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Midsummer Glory

 

Kevan at Avebury stone circle, Solstice Eve, by Chantelle Smith

Kevan at Avebury stone circle, Solstice Eve, by Chantelle Smith

It was an epic solstice weekend which began with me riding on my Triumph Legend motorbike down to Avebury, picking up my partner on the way for a solstice eve picnic on the banks of the mighty henge. Avebury is the largest stone circle in Britain and for my money the most magnificent. Many folk gathered here for the solstice sunrise (but nowhere near the insane numbers of Stonehenge) but it was peaceful enough to enjoy a pleasant picnic in the early evening sunlight. In the distance the obligatory drumming circle had started; and behind us a cricket match was just finishing. You could almost hear the land hold its breath in anticipation of the longest day of the year. For once, it truly felt like summer, and what a glorious place England is to be at such times – the golden green of the rolling hills and trees, the white of the chalk downs and the cricketers, the trilithons of Stonehenge and the cricket stumps, the strawberries and cream, cheese and cider, summer frocks and druid robes.

After I bid farewell to my companion I jumped on a train to London where I was scheduled to pick up a coach-load of sun-worshippers – to take to Stonehenge for the summer solstice sunrise. This meant a 12.30am departure, arriving in the carpark at 3am. It was surreal experience – with me having to articulate about neolithic archaeology in the middle of the night. Still, we got ’em there and we all witnessed the most spectacular sunrise I’ve seen at a stone circle for many years – the full orb rising over the Heel Stone. Truly awesome. A moment that is bigger than all of us (even the 37,000 at Stonehenge) putting everything in perspective. Whatever our faith, or lack of it, we can all worship the sun.

The sun rises over the Heel Stone, Stonehenge, 21 June 2014

The sun rises over the Heel Stone, Stonehenge, 21 June 2014

Bumping into friends at Stonehenge, by the Heel Stone just before sunrise, 21 June 2014

Bumping into friends at Stonehenge, by the Heel Stone just before sunrise, 21 June 2014

The crowds at Stonehenge Summer Solstice sunrise 21 June 2014

The crowds at Stonehenge Summer Solstice sunrise 21 June 2014

After I had dropped off my neolithic pilgrims back in London I jumped on a train to Swindon, where I met my partner for a solstice coffee (the actual solstice was at 10.51am), before heading north to Northampton (my birth town), some 70 miles up the road. There, in the grounds of my beloved Delapre Abbey (where I used to walk my dog as a kid) I snoozed on the lawn until my sister and wee bairn turned up. We enjoyed a cuppa and a cake, while we caught up. I ran through my stories in the glade, fighting off the fatigue. I felt a 1000 years old and could have turned into a tree myself at that point! I reminded myself that the solstice means the ‘sun’s stillness’ and savoured this all too brief hiatus from the heat and dust of the road.

Glade to be alive. Kevan in Delapre Abbey, 21 June 2014

Chillin before the gig. Kevan in Delapre Abbey, 21 June 2014

Then it was off to Rockingham Village Hall, near Corby, for a one-hour storytelling gig. This was a fundraiser for the lovely village hall, and was organised by big-hearted Jim. I was made most welcome by him and his wife in their very picturesque thatched cottage. Jim is an old-school biker himself and showed me the awesome chopper he had built in his garden shed. It was a serious mean machine. I freshened up – somewhat flagging considering I hadn’t had any sleep for 36 hours! This seemed to do the trick as I performed my set without any gaffs. It seemed to go down well, going by the feedback (‘once again many thx for the great stories ,  you have made an impression up  here !!’).

Sadly I wasn’t able to stick around afterwards to enjoy the beer and ceilidh band – I had to get back, even though it meant a 3 hr slog late at night – for my final booking the next morning… And so I said a fond farewell to Jim and his Scottish crew – until next time!

Bard on a Bike and meinhost, Jim of Rockingham, 21 June 2014

Bard on a Bike and meinhost, Jim of Rockingham, 21 June 2014

Although I was exhausted and chilled by the time I made it back at 1am I was glad to be able to flop out in my own bed (41 hrs without proper sleep!). I had 7 blissful hours before I had to get up and get ready to lead a 3 hr literary ramble with 17 people from Hawkwood College – no rest for the bardic!  The weather was glorious as we set off for Slad – and the rest is related in my previous post (‘Walking with Laurie’). By the time I was able to slump down in the garden at Rosebank Cottage with a Pimms, to listen to the poetry and fiddle, I felt as old as the hills, but at one with the land.

