Friarfold Hush

Gunnerside Gill is an uncanny place. It’s a deep, steep-side cleft that cuts  through the Swaledale moorland for some three miles. The place is strewn with the ruins of past mining activity which has left massive scars on the landscape. The result is a place that is more intriguing than a lot of other, relatively unspoilt areas of the Yorkshire Dales.

The East side of the Gill is dominated by three massive “hushes”: Gorton, Friarfold and Bunton.  Lead miners were in the habit of damming streams that ran down hill-side gullies, waiting until a sizeable body of water had gathered and then bursting the dam. The force of the released water stripped the surface layers off the gully sides, exposing the rock. In Gunnerside Gill this technique was practised on a massive scale. Seen together from the flanks of Rogan’s Seat opposite, the three great hushes form an imposing moonscape. “Moonscape” is an overused term for such places but in this case it is hard to think of a better way to describe this mass of almost vertical grey rock.

I’ve ridden my mountain bike around the area quite lot but I’ve never taken it into the hushes. A Land Rover track runs along the top, along the edge of Melbecks Moor. I had ridden this previously and passed a post and a cairn that marked the turning  to Friarfold Hush,  itself invisible below the rim of the fell. Although I had never taken it I had always felt drawn to it and knew that I would return one day to explore it.

Yesterday was the day. I cycled over the moor from Surrender Bridge and took the turning. It turned out to be every bit as challenging as I expected. The track quickly became so steep and narrow that I knew it would be impossible for the likes of me to descend it and stay on the bike. At first I could find gentler detours but, as the gully steepened further, staying on the bike proved impossible and I was reduced to pushing it and manhandling it down the twisting track. Rock rose up on both sides and the rocky slope was littered with scree. Riders more skilled than myself can descend the hush in less than two minutes. It took me quite a lot longer than that.

I finally reached the bottom, a flat, grassy spot where a fingerpost marks the junction of the track with a bridleway running along the Gill. The map told me that if I followed this it would take me up the side of the Gill, back to the Land Rover track. I spent a couple of minutes weighing up the possibilities. The bridleway was steep and narrow, no more than a sheep track cut into a steep hillside and rising to some 200 feet above the stream in the valley bottom. I’d have to push the bike up it somehow. The alternative was to cycle the other way down to Gunnerside village and follow the road back to Surrender Bridge. I decided to take the bridleway.

Half way up I met a couple of walkers coming down.
‘My god!’ said one of them, ‘A man with a bike!’
I smiled and nodded.
‘We might be able to help you,’ he said.
‘How’s that?’ I said.
‘We’re both trained psychiatric nurses,’ he said.
After a brief, friendly chat, we went our separate ways.

The slope eased off and at last, after having to drag the bike up a final steep slope, I made it to the Land Rover track. I stopped there for a rest, eating, drinking and admiring the view, safe in the knowledge that the ride back to Surrender Bridge would be relatively easy and mostly downhill.

Someone who didn’t end up pushing his bike down it has made a film of the descent of Friarfold Hush. It’s all worth watching but the descent itself starts at about 3:06.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On Exactitude

For a while now I’ve been recording free improvised music and posting it online. I’ve been going through the recordings recently and putting them into some sort of order. I’ve reposted the result on Bandcamp, in the form of an album. It is, I realise, a minority taste but that doesn’t really matter: I feel as if it comes from somewhere and has to get out.

My interest in improvising goes right back to my teens. I and two friends, all three of us following quite traditional paths through musical education, used to get together to indulge in spontaneous, avant-garde music-making sessions. We discovered the thrill for ourselves: we didn’t read any Modernist manifestos or theoretical writings on the subject (that came later). And the thrill was more than the thrill of transgression: we knew from experience that what we did worked as music.

Unfortunately, these days I’m a one-man band. It occurred to me that there was nothing stopping me multi-tracking improvised music. I could record myself improvising on the double bass, say, then record myself improvising on the guitar while listening to the first recording and so on. Digital technology makes this much less expensive and cumbersome than it used to be. In addition to the bass and the guitars (classical and acoustic, sometimes “prepared”) I worked with synthesizer software and a Korg Monotron synthesizer, sometimes making purely electronic music, other times modifying the sounds made by the other instruments. Occasionally I threw in a rebec and various toy instruments.

After much thought, I decided to call the album On Exactitude, after the Jorge Louis Borges short story, On Exactitude in Science. It’s the story of how map makers made bigger and  bigger maps of an Empire, finally coming up with a 1:1 map the size of the Empire itself: once unfolded, it covered the land it represented. It occurred to the people in the story that the map was useless and so they left it to the elements to rot away – although, as the story says, in the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map…

It seemed apt. Firstly, I had been trying to think of a title but kept coming back to the fact that the music described itself and so was itself its own title. Then, the paper map of the story put me in mind of the tradition of written down, composed music that, in this case at least, had become unnecessary to the job in hand.

 

 

Poldy’s Dog

I am looking for that. Yes, that. Try all pockets. Handker. Freeman. Where did I? Ah, yes. Trousers. Potato. Purse. Where?
Hurry. Walk quietly. Moment more. My heart.
His hand looking for the where did I put found in his hip pocket soap lotion have to call tepid paper stuck. Ah soap there I yes.

Leopold Bloom, in Ulysses by James Joyce

 

Imagine if Leopold
and Molly Bloom
as well as a cat
had a dog
that had once bit Blazes Boylan
on the arse
(in other words,
a dog with taste)
so that on June the sixteenth
Poldy had had to take it with him
on his travels.

Okay, it’s an anachronism
but you can just see him
stooping with a certain
methodical poise
to scoop its faeces
up off the pavement
discreetly enclosing them
in one of those bags
(just like the man
on the deli counter
wrapping up a lump
of faux exotic cheese)
feeling the warmth
and softness of it
while his inner encyclopedia
riffs on the body temperature
of dogs and on the toxicity
of dog shit
as he slips it
into his pocket
to rub against
the bar of soap
or perhaps the potato
as he walks.

 

Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2018

 

 

 

The House by the Sea

A short story

Peter tells me it’s a foolish thing to do but there’s nothing I like more than to walk as far as I can across the sands at low tide. I tell him I don’t have a death wish so I don’t do it lightly. On the contrary, I do it because it makes me feel intensely alive and l pay obsessive attention to the tide tables. What I don’t tell him (he gets impatient when I talk in what he thinks is a fanciful way) is that it satisfies my inner astronaut: the part of me that dreams of stepping out of a spacecraft onto the surface of another planet. Out on the sands it can feel like that: all the Earth’s surface coverings that are familiar to me -tarmac, concrete, grass, vegetation and so on- are stripped away, exposing an older, alien place. The world as I know it is reduced to a thin, dark strip on the horizon. It might as well not exist. As I said, I don’t tell him any of this. Peter mistrusts that kind of thinking. He thinks with his hands.

He always was like that. As a child he made few friends, if any. He preferred, at first, to play with his bricks. If anyone ever asked him if he wanted anything, the answer was always more bricks. Later, he made things: he pored over construction sets and built model aeroplanes. He grew into a young man of few words and rigid routines. Then he began making things out of wood. Since then, everything he makes is made out of wood.

Part of me is pleased to have him around still. A large part of me: when you are as old as I am it feels good to have young people around. At least it does to me. Another feels he should have moved on, gone off to find his own way in the world. The trouble is, the world’s ways are not his ways. He makes anything he thinks we need: chairs, spoons, chessmen, even, once, a staircase. We’ve talked about starting a business – finding ways to sell the things he makes. He’s talking of building a rowing boat. After all, we do live by the sea, he said. We have an arrangement, for now: he makes what we need, I buy the raw materials. We are in the process of growing our own but this takes time.

And time is what I haven’t got. I’ve lived a long time. True, I’m fit and able. I can still run a mile and have no more aches and pains than a man half my age but one day I’ll wake up an old man. Peter will have to hold my spoon and change my trousers. Either that, or he’ll have to bury me. And what will he do once he’s filled in the hole? Sit back and wait for the trees to grow? (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if these thoughts never crossed his mind. His concern with regard to my escapades on the sands not withstanding, he seems to live in the present and take life very much as it comes. I put it down to his youth).

When you’re out there, there’s nothing else to see except sand, water and sky. As it ebbs and flows the sea creates an undulating landscape in which nothing stays the same for long. What little water is left behind as the tide goes out trickles between the low, rounded peaks and settles in the troughs, forming clear, still pools.

The sun rises quite early at this time of year and the tables told me that, this morning, the tide would be out by 8am. Peter was already up, making coffee. I drank a cup with him and said goodbye. Outside, the tinted glass wall of the house reflected trails of pink cloud and the young, leafless trees of the spinney. I took my usual path through the trees to the dunes. From the top of the dunes I could see the sands already stretching away for a kilometre or more to the distant edge of the sea. The tide was already well out. A man I see often but don’t know by name was out walking his spaniel, which ran around him in wide circles as he strode along the edge of the dunes. He looked up, smiled and waved as he passed me. I smiled and waved back, then jogged down the slope through the clumps of marram-grass to the edge of the beach.

All sorts of things get thrown up here. You never know what you’re going to find after a storm. Pieces of broken beer bottles worn down by the sea to smooth, brown jewels. Plastic containers of all shapes and sizes, their labels so bleached as to be illegible. Once, I even found an artificial leg. On the way back to the house I usually collect up anything I think might come in useful and put it on the pile of collected flotsam and jetsam I’ve accumulated under the trees.

All that happens on the way back. On the way out I just keep going.

I’d been walking for fifteen minutes or more, keeping the sun on my left, before I saw it: something dark and crescent-shaped lying on the sand. It was perhaps three feet long, although it’s hard to judge size and distance out there. As I got closer, things became clearer. My first thought was that it was a dead dolphin but no, dolphins were bigger than that and this wasn’t quite the right shape. It was a porpoise. It’s body was perfectly intact except for a short, red gash in its side. Either some predator had attacked it or, more likely, I thought, it had been caught in a boat’s propeller. I could not help but try to imagine the shock, the pain, the profuse bleeding, the final sight of the sea turning red as everything it needed to know how to be a porpoise faded away in seconds. All that was left was this, a physical memory if you like, of what a porpoise is. It too would be dismantled but more slowly. I was struck by how tenuous are the connections that hold each of us together. It was time to go back.

 

Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2018

Saltburn

I had to take the car into the garage today to have the brakes fixed so, since the garage  is half way there, we took the opportunity to go to Saltburn pier and spend a few hours by the sea. There is the statutory amusement arcade but otherwise the pier is simply a long, unadorned bridge to nowhere.  There’s a car park, a kiosk that sells chips and a coffee shop all within spitting distance. Everything you need if you want to do nothing and enjoy yourself doing it, which is precisely what we did.

Here you can sit for hours, drinking tea, watching people, watching the sea and the ships as they pass in the middle distance on their way to  the freight terminal a little further up the coast. An elderly couple in overcoats who could have been drawn by Raymond Briggs were walking away from us across the beach towards the water’s edge. The sea was relatively calm: a handful of surfers, their wet-suits pulled down to their waists, were strolling along the seafront talking animatedly about merits of various boards and the great waves they’d ridden. With minor alterations, their enthusiastic conversation could have been that of a group of cyclists, motorcyclists, rock climbers or, indeed, any group of enthusiasts. A tall, thin man  with a grey beard and a multicoloured, knitted hat was walking a Jack Russell. Two Japanese  teenage boys were stood, queuing to buy fish and chips. I found myself intrigued by the sound of their (to me) incomprehensible conversation. A heavily tattooed man in bare feet was walking two dogs, a rottweiler and a Yorkshire terrier. His jeans were rolled up to his knees and a pair of black Doc Marten boots dangled from his waist. Someone started up a blue and white scooter and wove their way slowly on it in and out of the other passers by.

