Friday, 31 October 2008

A Perfect Storm

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...?

You never know. Maybe next time.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Not Drowning, But Waving...

The OMM and its aftermath

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

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Pope, the Missing Universe and the Price of Fish

Staithes, North Yorkshire

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.

Papal Alchemy

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.

So what’s that got to do with the price of fish?

Good question….

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Not The Ian Hodgson Mountain Relay...

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.

Friday, 3 October 2008

In Strange Places

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.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

The Rab Mountain Marathon

A Grand Tour of the Back o' Skiddaw

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.

An Ocean Away

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.