The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes. MARCEL PROUST

Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Next Pilgrimage

The long straight track.

Much of the time, we are willing to do almost anything rather than face the unknown, the wilderness. When we drive in our cars, we'll go on for endless miles, rather than admit we're lost. We drive our lives that same way until a crisis stops us. But that fear blunts our experience of the world, doesn't it?

. . . if you're lost enough, then the experience of now is your guide to what comes next. None of us knows what comes the next second.


Oh, a storm is threatening / My very life today / If I don't get some shelter / Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away THE ROLLING STONES Gimme Shelter

The pilgrimage I'm undertaking soon may well be a challenging one: many days, if not weeks, of solitude — with cheap accommodation, or indeed any accommodation, thin on the ground. I'm taking a tent. And this time I'm making sure my pack weight is nearer a manageable 20lb than a punishing 30lb. I came up with the following 'ideal' guidelines, which I'm carrying with me in my head (zero weight!). Wish me luck.
Twelve Zen Guidelines for the Long Distance Pilgrim and Walker

1. To walk — and live — fully in the present.

2. To neither regret wrong turnings (the past) nor yearn for destinations (the future).

3. To walk — and live — mindfully, aware of and focused on what’s going on around, through the five senses, and what’s happening inside, through thoughts and feelings.

4. To try to get beyond desire, craving, negativity and division.

5. To let go.

6. To welcome intuition and the imagination, and to use them creatively.

7. To walk — and live — simply, thriftily and economically, consciously making each coin, each morsel of food and each mouthful of drink, count.

8. To be grateful for the luxurious, comparative freedom of a long-distance walk: going where I want, quickly or slowly, directly or obliquely.

9. To be grateful that, for a period of time, I am not subject to the usual routine dictates and compromises of family and society.

10. To consider walking a kind of art form.

11. To consider each step, breath, mile, thought, feeling, action, encounter, sight and insight a kind of prayer.

12. To try to love unconditionally.

Footpath through poppy fields.

For some time now it has seemed to me that the two questions we should ask of any strong landscape are these: firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know myself?


Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Old Ways

Much has been written of travel, far less of the road. EDWARD THOMAS The Icknield Way (1913)

My eyes were in my feet . . . NAN SHEPHERD The Living Mountain (1977)

All things are engaged in writing their history . . . Not a foot steps into the snow, or along the ground, but prints in characters more or less lasting, a map of its march. The ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object covered over with hints. In nature, this self-registration is incessant, and the narrative is the print of the seal. RALPH WALDO EMERSON (1850)  

Robert Macfarlane's book The Old Ways is one of the finest books on walking I've ever read. Though it's about so much more than walking — it's about the whole world. Everything is contained in and fans out from the paths we take, whether our journey lies inwards or outwards. The tracks we make, our footprints in the snow, are our witness and record, our narrative and our history.

This book could not have been written by sitting still. The relationship between paths, walking and the imagination is its subject, and much of its thinking was therefore done — was only possible — while on foot. Although it is the third book in a loose trilogy about landscape and the human heart, it need not be read after or in the company of its predecessors. It tells the story of walking a thousand miles or more along old ways in search of a route to the past, only to find myself delivered again and again to the contemporary. It is an exploration of the ghosts and voices that haunt ancient paths, of the tales that tracks keep and tell, of pilgrimage and trespass, of songlines and their singers and of the strange continents that exist within countries. Above all, this is a book about people and place: about walking as a reconnoitre inwards, and the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move.

ROBERT MACFARLANE The Old Ways, Author's Note

Sunday, 6 July 2014


We planted three gooseberry bushes in our newly-designed fruit, flower and vegetable garden last year. They fruited — though not prolifically —  and the moment the fruits were ripe, the blackbirds devoured them. This year I was more savvy, and netted them against any hungry avian predators. Success! We now have a bumper crop.

What could be more splendid than the unpretentious gooseberry? I'm in love with these humble, unfashionable fruits. One of our bushes has produced green verging on golden orbs; the other two jewels of blushing pink and red. To pick them this morning —  spearing my fingers on half-inch thorns — was a masochistic delight. What to do with them? So many recipes entice: gooseberry crumble, gooseberry pie, gooseberry fool, gooseberry jam . . .

But, to start with, I opted for something simple, and utterly wonderful and flavoursome: stewed gooseberries with home-made custard (or crème anglaise, as they say in French).

