The Winter, A Walker Passes

 

 

It is deep winter night in the northern hemisphere.  The long enduring dark winter night of the year’s true turning.  Neither stars nor moon in the sky, but pale, swirling wind borne clouds and a familiar chill, a bone deep rawness.  Toward England’s seaward edge, a silent village nestles upon one of those peculiar fenland rises.  Atop the rise the old church, with the yet older yew is a darker shadow on the village bounds. None now recall why, on this one night of the year, in this rational age, a candle burns in a tiny east window.  The candle is always lit though, as the sunlight leaves the apse.

The parson, secure in her faith, rests in her armchair.  Parsonage curtains drawn tight, doors locked, hallway lit, dry wood stacked beside the burning hearthlog.  A glass of fine whisky waits close to her hand.  In the edge of the empty churchyard, a prunings’ bonfire.  A gathering of yew and ivy, haw and holly lit at duskfall by the silently praying sexton. The dead branches smoulder still, white ash on red embers.

 ***

Outwith the churchyard, on the sallow lit, shadow pooled road I wait.  How long I know not.  A silent figure, stooping tall, hood-cloaked against that wind borne familiar chill, that bone deep rawness. 

At the road’s end, in the umbral fringe of the streetlight glow, there rests the lychgate.  A still pool of velvet shadow cleaves to it’s roof, shrouding the passage between the open gates.  

A shift in something sensed commands my movement.  I walk.  Now before the first gate, again I wait.  How long I know not.  Something sensed shifts. Bow respectfully.  Pause for permission.  Bow again in respectful acknowledgement.  I step through, closing the first gate.  Pause.  Bow again to pass through the pooling velvet shadow.  Again I wait.  How long I know not.  Something sensed shifts.  Another bow, step through, close the second gate.

Beyond the gates, a tiny footmaze; the kind to delight a child at play or lovers in a summer tryst.  A simple thing, a trick of choice; one single path to enter yet all ways lead always to the court with three paths to depart. The sinistral path weaves through the churchyard, right at the old yew to the silent church’s narthex door. The medial path weaves again through the churchyard, left at the old yew to the parsonage gate.  The dextral path, that drifts away, past the hedgerow and down the hill, becomes the deep, haw banked beech shaded holweg through the forest to the fens beyond the village bounds. 

Again I wait.  How long I know not.  Something sensed shifts. 

Head bowed, I step into the footmaze.  Three paces, turn right; two curving paces, turn left; three curving paces; turn right; one pace – courtyard.  Stop.  Three paths ahead. The trick of choice. 

Again I wait.  How long I know not.  Something sensed shifts. 

Snow, swirling on the chill, bone deep rawness of the wind hangs in the night.

I walk. The dextral path, footfalls drifting away past the hedgerow and down the hill.  Into the deep, haw banked beech shaded holweg. 

Tonight, this longest dark, with swirling mistwisps coalesced between towering boughs, both holweg and forest bear their roots clear.  Eyelights flicker in the shadowed understorey, fox or rabbit or deer.  All wait for something not quite sensed; darkchill and silentstill they wait.  

A shift, and something is sensed.  I walk on. 

Beneath the trees, between the enfolding banks of the darkchill silentstill holweg I walk. 

I know not how long.

 

 

You must know this, you people safe still in your sleeping homes; that the whispering susurration is just the swirling wind in the beeches.  Know too, that the baying of hounds you hear is just his grace’s kennels.  Know that the darkness filling the holweg is that of a night sky neither star nor moon pierced.  Know that the pale glow in the heavens is just the winter clouds.  Know that all these things and the familiar chill, the bone deep rawness are just echoes borne on the swirling winter wind. 

Like the green boughs hung on your locked doors, they are just echoes. 

***

On the village bounds, in the silent church the corpse bell tolls a single deep note.  In the churchyard edge the sexton’s prunings flare from smouldering white ash on red embers to scarlet flame to fall finally ruddy ash.  In the parsonage the vicar, strong in her faith, raises her glass of fine whisky, drinks half, casts half onto the burning hearthlog. 

Stars and moon now pierce the sky.  The swirling wind, bearing within itself pale clouds and a familiar chill, a bone deep rawness stills.  Snow feathers in silently, softly blanketing all but the holweg bed. 

The year turns, an unsensed shift in the long enduring dark and the people sleep on. 

 

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Winter’s Calling

 

Late November, the dark peak.

Winter is home again on these high moors,

mewling in with chill-lash days of sleet and gale.

With fellhard testing days of hail obscured horizons and roaring, bed broaching brooks.

