Stone Circle

Gothic script on an OS map always catches my eye. It’s used, of course, to denote antiquities. There’s a small area on the map of the northern area of the Yorkshire Dales which boasts an uncanny number of them. I was looking at it the other day when I noticed a feature on it that I’d not paid much attention to before. I googled its location to see if I could find out anything about it. To my surprise, the OS had made a mistake (either that or they were describing a different feature close to the one I discovered). The not particularly remarkable feature shown on the map turned out to be a stone circle.

Stone circles in this part of the world were probably built sometime during a period that ran from the late Neolithic to the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2,400-1,000 BC), so it’s probably at least 3,000 years old. It’s an “embanked” circle, meaning it’s built on a slightly raised area surrounded by an earth bank. It used to consist of nine stones, although a few are now missing. Armed with this information, I decided to go out and find it.

What made the discovery particularly satisfying is that the circle is located only a matter of yards from a couple of well-used bridleways I’ve often walked or cycled on. Obviously, I should’ve paid more attention in the past to the landscape to the left and right of me and focused less on the objective up ahead. To be fair, it is difficult to see it from the path unless you know what you’re looking for. It’s built in a prominent position but its prominence is only obvious when you’re stood there, looking round. It’s a secret, hidden in plain sight. Swaledale’s Stonehenge. Okay, it’s only ten metres across but it’s a magical place.

And who’s to say big is better? Stonehenge might have been the work of an enlightened civilisation. However, it could also have been an over-the-top infrastructure project dreamt up and developed over the centuries by powerful rulers to show just how many people they could compel to shift stones. It might have been no more than architectural shock and awe. Perhaps the ordinary people of that time felt similarly alienated from the likes of Stonehenge the way people today feel alienated from, say, the 2012 Olympic Park in London. I’d like to think this wasn’t the case and that the stone circles of Britain were left behind by some enlightened civilisation of philosopher monarchs, mathematicians, astronomers and engineers, who toiled together cheerfully to throw up these structures. However, I think the odds are against it, although its nice to think there might have been an element of that. Perhaps the real religion of the stone circles (if religion is the right word for whatever it was) was at least as alive if not more so at more modest sites such as this one?

© Sackerson, 2020

Canal Dreams

In 1877, the Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, made detailed drawings of what he called canali on the surface of Mars. Eventually, the supposed features he described would be confirmed to be to be optical illusions. However, real or not, the canals on Mars lodged themselves in the public imagination, fuelling the speculations of both scientists and science fiction writers. In the decades that followed, other astronomers confirmed Schiaparelli’s observations. In 1887, HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds was published, in which the Martians, driven by a shortage of water on their own planet, invade earth.

Even respectable scientists considered the idea that the canals might indeed be works of Martian engineering. What leant weight to this theory was the fact that the polar ice-caps on Mars had been observed to melt in the summer and freeze in the winter. Providing a reliable supply of water all the year round might well pose a problem for any Martian civilisation. If this were the case, the canals might be a solution to the problem. It also, to the late nineteenth-century mind, fitted in with the kind of engineering works one might expect from an advanced civilisation. The Suez canal had opened in 1869. Work on the Panama canal began in 1880. It was as natural to imagine alien civil engineers then as it is now, with the development of computers and quantum mechanics in the intervening century, to speculate on the forms alien intelligence might take.

One of the most avid supporters of the idea of life on Mars was the American astronomer, Percival Lowell. He corresponded regularly (and became a great friend of) Schiaparelli. He made some of the most famous drawings of the canals, based on his own observations, and went on to write three books on the possibility of life on Mars.

Drawings of Martian canals made by Percival Lowell

Wikimedia Commons

Just how deeply rooted the idea of Martian civilisation was in the public consciousness at the time can be seen in the record the psychoanalyst Carl Jung made of one of his patient’s thoughts, which he published in 1902: “she told us … the whole of Mars is covered with canals, the canals are all flat ditches, the water in them is very shallow. The excavating of the canals caused the Martians no particular trouble, as the soil there is lighter than on earth.”

