Sunday, May 30, 2010

Annandale Way alluring in springtime

My article about walking the Annandale Way appears in the June issue of a very nice magazine called Dumfries and Galloway Life. It's a glossy, high quality publication and so I was particularly pleased that my photos as well as words passed muster. I hope the piece will encourage a few people to walk the Way, as I do think it's understated treasures are worth seeking out, especially for people who live in the area. More about the route can be found here, including details of how to get the guide book which I helped write with pupils from five schools along the route.

This is how the article begins:

On my fourth day on the Annandale Way, I fell to my knees. The River Annan had just taken a muscular sweep under Williamath Bridge, where it held several fishermen, chest-deep. It tumbled on through a tunnel of birch, contained by low hills, while the path led me away.

It wasn't tiredness that felled me, or prayer, although I was in St Mungo's graveyard. It sloped dankly towards the river, sheltering horizontal gravestones that had collected mattresses of moss. The roofless church hosted a congregation of head-nodding daffodils. Knees dampened, I faced one of many ornately carved graves, and by parting the long grass from its base, revealed two small, age-rounded figures, either side of a stone tree. I could just make out a serpent appealing to one of them, and the suggestion of a fruit. I was thrilled at my discovery.

Many of us think we know Annandale, hurtle through it often enough on the train or M74. It conjures words like ‘green’, ‘rolling’, ‘rural’. But walking it is like parting the grass to discover more: flashes of kingfisher, crumbling mansions, the blink of a hare, willow plantations for the bio-mass station whose billowing chimney near Lockerbie acts as a landmark to the traveller. The 55-mile Annandale Way surprises almost because the walking is straightforward, and much of the landscape unassuming, inviting us to get under its skin. Annandale rewards curiosity.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

cycle time

A nice read in Saturday's Travel Guardian about the joys of combining cycling and storytelling in Fife, by Kevin Rushby. I'll shut up about cycling now, and get back on my feet!

Thursday, May 13, 2010


There can't be many stretches of A road in Great Britain where a cyclist can be Queen. I found one on Friday. Twenty two miles of single-track peace and the few vehicles who were on the road gave me priority in the passing places!
This was the A836 from Kinbrace, in the heart of the Flow Country, the name given to the rolling expanse of peatland and wetland, covering 4,000 square kilometres in northern Scotland. The road then winds north through Strath Halladale, bright that day with gorse flower and lamb-studded meadows, to reach Sutherland's north coast at Portskerra.
I thoroughly recommend this route (or going west from Kinbrace) if you want a flavour of African-style open space. There's a unique thrill to having so much relatively featureless country covering such a massive area, and so little human habitation. Having said that, I would hesitate to walk here. I'm with Ralph Waldo Emerson on this, as he said in his essay Country Living, 'For walking, you need a broken country'.
This thought took me to North Cornwall and my experiences of walking in the Valency Valley near Boscastle, where Thomas Hardy once walked and loved, and which inspired me to write this as part of a longer piece when I returned three years ago after a thirty year absence:
'Hardy’s ‘crooked ways’ seem to me characteristic of the scale of North Cornwall, with its tight valleys, intimate fields, and the lanes that tunnel so much deeper than the farmland that border them. It is not clear as I stretch out to the walls of a lane on each side of me whether I touch built wall or bedrock. Has this lane been burrowed into a ‘holloway’ by centuries of recurrent human thoroughfare?
Sumptuous growth over built structures means that walls, corners, culverts, channels, paths, become softened by earth, disguised by ivy, fashioned into emerald tunnels. The scale means that even for a 17 year old, it is impossible to be bored by walking here. A few strides brings a change in view - enough height reveals the next valley; a dropped hedge reveals the sea; once eyes have adjusted, a woody hollow holds an ancient church. Walking unlocks the treasures of this valley.'
The miniature scale couldn't be more different to the boundless horizons of the Flow Country, and made me think how fortunate we are to be offered such contrasting experiences of landscape on this small island.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

walking with music

Intrigued to hear about a fun way to get people to walk the stairs in the subways of Chile. “A ‘musical ladder’, which looks and sounds like a piano, opened Thursday at a subway station in Santiago de Chile with the aim to encourage Chileans to use the stairs and encourage daily exercise”. More here.

Also, following on from the last post, I love this clip of elegant ladies 'dancing' on bicycles.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Cavalcades, processions, choreography

Groups of people moving through the land in semi-organised ways, has become a bit of a theme over the last week or so.

Raja Shehadeh wrote in last Saturday’s Guardian about taking 48 international writers for a hill walk north west of Ramallah as part of the second Palestine Festival of Literature (the third starts today). If the very existence of the festival is sticking a neck out, the walk represented a challenge in a place where Palestinians ‘have no control over time and space’ and driving ‘a mere 20 mile journey might consume a whole day’. The hilltop watchtowers, the blockage of ancient routes by new Israeli settlements and checkpoints, meant this group walk was not just an exploration, but an act of solidarity, confirming of an old order by the laying of footprints; a protest of sorts.

His piece also includes beautiful insights into the geophysical and human origins of the paths: ‘the land is like an open book on which nature and humans continuously write.’

The frustration, threat of violent encounter, lack of freedom to roam, contrasts with Hamish Fulton's latest walking project, written up in the Scotsman last week. He’s currently on a 21 day walk in the Cairngorms, making the plan up as the days go by, with no commitment except to arrive at Glenmore Lodge at the end of it. The Cairngorms are considered one of Europe's last wildernesses, and thus provide the 'Room to Roam' that he seeks both mentally and physically. The journey itself is the piece of art.

Before he set off from Huntly he choreographed a walk for 30 or so people, a silent procession lapping the same block in single file with a two meter distance between each person. He'll be leading something similar at Glenmore Lodge on 9th May.

For 40 years he's made works of art relating to walking. He makes no interventions in the landscape as Richard Long does, but produces minimalist responses, often in text. He's walked for Tibetan Freedom and to the summit of Everest.

His choreographed walks are a new departure and brought to mind another spectacular procession which will happen on Glasgow Green on 29th May. 111 bicycles will dance ‘A breeze’, a piece choreographed by Argentinian composer Mauricio Kagel. Part of a much bigger project about ‘Dummy Jim’, a deaf and dumb man who cycled to the Arctic Circle in 1951, who has two Glasgow musicians cycling in his tracks this summer.

In July this year I'll be walking some old roads in the Cairngorms myself. This time I’ll not be alone, but in company with fellow walkers who are part of Speygrian. Poets, artists, educators, ecologists, adventurers, a band of us will be travelling with pack ponies. I imagine our cavalcade like a pilgrimage party, noisy with story and shared incident, ragged and un-choreographed, but strung together by joint purpose. I will report back.