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.

A Little Village in Northern India…

Having bludgeoned all my readers with posts about Making Friends with the Crocodile recently, I thought it would be only fair to share a few pictures of villages in Northern India for the benefit of those who have not been there. It gives a flavour of the (fictitious) village I write about in the novel.

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Village street

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Pigs foraging on waste ground

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Morning

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Farm

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Hindu Temple

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Sunrise

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Village outskirts

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Hi jinks during the festival of Holi

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Goats at rest

The Weald of Kent and Sussex

South East England is my area. It is where I was raised and, other than a few years spent abroad, it is where I have lived my whole life. In particular, the Weald and the Downs. Not so much the coastline, which has never particularly attracted me, but the hills and valleys, the woodlands and rabbits, the hidden crags and open downland, the land of streams and foxes and badgers, birds and villages and butterflies.

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On the Sussex Downs

There is a curious fact about the wooded areas of South east England, which is that there is more woodland, covering a greater area now, than was the case four hundred years ago.

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Back then, South East England was the industrial heartland of Britain. This was before the discovery of the coal seams of the North and the Midlands, and the various factors which would eventually lead to the greatest impact of the Industrial revolution being in those areas.  Instead, the modest iron deposits of the Weald were mined and worked into firedogs and nails, cannon and cooking pans, as the wealth of words such as hammer and forge in place names still bear witness.

 

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Huge numbers of trees were cut down to feed the fires of these forges, and huge numbers also for charcoal burning, for building, and near the coast the great Kent and Sussex oaks were in huge demand to build the large number of ships the navy demanded. But then from the mid eighteenth century onwards, industry began to shift northwards.

Despite the pressures on the land for building and for farming in this crowded corner of our crowded island, there is actually more woodland now than there was during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. And that is not something that can be said of many parts of Britain or, I suspect, many parts of the world at all.

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The Weald is an area whose underlying rocks are sandstone and clay, which means that the unimproved soils are inevitably either light and sandy or thick and claggy. In some parts there are old sunken tracks known as ‘Summer Roads’, so-called because they became impassable in the winter months, when they might have had a foot or more of thick, wet, muddy, clay on their surface. When these were in use, journeys between villages that might take an hour or two in summer, could became almost impossibly long during the winter.

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At the moment, all everything in the news seems depressing and unpleasant and so, this post is an indulgence. Just a smattering of information, and a few photos of places I love, largely to improve my mood.

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It was after posting my series of poems ‘The Old Way‘, last week, and also mentioning that I’d almost completed a very long poem on a very long bus journey, that made me think of travel again. Not that that is unusual, of course. I’d nip off on another journey at the drop of a hat if I had the chance, but for the time being we can’t afford to do that.

But, I am planning to publish those poems and a whole lot more, plus a few short stories, in a book some time later this year, as well as the Indian novel I’m currently editing – A Good Place. Two book in one year! We’ll see how that pans out…

But…Spain. Mallorca, this time, to be precise. Mallorca is the largest of the Balearic islands and lies in the Mediterranean Sea about a hundred miles east of the Spanish city of Valencia.

If you were to do a Google search for Mallorca (Go on, now I’ve mentioned it you can’t resist, can you?), you would be forgiven, looking at the results, for thinking there was nothing on the island other than the city of Palma, beaches, swimming pools, hotels and night clubs.

And you would be very wrong.

Certainly, there’s plenty of that if you want it, but there is also the rest of the island, which measures approximately fifty miles by forty miles, and contains some surprisingly big hills and mountains, small villages and towns, orchards, fields and woodlands, hiking trails and Roman and Moorish remains.

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I’ve only had one visit there, and after flying into Palma I took the train up into the Tramuntana, the range of mountains on the north west of the island, to the little town of Soller. From there I walked up into the mountains themselves and spent the next couple of days just wandering around and exploring, sleeping overnight in a stone refuge.

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Luxury holiday accommodation at about 2000ft.

But there was a lot of rain arriving, and I retreated back to Soller for the remainder of my week, finding a room in a cheap backstreet hotel and spending the days exploring the lower hills and villages, and some of the coast nearby.

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Lots of rain arriving.

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View from the window of my other luxury holiday accommodation in Soller. Lots of rain still arriving.

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But it wasn’t all rain. There were lots of little villages to explore…

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Farms, and hills to wander around in…

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Village church

…and lots of bread and cheese and fruit and wine to enjoy. Not that you need to see a picture of that.

 

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I’ve been to Spain a dozen or so times, although I’ve never posted about it before.

I’ve been there as a tourist / traveller – the words are interchangeable, and where one stops and the other begins is very much a matter of personal taste. Some travellers would be highly offended if you referred to them as tourists, yet the Oxford dictionary defines a tourist as a person who makes a tour, a traveller, esp. for recreation. It is a snob thing, really. Many travellers like to think of themselves as being too serious to be a mere tourist. Perhaps it has a lot to do with that word tour, with the inference it is an organised thing, probably by a travel company, and probably full of holiday-makers who need to be guided around these awkward foreign places and told what to see and do. A Package Tour, perhaps. And so also that word recreation.