 

The moorlands, in summer sunbaked hard to a dustpuffing footthumping crust, hard as the skin-shredding gritstone;

air filled with skylark song.

Now, now they are become the haunt of ravens.

 

Now, winter drenched they have become again a crazy patchwork,

a patchwork of dampslick gritstone and foot chilling mud.

The sharp bite of ice,

its grip freezing the mud to iron hardness, the dampslick to glass;

that is yet to come.

With climate change it may not come at all this year. 

 

My body, fresh off the bus, shrugs a familiar desultory shiver. On these fells, bare weeks ago, weather warmed it welcomed the gentle kiss of a cooling breeze. This winter day, warmth barely conserved by swathes of fleece and shell, the intrusively questing tendrils of a nithering east wind find any gap; to chill any sliver of bare skin. 

 

But still, these long beloved rolling seas,

of heather speckled with islands of gritstone all beneath a sheltering sky,

 still they call me.

And so, as I have for decades, I respond.

With coldtingle scorched fingers and toes, with wind chapped grin, I run. 

And, for a little while, all is well and all manner of things are well.

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REVIEW: Mountain King Trail Blaze Poles

Folded Mountain King Trail Blaze poles with Clif bar for scale.

Trekking poles, we know they can help whether uphill or down.  We also know they’re often designed by Captain Complex; heavy, bulky and slow to set, or light and beyond flimsy.  All this of course means many of us leave the things in the shop or at home. 

These Trail Blaze poles from Mountain King may just change your mind.  Super light(115-135g), fixed length(110-130cm), anodised alloy body, tungsten carbide tips, folding to about a quarter their open length(pic 1) and quick to rig they’ve got me using poles again.

First off, fixed length; why?  An ideal pole length(we’re talking walking/running here, not skiing) has your shoulders relaxed and forearms around horizontal on level ground.  These poles come in 5cm increments, so getting close to your ideal is easy.  From experience adjustable poles just slow you down as you fiddle and faff.  Fixed length poles quickly become a familiar, useful extension of your arm.  I’m not even going to start on anti-shock systems… suffice to say I’m not a fan.

Right back to these poles.  They come packed in a mesh bag, good for storage and packed transport.  You get a set of spike covers, flimsy but okay as travel protectors until you lose them.  The poles themselves are lightweight alloy, slotting together(a bit of Glide or similar on the insert helps) like a tent pole or avalanche probe.  The simple locking mechanism a piece of 2mm cord up the middle, pull it tight, slip the knot into the catch slot and you’re ready to go(pic 2). 

Hand grip and locking mechanism of Mountain King Trail Blaze poles.

That dangly bit of cord though, really irritated me; smarted too in strong wind.  A bit of knotted elastic and a couple of strips of gaffa sorted it(pic 3). 

Simple modification with gaffa tape and elastic on of Mountain King Trail Blaze poles.

To knock them down is equally quick.  A velcro loop just below the grip should hold the poles folded.  But, one fell off in the bag, the other on a bus somewhere between Sheffield and Fox House.  I’ve replaced them with an off the peg velcro strap.

The wrist loops and grips carry on the light and simple theme, a fixed reach through loop and a mesh covered foam grip.  A minor gripe for me is I have big hands, the padding could do with being 2-3cm longer for comfort.  Perhaps time for a bit of bodging.  The grip though is still refreshingly basic, okay for comfort and functional(pic 4).  On hot days, you might find a thin glove adds some comfort; this is true for any pole.

Hand grip/strap in use on Mountain King Trail Blaze poles.

The supplied baskets are a hard snow/ soft ground size; a bit large for summer.  I found they caught and snagged in rocks and ground plants, both preventing a solid plant and easy lift.  Thankfully poles are a standard size and smaller baskets are easy to find and fit(pic 5).  You could always of course go basketless. 

Supplied large basket and replacement compact basket on Mountain King Trail Blaze poles.

So to sum up, cons first:

  • If like me you have big hands, the grip could be longer.
  • The piece of velcro to hold the poles folded is rubbish; but so easy to replace.
  • The supplied baskets are too big; but again so easy to replace.
  • Like any pole, using them with a big bouldering pad is… comical for your companions.

 

Now the pros:

  • They are simple, a huge bonus when tired in remote areas.
  • These poles are light, easy to use and carry.
  • They’re made in Newcastle, and Mountain King offer a quick repair service.
  • They’re strong though, so you wont need that repair service much.  I’m 189cm tall and 88kg, my 120cm poles easily cope with me vaulting on them.
  • Those tungsten carbide tips bite, on gravel or mud or ice.
  • So far, after about a year or so, mine are still in good condition.
  • Range from 110-130cm; weigh from 115-135g.
  • They’re cheap; for good quality poles.
  • They do the job.