In 1903, Joseph Evans and Edward Maunder demonstrated how points in a landscape might appear to be connected with lines when seen through an inferior telescope lens. Later the same decade, observers using the Mount Wilson telescope were able to see geological features where the Martian canals were thought to be. The canal hypothesis was effectively disproved. However, the idea that Mars might be inhabited by a civilisation of people who built canals had become a trope and it would take more than scientific evidence to dislodge it. More recently, unmanned space missions to Mars have not only shown the planet to be a rocky desert: they’ve so far failed to discover the existence of even microbial life. However, the idea of a Martian civilisation still lingers in the backs of our minds. It has become a myth, in the best sense of the word.

There have been many fictional takes on the idea of Martian civilisation since HG Wells. One I’ve found myself coming back to over the years is Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. In them, astronauts are sent from earth on a mission to Mars. However, with their telepathic abilities, Bradbury’s Martians are able to make any visitors see whatever they want them to see. This is a clever device, given the history of human observations of Mars. Perhaps, one can’t help thinking, once they realised we’d observed their canals, they influenced our minds to see only desert!

With its imaginary canals and with the vast body of science fiction writing that has grown around it, Mars is fertile territory for conspiracy theorists. In 1976, the Viking 1 probe photographed what appeared to be the likeness of a human face on the surface. It turned out to be merely a geological feature but it didn’t stop the speculation. People have often fantasized about lost Martian civilisations and come to believe the fantasies. When people persuade themselves that what is fake is, in fact, real, they can become vulnerable to believing the opposite. (Not only that but the bogus doesn’t even have to be internally consistent for us to be vulnerable to accepting it). When we do, it’s all to easy for us to dismiss factual information as “fake news”. We all construct the worlds we live in in our heads, from the available materials. We can all be misled – even the scientists who, when they are, tend to find themselves on the periphery of scientific opinion. The story of our relationship with Mars is of relevance in an era in which conspiracy theories abound and in which mainstream scientific evidence and factual information (e.g., on covid-19 and climate change) is often dismissed as “fake”.

© Sackerson, 2020

Three Short Films

Making short films is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. However, it always seemed like an impractical thing to do. You need a lot of people and a lot of equipment, right? It would cost a lot of money. It would take up a disproportionate amount of time. All the effort involved would be a distraction from other things. It hadn’t dawned on me that new technology (is that a term that’s passing out of use? It’s not so new anymore) had changed all that. Someone once said -half in jest- that to be a composer or a writer, all one needed was the right stationery. To that, in the twenty-first century, one could add that all one needs to be a film-maker is a mobile phone or a tablet. As for editing, there is excellent free editing software available online.

Having made quite a lot of electronic music, I was interested in the idea of incorporating images into the kind of collages I’d been making using sound alone. I’m pleased I followed this impulse now, as making these three short films has been a whole lot of fun. Finishing them has left me wondering what to do next.

I’ve embedded two of them in this blog already. However, I’ve revised the first a little and reposted it and I’ve not posted the third before (The Blue Rope). Since I tend to think of them as a trilogy, I’ve posted them all here, together. All three are very different in many ways but I think what binds them together is a common origin in the lockdown: everything that happens in them happens within walking distance of here. The third is shot from inside a very dark, claustrophobic place.

Total running time: 8:38

Zebra Hill

The main road through the village is about a minute’s walk from our house. By main road, I mean that unlike most roads round here, it’s wide enough to warrant white lines being painted down the middle. Most of the time, we never know it’s there – it’s hardly busy and, to see it, we have to go upstairs and look out of the front windows. From there, you can just make it out through the trees, where it snakes up the hill. The fields on the far side of it slope up to a knoll that’s just out of sight from where we are. This is Zebra Hill. Why it’s called that I’ve no idea. The land beyond it is a military training area and the name has a military ring to it (think Ice Station Zebra). However, there’s circumstantial evidence that it goes back further than that. Not far away from here, there’s a valley known as Apedale. One of the hills that surround it is known as Gibbon Hill. I have visions of some eccentric eighteenth-century character acquiring a collection of exotic beasts much to the bemusement of the locals but I know nothing for certain. Or perhaps the names were merely verbal follies, coined by a landowner in the same spirit in which people built ruined, Greek temples in the grounds of their big houses.

