Another couple of my Dad's photographs from Antarctica. The pup on the right was called Dot. Being a long-haired husky, she was destined to be shot because the ice would accumulate on her fur and eventually rip the skin. She couldn't become a sled dog, but was kept as a pet instead.
With a metronome regularity we clock the years together with visits to Lindisfarne, the Holy Isle. At this time of year, it's always cold, bleak and silent. There are few people walking the tiny hamlet of streets, and the vicar's winter-weight cassock blows wildly as he walks his sermon across the road from home to church. How he gets by in sandals at this time of year I just don't know.
Despite the austere weather conditions, there is a singular beauty to the place which is lost to the thousands of summer visitors. And it's all about light. The light here is soft and radiant. And after all, it's probably what brought the Saints here in the first place.
Casting a glazed eye over the stacks of religious books in the tiny village shop only confirms this impression: "Chasing the Light", "Into the Light", "Lindisfarne Light". Through layer upon layer of religious tradition and transformation, the one thing that pokes through is still the primaeval beauty of this natural wonder.
The wonderful upturned boat sheds of Lindisfarne
And while all around us is change, the pace of it is slowed here. We caught sight of the 10 foot long tree trunk that we found washing up on the shore last year. It has been dismembered by the storms and lies in battered pieces at the high tide mark. This is change on a natural scale, perhaps put into perspective by the sudden disappearance of Fenwick Lawson's sculpture in the church. The extraordinary gravity of this sculpture has been replaced with little more than a scuff of wood against the slate floor. He has gone to be exhibited elsewhere.
It's great to have a place we call, in a very quiet way, our own. A kind of natural migration in the sometimes chaotic schedule of life. And why? Well, it's probably something to do with the light.
The battering of snow stayed long enough for me to snatch a snowy run along the Helvellyn ridge last weekend. It's often a place I end up going for a bit of a run on my own, which often ends up in deep and meaningful thoughts about running in the mountains. You'll be pleased to hear that I've forgotten all of them, but running up there is a gift.
A solitary fell runner scooted by on soft white sherbet snow.
The wind chill factor on the fells last weekend took the temperature down to about minus 15 degrees here. Give or take. So far, the snow has been cheekily avoiding our days off, preferring to build up while we're at work, lure us into thoughts of crisp, snowy fell runs or walks, and then melt.
Anyway, a horseshoe walk over High Pike and Red Screes was just plain bitterly cold, rendering my bony hands into ice lollies. Turns out that they became perfect for tripod-less photography though- frozen hands completely removed camera shake from moving water shots in almost light-less conditions.
Lured partly by peer pressure and partly by a whimsical fancy to see what it felt like to run a long way, a few of us went east for the Wensleydale Wedge yesterday. It's a 23 mile Long Distance Walkers' Association challenge, primarily aimed at walkers, but runners seem to be tolerated quite well too.
A bird of prey about to pick off the stragglers at the back
The thing that amazes me is how civilised it all was. None of this frenetic racing business. There are cake stops in village halls along the way. Checkpoints manned by happy marshalls profering boxes full of Wensleydale cheese. Take a mug, and you're never far from a steaming urn of reviving tea. It makes fell racing look like the height of austerity.
The long plod to tea and biscuits at the top of Wensleydale
Tucked away in the remote south-west of Cumbria, Wasdale is, at least for some, the beating heart of the Lake District. It's tempting to call it 'unspoilt' in a chocolate box kind of way, but it's better than that. It's been spared the soft and cuddly Beatrix Pottery-Wordsworthy treatment by its remoteness.
It's a hard landscape, a real mountain fastness. Melded in some way between the catastrophic, varicose torrents that tumble off the perilously steep slopes, and the pockets of gentle flatlands dotted with Herdwick sheep. Moulded by generations of wiry Joss Naylors, slowly heaving the fallen stones into naturally contoured shapes. Oh, and it's got its own brewery. Could this be heaven?
The first snows have arrived here, turning the mountains of the Lake District a brilliant, Himalayan white. The leviathan swathe of the Pennines has also turned pale, giving me another chance to play with a photographic muse that's foxed me ever since I arrived here.
It sounds simple at first glance: it's a big, flat mountain. You can't miss it, it's on your doorstep, and it doesn't go anywhere. Despite this, photographing Cross Fell and its sister peaks has been a fun game of hide and seek, a race from jaw-dropping ambience to camera that ends up in disappointment. The problem, I think, is it's just too big. My catch-all camera, excellent though it is, doesn't have a wide enough angle or a close enough telephoto to capture the awesome brilliance that I drive past every day.
This morning, I looked out over the far southern end of the Pennines to where the massif breaks up into a jumble of tiny peaks. A perfect storm was illuminating them in a dusty light, and I knew the chasing game was about to start again. By the time I'd got my camera, the storm was passing over the flat fields beyond, and I'd missed the moment again.
