Today I ran the the Five Valleys Walk – a 21.5 mile route around the beautiful hills of Stroud, organised by the Meningitis Trust, based in the town, and now in it’s 30th year. I…
Source: The Accidental Marathon Runner
Today I ran the the Five Valleys Walk – a 21.5 mile route around the beautiful hills of Stroud, organised by the Meningitis Trust, based in the town, and now in it’s 30th year. I…
Source: The Accidental Marathon Runner
He just kind of bumbled into it…
I didn’t mean to run a marathon.
Let me explain.
Today I ran the the Five Valleys Walk – a 21.5 mile route around the beautiful hills of Stroud, organised by the Meningitis Trust, based in the town, and now in it’s 30th year. It has become a very successful fundraiser and a great community event with many families and groups of friends taking part. I’ve lived in Stroud nearly 6 years so I thought it was about time I hauled my bardic butt around it. I decided two days before – having only just got from a two thousand mile bike ride (900cc, not pedal-power – I’m not that much of a masochist) to the West Highlands – feeling like I wanted to re-connect with the Stroud landscape having been away for so (relatively) long, and needing to get back into running. Having done the Stroud Trail Half Marathon earlier in the year with my running buddy Brendan I figured I could do it – though that was ‘only’ 15 miles. We ran the Brecon Beacons Trail route earlier in the summer (19 miles!) and that did me in – but somehow I found today’s 21 miles easier – maybe because it was on familiar ground – I’d run alot of the sections before – and because the climb, though rigorous – was not so insane…
I set off around 9am, heading to Haresfield Beacon where I parked my bike. The first checkpoint was down at Standish Woods, so I did a mile warm-up run down to it. The sun broke through the canopy of the trees as I ran along the Cotswold Way – and I knew I had chosen a good thing to do. It was great to be out, enjoying the glorious late Autumn sunshine. I made it to the first checkpoint – where they offered free water and cake and fruit. I got my map stickered – a satisfying way to show progress. I made good time down to Wycliffe- the second checkpoint – but leaving there I found an absence of signage, and ended up missing the turning at Ebley for Dudbridge – running all the way to Stroud, then along the A46 until I could join the cycle path to Nailsworth. This added a couple of miles to the route, as though I wasn’t doing enough already! More fool me for not reading the directions, I guess, but that’s kind of hard to do when you’re running along. The map handed out had no detail on it, and they hadn’t emphasized the need to turn it over and read what it says on the back! I guess I was counting on regular and clear signage, but that seems to be more the norm for trail races. And this was a walk, after all. So my bad – but it made me end up doing practically a marathon (21.5 + 3 extra ….if someone says that’s not 26 miles & 385 yards, I have a smelly, muddy trainer to throw at them) which is a bit crazy when you haven’t trained or psyched yourself up for it!
I just kind of bumbled into it …
But I think it’s good for the soul to do crazy things now and then! I didn’t pass any other runners doing the route funnily enough. I past alot of walkers. Some seemed impressed and wished well, but some were clearly baffled (one chap guffawed, ‘Well, I don’t see the point in that!’) Sometimes you just have to do things just because you get the urge, because they’re fun, or because they’re a bit demented. This was a combination of all three (and also, importantly, for a good cause).
The last bit was a bit of a slog, inevitably. The energy snacks seemed no longer to take effect as I dragged my weary carcase up to Standish Woods. As a bit of mis-spelled graffiti said on a bridge along the Stroudwater Canal: ‘All hop is gone.’ The brain told my legs to move, but they mutinied until we got a more reasonable section (ie not vertical).
When I got the Standish again after completing the full circuit I treated myself to an ice-cream. I felt I deserved it!
Help me raise funds for Meningitis Trust by donating here…
As I was up in Edinburgh doing research in the archives for a week I thought, what the hey, why not have a Highland fling? But instead of tossing the caber willy-nilly, so to speak, I decided my ‘…
Source: The Sci-Fi Croft
As I was up in Edinburgh doing research in the archives for a week I thought, what the hey, why not have a Highland fling? But instead of tossing the caber willy-nilly, so to speak, I decided my ‘fling’ would involve a 9-10 day solo writing retreat in a remote croft on the coast of Wester Ross. Boy, I know how to party! Actually, I can’t think of anything more pleasurable (solo). It would be my third visit to the croft – a private residence and long-time family shieling which I had the good fortune to gain access to through a chance encounter at a Resurgence Readers’ Summer Weekend, where I was performing five years ago. Belonging to a musician and eco-minded soul, the old fisherman’s cottage, nestled within its private cove at the end of ¾ miles of rocky track overlooking Gairloch Bay, radiates many a well-spent summer, family holiday and contentedly peaceful time simply looking out over the sea-loch. That view – from the conservatory – would be all mine for the next few days as I wrote at the desk there. Rush-hour at the croft would involve a family of sheep munching their way past (or, excitingly, a pine-marten hopping over the shore-line, a heron taking flight, a pod of porpoises breaking, a seal spyhopping, or a shy sea-otter ruckling the smooth membrane of the brine).