The summer solstice is the most expansive, joyous time of year – the time of maximum daylight (and sunlight if we’re lucky) and energy in the northern hemisphere. It feels possible to have such (relatively) epic adventures – because the engine of the year is behind us, the vast CCs of the sun, the ultimate hot-rod, cruising through the cosmos – the Lord of Light in his leathers and shades, long -hair flowing and Hendrix on the headphones, blasting across our skies.

Stone Temple Biker - Kevan at Avebury, by Saravian

Stone Temple Biker – Kevan at Avebury, by Saravian

In Pursuit of Summer

On the shores of Loch Maree

On the shores of Loch Maree

Life on Shuffle

Arriving to stillness. The patter of tiny raindrops on the slender tent; the baaing of sheep; the wind through the birches; and a distant murmur of life beyond the moor – yet here I feel the delicious solitude. I have arrived at my first destination: the Nine Ladies of Stanton Moor – a small stone circle, surrounded by at least seventy cairns – within a birch grove (nearby is the village of Birchover). It feels good to be on my way – and wild-camping at last (much better than a campsite, which I nearly went to, fatigued from my journey and floundering – yet I persevered; found the Cork Stone entrance and parked up). I made myself some food before striking out across the Moor in the twilight – eager to find the stones and pitch my tent before it got too dark; and I did it! So satisfying to find them (no convenient signposts). Even more satisfying to be finally on my way after days of intensive ‘loose-end tying’ and preparation. Fraught farewells; threshold guardians … Now very tired – not feeling eloquent (yet) but hoping the Nine Ladies will bring me inspiration – as I journey to the Castle of the Muses. I feel I am on a mythopoeiac ley-line of sorts – my own songline: one I hope will take me all the way to Callanish (Gaelic:Calanais) for the blue moon. But for now, the old moon is dark, and I feel tired from the road. A good ride here, with my music on shuffle. Turning the wheel again.

The Nine Ladies of Stanton Moor

The Nine Ladies of Stanton Moor

Under the Weather

Perhaps imagination of dark, withered and sodden land, and the change threatening; helped to perfect that sweetness which was not wholly of earth. Edward Thomas

Thomas describes the weather with such precision, lingering longer than he should on its description – the embryonic poet inside the critic dragging his heels, as he embarks upon another ‘hack job’. He leaves London ‘under the weather’, hypersensitised to its whims – taking its unpredictable moods personally. In an extended pathetic fallacy, he describes climate as though he was describing his soul.

Edward Thoma poet

Could it be that the weather is not a barometer of the self; but vice versa – that the Earth’s ‘dis-ease’ manifests in us, its symptoms acted out by human weather-vanes? This notion of ‘bringing the weather with us’ became a throughline for the trip. I was challenged by heavy weather on the way up. It did not let up, making it harder going – challenging my tenacity, my morale. It is hard to stay postive when you have been riding through driving rain all day, and everything is soaked – it creeped into my tankbag, a rain tide-mark edging the pages of Thomas’ book.

The rain was lashing down the day I set off for Scotland. It had been the same old story all ‘summer.’ I use the term lightly – it seems to have disappeared – flown north by the sounds of things; according to the reports of fine weather in the Highlands (‘Sixteen weeks without a drop of rain,’ observed a tough old walker, met later on the shores of Loch Maree). Enticed by this; and inspired directly by Edward Thomas’ classic travelogue on two wheels, (In Pursuit of Spring, 1913), I began my own cycle tour, 99 years on, with 900 ccs more horsepower, on my Triumph Legend motorbike – on pilgrimage to Calanais for the blue moon – via some personal SSSIs (my Sites of Specific Storytelling Interest), starting with the Nine Ladies of Stanton Moor. Here, I would begin my courting of the Muses, that would culminate (I hope) with the lunar communion at Calanais, if the Goddess is with me. Along the way I would consider the Other – who has tagged along for the ride no doubt: a stowaway in my psyche/cycle – a shadowy figure I have yet to meet… (Thomas, in his factual travelogue, describes his encounters with the mysterious Other Man, who appears to be a shadowy alter-ego). At the Nine Ladies stone circle this mysterious ‘other’ seems to be symbolised by the outlier monolith known as ‘The Fiddler’ – masculine in his solitariness, compared to the communal feminine of the circle. Another distinctive stone, the Cork Stone, also stands alone at the other end of the moor. As I set up my slim tent at Nine Ladies, a man in dark clothing lingered in the stones, occasionally kneeling or inspecting the stones. I called out to him ‘Evening’ – he responded with a wave, but did not talk. Seven sheep nibbled amid the stones – grey wethers come to life. A windy, eerie place. Slept when I turned northwards.

