Gibbon Hill

At 543m, Gibbon Hill is one of several high points on the rounded ridge that separates Apedale from Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales. I walked up it once before, many years ago, when I first moved to the area but, although I’ve often been out on my mountain bike on the tracks around  it, I’ve not been to the summit since.  The idea of revisiting it has been at the back of my mind for a long time. Walking over hills is a very different experience to cycling over them. Walking is obviously slower, one is more in touch with the land and there is more time to take things in.  Cycling brings with it a whole different set of attractions. I enjoy both but for some time I’ve been thinking of going for walks through the places I visit on my mountain bike, as I often see, when cycling, intriguing features of the landscape that are often inaccessible on a bike and which cry out to be explored on foot.

Gibbon Hill is a case in point. I often find myself cycling along a Land Rover track that contours its north side. It crosses a stream, Grovebeck Gill, just before it comes to a shooting lodge. On the uphill side, the stream vanishes into a steep-sided cleft. I often wonder what I’d find if I dismounted and walked up it. Perusing the map the other day, I was fascinated to see that it leads to a disused lead mine. The mine workings and the stream bed run a good part of the way to the ridge – and the summit of Gibbon Hill.

As I didn’t have a whole afternoon to devote to the walk, to save time I parked half way up on the road that runs over the hill from Grinton to Redmire. I made my way across the moor, knowing that if I kept walking west I would soon intercept the gill and the mine workings. It didn’t take long. Once at the cleft (known at this point as Kay Hush), I clambered down it through the heather to the stony bed of the gill and made my way up it. It gradually became less and less deep and I finally found myself stepping out, back onto the open moor. The ground was rough and had obviously been mined. Here and there there were spoil heaps. There were long stretches of peat devoid of heather, sometimes covered with a scattering of shattered limestone fragments. It was at this point that I came across the first of several tiny skeletons laid out on the peat. I saw few signs of life on this walk. I saw a couple of geese stood by a pool. Later I saw them as they flew over my head. I saw more signs of death. Several times, as well as the skeletons, I came across a scattering of feathers that, from a distance, I mistook for cotton-grass (which, of course, is not in flower yet).

Here and there, as I made my way through the workings, I came across pieces of wood. I was curious to know where they all came from. Finally, to my surprise, I came across a pit, full of pieces of wood. I was put in mind of Cornelia Parker’s exploding garden shed.

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It wasn’t far from the wood-pile to the ridge itself. Distances on rough moorland can be deceptive: things that look a long way off can actually be quite close. Add to this the fact that in the absence of well-trodden paths one moves quite slowly and one can see how one can quickly get demoralised. Walking here has to be unhurried and philosophical. Put one foot in front of the other, then the other in front of the one – and so on. It is good that the ground is a pleasure to look at. The grass grows in tussocks. Each blade, green at the base, dwindles to a white, straggly tendril that drapes itself over the heather that grows around it.

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In no time at all I reached the wire fence that runs the length of the ridge and turned right. All of a sudden I could see into both Swaledale and Apedale. I was surrounded by hills, although it was difficult to see far as it was quite hazy. I made my way along the fence to the summit. Although, as I said, I had visited it once before a long time ago, nothing about it seemed familiar. I sat myself down in the heather and ate an orange. A fence used to run away northwards from this point. All that remains of it now are a few decayed wooden posts.

When I set off back down, I decided to take a closer look at a tree I’d seen not far from the summit. I wondered if, perhaps, someone had brought their old Christmas tree to this remote place and planted it. Surely not. I can only think a bird dropped a seed. There are no other trees for miles. Being in such an exposed place, it’s grown into the shape of the prevailing wind.

tree

I toyed with the idea of simply retracing my steps back down Grovebeck Gill but decided to follow the ridge instead. The sun was getting quite close to the horizon and I thought I’d cover the ground more quickly if I went that way. All I needed to do was walk along the fence until I came to the prominent cairns on the next named summit, Height O’Greets. I’d made my way down from there many times. I set off and on reaching the cairns, I turned down into Swaledale towards the road. Then, on a whim, I changed course. I could afford to do this, as I was now making good time. As I said, I knew this part of the route well and, as so much of this walk had been completely new to me I didn’t want the sense of discovery to end. I veered off towards Grovebeck Moss, where I found myself weaving a path through flat, bright green patches of ground. A small pool seemed to glow, completely filled as it was with a gelatinous mass of green algae.  Fortunately for me, I decided, it hadn’t rained much recently.  If it had, I’m quite sure I’d have ended the walk sodden from the knees down.  I got back to the car not long after sunset.

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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.

Drifting

I found myself walking through Darlington town centre today. Out of curiosity, instead of going through the main shopping streets, I took to the side roads to see what I could see.

I found myself walking past a now-drab Victorian building, the word MUSEUM spelled out in bas relief over the front door. The museum in question  seemed to be long gone, the building divided up into business units. It was as if the sign itself had become the only exhibit.

