Two Kinds of Homecoming

‘Where are you from?’ is a question I am often asked. 

The thing that makes people ask this does not stand out like a sore thumb, it’s more like it stands out like a sore ear. 

(I have often been asked ‘What planet are you from?’ but the reasons for that is entirely different.)

I don’t sound like I come from here, and people, used only to the limited accents they hear on TV, have difficulty placing me.  Lacking the nasal inflection of more long-term residence of this continent marks me out as different.  Now, it’s as plain as the nose on my face that I have no real deficiency when it comes to the organ needed for ‘nasal inflection’, but I still can’t get it right. 

But as time pass I find it harder and harder to answer that simple, repetitive question.  By the end of this year I will have lived longer in Australia than in the county that gave me my accent – Somerset.  Does 19 years of dwelling, over 35 years ago, still define where I am from?  Is the ‘from’ nothing more than a factual accounting of birthplace and the majority of childhood?  Will I remain some form of outsider until my accent fades and I sound like the people around me?  And what would happen if in moments of inattention, or cider induced verbal clumsiness, my Somerset accent pops back to the surface?  Would this verbal chimera be a better description of where I am from than the older, single source vintage?  Who knows?

Questions asked in the hypothetical bring answers in the abstract, and the reality lies untested.  Bias. Wishful thinking.  Image making.

‘Home is where the heart lies, but if the heart lies, where is home?’  (Fish)

I point the car south, away from the Lakes and towards Somerset.  Minutes turn into hours, the miles click over, the children chatter; anonymous coffee; jelly snakes, brought for a walk on the hills but overlooked on the day.  We pass through the Midlands, which, to me, are a grey space of unknown places.  Only the service stations have any degree of familiarity, with an architecture that has not worn well over the years and a cheesy spread of franchise food.  These grey ribbons of concrete make a mockery of the idea that it is better to travel than to arrive.  After a gallon of Costa’s coffee the arrival cannot come soon enough.

We pass a sign for Gloucester and I know that the back of the journey has been broken.  In the past this city marked the northern edge of all I knew, and beyond must have been the Midlands – which is laughably incorrect.  Apart from a few day trips in the height of summer and an annual Scout camp, my world revolved around the edges of northern Somerset.  A small place, essentially invisible to the rest of the world except for straw chewing caricature and songs about cider and tractors.   In an indication that at least part of me must be rooted in this place, my toes still curl in pain at the sight and sound of such things on TV; even when the village is elsewhere, the local idiot (a phenomenon that largely disappeared with the coming of the railways) seems to be cast from the south west. 

Even for a person that had such a stay at home upbringing as I did – mortgage stress and low wages effectively prevented much in the way of holidays and travel – I was surprised at how many of the place names on the journey south rang bells.  Exits from the motorways would point to places I had never been, but for which I had constructed some form of mental picture.  As I approached Somerset that started to change.  The place names were still as familiar, but what made them different was the memory of place that went with them.  Places where I scared myself witless in a kayak, places where I fished for chub with limited success, but at least no scarring.  And eventually I come to places that were everyday.  Places where I bought books and underpants (and was embarrassed to find I had selected them in a range of sizes as well as colours).  Places where people knew what I drank and knew what our weekend bread order was.  Places where people ignored me because my clothes were unkempt, my shoes were unpolished and our car was rusty and old.  Places where people swore before pronouncing my surname.  The place where I grew up.

If this place really was home, then it was a small place indeed.  We were staying in an old converted farm house on the outskirts of Shepton Mallet, a town less than half an hour from where I was born, and I recognised very little of it.  The railway bridge on the way into town was familiar, as was the general location of a second hand shop much visited by my parents. I knew that there was a fish and chip shop that was much visited by my brother, and that Babycham, a sparkling perry and the first alcoholic drink to be advertised in British TV, had been invented and brewed there, but that was about the sum of it.

The farmhouse was down a side lane of surprising narrowness and abundant vegetation.  Such road signs as were present were old and ambiguous; this was the kind of place my Mum would have called ‘the back lanes of…….’ the exact location of which would have only been known to her and her imagination.  A tractor equipped with a hedge trimmer was flaying the living flesh from the tops of the leafy borders, producing that musty smell that only elder makes.  I’m sure that in the background, above the mechanical din and the screams of broken buds, I could hear the ghosts of hedge layers past weeping.  Maybe.

