Nature writing and outdoor writing rarely crosses the hill and city duality. There’s normal life and the outdoors. We all know the former and we are familiar with the latter too. We read accounts of spring birds arriving from Africa and how lovely it is. We read accounts of a walk up Great Gable, perhaps as a two day trek with a camp at Styhead Tarn. We see photographs. I vaguely do this myself, although not so much as other walkers and not in the usual format. I meander into philosophy. Or I talk about photography. When we do it the usual way, we eulogise the hill experience. Nothing wrong with that but equally, can we do something more?
There are examples of crossing the duality and they’re well known and highly regarded. Robert MacFarlane, Richard Mabey, Nan Shepherd for example. I particularly like Mabey who I think inspired MacFarlane alongside Roger Deakin. You can see the trace of it in his books. Shepherd is not quite the same in accordance with these ideas. She crosses the duality not so much in terms of normal life and hill experience, as a phenomenology which underlies both. If we pay more attention in the Cairngorms, we can do the same in London. However it’s not pleasant to do so. We shut down our sensibilities in London and disconnect. Think of a crowded underground train, standing because there’s no seat, jostling shoulders with swaying strangers, holding your breath and avoiding eyes to survive the obnoxious intimacy. In the streets above we are subliminally alert to dangers. The mugger, hustler, thug, drunken or otherwise, seeking like a personal advert some nasty random fight. We’re supposed to be tired of life if we’re tired of London. It’s not true. If we’re tired of London or any city we might need a few days in Snowdonia.
I went to the Peak District. The morning felt intensely beautiful because of the sunlight. I’d had too many dismal grey days and I can’t control how this changes me. I don’t think there is an antidote to lack of light and pineal malaise. I read that for two percent of people it’s a serious condition. I think I’m in that group. I don’t notice the effect until I see sunlight, if there’s been little or none for successive autumnal or wintry days. In Britain that applies in summer too. It’s more pronounced in the dark months however, when it is night at four o’clock. It shouldn’t be night at four o’clock, but you can’t reason with the body.
I checked the cameras on the internet as I do every day. Parts of Scotland were bright, for example looking across to Skye. The Lake District was looking beautiful, Snowdonia too. I had one day for a walk which meant the Peak District, probably Edale, or the nearer Lyme Park. The rear of the park borders onto the Peak District and I drive there in about thirty minutes. Peak District cameras weren’t promising. The one at the Cat and Fiddle showed grey mist such that you might want car lights. The one at the base of Kinder Scout wasn’t misty but was similarly dismal. Neither sun nor blue sky. My plans were fluctuating as I watched the cameras but the pattern was set. I decided on Lyme Park. Manchester was bright and sunny and Lyme Park is around fifteen miles away. Edale, Kinder, and the Cat and Fiddle are further afield.
It didn’t go to plan. I sped down the motorway and it was fine. It stayed fine until I reached Poynton when the skies were quickly grey. There was no light. I passed through Poynton then parked. I wasn’t sure what to do. I waited beside the road sensing the day. It felt the same as the previous day which I hated. I imagined myself walking in familiar places and how it would feel. I didn’t like it because I was craving the sun. I drove back through Poynton wondering if Manchester remained sunny. It was impossible to know. I parked again and waited ten minutes, watching the skies. I imagined myself back in Manchester taking a stroll at the Mersey Valley. Chorlton Meadows, Stenner Woods, Chorlton Water Park. I decided Stenner Woods would be most pleasant because I’d not been there for weeks. I felt my mood drop again because I wanted a walk, not a park-like stroll.
The skies over Lyme Park seemed slightly less dull and I reasoned there was no guarantee Manchester would be sunny and weighing up the options went back, and continued, to the Pott Shrigley entrance of Lyme Park. I must have walked there around thirty times.
You pass through a forest, continue along a muddy track beside a stream, climb a hill, then break out along the top of a lovely ridge where Manchester can be seen in the distance and the Peak District the other side. It’s a border place, with a drop called Cluse Hey to your immediate right with a lovely patchwork hillside. I’ve photographed it many times. It’s best in autumn and in winter with snow.
