A record of my journey around the time of my 50th birthday. The start, more or less, of attempts to capture experiences through words rather than camera snapshots.
I recorded my progress, at a difficult time in my life, both in verses I wrote and interspersing great poems by real poets that meant something to me as I traveled across the country. I’m not sure whether it was a walk of recovery or just of survival, but the experience certainly gave me something valuable on which I have drawn ever since.
Hunched, grey pressure surrounding, I set out
in a taxi’s cavern, wrapt in my own
fears. The metre counted out time’s progress,
a chosen inevitability
an external movement, even advance,
to disguise the paralysis, frozen
above shattered fragments of the past.
The pilgrim’s burden, I feared, marked me out
As an object of ridicule. Clearly
It was too and heavy for someone
Of my age. My aloneness was shaming.
God knows, the empty carriage brought relief
leaving me free to watch the urban sprawl,
Rose-bay willow herbs, rusty rails, litter,
abandoned rolling stock, all were constant
to the child being taken along helpless.
The train’s motion rocked me. Anxiety
ebbed and revealed the sun shining across
the drab farmland of Cheshire. Odd people
came and went on their errands of duty
and pleasure. Hints of poverty, narrow
horizons, smoke filled brick clad anoraks
in childlike preoccupation, blind to
the inter-city sophistication.
A relief to see the Lakeland mountains
the first sign of adventure and escape.
After the last department store was left
safely in Carlisle, the train scraped and groaned
through dismal towns, hugging the coast, distant
from challenging obstacles, postponing
real engagement. I felt safe from people’s
attention until stepping from the train
I instinctively headed towards the sea,
And away from the possibility
of conversation. The self conscious fear
returned but I forced myself back to knock
on the door to a night’s camping, strangely
to sleep lawn bound amidst the suburban
poppies, lupins and neglected greenhouse.
‘O where are you going?’ said reader to rider,
‘That valley is fatal when furnaces burn,
Yonder’s the midden where odours will madden,
That gap is the grave where the tall return.’
‘O do you imagine,’ said fearer to farer,
That dusk will delay your path to the pass,
Your diligent looking discover the lacking
Your footsteps feel from granite to grass?’
‘O what was that bird,’ said horror to hearer,
‘Did you see that shape in the twisted trees?
Behind you swiftly the figure comes softly,
The spot on your skin is a shocking disease.’
‘Out of this house ‘ – said rider to reader
‘Yours never will ‘ – said farer to fearer
‘They’re looking for you’ – said hearer to horror,
As he left them there, as he left them there.
Day 1 of my walk ended in pouring rain.
The Inn: Ennerdale
Long thistle strewn grass, sodden and wind blown
was to be tonight’s mattress. I was wet,
cold.The better part of the day alone
evading human contact, shrivelled, set
on a solitary course. From the hills
no comfort could be sought as the clouds swirled
low. I changed my wet clothes and lay down, curled
in foetal ball, emptied of thoughts, until
the sound of rain became partner to sleep.
Silence aroused me; to eat seemed a choice
and village inns a possibility.
A damp stroll towards warmth and human voice,
emerging in fact to civility,
sympathetic exchange of the day’s tales;
a restoring world, shared experience
making the wild field mere inconvenience,
endurance transformed into pleasure, gales
an adventure, rain a memory to keep.
When will you ever, Peace, wild wood dove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?
O surely, reaving Peace, my hard leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.
Day 2 took me to Borrowdale with a change of weather so that day 3, a rest day was spent in spectacular sunshine. My first attempt at a more recognised poetic form!
What is this walk? Is it important that
I carry my home with me turtle style?
At least it is a way to lose some fat
to stiffen sinews, boast the passing mile.
Or is there a deeper purpose? To watch
the wind, to feel it cleanse and simplify;
to find a single line of purpose, catch
the echo of joy in the curlew cry.
When I stop, meander by wooded streams
with Nature putting on a postcard show,
I stare colours out, allow no dream
to touch my heart lest tears and sadness flow.
God’s grandeur is invisible, a jest
Grim and bitter to this soul’s grey unrest.
Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
After the rest day, it was the long march to Patterdale with lunch just outside Grasmere:
A Turning Point near Grasmere
A triangle of meadow, road, stream,
Blades of green lit up by shining yellow
and gentle music of running waters,
I saw beauty for the first time.