After a brief failing of confidence we arrived at the farmhouse.  It was built, as they are in this part of the world, from stones the colour of pale butter.  The mortar between the rough-cut stones was wonderfully imprecise, a patchwork of different blends and varieties that must catalogue a dozen renovations and restorations.  Sticking out from the walls were hooks and wooden beams whose purposes had long since been forgotten.  The buildings formed a square around an ornate garden, with three sides formed by converted barns and a forth being the original farmhouse.  The roofs were spotted with lichen circles and bundles of moss, the products of clean air and abundant rain.  Standing outside the square of buildings you could see that the land fell away in all but one direction. The only exception was the route taken by the road, which rose away behind the homestead.  In all directions the overwhelming experience was green.  Grass, woodlands, bushes, fields.  For eyes used to the muted summer colours of Australia, such intensity was almost painful. Cones long rested from underuse were firing with machinegun regularity; for a colour associated with cool and shade it was remarkably bright.  Even after the passage of 30 years it felt familiar. 

But not everything was the same.  Somewhere down in the valley below the buildings a buzzard was mewing like a cat.  Long drawn out calls that carried clearly through an atmosphere thickened by the smell of the cut hedge and alive with the buzz of insects.  The story of the buzzard is one of rare recovery.  Hunted as vermin, killed by pesticides and then inadvertently starved when myxomatosis wiped out the rabbits on which it fed, the buzzard had reached its nadir when I was a kid.  It was a rarity, a bird that was hanging on (just) in the western reaches of England where much of what passes for the wild could be found.  Seeing one was unusual, and a likely highlight of the day.  As I grew up, they grew back and are now the most common bird of prey in the UK – and of course I am now a rarity there myself.  Some people now claim that the buzzard has reached plague levels, which probably shows how far we are from having any understanding of natural abundance.  The bird kept calling and I kept listening, but it never became more than a speck on the horizon, a mote of wildness drifting over the fields and badly treated hedgerows.

Below the house were hazel bushes, heavy with nuts.  My mother may have insisted that they were filberts – I never knew the difference and I have left it 35 years too late to ask. 

A woodpecker – green – yaffles in the distance.  Later in the week, it, or its progeny, terrorise the ants in the lawn near the house.  With heavy beak stabs it pulls back chunks of grass to find its food.  One step at a time I move closer, aware of how loud the clack of my camera shutter is.  Eventually I push my luck too far and the bird takes flight, pauses on a wire fence and disappears over a hedge. 

The whole scene that unfolds before me is strikingly familiar, but also noticeably strange.  It feels like walking into a well-known room, maybe your bedroom, and finding the wallpaper is still the same, but all the windows are in different positions.  You can see things that you know and think you understand, but sticking their heads out from deep cover are things that are different and unexpected.  You know that it’s not memory that is failing, but reality that has changed.  But that’s hard to accept.  Memory fixes things in place, crystallises experience into certainty, and allows for no change.  The world turns, but memory becomes the fixed point.   It’s reassuring and simultaneously disconcerting.  

At such times you need an anchor to hold you in place while your head spins.

You need family.  You need friends.  And luckily I had both.  We mix wine with memories and add a dash of news.  We share food at a long table. In hindsight it seems like a communion to real friends rather than imaginary ones, a reconnection of things shared and understood.  In hindsight it seems that old friends are the best reason to come home.

For a very long time I used to take the same walk every evening.  A constitutional that took me from my front door, through Stratton-on-the-Fosse, which was only ever called Stratton, and back over fields full of inquisitive cows to my front door.  I suppose the whole walk took about an hour.  Days of my life probably disappeared in that journey.  I normally walked on my own.  Now I was walking the path in reverse; starting in Stratton and heading for my old front door.  And I was not alone.  Two children and my best friend/wife came along too.

