It has been a busy fortnight in the Holme Valley. The week leading up to Easter itself, or Holy Week as it is sometimes known by people more devout than me, was blessed with particularly warm and clement weather, which was simultaneously welcome (after winter’s rain and endless gales) and irritating, because I couldn’t do what I really wanted to do, which was to join wholeheartedly in Debbie’s self-proclaimed holiday, and womble off into the distance in our trusty (not to mention rusty) VW camper van.
There were several issues; firstly, the stuff which I had to do regarding books – particularly stuff which I had promised to do, specifically to a deadline; then there was all of the tedious stuff which I had to do for us, and for our own well-being, such as accounts and checking the bank balance, and boring tedium of that ilk, and finally there was my own state of health, particularly feeling under par, constantly tired, and with a distinct lack of energy for anything approaching loading up a camper van for a road trip.
Granny had already volunteered to come and take over our house, feed the illusory badger, and look after Matilda, so that wasn’t an issue, as such. We had no worries about leaving her behind, she is quite happy here, insofar as she can ever be described as happy, given that she invariably fixes you with a sour, evil glare glare, bares her teeth and flattens her ears to her head, ready for a fight, is quite capable of hissing at you for no reason whatsoever, and might even sink her teeth into you, at the slightest provocation. The cat is pretty scary, as well.
Debbie was saying that if we didn’t go away by Wednesday, it wouldn’t be worth gong at all. Her Easter holidays come to an end on Monday 28th April and in any case there was a huge stack of marking and general preparation, so at least the last weekend of the holiday would have to be sacrificed to unpaid work in order for her classes to happen next term. She had already spent some of the holiday emailing work and crib sheets to some of the dingoes in her classes who couldn’t be arsed to turn up regularly in term time and who have now realised, with panic gripping their breast, that they haven’t a prayer of passing the exam unless they spend all Easter cramming.
Mind you, when it comes to Kirklees college and their policy of paying people six months in arrears, to a certain extent all work for them is unpaid work. This is not restricted to Kirklees either – a friend of mine was told (on the eve of the Easter weekend, so there was absolutely nothing that could be done about it until the Tuesday) that she was only gong to be paid for 188 hours instead of 395 or some such similar number. There must be a special course in ineptitude and incapability which college admin staff have to pass in order to get a job there.
So, anyway, there were several practical problems stopping us making an immediate getaway: my own “to-do” list, see above, plus the rather prosaic but nevertheless disturbing fact that the downstairs loo was still “backing up”. Long experience as a householder has taught me that if you leave or ignore plumbing problems, they only get worse. There is no such thing as a self-solving problem when it comes to plumbing. I didn’t want to go away and come home to a major disaster where Granny was flailing a yardbrush and fighting with rampaging Douglas Hurds all over the house. In other, but unconnected news, we were also waiting for the mobile optician to get back to us about what he was doing with Debbie’s glasses, which she now needs for driving and watching TV. And to top off all of this, I was suffering from a sudden and painful flare-up in my cellulitis.
Cellulitis is an inflammation of the connective tissue between cells and in my case it manifests itself in painful and irritating patches of red, inflamed skin, cramps and shooting pains up my legs. All of which makes sleeping for any prolonged length of time almost an impossibility, and on Tuesday night I had one of the worst nights of (non) sleep in my life, waking up on Wednesday morning after finally doing off for about ten minutes and looking and feeling like a boiled owl. I had a really bad “do” with cellulitis just after I came out of hospital, in early 2011, and on that occasion it had to be zapped with anti-biotics. But the two subsequent flare-ups had more or less sorted themselves out, and had died away of their own accord. This current one was proving more troublesome, though, and on Wednesday my enthusiasm for going off in the camper had hit a new low. Mainly because I was worrying about a) getting everything done and b) going off at all, as a concept, in my current state – if I couldn’t sleep, or was gong to have a medical emergency, it was probably better to do it at home rather than half way up some God-forsaken goat-crag covered up with bugger all, sheep and heather.