I topped and tailed them, then simmered them in a little sugar and water. Amazing how this simple process miraculously transformed these tart little bullets into a delicious, pulpy, sweet-sour purée. The custard was easy: egg yolks beaten with a little cornflour added to a warmed-up mixture of milk, sugar and vanilla. Why on earth do we ever buy that synthetic tinned stuff?

A dessert made in heaven. Especially with a dollop of Madagascan vanilla ice cream.

Friday, 4 July 2014

A Walk In The White Peak

The Peak District has two distinct areas and personalities: the Dark Peak in the north, which is all about cloughs and groughs, moorland and millstone grit; and the White Peak in the south, with its softer landscape of limestone villages and dales, of crystal-clear rivers and streams. This geological yin-yang aspect to the National Park creates a satisfying contrast and complementarity. Last week I walked on the wild side in the Dark Peak; yesterday, in the White Peak, I explored my more feminine side. I began my walk in the village of Hartington, which lies by the exquisitely-named River Dove.  

In the woodland of Beresford Dale butterbur grew tall between path and river. Other plants included buttercup and herb-robert and, growing in the river itself, water-crowfoot.

Wooden footbridges hardly ever fail to seduce me. However, I resisted the charms of this one, which led into Wolfscote Dale. I remembered I'd crossed it before — 25 years ago. Instead, I left the river and climbed gently up the dry valley of Narrow Dale. I don't think many walkers come here, and I had only wheatears and redstarts for company.

On the limestone plateau above the dale some field paths and a quiet road took me to the sleepy village of Alstonefield.

The pub was not yet open, but I was content to eat my sandwiches and drink from my flask of coffee on a bench on the village green. (Sandwich filling: egg, onion and cheddar cheese mayonnaise — an absolute favourite!)

Leaving Alstonefield and its stone, slate-roofed cottages, I followed a delightful path — lined with a multitude of wild flowers such as the bright-blue meadow crane's-bill — to the top of Gipsy Bank.

Here Coldeaton Dale joins Biggin Dale. 

I thought the view from the top of the bank was very fine. You can see Coldeaton Bridge below — and that's the river Dove again.

The meandering riverside path eventually led me to the head of Biggin Dale, where a foot and cycle-way curved over the hill and back to Hartington.

This is Hartington Hall. A country gentleman's retreat, you might think — or perhaps a five-star hotel? No, not at all. It's a youth hostel! Could this be the most beautiful youth hostel in the world? And it's got a bar . . .

It had been a really great walk, and it was with reluctance I left this limestone paradise. The Peak District is the National Park I know the best: for long periods of my life I've lived in Staffordshire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire — all within easy reach of this outstanding, lovely region.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

What I See When I Blog

Twelve Zen guidelines pinned above my computer — next to a photo of my sister, Elizabeth (who died of a brain tumour in her late twenties), holding my daughter, Anna.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Garden Diary (3)

Digging the first crop of second early potatoes (Charlotte variety) . . . Next to them in the trug are some freshly-picked, tender rocket leaves. A salad beckons! 

The tomatoes still have some way to go . . .

. . . but the runner beans will be ready in a week or two. The other vegetables in this raised bed are Brussels sprouts, rocket, parsnips and leeks.

Though a garden's not just about vegetables. These calendulas are appreciating the recent sunshine . . .

. . .  as are these lilies . . .

I always find water lilies magical and quite unreal, as if made out of wax . . . On the pond's surface and underneath the lily pads is a host of insect life.  Also some tadpoles remain, refusing to change into frogs. They'll have to be quick or they'll get eaten like all the rest. I've only seen one froglet so far — smaller than my fingernail.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Patti Smith

Here's the unique, extraordinary, androgynous artist who is Patti Smith, singing Nirvana's iconic Smells Like Teen Spirit. It's rare you get a cover version as good or even better than the original — but this is one. I was so lucky to see Patti at Nottingham's Rock City some while back. It's a gig which will be always stay in my memory: the commitment, the intensity, the poetry, the coolness and musicianship of the whole band, the charismatic presence of Patti herself. I was standing near the front, and the sound throbbed through my whole body like a divining rod.

Only for hardcore fans:

Working Class Hero

Marianne Faithfull at the height of her powers singing the great John Lennon song Working Class Hero — which she recorded on her 1979 album Broken English.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

A Walk In The Dark Peak

Old Meg she was a Gipsy,
       And liv'd upon the Moors:
Her bed it was the brown heath turf,
       And her house was out of doors.

