-time-anywhere top ten – before meeting up again for the obligatory tea and cake. We were there for their fortieth wedding anniversary in 2001 and my mum’s eightieth birthday in 2003. Last weekend I was genuinely moved by the huge crowds at the usually deserted top of Buttertubs, already legendary in Tour and tyke lore – as well as by the sight of Jens Voigt, the oldest man in the race, who was first to the summit.
I had registered that Day One would cover the northern Dales and Day Two, the Pennine moors west of where we lived, but hadn’t actually checked out more detailed routes – it’s a bit like me not being able to engage with the Edinburgh Festival programme before August, or a travel guide before setting off on holiday. So it was a delightful surprise to learn that, after leaving York (‘change here for Leeds, Huddersfield and Manchester’ ) and Knaresborough (Mother Shipton’s Cave and a shop in the market square that sold amazing home-made biscuits in the 70s), the route continued on the A59 up to Blubberhouses Moor. Fab name, in either English or French, possibly from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘house / fortress by the bubbling stream’. Despite the initial semantic association one tends to make, its derivation has nothing to do with the emotions provoked by this occasion, but it is the scene of significant childhood and family memories.
The Simpsons, friends of my dad’s parents, farmed at Kex Gill, right upon the summit of the Cote de Blubberhouses, after being relocated a few miles upstream from their previous home, at West End (really) when the valley was flooded by the water board to create Thruscross Reservoir. Their original farm was called The Gate. A pictographic sign of a five-barred version hung from a tree beside the road. I know this because I inherited a watercolour and an oil painting of the scene by Albert E Jackson. I have rarely felt stranger than when looking at them on the wall of my Edinburgh flat when I brought them up shortly after my dad died, eleven months after his wife. Now they’re just part of my furniture, alongside other artworks from and of the region, in a small corner of Lothian that is forever Yorkshire. I don’t even look at them properly very often, so this was a timely reminder to savour my possessions and the memories they engender. They are conveniently situated just above the TV, now showing the Tour back on French soil, minus two significant British riders.
My own parents became friends with the next generation at Kex Gill, Shelagh and Peter Harrison, and took me there from an early age. I used to name and bottle-feed the pet lambs, those orphaned or rejected by their mothers (I can still remember calling one Hannah); and Peter taught me to drive a tractor on one of their steep fields when I was about thirteen. At that time I wanted to be a vet. Shelagh, baker of the best cakes I can remember, is in her eighties, and we still exchange Christmas cards.
The Tour turned south towards our ‘local’ moors, over Oxhenhope, close to the wuthering heights of literary fame, but better known to my family for its hostelry, the Raggalds Inn; down to Hebden Bridge, former textile town turned hub for artists and writers since its Hughes / Plath era, and up Cragg Vale, the longest continuous road climb in England. I’ve walked up, but if my own cycling renaissance of the last couple of years has taught me anything, it’s that you experience terrain very differently en velo.
After skirting Huddersfield and whizzing through Holmfirth, the peloton headed up the biggest climb of the day, Holme Moss, on the Derbyshire border, before turning towards the finish at Sheffield and the steepest climb, a previously unknown suburban street called Jenkin Road. If I hadn’t been busy wanting to be a vet, mountaineer, dancer, plumber, opera singer, writer or teacher (only some of the above remain unrealistic dreams, so I’m not entirely beset by unfulfilled professional longings), I think I might have quite liked to be a tour planner, scouting locations and scrutinising gradients to create a route. I can imagine something of the challenge and satisfaction of orchestrating the combination of a series of lines of tarmac on the land surface (and of coloured inks on the map page) into a course, the template for an event. To a degree the selection is arbitrary: I also enjoyed re-imagining the roads not taken by the Tour, and in combinations possibly never taken on our family trips either.
From a (TV) spectator point of view the route made a most satisfactory visual narrative of how moor threads to dale and limestone turns to gritstone; of the passage between agricultural and industrial, and of the ubiquity of the drystone wall. With the presence of crowds and racers and great weather the narrative evolved into high drama. On steep and narrow sections of the road competitor and spectator became virtually indistinguishable from each other, a carnival superimposed on the normally sombre landscape.