Every couple of days the local fisherman would come and check on his lobster pots – perhaps the only person I’d see from one day to the next, unless I trekked the seven or eight miles into town to check my emails and recharge my phone at the Gale Centre, a fabulous community initiative located in the old tourist information centre, or savouring the soul coffee, ‘mountain scones’ and ambience of the hip Mountain Coffee Company, with its John Muir quotes and well-stocked bookshop. The croft has no electricity – only gas, for the oven, and, mercifully, shower. So I couldn’t rely upon my netbook to stay the distance. The last thing I wanted was for it to cut out half-way through a chapter. So I wrote long-hand, which I got into after the initial sluggishness melted away. I would heat a hot-water bottle in the day to keep warm when the temperature dropped (it was at times ten degrees cooler than the south) and fire up the log-burner at night. Gas-light and candle-light made some evening reading possible, but not much writing, so I mainly worked in the mornings, making the most of the light and a fresh-head (well, not that fresh after a wee dram or two for a night-cap). But a pot of strong coffee soon enabled my brain to achieve lift-off.
For it was in this low-tech setting that I worked upon my new science fiction novel, which has suddenly found its way to the top of my ‘to do’ list after winning Literature Works’ One Giant Write SF novel competition, which I entered in the summer with three chapters and a synopsis, not suspecting I was actually going to win. I’ve entered so many such competitions, so I usually try and forget about them after I’ve sent off my entry. I literally discovered I’d won a couple of days before heading north, so rapidly had to prepare materials for my three-week trip, in case inspiration struck.
And it did! Well, I would say it didn’t exactly strike: I had to cosh it over the head and drag it back to the croft – press-ganging it into service on a daily basis whether it wanted to or not. Perhaps the Muse had other plans and was just about to gambol over the hill to shower her favours on some wandering poet. Instead I forced her into my chilly, hellish paradigm – subjecting her to long exposure to deep space and nightmarish scenarios. Poor gal! And yet she did oblige me, after some cajoling (i.e. Apollo levels of ‘rocket fuel’).
At first, sitting down at that desk, staring at that blank page, was, I have to admit daunting. There I was, ten-days in a croft, with nowhere to hide. It was like looking at a map of Antarctica. But, one step at a time, even the vastest continent can be crossed. And so I plodded on, pushing ink, dragging my sled of ideas. I find it can often take a day or two to get into the zone. At first it feels impossible to write – what an absurd notion! Who are you kidding? You’re not Hemingway, standing manfully at your Remington, hammering away, chomping a cigar, but a sleepy Slow Loris, gummy-eyed in your hammock of dreams. The page yawns. The impotent pen hangs there uselessly. One wades through the bog of ineloquence. But eventually, almost always, something happens, and you start to bog-trot, jog, run, and then, next thing you know, you’re flying.
I found my remote location, and the logistics it entails – long exhausting treks to the nearest town for provisions, lugging back groceries over the rocky track; lashing the cover to my bike in high winds; drying dripping clothes by the fire; going to the loo beneath profoundly dark skies slashed open by the bright wound of the Milky Way; the endless soundtrack of buffeting wind, rain rattling on the conservatory roof, big humanless silences – strangely apt and very conducive to my project.
There is something perhaps blindingly obvious about the massive, dramatic landscapes and seascapes of Scotland that makes you think big, outside of the box, beyond the human. Dwarfed by the mountains – in Gairloch’s case, the jagged peaks of the Torridons – the human presence on the face of the planet is put into perspective. We are less important than we realise. The fragile structures we create are shanty towns compared to the majesty and magnitude of the natural world. And yet humans are undeniably having a significant and long-lasting effect on the biosphere. The mess we have made of this, our one precious home, will outlive us for millennia. This is indeed the Age of the Anthropocene. The outlook does look bleak. Boltholes like the croft are certainly enticing when one thinks of things to come. Some have already gone off grid, or are skilling up for power down. It is enough to bring out the survivalist in all of us – but unless you have the skills, land and community to match, it is a delusional fantasy. And a misanthropic one. No man is an island. When one lives in such an isolated place one realizes how important human contact is, how vital a friendly neighbour. Paradoxically, the further away from people you live, the more you need them. To jumpstart your car if you have flat-batteries, to pick up some groceries if lacking mobility, some medicine if illness strikes, call a doctor, or simply to spend a few minutes chatting, asking how you’re fairing, maintain your connection with the human race.
