Autumn Equinox

Often, it still feels like summer at this time of year, but I feel autumn has truly arrived now. This morning I walked a path I haven’t walked for a week or more to find the sun was that much lower than it had been and I was constantly having to shade my eyes. It’s all about colours, now. Colours and the cooling of the world. Russet. Browns. Fading drab greens. Yellows and orange. Autumn can be beautiful, although it can also be dull and dreary and occasionally fierce. But mornings often arrive with an added sparkle, with heavy dews on cobwebs and leaves glinting in the low sun, hedgerows of thistledown, rosehips, and hawthorn. There is usually a freshness in the air, especially in the mornings, which has been absent for most of the summer, that invariably lifts my spirits.

I like summer, of course I do, but the arrival of autumn reminds me in some ways of the arrival of spring. In spring we have the stirring of life after a long period of hibernation, whereas the beginning of autumn always feels to me like the start of a new, second, outburst of life. Many plants have a sudden growth spurt, fruits and nuts and berries swell and glow and are plundered by birds and beasts. It is still warm, warm enough to bask in the sun and to feel hot walking up even quite gentle hills.

The Equinox occurs on Friday (at 2.03am in the UK, to be precise) and after this the hours of darkness outnumber the hours of daylight until the end of next March (counting dusk and pre-dawn as night time). After this, the year always feels to me quite different, even if the weather from the one day to the next is much the same. I can already feel myself slipping into a different place; the logs for the burner have arrived and have been stacked ready for use. The apples have been picked, shortly to be wrapped and stored away. Much in the garden is in the process of being cut back for winter. When the days are short and the nights are long, there will be many books to read, lots of music to listen to, a few beers to drink, and many long conversations to be had.

But also many long walks as well, I hope. I love winter too.

A Scottish Coast to Coast Walk (3)

22nd April 1994

Today the intention is to take it as easy as possible.

Loch Duich

Last night, after a fruitless search for treats I cooked myself some supper and then decided to walk on for another half a dozen miles or so with a view to just leaving a token walk into Kyle of Lochalsh. But I’d already done a good twenty miles already, and it was a really stupid move. Eventually I bivvied just off the side of the road, with the weather closing in rapidly. Clouds were rolling down the mountainsides and coming up the loch. By the time I was in my sleeping bag all hell broke loose. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like it. The wind howled and shrieked and at times it screamed. And the rain that accompanied it absolutely hammered down. It seemed to go on for most of the night and I lay there unable to sleep for the noise.

Castle Eilean Donnan

But by six the rain had stopped and the wind dropped, although it was still having a good old blow. I got up, packed up, then walked a mile or so back up the road to get a photo of Castle Eilean Donnan which I’d passed in semi-darkness the previous evening.

Through the rest of the morning I walked along the side of the loch through alternate rain and sun and constant gusting winds. Or perhaps ‘limped’ would be a better description, since I was now extremely footsore, and perhaps that contributed to a slight sense of let down when I got to Kyle. Still, that was my target and I’ve achieved it in around three and a half days. I will have covered around eighty to eighty five miles and since a lot of it was over steep hills and bog, I’m quite pleased with that.

Looking down Loch Aish towards the Isle of Skye

I think it’s important to state here that even if I still enjoyed the same levels of fitness and stamina I enjoyed almost thirty years ago, and was able to repeat this walk, I would not do it this way.

I’ve no wish to set records and, really, I did not wish to do so then, but there is a sort of perverse pride that says ‘Look, I can walk thirty miles a day’, although that is not the only reason I covered so much ground each day. It was the middle of summer in Scotland, with very long daylight hours. The temptation to use them to do ‘just another couple of miles’ was too much at times.

Skye from Kyle of Lochalsh

And now I’m in a cheap guest house and about to have a shower and go out to find a café. Or maybe even a pub.

I suspect I’ll sleep well tonight.

A Scottish Coast to Coast Walk (2)

20th June 1994

It rained during the night, but when I emerge from my bivvi in the morning it has eased to an occasional drizzle. Down the valley to the east, the sun is glittering on the trees, while the hilltops are shrouded in cloud. Cotton grass and heather dance around me in the breeze, and it is warm.

Glen Coiltie, looking west.

Through the morning, I work my way further west up Glen Coiltie, the wind slowly increasing in strength and the drizzle turning gradually to heavy rain. When I top a final ridge and begin to head down towards Loch Aslaich the wind positively howls. I plod along and gradually up onto a plateau where the path simply disappears. With the low cloud drifting across at ground level this becomes a good test of my navigational skills.

The weather worsens again. At times I stop just to retreat further into my waterproofs rather like a turtle withdrawing its head into its shell. It is a lovely landscape, desolate and wild, but just too wet and windy to enjoy, never mind even to think of taking any photos.