The other week, I was walking down one of the minor roads into the village (one of the ones without white lines) when I noticed a jumble of small trees on the lower slopes of Zebra Hill, about two fields away, rising out of an area of undulating ground which was otherwise invisible from the road. Hidden valleys and, in fact, any area of land that is invisible from the road, have a certain magic about them. You can live in a place for years and not notice such places. I had to admit to myself that I didn’t think I’d visited this one. I often go for walks in the fields around our house but it was probably a good fifteen years, I realised, since I’d crossed the main road and explored the slopes of Zebra Hill. In conversation, I’d be the first to suggest one should seek out new experiences but here I was, exposing myself to myself as the creature of habit that I really am.

Next time I walked out of our gate, I turned left instead of right. I took the narrow path that runs, briefly, along the side of the mill-race to the main road. I followed this a short way out of the village before crossing it and going over a stile. I was now on the lower slopes of Zebra Hill.

The houses on the edge of the village back onto the fields here. However, they’re mostly invisible as they all have long back gardens the size of small fields, the bottoms of which merge into a small, narrow wood. The main field was once several smaller ones: the Ordnance Survey map shows hedges dividing it up although these no longer exist. Only the larger trees have been left standing, along with a few smaller, twisted thorn trees. I crossed this field to a stile in the far corner.

From there, I made my way along the walls and hedges of a number of smaller fields, until it dawned on me that I was standing in the area I’d spotted from the road. I decided that my initial impression had been right: I’d never been to that spot before. But then I began to wonder. A certain tilt to the ground at one point looked vaguely familiar. Perhaps I had been there, a long time ago. I’ve lived here for a quarter of a century – plenty of time to lay down memories only to forget them.

On a subsequent walk, instead of heading off through the small fields, I headed uphill, along the lines of hedge-trees, to the summit of Zebra Hill. At the top of the field, I crossed another stile, this time leading to another large field. As you head uphill here the trees fall away and the landscape takes on a bleaker aspect. The next field is the last strip of cultivated land before the moor. A blunt, undulating ridge runs across it, the highest point of which is the summit itself. For the minute or two it takes to traverse the ridge , the walk feels just a little more wild than it actually is. From it, one can see out over the Vale of York and across the dale, to the hills around Coverdale: Roova Crag, Pen Hill, Buckden Pike, Great Whernside and the rest. I never look out over the dale without wondering what it might have been like before we came along. A sea of forest, most likely. And then the work of felling the trees began. Clearings would appear and, here and there, lines of smoke would rise up into the sky. Fast forward a few centuries and the forest has been almost completely replaced by cultivated land. Perhaps one day it’ll be a forest again and, if there are people in those days to explore it, they might come across lines of moss-covered stones where the dry-stone walls used to be. They might climb a tree on the summit of Zebra Hill and look out over the canopy. They might wonder what the dale looked like in the days of the wall-builders, before the forest returned.

© Sackerson, 2020

A Frail Ear

I had to drive to Darlington the other day. It’s the furthest I’ve travelled since lockdown began in March. I have to admit I found it a pretty daunting prospect. The car need servicing and the MOT was due.

I’d been told it would take two or three hours to complete the work on the car so I went prepared to go for a walk. I hadn’t got a map of the area so I decided to simply set off from the garage and see where I ended up.

The garage was on the edge of the city, close to a crossroads on one of the main roads radiating out from the centre. Once I’d left the car, I headed straight for the crossroads where I came across a path, hardly more than a ‘desire line’, leading away from the pavement into an area of waste ground. Just the sort of thing I was looking for. I took it, and it led me through what was probably a small nature reserve. A whole network of tracks ran through it: the route I chose took me past a pool full of bull rushes and on to the opening of a concrete culvert. I made my way around this structure and found myself stood in the corner of a field: I was literally stood on the edge of the city.

