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.

Strolling in Sussex (1)

Yesterday, I went for a bit of a walk. The oppressive humidity of the previous day had lessened, fortunately, and it was an overcast morning with a cool breeze.

Just the way I like it.

I decided to take the train a few stops down the line, where I could get out at one of those stations that bears the name of a village a mile or so away but stands on its own in the middle of the countryside. The nearest building (other than the station itself) is a farm. Hopefully I could have a day’s gentle walking with nothing more demanding around me than birds, insects, trees and wildflowers.

I really, really, needed to do that.

It seemed a good start at the station. A good omen. While waiting for my train to draw in, my eye was drawn to a single large, white, bindweed flower in the tangle of brambles and vines and bushes, trees and garden plants escaped and gone native that serves as a barrier behind the platform.

Most gardeners hate bindweed. I suppose we do, really. Once it gets into the garden it grows at a ridiculously rapid rate and strangles any other plants in its way. And even pulling it up doesn’t get rid of it. It just regenerates. I tell you, come the end of days it will just be scorpions, cockroaches and bindweed left.

But this flower looked lovely. The largest, pure white, bindweed flowers often remind me of the calla lily, only a calla lily that is not so…let’s say…excited. One of my favourite artists is Georgia O’Keeffe. I’ve probably told you that before. But O’Keeffe was particularly known for painting large flower paintings, many of them more than a little ‘suggestive’. And the calla lily was one of her favourites. I’d show you one of hers but, you know, copyright and all that. I’ll leave you to look it up if you wish to.

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So, here’s the bindweed flower.

Anyway, I got on my train and later I got off at the correct station and began walking along the footpath and got shouted at by some sheep.

Really, there’s no other way to describe it. On one side of the footpath were a couple of dozen sheep in a field where the grass had been cropped very short and there seemed to be very little left for them to eat. As soon as they saw me, they came rushing over to the fence bleating loudly. Obviously demanding to be re-housed in the field on the other side of the footpath.

In that field, thick lush grass was being munched by a couple of dozen quite contented sheep. I didn’t hear a (Bo) peep out of them.

‘Really sorry,’ I told them. ‘I can’t help you.’ I walked on feeling oddly guilty.

But I got over it.

 

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For the rest of the morning I walked slowly through fields and along lanes, stopping frequently to look at flowers and insects and, really, just enjoying being where I was.

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Bridge over the railway

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I was just beginning to think it must be lunchtime when my path took me through a field of long grass.

This field lay between a stream I had just crossed, and a wood where I was heading. The wood stood a little higher than the surrounding fields, and the long grass of the field I was to cross was thick and green. The breeze caught the top of the grass, so it waved like the sea or a large lake and as I began to wade through it, it really did feel as though I waded through water.

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And there was the drag of the grass against my legs, and the top of the grass sparkled a little in the breeze, just as wavelets would. And there was also the sense that I was not quite sure what I might suddenly step upon. Just to complete the illusion, there were also some lovely blue damselflies darting around.

Then I finally stepped ashore at the edge of the wood, walked up a slight sandy slope that might have been a beach, and sat down to eat my sandwich.

Now, I have to tell you that this was the best sandwich in the world, and I won’t brook any disagreement. Thick wholemeal bread, cheese, several large slices of raw onion, and several thick slices of tomato. Perhaps it was my mood, and the setting, but it was damned good.

And then it was time to explore the wood.

Spain 2

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 4

Poem number four in a series of six.

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The Old Way 4

 

Of course, I had been in a rush to get here.

I think I had been walking for about an hour

Before I reached this path.

But even so,

I had not realised how fast I was going.

 

I had known I needed to get away

(that almost goes without saying),

But finally I arrive, and I slow down.

I slow down so I might look and see.

 

And breathe.

 

I slow down to feel the breeze

And the sun on my head.

I slow down to hear the birds.

I am in no hurry,

Now I’m walking on the Old Way.

 

I have bread and cheese, and I have an apple,

As though I were one of those folk

Travelling in a bygone age.

My only concession to today is a plastic bag.

 

Which I now regret.

The Old Way 2

This is the second poem in a series of six.

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The Old Way 2

 

I’m walking along the Old Way,

And I exult.

Nowhere else are roads so gentle beneath my feet.

Nowhere else would I find the path before me

So soft, and sprinkled with stars.

 

Let me stop for a moment and close my eyes.

Let me just be still and silent

And feel the ground beneath my feet.

 

I must connect, or re-connect, with the world.

With my world.

Here, I can feel the past as a living thing,

And like a meditation,

I can use this

To still my troubled mind.

The Old Way 2

This is the second poem in a series of six.

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The Old Way 2

 

I’m walking along the Old Way,

And I exult.

Nowhere else are roads so gentle beneath my feet.

Nowhere else would I find the path before me

So soft, and sprinkled with stars.

 

Let me stop for a moment and close my eyes.

Let me just be still and silent

And feel the ground beneath my feet.

 

I must connect, or re-connect, with the world.

With my world.

Here, I can feel the past as a living thing,

And like a meditation,

I can use this

To still my troubled mind.

 

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.

Home

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I’m walking on tracks,

On familiar tracks,

Under blue sky,

In the evening light.

My shadow before me,

The wind behind.

 

I’m yawning now,

And my legs are tired.

I’m looking forward to supper,

A beer and then bed.

 

The shadows lengthen,

Along with my stride

On familiar tracks,

Along familiar tracks.

I’m heading for home,

Now,

I’m heading for home.