The village school now sat on the edge of my old pathway, and even that has changed from the last time I had seen it. I had returned a few years earlier, just in time to see my father (which sounds far too formal) before he died.  Just before I became an adult orphan, which comes to most of us, but is none the less a strange place to find yourself.  The top stone stile at the entrance to the Drang, a old pathway between two roads, and the stone steps below were just as polished as I remembered them – and I could not help but think of what my contribution had been to this sheen in a hard surface.  The path itself was a little overgrown, with moss and other plants forcing their way through the surface.  There was a handrail along the wall on the steepest section of the path that had never been there before.  Maybe the people who still use, or know about, the path have become old and few and far between.  Maybe it’s a through way that has more of a past than a present or a future.  Maybe it’s path that has more importance in memory than recent use.

Maybe it’s just a path.

There is an extra window, high above the front door.  The bay windows to the left hand of the door have been replaced.  The patchwork of stones and mortar in the walls is still clear, as is the difference between the stonework between my house and the one to the left.  Only it’s not my house anymore.  If ever there was a time and place where circles collide and pathways intersect it’s here and now; standing outside the house in which I was born, telling my own children about what was behind each of the windows.  My brother’s bedroom.  The breakfast-room; where everything happened.  The lounge; where nothing happened and the best furniture in the house stood unused.  My parent’s bedroom; the room into which my mother would retreat for days on end, blinded by migraine or medical electricity.  A house full of memories, some which I struggle to recall, and some I wish I could forget.

To my surprise the front door of the house is opened by the current owner, understandably concerned about the appearance of a family seeming to claim ownership of his property.  To my ever-greater surprise he invites us inside.  This is strange and unexpected.  While the bones of the house remain the same, much has changed.  The stairs, which used to twist through half a circle, have changed places, walls that were made of wood have been replaced by stone and brick and most of the rooms have changed name and role.  Remarkably, in the back yard the two deep, square form porcelain sinks that we moved from inside the house to outside are still being used to grow flowers.  From the backyard I looked up to see my old bedroom window, but it was not there, buried by renovation and extension.  Maybe that was for the best.  These are old oceans in which to swim.  Hot and cold.  Spring and summer.   My birth unremembered, my mother’s death, two days after a first kiss.  The embarrassment of unkempt corners, peeling wallpaper and pervasive damp.  Before I leave I pass on the story of the ‘letter box’ by the door – a window the size and shape of a letterbox that opened to a small alcove where the mail was sorted.  This is the story I was told.  Who knows - it may even be true.

But despite the genuine welcome of the new owners, the experience becomes increasingly strange.  The place is too familiar and too different.  It’s a little like the feeling on waking and being unsure if what you recall is a memory or a dream; the evidence of your eyes conflicts with the sense of your own understanding. 

I was glad to step outside, where the road curved in the way it always had and the old rail bridge was still in place with its heavy shape and grey stonewalls.  It is strange to think of what has changed and what has remained the same. 

Away from the village we head towards Wells and Glastonbury.  Old towns that, at their heart at least, seem to have changed less than I expected.  We drive over the Mendips, which was where I spent much of my time as a kid.  Priddy Ponds with their easy perch and more elusive rudd.  The paths are less worn than I recall and the weed beds extend closer to the banks.  There must be less traffic and more growth.  Kids stay at home, corralled by society that disapproves of their inactivity, but is too fearful to let them roam free.  The changes wrought by nature seem less shocking than those brought about by changes in fashion or the capricious nature of fashion.

Priddy, with its splashing fish and bright bodied dragonflies, seems more like home than the house that has changed for the better.  A small hawk, maybe a Merlin, flashes over the pool and on the horizon Long Barrows connect the ground to the sky.  Here I do not feel like a guest.  Here I feel at home.

Later in the week I pull bags from the back of a taxi and unlock my front door. Here I do not feel like a guest.  Here I feel at home.

As obvious as it may seem, home is a word richer with meanings and ambiguity than its four letters would suggest.  But what ever it means, I’m glad to be there.

Stone, Wood and Water

As a kid at school a Welsh music teacher told me that a good story was like a fish, with a distinct head, middle and tail.  At the time I thought it was clear that he had never seen an eel, but in a rare moment of student restraint I said nothing.   Like many other teachers of his generation, he mistook his ability to declaim without challenge for an access to the truth.   And for all that the prophets of Post-Modernism would have fainted at such a simple notion of narrative, the vision of that idea has stuck with me.

The idea of the story as a fish is too simple to apply widely, but if ever there was a single place that held the head, body and tail of my story it is the Lake District – The Lakes – in the north western corner of England, just below Scotland.  But even then it’s not that simple.  Some of my stories came to an end in the Lakes, some began and some found the full expression of the middle. 