It was a field of peas, with a good track running down one side, which I followed. It wasn’t obvious most of the time but the main road I’d left at the crossroads ran just behind the hedge. Through the gaps I could see Lingfield Point, a huge, sprawling brick-built complex, built as a wool factory in the 1940s. A large sign, mounted on the central tower, advertised space to let. A number of Luton vans were parked up behind the steel fence that surrounds the place.

Ahead and to my right, looming over the hill like some huge, grey, cubist leviathan, I could see an Amazon warehouse. It took me by surprise and I decided I must have driven past the place many times without noticing it.

I made my way around the field, following the track. Peas gave way to wheat. It was a hot, sunny day and I was beginning to feel the heat. I could see someone in the distance, riding a horse and coming towards me along the same track. They turned off onto another before we met. I kept following the track as far as I could: it finally ended in a metal gate that had been wired shut. Beyond it lay another busy road and a roundabout, invisible behind a hedge and a tangle of undergrowth.

I started to make my way back and, still having time to kill, decided to explore a track off to the right which I’d noticed earlier but not taken. In a few minutes, it took me back to the edge of the city and to a paddock, where a few horses were grazing. Perhaps, I thought, the rider I’d seen earlier had come from here.

I turned round and retracted my steps. I had plenty of time in hand but I wanted to keep it that way. I decided to sit down for a while in the corner of one of the huge wheat fields. I estimated it would take me perhaps fifteen minutes to walk back to the garage from there.

It was cloudier than it had been earlier but it was still very hot. One thing I’d though about a lot up to this point was how, when walking, it is sometimes difficult to simply take in one’s surroundings without letting oneself become preoccupied with thoughts of other things. Here was a comfortable spot to sit and meditate, to pay attention to each blade of grass. A vast field of wheat is an imposing sight. I recalled vague memories of seeing them on old propaganda posters: either Soviet posters or old British Second World War posters, I forget which. Perhaps both. I was struck, too, by how a single ear of wheat looks frail and vulnerable, dependent like everything else on the precise climatic conditions that allows it to grow. In reality, the vast, imposing field is no less frail than the single ear. It wasn’t exactly an original thought but it was one worth thinking about nevertheless.

I got a call to say my car was ready. I made my way back round the field, past the bull rushes to the crossroads, pausing there to put on a face-mask before returning to the garage.

{c} Sackerson 2020

 

 

Astronaut

No need to move
from the chair
where you can sit
fooling everyone
who forgets that the moon
(along with the blackbirds)
exists only in our heads

all it takes
is a word
and before you know it
you’re setting off
your pockets full of poetry
and apples

 

(c) Sackerson, 2020

 

The Shape of Things

Short fiction

One evening not very long ago I got a call from Ian. I could tell from the background noise he was in his car, probably on the motorway. He asked me if I was busy and told me he was travelling north. Did I want to meet up for the evening? He was staying the night at a roadside hotel at the motorway services just south of Wakefield. There were several takeaway outlets on the concourse there, if I’d not already eaten. It would give us a chance to catch up. I had nothing to do that I couldn’t postpone, so I said yes.

At that time in June it never quite gets dark. Even in the middle of the night the sky glows and only the very brightest stars are visible. I found myself driving down to join the motorway under a cloudless, blue dome. The rush hour was over, so there were only a few other vehicles out on the road. Occasionally, I passed laybys. All of them had already filled up with articulated lorries, their drivers preparing to spend the night in their dimly-lit cabs. The only talk-radio station I could find was broadcasting a programme on the future of the economy. It soon got on my nerves, so I switched to listening to an Ornette Coleman album I’d downloaded. It didn’t take me long to get to the junction with the motorway. In the late evening light, the trees planted on the soft estate around it could almost be mistaken for a real forest.