In contemplating bleak outlooks for humanity, I realised I was following, in my own small way, in the giant footsteps of George Orwell, who, during 1946-1949, spent time on the isle of Jura, at Barnhill, whilst working on his dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty Four. I can see why his location would have served him well. But I found myself seeing beyond the ‘boot stamping on a human face – forever’, as Orwell’s big brother imagined the future. Instead of a (predictable, default) dystopia, or a naïve utopia, I found myself envisioning something more balanced, or subjective, an ‘Ustopia’ perhaps, to use Margaret Atwood’s witty, hybrid term. One (wo)man’s utopia is another wo(man)’s dystopia, after all. And we carry our demons with us. A central idea of my novel is that: no matter how far in the universe we travel we will always have to confront our shadow.
The paradox of paradise is – if you find it, you destroy it. But I was determined not to leave this little Eden any the worse for my visit, which meant emptying the loo, replenishing the log-pile and packing out all my rubbish and recycling, as well as the usual cleaning, turning off of gas and water, ensuring all surfaces were free of mice-temptation, and any preservable food-stuffs sealed safely away. It reminded me of living on a narrow-boat. You had to take care of everything yourself – living lightly, leaving only diminishing ripples and good will in your wake.
I left the croft after nine nights and ten mornings with a third of my novel written (at least in ‘dirty first draft’ form). However squawling, red-faced and ugly my words at this stage, I had made a start. My last full day was blessed with golden sunshine and a glorious sunset. I girded my loins for the long ride south (over 600 miles on two wheels), but for one last evening, savoured the stillness, the silence and the solitude.
The Fairy Pools of Skye are a series of cascading cataracts, tumbling down in pellucid pools and falls from the foot of …… a distinctive cone shaped peak. They are a tourist honeyspot, and it can get very busy, but as I was staying nearby at the Glenbrittle hostel I was able to get there early. There was only one other car when I arrived – and about fifty when I left. It was a ‘soft’ morning, the peaks of the surrounding Cuillins obscured by a ghostly mist, and a drizzle was setting in, so I wrapped up in my waterproofs and, grabbing my trusty walking pole (essential for testing the firmness of the footing – which can often turn out to be deep mud; and for stabilizing on uneven ground) and set off. I didn’t see a soul for the first two hours of my walk, which made it all the more enjoyable. Perhaps I was the only one mad enough to be out on the moors in the weather, but it actually brightened up as the walk progress. I first stopped by a handsome waterfall with three streams of white water cascading down – like a living symbol of Awen.
I paused here to invite in some inspiration, which wasn’t hard in such an inspiring place. Yet I had to watch my stepping too – it was very muddy and slippy near the edges. Not a good idea to be ‘away with the fairies’ completely! One had to keep one’s mind in one’s feet – a good meditative practice. I pushed up to the ‘Hill of the Gentle Pass’, sweating profusely beneath my many layers. I paused at a cairn to take a sip of water and catch my breath. The view back down the Glen was sublime – in a muted kind of way. None of the glory of the previous evening when the golden sun caught the peaks in a breathtaking way. It was a kind of private day – the glen doing its own thing, not showing off for the tourists. The mountain was washing its hair. Reaching a lochan, I then traversed the scree which spilled down the mountainside. It was a place of pan-ic – and I imagined an uirisg hopping from boulder to boulder, doing a merry caper, befritting unwary walkers. But maybe my warbling put him off, because I was inclined to sing in the day, doing a medley of the Skye Boat Song, John Ball, and Jerusalem. The latter felt a bit cheeky – singing about ‘England’s mountains green’ seemed rather amusing amid such dramatic peaks. And hoping that the Second Coming would happen in our little land seemed not only hubristic but unlikely. Surely any self-respecting avatar would choose to manifest somewhere more … magnificent, rather than, say, on a roundabout outside Swindon (although the latter would prove interesting).
I came to the head of the glen and turned right, following the frollicking burn downwards as it gambolled with increasing gaiety towards the hordes of tourists marching up to it. It felt right to come to them this way – earning their wonder, rather than going straight to it. It also meant that the falls got bigger as I descended, rather than ‘peaking too soon’ with the whoppers at the bottom. In some ways are nothing special – I’ve come across far more dramatic waterfalls on my perambulations here in the Highlands, unsigned, unannounced, unheralded. Any waterfall is special – and, if it is unpolluted, I believe it would have its attendant ‘fairy’ or elemental. Certainly the Celtic or Pictish ancestors of these isles saw any body of water as being a portal place, a place to commune with the gods and undying ones. I spent time sitting at a particularly picturesque convergence of two streams – which had gouged out a deep trough, over which rowan trees defiantly grew from the rock face. I felt this was certainly the kind of place any hedonistic fairy would choose to come for a dip – and so I left a wee offering … of a fairy cake (taken out of its wrapper, and broken up – offerings were always ‘broken’ to release their spirit). I felt bathed in a sense of bliss. This was a special moment in a special place. I am glad I stopped and spent a few moments imbibing the genius loci – rather than just traipse, snap and depart. I decided to improvise a poem in response to the place, and found the awen flowed (maybe that waterfall had done the trick). The awenyddion were the inspired ones who could create poetry extempore. Something I’ll definitely being trying again. I then carried on downwards, literally, as I fell over in the mud at one point. There I was, away with the fairies! I washed away the murk further downstream – I didn’t feel inclined to strip off, dive in the freezing water, and pass through the natural rock arch three times as you’re supposed to do (if you are bonkers). I felt I had connected with this special place and it was time to go. I recited WB Yeats as I left…
Come away, O human child,
to the water,
with a fairy hand-in-hand,
for the world’s more full of weeping
than you can understand.