I first arrived in The Lakes to participate in a Leadership Course – the full spectrum of butcher’s paper brainstorm sessions, introspection and outdoor activity. During those two weeks the Wall in Berlin fell, but no one felt the need to tell us.  It was that kind of time: focused on an inward path that would lead to an outward expression.   The course was supposed to send me back to my community empowered as a leader of some sort, but what it did do was convince me I had to leave it.  (A fish tail if ever there was one). 

(07-11-1989: Lake District: Levers Water, Prison Band, Swirl Howe, Brim Fell, Old Man of Coniston; dull and overcast with some rain)

I returned to The Lakes ready to wash dishes and clean carpets for a couple of months before starting to work as a Volunteer Instructor.  I expected to be there for six months.  I left four years later.  When I arrived I had all my worldly goods in a couple of bags and one box.  I left with a clutch of qualifications that surprised me as much as they would have surprised my generally critical PE teachers.  I also left in the company of the person who is now my wife.  To this day I still don’t really know how I managed to do either.

I walked, climbed, scrambled and even paddled a little.  I met kids from all over the UK and showed them some of the landscape that had inspired poet, artist and tourist brochures; some of them may have even looked at what I was talking about or listened to what I was saying. Some.

Now it was time to show my own kids.

We arrived in the Lakes on a road that runs under the slopes of Blencathra, a many-headed hill that sits on the northern edge of the Lakes.  The small roads and lanes that run away from the main roads are lined with brambles and old stone walls.  On one afternoon, many years ago, we collected blackberries and stashed them in our lunch boxes – later they were converted into a crumble that has gained near mythic flavour.

(21-04- 1990: Lake District: Scales, Scales Tarn, Sharp Edge, Blencathra, Hart Fell; with Jo Bailey and Simon Whalley; good weather)

Just visible was Sharp Edge, an angular ridge that runs upward towards the rounded top of the hill.  In both summer and winter it’s a good way to gain height, but today we are looking elsewhere.

The story of the great blackberry collection walk has been told before, but once more I find myself telling the story, this time to the kids in the back of the car.  It’s a story that has so many strands, food and company not the least.  It’s a story that because of its very essence is about home and place – the provision of food, the finding of comfort.  It’s a story that, like the blackberries, is rooted into a single place and makes no sense elsewhere.  But the meaning it brings is independent of the landscape that made it.  If, through a slip of fate, the story is lost and forgotten, the landscape will remain the same, unchanged by the passing of a story which it helped shape.  We add meaning to landscape, but the landscape remains unchanged.   This is not just some modern, worship of the individual situation, but an age-old issue.

Not that long ago fells like Blencathra and rocky ridges like Sharp Edge would have been seen as bleak and inhospitable and the prospect of walking on them for recreation, strange.  But our view of the world has changed, and once where there was emptiness and chill we now find the tonic of wildness and isolation.  But the bones of the landscape have not changed.

Below the hump-backed fells lies an even older example of our need to bring understanding into the landscape.  Over 5000 years ago people discovered something in the landscape here that they found valuable, and within sight of some of the highest peaks in the Lakes they built what is now called Castlerigg Stone Circle.  We don’t know what its purpose was, but it is beyond coincidence that a work of such effort would be placed without thought or care.  People from that distant age were not brute savages with perpetually grazed knuckles, but modern humans just like us.  We spend hours discussing the placement of glasses on tables and statues in gardens; why would the builders of Castlerigg been any less careful?

(01-10-90: Lake District: Thirlmere Car Park, Helvellyn Gill, Lower Man, Helvellyn, Swirl Edge; at night with Jason C et al)

There is a freedom to be had in a visit to Castlerigg.  The rituals and ceremonies that occurred there have been lost, but it was clearly a place to visit; a place where people – or their leaders at least – came together.  And today you can stand within, next to and even on the stones dependant on mood and your respect for regulation.  This is not like Stonehenge where you can only stand outside to look in and take it on faith – possibly an appropriate reaction at such sites – that the stones have not be stolen away in the night and replaced by concrete and fibreglass replicas. 