Her apples were swart blackberries,
       Her currants pods o' broom;
Her wine was dew of the wild white rose,
       Her book a churchyard tomb.

Her Brothers were the craggy hills,
       Her Sisters larchen trees —
Alone with her great family
       She liv'd as she did please.

JOHN KEATS Meg Merrilies

Yesterday it took me two hours to drive to the Peak District — England's first National Park and my nearest National Park. In the past it used to take me an hour and a half. Now there seems to be twice as much traffic on the road. But that's progress for you. Well, no, not progress in an a temporal or kinetic sense. More a sort of dubious, materialistic progress — the kind of progress where every family now has not one car, but two, three or four, and the kind of progress where Internet shopping has flooded even the country by-roads with trucks and delivery vehicles to saturation point. In a bid to escape the traffic queues, the noise, the pollution, the CCTV cameras, the adverts, the signage, the street furniture, any old goddam furniture, Wimbledon and the World CupI parked my car with relief near Birchen Clough on the Snake Road and tumbled out and down into the cool woodland below. Now I could breathe again, though I could still hear the rumble of lorries and roar of motor bikes coming from the road above . . . 

Here, in Lady Clough, the only 'furniture' was tree trunk, grassy bank and mossy stone...

. . . with the occasional simple and functional (and beautiful) man-made footbridge.

I relaxed, took stock — and realised with a gasp I'd have to gain the heights on the right . . .

But first here's the low-lying river Ashop . . .

. . . and here are some lovely and practical stone sheepfolds . . .

. . . which I passed before taking the steepening path along Fair Brook to the northern edge of the Kinder plateau. This was a magical valley of oak and rowan, heather and bracken, waterfall and rock.

The walking was tough, but the views made it all worthwhile.

The stream dried up when squeezed between ever-narrower and more contorted slabby outcrops . . .

I finally arrived at Fairbrook Naze (note the two ravens in the photo — a happy accident) . . .

. . .  where the moorland prospect was just awe-inspiring. This was the view from my lunchtime picnic spot. Was there ever a better one? A little wild and desolate, perhaps — but, my God, no cars, no litter, no factories, no chimneys, no wind farms, no pylons, no people, no obvious wars and conflicts. And I'd even turned my phone off, so social media were history.  

The gritstone rocks and boulders along this lofty edge had been worn into some fantastical shapes.

Before climbing down to join the Snake Path (which led me, interminably and sometimes soggily, from the source of the river Ashop back to my car), I took one last look back at the high-level, rocky route I'd just traversed . . .

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Scout Scar

You may have noticed that the Solitary Walker has not done much solitary walking this year — being involved in matters more literary, culinary and horticultural. I aim to put that right. This is a walk I did a few weeks ago on a visit to my mother-in-law in the Lake District. It's a walk I devised myself, with a little help from the Ordnance Survey's Outdoor Leisure Map No 7: The English Lakes: South Eastern Area: Windermere, Kendal & Silverdale. I took the map with me and worked out the route en route, so to speak. It's nice to do that sometimes, rather than planning everything beforehand — there's a happy freedom in it. The walk was exactly 5 miles long.  

There's a handy car park at the col between Cunswick Scar and Scout Scar on the Underbarrow road just west of Kendal. From here I set off southwards up the limestone scar. It wasn't long before the landscape opened up: scattered woods, lumpy hills, tiny settlements and a patchwork of green fields full of sheep and buttercups.

A clear path followed the edge of the escarpment. The view west across the Lyth Valley towards Morecambe Bay was tremendous.

Although I wasn't that high, it felt very airy up there, and I bowled along as if I were on top of the world.

This shelter, known as 'The Mushroom', stands on the summit of Scout Scar (764 ft). It was built in 1912 as a memorial to King George V, and has twice been restored.

The path descended gently to the Brigsteer road. Just before the village a track led northwards through woods to Barrowfield Farm. And from the farm another path struck through more woodland . . . 

. . . which was deciduous, but with isolated pockets of pine.

After passing this remote smallholding I lost the way for a while, but soon found it again — eventually emerging on a quiet minor road called Garth Row Lane. This took me to Scar Foot, and a slightly scary trek uphill along a bendy, busier road back to the car park.