The Joy of Unknowing (2)

As soon as I had written my last blog post, I thought of this piece I wrote quite a long time ago which offers a similar take on travel and navigation. I am tempted to tidy it up a bit and perhaps update it to mention GPS, but instead I’ll leave it as it is.

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When I was a teenager, I began to use maps, although in rather an ad hoc, hit and miss manner. They were there for me when I was really stuck, or just wanted to know which general direction something lay. It would be a very long time before I began to use them in a careful, detailed way, able to predict the exact lie of the land, navigate in the fog or the dark, find my way through complicated landscapes with the map and compass. And, do you know, since I’ve learned to do that, I feel as though I’ve lost something rather magical, although I don’t suppose that I can blame it all on that. The maps that I was using as a teenager would tend to be the Bartholomew’s touring maps, small scale with little detail. I would feel, as I headed along a Cornish footpath, that I only knew roughly where I was going. It felt like an adventure, an exploration.

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Now, I need to be more and more remote to get that feeling, and even then it does not always work. Having just spent some time in Ladakh, in the Himalaya in the far north of India, I was surprised at just how easy all of my walking was. Setting off with map and compass, I always knew exactly where I was, only confused at times by the multiplicity of tracks criss-crossing the landscape. Even then, reference to mountains and villages with map and compass would invariably allow me to set my position. It doesn’t mean that I wanted to get lost, just that there was a small part of me that said ‘even this is all tame!’ Equally, I can be put off, by using the map, by the knowledge that over the interesting looking ridge that I was heading for, lies a motorway or building estate, and so I spend ages trying to plot a route that I try to get perfect, rather than simply heading off in the direction that I want to go and exploring as I go, correcting my course as I travel.

Nothing can tempt me more than a track leading tantalisingly into the distance, perhaps meandering through Mediterranean scrub towards a notch in the skyline, perhaps leading through a glowing archway of trees. Even now, when using map and compass to navigate, I often have to resist the temptation to ignore the map and head off to follow an interesting looking track. I think that this must be a part of my ‘I wonder what’s over the other side of the hill?’ nature. It is another reason why I’ve never been able to lie on a beach – apart from the fact that it seems a particularly pointless pastime in any case. Any time that I’ve tried it, it never seems to be more than a couple of minutes before I begin to think ‘What’s round the cliff?’ or ‘If I head back up the river, I think I might find a way through those hills.’ And then I just have to go to find out.

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The Joy of Unknowing (1)

We have just returned from a few days away in Shropshire, which is one reason you haven’t heard from me recently.

We were incredibly lucky with the weather, and spent the time walking and reading and mooching around towns and villages. And finding time for the occasional meal and cold beer, of course.

Yes, we did some lovely walks. And I find it a natural thing to be constantly identifying and photographing whatever I see when out for a walk. I have always been interested in all aspects of the environment, be it the plants and animals, the geography and geology, the weather, or the historical impact of people on the environment in forms such as old trackways, deserted buildings, or ancient boundaries.

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And we have spent several fantastic days surrounded by an environment rich in all these things, as we have walked through woods, fields, and open hillsides, seen ancient settlements, butterflies, birds, and many wildflowers, and all this in an area of some of the most complex geology in the UK.

But sometimes I feel myself tiring of the constant need to identify and record everything; it is really a way of trying to own them.

And when you post on social media too, it can feel at times a little like a competition to put up the best pictures of this or that wildflower or bird or mountain, which naturally need to be identified and named. Especially on Twatter, whose format seems to encourage this.

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So, on our first morning away, as we walk up a track heading into the hills above Church Stretton, under early morning blue skies with the air crystal clear and beautifully cool, I decide that for now I am just going to exist in the moment.

Because by doing this, I am relieved of the constant necessity of deciding whether this bird is a rook or a crow, or whether that flower is greater stitchwort or lesser stitchwort.

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Because it doesn’t really matter.

And for now, instead of having to always know whether it is this or that bird singing, I can allow myself to simply think there is singing. There is birdsong.

Or, even better, there is a sound I find melodic, and it pleases me.

By doing this, I can relax and centre myself, which is something I feel has been badly lacking in my life recently. I have struggled with social media in any case, feeling a huge pressure to post new material and to read the many I follow, even when I don’t feel up to it.

It feels like a return to a much simpler time in my life. I can enjoy the views of the hills, the sounds of the streams and birds, and just concentrate on being.

This must have been part of the pleasure I felt as a child on every occasion when I could roam outdoors. Certainly, I was curious about what I saw, but since I knew so little about them, there was always an openness to the experience and the excitement of discovery. I would see butterflies I had not seen before, and I would just get the thrill of seeing them without having to know anything more about them. I would see wildflowers I didn’t recognise and just enjoy the shapes and colours.

Naturally, you cannot really unknow things in that way, just as you cannot really return to that point in your childhood, but it is possible, even if for only a short while, to let go of the need to identify and quantify (and therefore own) everything, and simply exist in the here and now.

Strolling in Sussex (1)

Yesterday, I went for a bit of a walk. The oppressive humidity of the previous day had lessened, fortunately, and it was an overcast morning with a cool breeze.