I still had three manky old anti-biotic tablets left from my last stay in hospital, so I rang my sister and asked her – out of the benefit of her nursing experience – whether these were likely to help in any way, and she concluded that as they were the wrong sort, and out of date to boot, no they probably wouldn’t. There wasn’t a cat in Hades’ chance of getting any proper antibiotics before the Easter break, so I decided that, if I wasn’t going to let Debbie down yet again, the only way was to “man up” and “clog on through”. I made myself a pot of English Breakfast Tea, took a deep refreshing draught, and started to work down the “to-do” list.
Getting John the Plumber to attend to the loo proved surprisingly easy. One of the charges that is often levelled at pornography is that t gives a totally unrealistic impression of the time it takes for a plumber to come around to your house, but on this occasion, within about ten minutes of my having spoken to him on the phone, John’s massive bulk appeared in the doorway like a genie from a lamp. And I didn’t even have to change into a see-through nightie. He was brandishing two white plastic containers, overprinted with a skull-and-crossbones motif, and other dire warnings in many languages. “I’ll put this down for now,” he declared, jovially, “and I’ll be back at nine in the morning to see if it’s worked and the plumbing Gods have been kind to me.” Having deployed his sinister depth-charges, he left as swiftly as he had arrived. I ploughed steadily on with my work, pausing only to print out the camper loading checklist [devised by yours truly after many years of forgetting mission-critical crucial items] and the various pages about routes and mountain weather forecasts, etc. The remainder of Wednesday passed me by, in a dull haze of pain.
Thursday found me a little brighter, and John was as good as his word, so I was up and about “betimes” as Samuel Pepys might have said, and let the plumber in, at the appointed hour. The plumbing Gods had not accepted his offering, however, so he spent the next hour doing whatever it is plumbers do with a blocked loo when they have to revert to “Plan B”. I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. Eventually, he pronounced it restored to health and sanitary excellence, and, having packed away his gear, he accepted a steaming mug of tea and settled down for a chat. His surprising news was that he was retiring, so this would be his last visit to us. I suppose it was inevitable, but even so, it felt, in a minor way, like the passing of some sort of era. We wished him well, and a long and happy retirement on the Isle of Wight, his destination of choice, and told him if he was ever back this way to call in, the kettle would be on. However, for the moment, like Napoleon, Ray Davies and Abba before him, he had met his Waterloo.
I was making inroads with the other stuff, Debbie was getting together things to load on to the camper, and the plan was coming together. Though I still didn’t feel 100%, it did at least seem as though we were making progress, and we decided to get as much done as we could and the set the alarms for an early start and get going in the morning. Elsewhere in the country, the Queen was doubtless distributing the Maundy Money to some fortunate pensioners, it being Maundy Thursday, but as far as I could see, this fact went completely unreported by the BBC.
Good Friday, however, was a bit of a setback. On the plus side, the optician came round to our house and dropped Debbie’s glasses off, which solved one problem. On the downside, I felt much worse again, and slept through my alarm. I felt lousy and said as much to Debbie, but I could see she was upset at the prospect of yet another day’s delay. Good Friday is always a day of contemplation for me, and for as long as I can remember, I have made a point of reading Good Friday 1613, Riding Westwards, by John Donne. I don’t do the whole sackcloth and ashes and fasting thing, but as it happened on this particular Good Friday, I didn’t feel up to doing much other than sitting around staring into space, so it fitted in well. Compulsory contemplation, courtesy of my bodily state. Debbie, meanwhile, was getting on with what she could. I am little practical help anyway, although I can pile stuff on the tray of my wheelchair and trundle it out to the camper in the driveway to save her a few trips.
