Cairn toppers

Up in the Fells, there are hidden corners where the touch of man sweeps back millennia: a flint axe mass-production factory treacherously perched high amongst scree slopes; stone circles, once remote, now implausibly close to a dual carriageway; droving paths through high, wind-buffeted cols, the top soil swept clean, cobbles and clasts exposed, bleached white against acid black peat cliffs.

Now that the hills are mainly a playground not a workplace, it is feet that denude the old ways, scuffing away thin soils, skittering grit and pebbles down in unseen avalanches, deadly to insects, exposing the bedrock, gritty scars. The paths now snake all over, wriggling and twisting across the land. Yet, still nature claws many back and others still remain indistinct, swallowed by bog, slurped by mires. Elsewhere, clear routes, short only of cats-eyes and white lines, suddenly disappear, like a cul-de-sac, or a bridleway near Dunwich, lost to the land, soaked back in, like litmus. And all paths become indistinct in the frequent mists that ride in from the sea, presaged by whipping winds heralding their ride, or the low clouds, sneakier, that whisper round outcrops and smother the senses, magnets held to internal compasses.

One rock, then the next, then another. This way the cairns arose, by calloused hands mysterious. A fourth, fifth, many more. Primitive pyramids, with no hidden secrets, no golden triangles or intersections of ley lines. No way-marks to the Holy Grail, just heaps of rocks, for navigation.

But it is their profusion that is remarkable, and their beauty. There is no classification, but perhaps one should be attempted. First, there are the wayside markers, 50 rocks, 60 perhaps, in loose, unkempt huddles to the side of the path, rarely retaining their form but slipping like an aged bosom. Little care is given them, but they are the most useful perhaps, illuminating paths lost to the dark of fell-walking befuddlement. And they are everywhere: with heartbeat regularity on long, yomping trails, more strategically placed on steeper rock step paths or scrambles; even, in miniature on exposed traverses, built by hardy head-cases intent on the shortest route to market.

The cols are home to the second sort; the fingerposts, the crossways. Markedly bigger, markedly taller but often ragged, they offer nothing more than a choice of route and are little celebrated. Some are embellished with old iron posts, impaled at assorted angles and oftentimes reburied with hags of peat, more rocks or old boots. They are the old men of the hills, tweed jacketed, teeth and fingers stained from years sucking on a jaunty pipe; hob-nailed boots, thick, green socks, passed down, darned, cussed. Wise though, to the ways of the hills.

IMG_3860Summits attract the acclaim, like a feather-winged moth incandescing in the heat of a naked flame. List tickers and fell baggers think little of them, but to us even-paced plodders they are often the highlight. Distinct from afar, they sharpen the peak, darken it too, give it a clear focus, pull the eye magnetically. They can be a distance marker too, when visible, but typically they conceal their reward until the final steps, slowly niggling into view, bit by bit, teasing. Some cairns are magnificent, built by the dry stone wallsmen, knapped and flush, bulging out from a sturdy base before sweeping into to a domed top, 8 foot up. Most are notable if only for their excess, a sick of stones, hurled on from all sides, splintered and forced into support of their neighbours. Their lichen and moss coats are unevenly worn, forced to readjust as the stones slip and yaw. So heavy, yet impermanent, gravity slowly pulls them to the valley floor.

That’s why I cairn-top. To reassert man’s dominion with the tools of nature. At first it was a mountain witticism, a fell joke. Now there is a more spiritual motive, a spiritual need. One stone, just one, added to the top of the cairn; more if it’s lunch time. Build it up, build it up; help weary travellers and lost souls find their way. Build it up, build it up.

I was here

That room in the bar evolves like the twisted beech outside its door; every year a silent alteration, change so gradual to be imperceptible. Foot high, the door’s stone threshold is whitewashed each Spring, only for studded boot soles to scuff it back by June. The flagged floor is hard grey, it’s natural round fractures rubbed clean by the sopping mop and the queuing feet of muddied, sweaty bodies above, scuffling, swapping aching foot to aching foot, the first pint and bag of scampi fries impatiently sought.

The bar, estate-painted and three quarters of a person high is topped by hand pumps hand polished by palms of valley men since before the war; the same brass, the same oak, but spruced up with the dainty neckerchiefs of local breweries’ beers, their trousers the sud-soaked bar towels, their coats a shield wielding their coat-of-arms. The fire though, wears its work clothes; an old cooker, blackened and cracked; a grate, made up with crisp packets and mossy logs.

IMG_3863In the corner, a collage of memories from my under-canvas nights across the way. A bearded man, a sea dog far from the shores, playing a mandola, calling eyes closed to the Blackwater where his love was lost. Climbers, bejeweled with carabiners and pitons, sashes of lashed rope, eyes sparkling, talk jabbering, the fear of the overhang fading fast. Fell runners, salt crusted but laughing, mud and crud cementing their impossibly lithe limbs. All rest their pints on the old table, still here. Too small for plates but wide enough for two rounds. Planked, not true, legs as immobile as ever and the crack a touch wider now; but the marks are still there, scratched deep. Tattoos to time made with a knife tip not a needle: Tom; Mamut; Southman; Shaz and Bart. I drink my pint and leave no trace this time.

Back home there’s an old tree with characterful roots erupting through the pavement in twists and overlapping knots. Despite its age, it abounds with living vitality; the roots pushing up and out not down and across. Perhaps in a gust it will fall, a victim of its own vanity. Those roots have become a natural seat; school kids waiting to meet friends; an old timer resting his back; even those waiting in the queue for the Monday fish van. The bark, higher up gruff and rough is down here, polished and glossy. And the marks, scratched and scraped: Peter; MadJack; Fi; Marksman.