Next day, after quickly striking camp in the driving rain and thawing out over a quick coffee at the nearest pitstop, I pushed on to my next Muse-site: Long Meg and Her Daughters – a stone circle east of Penrith. Here, I met a retired Geordie engineer, who walks his dog up to the stones every day and never counts the same number of megaliths twice.

Rest and Be Thankful

Rest and Be Thankful

The Road Between

The Earth was the rooks’, heaven was the larks’, and I rode easily on along the good level road, somewhere between the two. Edward Thomas

Taking the A6 north, (snaking caduceus-like alongside its motorway counterpart) I crossed the Border with a Braveheart whoop – Freedom! The road opening out before me, inviting me on, like the smile of a bonny lass. Quick coffee in Langhame, then a winding back road to Lockerbie, through mist and wildness, entering an uncertain zone of transition. In Hero’s Journey terms, I was now in the ‘Special World’. Pushing on, through lowland Scottish towns; the bold lines and Megacity sprawl of Glasgow; over Erskine Bridge; up the flanks of Loch Lomond; then ‘over the hills and far away’ – beyond Rest and Be Thankful, down an improbably steep and winding track to Lochgoilhead. First glimpse of Carrick Castle – caught in the later afternoon sun. Arrival! Here, I would spend a week, writing and communing with the muses – a guest retreatant of the centre, run by Dr Thomas Daffern, peace poet and polymath.

The Redeemed World

Loch Goil

Loch Goil

Sitting in the sun by the shores of the loch. Shadow on the fine gravel. A single shell. Straggle of seaweed. The brown bubblewrap of bladderwrack. Deep blue loch. Deep green of the pine forest rising opposite to knuckle of rock – the bare granite summit opposite. A couple of white boats thread the waves. Lap of wave, gently swaying seaweed. Spaciousness. Solitude. Enjoying being still. In love with life.

The robin sang in one of the broad oaks, whether any one listened or not.

Edward Thomas

I stop and turn to look back, inland, along the loch – the beach making a clean right angle left, leading the eye. Birch trees in the foreground. Mountains, blue, purple and green in the distance. The water so clear here. Pebbles, like gems and jewels – gleaming beneath the surface. Perspective – of the road taken; a new path ahead, unknown. Sense of freedom and peace so rich you could slice it – break it off, like slabs of shortbread. The signal fades. Off the grid. Stones like fishscales on the beach. Chunks of quartz. Intense blue shells. Everything so vivid. The redeemed world. Redeemed by what? An act of vision? Of compassion; of imagination. By the simple act of deep appreciation, of gratitude. Letting it touch us (a furry caterpillar crawled onto my bag. I caught it in a shell, carried it to a leaf). A blast of fog-horn – I look across the loch. I see a train in the distance, threading thru the hills above Gairlochhead; then steaming inland, an old-fashioned paddle-steamer – like something from HG Wells. Red, white and black funnels. A crowd of passengers on the deck. Something splendid and stately about it. Something thrills the blood – then its gone. Civilisation (in a puff of smoke)?

With some relief, I left the intense eccentricity of the Castle, and headed for the Highlands – taking the scenic coastal route up the West Coast to Achnasheen – an Adelstrop of a train station – where I rendezvoused with my partner, J, and took her pillion, to our domicile for the next fortnight – on the coast of Wester Ross.

Tom’s Bothy

Tom's Bothy

Tom’s Bothy

We have arrived at Tom’s bothy, (a Stirling man, met at a Resurgence Readers’ Summer Weekend)… A lovely, simple cottage at the end of an improbable lane – a hairy ride on the bike! A wild, windswept coast – though peaceful and beautiful this morning. So spaced out with fatigue when I arrived – everything was a little surreal. After we ate an improvised meal I fell asleep in front of the fire – wiped out, relieved to have finally arrived. Slept well! Dog-tired. … Waking up it felt very different – the north wind had gone and the day was bright. We had arrived at Badininal. Tom’s family have been coming here since childhood. There’s a wonderful journal on the table in front of me – the Badininal Diaries – charting ten years’ of its history; guests; etc…. It’s very remote – Gairloch is the nearest town. There’s a pub at Badachro. The view from the conservatory across the loch to Strath, Lonemore and Big Sand. From the headland you can see a stunning vista – the mountains inland, and, across the Minch – the Western Isles: Lewis, Harris, and Skye. Things are on a different scale up here. It lends itself to big thoughts, big hearts. The bothy is well-made and surprisingly aesthetic – with a wooden interior. There’s a kitchen with a burner; and a living room where I made a fire last night. The water is from a spring. Gas-lamps and candles provide lighting. There is a first floor created in the attic space, with two bedrooms, and a third bunk on the landing. It is comfortable, solid and remote – the perfect bolt-hole. I can see why Tom and his family have been coming back here for many years. It is a place to retreat from the world; rekindle the flame; and seed dreams.

Venturing out, we visited the fabulous Hillbillies in Gairloch – run by The Mountain Coffee Company to promote The John Muir Trust. A cafe bookshop, this seemed an ideal place to hang out. After a lot of travelling, it was good to be stilll. (‘All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go… The spot where we chance to be always seems the best’, John Muir). We walked to Flowerdale waterfall – had a quick skinny dip – before the midges bit!

I went on more cheerfully, as if each note had been the hammering of a tiny nail into Winter’s coffin. Edward Thomas

The day after we had arrived there was a terrible tragedy in Gairloch Bay – two fathers, out sea-kayaking with their four children, ran into difficulties. Three of the children drowned and one of the men went missing. A Sea-King scoured the coast – passing right in front of the bothy, searchlight piercing the gathering gloom. Like us, these poor families must have gone ‘in search of summer’, but their pleasant outing had resulted in a devastating loss. Inexplicably, the day had been calm and sunny. What had seemed idyllic to us (on arrival) revealed a darker side. It (brutally) showed how nature is not to be sentimentalised. The sea has a cold heart.

The Truth is Simpler and More Grounded than We Imagine

There is a strong wind today. The sea is constantly changing – alive, swirling, the wind’s shadow moves across in pulsating rings of darkness. Deep blue, white caps out in the race, a thousand ships beseiging the coast, sails furled. Bands of marram grass in immediate foreground – sharp outlines encroaching on storm beach, scattered with loaf-sized rocks, graded into ever decreasing size up the beach. Shades of dark and light. Lichen and seaweed; then, submerging into the shallows where this morning J went for another dip. An elemental life. Fire. Water. Earth. Wind. Stars singing in the silence. The solace of sleep. The rhythm of sheep. Identifying seabirds. Mugs of tea. Head in a book. Heating water for a wash. The simple life. Hearty and satisfying. The truth is simpler and more grounded than we imagine. The bedrock of existence. Here, upon the ancient rock of this land, this Lewissian Gneiss, we hit the core reality. Terra firma.

The Wild Waits at the Edges

J. pointed out star moss on the way back along the lane to the bothy – and an orchid on the walk. I commented how plants liked to hang out with each other (e.g. gorse, heather, rowan, fern). J called them companion plants – loving the same soil, and altitude/light/drainage, etc. Like people, although perhaps not all. Sometimes I crave the opposite – feeling the claustrophobia of the centre, I yearn for the edges.

We kept our trousers tucked in – for the ticks. The midges weren’t a problem tonight – the wind had blasted them away. Apparently, their hyper-abundance has been caused by deforestation, resulting from the Highland Clearances. We would love to see an eagle, otter or pinemarten. The wild waits at the edges for us to be still and silent enough for it to let us in.

Badachro Bay

Badachro Bay

God’s Own Country

Walk from Redpoint to Craig Bothy (approx. 10 miles there and back). Sea very calm today – like quicksilver. Saw an otter this morning – dipping and rising in the water immediately in front of the bothy. …The staccato rhythm of walking. The body’s language. Putting our mind into our feet. Batteries run out on phone, but we have all we need. Heaven, despite the midges keeping us on our toes. Creation, creating and uncreating itself, before our eyes – in swathes of rain and light. The islands, like legends, faint outlines on the horizon – appearing, disappearing. Skye, vanishing into the sky. The Hebrides, fainter still. Walking through the rain. We saw it roll in. just in time to put on our waterproofs. Sting of sea-shower on cheek. Then, a glimmer – the sun breaks through. The world is remade. The sea, so alive – giddy with tide. We spot another seal, spy-hopping. We wave. I sing to it. No response. (He was obviously not impressed – I’d had better luck on Bardsey when I got a whole group of them to sing with me). We push on – ‘making time’. Reach Redpoint, just in time – as the storm hits, driven by the north wind. At the viewpoint we chat to a man from Kendal – in a white van with a collie with one white eye, settling in for the night with a bottle of wine and a book. ‘God’s own country’, he called it.

Wanderline

The weather changing so dramatically – from a sublime calm to this wild chaos. We wound our way back home along the wanderline of the road – as though someone had made it up as they went along (like Creation perhaps). Chilly ride back in blustery gale – damp and tired. It was a slog back up the track in the driving rain. This is the reality of Highland life. A taste of the Cailleach’s broth! This isn’t the Scotland of tourist shortbread and tartan dollies. We make it back with relief – got the kettle on and thaw out by the burner with a hot drink; drying our clothes on chairs. The primal imperative of simple survival is satisfying – but demanding. The Mountain Mother demands all from us.