Having a challenge like this is not such a bad thing, though. Was it Henry Moore who said the best thing you can do in life is to set yourself a goal that you cannot possibly achieve...?
The Edale Skyline fell race, 2007: the essence of mountain running at its very best
Before I get going, I wasn't running the Original Mountain Marathon at the weekend. I'm just an innocent bystander in the storms, both real and man-made, that have beset the event since its cancellation in atrocious conditions at the weekend.
The media pounced on the story, grabbed it and ran away with such a staggeringly erroneous view that it's left us in a state of shell-shock. Of course there were 1700 runners unaccounted for. That's what happens during a mountain marathon....And the runners forced to seek shelter in a variety of barns and hostels? Luxury. Considering the scale of the event and the horrendous conditions out there that day, the injuries were minor, and not much worse than any other.
The smaller ripples of this media feeding frenzy reach farther than Borrowdale and the tabloids. My mother started to panic at about 9.30 am on Sunday, breaking siblings out of their respective hangovers and onto the phone, combing through start lists on the OMM website and a general fearing of the worst. Thousands of mountain runners' parents across the country would have gone through the same.
But none of this really matters. The papers will 'drag and drop' this story like any other. Some quarters will whinge about the cost to the taxpayer. But it's the long view that's important.
Most of us have at one time or another experienced conditions like the OMM. Being blown off your feet, eyes stung by rain and saturated. The strange thing is, these are some of the best times you can ever have. It's a perversity that most won't understand. In all the photos, the videos and radio broadcasts of the event, I haven't yet seen anyone who doesn't look like they've had the time of their lives. For the vast majority, they were waving, but not drowning.
"Perhaps it is escape from the pressure of life, but really it is more than this: it is proof that, sophisticated man though you may be, you can still go out with all your worldly needs on your back and survive in the wild places of Britain. That knowledge is great freedom." Chris Brasher
To most people, rocks are just...well...stones. To others, they are rather more than that. Being a geologist, I might be forgiven for the occasional bout of enthusiasm for them. But here, on the North Yorkshire coast, geology has played such a blinding hand that it's impossible to put a lid on it.
Walking along the shore, you could miss them. Just a load of greyish, layered rocks. Look closer though, and there are signs of life. A lot of life. Ammonites, hermetically sealed in nodules that fall out of the cliffs during storms. Worm burrows, shells, dinosaurs and unrecognisable creatures living and dying before our time. Even wood fragments playing host to life on a vanished, yet once bobbing tropical blue sea.
A fossil hunter’s paradise, maybe, but there’s a more recent human past that could only have happened here. Back in the 1500’s, the Pope had a monopoly on the crystals of alum (aluminium sulphate, amongst other compounds) which were used to fix coloured dyes to wool. This was big business. Eventually, the secret to making the little white crystals was smuggled from Rome to Northern England, where the right rocks to make it could be found.
What amazes me is how the extraordinary complex chemical extraction processes involved were ever figured out in the first place. I mean. Who would think to burn a load of Jurassic rocks in a big pile for an entire year, then add urine or seaweed to them before liquefying the extracts in tanks and carrying out more bizarre chemical reactions involving (can you believe it) eggs? It is staggering to think that they did all this without really knowing how or why it worked.
The processes are one thing, but the quantities involved were gargantuan. There are great gouges cut out of the hillsides where the Alum Shales were quarried. Then there’s the seaweed, which again was required in such quantities that the entire coastline of the north of England and Scotland was being scraped by men, women and children. And the urine? Shipped in by the boat-load from London and Newcastle. I can’t imagine.
The Hunt for the Missing Universe
The rocks around here are amazing for another reason too. As luck would have it, not only are the rocks well below ground economically important, but the resulting underground mines are so deep that they are perfectly shielded from atmospheric radiation. The rocks also happen to have such low background radiation that it is the perfect place to detect what could be described as the ‘Physics of the Elephant in the room’- the search for dark matter in our universe.
There are 3 million pounds-worth of detectors down there, all waiting for the weakly interacting massive particles to give off a hint of their presence.
Rolling an ammonite fossil around in my hand, I can’t help but think this place has come a long way through time.
Late on Saturday night, there was a panicked phone call from Penny.
'Have you heard?' 'What?' I burbled, slurping on a glass of Shiraz. 'The Ian Hodgson's been cancelled.'
There was a slight note of hysteria in her voice. I could tell this was one too many of such cancellations and disappointments that she'd experienced lately. This was a blow, particularly after losing the village's best window-box display.
A race to the fell runners' forum revealed that the rumour was true. Brotherswater was like a paddy field. There was nowhere to park.