And I can be as guilty of that snobbish attitude as the next traveller. I can think of a number of times when I’ve been travelling and said ‘I’m just going to be a tourist, today‘, when I’ve felt like a day just wandering around a place and taking photographs and sitting in cafes.

Mea culpa.

I’ve also had the pleasure of going to Spain numerous times as an instructor with a group, and spending a week taking people canoeing, walking and climbing. So, all that and getting paid for it, too. Pretty fortunate, actually.

If you have ever read the book As I walked out one midsummer morning by Laurie Lee, which is the follow-up book to Cider with Rosie, you will know it is the record of his journey on foot through Spain in the 1930’s, just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. It is a truly marvellous book, and well worth anyone’s time reading it, but I mention it only because I wanted to do something like that, and so my second visit to Spain was to spend a couple of weeks walking in the hills and mountains in the South of the country.

I flew into Malaga, I walked out of Malaga.

Heading north, the walker quickly gets into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the mountain chain that extends for a couple of hundred miles parallel to the south coast of Spain. And for the best part of the next two weeks I worked my way first Eastwards, and then Westwards back to Malaga, avoiding roads wherever possible. I slept each night on a hillside, or in the corner of a field, or anywhere else convenient where I could lay out my sleeping bag away from town or village.

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As a journey, it was not without its difficulties – finding water was frequently a problem. Passing through villages there would inevitably be a tap somewhere I could fill up my bottles (and myself; I rapidly learned the thing to do was to drink as much as I possibly could when I found a water supply!), but away from any habitation it was a lot harder. Many water courses had dried up and I had to take every opportunity to fill up.

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But as a way of seeing the Spain that few casual visitors see, it was unrivalled.

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When the Arabs conquered part of Spain in the early part of the eighth century, they created water courses known as Falaj (which can still be seen in use in many countries such as Oman and Iran) to channel water over long distances. This one is still in use now in the Sierra Nevada.

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Morning View…

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…and a dusk photo at one of my wild camps. 

The Old Way 6

Poem #6 of 6. The end of the journey.

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The Old Way 6

 

When the square sails of the invading Romans

First appeared over the horizon,

This path was already ancient.

When the first sword was forged,

When the giant stones were placed

In mysterious alignments,

This path was already old.

Only when the great ice giants

Relaxed their grip on the land

Were these paths young.

These are paths to tread reverently,

Mindful of those countless others

Who also once passed this way.

Friend, take your place on this journey,

You are in fine company.

The Old Way 5

Poem five out of six.

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The Old Way 5

 

The Old Way now rises,

Leaving the rich damp soil behind

And attacking the ridge.

It becomes a wound, a scar,

A deep, dry incision in the chalk.

It runs up beneath the shelter of ancient trees,

Their roots knotted and matted beside the path,

It passes a mound, faintly visible in the turf;

The ghost of a cottage, if buildings can become ghosts.

Although is there any reason why they shouldn’t?

If they die abandoned, deserted and unloved,

After long years, perhaps only their sadness remains.

 

There are other ghosts here, too.

You might tell me it is only in my imagination

That I hear the plod of hooves, or

Voices speaking in strange tongues,

That I hear the creaking of cart and harness.

But I have heard them.

I know that we are walking in the footsteps of giants,

And giants do not fade away readily.

 

 

Sunday Morning

It’s hard to think that just a few days ago we were enjoying exceptionally warm and sunny days for the time of year. This morning the weather is grey and windy and wet, although it is still quite mild.

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That was then…

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…and this is now.

The cats have made it clear they are not going out this morning. One is at the back door obviously pleading with me to do something about the weather. But he always does that when the weather turns bad. And I suppose it makes sense; he knows we give him food and shelter and all the cushions he can sit on, so we must be gods and can therefore fix anything. Surely?

I want to write a review for a book this morning, but I’m finding it hard to get going. That Sunday morning feeling. Getting up late and taking a long time over coffee, indulging ourselves by listening to choral music by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.

Staring out at the weather.

I am in the process of completing a long poem about a long journey – one that shaped, in many ways, much of the art I practise now. Well, not a long journey in strictly temporal terms, but a bus journey from Delhi to Kathmandu that took about thirty hours, the first of many long bus journeys I have taken in India and Nepal. Sometime afterwards, I had wanted to find a way of recording my impressions of this journey, and toyed with a few earlier poems, and then some watercolour painting, and what amounted to prose in the form of reportage, but nothing seemed to work. This led me to experiment with my painting styles in acrylics, giving rise to the semi-abstract style I have used to paint a number of Indian scenes.

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That was another then. Not the then I was talking about, but another. Quite a similar then, though.

I assumed I’d never get around to recording that journey satisfactorily.

But last month we were travelling home on a bus after dark, going through open countryside near home. I was gazing out of the window into the darkness, when I began to understand exactly how I wanted to write that poem, over *cough* thirty years ago…

And now it is almost finished, with just a bit of tweaking to do.