Just the way I like it.

I decided to take the train a few stops down the line, where I could get out at one of those stations that bears the name of a village a mile or so away but stands on its own in the middle of the countryside. The nearest building (other than the station itself) is a farm. Hopefully I could have a day’s gentle walking with nothing more demanding around me than birds, insects, trees and wildflowers.

I really, really, needed to do that.

It seemed a good start at the station. A good omen. While waiting for my train to draw in, my eye was drawn to a single large, white, bindweed flower in the tangle of brambles and vines and bushes, trees and garden plants escaped and gone native that serves as a barrier behind the platform.

Most gardeners hate bindweed. I suppose we do, really. Once it gets into the garden it grows at a ridiculously rapid rate and strangles any other plants in its way. And even pulling it up doesn’t get rid of it. It just regenerates. I tell you, come the end of days it will just be scorpions, cockroaches and bindweed left.

But this flower looked lovely. The largest, pure white, bindweed flowers often remind me of the calla lily, only a calla lily that is not so…let’s say…excited. One of my favourite artists is Georgia O’Keeffe. I’ve probably told you that before. But O’Keeffe was particularly known for painting large flower paintings, many of them more than a little ‘suggestive’. And the calla lily was one of her favourites. I’d show you one of hers but, you know, copyright and all that. I’ll leave you to look it up if you wish to.

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So, here’s the bindweed flower.

Anyway, I got on my train and later I got off at the correct station and began walking along the footpath and got shouted at by some sheep.

Really, there’s no other way to describe it. On one side of the footpath were a couple of dozen sheep in a field where the grass had been cropped very short and there seemed to be very little left for them to eat. As soon as they saw me, they came rushing over to the fence bleating loudly. Obviously demanding to be re-housed in the field on the other side of the footpath.

In that field, thick lush grass was being munched by a couple of dozen quite contented sheep. I didn’t hear a (Bo) peep out of them.

‘Really sorry,’ I told them. ‘I can’t help you.’ I walked on feeling oddly guilty.

But I got over it.

 

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For the rest of the morning I walked slowly through fields and along lanes, stopping frequently to look at flowers and insects and, really, just enjoying being where I was.

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Bridge over the railway

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I was just beginning to think it must be lunchtime when my path took me through a field of long grass.

This field lay between a stream I had just crossed, and a wood where I was heading. The wood stood a little higher than the surrounding fields, and the long grass of the field I was to cross was thick and green. The breeze caught the top of the grass, so it waved like the sea or a large lake and as I began to wade through it, it really did feel as though I waded through water.

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And there was the drag of the grass against my legs, and the top of the grass sparkled a little in the breeze, just as wavelets would. And there was also the sense that I was not quite sure what I might suddenly step upon. Just to complete the illusion, there were also some lovely blue damselflies darting around.

Then I finally stepped ashore at the edge of the wood, walked up a slight sandy slope that might have been a beach, and sat down to eat my sandwich.

Now, I have to tell you that this was the best sandwich in the world, and I won’t brook any disagreement. Thick wholemeal bread, cheese, several large slices of raw onion, and several thick slices of tomato. Perhaps it was my mood, and the setting, but it was damned good.

And then it was time to explore the wood.

Those Old Paths

We seem to be in the middle of a spell of warm, sunny weather. It seems Spring really has arrived, although things could always change quickly, of course. But it’s the sort of weather that tempts me out to go walking as much as I can. We are extremely fortunate in the UK to have such a wonderful network of footpaths, open to the public.

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Dartmoor footpath

Many of the ancient tracks are still just that; just trackways that have never been turned into roads over the years. Often, this is due to their locations in the landscapes they traverse. Neolithic or Bronze Age man lived in a landscape that frequently comprised dense, almost impenetrable, forest, with networks of streams meandering through marshy lowlands, and wherever possible they would utilise the higher ground to move around, and hence we have long-distance footpaths today still following these same routes such as the Ridgeway, while modern roads tend to utilise the lower, flatter land where possible. Walking these Old Ways (and it is impossible to even mention them without referencing Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful book, The Old Ways!) always gives me goosebumps, as I feel I’m following in the steps of these prehistoric travellers.

And yes, we are lucky. Not only do we have so many of these paths, but we have the right to walk them whenever we please. But this has not always been the case. Up until comparatively recently, huge areas of the British countryside were owned by the landed gentry who denied the public any access. In 1932, the first mass trespass by five hundred men and women at Kinder Scout, in the Peak District, led to the imprisonment of five of the trespassers but this led to a second, three weeks later at nearby Castleton, involving ten thousand trespassers.

This growing movement, demanding the right to roam, led eventually to the creation of the first of the national parks in 1951, and to the Countryside Right Of Way act in 2000. So today it is possible to walk plentiful footpaths pretty well anywhere in the country, thanks to this incredibly successful movement of direct action.

My header picture at the very top of the page, incidentally, is a view of the Peak District looking towards Kinder Scout.

And it’s another gorgeous day today, so we’re off for a walk to make the most of it. I’ll catch up with everyone later.