It was a shame, this. Our eight-person team had been out every weekend for weeks, finding the shortest line between points. Worrying about things....looking forward to Patterdale's finest cake display.
In short, the race didn't go ahead, leaving hordes of honed fell runners to have a series of relaxing runs in a more informal sense.
It's a right shame, but we're all looking forward to next year.
Cairn Holy, Dumfriesshire We've been to some curious places of late. Well, perhaps I should say, more curious places than usual. We're used somehow, to wandering around forgotten corners of Scotland or Northern England, not sure why we're there other than to see the way a human past melts into nature over time...But Stu's got a new toy has led us to seek these places out in greater numbers.
After a slightly alarming lull in his photographic ambitions, partly due, it has to be said, to a tricky Ebay transaction with a bloke in Hong Kong and a muck-up by DHL, Stu has leapt into the world of photography with a gadget that is quite spellbinding. It's a digital SLR with a sensor that's been converted to see only Infra-Red light.
The results are captivating. White, ghostly trees, stunningly radiant against black trunks...abandoned boats, rusting brown in daylight, but soft baby-blue and white in Infra-Red. One day, I hope he'll let me put one of his photos up on here. But for now, you're left with mine, as I noodle about old ruins while Stu takes shots of the real stuff.
It was in these beautiful, solitary hills that the Rab Mountain Marathon was set last weekend. It was surprisingly comfy terrain to be handling with a 1:30,000 map and a lot of plastic bags in a flimsy sack. Not too hard on the feet, plenty of running territory and surprisingly easy to navigate.
The flavour of each mountain marathon is different. Some are like a big game of chess, where you have to think your way round the course. Some are like a game of chicken, where a moment's hesitation can make the difference between winning and losing. This one was, by comparison, an engagingly charming grand tour of the mountains, designed for pleasure, almost. It didn't matter a jot that we came 6th in our category behind a few crack teams from Keswick and Borrowdale. It was the enjoyment that mattered.
After what seemed like an age, Stu's finger came out of its plastic cocoon. We took it, and the rest of him for a paddle on flat-calm waters off Oban.
A lick of paint, perhaps?
By accident, we rolled up to the shore at Craignish to look at some sculptured stones. Inside an abandoned, roofless church were more of the beautiful tombstones carved by the Iona sculptors several hundred years ago. Sometimes by chance, sometimes by design, we've seen quite a few of these beautiful carved stones now.
It's been months since I've been up here. It's funny, because it's not like I haven't been fell-running for a long time or anything. But I just haven't made it to Askham Fell. And in a very strange way, the absence made me realise what an irrational attachment I had to the place.
There have been runs in the dark. Runs basked in February heat, and retreats from battering August hail. Runs with friends, and solitary runs. Many of those. Where I practised navigating, pacing out bearings through bracken to piles of stones carefully arranged by those living thousands of years ago. Where the first baby steps of fell runs began through heaving lung gasps. Even though it is flat.
Last week, I shoo-ed off the gangly wild ponies sucking experimentally at the car and sniffed the wind, heavy with the smell of peat.
The Isle of Kerrera might not seem like the obvious choice for a mountainbiking island getaway. For one thing, it's a mere 10 minute hop away from the bustling kilt shops of Oban. But there was something that I'd always wanted to see there.
It was a massive pair of concrete fingers. Stu had found them 15 years ago on the east side of the island, in the garden of an old fisherman's cottage. There, pointed at the mainland, was an enormous, 6-foot high hand fixed in a V-sign, telling all the world generally where it could go.
Whilst the sentiment might seem a little vitriolic, it has become, over the years, something to aspire to in a funny sort of way. A small Scottish hovel with a V-sign in the garden.
Sadly, the concrete sculpture is long gone, but the folk of Kerrera are still, in a rather gentler way, holding their hands up to the mainland. We mountainbiked around the island, following the trail of a pack of wild goats with shiny, trailing manes.
Imagine my surprise to find this solid chap living in the beer garden at the King's Arms in Bowness-on-Solway. An incredible character, he'd been brought up with the pub's dogs. He's a Kunekune from New Zealand, apparently. A Maori pig. Where do I get one?
It was a hot, summer's Monday evening, and it seemed like the right time to start swimming in the mountain becks. The water was still a bit cold for it, but by exercising beforehand to get warm, a swim would be a chattery, but fun experience.
Clattering on mountainbikes along the stoney singletrack to Skiddaw House in the clefts between egg-box mountains, anything could have happened. Our skills are still a bit ropey, and it was a tight track.
On to the River Caldew in full spate, with luck on our side. Into wetsuits and into the raging flume spewing from the mouth of the falls. It was as plump a river as I'd ever swam in, and it seemed like a good transferable skill to practise darting in and out of the boiling white mass in case we got flipped out of our kayaks in a raging sea at some point in the future.