With no wildness a landscape cannot be beautiful.

Edward Thomas

Wild beauty

Wild beauty

Skewered

A perfectly clear day – the sky cloudless above, fluffy clouds on horizon – the sea, an almost Mediterranean blue. We walked up to the nearest highpoint. Stunning views towards the Western Isles, and back across the mountains. Feels like anything is possible. Blue sky thinking. Sitting on ‘summit’ when a bird of prey (possibly a Great Skua) flies directly towards us – soaring overhead – and arching around for another view, checking us out. We played ‘I-Spy’: buoy; sand; lichen; yacht; island. The sea was like a blue wall – a sarong, or bolt of crushed satin, stretched from north to south. ‘I am so content, in this moment.’

God Looking Through a Keyhole

J. exclaimed, calling me out to have a look at the (nearly) full moon. The light was so bright we could play shadow-games on the wall of the bothy. We gazed at the moon – the object of our desire, the focus of our trip. I said that it was: ‘God looking through a keyhole.’

A Ragged Banner

Made it!

Made it!

Arrived at Stornoway – hooray! – after a ‘dramatic’ morning (line of tension – from Badachro to Ullapool – running low of gas, and out of time) and a spectacular, but very chilly, ride. We awoke at 5.30am – I made us tea, and we quickly got on our way. The sunrise set the sky aflame, a ragged banner across the mountains. To see the light return across an endarkened bay was … moving. All things are possible, it seems, when you arise with the new day, working with the diurnal tide. As George Harrison sang: ‘Daylight is good at arriving at the right time’. However, we should have heeded the Scottish Gaelic weather saying: ‘…when the morning sky is red, the hero Fionn would go back to sleep’, for, unbeknownst to us – we were riding towards a storm.

The Dancer in the Stones

Calanais - temple out of time

Calanais – temple out of time

We walked along the back lanes to the stones, which we could see on the hillside, silent sentinels of mystery. As we drew near we decided to experience them in silence. It was such a powerful, visceral experience – the stones were truly mind-blowing in their majesty. We had something akin to the consciousness of the pilgrim – slightly euphoric from the ardours of the journey and relief at getting there. We had made it! We walked the main avenue hand-in-hand, as though up an aisle. We let our hands linger over the glittering Lewissian Gneiss – like driftwood sculptures, honed by nature. They are extraordinarily thin and graceful. The thirteen central stones – standing around the tall central stone – are all the world like cloaked priestesses. They seem very human, caught sight of in the grey haze. The setting is truly spectacular – high up – surrounded by the loch, moor and mountain. One of the most dramatically situated circles I’ve ever seen – a truly World class temple (the last time a place had evoked in me such awe, was the Temple of Karnak, at Luxor).

Kali’s Ness

The slender

stones, like

figures turning.

Wise women,

cloaked figures

in the mist

standing tall

on the hillside.

Thirteen sisters

sharing their

(in) sights,

the moon’s dance

of veil revealing,

the rising of the

Pleiades. The

Old Woman of the

Moors, giving birth

hope re-gleams at

the darkest hour.

Tourist-pilgrims

glimpsed between

the negative spaces

of the stones, as

though they were

designed for this

peekaboo. Contact

and withdrawal;

sliding closer,

then away. Running

fingers over the

sparkle-stone,

familiarising

one’s skin with

it, like the way

lovers know

each others’ bodies.

We part, ships passing

lines intersecting,

diverging. A

plaid of light.

Riders on the Storm

Our visit to Lewis was a flying one – we could only manage a night at Calanais. Our time there was overshadowed by terrible weather. A storm hit, with 100 mph winds causing death (7) and devastation across Scotland. Riding back across the almost treeless interior in a gale was particularly challenging – right into the teeth of the wind. We felt the bite of the Cailleach – a fierce and fearsome presence. A local lass in a garden store called it dreich’. We took shelter in the Arts Centre Cafe, and dried our clothes out on the ferry as best we could. Wiped out, we decided to treat ourselves to a B&B in Ullapool. Things picked up when, warm, dry and fed, we went to the Ceilidh Place to enjoy some live music and sample the fine array of malts. A dram of Ardbeg hit the spot!

An Embarrassment of Riches

(Returning from Ullapool) we stopped for a cuppa at a beautiful river – wide and sparkling, which swept around in a big slow arc on its way to Gruinard Bay – descending in white rapids under the bridge. It was too good to miss, to cherish the sheer majesty of it all. If this was England, I observed, it’d be a major tourist attraction. Instead, such Scottish beauty spots – lochs, waterfalls, mountains – are almost two-a-penny. Scotland has an embarrassment of riches.