The stones at Castlerigg do not sing at dawn.  You cannot strike your fist on the hard slate surfaces to summon a wizard back from his battles with the dragon.  The Druidic rituals of pop culture are an invention of a romantic age far more modern than the stones themselves.  But for all that, the stones have a simple and magnificent presence.  When you lay a hand upon them it’s the closest you can get to time travel.  You cannot help but think ‘why?’  The organisation and  effort needed to drag these stones into this formation would defeat most well fed modern communities, but 5000 years ago people thought it was worthwhile.

People eat their lunch, backs rested on the cool stone.  A man and woman, with separate paint boxes but shared water, paint watercolour landscapes.  I can smell coffee being poured from a flask.  People are still drawn to the flat field and its stones in the shadows of the high fells.

Effort. Meaning.  Landscape. Place and space.  Fish heads, fish tails and fish middles are rolled into one and blended into stories that people will take away and spread.  The stones stand still, but the meaning they help people make spreads like ripples on a pond. 

Back in the lane where we left the car an ice-cream van has parked, and people fret over the cost of a 99 and suggest that the flakes are not the best quality.  A meadow-brown butterfly works its unsteady way along the hedgerow.  Somewhere in the distance a cuckoo calls a few times and then falls silent.  There are many things more precious than ice-cream, but not everybody seems to notice.

(08/09 – 04 -1991: Lake District: Lakeside, Grizedale, Coniston, Torver, Blind Tarn (Bivi) – Buck Pike, Dow Crag, Brim Fell, Swirl Howe, Tilberthwaite, Little Langdale . Solo)

We head south down one of the valleys that radiate out from the central core of the lakes.  Think of pinching a ball of putty with the fingers, so that a cone forms in the enclosed scape between the digits.  The shape the putty takes will be a model of the Lakes – a central high area, with valleys spread around the edge.  First carved by rivers and then enlarged by glaciers, there are almost as many long valleys in the Lakes as there are numbers on a clock.  And each valley holds one or more bodies of water.  I use the term ‘bodies of water’ because only one of them is called a lake – the rest are meres, waters and tarns.  This is like a private joke that The Lakes only contains one lake.

Memory is such a strange thing; even though I never lived in the Northern Lakes they seemed so familiar.  Road signs and junctions appeared just as expected, single trees by the side of the road, which I had never photographed, but always noticed, were still there.  The place was strangely unchanged in many ways.  After the expanse of Australian roads I had expected the Lakeland ones to push in at the edges, especially where they were flanked by snaggle-toothed drystone walls.  This proved not to be the case.  I still caught up with (other) tourists who, intimidated by the imminent demise of their cars’ paintwork, decide to drive along the middle of the road, rather than keeping to the left.  My old frustration with caravans resurfaced.

If my memory of the Northern Lakes was remarkable for its clarity, my memory of the ground closer to the place I called home was notable for its ambiguity.  I could not identify the corner in Hawkshead where Battersby’s Garage used to be and I had swapped the locations of two of the village pubs.  The clash between the certainty of my memory and the evidence of my own eyes was off-putting.  If the Kings Arms and the Queens Head can merge in memory to become one misplaced entity, what other of my memories were false or constructed? 
The south Lakes are almost the picture perfect English countryside; woods, small hidden ponds with rushy edges and the look of fish, wooden way-marked paths that criss-cross the fields.  In the distance you can see higher hills, maybe mountains in the imagination, and certainly so in the winter.  You can choose your own adventure.  You are never that far from a pub or a cafĂ©, which you can use as a goal in themselves, or as a reward at the end of a longer day.  For the best part of five years I called this part of the world home, and even now, twenty years later, it would be an unusual week for me not to think of it.

(02-05-1991: Lake District: Rydal, Nab Scar, Heron Pike, Rydal Fell, Great Rigg, Fairfield, Hart Crag, High Pike, Low Pike, Ambleside, Wilfs. Dull and Overcast although tea at Wilf’s very nice. Solo)

We collected the keys to our rented house and drove away from Hawkshead.  Once we were back on the narrow roads my memory recovered – the kink in the road where the last house on the way north pushes out into the road, the old Courthouse by the bridge where we turned left up the hill.  If we drove too far we would start to drop down towards Coniston, with its history and speeding ghosts.  However, we had detailed directions, which ended with ‘and then turn right down the rough track marked by the blue wheelie bin and the triangular back of a road sign’.  What this lacked in formality it made up for in accuracy. 