This, too, we survived. Later on, whilst taking off a sock, Stu managed to snap a tendon in his finger. Not falling off a bike at the back of Skiddaw. Not smashing into rocks lining the river. Just yanking off a sock. He's got 'Mallet Finger' and can't climb, kayak or mountainbike for 6 weeks.
Still, the splint looks like just the job for planting seedlings in the garden...
It's always sunny in Douglas Wilcox's blog. Never a grey sky or a drop of rain (ok, there's some fog in one of the latest photos, but just look at the number of azure-blue-puffy-cloud photos there are).
But you know, I think Douglas is missing a trick. Whilst I envy the way he can charm the sky into being blue for a photo, the care-free look of a happy paddler in the foreground, I feel there's something missing.
Whilst I know it's the opposite (for him and everyone else), Douglas paints an idyllic landscape. He is the Constable of the kayaking world. Feted by the new, glossy magazine of the moment, his photos are scattered throughout Ocean Paddler. Full page spreads. Big, blue skies sell copy... There's no storm on the horizon...
'It's easy paddling from here' it is whispering to the subconscious mind.
There is a delightful contradiction at the heart of this.
We were recently holed up in our tents on the beach while a storm whipped down the loch. For a day we watched the sea make crazy, salt-flavoured Pollocks over and again on the shore. It was a fantastic piece of down time.
I guess how you see things through a lens is a good reflection of your inner world. I find the subtle moods of the darkest Scottish sky intriguing.
I am conscious of a strange noise dragging my brain from 2 hours of fitful sleep. I can’t place it. It’s an unusual noise to hear at 5.30 am. And it’s very close to my head.
Oh, yes, it’s a bagpipe.
Somewhere in the back of the brain, there’s a synapse of recognition. You get woken up with bagpipes on the Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon.
THE LAMM? How did this happen? The panic slowly subsides as the memory comes back. It’s not a horrible dream. Penny and I did enter the LAMM.
Outside, the midges are amassing in numbers. . Everyone’s got black midge nets on. It looks a bit like an outing of 900 suicide bombers. I put mine on. It’s marginally better than not having one. For a brief moment I snigger at people trying to conduct normal morning operations through nets. Brushing teeth. Drinking tea. Eating midge-flecked porridge. Then I try it for myself. I scrape the raspberry smoothie stalactites off my midge net and make a mental note to bring a straw next time. 0830 hrs
Well, this is it- the start. The sun seems to have moved closer to the earth, it’s baking, and there are still midges making the most of this unusually large feast. They probably haven’t had so much fun since the Battle of Culloden.
We’re nearing the second check point. We’ve been contouring a deeply incised hillside for 2 hours. We crash down to a stream and drink like wildebeest.
We’re looking for a checkpoint. It's not here. It’s the worst possible place to lose a checkpoint- a series of enormous hummocks. It could be any one of these monsters. Backwards, forwards we trudge. I can feel the will to live leaving. I have started to stop caring. Then a strange thing happens. I start to worry about food. I haven’t got enough. My brain is going, I think. Has my body had enough, or my brain?
“Charles!! CHARRRRRRLESSS!!” An elderly man behind is shouting at the top of his lungs. He’s miming the international symbol for a checkpoint to his partner, although it seemed a little superfluous. He’d attracted the attention of everyone. Including us.
I confess my food concerns to Penny and tell her to leave me to die right here. I can’t go on.
She makes me sit down, feeds me a breakfast flapjack. Takes some weight out of my sack. She knows what’s happened, and deals with it. The experience of an Alpine mountaineer.
It’s been the hardest 11 hours out on the hill in a long time. A tough decision had to be made to climb up and over a set of Munros, not down the valley to disqualification. Walking like an empty shell, nothing left inside. A never ending, drawn out pain. The silence of the LAMM.
Every last atom of energy has left my body. Penny has got outside of her rations, while I cannot eat a thing. It’s a bad sign. The midges cluster around the squashed remains of the raspberry smoothie.
There’s a strange sense of having learnt a great and valuable lesson. To know where our limits lie is a powerful thing. Do we learn more from our successes, or our failures?
The course planner, Andrew Spenceley tells us that our course had twice as much ascent on the first day as it would have normally. It makes me feel a little better about having scraped the barrel of my endurance and my being. Now, a month later, the pain has gone. And what are the memories? A perfect herd of deer thudding close by, the light splintering through pines, the dance of a thousand folds in the rock, pressed by unimaginable heat and time as we ran past in a moment.
0530 hrs 8th June
The piper digs out another tune from the wheezing bag.
It’s ‘For A’ That’ by the great Rabbie.
"Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine, A man's a man for a' that. For a' that, an' a' that, Their tinsel show, an' a' that, The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor, Is king o' men for a' that."