This time last year, my partner and I set off to do the Pennine Way. For anyone who doesn’t know, this is a 270 mile walk up the spine of England, starting at Edale in Derbyshire, and ending at the Scottish border. I will post the series of poems I wrote about our walk to record it as I had recorded the Coast to Coast walk when I was 50.
Before the Start
The line through the hills waits
Unaware, now glinting
After the rains, now lost
In the darkness….
It curls into stories
That are yet to be told,
With a typeface borrowed
From ancient roads.
They have protected it
From the burden of tales,
Paved it to carry the weight
I watch the faint line draw
A kind of dread across
The shadow of morning
Beneath the mists.
There is no shelter here,
Bitter winds spit and howl,
Dark birds twist and cackle
I cannot see beyond,
Where homes reclaim the moor,
Where kindness and effort
Etch the landscape;
Banishes grander dreams
To the obscurity
Where they belong;
Where waters are rippled
In sunlight, where curlews
‘Courlee’ and pewits dive
But I know they too wait
To whatever story
My boots carry.
Day 1 is one of the hardest days on the Pennine Way. You can see me trudging on and can get an idea of the amount of rain that had landed on us, but you can’t see the wind! It was the wind that tested us throughout the walk, May settling scores for an unusually warm and summery April. Naively, we tried to carry our packs for the first three days until it became obvious that I was past the days when I could have done that. Day 1 then took us 10 hours and we had to set up camp in near darkness without a meal.
Kinder Scout and Bleaklow
The dark Peak, the granite,
Glowering clouds subduing
Even the brownness of fields,
Framed as they are by grey.
This is a cruel land,
Grim in its yielding of life;
The streams are stained by the soil,
Dead bracken fights off
The freshness of Spring.
Life though there is
In the vigorous gush of water,
The red grouse’s bursting alarm,
The curlew’s bubbling music,
And the groans of fell walkers
Hauling themselves onwards.
This is no land for the gentle.
The granite rasps flesh
And water seeps into weakness
Softening any resolve.
Rocks stand defiant
Scorning the attention span
Of the purple clad passers-by.
Only the curlews escape
The dark earthed bitterness,
Their cry of life unstained
Breaking with joy on the landscape
Lifting us into the clean flow
Of air, softness, liquid.
Days 2 and 3 continue across severe and barren moors. The rain and wind at the start of day 3 soaked us within 100 yards of setting off and we had to rely on our walking poles to stop us being blown over. We almost gave up, but one step followed another and the rain abated as we crossed Saddleworth Moor.
No scope for poetry here
Amidst the land of exhaustion
Where barren horizons
Enclose death and obsession.
Here Nature celebrates
The delusions of faith,
The irrelevance of love.
Here we can only trudge
Step after step, enduring
The heedless winds, the cold
Clutch of life’s disappointments.
Yet we go on,
And let no thought intrude
Beyond the way we leave behind
And need not travel again.
After a much needed day’s rest in Hebden Bridge, we had the first really enjoyable day, our packs being carried for us (poor old things) and the weather improved. This of course was Ted Hughes country, and his poetry casts a harsh light on my efforts! (I was brought up as a young child in Hebden Bridge and will post my poems inspired by the place elsewhere.)
Only now, as the sky widens
Can my voice stretch
And join the curlew’s joyous
Only now, where the greens freshen,
Can my eyes clear
And bathe in colour, vibrant
With life and light.
Only here, where the breeze softens,
Can my lungs fill
And clear the mind to capture
The scents of Spring.
Here is Ted Hughes’ take on Widdop:
Where there was nothing
somebody put a frightened lake.
Where there was nothing
Broadened to support it.
A wind from between the stars
Swam down to sniff at the trembling.
Trees holding hands, eyes closed,
Acted at world.
Some heath-grass crept close, in fear.
Except when a gull blows through
A rip on the fabric
Out of nothingness into nothingness
So we see what is inside us …….
We broke our journey at Malham to recuperate and to stay with family. Then back to the journey…..
We were driven back to our route,
Towards clouds, a frown on the brow
Of our venture, a gloom
Drawn like a dust sheet from the moors
We hoped to have left behind.
The rain fell to scoff at our rest.
To return us, we thought,
To the place we had left, soaked, tired.
At the start of the limestone
Freshness, we were plunged in darkness.
The whole world was a wash
Of grey; roads, trees, barns and bridges
Drawn into the featureless blur
Beyond the streaked windows.
Then as we stepped from the car
And faced the need to start again
The sun shone and flooded
The hills with beauty.
Pen y Ghent
Certain days hung like distant thunder
Growling warnings, beaming dark shadows
Over quieter foothills. They loomed
Misty, bog covered immensities,
Resonating with unexpressed fears
That tugged the loose ends of our resolve.