By the evening I am alongside Loch Beinn a Mheadhoin, after a long, wet, day. For a couple of miles I had been looking for somewhere to camp, but the path was through old pine forest and the ground was several feet deep in fallen logs and branches, all covered in moss and lichen. Eventually I find a spot near a waterfall amongst a few birches at one edge of the lake. It is a lovely spot, but I know what will await me in the morning.

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I unzip my bivvi and immediately a huge cloud of midges descends upon me. I forego breakfast for the moment and pack up as quickly as I can, flapping my arms around ineffectively and swearing my very bestest swears.

Not the best place to camp, beside open water with lots of tree cover

Soon enough, though, I am away from the water and ahead of me snowy peaks rear up above the trees. The thrill is upon me again! As I walk through the morning, the clouds are lowering and thickening again, but for now the rain holds off, for which I am thankful. It had been so wet the previous day the rain had managed to soak everything inside my rucksack. During the night I had gradually brought maps and clothes into my sleeping bag for my body heat to dry out. By the morning probably about half of it was dry.

It is colder than yesterday. The snowline looks to be lower here; I am at about three hundred meters and there are pockets of snow level with me on the mountains nearby. But with the improved weather as well as the scenery, my mood is much better and I am enjoying just being part of the environment. It reminds me of other walks and treks I have done – I keep thinking of Nepal! – and in this mood the miles seem to melt away as I walk. The previous day, at one point I had managed less than five miles in three hours up on the plateau in the atrocious weather, so this day is a huge improvement.

The Five Sisters in the distance and Creag a Chaorainn on the right,

I follow a river for a while, and where the water is moving slowly I can really appreciate how beautifully crystal clear it is, even though it has a deep brown hue from the peat. There are tiny orchids in the grass, although I don’t know their name, but few other flowers just here.

An Tudair on the left and Sgurr na Lapaich on the right

And now I pass a couple of walkers and we stop for a brief chat. These are the first people I have seen since leaving Inverness and although yesterday the weather was so bad that only idiots would have been out in it (or one idiot, anyway), in a world of five and a half billion people, to spend a whole day travelling without seeing another soul from dawn to dusk is an increasing rarity.

River Affric near Athnamulloch. The sheep track is so worn it has almost become a tunnel.

I stop for an early lunch and then soon after I set off again I find the path disappears in a particularly boggy area and, predictably, it begins to rain. I take a compass bearing and step forward cautiously. Half a kilometre later I find the path again and the rain stops. Now I go uphill again, over the Eionngleann (lots of these names sound as though they come from Lord of the Rings), down into a long valley where the weather comes in again, and down to the village of Carn-gorm. The village sits at the head of Loch Duich, which joins Loch Aish and this opens up to the Atlantic Ocean. I’m definitely in Western Scotland now. Now to see if there’s anywhere in the village to get a pizza or something more interesting than what’s left in my rucksack.

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Looking North West down Gleann Lichd, my route down to Carn-gorm

A Scottish Coast to Coast Walk(1)

Click on map to enlarge

18th June 1994

My coach got into Inverness at 8.10pm after almost twelve hours on the road, and I was more than ready to begin walking. With over two hours of daylight left, I aimed to get well clear of the city and find a good spot to camp for the night. I grabbed a bag of chips from a chippy, then followed the Caledonian Canal southwest for about four miles, left it and climbed a little more to the west to find somewhere to sleep. I filled my water bottle from a stream, then wandered into a little wood and got out my bivvi tent and settled down for the night, black clouds heading slowly towards me as I did so.

Altourie – rain clouds coming in from the west. Torr Mor in Foreground

19th June 1994

This morning is dry and bright, but quite windy. I boiled some water for coffee and set off as soon as I could, intending to make the most of the good weather. Today I intend to cover quite a few miles on side roads which I hope will be carrying very little traffic and so get a substantial fraction of the journey under my belt before the weather gets any worse. This is Scotland, after all. I‘m expecting rain. It should also break me in gently, being easier ground than much I expect to have to walk. So, I’m aiming for Urquhart Castle, which overlooks Loch Ness and will be a slight diversion from my route but I just fancy having a look at it, and from there I can leave the road and follow the river southwest through Glen Coiltie before turning further towards the west.

As soon as I set off, I was walking straight into the teeth of a strong wind. Long distance footpaths are usually walked from west to east, at least in Britain, and there is a strong argument for that; we get the majority of our weather from the west, so by doing that we have the wind (and whatever it brings with it) at our backs. I’m walking it in the opposite direction not just because I am naturally perverse – or not only for that reason, anyway – but because the more interesting and exciting scenery will be on the west side of the country, and hence my destination. Walking from west to east I feel I would arrive at my destination with a certain amount of disappointment, with all due respect to Inverness which is a delightful city, but I’m after the spectacular wilderness.