 

So, after waffling on, would I recommend these Mountain King Trail Blaze poles?

They are super light, simple, strong and do the job.  So yes, if you want some poles, I do recommend them.

You can buy the poles from Sheffield’s specialist running shop Accelerate, either in person at the shop(kettle will be on…), or by mail order.

The manufacturer’s site is Mountain King.

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The Alder Pool.

The voice of a cuckoo

          Dropped to the lake

                           Where it lay floating

                                                       On the surface.

 

A foreword;

A foreword? To a short piece? Yes, there are a couple of words in here that bear definition. One very old, one new. Both I think deserve more use. 

Mogshade: an old English for the welcome cool shade cast by trees in leaf

Shivelight: a word coined by Gerard Manley Hopkins for the gleaming shafts of light shining through trees in leaf 

The verses are haiku by Bashō, from Sumidawara, published in 1694

Now that’s done, let us away to the story…

 

… It’s late September now, the equinox is passed and autumn comfortably settled in after it’s brusque arrival.  A time for sweatered evenings drinking hot chocolate, for listening to Vaughan Williams and remembering the sweltering summer now past.  Blattering rain, from the winter’s first big storm, rattles down the window.  

Memory drifts back to near midsummer, a rest day saunter at the quiet end of Borrowdale. There’s a massive Atlantic storm on the way, but I don’t know that yet. For now, all is calm and still. 

The air hangs quiet and becalmed, no breeze to relieve an enervating heat felt bone deep.  A lone buzzard wheels high in the bell clear sky, a cuckoo calls somewhere unseen.  The Derwent runs trickle dry in it’s rocky bed.  All bar a glass clear relic pool, willow and alder shaded, cupped in the cut bank of a lazy meander.

Nestled in this welcome cool mogshade the pool rests, it’s surface planished metal mirror smooth.  A settled calm for now bare stirred by flow of either air or water. 

Spears of shivelight dapple the pool bed with rippling glimmers of brightness; each dapple studiously prowled by silverdark trout.  In the bed thousands of ephemeropteran nymphs, avoiding the predations of stonefly, of alderfly, of damselfly nymph.  A flickerdash and a prowling silverdark trout gobbles an ephemeropteran, a stonefly an alderfly, a damselfly nymph. 

In the heavy air above each shivelight shaft plays host to a haze of ephemeroptera swarming in their frantic nuptial dance.  All male, all desperate to attract a watching female into the swarm, to copulate.  Blood red damselflies, hawking, flash from sunlit borders, through the shadows, disrupting the dancers’ chaotic order.  Each flashing dash snatching a single dancer from the swarm.  Oblivious, in the desperate rush to reproduce, the swarm reforms, the dance continues.  In the seemingly stable column each individual ephemeropteran swirls ever lower to finally settle on, and cast eggs beneath, that mirror calm surface; their final act.  A flickerdash of prowling silver dark trout makes an occasional encore, each ripple a transient ring and ditch memorial for the life of an insect.  

The eggs, in their minute tens of thousands, sink safely to the pool bed, there to hatch, to bide for years as a nymph and one day on the wing. 

And all these myriad tiny dramas play out in and above a glass clear relic pool, willow and alder shaded, cupped in the cut bank of a lazy meander.  The Derwent still runs trickle dry in it’s rocky bed.  A lone buzzard still wheels high in a bell clear sky, a cuckoo still calls somewhere unseen.  The air still hangs quiet and becalmed, no breeze to relieve an enervating heat felt bone deep.

But, far out in the wild Atlantic a low pressure is deepening, tracking rapidly northwest.  The beginnings of that massive storm I don’t know about yet.  In two days the glass clear pool will be churned by sky wrenching gale and bank breaching flood as the now trickle dry Derwent runs full spate.

 

  In the sky

                                    Of eight or nine yards

 

                                              Above the willow –

                                                     Drizzling rain

 

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Develop; processing in the digital darkroom

 

A short how I do it film this weekend. 

I am, at heart, a monochrome photographer.  It is how I learnt the game with a home made enlarger in a spare room.  It is still often how I visualise an image.  Nowadays of course, with digital cameras we make our images in RGB and the Mac has become our darkroom.  Though I still own, and use a clutch of film cameras, digital is my workhorse.