I have an old wooden crucifix which came from I know not where, but at the moment it’s wedged into the corner of a box in my bedroom, and towards the middle of the afternoon, I trundled through there in my wheelchair and composed myself for yet another attempt at prayer, for those I cared about and that Matilda and the house would be OK while we were away. I had just settled when there was an almighty crash from the kitchen. I trundled back to investigate and found that the old biscuit tin where I keep my acrylic paint tubes had slid to the tiled floor, disgorging its contents all over the place, entailing half an hour’s work in picking them all up and putting them back. Not exactly the veil of the Temple rending, but enough to interfere with my contemplation.
Easter Saturday marked a complete volte face from the gloom of the preceding day and we both set to with a will, determined to get off in the camper that day, shit or bust, as the saying goes. Finally, finally, things were coming together, and by teatime we were ready to roll. I was loaded up, the camper was loaded up, and the dogs were loaded up. I say “dogs” in the plural, because along the way we’d acquired Zak, who was coming on holiday with us to give Granny a bit of a break while she was looking after Matilda. Deb got into her stride with the driving, and we were soon bowling along the M62, then the M61, then the M6. The roads were relatively empty, and we made good time. I noted that the iffy junction at Greenodd on the A590 had been replaced by a roundabout, so Cumbria County Council must have been busy over the winter. Soon we were on the outskirts of Barrow, and rumbling past the English Heritage sign for Furness Abbey, where the medieval knights sleep on in their strangely modern looking Eric Gill style art deco tombs. A further surprise awaited us on Walney – the approach road to the beach slipway where we normally park up is usually in an appalling state, with axle breaking moon craters, but someone again had been busy during the dark days of winter, and had filled them in! We found a level bit and settled down for the night. It had been a long, long day.
Easter Sunday found me listening to a skylark, high in the air over the next field, soaring and singing like the very spirit of Christ ascending, except I know that this is theologically inaccurate. Breakfast and dog-feeding were quickly despatched, and Debbie took Misty and Zak down on the beach for a game of “stones”, a simple pastime where she throws pebbles and they attempt to bring them back. Misty isn’t very good at this; it was during a game of “stones” on Arran that she brought back a dead jellyfish. Nearly right. Before we drove away, I tried to log on using the “dongle” supplied by Everything Everywhere, and found I must have missed a small asterisk and the words “except for Walney Island” somewhere in their literature. The dongle was deader than tank tops and sideways-ironed flares. Oh well, five days without the internet seemed actually quite a pleasant prospect.
We were setting off on an expedition because Debbie wanted to break in her boots on a climb of Gummer’s Howe, which is only a little pimple on the face of the Cumbrian landscape, but she wanted to make sure that nothing was wrong with any of her kit before trying anything more spectacular. On the way out of Barrow we passed the posters for the cheap and cheerful local shops, including one that claimed they always had “1000s of rugs in stock,” adding underneath, rather unsuccessfully, “Rugs! Rugs! Rugs!” Further along, at Lindal in Furness, there were half a dozen chickens browsing and pecking just on the grass verge at the roadside; presumably they had escaped from the smallholding on the other side, and crossed the road - but who knows why?
The woods at the side of the road were hazed with bluebells, which I hoped sincerely were the English ones and not the Spanish interlopers. Either way I felt properly “springy” for the first time this year. Gummer’s Howe was duly conquered. It only takes about half an hour to get up there anyway, but Debbie had stopped at the top to brew up some coffee on her meths stove, almost causing a brush-fire in the process. I was struck by how few people there were around, but thinking about it, I put this down to the fact that this year, Easter and the May Day holiday were so close together that people had obviously chosen the later one on the grounds that the weather was probably going to be better.
Back at Walney, Debbie was contemplating lighting a camp fire, until I pointed out the sign that indicated that we were parked up on top of the high pressure gas pipeline. I had visions of Huw Edwards gravely intoning “And now over to our reporter, who is actually live on the scene of the Walney Island gas disaster, where emergency services are struggling to stop the conflagration engulfing the nearby nuclear submarine shipyard…” So we cooked tea inside the camper instead.