Pen y Ghent was a gentler spirit,
Captured in the lilt of the title
Like a Celtic song. Only the winds
Blasted us, shivering, from its peak,
As if to warn us of harder times
To come in some wilder wilderness.
Then we began the long farewell, watched
Through the dogged trek on empty moors
By a friend who was now family.
Morning and Evening
The day after Pen y Ghent was a straightforward walk to Hawes with wonderful views to Whernside. The wind though was ferocious! The following morning was glorious sunshine just as May should be but turned to grey and gale force winds as the afternoon wore on and we climbed away from the beautiful Dales country to something crueller.
Were the colours, bathed in morning light,
Painted by the sun in its ecstasy
Of innocence, truly there? The singing
Of light and shadow springs a loose rhythm
In my limbs as we climb Great Shunner Fell.
Here the wildness, contained and comforted
By the ambient hush of warmer winds,
And by the Buttertubs road’s fellowship.
Here the haul to the summit testifies
But the day fades, the body tires;
Colour dissolves, light flattens and the drab
Bog grasses cover the invalid land.
Beyond Keld, the wind resumes its assault
And progress once more becomes endurance,
A wish to be at rest in the future.
Now we are climbing in a land of death,
Mines that killed, now abandoned to decay;
Hillsides destroyed to extract the cold rocks
And leave gaping memorials, scrappy,
Careless of the lives of the powerless.
Where is the boy whose spirit flowered
In the dark barren expanse of Burbage,
Freed from the cloying anxieties
The condensation of fears that curtained
His life in the city? He saw himself
In the lone stunted hawthorn, bent before
The expected storms, alone, heroic.
Now the barren waste seeps into my gut,
Drains my mind of energy; nausea
Washes over me from the sodden earth.
Upper Teesdale was the most beautiful section of the walk so far- the beauty of the river was spectacular and we enjoyed sunshine for the most part. The wind returned with a vengeance as we climbed over the watershed to see the Cumbrian mountains out to the west.
Beauty defeats me;
If only time could
Pause but not
Lose the motion,
The glitter of sunlight,
The river’s energy;
The life of it.
It seems the beauty
Cannot be found in
The colour – the blues,
Whites and translucent browns;
Nor in the design –
The overhanging trees,
The sculptured rocks.
The beauty then must be
In the imagined scene;
The water’s journey
The sense of its future,
The idea of life within,
In the history
Implied by movement.
In the relationship
Between current and bank,
In our hidden wordless
Depths that chime
To the sound of flowing
Water, that stir
To the Dale’s sweet perfumes.
Cross Fell hung over us like a cloud,
Obscuring the view, a distortion
Of distance and direction, dreadful
In an imagined darkness.
‘Till now it had been peripheral,
An object of curiosity
Viewed from afar, given due respect,
Acknowledgement but passed by.
Its ghost appeared as we climbed from Hawes,
Teasing us in the bright clear sunshine
With a pretence at proximity,
Mocking its reputation.
Now it stood over us as we planned
Our assault – it drew the sky closer
As if to growl a warning, dragging
Us from our beds to shiver.
The idea of 20 miles ahead,
The threat of low cloud and driving rain,
The stories of lost walkers, frightened
Wet and tired, pulled on our minds.
The start was pastoral, comforting,
Paths steeped in the past, secure, peopled,
Decorated by hedgerows, by flowers
By the soft flutters of living.
A pre-echo of the day’s ending
Through the sheltered farms of the South Tyne;
The bare homeliness of Garigill’s
Pub seeking resurrection
In the kindly hopefulness of youth
And the rough banter of old locals,
The bridal shower of May blossom
On the entry to Alston.
Between was wildness, the bitter winds,
The bog fields, the empty horizons
Shaped to deny personality
To erase humanity.
The day played with the meeting between
Man’s taming labours and Nature’s
Chaotic order – quarries reclaimed
Mines flooded and bogs tarmacced.
The golf balls of Great Dunn Fell assert
A denial of wilderness,
But stand nose to nose with the wasteland
Of Knock Fell’s featureless plain.
And so the weight of the day’s journey
Is borne by the Corpse Road, made by men
To carry the dead back to their earth
Where all join the emptiness.
The summit though was unexpected.
The sky clear, wind blasting in our face,
We came to a crowded cairn buzzing
With chatter, energy, fun.
Now for a rest day in the rain!
We stepped into the past
The rain shone on the cobbled streets
As children ambled slowly by.
The sepia mounted photographs
Recorded not some distant world
We could no longer reach
But seemed to testify
To continuity, the town’s embrace
Of farming truths, where time
By change of seasons was propelled,
And not by some idea of wealth
Or progress. Sounds of modern ways
Were muffled. In service,
Retired. This was a place
For rest, for acceptance of things
As they are, dampened by the rains,
Ambitions bowing to people’s
Domestic journeys and private
Griefs and celebrations.