So, into the teeth of a strong wind. It is not long, though, before I am walking through Abriachen Forest and I stop for a rest sheltered from the wind.

Abriachen Forest

I rather think Abriachen Forest has changed a little since I passed through there in 1994. I remember it as a dark wood of densely planted conifers, typical of the conifer woodlands planted in the middle to late twentieth century with the intention of producing the maximum possible yield of wood. The trees allow so little light through that other than the trees themselves – Douglas Fir and Sitka Spruce, typically – these plantations (forest is the wrong word) house very little life. But in 1998 the community of Abriachen (a small village) purchased 540 hectares of the woodland and since then have been improving it – thinning the trees, reintroducing native species and creating footpaths and trails.

But on the edge of the forest, and beside the road, there are a multitude of flowers: vetches, Ladies smock, and violets, particularly catch my eye. I draw away from the forest and I am back amongst a more natural landscape, with banks of pepperminty smelling gorse, occasional rowan trees in blossom and heather beginning to flower.

In places, the ground is bright with cotton grass

Now, for the first time, as I leave the road and walk uphill along a track towards the farm of Achpopuli, I get my first good view of large snow-covered mountains to he west. Once past the farm, I am on a supposed footpath heading up towards a saddle between two hill crests but the ground is extremely boggy and proves to be a taste of much of the rest of the route. My feet sink about six inches into either water or soft moss and heather, slowing my progress significantly. But then I m over, and down to a small loch where I stop to refill my water bottle and have a wash. I am surprised by how warm the water is, and I brave a quick dip as well as a shave.

Loch Glanaidh

On, then, to Urquhart Castle and then a little further out of my way to visit Divach falls, a waterfall with a drop of about a hundred feet. And near the bottom, primroses were still out.

Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness

Following a track up Glen Coiltie looking for a suitable spot to make my camp and cook supper I am walking through old forest, such a contrast to the plantation I walked through earlier. The trees are so covered in mosses and lichen it seems at times almost a wonder they are still alive. The path winds up and down and left and right and feels at times like a high mountain trail. Far below I hear the roar of the river, and for almost the first time that day feel I am absolutely in my element.

Eventually I make camp in a small hollow just below Carn a Bhainne. There is a low ridge towards the west which should shelter me from the worst of the wind. After I have eaten, I sit with a mug of tea looking across the river towards a snow pocket that is probably a couple of hundred meters higher than where I am.

What To Do?

What can you do when you lose all confidence in your own writing?

Write a post about my inability to write anything, I suppose.

It has been a real struggle for the last six months or so. It would be easy to blame Covid and lockdowns, and they might have played their part, but it goes deeper than that. I could blame some health issues I have, but that’s not the whole story. Every time I sit down to write, I feel stale and uninspired. Even when I have a day that seems to go well, when I read back what I have written later it seems contrived or forced. Uninteresting. I feel I have nothing worth saying; nothing anyone else would want to read.

I try to paint. I have ideas I want to try out, but it just won’t come. No sooner do I pick up a brush or a pencil than I feel I can’t be bothered with it all.

I know what part of the problem is: I want to go travelling. Travelling has always given me the opportunity to press the reset. I travel light. I write. Whether I go on a long walk or a trek, or just visit a place, it gives me the chance to reconnect with the world around me.

I was out for a walk this morning. Autumn has been here for a good six weeks or more, but it isn’t progressing very rapidly yet. Clearly, it is in no hurry. Although there are plenty of berries on the trees, the leaves seem reluctant to turn or to fall. On the other side of the wood I could see the hills towards the south, bluey-green in the distance. I always find this view really evocative, and it makes me want to grab my rucksack and disappear off for a few weeks. And that immediately makes me think of mountains. In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo says to Gandalf: ‘I want to see mountains again, Gandalf – mountains‘. He feels stale and tired of the familiar environment where he lives. (There’s more to it than just that in Bilbo’s case, of course.)

Well, that’s me.

Somewhere like this, perhaps!

Perhaps I’ll have a go at writing a few travel posts again. It has been quite a while since the last one. And before that I might re-post one or two of my earlier ones. Just to set the scene, as it were.

This way!

The Conquering Hero Comes!

This is another day when I feel frustrated because I’d like to be out travelling, although I did get to have a great long walk on the South Downs on Saturday. But rather than post about that at the moment, I have a fancy to re-post this piece I wrote a few years ago:

I’ve never wanted to ‘conquer’ mountains.

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Or any other parts of the world, really.

I’ve always felt this was the wrong way to think of a journey. It was ridiculous to think I could impose my will upon a mountain, or on a desert, or indeed upon any part of my route. That I could, perhaps, somehow bend it to my will.

I feel it is more a case of preparing as best as possible, including mentally, and then perhaps said mountain will tolerate my presence; will allow me passage.