Out of the blue, after tea, Debbie asked me “So where does Lazarus come into it, then?” I explained that Lazarus doesn’t figure in the Crucifixion, he was just some other guy that Jesus raised from the dead. Jesus had a couple of practice runs, one on Lazarus, and then one on Jairus’s daughter, before winding himself up for the big Cahuna. We got on to discussing what Easter actually was, and I sort of ran through, as best as I could, given my own doubts, ignorance, and limited knowledge, the Christian theology of the whole thing. Deb was scornful of the description of Good Friday as being “good”, which brought to my mind the old joke about Jesus, when asked, saying “Well, actually, now you mention it, I have had better Fridays…”
It would have been too windy for a fire anyway. By now, the wind was truly roaring outside, and the camper was rocking on its springs. It was going to be a wild and woolly night, that was for sure. We decided that discretion was the better part of valour and burrowed into our various sleeping bags, duvets and blankets, settling down to ride out the storm. At some point in the early hours, I was woken by the gale keening and howling through the steel hawsers of the kayak hoist on the van roof.
I lay there listening to it, and the drumming rain, and wondered if it was doing the same at home, and if so, whether all the roof tiles where still on. I offered up a fervent prayer to St Gertrude of Nivelles, and anyone else who might be listening, that Granny had remembered to prop the cat flap open, and that Matilda had found it, and remembered how to use it, so that she was safe and warm inside the house and not out in all the wind, rain, muck and fury raging outside the camper at that precise moment.
Easter Monday was slightly calmer, and once we’d established that we hadn’t been blown into the sea, breakfast was quickly accomplished, followed by dog-feeding and the now-compulsory game of “stones”. We were starting to get into the camper routine again, which was a help, but already we needed some stuff that we hadn’t foreseen, particularly water, since the dogs had drunk their own weight in H2O since we’d arrived. An expedition to Booths in Ulverston filled the gaps, but at the expense of trashing anything in the way of a timetable for hill-walking. Instead, when we got back, Debbie took Misty and Zak off on a beachcombing walk along the shoreline, right down to the southern tip, which is fenced off as a bird sanctuary, and back again.
As we were on site earlier than we had thought, Debbie announced her intention of lighting a fire, although it was starting to get windy again. To facilitate this, instead of stopping on the shoulder of the road, near to the new high-pressure gas pipeline sign, we motored on up the track to the higher ground at the end near the navigation beacon on the cliff. As it turned out, the prospect of a gas explosion might have kept us warmed up a bit. The wind gradually rose yet again, sending sparks fleeing into the darkness. Unfortunately, it was far too windy to cook the food properly, so Deb had to abandon the idea of cooking over the open fire, and pass the ingredients back to me, inside the van, to finish off on the gas rings. In the process, she managed to kick over her bottle of beer and Zak took advantage of the confusion to snaffle some vegan “chicken nuggets” off one of the plates. It was quickly turning into one of the most disastrous meals we had ever attempted al fresco. A fact which was confirmed the following day when Debbie found that, unbeknown to her the night before, a spark had burned a perfect circular hole in one of her best airs of “camping trousers”.
“Easter Tuesday” brought better weather, and with it wagtails, oystercatchers, lapwings, and skylarks. In fact, the brightness almost caused a bit of heat-haze along the horizon, which meant that for once on a Walney trip we didn’t see the Isle of Man, or the mountains of Snowdonia looming like the gigantic prow of a distant battleship on the horizon. Debbie had been researching the possibility of two different ridge walks around the Coniston range, and we decided that today we’d check it out on the ground, so that, come the morrow, she’d be able to get straight off. If it hadn’t been smack in the middle of the National Park teatowel belt, we’d have contemplated trying to find somewhere nearer at hand to camp overnight.
Having checked out Coniston, we ended up tootling round to the east side of the lake, passing Ruskin’s former house at Brantwood. While Debbie took Misty and Zak off for a brief stroll through the woods, I sat and contemplated the lake, feeling the movement of the trees all around me in a great cloister, a nave of swaying wood. A forest is a living organism. It loses old trees, but young ones grow in the gaps. It is in a constant state of flux. Just as Heraclitus said you can’t step into the same river twice, in the same way you can’t walk through the same forest twice, and the Coniston forest I was visiting was both the same and not the same as the one from which I had watched Debbie kayaking across the lake in 2009.
