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.

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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. 

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.

A Walk And Other Things

It was bitterly cold but sunny first thing yesterday morning, but after a couple of hours the air had warmed up enough to tempt me out. I was due a walk anyway, having not even left the house the previous day.

Every year there is a point somewhere around the middle of February when I feel the warmth of the sun for the first time that year, but yesterday morning there was already a hint of that.

It wasn’t cold enough to freeze the ground, except in a few particularly exposed places, and so it was very muddy underfoot. Therefore it was a delight to occasionally walk through drifts of last years leaves.

And there was so much birdsong. So much so that it became a background noise that was easy to filter out after a while, except when a particularly loud or unusual song caught my attention. Not that I do that deliberately, since birdsong is one of the delights of the countryside. At some point or another when I’m out, I can usually hear the rooks, but maybe because of the sun and the noise from the other birds they seemed to be silent. I’ve always associated them with cloudy skies for some reason, perhaps because I’m so used to hearing them on moorland and in the hills and mountains.

But I’m sure they like a sunny day every bit as much as the next bird.

This morning is cloudy again and the rooks are back. Outside I hear crark crark crark, and the occasional cronk. There is rain and sleet forecast for later, so I go into town in the morning. By the time I get home, the sky is already full of dark clouds and threatening to drop some weather soon.

The afternoon, then. I partly spent painting this little fellow:

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The blue tit is one of the few British birds whose population seems to be increasing slightly at the moment, in contrast to most whose populations have fallen – sometimes dramatically – over the last few years. We seem to be losing lots of the birds I took for granted as a child, which is such a sad thing. As a race, we seem to be so damned good at exterminating other creatures.

The (Shy And) Retiring Type…

A few days ago, I made the decision to retire from my present job.

It is something I have been brooding over for some while, and having a little time and space to think while I walked on Dartmoor last week enabled me to finally accept a decision I had really come to some time before.

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For a long time I have instructed groups in an outdoor environment, in activities such as climbing, canoeing, navigation and team building. As I have got older, though, I have naturally found these activities both physically and mentally more demanding. After all, when you are responsible for people’s safety as well as teaching them skills, there is an added pressure on everything you do.

A number of other stresses in my life over the last year or so have not helped, especially as they are still ongoing.

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So as well as a sense of regret, there is certainly a great feeling of relief. Regret, because I have had a huge amount of both pleasure and satisfaction from this work, which has carried me through those times when I felt it was becoming all too much, but relief that now it is time to call it a day, as I have reached the point where I know I cannot carry on for much longer.

I love being in an outdoor environment. It is why I choose to go to hills and woods and mountains rather than towns and cities, and this was instrumental in my deciding to teach these activities in the first place. But the obverse of that coin is that so often I am unable to really enjoy being there, since I am entirely focused on my group and the activities – which is how it should be, of course.

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One thing I shall look forward to, then, is being able to enjoy that environment every time I am there, without constantly having to check everyone is safe, or ensuring the activities are taking place as they should be.

While I intend to bring a greater focus to my writing, and also to my painting, I will also have to find something to bring in a little money for the next couple of years until I reach the state retirement age. I’ve no idea what that will be, yet.

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Essentially, I just feel burnt out. It is a very intensive job, in the way that care work, for example, can be, and I know it is the right time to go. Otherwise, there is the risk I will begin to run sessions that no one will want to take part in.

And that’s not the way I want it to finish. Far better that people should ask why I am going, than they should ask why I have not gone before now.

All Hail The Conquering Hero!

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 almost 30 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!