The service station I was heading for was less than a mile down the carriageway. When I got there, the car park was half empty. I parked up and called Ian on my mobile. He told me he’d already booked in and was waiting for me in a coffee bar on the concourse. When I got there, it was easy to spot him as the place was almost empty. He was sat, as he’d told me he was, at a table by a panoramic window overlooking the motorway with its slow-moving, red and white lights. There was no queue at the counter. A lively young man served me with an espresso. I got the impression he was trying to suppress his amusement at something his colleague, a girl of about the same age, had just said to him before I arrived. I took my espresso over to Ian’s table. I sat down across the table from him and asked him what it was that had brought him up north.
‘I guess I just felt like it,’ he said. He tried to smile.
‘Kind of spontaneous?’
‘Yes.’
‘And Rachel was okay about it?’
He paid close attention to the cars on the motorway. ‘I’ve not seen her for over a week,’ he said. He glanced back at me. ‘It’s one of the great things about living on your own, I’ve discovered. You can do what you like, when you like, can’t you? So long as you can afford it, that is.’

He went on to explain how he’d come back from work to find Rachel had gone. She’d left no note and had said nothing about what she was about to do. There could be no doubt, he said, that she’d gone for good, as she’d taken all her possessions with her. Although she’d said nothing specific, it had not come to him as a complete surprise. He’d always felt, he said, that she had, as he put it, ‘troubles of her own to contend with’. All the time they’d been together, he said, he’d always felt part of her had been somewhere else. They had never discussed where that might be, he said but, wherever it was, it seemed to him to be a cold, inhospitable place. He then retracted this, saying that it was impossible to tell what somebody was thinking or feeling unless they made some attempt to tell you. She had made no attempt to discuss whatever it was, he said, and neither had he. He said he regretted this but then, on reflection, said that he had thought of doing so, often, but never seemed able to find a way in. It seemed inevitable looking back, he said, that things would turn out the way they did.

I listened to what he said but could think of little to say in response that didn’t sound trite. When he’d said everything he wanted to say we sat together in silence for a while.
‘So where are you heading?’ I said.
‘Nowhere in particular,’ he said. He thought for a moment. ‘The sea, possibly. Don’t worry, I’m not thinking of folding up my clothes on the beach and… You know, the way people do.’
‘It never occurred to me that you might.’
‘It’s been a long time since I went to the seaside. Rachel hated it. Said it reminded her of family holidays she never wanted to go on because her parents spent the whole time shouting at each other.’

He kept moving his hands and, every now and again, rubbing his face. He looked worn out. His coffee cup was empty.
‘Let’s walk around,’ he said.
‘Why not?’ I said, affably.

We walked slowly round the tiled concourse. Almost all the shops were shut. An amusement arcade was open but empty. Flashing lights zigzagged across the screens of unattended gambling machines. A vending machine stood silent, its transparent plastic body full of blue and pink cuddly toys. Tape barriers blocked the entrance to a small supermarket. A woman in a uniform the colour of the shop sign was mopping the floor.
‘Let’s go outside.’ he said.
I nodded.

The automatic doors slid apart and we stepped out into the night air and the endless rushing sound of the motorway traffic. Ian took out a packet of cigarettes. He held it out towards me, raising his eyebrows as he did so. I smiled and shook my head. A young couple with two small children walked past us. The doors hissed open again to admit them. Ian took a cigarette out of the packet and lit it. I looked up. Over the doorway a CCTV camera was directing its inert stare towards us. I nudged Ian and gestured towards it.
‘They used to think the eye saw by emitting invisible rays that bounced back,’ he said. ‘You can see why. You can almost feel that thing looking at you. Let’s walk.’

We walked along the raised pavement that ran down one edge of the car park. A thin hedge ran down the whole length of it on our left. On our right, the tarmac stretched away from us under the overhead lighting. It was punctuated at intervals by a regular pattern of small islands planted with stunted vegetation. There were still only a few cars parked in the delineated parking bays. Ian seemed no less on edge. He seemed to crave my company but had nothing to say.
‘What are your plans for tomorrow?’ I said.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I guess I’ll keep heading up north. For now. Where did you park?’
I nodded towards my car, which was parked in a bay a few yards away.
‘It’s good to be out of that place but it would be good to sit down.,’ he said.