A massive tree, hundreds of years old, finally decays, succumbs, dies and falls. Its logs provide warmth for the limbs of mankind, puny men with puny lifespans. Men whose ancestors saw it long ago, as a green stripling. Lichens grow on its corpse, and insects feast on it as it crumbles to mulch over many more years. But the other trees still remember it, respect its gap, and mourn its passing, in the sound of the autumn gales moaning through their branches. And even the young saplings coming through in the green join in with a shrill descant as summer sighs over them, even though they don’t know why. A forest puts you, and everything else, in perspective. I thought of the trees, and their timescale, and of Freddie, and the short lives of dogs, the dogs we’ve loved and lost, seemed, in comparison, like fleeting sparks from Debbie’s camp fire.
Eventually, Deb returned with Misty and Zak, both bedraggled from a swim in the lake. We went back to Walney, continuing via the road that runs down the east side of Coniston Water, the quiet, narrow road which is such a contrast to the red A-road that runs up the other side to Torver. When we got back and had fed and settled the dogs, we had an impromptu meal of couscous with mushrooms, shallots, and chopped up veggie sausages, which actually looked and tasted in real life a lot better than it sounds on paper.
Wednesday morning dawned bright and breezy, but with the odd bit of rain in the breeze. The shoreline was intermittently sunny, then dull. There was even a bit of surf. I had upped my self-administered dosage of Paracetamol and had a slightly better night. I had also managed to get through to the repeat prescriptions helpline at the surgery and order some more Furosemide for Friday. Wednesday lunchtime found us once more back in Coniston, parked up in the old station car park, because we couldn’t find the one at the start of the actual Walna Scar Road, the start for Debbie and the dogs’ proposed walk. It turned out later that the grid reference on the web page Deb had printed off beforehand is wrong. Also, the car park is actually marked on the 1:25,000 OS map but not on the 1:50,000 one. All very odd, but, sadly, par for the course.
The idea of this walk was to “bag” several Wainwrights in one go. There are 214 of them, so if you actually set out to do each one as a separate, discrete climb, it would clearly take you some time to do them all. But by “ridge walking” – climbing one of them, then walking along the ridge to take in the other peaks of the same “range” you can get six or seven in one walk, especially when they cluster closely together, in the Langdales for instance. Deb, Zak and Misty duly embarked on their walk, which was actually 13 miles in all and which took in seven of the fells around Coniston, but not The Old Man; today, though, they were doing the shortened version, which was only nine miles. While they were gone, I painted my picture of “St Padre Pio taking St Roche’s Dog to the Vet”, and practised being silent. Teach us to care and not to care, teach us to sit still, as the man once said. It was still fine when they got back at 6.30pm but Debbie was in no hurry to repeat the camp fire debacle again, so instead we had vegan burgers and chips.
On Thursday, I was first out of my sleeping bag and got the kettle on for the early morning cuppa. I popped the side door of the camper. Three of t
Saturday was spent unpacking and catching up, and somehow, now, it has come to be Sunday and the feast of St Maughold. Appropriately enough, given our recent trip, Maughold is associated with the Isle of Man. Maughold was supposedly originally an Irish freebooting pirate who was converted to Christianity by no less a personage than St Patrick himself. He died in 448AD.
One persistent local legend tells how Maughold tried to make a fool out of Patrick. Maughold had placed a living man in a shroud. He then called on Patrick to try to revive the supposed corpse. Patrick placed a hand on the shroud, and left. When Maughold and his friends opened the shroud, they found unfortunately, that the man had died in the interim. One of Maughold's friends, Connor, went over to Patrick's camp and apologized to him. Patrick rather sportingly returned and baptized all of the men assembled including the man who had died, who immediately returned to life. Patrick then criticized Maughold, saying he should have been helping his men and giving them an example so they could be leading good lives, and told him he must atone for his evil.