I was in fact being called back to the mainland, and to loved ones in the south, after three weeks away in Scotland. I am glad I had a taste of Skye, and hope to be back at some point – for there is a lot more to discover. I hope the Good Folk will still be there when I return. The Fairy Pools, and similar places – be they epic or tiny, private places of elemental connection – are good for our well-being and imaginative nutrition. I took heart in the fact that so many people make an effort to visit, even if they can’t always articulate why they are drawn there. We can all bathe in the waters of such fonts, whatever our beliefs. Some of us leave only with photographs, with selfies, but some are touched by the magic – and some pass it on as well.
Edinburgh in the time of Robert Kirk. Wenceslas Hollar 1670
I returned to the handsome capital of Scotland, Edinburgh, to spend a week in the archives at the National Library of Scotland. I had received a small grant from the University of Leicester to support my time there, transcribing a rare 17th manuscript I had discovered in their Special Collections last December. Over the following week I laboured away in there from opening time until mid-to-late afternoon. Special Collections is such a pleasant place to work in – high up in the NLS, its floor to ceiling windows afford a fantastic view over the Hogwartsian rooftops of the city, towards Arthur’s Seat, the volcanic summit, and the Salisbury Crags, which dominate the skyline of this dramatic city – the backdrop to myriad dramas, intrigues, conspiracies, plots and sub-plots, tragedies and love stories over the centuries.
I stayed at the central SYHA hostel – a large, busy, but clean and convenient, base, brimming with Italian and German students, making breakfast a lively affair.
After my daily transcribing I would check out the city’s attractions, which are numerous and impressive. I caught the tail end of the Fringe on my first full day, so I took in a cross-section of shows (one about a lost Nick Drake recording; an adaptation The Master and Margarita) and enjoyed the festive ambience on the Royal Mile, where talented buskers were milking the madding crowds for all their worth. In the evening I caught the festival finale fireworks, exploding in time to a classical concert over the castle. It was a spectacular end to what must have been an exhausting month. One day was quite enough for me, and I was happy to knuckle down for the rest of the week. However, I still found time at the end of my stay to be a tourist again, and took in a couple of walking tours – one of the Royal Mile; and a Ghost Walk one. Both were free on delivery and you just paid what you thought it was worth at the end, an equitable arrangement, which was clearly worthwhile for the guides, with groups of twenty plus each time, often several times a day. Being a part-time tour-guide myself (a handy bit of summer income) I watched how the tours were delivered with interest. I was impressed by the level of detail and the projection above the noisy traffic and hustle and bustle. Both guides could more than hold their own, and hold a crowd’s attention for a couple of hours. I rounded off my stay with a visit to the Whiski Bar, where I enjoyed a couple of fine malts (a peaty one; a sherried one) while listening to a great Scottish folk band, a trio who belted Scottish and Irish classics with gusto and skill. The next day I walked off my hangover going up Arthur’s Seat – it was inevitably quite busy, but it still was great to escape the pellmell of the Royal Mile. It did the trick, blowing away the cobwebs, and helping me to get a perspective on the week.
Edinburgh’s wealth is in its vast reserve of time, which it sells in diverse configurations, from history tours to single malts. Everything celebrates the past, glutting upon its depthless history. It is as though it is built upon a time-reservoir, akin to its volcanic roots – a chrono-thermal resource which fuels the city. Visitors come from far and wide to bathe in these time-springs, to receive their special ancientness, returning home refreshed, their wallets and purses lighter. We hope some of the ‘authenticity’ and sense of belonging and identity rubs off on us. We leave, walking a little taller, channelling our own inner Wallace or Bruce. We might besport embarrassing tartan tat, Outlanders dancing a caper. Somehow it feels okay. There is a wealth of fascinating history there – and it is a fine-looking city, darkly handsome, with its Piranesian levels of wynds, bridges, teetering tenements, gothic towers, dungeons, dives, courts, penthouses and promenades. Exploring it is like stumbling around the torturous catacombs of a novelist’s brain. For a while we are all characters in search of a plot, playing our roles – tourist, punter, mark, local, rake, beggar, laird.
Long live Auld Reekie!