Yesterday’s Walk

We’ve had rain recently, and everywhere was muddy again. Much more like I would expect February to be. The ground had dried out quite a lot over January, but the soil was still saturated just beneath the surface and it doesn’t take much for it to turn back to thick, claggy, mud. But the weather was better than had been forecast; and as I set out the sun was glinting on the stubble fields and in the shadows there was just the faintest blue hint of frost. It felt so Spring-like. Everything was suddenly green and growing.

Soon, I was much too warm in all my layers. Mornings like this inevitably remind me of other favourite walks; long walks on sunny, clear days. I walked through a valley which was filled with birdsong – blackbirds, robins, blue tits, the demented cackle of a green woodpecker, and the determined drumming of a greater spotted one. In the future I will probably take walks that remind me of this one.

I must sometimes be a frustrating person to walk with – I like to stop frequently and just look around me. Absorb the landscape. The air smells fresh, now, but without the over-sharp coldness that stings the nostrils. Even though it is too early to smell flowers in the air, there is something on the breeze…Something evocative, much like the scent of woodsmoke causes me to instantly think of trekking in Nepal, or campfires closer to home in Sussex.

Suddenly there is a kestrel overhead…I never seem to get those shots of foxes or buzzards and don’t know whether I’m just too slow or if everyone else just walks along with their cameras in their hands, ready to take that photo.

At least flowers and trees tend to keep still. I do find my camera can be an unwanted distraction, though. If I am walking along looking for something to photograph, I feel I’m not really seeing the landscape around me. I’m just searching for a subject. For that reason, I often don’t take a camera with me on walks.

The first peacock, in fact the first butterfly of any kind I’ve seen this year. But talking of green woodpeckers and kestrels, I think there is a case for replacing all their somewhat dull modern names with the ones they used to have in the past: the green woodpecker was the yaffle, named for its wonderful manic call, the kestrel used to be called the windhover – how wonderful is that? And in the seventeenth century it was actually commonly known as the windf*cker. Perhaps the prudish Victorians banished that name the same as they changed the perfectly named white arse to the bland (and meaningless) wheatear.

I think we should reclaim the names; they add extra interest to a long walk.

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.

21st April 1994

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.

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

The Thick Month

June is the Thick Month. Trees and bushes and stands of wildflowers have acquired a lush density by now, branches and stems encased in full-sized leaves, rich and vividly green. Leaves massed and packed in swaying light-blocking swathes. Nothing has yet faded, although there is a gradual falling away of birdsong now mating is over and broods are being raised, although this is compensated for by what seems to be an increase in insect noise, especially bee hum – certainly in our garden. The flowers are beset by mason, carder and bumblebees, and large numbers of solitary bees which provide a delightful oxymoron for this recorder, at least.

Going out and about through the woods a mile from my home, I feel I could almost be walking indoors, such is the density of the tree canopy above me, and when it begins to rain I do indeed remain dry, other than from the occasional drip finding its way through. But it is muddy underfoot in places, the sheltering swathes also keeping the sun from drying out the ground. The thick wet dark humus-rich soil smells sweet and clean, reminding me of a ‘plum-pudding smell,’ as Kenneth Grahame described the river-bank in The Wind in the Willows.

The fields, too, are thick with wildflowers and grass, as are roadside borders where councils have refrained from scalping them. As much as I rejoice to find the occasional rarer species amongst them, I think my greatest pleasure is just to see masses of the commoner species; buttercups or ox eye daisies, vetches or speedwells.

I generally see nothing rare when I am walking my patch, but I could never think of any of this as ‘ordinary’.

Measurements (a re-post)

After my previous post on the merits of idleness (which was meant seriously, not tongue in cheek, just in case anyone was in doubt), it seemed a good idea to re-post this poem that I put up three years ago.

Happy buffaloes. You just can’t have too many happy buffaloes.

And, of course, by simply re-cycling an old post, I get more leisure time. I think that’s a result.

Measurements

We measure out our time in days,

We measure things so many ways.

We measure distance out in miles,

We measure happiness with smiles.

*

Some think the dollar and the dime

Should be the measure of their time.

The passage of each single hour,

Is marked by exercise of power.

*

I think our time is short enough,

Without recourse to such sad stuff.

I’ll measure my remaining years,

With laughter, books, light rain and beers.