Patrick punished him by placing him in a coracle without oars. Maughold drifted to the Isle of Man, where two of Patrick's disciples, Romulus and Conindrus, were already established. He is said to have been chosen as bishop, succeeding Romulus and Conindrus, by the Manx people, after he had spent time on the island as a hermit. He is still remembered today on the Isle of Man for his kind disposition toward the Manx natives, and his name lives on in the local topography - several places on the island, including Maughold parish, Maughold Head, and St. Maughold's Well are named after him.
So, there we have St Maughold, whose chief claim to fame seems to have been to prove that St Patrick could be a bit of a bastard, when he wasn’t busy driving the snakes out of Ireland. If you are ever moved to visit St Maughold’s Well, this description from 1874 gives you some idea of what to expect:
After leaving the churchyard at the north-east corner, and crossing a field, the stranger, by searching a little, will find St. Maughold’s Well, which is situated directly above the sea, a little way down the north cliff, half hidden by gorse and grass. Those who have had their expectations raised will be rather disappointed. The well is in a dilapidated and neglected condition. A few stones form a square, open to the north, and within the inclosure is a small scooped stone into which the water flows from the rock, but so slowly that it is hardly perceptible. The water is no doubt chalybeate. The stone or rock which formed the saint’s chair is overgrown or destroyed, for there is no such to be found. It is not altogether unlikely that, nearly fourteen hundred years ago, at this very font, St. Maughold administered the baptismal rite. He is said to have blessed the well, and endowed it with certain healing virtues. It was formerly much resorted to by women for its health-imparting qualities. The water was imagined to derive additional efficacy if drank sitting in the saint’s chair, which was scooped out of the adjacent rock. For many ages it has been the custom for the natives to make a pilgrimage on the first Sunday in August to drink of its waters, and even now, on that day, the young people in the neighbourhood pay holiday visits to the spot.
I don’t derive much spiritual sustenance from the Legend of St Maughold, but, strangely enough, partly I suppose because of the enforced lack of the internet, I did have a more contemplative time than I had anticipated this Easter. I didn’t feel lonely, even when left on my own for long periods of time, although I can see that it would also be an absolute hoot to organise a “camper van convention” and somehow get all of our friends and Debbie’s family together in a camper convoy and all sit around the camp fire carousing and singing pirate songs. Maybe next year.
My musings on the crucifixion have left me none the wiser, though I did find some time for prayer, which I put to use partly in praying for the best outcome for Freddie, whatever that may be. As I type this, he is still a sort of Schrodinger’s Dog, poised and hovering between this world and the next. He will be sorely missed if and when his time does come. He may only be about a foot tall, but he has the great heart of a timber-wolf. The only consolation is that he has had a great life, for a little mutt who was originally picked up ill and neglected and made well and strong and given toys to play with, dog treats, balls to chase, mince and chicken, and a soft bed to lie on, in front of a warm fire. So yes, I have been contemplating the fleeting nature of happiness, life as a spark, and wondering – as I always do – where the sense of it lies. Life is lent, as the Saxons said – lyf is leone – and “between the intention and the action, falls the shadow”. I didn’t really need Tom Archer to remind me of that, I have seen enough of it in my own life.
And yet, and yet, I come back to those moments – the visionary gleam of the sunlight on the blades of three distant wind-turbines, poking out of the sea-mist, and the living cathedral of the great forest, sighing all around me. Figments and fragments, maybe, but also glimpses beyond a veil? Was there one, or two sets of footsteps across the sand?
Next week will be back to the grim old grind. I doubt the seventeen intractable problems will have been solved while I have been away. I think the intractable problem fairy has had the week off, too. But at least while I am struggling with everything in the days to come, I can pause once or twice and think of the hills and the trees and the sea – not exactly crazed with the songs of Arabia, but perhaps with an ear cocked for the sound of the waves on the sands at Walney.