Passing through two gates, both held in place by improvised latches of string and wire, we arrived at the house.  Built from rough-cut slate blocks the house was in fact an old water mill.  Build in a formidable L shape the heel of the house was set deep into the ground, so that all you could see from the track was the roof and the upper floor room.  In its entirety the mill stepped down through six floors, all but one of which was a single room.  A staircase, creaking wood in its upper sections and foot chilling stone in its lower, spiralled down through the building.  It smelt of the woodland that surrounded it.  With the windows open, it rang to the sound of the stream that flowed past the toe of the L, over a long unmoving water wheel.  Bird feeders hung outside the windows and I could hear Wood Pigeons in the trees.  In the kitchen the water ran fridge cold from the tap, and the cistern in the toilet filled at an unmodern and leisurely rate.  Although it was summer, the grate was still full of recent ashes from a coal fire.  If a small black cat, with an under-chin white spot, had walked into one of the rooms I would have not been surprised as this building was hauntingly similar to the house I was born and brought up in.  But just to prove that progress was possible this one had running hot water and a working stove. The longer I stayed there the greater the sense of familiarity became; the uneven stone floor under foot, the way the lock on the back door clicked twice as you unlocked it.  The cat never appeared, but behind the mill we found evidence of other black and white residents.

The flat stone bridge over the stream had one section that rocked with a hollow tic-toc that marked your passing.  Oak trees shaded a vague path and hazels, already robbed of nuts, hung their soft round leaves at head height. The path skirted a small, steep sided valley so that the ground dropped away steeply on the right and rose up to a fence line on the left.  This was classically English habitat; damp, green, soft, small.  And pouring down from the fence line, in fan shaped sweeps, was the evidence that we shared these woodlands with badgers.

There were half a dozen fans of excavated soil below the fence line, and moving away from them in many directions were paths of flattened plants.  The bottom wires of the fence line held clumps of stiff hair, and one of the flattened paths carried on out into the uncut summer meadow beyond. 

I liberated a few handfuls of peanuts from the bird feeders and scattered them near the entrances to the sett.  Peanuts are essentially Badger crack – a combination of tastes and textures that they find irresistible.  We left the peanuts to do their addictive best.  The next morning they were gone; not a single one remained in sight.  The piles were replenished in anticipation of the coming evening.

At just past dusk we walked out over the flat-slab stone bridge that spanned the stream behind the mill.  The noise of the water, increased by overnight rain, covered the tic-toc of the wobbling slab. The sett itself was just over a slight rise, maybe some form of mill archaeology long buried in leaf litter.  Whatever its origin the rise and the voice of the river allowed us to walk to within a few meters of the setts unseen and unheard.  I had briefed the kids on the need for silence – a fool’s errand if ever there was one – and to my surprise it seemed to be working.  We moved forward a feather step at a time until we could see into the mouth of the nearest hole.  And there was our target, in one of the entrances to the sett hidden below a hazel thicket – just a black and white shape really – busily hoovering up my offering of peanuts.  It was hard not to laugh; you could hear all kinds of munching and slorphing noises emerging from the gloom.

(01-09-1992: Upper Teesdale; Micro Nav and Nav Practice behind High Force; Loads of rabbits)

This was more a proof of concept sighting than real badger watching, but it set us up for the nights that followed.   There was something undoubtedly magical about having badgers just over the stream.  Of course our presence made little different to the badgers (peanuts excepted), who, from the size of the sett, had probably been there for many years.  But it made this a special place for me; a place that was so rooted in classic Englishness that it bordered on caricature but for all that it was real.  I took a small piece of woodland and let it become all the things I missed in my new home.  It became a distillation of the things I thought I would do, before my journey took an unexpected turn and I headed south.

Of course it was none of the things I made it.  It was just a small patch of Cumbria, as distinct and different as it was homely and reassuring.  But for one week, for me, it became so much more. 