Through the trees, smiling in the sun
The hillside and quiet homesteads caught
a rhythm, classical, poised. Thought
is stilled; flowing currents fashion
soft modulations. The wild thyme
grows, and memories of distant daughters
brings a fertile tear. To meet a fellow
trav’ller is now a joy, all fears a dream.
The power of such a moment as this
comes as a mystery, hazy coarse grain
Memory connecting the troubled thought
to deeper treasures, not of art
or the fancied soul’s refinement;
rather a far off moment, tea
by a brook, spirit running free.
And so the simple ointment
of childish wonder opens heart
and eye. Grey stones can sing and colours, sought
along the roads and mountain tracks in vain
now glow in glory, painting human bliss.
As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.
And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.
‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,
‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.
‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.’
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.
‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.
‘Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.
‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.
‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.
‘O look, look in the mirror?
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.
‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’
It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.
And then at Patterdale, an incident interrupted a rather gloomy reverie and amused me, though the poem fails to capture the lightness of humour. The other problem lies in trying to maintain a rhyme scheme leading to a poor choice of words I think….
A Churchyard in Patterdale
A lone walk saturated with sadness
takes me though green wooded shadows that stroke
my eyes gently. I can now see a field
of gold, ripe grasses bathing in sunlight,
poppies and marigolds overwhelming
the memorials to life that has gone.
I have this glory to myself; badness
and loss no longer sterile. Here awoke
the vision of true riches, harvest yield
and the silent growth of good in the night.
Here the graves serve to frame new life, shelving
my self-absorption from which nothing shone.
The next day in more cheerful mood, I found
a man and woman in the churchyard ground.
Beneath their feet, the harvest riches lay;
the scythe and shears had tidied, lifted grey
gravestones to neat prominence. Gold and red
had faded, murdered to ensure the dead
were treated with politeness.
Leaving the Lake District, after Shap, you are suddenly in a different landscape, a limestone landscape. Horizons stretch out towards the Pennines, skies widen above you and I found myself less preoccupied with my inner feelings and more conscious of the lands around me. Auden’s fabulous poem was just right for this moment:
If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits.
`Come!’ cried the granite wastes,
`How evasive is your humour, how accidental
Your kindest kiss, how permanent is death.’
`Come!’ purred the clays and gravels,
`On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers
Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb
In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both
Need to be altered.’
But the really reckless were fetched
By an older colder voice, the oceanic whisper:
`I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad.’
Not to lose time, not to get caught,
Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these
Are our common prayer, whose greatest comfort is music
Which can be made anywhere, is invisible,
And does not smell. In so far as we have to look forward
To death as a fact, no doubt we are right: But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.
Then it was the Pennines and an arrival at Keld, the half way point. The Pennine Way is crossed by a waterfall on the Swale, hence:
THIS darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.
A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.
Degged with dew, dappled with dew
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
The Coast to Coast route then follows the Swale all the way to Richmond – a delightful walk. The only snag was the beginning of pain in my foot, to which I paid tribute in my poem.
Happiness eludes me. Not the feeling
but the expression, the form. Yet I know
the moment is there. A brightness, healing
warmth, a flowing stream, meadows where suns grow
waving, wind swept, green rivulets singing.
Pain is easier. Especially when
it can be found in the foot, with swelling
preferably, to which I can point men
who ask about me. Better – sobs welling
up, face covered, sad bells afar ringing.
Joy is too strong a word, too religious,
spoiled by false claims, man made in Cotswold stone,
tidy thatch, dead eyes beneath clamorous
smiles that are gutless, without flesh and bone.
It needs yells, abandoned mirth, tears bringing.
This is simpler, a spring in its step, free
without self-consciousness, rhythm, a dance –
no, too much – a stroll, a wander, a tree
in new leaf, a hedgerow seen by a glance
with pink campion, honeysuckle clinging.
Not then the soaring grandeur over crags,
the wild barren remains of human toil
nor the distant towers with triumphant flags
declaiming command over blood and soil.
No, rather the woodland walk, arms swinging.
Lightness, just being what one is, the flow
of water, content to be moulded, split,
paced by the bed on which it lies below
willow shades, blackbird, thrush and wren that flit
barely seen, vital, at home, hearts singing.