In 2004 I was commissioned to write a choreo-poem by the artist Beth Townley. The actual performance didn’t take place, but the poem ‘Dragon Dance’ was completed. Here is a youtube clip of me performing it from memory. It is in five main sections – each section honouring one of the corners of the British Isles and Ireland: Logres (England); Kernow (Cornwall); Erin (Ireland); Alba (Scotland); Cambria (Wales). This is not to see them as political units, and nothing of that sort is implied by their association here. I see them as geological facts – ‘a small clusters rocks brought together by fate’, and by celebrating their differences, I hope to encourage a holistic vision of their shared journey. In short, Unity. I have attempted to honour the genius loci – the spirit of place – as she manifests in each part of these remarkable islands. Over the last few years I have started to perform it in each part of the land – in the Fens, in Cornwall, in Wales, in Scotland…(Erin next!) I have found it very powerful to recite in situ. It is my way of giving something back, of saying thank you to that place for its inspiration, ancient monuments, stored ancestral wisdom and legacy. It has been performed en masse at the World Heritage Site of Stonehenge as a liturgy by the Cotswold Pagan Society during a private access ceremony – a proud moment! If the poem inspires you to visit the locations mentioned, do let me know. I’ll be delighted.
Last Tuesday my German friend O visited (a month before she gets hitched to a fellow storyteller) and we went to Avebury to rendezvous with Z, resident of The Lacket – her family home nearby in a ridiculously picturesque National Trust village. If you can imagine a filmset for a movie about fairies intruding on a quaint English hamlet, this would be how it would look … but it’s for real. A line of thatched cottages surrounded by recumbent sarsen stones, Lockeridge Dene feels as though it straddles the worlds between mortals and the Good Folk. In exchange for giving our hostess some feedback on the incredible story she is writing about her and her famous grandmother, who was married to Scott of the Antarctic, we got to stay the night. We shared stories by the fire in the ‘Little Room’ as the living room is known, the shelves and walls steeped in history (rare volumes; memento mori; old photographs of famous friends and relatives). Sipping sherry left over from her father’s funeral and eating some creamy camembert on home-made rye bread, we talked into the wee small hours. Then I staggered out into the night – and nearly ‘drowned’ in the sea of stars above my head – a spectacular star-field, due to the lack of light pollution (or anything from the 20th or 21st century) around. I stumbled my way to the Roundabout – the cute thatched ‘gnome’ house which was to be my bedroom for the night. I felt very privileged to be staying in such a place. Thank you Zzzzz…
Stars like sarsens
scattered across the sky’s meadow.
A house heavy with bristly thatch,
eaves, a furrowed brow.
Timbered frame riddled with history,
the ghosts of literati,
the Polar extremes of Scott and Peter Pan
(the explorer’s son named
after their friend Barrie’s creation).
A lost father immortalised in the Neverland of ice,
leaving Wendy to run the house.
The garden, a habitat of Tinkerbells,
hedges good enough for a Woolf to jump in.
A cow-licked meadow
of glacial erratics,
a stone circle workshop,
Avebury in utero.
Here, great dreams and fragile visions are born,
eminent Victorians nurtured,
erudite Edwardians pandered,
visiting diplomats indulged.
Ineluctably, at the Lacket,
magic is forged,
protected in a vale of deep peace,
where time takes a hiatus
(wristwatches stop in the middle of the night,
stuck on the Roundabout of dreams).
A funeral sherry is sipped
in the snug of the Little Room,
beneath the sepia gazes of
the famous and familial.
The timbers, spines of rare books,
stained with the centuries of
mercurial repartee, firefly passion, hearts
breaking like an Antarctic ice-shelf,
minds locked into themselves,
imprisoned in the past.
The next day, we went for a walk up Cherhill with Kevin, gurned to the camera in front of the Lansdowne monument and white horse, before ending up at the Black Horse for some quaffing.
The following morning I went to Bath with O and met up with an Icelandic friend I hadn’t seen for yonks (Easter 2012). Over a few beers in the Pig and Fiddle we caught up. Svanur, aka ‘the Viking’ as we call him, is a tour guide in Iceland and was on his way back home. Skol!