More Room to be Yourself

Wild and Free - the beauty of Scotland, KM

Wild and Free – the beauty of Scotland, KM

This big country lends itself to expansive thoughts and feelings. It lets the soul grow into itself – rather than shrink to ‘fit in’, as it sometimes does in cities and crowded lands. There is more room up here to be yourself.

The Tongue of the Lake

A bike-free day today and a local walk – from Badachro to South Erradale (at least, that was the intention). It was great to get to know the lay of the land with our legs. Just as we were about to set out it chucked it down – we waited ten minutes and it cleared and off we went. Badachro lives up to its name – the Bay of Saffron – the seaweed looking yellowish in the sudden intense light. After the rain, all of the colours seem to come to the surface. The blue of the inlet, the green of the hills, the distant blue of the mountains, and the scudding sky. A rainbow presented itself briefly. We pushed on – taking the footpaths over the hills. 5km it said on the sign – it felt like a lot more, as the going was heavy in places. The ground underfoot was boggy and we were walking into the teeth of the wind. The path peetered out by a loch – where we trod the ‘pathless path’. We stopped a few times, finding refuge against the rocks. The lichen on them stood out. Everything seemed more itself here. The light rippled on the loch in silent symphony – a local might describe the experience of this, ‘Teannalach’ – the tongue of the lake. As a farmer so beautifully put it: (quoted by John O’Donohue in Divine Beauty): ‘I can hear how the elements and the surface of the lake make a magic music together…’

I sort out a cave of gold (‘Uamh an Oir’) where a piper was said to have lured local children, Pied-Piper like, into the hillside, never to be seen again. I investigated with my head-torch, but only found flotsam and jetsam. (Later, though we were treated to a golden sunset – the true sun comes out when we let go).

Passing Beauty

A glorious day yesterday – the only day we’ve had when it hasn’t rained. We were determined to make the most of it, and planned a walk to Loch Maree (‘the most beautiful loch in the Highlands’). We took the stone path to Slatterdale – extremely well-made, to begin with anyway – constructed with solid wedges of stone, creating a stone age pavement – passing through a spectacular glen flanked by sheer cliffs. The day was dry and warm, mercifully for once, and it was pleasant walking conditions. I ploughed on ahead – it felt like I could go on for miles and miles.

Finding my gait – lost in the rhythm of the walk. Making my way, by my own efforts, through life. The path, a metaphor for the journey, its own destination. I push on, determined to reach the viewpoint for lunch – a goal, a reward – yet, as I do so, realising the absurdity of it. A ‘viewpoint’ is, after all, only someone’s point of view. We have ‘views’ wherever we look – the rocks below our boots; the star patterns of the moss; the brittle lichen. High overhead, an eagle keens. We pass a couple of walkers with their boxer; a runner in St Andrews’ colours; no one else. The peace falls upon us when we finally stop. It fills the glen to the brim. Waiting for us all along, to finally listen to it, to be. A place of wild beauty. The shadow of the wind on the loch, passing – like us.

The focus of Thomas’ pilgrimage was Coleridge’s cottage in Nether Stowey. It felt like our humble and remote ‘base-camp’ (Tom’s bothy) was ours. Here, off the tourist track, we found our Grail.

The Bothy of Lost Summer

The perfect place to write

The perfect place to write

So, we have come in ‘pursuit of summer’, in the spirit of Thomas – and yet I realise that summer isn’t (just) about the weather, about sunshine and t-shirt days – it’s a state of mind; or, rather, of being. And so it almost doesn’t matter where you are (although some places are undoubtedly more conducive) but the way you are. We have ring-fenced these two-three weeks as our holiday – and have dropped down into that day-to-day being. Slow time. Here-and-now-time. Being spontaneous – no timetable, except what we make. Creating it as we go along. Making-it-up-as-we-go.

Tom’s bothy encapsulates the spirit of lost summers – it is a temple of play and good times. Every detail attests to it: the cupboard of games and art materials – Scrabble, Monopoly, Jenga…; the wetsuits and flippers, masks and snorkels – and sea-kayaks; the wendy house in the woods – swings, ropes, balls, childhood heaven; the books; the Badininal Diary, describing ten years’ of adventures enjoyed by Tom,his family, and friends – catching fish, lighting fires, going for walks, sharing stories, singing and singeing sausages round the fire, football and ‘weeja’ board, ghosts and wildlife, local characters, days out, rain and midges, repairs and improvements. The folksy touches – the washstand, jug and basin; the woodstove and fireplace; the gas-lamps and candle-holders; the homely simplicity and unpretensiousness. The spare beds and chairs – for extra guests and unexpected visitors. The sense of wild freedom.

