From the vaults: Things of unknown origin (25/04/2010)

This post – in slightly longer form, and under a different title – was added to the old blog on 25th April 2010. It was originally prompted by the mossy remnants of an old wall…

FAQ: one of those ugly new age acronyms which has mystifyingly insinuated itself into our already more than adequate language.

Landscape seems to provide an almost inexhaustible supply of frequently asked questions. Answers can be, if anything, even more plentiful: known, surmised, invented, embellished; cocktails of truth, myth and legend mixed in sometimes inconsistent proportions.

There is a narrow glen I often walk when in Scotland; it follows the steep course of a burn which has cut itself into a fairly deep ravine. The remains of an ancient wall follow the line of the burn and its gorge; it must have been a considerable work of construction utilising, as it does, not the slabs and blocks of a traditional drystone dyke but rounded stones, the size of footballs; locked into place with sufficient expertise to withstand the multiple incursions of weather, animal movement and erosion. Its original purpose is no more evident to me than the lives of those who felt compelled to create it; strategically it adds little or nothing to the protection offered by the natural boundary which it shadows. Was it simply a territorial marker, a line of partition, a statement of ownership? Whatever the original intent it now undeniably adds something to a landscape into which it is being, and will continue to be, inexorably absorbed; a sense of time marked and a reminder of those who have passed this way ahead of us and the little we sometimes know of them.

There’s probably a certain hypocrisy implicit in someone who rails with such venom and frequency against human intrusions into wilderness – plantations, turbines, phone masts, the assorted paraphernalia of what we consider to be progress – finding fascination in things often equally incongruous but somehow excused by their redolence of times gone, cultures and traditions lost. We come across them frequently in the wild; remnants of walls, fences, sometimes substantial buildings; often in the most unlikely of settings.

Some day, in a future none of us will never see, someone will stumble upon the rusted remains of the National Exhibition Centre or excavate the collapsed remnants of Wembley Stadium and wonder what possessed us to build them. Records, should they survive, will tell them that in the case of the latter that is already a well established FAQ.


From the vaults: Canals (12/04/2010)


Canals, at least the towpaths which shadow them, have been one of life’s constants. Growing up in the black country we became accustomed to using the canal network as a means of convenient access; possibly to a greater extent even than roads and pavements. On foot, or by bike; heading to school, the park, or the railway station, the most convenient and the preferred option would frequently be the canal towpath.

There was nothing particularly picturesque about those urban waterways; these were the days when all manner of effluents were pumped indiscriminately from factory outlets, and the surface of the water would be thick with a coating of oil and tar. It was certainly a far cry from the modern day renewal initiatives of Birmingham and Manchester, with their boutiques, restaurants and designer-clad theatregoers.

Different again from the rural canals of North Worcestershire, Staffordshire and Shropshire; meandering, amenable, bucolic: places of respite where only the birds and darting fish feel the need to move at pace. Working traffic is, with the odd exception, a thing of the past, and these waterways now mostly see use as a leisure amenity. For many miles this part of the canal network follows the indistinct line of the suburban/rural margins; that modern day frontier where residential opulence dissolves into agrarian pasture. Forming, as they do, a component of that overlap – part natural, part manicured – between meadow and garden, woodland and herbaceous border, the canals and their surroundings provide sanctuary for diverse, and sometimes uncommon, varieties of wildlife.


From the vaults – 2 related posts (04/2010)

These were a couple of related posts, originally separated by a few days, with the second deriving from the first. It was borderline whether these were junked or retained: they just made the cut. For now!

Time to think; stuff to think about… (02/04/2010)

Spring which had begun to emerge tentatively (confidently, even, in some of the more sheltered spots) has backtracked somewhat and seems to have taken the view that it’s been none too impressed with what it’s found waiting out there. On the menu for now and the foreseeable future: wet, wind, and an abundance of mud. Out in the open, under the canopy of the woods, everywhere, black/brown ooze has established a stranglehold. Spring, for now, hovers in an apparent state of arrested development.

So getting out has been an effort of will, being out an exercise in resolve, at times bordering on the perverse; the alternatives – sport on the telly, cheese on toast, mugs of hot tea – appealing and seductive. Yet, for all that, head down into the teeth of wind, hail and rain, the pull of the outdoors has somehow proved impossible to resist, as it has on so many occasions down the years and for reasons which are sometimes as elusive as they are indefinable.

Which sort of got me round to thinking about this thing we do, why we do it (as if there has to be a ‘why’), what it brings to our lives. As soon as the answers cease their eluding and become definable, I’ll write them down. Here.

I may be gone some time.

That’s enough thinking to be going on with… (06/04/2010)

There’s been the good days; better than good, some of ’em. The days when cloud inversions isolated the tops for miles in every direction and the world seemed like one of those old ‘Yes’ album covers. Other days, different again, the air like crystal, pin sharp to the horizons, the farthest hills seemingly within touching distance. These latter have often been the days when I have forgotten to pack the camera.

Bad days too, plenty of those: days of scant reward and atrocious weather; days when finding sufficient shelter to pour a hot drink was the extent of ambition; days when the map blew in every direction or, saturated beyond salvage, fell into pieces. Days when there has been recourse to industrial language. On many such days I have carried every conceivable combination of camera body and lens and left them untouched in the rucksack.

There have been things seen in the skies: high summer a few years back, sitting in the hills above Glen Quaich as the sun dropped, a male hen harrier working its way across the hillside, heading in my direction; silent, phantom grey, following the contours of the ground like a high-tech missile. Wanting to reach for the camera but, nervous of startling the bird, I decided against doing so. Whether it was a good decision I’ll never know; the harrier passed by, closer than I’ve ever been to one before or since, and didn’t return although I waited until darkness had fallen.

And others, on the ground: a pair of polecats playing in the sun on the flanks of Cadair idris; a mountain hare emerging from the heather within touching distance on a foggy, eerily quiet, day on Carn Liath. A fallow deer leaping a high fence from a standing start at the side of the Blairgowrie Road.

And things heard: the rush of air through the wings of a pair of low-flying raven on the Long Mynd, similar to the noise made by stunt kites; the pistol crack of a peregrine, launching itself from bluffs in the Berwyns, no more than twenty yards from where I’d paused for a drink.

All of which is fine, but those are just incidents, anecdotes; where the hills are concerned the defining thing for me is an intangible: it is that strange mixture of contentment coloured with slight apprehension, which only seems to come from being completely alone in a wild place.

There’s probably a word for it; there certainly ought to be.