Source: Hitting the Wall
Source: Walking with a King
On the anniversary of the tragedy for humanity that was Passchendaele, where ‘Hedd Wyn’ and so many others died – I post this, with a prayer that we learn from history, not merely celebrate it.
As we commemorate the centenary of the First World War there is a hyper-abundance of media-attention and a plethora of TV dramas, documentaries, plays, albums, shows, and so forth, flogging a dead war horse… One could be forgiven for a certain fatigue – and we’ve got four more years of it to go! Yet there are some stories that break open the heart.
An especially resonant one for me is that of Hedd Wyn.
‘Hedd Wyn’ was the bardic name of Ellis Humphreys Evans, a Welsh farmer-poet, who won the 1917 Bardic Chair of Birkenhead posthumously (a prize given in an Eisteddfod, the original ‘Game of Thrones’ if you will). Having had some success in previous eisteddfodau (but not the National Welsh one – the most prestigious) Ellis enlisted, having resisted the Call Up for three years. He was…
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So nice to have Lost Islands revisited – and to be reminded of why I got into them in the first place. Can’t wait to see what emerges from the fertile mind of this fellow explorer and creative whirlwind.
Those of you who know me will know that I’ve been a fan of Kevan Manwaring’s work for the best part of a decade. And if you’ve been reading the blogs for a while you may also have picked up that one of the things I do is write a graphic novel series set on an island that is cut off from the rest of reality. Hopeless Maine, as Walter Sickert put it is ‘an island lost in time’.
It’s a terrible thing to have to admit that I’ve only just got round to reading Kevan’s Lost Islands book. I read it in July because I’m thinking about writing more in the Hopeless Maine setting and I knew it would help me think around that.
One of the things I love about Kevan’s work, taken as a whole, is that he doesn’t sit tidily in a single, neat marketing definition…
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Day 13 – Lauder to Longformacus (15.4)
Crossing the bleak and lonely Lammermuir Hills today was a physical and psychological slog today. Clearly I was feeling the effects of the many days and miles (breaching 200 today), because normally this is the kind of hill walking I love. Having blistered, bruised and bunioned feet didn’t help and I felt my body shutting, wanting to stop – but as a long-distance walker you simply have to keep going, pushing through each wave of fatigue. To keep my spirits up I sang my growing repertoire (a dozen songs for this walk – adding ‘Ol’ Groundhog’ today). At least it stayed dry for the most part, as the Lammermuirs are not somewhere you want to get caught out in inclement weather.
The only shelter was provided by the remarkable Twin Cairns, a distinctive landmark of two ‘beehive’ stone-men, with little niches to sit in out of the wind. Here, I rested and ate my lunch – miles from anywhere and anyone, or so I thought until two heads popped up: a couple of walkers, having their lunch in a dip. They seemed to make a brisk exit from this spot, and talking to them I discovered they had been disturbed by an adder, so I had a look when they left, and sure enough, saw one slither into the undergrowth there – clearly instinctively wary of humans, even in such a remote spot. But a thrilling moment, the blessing of the wild. I quickly signed the log-book in the other niche, and left, feeling the temperature drop (not surprising as it’s 445.7 m above sea level). There is an interesting legend behind the place-name:
There was once an ancient Scottish chief named Edgar who had twin boys. When the twins were infants, Saxon assailants attacked Edgar’s village, killing many and capturing those not killed. The twin’s nurse was able to escape alongside the chief, but only managed to conceal one of the twins from the invaders.
Many years later, old Edgar and his men again came up against invading Saxons, this time upon the hilltop of the Lammermuirs. As the two sides prepared to fight, the Saxon leader challenged one mighty Scottish warrior to a one-on-one battle. Edgar sent forth his son and an epic battle ensued between the two champions who were matched physically. Steel clashed and blood flowed from the Saxon and Scot, but they fought on until finally the Scot set the final blow upon the Saxon.
Lamenting the death of his leader, an aged Saxon let slip the true identity of the fallen Saxon warrior. He was in fact the lost twin brother, captured in infancy then raised Saxon. Frantic with remorse, and suffering heavily from the battle, the Scot tore the bandages from his wounds and died on the body of his long lost brother.
The two armies, aghast at what had happened, worked side by side to raise two large piles of stones. They stood in a line from the burn to the hilltop, and hand by hand passed stones up the hill to build a lasting memorial to the fallen twins.
Sadly the cairns were used for tank and artillery practice in the Second World War (!) – which says it all about what the war machine makes of brotherly love – but were lovingly restored, and the trig point bears this verse from a ballad about the legend:
“And they biggit twa cairns on the heather
And they biggit them round and high
And they stand on the Twinlaw Hill
Where they twa brithers lie.”
Day 14 – Longformacus to Cocksburnpath (10)
Some blessedly easy walking today on my last day – which was just as well, as my poor old feet had had enough. But dosed up with painkillers and ‘brassing it out’ (as Peachy says to Danny in The Man Who Wold Be King) I set off, singing my final song of the walk, the beautiful Irish love-song ‘My Lagan Love’ – the remarkable ups-and-downs of its melody seemed to mirror the peaks and troughs of the last two weeks. Perhaps it was just as well no one was there to hear me, but it kept me going. Having got used to seeing no-one I was somewhat surprised when a man appeared behind me, mid-warble, with a little Scottish Terrier. I caught him up eventually and we exchanged pleasant walker banter. He was an early retiree, filling his days with rambling. He was attempting the Southern Upland Way in day walks. When we came to a field of cows, he didn’t want to risk it (his dog was on a lead, but even so, they can make cattle nervous). I suggested he walked with me, and I would ‘ride shotgun’, so to speak – not having a problem seeing off a herd of cows. All you have to do is wave a stick, or make a loud noise. Show them whose boss, and all that. But he didn’t fancy it. So I walked through the field – at first the frisky heifers bolted, but then cut me off before I got to the far gate. So I sang at them and this set them all off lowing. I could hear their song across the fields for quite a distance. Eventually the man and his little dog did reappear, having plucked up the courage – emboldened by my passage through the herd. But the highlight of today was seeing the North Sea for the first time – a sight I had worked hard for. Such a change of landscape (west coast to east) we take for granted today – it’s a journey that could be completed in three to four hours by car – but on foot, by one’s own sweat, it’s another thing entirely. Every landmark, every view, is earned. Changes in geology, in terrain, happen slowly. Step by step. So, beholding the distant glimmer of sea was a euphoric moment – made more so by a collie dog which intercepted as I passed through its farm.
As with a black lab I met at St Bathans, it licked me to death (perhaps it was the salt on my skin, although I do tend to attract animals). This canine greeting at my journey’s end made me think of Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, being recognised by his old dog, Argus, who had waited for him, spending his days pining on a dung-heap, until, seeing his master return, he finally expired. This collie, however, trotted off, having seen me through its property. Reaching Pease Bay was a most satisfying moment – and even the unsightly holiday park, with its sardine tins of trailers, didn’t dampen my delight at walking onto that beach, whipping off my boots and socks, and bathing my hot feet in that cool sea. I had made it! #the last couple of miles along the coast to Cockburnspath seemed like a formality really, and the official end point, an anti-climax. There was no fanfare, and no pub to buy a celebratory pint – just the warm glow of having achieved something I had set out to do.
I left the Borders with not only an immense sense of satisfaction (combined with blisters and fatigue) but also a deeper knowledge of this fascinating area – I had walked it from coast-to-coast, and its history, geology and psychogeography had been brought to life to me in a visceral, embodied way. I had been inspired, visually, to pick up paint-brush and pencil again; as well in a literary way – writing poems, ideas and this journal and blog. I had a couple of brainwaves on the walk for big creative projects and one I pitched to a publisher (who had asked me for ideas) upon my return. I returned home with a lingering sense of inner peace and quiet determination. Those wild, lonely moors and hills will stay with me. Cultivating your physical stamina translates, I find, into mental stamina; fortitude – against whatever life throws at you; and staying power – to achieve your goals.
***Thanks to Chantelle for all her support along the Way***
Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 26 July 2016
Day 10: Tibbie Shiels Inn to Traquair
A mercifully shorter walk today. Just as well as I was starting to feel the culminative effects of fatigue – forcing every mile out of my legs and poor, battered feet. After a pleasant drive along the Yarrow valley to St Mary’s Loch, I was dropped off by my balladeer and went to pay my respects at the James Hogg memorial, a handsome statue overlooking Tibbie Shiels Inn and the two lochs, which looked sublime in the soft morning light, mirroring the epitaph beneath Hogg’s feet:
Oft had he viewed as morning rose
the bosom of the lonely Lowes:
oft thrilled his heart at close of even
to see the dappled vales of heaven,
with many a mountain moon and tree
asleep upon saint Mary.
The midges were out in force at the Hogg memorial, making it hard to linger, but I did stop at the loch side to savour the view – which inspired me to have a go at some watercolours when I got home. It was soothing to be in a purely visual space. After an academic year of teaching, marking and PhD research my brain needed a reboot. Walking long-distances makes me drop down into a zen-like state, my ‘mind in my feet’. I focus upon my breath, on my temperature, my dryness or wetness, energy levels and mood. I have a clear goal for the day – the tangible reward for my efforts – a hill, a view, a landmark. If I get hungry, I eat. If I thirst, I drink. If I tire, I stop. Simple core needs, very little stress, and a whole sky of head-space. Blessed solitude (which makes it possible for me to appreciate people when I see them). Today, as I crossed Blake Muir, I stopped to savour the silence – a peace so deep, so profound, that it was almost a presence. I tried to capture it in my poem, ‘Deep Peace’:
It made me realize how content I could be, living somewhere rural and remote, far away from the chattering world – dropping down into a place of spiritual quietude, finding my centre and hearing clearly the inner voice that would guide my pen, the inner vision that would guide my brush. Perhaps one day. For now, I was simply content to be walking in the footsteps of Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Carlyle, who visited Hogg (fêted for a while by Edinburgh society, whose fripperies he rejected, for ‘He held worldly pomp in high derision’) at the isolated farm of Blackhouse, with its ruinous 14th Century Reivers tower. The Shepherd Ettrick dwelled here between 1790 and 1800, and I can imagine it being conducive to his muse, as it was to mine.
Day 11: Traquair to Melrose (17.3)
A tiring day. I did pretty fine up to Yair Bridge, the 10 mile point, but seemed to hit a wall after then – slogging up Gala hill and down into the town. I certainly didn’t appreciate the SUW’s reroute into the urban nastiness of Galashiels, a shock to the senses after days and miles of rural quietude. The walk planners clearly wanted us to savour it’s, ahem, delights, but I’d wish they’d given it a wide berth – for those needing facilities and accommodation, lovely Melrose was only a couple of miles up the river. Signs were vandalised, making it unpleasant to navigate through. Losing my patience, I just headed to the Tweed and followed it along. Crazily though, the SUW insists you walk along the side of a housing estate at one point, instead of the sparkling waters of the Tweed. Nevertheless, the last stretch into Melrose along its bonny banks was lovely. The highlight of the day was coming across the Three Brethren cairns (1522 ft), expertly made in a dry-stone wall way (another Goldsworthy?), rhyming with the Trimontium of the Eildon Hills, which now excitingly swing into view: Thomas the Rhymer country! Mythopoetically, I felt like I was coming home – the distinctive three peaks of the Eildons (the remains of a volcanic activity) was the first place I made pilgrimage to, as a young poet, visiting Scotland for the first time back in the early 90s. I had spent a night on them, hoping to meet the Queen of Elfland – instead, my tent nearly blew away. Perhaps she was giving me the brush-off. Today, by the Brethrens I thought of my brothers though – my male friends, who I was beginning to miss. Whenever I spend time in cis-gendered company (male or female) I find I end up craving the opposite after a while. Of course, if you are fortunate enough to have bi/trans/fill-in-the-blanks-yourself company then that shouldn’t be a problem!
Day 12: Melrose to Lauder (10)
A mercifully short walk today – a morning’s ramble really. I was able to walk straight from the campsite (one of those ‘Camping & Caravanning Club’ type places, where campers are marginalized – in a sports field, furthest away from the toilet block), crossing over the Chain Bridge, where, the previous night I had sung ‘Both Sides o’ Tweed’, Dick Gaughan’s classic song calling for equality:
Let the love of the lands sacred rites
to the love of the people succeed,
let honour and friendship unite,
and flourish on both sides o’ Tweed.
I had learnt this from my friend Marko Gallaidhe, and I singing it makes me think of that man you don’t meet every day!
For the first time on the SUW today, I bumped into a (day) walker, whom I ended up walking and chatting with for a pleasant half hour – a retired northerner, now living in the Borders, the chap was agreeable company. Perhaps the Three Brethren had heard me after all. I also found time to stop and write an eco-poem, inspired by the news that a massive part of the Carson C ice-shelf had split off. It might seem strange to be composing a poem about climate change in such an idyllic spot, but of course such apparent environmental harmony is an illusion – the world is out of kilter.
Meeting up with Chantelle after lunch, we enjoyed an afternoon of ‘folkloring’. We drove to the Rhymer’s Stone, at the foot of the Eildons, where I performed my version of ‘Thomas the Rhymer’. Then I guided us onto The Meetings, the confluence of the Yarrow and the Ettrick – where a small river island is thought to have been the site of Carterhaugh, dwelling of Tam Lin. Here, at this numinous spot I had first discovered in 2014, I recorded an extract of my novel, The Knowing – a Fantasy, my PhD novel based upon my research into the folk traditions of the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians. It was special to read out a relevant section in situ. The next day, Chantelle returned to record herself singing the ballad of ‘Tam Lin’ – all 40 verses of it by heart! We then went on to find ‘Tam Lane’s Well’ by Carterhaugh Farm. Here I had set a picnic scene, which I read out before the camera died. A couple of years ago we had created a show inspired by the ballads of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer – ‘The Bonnie Road’, so it felt special to be experiencing this inspiring, ensouled landscape together.
Where wild waters weave
their plaid of shade and light
and ballads tangles in the brier,
two worlds meet, of clay and fey
and passion collides with desire.
Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2017
Day 7 – Sanquhar to Wanlockhead (7.4)
Today was a short ‘recovery’ walk after the 3 long days from Bargrennan and Chantelle joined for the first time for what turned out to be brief, but enjoyable hike.
The route was easy to follow, and apart from one big hill (one of the Lower Lowthers), it was easy-going too. It felt strange to stop after only 4 miles for lunch – but we had started later, which was a pleasant change to my early starts. So easy to forget we’re meant to be on holiday! Typically, I’ve turned my vacation into something to do with ‘work’ (with my Creative Writing PhD) – some experiential field research – although I wasn’t feeling remotely academic, away from computers and the internet. I made light notes, but it was mainly about experience the landscape of my characters and that was to come in the latter half of the walk. Today culminated in our arrival in Wanlockhead, with its well-preserved lead mining industrial heritage: slag heaps, mine shafts, miners’ cottages, and an old beam engine. It’s big claim to fame is for being the highest town in Britain (and also for being used as a location for the deeply weird SF film, Under the Skin. Chantelle re-enacted the ‘bus-stop scene’, sitting where Scarlett Johansson’s alien femme fatale sat).
We treated ourselves to some sticky toffee pudding in the Lead Mine tea-rooms (living it up!), and got chatting to a lovely old lady, who kindly gave us a lift back to Sanquhar down the dramatic Mennock Pass, the ‘Glen Coe’ of the Lowlands.