The South Tyne
They said this day was just a transition.
Not one of the ‘top ten’, a day of muddy
Farmyards, barking dogs, cowpats and marshes
A last farewell to the Pennines, before
The grandeur of Hadrians Wall beneath
The wide skies and majestic expanses
Of Northumbria. Is this the viewpoint
That modern day pellegrini adopt,
Hoping for the Promised Land of the Saints
In the exile of wildness, a mystic
Bliss of absorption into emptiness?
Disappointed by people and comfort?
To my eyes, the South Tyne blossomed
An oasis of colour and pattern
Amidst the wind charred blankness of the Fells.
As the Pennine Way meets Hadrian’s Wall, the Pennine Way walker has to contain a sense of superiority and smug self satisfaction as s(he) meets a larger crowd of people who walk the length of the Wall across the north of England. This unattractive quality in the Pennine Way walker is soon knocked out of him or her by the energy sapping ups and downs of the Wall, along which we walk for about 8 or 9 miles. ….
Where the yearning of emptiness
Is crossed by lined urban logic
In strange alliance with the rocks,
With the escarpment a platform
For watchful order and control.
We may dream that poetry lies
In the wild’s self willed disorder
In the shining openness, lands
Scraped to the bone by wind driven
Torrents; yet it is with our feet
Treading the square grids of Romans,
Spirit anchored to engineered
Precision that tames the wildness,
That we feel at home. What we love
Is the sight of open worlds, stretched
Away into the swept unknown,
Viewed from the possibility
Of warmth and companionship.
Between Wall and mountain lies the forest.
The weald here seems in contrast to the wild, –
The disorder of bog grass and water
Left open to the sky and unsheltered
From storms and the hawk’s predatory eye,
Fenced off to protect an industrial
World that echoes the regimented lines
Of the Romans, with grimly efficient
Load bearing roads piercing every corner.
We enter and trudge on, apparently
Gridlocked, data bound, all story removed
To suit a balance sheet in some remote
Laptop. But still, songs of finch and crossbill
And the hush of wind through dark pine needles
Recall the vigour of life’s disorder.
The evergreen’s dense regimentation
Cannot hide the onward flight of our dreams
To the bat’s ecstasy, the miracle
Of the goshawk’s pursuit in the darkness
Of the swarming tide of insects’ fervour.
The clearances with their war like ruins,
Blasted stumps in splintered savagery
Swamp bound and beyond shame in their crippled
Defeat, open the grey immensities
Of the Cheviot to our view. Music
Stirs, pine scents breathe and we are borne forward
By our own story with its surprises.
These are the round breasted hills
To the wind’s indifference,
Absorbing the Winter snows
And controlling the rains’
Instinct to scour, clean and flood.
None of the black bitterness
Of the Peak’s granite outcrops:
No need to spit in the eye
Of Satanic mills, to bear
The burden of heroic
Defiance by angry folk
Bonded by exploitation.
These hills swell with pride above
The rich toned fertility
Of lowland farms, above seas
Smiling at a safe distance.
They do not see the savage
Butchery of fighting men
The desperation of Saints
In their wild sanctuaries.
The stamp of Chew Green’s fighters
Is moulded to the same roundness,
Turned pastel by the grasses.
The curlew returns in joy
And we walk to completion.
Not the rain but the wind
Engraved itself, acid
Grooves etched on our struggle
Across Pennine paths.
We hung on, braced against
Our poles above Standage;
We staggered against cold
Westerly blasts scouring
Spray from the reservoir’s skin;
Past Dodd Fell, the wind’s fury
Raged unhinged where no shelter
From the stone walls stood guard;
Beyond the Tees, by Maize Beck
We fought the wind’s cutting cold
As it pierced through to our gut
Draining heat from our bodies
And scattering all thinking
In fragments across the moors.
To the end, from Windy Gyle
Across Cheviot and the Schill
We were soaked in wind, resolve
Dissolving and progress held
By closed minds and trudging feet.
At the End
Thanks to those of you who have followed our journey! This is my final summary……..
As I rise to Kinder
The mind’s needle locks on
To the Border Hotel
250 miles northwards.
Now every step connects
Me to the free half pint!
Each step goal directed,
Obscuring the moment,
Narrowing the channels
The need to meander,
To allow experience
To form pools and rapids,
To pause at the detail
Of the wild history
Is overcome, stifled
By the goal’s tyranny.
This is a plot driven
Story, driven by hopes
For a happy ending.
Whole stanzas of poetry
Are missed, but the poem
Survives, in retrospect
Perhaps, but drawing
Power from the struggle.
Goal achieved, I lie back,
The tightness of the effort
Loosened, allowing blood
To seep into places
Where experience waits
In unconscious silence.