Monday, March 31, 2008

March Conversation

Dyke! Have you any idea how long you have lured my eye along your length up to the famous summit of Schiehallion? – a magnet for those of us for whom lines in the land are like a fishing reel. You’re a tease – do you know that? I’ll bet you do, all one and a half miles of you snaking with the land, insisting on your twenty six degrees SSE up the north face.

Twenty seven.

And here, out of the trees, they chose a new type of rock for you – black rather than glittering grey. As if it hasn’t seen the light for years.

Six. Hundred. Million.

Eh? That sounded like a yawn.

If you insist on waking me, prattling on and on. I was saying, you’d need your snorkel six hundred million years ago to see the deep beginnings of that vertebra you touch. Before it was ossified into this scaly mosaic.

You were underwater?

I was a forest of sea lilies then, wafting their tendrils in the currents.


Limestone. Dug from that hollow over there. The scars are grassed over now. It’s only a patch, an outcrop, floated down from the limestone pavements. Walk me a bit further and you’ll see how I return to what you call silver rock. I’m the earth turned inside out – a display of what ever’s under the turf.

They used whatever was close by?

Would you want to heave it far across the hills? Forgive me, but you don’t look very strong.

Looks can be…

It was weans and women and tinkers hauled these rocks – a heap each side of the line where they were working, building my long slow uphill spine..

They carried rocks for who?

One craftsman each side. Raising two inward-leaning walls that kissed just before they were capped. Think of the men as you walk - quick-handed, with eyes that could measure. They saw at a glance how one stone would nudge and slide against another.

I see that. Here, where there are big square straight-edged blocks at your feet. But halfway up, a massive wave-shaped rock that it must have taken two to lift into place. And around it the small flat rocks that pack against its curves, insisting on the horizontal lines again around this non-conformity. It’s like art.

They made it a rule – never pick a stone up more than once. Assess them where they lie.

A waste of effort?

If you’re being paid by the yard.

What were they like?

Men with fat fingers.

Black thumbnails?

Your fingers look slim and weak.

Look how I stride along next to you though, as you ride the waves of the land. Why on earth don’t you go around these hillocks?

I’m a march boundary.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Crooked Ways and Stiles of Stone

In Thomas Hardy’s poem of 1920, ‘If you had known’, he refers back to his courtship of his first wife Emma Lavinia Gifford which took place high on the clifftops and deep in the moist green valleys of North Cornwall. This poem was written fifty years after he first met her there as an architect travelling from Dorset to restore the church tower. Hardy returned to the area after her death in what Kenneth Phelps describes as a kind of ‘pilgrimage of penance’ which pained from him some of his most beautiful poetry. He describes in the poem the wet walk back from Beeny Cliff towards the Old Rectory of St Juliot’s in the Valency Valley, ‘by crooked ways and over stiles of stone.’

Returning myself after 32 years, I walked some of the same ways I had done whilst there on a painting holiday (which also turned into walking) at 17. And this time although still spellbound in a romantic homage to Hardy, I was captivated as if for the first time by the wonderful stiles and walls, and naturally, the crooked ways that lead to and away from them.

A gatepost graced a field entrance, crescent-shaped with its straight edge facing inwards, a slim half moon facing away from the gate. I approached it from a roadway wrapped in a tunnel of dark ivy, so that the gateway opened like a window onto light, framing the steep rise of a pale green field.

Such structures sprung up at me all over the fields where I walked. A chink in a high hedge or dry stone wall invites walkers with ingenious system of slate slabs sidelong. There are steep two-sided staircases; a kissing gate squeezed under a holly tree in the nook of a wall; slate cattle grids at a churchyard entrance. And all the slate seems silk-edged and petrol-sheened with long use by hands and feet and weather. All has been built and maintained for human thoroughfare, on foot. And it all seems like art to me.

Across open fields, the paths marked on the map often seeemd invisible. I was guided only by a chink in the hedge opposite, or by the suggestion of a darker green meandering line teased in the grass by repeated footfall, or simply by an instinct as to where the ‘desire line’ lay. This sense of the persistence of walkers, and the marks they make in the land has long fascinated me and I think I may have learnt it from early readings of Hardy’s novels.

A re-reading of The Return of the Native, my A-level text, had me following characters across the huge imperturbable face of Egdon Heath, in daylight and darkness, in confidence and fear. Eustacia Vye, the discontented dark witch-beauty, is practised in her footcraft, finding paths which are, ‘an infinitely small parting in the shaggy locks of the Heath’. Hardy shows us how the regular ‘haunters’ of the Heath feel their way in the dark: ‘The whole secret of following these incipient paths, when there was not light enough in the atmosphere to show a turnpike-road, lay in the development of the sense of touch in the feet, which comes with years of night rambling in little-trodden spots. To a walker practised in such places a difference between impact on maiden herbage, and on the crippled stalks of a slight footway, is perceptible through the thickest boot or shoe.’

For me, this ‘going back’ has been a pilgrimage of happy rediscovery rather than of penance – a rediscovery both of a place where I found new things outside and inside myself and of the literature of Thomas Hardy. It has brought with it a finer appreciation of how walking made him both the man and the writer that he was, and how he influenced my own walking and writing.