We walked over. Ian ground his cigarette out under the sole of his shoe. I clicked open the doors and we climbed into the front seats.
‘Any good music?’ he said.
I turned on the jazz.
‘This takes me back,’ he said. We sat there together for a few minutes, just listening.
‘It’s the shape that makes everything so difficult,’ he said, all of a sudden, more to himself than to me.
I thought for a moment he was talking about the music but he wasn’t. He turned to me.
‘The shape of things. Places, too. Rachel had a radio. An old Russian radio. It used to sit on the windowsill. When I looked out of the window, there was the radio. We used to listen to it. We used to talk about it, too. Made in the USSR. You know how sometimes you have the same conversations over and over with people you love? The same conversations, with variations. The great tragedy of the twentieth century was the failure of the Russian Revolution. Somebody said that, I forget who. We used to talk about that a lot. Now the radio’s gone along with loads of other things. They were all part of the world in my head. Does this make any sort of sense?’
‘I think so,’ I said.
‘Now when I look out of the window, I’m just looking out of the window. There’s a gap. The shape of everything has changed. That’s why I came away. None of this means anything to me. A room in a hotel is just a room.’

The lights on a car across the way flashed as its owner clicked it open from a distance. Two men appeared from the direction of the service station. They climbed in. I expected the car to drive off but it didn’t. Behind the sound of Ornette Coleman I became aware of a more distant, thudding bass.
‘It’s time I was turning in,’ Ian said.
‘OK,’ I said. I smiled.
‘I’ll be fine,’ he added, in answer to my unspoken query. He opened the door to get out.

(c) Sackerson, 2020

These Shoes

These shoes
will always be filled
with the invisible feet
of the man who left them behind
when he walked away
wearing nothing
but a pair of flip-flops
and the confidence that
(in his case) came
with a middle-class upbringing
among people who discuss ideas
read books and contemplate
the trolley problem
late into the night.

We don’t know
what became of him
but if he’s reading this
I can assure him
that his shoes are still here
waiting for him
to reclaim them
if need be.

(c) Sackerson 2020

A link for anyone unfamiliar with the “trolley problem”.

 

 

 

Borderline

The year’s 1930. A black couple move into a boarding house in a Swiss resort.  They’re lucky to find somewhere that accepts them. It helps that the boarding house is run by a lesbian woman who lets out her rooms to Bohemian types. We can assume that the locals -some of whom use the bar- look askance at the place.

The new tenants, Pete and Adah, are played by Paul Robeson and his wife, Eslanda. Robeson has recently chalked up a major success with his performance in Show Boat. Eslanda has just finished a biography of her husband. The plot revolves around the fall-out from an affair Adah has with Thorne, a white man who also lives at the boarding house.

Borderline was written and directed by Kenneth Macpherson. Macpherson was a member of the Pool Group, along with the novelist Bryher and her partner, Hilda Doolittle (the poet, HD). The group were admirers of the film-makers GW Pabst and Sergei Eisenstein and promoted avant-garde film-making through their journal, Close Up.

The film was considered radical at the time, both in its subject matter and in its use of avant-garde techniques. The combination of race, implicit homoeroticism and experimental film-making proved too much for the critics. The London Evening Standard advised Macpherson “to spend a year in a commercial studio”.  It’s interesting how, then and now, critics are often eager to use technical criticism to undermine politically radical work.

Borderline is a great film and its themes still resonate powerfully today. But even if it were no good, it would still be worth watching on account of its curiosity value. Bryher and HD both play parts in it, along with the poet, Robert Herring (who spends most of his time in the film playing the piano).

The film had been thought lost but was rediscovered by chance in 1983. In 2006 it was restored and released on DVD with a compelling soundtrack by Courtney Pine. Although others perhaps spend more time on screen it’s Robeson’s imposing stage presence that dominates the film. He was a man of prodigious talent who crammed three times more work into his life than most people manage in one lifetime. He went on to be blacklisted for his radical sympathies and active in the civil rights movement but as he said later in life, “the artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”

 

 

A Short Walk on Grinton Moor

The other evening I went for a walk on Grinton Moor in Swaledale. I chose one of my favourite routes. I’m not sure “route” is quite the right word for it as, the more I walk the less concerned I am about getting from A to B. When you set your mind on an objective it’s easy to pass over places of interest you pass on the way, telling yourself you’ll come back another day to investigate them. Invariably, you forget, or at least I do. These days, it’s often the case that I’ll set out not to walk a line on the map but to simply wander at will for as long as I’ve time to wander. Day-to-day life is so full of journeys that have to be made at certain times to specific places. Since we’re creatures of habit it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a walk made for no other reason than for the pleasure of walking needs to have similar conditions attached to it. It doesn’t.