So I thought, a “How Si works” film would be fun to do. 

The original photo was taken in Northumberland some years ago on an Olympus E3, with a 105mm lens.  As usual, it was shot raw.  I’ve processed it with my preferred editor, the photographer focused Capture One Pro.  I would still much rather have used a Leica or Hasselblad, HP5 and a DeVere504 with Forte Polywarmtone though.  Bach, Beethoven or Abba on the CD player too.

Oh, for the record.  That building storm was a brute, powerful enough to batter the boats moored in Seahouses harbour.

 

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First Summit

What’s the first mountain I climbed? 

That depends.  What do you mean by climb, mountain and first?  But that’s a philosophical path I don’t choose to tread here; for there lay sleeping Jabberwocks (in this gentle memoir they will remain untickled).  So for this happy, as true as long ago childhood memory story, we’ll stick with a simple physical mountain (a lump of rock, mud, heather etc. over 610m altitude) on the Isle Of Man. 

Away we go then, to August 1970 (relax, time travel works in our imagination), at Laxey tram station. Specifically the queue for the Snaefell Mountain Railway (actually an electric tram, but this is the Isle Of Man, so railway it is).  And in the queue, with his beloved dad, there’s a very excited small boy; me.  Always fidgety, this day I’m close to bursting.  I am though on best behaviour (think Pooh holding Tiggerish energy in check) standing politely and outwardly calm. 

This day, I’m going on an expotition (I’d discovered the Pooh Bear books, to this day I remain convinced the word is perfectly correct).  I’m going to climb a mountain.  Not just any mountain though, Snaefell, the highest mountain (yes, I know it’s technically “the only mountain”; shush, I’m seven here) on the island.  I’ve been up there before with dad, but today’s special.  Today if I’m judged sensible, I’m going to climb the mountain on my own.  For a seven year old, an awfully big expotition. There are well worn boots on my feet, blue woollen socks tucked neatly into grey breeches. There’s a thoughtfully packed bag on my my back. A bag replete with compass, map, aran sweater, honey butties and something for the journey.  That something for the journey is my well thumbed copy of The House At Pooh Corner (read on the tram from Douglas, ch6 “In Which Pooh Invents a New Game and Eeyore Joins In” probably). 

The  Snaefell tram rattles in, the passengers shuffle off, we scuttle on. I grab a window seat, dad beside me and the tram rattles out.  For the next half hour the book remains in my bag, unread. Instead I try to read the mountain landscape rolling by as we’re carried over 500m to the misty summit station.  The tram rattles in, the passengers shuffle off. Most, realising it’s a little chilly here at around 600m, scuttle away into the cafe and gift shop. 

Driver, guard, dad, a hopeful sheep and I are left in the wind shredded mist. 

“You walking to the top with your dad?”

“No, I’m going on my own!”

“Oh; smashing.  Well, have fun and we’ll see you on the next tram down.”

It’s all tremendously, excitingly real now.  Driver and guard are suitably impressed (as this is the Isle Of Man neither think my plan odd) and dad’s happy.  The sheep has lost interest and wandered off.  A final show of the route and I’m away.  Off on my expotition, I’m climbing a mountain, on my own.  Carefully navigating, treading the familiar but now fresh path, one walked by thousands of feet before mine.  A wide, clear path (though one people miss every year) winding gently around to the summit. I’m concentrating so carefully, stopped occasionally by stupendous views over to Scotland (never once of course spotting dad, in the mist, keeping careful watch) then vigorously striding out once more for the summit. 

I can still, near half a century on, feel that slightly surprised calm euphoria (I’ve never felt one conquers a mountain or climb or descent) as I touched the trig point.  I’d done it.  My first solo summit.  There were tourists, the radio station and a very troublesome sheep. To me it felt, there and then, the very wildest place on earth.  Settling in a leeward hollow a celebratory honey butty and drink of water were lingeringly taken.  As the descent was to come one butty was carefully saved for later.  Lunch done, bag repacked, time for the second part of this expotition.  Getting safely back down again. 

Now, I’d been walking most of my life.  This meant dad and I had a habit of descending, let us say, at pace (ascending too, where we could move quickly, we did).  So away I went.  A skinny, clumsy kid in boots and rucksack galloping past bemused tourists, casting occasional sincere apologies to the wind’s mercy. 

Of course dad was sat waiting on the station bench as agreed.  He’d waited there patiently since I set off (yeah, of course he did, I’m a dad now).  Hugs and congratulations were exchanged, then hot milk and expotition report in the cafe.  Drinks and debrief done we wandered out for the next tram down. The friendly driver and guard waiting there as promised;

“You do it then?”

