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.

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.

 

The Past is Another Country…

…they do things differently there (L.P.Hartley )

Almost 20 years ago I was a care-worker, paying visits to support elderly folk who were, for various reasons, unable to cope on their own. I would provide support in a number of ways – cooking, washing and dressing,and cleaning, for example.

One man I visited quite often would talk a lot about his younger days – as is natural. He had a wealth of stories, and I always told him he should get someone to write them down. It is the ordinary person’s stories that are frequently the most interesting, and the ones that we usually don’t hear. Famous politicians, sports stars, movie stars…well, they write autobiographies, or have them written for them, and we hear all about the other famous people they knew and the hotels they stayed in…yawn, yawn, yawn.

But we hear far less about the family in the village 80 years ago, their day to day life and how the outside world impacted upon them.

Below, there is a photo of London Road, just outside of Tunbridge Wells, taken earlier today.

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My client told me that during his youth, he would walk back along this road after an evening out in town, describing how there was nothing but open fields on both sides for much of the walk. Looking at it now, it is hard to picture that, since I have never known it any way other than how it looks now.

But prior to this, in his childhood, he lived in the village of Groombridge, on the other side of Tunbridge Wells, and he told me how, as a schoolboy during the First World War, he and his classmates ran out of the class one day and across a field, to see a German Zeppelin airship that had just been shot down.

It is stories like this, that are the genuinely interesting stories that come out of the past.

And for my large Work In Progress, the past really is a foreign country. Much of it is set in Persia and India, in a time frame that covers some 300 years up until the late 19th century.

Now, I was about to write that if it is difficult for me to picture the main road near where I live as it was some 50 to 75 years ago, then it is far more difficult for me to picture the places in India and Persia where and when I have set my novel, but then I realised that this is not actually true.

And so this post is now taking a turn that I had not expected when I sat down to write it.

The Indian capital at the time was at Fatehpur Sikri, which today is just the remains of those buildings – it was only occupied for some 22 years, and then abandoned. I have visited the site and walked around it, and it is quite easy to imagine it occupied by Akhbar, his court, and the general population.

I have never been to Persia (modern day Iran), so my impressions are formed only at second hand. And much of what I have read consists of works about the 1500’s, and I am familiar with many of the paintings of the period, so again it seems almost natural to imagine it as it was then.

And then when I have travelled in India, as well as in the Middle East, I have spent a lot of time visiting the old parts of the towns and cities, and many rural areas where life follows the same patterns that it has for hundreds of years, and so, again, it seems more natural to picture the settings for my book in those time periods that concern me.

Finally, researching these areas, I often come across old black and white photos of places of interest to me, and since I have not been there, they are the only impression of these places that I have.

Of course, Tunbridge Wells in the Victorian era is much harder for me to visualise. All of the modern buildings get in the way of my imagination. All of the roads are surfaced with tarmac, the open spaces have largely gone, and many parts of the common that used to be open and windswept are now covered in trees.

On a slightly different note….

As a project, I occasionally take photos in sepia of the area around where I live, as though they might have been taken about 80 years ago – around the time that my elderly client was walking along the London Road, winds blowing across the fields either side of him, and the only light from the moon. Each photo that I take has something in it to show that it was taken recently though, rather than a long time ago, such as a modern vehicle, a modern street lamp, road markings, or modern windows. The shot below is an example.

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Easy to feel that it might be taken in 1930.