Yesterday was a wet day. I’d considered getting out for an hour all afternoon and kept checking the weather forecast. I don’t know why I kept going back to it as I didn’t need the Met Office to tell me that it showed no signs of changing. Then it struck me, did it really matter? I quite like walking on wet days, within reason. I’d go anyway.

It was quite late by the time I set off. If I got a move on, I realised, I’d be able to get in half an hour’s wandering before sunset. Driving over the hills, I found myself driving through patches of fog which got ever thicker the further I got. As I crossed the watershed into Swaledale, I could see there were masses of low cloud partially obscuring the fells. As I parked up, it crossed my mind that I hadn’t brought my compass with me. So much for wandering. I’d have to stick to the Land Rover tracks or, at least, be very careful how I navigated my way through what little I could see of the landscape. At least, if the worst came to the worst and I got lost, I knew that if I headed downhill I would come to a track or road that would lead me back to the car.

The presence of the Wellington Lead Vein is marked hereabouts on the map. A short walk up a Land Rover track across the moor from where I parked is a ruined stone building. I suspect it was once part of the lead mine there. I could see it looming through the mist from the road and made for it. It strikes me now that what was an adventure for me must have been the daily trudge to work for the lead miners over a century ago. From the ruin, I could see through the mist to a line of low spoil-heaps. I decided to head towards them. They were quite close together. So long as one was always visible, it should be an easy job, I decided, to retrace my steps.

I found myself walking through an area of short grass and sphagnum moss, peppered with rabbit holes. A rabbit sat in its doorway darted underground as I approached. I soon reached the furthest of the spoil-heaps. I climbed to the top. Needless to say, there was no view to speak of. Featureless moor fell away from me on all sides, dissolving away into the whiteness. In the absence of the usual features to compare it to, the landscape seemed more spectacular, in a way, than it probably would on a clear day. I descended the heap and began to retrace my steps to the ruin. A minute or two later I realised I could see its outline through the mist, off to my left, reminding me how easy it is to get disorientated in poor visibility. I adjusted my course and soon found myself back at the ruin. I decided I’d stick to the Land Rover track for the rest of the walk.

A change in the light told me that above the mist the sun was probably setting. I checked the time. I still had a few minutes before it got dark, I decided, so I headed off along the track towards Snowden Man, a boundary stone on the watershed between Swaledale and Wensleydale. I passed another spoil-heap and took a moment to wander up it. Again, the view from the top looked deceptively dramatic. I returned to the track and carried on for a few minutes more but the further I went the fainter the track got, sometimes disappearing into beds of reeds. It was gradually becoming noticeably darker, too. It was time to turn back.

Walking around that part of Grinton Moor always takes me back to my very first experiences of fell walking. Years ago, a friend suggested we went to stay at the Youth Hostel in Edale, with a view to exploring Kinder Scout. I can still vividly remember arriving at the edge of the Kinder plateau after a stiff climb up a steep, grassy slope. I’d never been anywhere quite like it or at least, if I had, I hadn’t been paying attention the way I was then. It was like stepping into a different, surreal universe: the bleak expanse, the deep channels cut through the peat by the action of the water, the strange rock-shapes. I’ve never been anywhere quite so uncanny. People must have always felt this way about the place judging by the names they’ve given to the features on the hill: Ringing Roger, Kinder Gates, Mermaid’s Pool, Madwoman’s Stones. Simply reading them out loud from the Ordnance Survey Map conjures up something of the magic of the place.

Grinton Moor boasts nothing quite so fey but what’s left of the abandoned lead mines does lend the area an aura of its own, especially on foggy days. And there is a Youth Hostel a little way down the hill. The elements are all there to rekindle something of that sense of awe I felt years ago on Kinder Scout.

© Sackerson,  2020