Tidying the place, we depart our home-from-home at the end of our fortnight stay and head east – via Inverness – towards Findhorn, to spend a night with a couple of friends, before heading south.

The Green Life

Pictish stone, near Dyke, with friends

Pictish stone, near Dyke, with friends

A sunny morning at Chris and Kirsty’s place (Am-Muillean-Dubh – ‘the Dark Mill’.). A perfect end to our trip. It has been really nice, enjoying some homely energy – a lovely meal, fire, conversation, soft bed, hot shower – after ‘roughing it’ for a fortnight (relatively speaking). Our hosts are an inspiration – Chris is a writer/therapist (co-author of ‘Active Hope’ with Joanna Macy); Kirsty, a historian. They are leading the ‘good life – their garden is an amazing cornucopia of fruit and vegetables, free-ranging chickens, a small forest, and two happy black labs (Millie and Zak). We sat around a fire last night (one of Bristol Kev’s fire-woks) savouring the dry, warm evening with a neighbour, Chris P (a musician who made rocket-stoves, builds round-houses, and doors). There was a good sense of community – sharing their garden with their neighbours, planning a polytunnel. This place feels like a fitting conclusion to my ‘quest’ in pursuit of summer. I found it here – on two golden days, with good friends, good food, and music around the fire. Chris played ‘Summertime’ on his mouth organ, while the neighbour picked away on his guitar. The stars glimmered beyond the alder tree, like dogs eyes’ glistening in the dark.

The Shadows on the Road

Here Be Monsters ... By Loch Ness

Here Be Monsters … By Loch Ness

You can’t follow the light without embracing the darkness – if you don’t own your shadow, it’ll manifest in extreme ways. Thomas’ certainly took his with him – his writing soaked in a melancholy tinge: ‘Robins and blackbirds sang while bats were flitting about me.’

The whims of the road, the fall of the weather, mirrored his shifting moodscapes. His comical meditation on weather-vanes (via his alter ego, the Other Man) seem to provide a metaphor for himself – blowing with the wind.

We can no more escape our Shadow than sunlight can. I realised my outer personality (what my students, audience, and some readers see) is the Summer Man; all the while, the Winter Man is waiting in the wings, lurking in the dark. He needs to be honoured to – with silence, space and solitude (which Scotland has in bucket-loads).

We can only shine, if we have the shadows. The days of sun more delicious and poignant because of their frequent absence. ‘And likewise, ‘good times’ are perhaps more so because of the more ‘difficult times’ that often frame them. Tiffs and squalls are inevitable in any relationship. Wherever you go – no matter how far – you’ll always end up meeting yourself. Yesterday, as we walked to South Erradale the line of the Crowded House song haunted me: ‘Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you.’ Summer is a state of mind – and it is so easy to have four seasons in one day; or, as the Gaelic saying goes: ‘A day of seven storms’. It certainly felt like we did, most days in the Highlands and Islands!

On return to Ullapool from Lewis, we had passed the Summer Isles as a storm blasted around us, sending tall waves crashing over the prow of the Caledonian Macbrayne ferry. Apparently, the islands were given their names because cattle swam across to them for their summer pasture. It felt like our taste of summer was equally as hard-earned – though more appreciated for it.

FIN

Bard on foot - trekking in the Highlands

Bard on foot – trekking in the Highlands

Turning the Wheel

Turning the Wheel

book launches 25 & 27 November; 1 December

On Friday I launched my latest book, Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels, with a ‘book launch celebration’ at (what was) first ‘the British School’, then the Five Valleys Foyer in Stroud (it changed its name half-way through my publicity campaign to Open House – ah, truly sensei, the nature of reality is impermanence ;0). With the help of my partner, Jenni, dropped off the wineglasses and books and I set up. A good crowd turned up to watch my slideshow and talk. Josie Felce provided some lovely live harp music and Gabriel Millar, a poem about the month of the dead, talking briefly about Thanksgiving – this lead into an interesting discussion on how we celebrate the turning of the wheel. Tired, but happy afterwards I felt like I had well and truly wetted the baby’s head. Thank you to all those who came along (a couple came from Yeovil)!

Friends view the book

On Sunday I travelled down to Totnes to give a talk on the book to the Wessex Research Group. The attendance was very low – but I had an interesting chat with one chap afterwards, who told me about the ‘Wheel-turners’ in Buddhism. I knew about the Buddhist resonance in the title, but the idea of an actual role intrigued me. Called Chakravartin (S); Chakkavatti(P), literally, “Wheel-turner”, it is defined as: the ideal king who practices, supports and spreads Buddhism (“Turning the Wheel of the Dharma”).

