The Pyrenees Mountains And Recurrent Places Wednesday October 20, 2010

There are some heights in Wessex, shaped
as if by a kindly hand
For thinking, dreaming, dying on, and at
crises when I stand,
Say, on Ingpen Beacon eastward, or on
Wylls-Neck westwardly,
I seem where I was before my birth, and
after death may be

Thomas Hardy, Wessex heights

My first mountain experience was at the age of about fifteen, consisting of a school trip to Wales. We went up Snowdon though I don’t recall that very well; did some forest orienteering and I remember I wasn’t good at it, and climbed and walked around the Devil’s Kitchen and Llyn Idwal. The photographs here are from the Pyrenees, though I have plenty of Wales photos here

I went back to Llyn Idwal about thirty years later as a seasoned mountain walker, and was surprised to find I remembered the shapes and curves of the area. It was clear but remote, disconnected from the bodily facts of walking and climbing and the emotional facts of the experience, but I nonetheless knew the place. It was a curious moment, knowing Llyn Idwal but simultaneously having no recollection of being there, as such, as a boy. I thought I might reconnect with that part of my earlier life, but I didn’t. According to cultural geographer Edward Relph

More usually our experiences of perceptual space are fleeting and unexceptional, and accepted as part of the natural course of things. They are no less important for that, for it these personal experiences of space that are the basis for much of the meaning that environments and landscapes have for us (Place and Placelessness 1986: 11)

My Idwal moment can be understood with reference to some of Relph’s ideas. The strongest sense of ‘place experience’ is what he calls existential insideness. This is a situation of deep and unself-conscious immersion in place, the experience most of us have at home in our own community and region. The opposite of existential insideness is what he calls existential outsideness, which is a sense of strangeness and alienation such as newcomers feel in a place or by people who, having been away from their birth place, return and feel as strangers because it is no longer how they remember it. I was both familiar and unfamiliar, ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the area of Llyn Idwal, whereby the dramatic geography was impressed in my psyche but not how it feels to be there experiencing it.

This phenomenology of space accounts for some of the meaning and feelings we get in the hills. It antidotes the post Romantic emotionalism commonly used as a way of writing about mountains which walker and writer Andy Stothert (from TGO magazine) has described accurately as “hamming up the human”. Mountains certainly have an effect on the psyche and we can understand this poetically rather than through a lens of cold rationalism, but this doesn’t mean we have to use quasi religious excess or “hamming up the human”.

The only reservation I have with the above ideas of Relph is how they use comfort as the indicator and gauge of phenomenological meaning. Comfort is certainly a part of it, but so is a dulled habitual consciousness where we pay no attention to a familiar environment like falling half asleep in front of a television – or being stuck in the London Underground twice a day five days a week. Part of the thrill of being in the mountains is how it wakes you up ie. releases you from normal configurations of thought, feeling and perception: refreshing the psyche through geographic change.

Idwal for me is a recurrent place, a location for the span of time. I do remember taking a break on the plateau above Idwal with the rest of the party, in cloud and rain, and enjoying some cheese and biscuits. It’s these sensory details that anchor our memories, and I have none that might link me to Idwal itself. In the Lake District, I can recall many locations with an emotional or sensory association. There’s a river above Ullswater I like to visit, as a ritual of reconnection whereby I recall previous times: here I am again, as I was before, one time in particular when I sunbathed on the hot rocks and swam in the pools, as part of a rest day when I was otherwise walking. I can roam the Lake District imaginatively and recall all kinds of memories, some of which concern recurrent places – hills, rocks and lakes to which I’ve returned several times, building up pleasant emotional links. Beside Crummock Water in a surprisingly quiet area for what is, actually, easily accessible from the road. Walking up a hill and seeing the Scafells for the first time; I’ve been there many times since and can recall the slope, the track, the grass, and what you see to your left and your right. The path at Wasdale Head before you set off left for Pillar, or right for Great Gable. The joy of seeing Ullswater for the first time and driving slowly down the road from Dockray, many times, recalling the first. One of the best trips of all, eight days in Eskdale and savouring the experience while I ate and drank in a pub garden in the little hamlet of Boot.

In Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, involuntary associative memory is one of the key themes. It can be a sight, sound or smell that triggers it, and I think mountains are peculiarly evocative in this respect. Curiously, I have a more poignant memory of the Pyrenees in 2009, over a year ago, than I do with my recent trip of just two months ago. This is because the former was more explorative and adventurous; more of a journey and thereby an experience that fills the imagination and satisfies the soul. This year, two months ago, the walking was broken up with valley rest days and two nights at a pension in the Spanish town of Vielha. I hitched, many times, up and down the Benasque valley and from Benasque over to Luchon in France, followed by another night indoors at a small hotel in Lourdes before my return flight. Even the hotel the previous year was more memorable, in Toulouse; I explored the town a little on my last evening. Lourdes, where I flew to this year, is a vaguely unpleasant place full of religious tourism and a train ride through the streets I nearly photographed while thinking of the opening scenes of David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet: so artificial, it’s surreal.

I considered walking again as I did last year, from Lescun to Gavarnie along the High Level Route. I felt strongly attracted to this, because there’s a particular pleasure in revisiting a place and a route that you’ve enjoyed previously, as a repeated and eventually recurrent experience. But the Pyrenees are a big area with much to explore, and I decided to walk from Gavarnie to Salardu – though in fact I modified that plan when I arrived there. I will repeat the Lescun/Gavarnie route some time; probably not for a few years though my impression is it’s one of the very best areas to walk across and I’m yearning for it as a repeat experience. The thrill will be slightly different, modulated and textured with previous memories: setting off from the lovely camp site at Lescun, walking the terrific ridge about an hour from Refuge Arlet and feeling the mountain range was starting to open up, seeing Pic Du Midi D’Osseau enticing me in the distance and then the next day poised dramatically over the valley from the view at the Col des Moines; the wonderful pitch at both Pombie and Ayous, the long descent and then tiring climb up to Arremoulit; the lovely downward walk to Gavarnie when the terrain changes from high level drama to gentle comforting hills, and seeing the famous Cirque peeping at you in the distance. I want these things again, and there’s more: points of navigation crisis easier next time, people I met and conversations I had and where that happened, rest stops and food stops at rivers and lakes, waking in the morning in my tent with the thrill of a new day ahead of me.

I’ve been to the Pyrenees three times now – the first, when I stayed in Lescun, was not particularly memorable or even enjoyable under drizzly autumn skies, so I don’t reflect it on much. Three times is not a bad basis for saying I ‘know’ them, i.e. I’ve tasted a large part of their delights. I will probably return next year, though as with this year where to go is more difficult to work out; I don’t want to continue the High Level Route into the more barren and challenging terrain heading further east, which means I will have to select a particular area to explore, possibly the Néovielle Lakes or the Aiguestortes area, or maybe the Ordesa Valley.

There are parts of the Pyrenees I will probably never see. The Basque country in the west looks too tame to consider; I’ve heard it compared to mid Wales and I won’t drive there when other parts of Wales are more interesting. And the more barren parts of the east Pyrenees, again, don’t appeal to me very much. I’m not going to continue with the High Level Route for the sake of doing so; similarly I’m not interested in walking Wainwright’s Coast to Coast trek across northern England. I think large parts of it would be quite boring.

This then is a demarcation point in my Pyrenean biography: I’m making decisions on where not to go, have the reference points of two substantial trips and have a developing sense that the Pyrenees are where I want to be: a recurring place, to go back to and escape to, which I dream about the rest of the year.

Pyrenees Photographs

Pyrenees Book