A few yards further on, I passed a pub. A young man was stood outside and, despite being rather unsteady on his feet, was demonstrating his prowess at karate to a friend, aiming high kicks at an imaginary victim. He looked my way and called out. At first I thought he was calling to me but then I realised there was another man, who he obviously knew, walking just behind me.

I rounded a corner. Paint was peeling off the stonework over a shop that advertised cheap loans. I walked past another pub. A thin man about my own age was stood outside, lighting a thin roll-up.

I crossed the market square and walked through a concrete covered walkway. To my right, the concrete was decorated with abstract bas reliefs. To my left, a series of arches, like you would find in a cloister, opened onto a line of coach-stops. Drifts of cigarette ends had accumulated behind each pillar. I imagined crowds of smokers, waiting for coaches to London, Liverpool, Edinburgh, desperately dragging on that final fag before embarking on two hundred miles of cold turkey. The whole place stank of stale tobacco. Across the road, a new building was being thrown up in the modern, red-brick supermarket style, as bland as the cloister was brutal.

Slow is Good

It snowed today. The roads were quickly covered. We needed a few essentials, so I walked to the nearest shop (two miles, I’d guess, over the fields) armed with an umbrella and a rucksack. I returned weighed down with mince pieces, newspapers, and a bottle of red wine.

It was good to be forced out of the car, I decided, as I walked down the edge of a snow-covered field. I’d taken an off-road route partly out of a desire to stay safe and partly because I wanted to enjoy myself. I do get quite a lot of exercise but my day-to-day working life revolves around getting from A to B in a car.

Snow slows you down. Often, as in this case, this is good. Walking takes time. Nothing in particular happened. It was good to do nothing except walk.

Later, after dark, I lit the fire. Only then did I realize I’d been wearing my trousers inside out all day.

*

I was listening to this the other day. I not only  enjoyed the music but also the whole atmosphere of the performance. It has a sense of fun about it that in no way detracts from the music. It’s perhaps hard to perform piano duets otherwise. Not only do performers need to sit (sometimes incongruously) close together but an aura of amateur music-making surrounds the whole genre.

The last, most well-known movement starts at 10:38. I’m sure it was used as the theme tune for a TV or radio programme. I can’t for the life of me think which one.

Walking with the Ghosts

My son and I went for a walk yesterday along part of the Pennine Way. We started from Standedge Cutting, where the A62 crosses the hills on its way from Huddersfield to Oldham. We headed North along the top of  Standedge itself towards the next outcrop, known as Northern Rotcher. We carried on for four or five miles as far as Windy Hill radio mast, which stands next to the M62 motorway. Then we turned back.

This is a section I’ve walked many times in the past and is, I reflected as we walked, one of my favourites. I used to live quite close to these hills: they aren’t particularly high but the ridges that connect them stretch for miles. They’re small enough to be accessible to anyone who wants to walk or run over them while being big enough to discourage attempts to civilize them. Their sides -especially in the West- are steep. The path often runs along the edge, which gives you the feeling of being in the sky, looking down on the villages and fields around Oldham.

To walk it now is to recall what I can remember of my feelings and impressions from when I walked it in the past. I find myself joined by a young social worker. He’s not much older than my son. It’s his day off. It’s a weekday: his daughter is at school and his son, asleep, hangs from his chest in a baby-carrier. He’s driven out of town to get away from it all for a couple of hours. He likes nothing better than to climb the hills in Scotland and Wales. He regrets leaving London. He used to live there – he merely survives here. He might dream of Tryfan or the Cuillin but he is in the process of forming a deep attachment to these little hills.

Then I’m joined by a slightly older man. I get the impression he’s going through the motions. He can’t quite lose himself here but then he can’t quite lose himself anywhere. This is as near as he can get. He wants to write poetry. He’s a slightly alarming character. It’s obvious to me, now, as I walk along with him that whatever he’s going through is not going to end well. It’s not yet obvious to him or, if it is, he’s not quite faced up to the fact. He’s working too hard and he’s being pulled in too many directions at once to survive in one piece. He survives from day to day by making plans, setting his sights on good things that might happen. He’s an incorrigible optimist. He doesn’t know it but his world is about to fall to pieces. He recites a poem he’s written about rock-climbing not far from here:

Bridestone

From one angle
it looked
like the head
of a man.

I climbed up.
The grit slashed
the pale skin
on my knuckles.

I held on-
to the nose-bridge,
pressed down
onto the cheekbone,

rested my hands
on the forehead,
looked at the sky
reflected in the rain-

-pool worn
into the rough pate
of the stone.
I rested there,

a temporary statue,
relishing the touch
of a dark moon,
newly inhabited.

Then there’s my son. He’s here, now.  He’ll soon be as old as the young social worker. When I was his age I felt so old… Perhaps one day in the future he’ll walk this ridge again and find himself walking along with his father and his younger self.

Then there’s myself, in the future. Assuming he’s still around and can manage a bit of light fell-walking, what will he make of all the younger men, walking along beside him?

windy hill

northernrotcher

path

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rocks

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