The Dharma Wheel is one of the earliest and most important symbols in Buddhism. The symbol refers to the story in which post the Buddha’s enlightenment, Lord Brahma descended from the heaven and asked Him to teach by offering a Dharmachakra.

The Dharma Wheel is a symbol of the Buddha’s teaching of the path to enlightenment. The Buddha is known as the Wheel turner and as per some Buddhist Schools, He turned the Dharma Wheel few times. The first, to which all the Buddhist agree, was when the Buddha preached the five sages at the Deer Park in Sarnath. The later turning of wheel account are not always same. They vary, however what is concluded from this is that the dharma wheel needs to be turned thrice for a student to understand dharma (De La Soul got it right – three really is the magic number).

The Dharma Chakra has eight spokes that stand for Eight Fold Noble Path. These spokes have sharp edges that are believed to ward off ignorance. The shape of the wheel is round which conveys the completeness and faultlessness of the dharma teaching. The spokes stand for wisdom, the hub for discipline and the rim for concentration. Discipline is extremely important in meditation, similarly concentration is of utmost significance to hold everything together.

I love the idea of the spokes standing for wisdom, the hub for discipline, and the rim for concentration – this could easily be a metaphor for riding a motorbike (one is always conscious of where the wheels and the road connect) and for the Middle Way, of course!

By ‘turning the wheel’ one can literally change one’s luck, or wyrd (to use an Anglo-Saxon concept). The very act of travel can become an act of prayer. Whenever I jump on my bike and go for a blat I feel I ‘shift’ something – even if it is just blowing away the cobwebs. More conscious acts of journeying (ie to sacred sites on pilgrimage) can really enhance one’s karma.

So, as I keep turning the wheel, I send out a prayer: May my luck turn also! And bring good fortune to all those I come into contact with.

I caught the train home the next morning – feeling wiped out by my big ‘push’ to launch the book. All this publicity and promotional stuff can be exhausting, but is unfortunately part of the author’s lot these days. No hiding of light’s under bushels!

Earlier in the week I had conducted interviews for BBC Radio Wales and BBC Radio Gloucester (a great interview with Faye Hatcher). I got to listen to Phil Rickman’s book review programme Phil the Shelf upon my return – the interview seemed to go well, but was predictably butchered to ‘soundbites’: shame he focused on the salacious side (the aphrodisiac qualities of a certain waterfall in North Wales) and kept getting my name wrong. What I thought was a serious book show turned out to be one that focused on the gimmicky and weird – a kind of ‘odd box’ programme. I was lumped with the weirdoes. Oh well!

Perhaps I can take some consolation in Rickman’s response to the book: ‘Inspiring stuff’. And he said of my Pistyll Rhaeadr account: ‘the kind of incident from which folklore is formed.’ which can’t be all bad…

If anything, this week’s media floozing has just reminded me again what a fickle mistress she is! I felt slightly grubby afterwards – tread softly, for you tread upon my dreams!

What should be more down-to-earth and satisfying is the next date on my ‘Turning the Wheel Tour’. For a start, this one I can walk to. On Thursday I give a talk in my fab local, the Crown and Sceptre – literally, the end of my lane – precisely one year on from moving to Daisybank. It feels like I am thoroughly ensconced in my community. It is nice to be made to feel so welcome. The friendly pub is run by a biker, Rodda, and has a lovely community feel – serving the patrons of the Horns Road area and beyond. The town seems to have a concentration of creative types, and most of them seem to live along my street! Is there something in the water (or the ale)? I think I need to investigate further…

More talks are coming up …

Turning theWheel Tour

dates confirmed so far…

2011
25 Nov – Five Valleys Foyer, Stroud
27 Nov – Wessex Research Group, Bogan House, Totnes
1 Dec – Crown & Sceptre, Horns Rd, Stroud
3 Dec – Isbourne Holistic Centre, Cheltenham
9 Dec – The Bear, Holwell
10 Dec – Cat & Cauldron, Glastonbury
15 Dec – Waterstones, Bath
21 Dec – Midnight Sun, Lansdown Hall, Stroud

2012
5 Jan – Bonn Central Library, Germany!
28 Jan – Swindon Brunel Waterstones
1 Mar – George Hotel, Bridport
29 Mar – New Brewery Arts, Cirencester
21 April – PFNE Conference, York
28 April – Trowbridge Waterstones
7 May – Hawkwood Open Day

Hope to see you on the road – turning the wheel together.