Maybe this is what it all boils down to. An old table in a valley pub; the bole of a tree poking above ground; petty vandalism or art; a sign to say “I was here”. A legacy of sorts.

Clinker built

It was a pleasure skiff hoiked up on the back of a trailer, held in place by crude-cut chocks, vivid yellow straps with self tensioning ratchets and thick rope, twisted at points into hand-sized knots and hairy with stick out wild strands of twine. A cruising boat; bicep-powered, now cruising up the dual carriageway to who knows where? The hull was chestnut brown, brush-swept varnish strokes caringly applied, it gleamed with buffed love but not so much that the knurls and knots couldn’t show through, the heartwood breathing beneath. A high back chair across the rear portion with a wrought iron topper the only concession to fashion; otherwise this high sitter was custom made for a proud Victorian gentleman, boater-topped with a rakish cravat and a blouson shirt opened up more than modesty should allow, riffling in the breeze.

But the boat, the hull, the bow: that recalls a much earlier time. Clinker built, overlapping stanchions, smooth-planed stringers and internal trusses hand-worked not machined. On a trailer, up the A38; a craft rooted in more than 1,300 years of history. Scaled up and mast added, it could take a sail, a sea, a journey to Vinland, or a rich Abbey on the coast, swilling over with gems, Communion wine and sacred texts. Although planed and sawn by man, the lines remain organic; the wood is cut but then seems to adapt and grow back, plank over plank, the caulk the underwear; the ribs the shoes. A work of beauty, Viking designed, still functional today and being put back to work on a boating lake in Rotherham or as a daily hire on the Ouse, who knows?


Edward Cove hung himself, I recall, from a beam in the roof of his boat shed on Shadycombe Road. It was called the Island Quay boatyard; I was 12 and remember it vividly, front page news in the Gazette. The family couldn’t agree over which way to take the business and Edward could take no more. The end of over a hundred years of wooden boat building tradition was precipitated.  In that time, one of the few concessions, the fitting of choking, coughing inboard diesels, puthering and thrusting out their sooty smoke.  But these too were clinker built vessels and I loved them, the East Portlemouth ferries the police-jacket blue icon of the type, hunkering down and riding the waves, not fighting them, cutting them, pitching violently but conversing with them and reaching a rolling agreement.

Escargot Armageddon

The hosta, a North American native as I recall, thrives in our garden and I love them. Love them for the shapely, cup-handed leaves which gather the water, hold it and let it glisten in the light. Love them for the fecundity: the garden centre’s worse nightmare, a plant that doubles in volume each year, just split them and replant. Love them for their tolerance: light or shade, up they come, arms open to the world. I don’t know the varieties, but in our back door pots, we have a particularly lime green one, with variegated darker edges and a bright yellow hit of colour at the base on the inside. The hosta seems a perfect foil for us; on odd dark and gloomy Spring days, with broodingly malignant skies full of the potential of rain, they still shine as if powered by an inner luminescence.

In slug and snail world things are different. Whilst I may admire the architectural form, the stately leaves of the hosta, they look at them with a gourmand’s eye, only with out the critical faculties and food appreciation skills. Their cerebral cortex (I picture it as smaller and somewhat runnier than ours) lights up with synaptic chaos, like London viewed at night from the International Space Station “FOODFOODFOODFOOOOOODYUMYUMLETMEATIT” they yell, the blighters causing pandemonium. At first a scalloped edge; then a leaf chomped hungrily and before you know you weep into the curving dried brown stains of cold tea at the bottom of your cup as you survey the chewed stumps of your once prize blooms. Credit, it must be said, to the hostas for returning year after year.

But this would not do. It was time to take it to the mattresses. If need be, using a wretched mattress to camp out by the plants to catch the critters. To crush them. Destroy them. Smear them off the face of the earth. Without hurting them obviously. So the war starts in a phoney way. “We cannot harm the slugs. Let’s find a natural way ofmoving them on”.

Source: Pentax
Source: Pentax

Thus it was that I entered the world of slug removal research*: scouring the internet; raking up the wisdom of nearby horticulturalists; divining for family folklore. The creatively chemical ways that Homo Sapiens has developed to wreak Limaxocide on slugs and snails are devilishly endless, and will not be transcribed here – although some I’m sure will soon be banned by the EU. More ‘natural’ ways included scattering shells or fine gravel around the plant base; putting a small saucer of vinegar or beer nearby; crumble up a brillo pad or sneakily concealing small snips of copper wire in the vicinity (that’s why the trains have been delayed, I knew it).

I tried a few. None worked. The slugs are simply too numerous and the snails remarkably persistent for a creature devoid of speed. Instead, I am switching tactics; moving the slugs on (into the brown recycling bin – let them help the local council’s composting effort) and the snails, well – they don’t know it yet, but I am considering a farm, and to let the food cycle complete a full rotation.

* Sung to the words of The Cult’s ‘Love Removal Machine’

A galaxy of dandelions

I lurched into orbit today, dog-fueled
shoe-mounted thruster rockets,
propelled my aching body up the path,
a big, squat Space Shuttle.

The cosmological riot of colour reached out,
panchromatic, a spectrum, corona,
blinking and winking at me,
enveloping me.

Space it seems has dropped to earth
lying like an ethereal blanket over the waking Spring fields
a constellation of dandelions dot this sky;
stars stretching off light years away,
even beyond the old wood (out Andromeda way)

A nebula of docks, their leaves curving through space,
bullying through the long grass, bent awkwardly
pushing against the foot of the cows’ steading.
With little rain, the paths are dusty, diaphanous
Asteroid Belt footpaths viewed through the telescope of my eyes.

And the sheep droppings, the damn
damn sheep droppings
bring me back to earth
but above, our own White Dwarf, massive, relentlessly beats
its drumroll of cold May heat.