Day 8 – Wanlockhead to Beattock (20.5)
This was a great day’s walking in the sun (although it left my arms red, as I hadn’t been expecting it to be quite so sunny). It was a long day, which meant an early start – but with Chantelle’s help I was on my way by 9.15am. Today had two significant ‘benchmarks’ – crossing Lowther Hill, at 2378ft the highest point on the SUW, and also crossing the halfway mark (around Daer Reservoir), an important psychological threshold. Achieving both, I knew the way would be easier from now on – but I savoured them while they lasted – two of the most satisfying moments on the walk. Leaving the glamour and grit of Wanlockhead behind, I hiked up to the landmark on the Lowther of the ‘golfball’ comms tower. It was a surreal contrast to the industrial mining heritage, now far below. The SUW skirted its perimeter and I took some photos, thinking if this was anywhere else I’d be arrested at this point. But there wasn’t a soul in sight, as I strode over the Lowthers that day – following the ridge as it traversed Cold Moss (2060ft), before plunging down into a col before Laught Hill (1663ft), a steep, tiring descent and ascent on very slippery ground. The way was hard going in places today to the point I thought of rechristening the walk the ‘Boggy Upland Way’. Reaching Daer Reservoir by 2ish, I stopped to have some lunch beneath the terns sporting over the water – letting my feet dry out and cool down.
From lead mining to satellite dishes, to hydro-electric dams and wind-farms – the human impact upon the landscape was very tangible today. Strange that I didn’t see a soul though as I crossed lonely moorland. I did see plenty of wildlife though – voles, kestrel, kite, falcon, curlew and peewit (the latter, traditionally loathed by the locals, because according to folklore their cries gave away the location of the hiding Covenanters. Indeed, the one that harangued me was particularly vocal, so I was glad I wasn’t hiding from ‘Bloody Clavers’, their hated scourge). I arrived at the ‘Old Brig Inn’ an hour early and in high spirits – pleased with my progress.
Day 9 – Beattock to Tibbie Shiels Inn (20.5)
It was thrilling to reach the Ettrick Hills today, and enter the picturesque vale of Ettrick Water – where the ancestors of my main protagonist in my novel The Knowing: A Fantasy hail from. And with the ghosts of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer in the psychogeography, suddenly, the landscape became numinous (or more so for me, as my ‘folk radar’ vibrated). The shift in the ‘feel’ of the land was distinctive, and not just because I passed a sign saying ‘Welcome to the Scottish Borders’ – a debatable point, as indeed the ‘Debatable Lands’ were constantly being fought over, and the Borders stretch from coast-to-coast and from Hadrian’s Wall to Forth and the Clyde if you include all the tides of history that have swept back and forth over this region. Practically, ‘The Scottish Borders’ seems to denote a county authority now – one that doesn’t like to put free leaflets in holders along the SUW (although most of the boxes were empty, back in Dumfries and Galloway). Still, the signage seemed to be a tad better – perhaps because this stretch of the LDP was more frequented, being nearer the tourists honeypots of Moffat and Melrose. Today’s highlight was crossing over from the Ettrick to the Yarrow valleys – a tiring slog after the 15 miles I’d already done, but one made enjoyable by the presence of Hogg. One of his verses adorned the start of the stretch, and his spirit perhaps inspired me to come up with my own song of the hills as I crossed them. This was classic hill-walking – though yet again I didn’t see anybody after bumping into a father and son from Germany, walking the SUW in sections east to west at the lovingly maintained Over Phawhope Bothy a few miles back. It seemed almost sheer indulgence to have all this glory to myself. The last push from Earl’s Hill in the rain was hard – and it resulted in it being a ‘2-Tunnock walk’ today, as I needed the extra energy to get me to St Mary’s Loch. All day long I’d been looking forward to a pint at the historic Tibbie Shiels Inn, a famous hostelry run by the widow of a mole-catcher, Tibbie Shiels, who lived into her 90s and was carried, like Hogg over the corpse path from the Ettrick. The inn had once been frequented by the likes of Sir Walter Scott, and so it was sad to discover it was now closed – I chatted briefly to the owner, who explained it was no longer viable to run a pub. Surprising, since it should be on the tourist trail (and with a bit more effort could be a coach-friendly attraction along the lines of the popular Drovers Inn, above Loch Lomond). But the former landlord said he wasn’t getting enough footfall (so few walkers do the SUW) and, despite having a campsite, said he couldn’t compete with Airbnb, the cafe’ opposite, or the Gordons Arms down the road. I had to wait until Chantelle picked me up and got us back to Melrose – but then we enjoyed a dram over a meal celebrating the mid-way point. Slainte!