A few evenings later we were all sat around the base of an oak tree in the gathering darkness of the evening.  The midges, tiny biting flies which are surely the product of the dark side of evolution, were mercifully scarce and the mosquitoes largely absent.  We could hear a badger eating its fix of peanuts, but all we could see was a lumpy form in the deep shadow of the sett entrance.  The badger, presumably having finished its peanut starter dish, emerged from the shadows and trotted stiff legged up the slope, away from us and towards the fence line.  I assumed it would disappear into the meadow beyond, but the crashing and rustling up by the fence suggested otherwise.  At this point it became clear that badgers do not have a stealth mode.  The badger was uphill from us and this meant that every so often a face would appear silhouetted against the relative lightness of the sky.  A triangular face with rounded teddy bear ears would look down the slope in our direction.  I’m sure that the badger knew we were there, somewhere, but it was unable to determine where.  It turned its head so that its long snout pointed off to the left – a perfect silhouette of the long angular face.  You could just make out the pale markings.  There was more crashing from above us and I am convinced that there was more than one animal up there – maybe young ones, clumsy at the world’s novelty.  The woodland falls quiet, save for the whispered reports of bats from my children.

The rocky stone bridge welcomes us back home.  A Tawny Owl kricks from somewhere further down the valley.  The back door clicks shut. I pour a beer.  Out in the woodlands the badgers go about their night-time chores.

Early morning sunlight filters through the trees that shade the mill.  Motes of dust.  Light beams.  The cool of a summer morning moves through the open window and promises clear skies and light winds.  I listen to the woodland awake as my family lies asleep. 

05-02-1991: Lake District: Tranearth, Walna Scar Rr, Boulder Valley, Levers Water, Coniston Fells, Tilberthwaite.  Overcast, Snow in afternoon; With Pat Parker)

Behind the village of Coniston a steep road runs up and away from the valley floor with its stone edged fields and solid slate built houses.  It’s a road to traumatise drivers used to freeways and city slopes.  The very top of the steepest part is marked by a sharp left hand corner, followed by a right.  The very end of the road is marked by a gate – The Fell Gate – that separates the enclosed lowlands fields from the open fell beyond.  The Gate and the wall it passes through are a clear boundary between two different, but linked worlds.  But it is also a meeting place where things long disconnected come together and reconnect.  Uplands and lowlands.  Summer pasture and winter shelter.  And it is a place where you can arrange to meet friends with the certainty that everybody knows the place you mean.

There is a car park of sorts beyond the gates, which slowly starts to fill. Most of the cars are driven by people I have not seen for years, and the back seats are filled with children I have never met.  Twenty years have passed since we all worked for the YMCA (please don’t sing the song) on the shores of Windermere. Five years, ten years, even twenty years have passed since I last saw some of these people but the smiles of recognition are ready and real.  We all used to take other peoples’ children into the mountains, and now we have met to do the same thing with children of our own. So many meetings and collisions, so many separations and reunions; so many story lines that intersected in the past briefly reconnected, at the Coniston Fell Gate

With the exception of a few of the kids we had all done this walk before, in winter, in summer, rain and sunshine, in company and on our own; sometimes carrying ropes accompanied by the tambourine rattle of climbing gear, sometimes carrying little more than a flask of coffee and pack of Eccles Cakes (Made with Real Butter).

(07-02-1993; Dow Crag Coniston, Giants Crawl, Grade; Diff. Multi Pitch.  Very Wet and incredible slime; Escaped to Easy Terrace; Epic Day out with Glyn M)

On this day some people brought children and some brought dogs, some brought both.  Some brought cameras and walking poles.  Everybody brought chocolate. Everybody brought memories. 

The walk was probably incidental, just an excuse for slow moving conversations and selective catching up – nobody needs to hear the bad stuff.  We walk along the Walna Scar Road, once a thoroughfare between valleys, but now more trod for pleasure than commerce. I pass the spot where I first met Nick, who in later years would come to Australia to be at my wedding; the start of a story to say the least.

We turn right, uphill, towards Goats Water and Dow Crag where we stop for the ritual of morning tea.  Rock chairs or beds are chosen as suits the individual.  Beyond the water the path rises steeply and I stop to take pictures and catch my breath.  At the summit – The Old Man of Coniston – the jokes are predictable and well known.  The land falls away in all directions.  Memories rise from all directions.  The walk back to the car is too short for all the conversations that come to mind.

The Old Man was the first hill in The Lakes I know I climbed.  For a while it will also be the last. 


(12-07-2014 Lake District: See above)