(reproduced with his extremely generous permission)
06 11 03
Worked at home until two thirty; it was a struggle between appetite and attainment. Read a few Border Ballads.
As I walked through the hill mist to Fiends Fell a large bird lifted just high enough above the close horizon for me to catch sight of its underside as it peeled back below the escarpment and out of sight. So light coloured and large that I thought it was a heron but moments later it reappeared in silhouette, lifting to the level of my eye-line to assess the danger, and I what I saw was a buzzard. When I reached the summit the bird was gone. A reclining limestone boulder, just below the oncoming clouds, offered draughty shelter from the fast cold Atlantic wind. It was patched with lichen the colour of the buzzard that I had scared up. There was another rock at its base and together they formed a comfortable chair so I sat and read The Gypsy Laddie, and a few others ballads. After a while I became too cold to hold the book.
“Tis not Frost that freezes fell
Nor blawin Snaw’s Inclemency;
Tis not sic Cauld that makes me numb,
But my Love’s Heart grown cold to me”
Waly, Waly, Gin Love Be Bony
The mist lifted and the sky lowered with a peculiar light that shrouded the surrounding peaks—dark misty blues, with a band of rosy gold on the distant snow line. I strolled through the heather and whipped grass, stopping occasionally to gaze at the rich green sphagnum mosses near a patch of burnt ground. Aware of a sudden calm I began to wonder how long the wind had been silent—did I catch the very instant when it stopped, or just become slowly aware of its absence? Then I heard a noise like a thin wind rising through reeds, but nothing stirred except the air some twenty feet above me where I saw a fast moving shadow, a wide massive sweep of starlings. They made no sound save two thousand wings flapping, or flaffing as I’d earlier read in Lord Thomas and Fair Annie:
There war four an twontie gray goshawks
A flaffin their wings sae wide
To flaff the stour thra off the road
That fair Annie did ride”
They swept out into the mist on either side of me like the hurried rustling of a long silk dress. Then the silence. As I moved on the wind welled up again as though it had just parted to let them through. I pulled my scarf closely and my hat down to meet it and followed a sheep trail towards a cairn perched on a summit overlooking the
2nd January 2004
By mid afternoon I was chasing cage-fever so wrapped myself in several layers of clothing—leaving little flesh exposed to a riving wind—threw on a backpack and headed down Rickers Gill through patches of wet rushes and stubborn heather to the snow line. As I descended the steep slippery banks of Graining Beck the stream ran fast below the old stone lime kilns. Enough snow had thawed out to swell the waters and I could hear its busy echo long before seeing it. When I eased my way down, trying not to brush against clinging thistles, I fell and instinctively grabbed at the earth to regain my footing and won a palm full of microscopic pricks in my pores. Not far upstream I almost stepped onto a heron’s precisely placed footprint in the snow at my feet. Both the bird and myself had taken the same route upstream so I followed the prints, wondering how long they’d been there. They ended, after a few yards, amongst thin reeds at the quickening rush of the water’s edge. The stream twists and turns and loses height suddenly so that many pools form and the banks sheer without footing but sometimes, as it momentarily flattens and meanders, there is a choice of banks to walk. I chose the east with its slightly steeper grassy slope instead of the west with a flattened track through slippery shale. This is the choice I make every time, I thought, jumping from rock to rock across the stream and catching sight of the heron’s imprint opposite. It too had taken my regular rout, crossing the stream where I habitually do. Taking photographs I followed the tracks and spoke occasionally into a small recorder as the light dimmed. The day had been cloudy mostly and it was now 3.30 pm, fifteen minutes from sunset and there was a stiff and potentially hazardous climb to safe footing before the dark overtook me.
criss-crosses the lashing syke,
fast with sudden thaw,
its spiky tread sunk
in un-scuffed snow
and hungry as death
no inkling of urgency
in its measured steps,
close, almost overlapping,
at the water edge.
As I approached the tight and sudden confluence of three streams the dark sky slightly brightened and became new with half a moon above a folded clough. A heron painting air with its primaries flew passed retracing its tracks and mine. With only the lunar half light to find my footing up the narrow clough I stepped across rocks to higher ground until I reached the ziggurat-like track, winding up from the remains of a small deserted barytes mine, which was my way out of there. Perhaps a dozen men would have worked the mine when it was in production. A low jet roared overhead rehearsing a raid on
“May the sacred river Ulay mourn you,
along whose banks we walked in our vigour!
May the poor
whose water we poured in libation from skins!
“May the young men of Uruk-the-Sheepfold mourn you,
who saw us slay the Bull of Heaven!
May the ploughman mourn you in his furrows
when he exalts your name in song”
When I reached the edge of the fell I took a step into myself and found a predatory instinct. A cold wind was blowing around the top of the ziggurat and to stay out of its icy bite for as long as possible I descend again into the deep shadows of the clough to a track level with the stream which would provide me with shelter to its source up the hill, where it turned into a damp patch that began the exposed route home.