‘Conquering’ also carries the implication of invasion, of fighting, of strife. That is not the sort of relationship I want with mountains, or with any other place I choose to travel.

Certainly, in the past I have travelled at least partly with that mindset at times.

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Some of you may recall I wrote about an extremely foolish journey I took in Oman when I lived there over thirty years ago (Mr. Stupid Goes For a Walk). Although I was running low on water, I pushed myself to the limit to reach the final ridge of hills on the route I had decided I was going to achieve one day, nearly killing my stupid self in the process. And although I achieved my aim, I didn’t feel victorious.

Only a bit stupid.

I prefer instead to think of myself as a visitor. And as a visitor, I need to have some manners. You do not expect to find the visitors pushing through your house and demanding to see this or to be given that, so I don’t.

I am not out to break records, nor to prove how tough I am.

This does not imply a lack of ambition, nor a lack of determination. Indeed, I have both – it’s just that the mindset is a little different. In particular, I give myself different priorities. I want to reach my goal but if I don’t, it does not matter. I think I’m more attuned to my own safety, and perhaps that of others. I hope I can be receptive to the feelings of others, too.

A good example in the climbing world is that of the mountains in Nepal that climbers are forbidden to reach the summit of, due to the belief that they are the abode of gods. Theoretically, a climber will stop some 10 meters or so short of the summit. Opinion is naturally divided over whether a climber would, or wouldn’t, in the absence of any witnesses, respect that ban.

I would respect it every time.

The mountains, of course, are inanimate. They do not wish me harm or otherwise. Neither do deserts or oceans. Even the most inhospitable of landscapes is neutral. It does not care whether I succeed in my aim to reach or traverse a particular part of it, and it will not hinder or help me in the attempt.

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My feelings about a landscape are just my reactions to it, and if I should choose to give this landscape a kindly or vindictive character, I am only projecting my own feelings onto it.

This may give me comfort, or otherwise, but will make no material difference.

Maybe I am simply suggesting it’s good to travel with humility.

I have touched upon that before!

The Barrow

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On wind-sucked Sussex chalklands

Rises a barrow older than itself;

A mock-maternal swell of earth,

Long overdue.

 

O my land!

Let me hug you close and put my ear to your bump!

I will listen for the sounds within!

 

But tell me,

If it is true that it only contains

The remains of the dead,

Then why do I hear a heartbeat?

David Nash and Impermanence

A few days ago we went to the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, Sussex, specifically to see the Eric Ravilious paintings and prints on permanent exhibition there. There was also a large exhibition by the sculptor David Nash, who works with wood on a large scale. The fact that the whole exhibition, which also included a gallery of paintings, prints and a couple of small installations, and was intended to highlight the effects of the Climate Crisis, was the first one ever curated by Caroline Lucas M.P. of the Green Party was an added bonus for me.

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As much as I enjoyed the Ravilious, I was blown away by Nash’s sculptures. To see wooden sculptures on that scale is unusual in itself – usually that would be the preserve of stone or metal – but that very scale plays tricks with the mind and the eye. Boxes and bowls many times larger than one would expect meet the eye as you walk around the galleries, and many of the pieces also deceive where perhaps one looks to be made from several separate pieces of wood, but on closer inspection are carved from a single block like the boat shapes in the top picture, or the ‘stack’ in the one below that.

Much of the work is left rough-hewn, but even this can be deceptive. Some pieces have been carefully finished to give that appearance.

Sculpture is the art form that seems to exist to interact with the natural world. A number of the works here are based on natural forms, but there are also stories of projects Nash has undertaken where his sculpture is either living, in the form of carefully planted and managed groves of trees, or interact in other ways.

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‘Boulder’ is one such project. One of the first large-scale pieces Nash made was to cut a boulder-shaped chunk from a tree (illustrated at the top of Nash’s charcoal drawing above) in 1978. This was then transported to a stream near to where he lives and works, in the Welsh hills, and rolled into the water. Since then, it has slowly made its way downstream until it reached the estuaries and inlets of the sea, where it finally disappeared in 2015. Nash documented its travels in a series of photographs and films made regularly all the while, and presented in the exhibition as a film.

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Nash’s sketch of a Larch trunk

It feels as though there is something of this meeting of art and the natural world in old ruins overrun with scrub and grass. They frequently seem to have a sculptural quality that complements the landscape around them, in a way that more pristine buildings do not.

And I like the sense that an artwork, like a ruined building, is not permanent and that eventually the natural world will absorb it back into itself. That it will reclaim it. Perhaps the artist and the environmentalist in me merge here.

My own sculptures are in wood, and some of them are set out in our garden where they gradually degrade over the years through the action of sun and rain, until they appear strangely like some weird plants that have sprouted unexpectedly there.

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.

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.