Visitors  do tend to congregate  around the pier,  taking in the pier itself,  the beach below it and the seafront. If you sit and stare,  as we did today, the same people tend to recur as they move from place to place. Two dogs,  the woolen hat, the couple in their overcoats.  The effect is not unlike  a complex piece of music in which certain phrases recur in slightly  different  contexts.

We walked out onto the pier and sat on a bench, watching the seagulls circle over the beach below us. Then we headed back towards the car park. On the way, we joined the queue at the fish and chip kiosk and bought ourselves a bag of chips. We sat in the car looking out to sea to eat them. In the next parking space the surfers were busy packing their kit into the back of a car. I spotted the elderly couple again: having walked down to the water’s edge, they were now walking to the end of the pier.

 

A Walk on the Moon

Occasionally, I while away sleepless nights turning the pages of Zdeněk Kopal’s A New Photographic Atlas of the Moon. I discovered it in a second hand bookshop on the Isle of ManIt’s an intriguing book,  packed with full-page photos of the lunar surface, photos  dating from the earliest unmanned Russian missions to the Apollo programme. Especially interesting are the images of the elusive far side of the moon. (One cannot  help but be reminded how much the Russian space programme achieved where the moon is concerned,  despite the fact that no cosmonaut has yet set foot on it).

Reading it at night, on the verge of sleep, it is easy to imagine yourself dropping into the pages and walking on the surface, trecking, for example,  across the floor of the crater Ptolemeus, towards its distant,  mountainous rim, or traversing the uncanny,  double-walled basin of Schrodinger on the far side. Since the gravity of the moon is one sixth that of the Earth, it seems reasonable to assume one could cover, roughly,  six times the distance on a moon walk as one could walking on Earth.

However,  despite the fantastic landscape and the starlit sky, there is something missing from my moon walks.  They lack something I inevitably encounter on my real walks across the earth’s surface: signs of human activity.  It strikes me as interesting that,  although I seek out wild places,  there is a satisfaction to be found in encountering faint paths, ruins, the traces of earthworks and so on.

Thinking along these lines, I happened to pick up Robert  Macfarlane’s book, The Old Ways and read this quote from Emerson:

All things are engaged in writing their history… Not a foot steps into the snow, or along the ground, but prints in characters more or less lasting,  a map of its  march.  The ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object covered over with hints.  In nature,  this self registration is incessant,  and the narrative is the print of a seal. 

Perhaps when out walking I’m seeking not wilderness but a wildness where my species’ presence feels not overwhelming but proportional, like the presence of  one species among many. And perhaps, although history can seem nightmarish when written or spoken about,  perhaps there is comfort to be found in the unspoken history, the traces. It strikes me that,  whether  or not I care to admit it, were I walking on the moon in real life,  even though I had travelled through space for days to get there,  to encounter the landing site of a probe or an Apollo mission would be a highlight of the trip.

My Imaginary Flying Machine

My imaginary flying machine
lifts me just high enough
to clear the garden fence
and carries me silently
through the darkness.
I control by telepathy
the invisible engine:
I tell it to follow
the line of the streetlights
along the empty streets
that lead out of town.
Once over the fields
I steer by the stars
until I hear but can’t see
the water flowing over the stones
in the dark chasm
of the stream-bed.

This I follow,
plunging with the waterfall,
leveling out
as the stream joins the river,
startling an owl
from its tree on the river-bank.

Sweeping under the arch
of a bridge, where all is invisible
and where the water
echoes for a moment, I emerge:
and here the river widens, merges
into the dark mass
of the sea and I turn
up into the sky,
banking to follow
the curve of Draco’s tail
as it weaves between the Bears.

 

Draco_and_Ursa_Minor

Draco and Ursa Minor from Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards by Sidney Hall, published in London c.1825

 

Poem copyright (c) Sackerson, 2018

The image is in the public domain.