On Saturday my friend Robin visited and we walked the Wansdyke – even though we set off at 4pm, the heat was still formidable, and it was hard work to get up onto the ridge. Stretching from Bristol to Marlborough, this ancient earthwork is attributed to the Danes, hence its name, Wansdyke, or ‘Woden’s Ditch’, but it might well pre-date this. The fact it links several significant ancient sites – hill-forts, long barrows, and camps – makes it feel more like a processional route than a defensive structure. This is certainly how it feels, walking along it. I remember once on the way to Tan Hill (its highest point, and site of a famous fair) I found a verse and melody popped into my head, something along the lines of ‘I’m on my way to Tan Hill Fair, I hope to find my true love there.’ It seemed to arise out of the rhythm of my progress along the ancient way – the May trees, in full blossom, enhancing the sense this was the sacred route to the Hill of Bel-Tane. Higher up, there was a trace of pleasant coolness, and the going was far easier – it felt like one was a giant striding over the land; that one could go on for miles. Just as well, as we had several to go to our destination – the Barge Inn, Honeystreet, where there was a summer knees-up – and the shadows were lengthening (‘our shadows taller than our souls’). By the time we dropped down into the Vale of Pewsey and made our way along the tow-path to the pub, the sound of revelry guiding us, it was getting dark. We arrived five and half hours after setting out, having walked around 12-3 miles, with detours (navigational haziness; a Roman road that was now a blocked right of way; a vast field with no way out like the one in Ben Wheatley’s new film ‘A Field in England’). We were in need of sustenance – alas, the kitchen had shut. The slender bar-maid failed to inform me there was a BBQ, so I got us some Ford Prefect peanuts and myself, a pint of ‘Croppie’ (de rigeur in Wiltshire’s legendary crop-circle pub, a favourite watering hole for cerealogists, stranded aliens and yokels). These were consumed with ravenous haste. Then I managed to grab the last veggie-burger (minus a bun) and some cake – thus was our West Country repast for the night. Fortunately, the beer was good and the atmosphere pleasant. We sat and watched the bands for a bit – even vaguely dancing at one point, although the swaying might have been more from exhaustion, and being on the state of collapsed. Replete with the fullness of the day, we staggered off to find a place to wild-camp, which we did, nearby in Alton Barnes, by the squat Saxon church – found at the end of a Corpse-path in the middle of a field. Dog-tired, we didn’t notice any ghosts – only something rustling in the undergrowth and the police helicopter overhead, searching for rogue males, no doubt! Nevertheless, it was a peaceful and pleasant night’s sleep – it was so warm, a mat and sleeping bag was all that was needed. I awoke, hearing the first bird break the dawn – before being joined by the feathered choir for the morning’s chorus.
We arose and walked up to the ridge, stopping at Adam’s Grave, a long barrow, to enjoy the sublime view – the mist burning off in the Vale below. It was only 7am and we had the whole morning before us, a good feeling – and practical, as we avoided the heat of the day. Following a seldom frequented stretch of the Ridgeway, we reached Avebury from the south in a couple of hours, arriving via the Avenue of menhirs (this was about my fourth time walking up it in a month and it was starting to feel like Groundhog Day). We’d run out of water, so replenished our bottles, and I brewed up by the roadside like a tinker. There were no buses back to Calne, alas – so we grabbed some sarnies from the NT cafe, and hoiked ourselves along the road, thumbing up. Drivers looked at us as though we were escaped criminals. Fortunately, at the Beckhampton roundabout an old hitcher on his way back from a car-boot took mercy and gave us a lift up the road – it wasn’t far (7 miles) but boy, were we grateful: my feet were blistered enough by the time we got back. Limbs scratched and dripping sweat, this bardic bod was in a sorry state – but I felt exhilarated too. Our footloose foray had been a success. We freshened up and had some lunch – again, the simplest food can be so satisfying when you have a proper appetite (and not just eating out of habit). I got changed and ready for a tour I was due to lead in Bath – no rest for the bardic! I gave Robin a lift to Chippenham station, then blatted it over to Aquae Sulis, where I met up with a couple of Americans from Maryland, on a whistle-stop tour of English culture spots (Winchester, Stonehenge, Avebury…). Despite being wiped out by my Wansdyke walk and the heat, I think I acquitted myself well. An hour and a half later, I was given a very nice tip and bought a pint of Bell-ringer in the Coer-de-Lion, Bath’s smallest pub – this most certainly needed to lay the dust of the road down, like the pump used to do by the Marden river in Calne. By the time I got back to the Wiltshire town I was not much more than a bardic zombie, shuffling around sore-footed and staring, looking for a take-away.
The following night I went back to Bath for the Storytelling Circle at the Raven, which I used to run. It is now hosted by David Metcalfe, a fellow Fire Spring member. At first, there was only a handful of ‘usual suspects’ there, but it rapidly filled up and there was a good crowd and an entertaining cross-section of offerings. I told the story of The Far-travelled Fiddler from my forth-coming collection of ‘Northamptonshire Folk Tales’ – being published by The History Press – in the week I had received a proof of the gorgeous cover from Katherine Soutar. To see seeds sown in early Spring (when I submitted the manuscript) come to fruition is immensely satisfying, and offers some consolation for my ‘exile’ in one-horse Calne, which the visit of friends and various sortees makes more bearable.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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).
in the mist –
on the hillside.
the moon’s dance
of veil revealing,
the rising of the
Old Woman of the
Moors, giving birth –
hope re-gleams at
the darkest hour.
the negative spaces
of the stones, as
though they were
designed for this
then away. Running
fingers over the
one’s skin with
it, like the way
each others’ bodies.
We part, ships passing
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
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).
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
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
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
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.