Rain of a Completely Different Water

About an hour after I wrote my previous post, we finally had some serious rain. Real, well-intentioned rain. Rain that took its responsibilities seriously. It even managed a little bit of thunder thrown in every now and again, although nothing too strenuous. So as soon as I published that post, really, it had been overtaken by events. Because the trouble with writing about rain, especially in Britain, is that by the time you’re done, it’s doing something quite different and making you look a bit foolish.

And this morning we have a light, steady rain again, but this time it feels very different to that of yesterday. Perhaps it’s just because the last twelve hours have been wet, and this weather has now established itself as a new, if temporary, normal. The day is bright and grey and, I have to admit, I love it. At this time of year the greens of the countless new leaves on all the trees and bushes and smaller plants glow with a wonderful brightness, even under the grey and the gloom. It is a day to put on boots and a light waterproof (it’s still very warm) and go out for a long wander.

So that is what I think I’ll do.

The Weariness of Rain

It is raining, and after what feels like weeks of steadily increasing sultry heat, it has now been raining for almost an hour. But there is no relief in this rain, at least not yet. It is a light rain, light and disinterested, as if its heart really isn’t in what it has to do. It sounds as though it is tired. It is a dutiful rain, rather than a rain with a purpose. We have been promised thunder, and torrential rain, but so far we have had rain that merely congeals the dust; rain to lightly refresh anyone abroad this evening without threatening to soak them through.

The windows of the house are open, front and back, in an attempt to create a through draught, but the air is still. Clammy. Hot. The only relief from the heat inside is psychological, rather than physical. The pattering of raindrops outside. A slight increase in birdsong, despite the lateness of the hour.

I am afraid the rain does not think it is really worth all the effort and will soon pack up and leave again. Maybe it will never return.

Sigh

Poem number five in my Poem-A-Day-For-A-Week-Or-So series. Snow outside, test cricket on the TV, beer in the cupboard. That’s my day sorted, then.

The sea sighs for you tonight.

It sucks at the shingle

And smears your footprints

Like a wet thumb rubbed across writing.

Where once you walked and left your

Prints, it gently wipes the land clean.

Lovingly it lays its cheek to the ground

And nuzzles your memory.

.

We are more than specks

In the infinity of time and space

Yet somehow we need to

Make sense of our lives.

Rock endures

But so does the wind and the rain.

More so, in fact, since in the end

Mountains are levelled

And the wind and rain remain.

.

In the end the passage of many feet

May be more durable than

Dwellings of stone.

I Made A Vow

Day four of the Poem-A-Day-For-A-Week-Or-So project and a bit of a rush, today, as I’ve been assembling a shed (as you do). Another one, therefore, which will benefit from a revision when I have more time.

In Tripoli I made a vow to travel light, my eyes wide open,

Travel all the time I could, to take my chances when they happened,

Planned to seek out strange new places, take some risks see new horizons,

One thing alone I wanted now, the promise of the unexplored.

.

And I remember where I was, the time of day, the type of weather,

Early morning, early March, this was a time of change for me,

A time for taking big decisions, time to turn my life around,

Time to leave things in the past, the time to turn another page.

.

At the time I made that vow, I yearned to go along the Silk Road,

Travelling any way I could, and though that sadly never happened,

Other projects came and went, journeys all filled with adventure,

Baking deserts, frozen mountains, close to home and far away.

.

I knew the world would not be kind, it would not make my journeys easy,

Whatever it might offer me, I’d leave myself completely open,

Embrace the rain, embrace the wind, embrace the temple and the hillside.

This was my private pact with life and to this day I’ve not yet finished.

Mud

The second of my ‘Poem a Day’ poems. Just getting this far is a bit of an achievement, I suppose, although I’m not particularly happy with either the meter or the rhythm. It feels as sloppy as the day itself was. But I think it has potential if I do a bit of work on it sometime later.

Mud

Today, the sun has been sent into exile,

Leaving just a weary daylight.

It has gone, and we shall never see its like again.

.

In the steady rain,

Climbing this hill is an act of defiance

A far more daunting prospect than usual.

It is like a resistance.

One step forwards and two steps back

I slide and slither upon the track,

Barely keeping my footing at times.

.

In places, mist curls beneath the trees

Where the birds voice their own defiance

Loud and clear.

.

Beneath the endless grey,

Still lower clouds like smoke from gunfire,

From shell bursts or industrial disaster

The earth torn up and churned

From countless toiling feet.

But other than the birds,

I have the world to myself.