Holme Moss was site of one of the two great West Yorkshire beacons, its TV masts. Like its sibling rival on Emley Moor this local landmark has been locally invested with almost mythological significance. Viewed from the Pennine foothills where I grew up, they and a series of other communications masts punctured the horizon of the high moor at intermittent intervals; by them you found both your physical and psychological bearings. I recall a semi-rural myth that you could predict who was going to win a general election, not from the exit polls, but from the direction the clouds were scudding (they rarely sauntered) over Emley Moor. The first sighting of the mast from a train crossing the vale of York meant that, for good or ill, I was approaching home. Like many leavers, when I was younger I did not always want to return. In the last decade I have no doubt romanticised the place, mainly because my parents died, as parents do, and the family home was sold, effectively severing my direct links; and also in resistance to some popular and press views of the region, for example in the wake of the ‘disappearnce’ of Shannon Matthews. The visit of the Tour de France has added a few further stanzas or paragraphs to this narrative of personal engagement – quite literally so, here.
According to certificates from the Mid-Yorkshire District Association of the Cyclists Touring Club, my father cycled 100 miles in 8 hours on September 16th 1945, 200 miles in 24 hours on June 22nd-23rd 1946, 100 miles in 6 hours on October 6th 1946, 150 miles in 12 hours on September 21st 1947 and 130 miles in 12 hours on May 30th 1948. Some of his cycling memorabilia has been used in Jan Bee Brown’s film and exhibition ‘Daisy Daisy’ in the Yorkshire Dales Journeys event at the Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes, which runs until 30 September.
I went to Glasgow last Friday with the intention of working on some unfinished drafts at the Transport Museum. When I first visited last summer, the idea of having a transport theme at South Side Writers came to me whilst sunbathing on the deck between the museum and the Tall Ship. Since then we’ve used text, images and personal reminiscence featuring longships, mobility scooters, transporters, donkeys and just about every every other imaginable mode of transport to prompt explorations of character, plot, pacing, structure and sound, as well as looking closely at concepts like ‘flight’. I’d identified Zaha Hadid’s museum building as an interesting place to sit and write for an hour or two. Now it was summertime again, officially at least, and the group was on its Easter break, so I set off for the west on the slow train. This involves: a pleasant half-hour walk to Slateford Station via the blooming gardens of Craiglockhart; avoiding congestion in Edinburgh city centre and at Waverley Station, and a cheaper fare to Glasgow which does not carry off-peak restrictions either. The train is indeed slow, a proper ‘stopping train’, but I like its meanderings around lesser-visited parts of the central belt, home to people I may never meet, trees and livestock.
Progress from Central Station to Partick was slowed further at the architecture and design centre, The Lighthouse, when I chanced across a half-hour creative writing workshop, ‘Lunchtime Bites’. Facilitator Emily Dodd had selected a photograph from the Britain From Above exhibition, the Broxburn Oil Works. She gave us a short introduction and set us to write for 15 minutes. As a creative writing tutor, one of the most satisfying aspects of an extremely satisfying job is when you hear a group’s varying responses to the same starting point, and the surprise of those who didn’t think they could do it. Another is when you attend a workshop on your day off and get to practice the magical process for yourself.
Some writers can produce a lot of good material in a quarter of an hour under these conditions. In recent years my personal word-processor speed has slowed – one of my best friends describes me as glacial – so I opted for a haiku . Out of the notes I’d made I linked two images – the background slag-heap detritus of the chemical process, and the foreground canal – in three lines. As Emily pointed out, fifteen minutes is a good time to break off anyway; when you return to your writing you’ll have an altered perspective on it.
I used my surplus material in a draft that re-worked some of Emily’s introductory material about the social and ecological environment and history. Add a bit of my own time-and-space preoccupation and maybe or maybe not a human character, and it could become something more substantial. We were photographed and recorded after the session. I’m here, sounding like a northern Janet Street-Porter with a plane above my head.
Emily spoke with great enthusiasm about working with community groups who had grown up close to some of the photographed locations. Those of us present at this session hadn’t, though I was inevitably struck by parallels with the former industrial landscapes of northern England.
After the designated half-hour I looked round the rest of the Britain from Above exhibition. It’s more accurately described as ‘oblique aerial photography’, or Britain from a bit above. This isn’t like the view from an aeroplane, unless you’re just coming in to land (at that point I have my eyes closed and I’m gripping my seat arm-rests as we dangle above some too-near coastal water). The oblique perspective affords potential for some innovative point-of-view work – though without making much of a conscious decision I settled for being the viewer outside the frame, making references to the fact that I was viewing a photograph, not the place itself. I resolved to pedal along the Union Canal towpath to Broxburn to have a look at the site in colour and from bicycle level this spring.
And so to my final destination of the day. I’d sort of forgotten that It wasn’t just me who was on holiday – the schools were too. It was grand to see the museum full of eager children, but useless for settling down to write. I wandered around Hyndland and Dowanhill instead, and got the slow train back in good time for the Friday night treat or torture – I’m not sure which, but I think that’s the point – that is Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s Trip to Itlay.