“Yeah!”

“Well done young man.” 

Smiling, they shook my hand in congratulation.  I suddenly felt very grown up (sincerely given praise I still feel is important for children). 

Somehow the tram whisked us back down to Laxey in the blink of an eye (yes, I know, the seven year old me fell asleep) to chicken and chips in the corner cafe. 

So, in a pedantically technical sense not my first mountain.  But in a truly practical sense (one that matters to me), very much my first mountain.  

I’ve been in so many mountains so many times since, in so many ways.  With my misfunctional mind, the best times are like that first time.  Willingly alone, moving light and fast through the fells, my joyous, curious internal child grinning, a book and a honey butty in my bag.  

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Petrichor

 

 

Petrichor; derived from Greek petra, “stone” &  īchōr, “divine fluid”: that uniquely fresh, rich aroma of rain falling upon parched earth after days then weeks of hot dry weather.

Early summer, the driest on our modern record.  The birchwood copse, moist cool haven where I run, is parching now.  A grass bleaching, footpath firing, tree wilting parching.

But this evening, just for a little while, the parching eased.  The long cloudbare sky became cloudspeckled.  Clouds grew, darkened, grew rain heavy, some few precursor raindrops speckled the ground.  The heat fell away from sweltering toward merely too warm, then the true rain came down.  A sweet soft rain.  A rain warm and rejuvenating, joyous to experience.  As rain fell petrichor rose, that blessed aroma of hot, dry, rain slaked earth and stone.  A beloved scent of summer calling back far memories of gilden* days amongst forests and fells from childhood on to now. 

And then near quick as it came, the rain quits.  The heat climbs back from merely too warm toward sweltering, the rain marks evaporate.  Trees are still wilted, footpaths are still fired, grasses are still bleached. 

But yet the air is no longer parched dry.  It bears a lingering humidity, a memory of water.  In a hawthorn a pigeon preens dampened feathers, beadlets of water bejewel the orchids.  The sky, for weeks a cloudbare blue remains cloudspeckled.

A promise that maybe, just maybe, there will be rain once more. 

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*gilden: Middle English gilden; gelden; gulden from the Old English gylden. An equivalent to gold(+/-en). Yes, I like archaic language. And?

An inner silence: The portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson

Some of the books from a dyslexic photographer’s bookshelf. Actually, all these books are mine, and all are well read. [sb009864]

Now, I’ll admit to a little bias here. Henri Cartier-Bresson remains an inspiration to me. He and many of his contemporaries like Lee Miller, Robert Doisneau, Bill Brandt and Eve Arnold combined great technique, visual awareness and a deep sense of our shared humanity. And they allowed the stories they told to speak.

Notwithstanding my personal bias, this is a sumptuous colection of portraits; the first to be drawn entirely from the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson. The ferocious aquiline face of Samuel Beckett glaring off leftward challenging you, open the book, see what he cares.

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To a possible reader…

Lone tree on a lake district fell skyline, monochrome

Beneath a building summer storm a lone tree; high on a lake district fellside.

A note to a possible reader. On prose, specifically mine, often the purple variety. 

I make no apology, for none is needed. I love words. I cherish them. I love their variety. I love that old words are refound and ofttimes repurposed, that new words are founded. I cherish the practical magics words create. 

Once I found passage through the wrecking reef shoals of ADHD and dyslexia, the wondrous richness of words became my refuge. When kept away from moorflank or riverbank, whether by school or by overbearing mother, I took sanctuary in books, into a wordworld of the imagination. The library, with the aid of an understanding father and a librarian who turned a knowing eye, and with that eye an occasional suggestion, that library became my portal; Narnia’s wardrobe in Portland stone and oak and brass and compassion. 

And so I grew up in company with, amongst others; Durrell, first Gerry later Larry; with Rebufatt and Whymper; Eyre and the Brontes; Pope and Dryden and Montaigne. Modern times they’re joined, again amongst others, by Macfarlane, Shepherd, Baker, Deakin, Calvino, Pratchett and Gaiman. 

Now, I do consider plain language has it’s value, in court reports, medical records, instruction books and suchlike. 

However, when recalling worlds to mind, or growing worlds in the mind of another. No, not here. When writing the experience of long fell day’s, for the flickering silvered nacre braids of a dipper bobbed stream: then the wondrous richness of words is where I play. 

There you are dear reader, if you like occasionally florid nature and mountain writing, for to my mind the two are inseparable…

Welcome. 

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