I felt – strangely – as if it were the Pyrenees. I understood why that was so. It was the bodily feeling of effort which I connected to my Pyrenees trips. Proust spoke of a cake, others speak of smells, I can speak of walking up a hill. It was absurd but that was the feeling of my body. I decided on a slightly longer walk than I did a few weeks previously which entailed cutting down through a forest for the return. This one takes you up to another ridge with good views across the Peak District. You turn right at the end of the track and along a path which in part is very wet and muddy. You descend the hill, pass a farm house, and arrive at a place which is the other side of Cluse Hey where you began. You have distant views to Manchester again and I noted – poignantly – the skies were thick grey but there was a strip of sunlight over the city.
The buildings were glistening. I imagined myself back amongst the concrete gazing at beautiful sun. I considered waiting for the sunset when light would flood, albeit through a narrow gap, across Lyme Park. There was too much thick cloud. It would disappoint. Then I realised, because it was a short walk, I might get back to Manchester for sunbathing: which is what it would mean for me.
Before you return to the forest track you descend a muddy and root covered slope. I’ve done it many times and it always needs care. Possibly I could have taken more care but the problem, I think, was the lack of grip on my boots. It’s almost completely gone. They’re old boots, not suitable for mountains, but acceptable for Lyme Park and similar.
Then it happened. For perhaps half a second all my thinking stopped. Photography plans, work plans, projects, worries, hopes, frustrations, anger with this person, a pleasant conversation with another. We rehearse it, replay it, shape its meaning and dream. You can’t do that if you’re about to crash down to earth with unknown consequences. It was a moment with the trivial outcome of muddied trousers and little more. My cameras were tucked away so that didn’t worry me. It wasn’t trivial however, in terms of how this connected with another experience.
A few years ago I nearly died. When I say nearly I mean in terms of probability and likelihood, not in terms of what happened. I was driving back from Scotland and had reached the Lancaster area on the M6. A car to my left veered towards me, I swerved away, and it went bad. When my car was recovered one of the tyres had come off a wheel so I assume that was the cause of it. It’s possible that was the consequence not the cause, but either way what started it is when I twitched my steering wheel: a sudden movement because of danger.
My eighty mile an hour car swerved right, left, right, as I tried to control it. It lasted perhaps five seconds. I crossed the lane to my right, the lane to my left, then realised I could do nothing. It was all too fast, my hands couldn’t control it, and I realised I couldn’t see what was happening. I slumped forward in my seat. A nurse in a hospital asked me later was I bracing myself. I said no: I was resigned.
My car swerved to the outer of the M6 hitting trees and earth. The initial impact was – you could say in mathematical terms – at an optimum angle. Because of the high speed, and the angle, my car spun around twice smashing into nature along its sides. The impact was lateral not head on. If I’d hit another car, or the concrete central reservation, or anything head on, the result would have been disastrously different. There’s not much leeway at eighty miles an hour.
The poignant part of this is when I’d lost control and was resigned to dying. You wait for it. For half a second everything stopped. I was waiting. I waited for a random unknown the quality of which was having no physical control at the centre of danger. Goodbye.
It was the same when I slipped the slope and muddied my trousers. Thinking stops and you know nothing about such moments when they happen. I’ve slipped in the hills numerous times and noticed this before, but never connected it to the car crash. It’s phenomenologically the same. It’s a gap. Everything stops. You wait.
Once back on the forest path I decided if I didn’t stop for flask tea in my car I might get back to Manchester for sunbathing. Back on the motorway the sun was a stunning liquid gold and I decided I didn’t care where I stopped. I took a road leading to an industrial estate and became agitated with cars blocking me. I needed that sunlight. I found a factory car park, no idea what the business was nor cared about the CCTV because all I would do is park and gaze at the light. I rehearsed an answer if someone came to question me. I was looking at the sun. I imagined they would find that odd, then look at the sun, then look at me drinking tea, and think yes, it is stunning.
I drank tea, stared at the wonderful glowing sun, switched on the radio, and this is what I heard. Mythology is another way of crossing the duality of hill walking and the city. The radio resonated beautifully with struggles in regard to my city experience, corruption, how you find your way in a world which seems designed to crush people in regard to that which is most important.
A writer once said of poet Charles “Bluebird” Bukowski you “construct a uniquely personal set of rules and beliefs as a way of resisting absorption and remaining, in a very real sense of the word, alive.”
Chivalry lies at the heart of these stories and that’s not a bad way to navigate life, battling ignorance and duality like it’s a dragon. Perhaps I’ll meet Merlin at that muddy slope one day, in the tree above the roots which is English oak.
Lyme Park in Winter: