Thursday, 16 April 2009

Spirit of Place

Sea kayaking off Mull and Iona

There's a thread of a belief that runs through many eastern religions and indigenous cultures which I often wonder about. It's perhaps best expressed as the idea of the hidden valley (or beyul) of Tibetan Buddhism, and is used to describe a place which is often hidden (well, obviously) and hard to find, but imbued with unusual spiritual powers. A place where people can go at times of political upheaval to find refuge.

A maze of skerries, Erraid

In a way, Scotland is, by virtue of its turbulent history, littered with the faint traces of hidden valleys. But in this case, they are often islands where a church was built, or an abandoned crofting township of black houses, hidden completely from view of the sea and its marauding boatmen.

Iona is perhaps an obvious example of this, but so too are the lonely isles of Inch Kenneth, and Erraid (the home to the quietly inspiring Findhorn Foundation).

Perhaps the smudging out of time's inevitable course that often happens with kayaking helps to make you aware of these weird things. The tourist magnet of Iona was certainly the centre of the action for most, but paddling off to the remoter skerries and roiling seas was a journey to hidden valleys and into natural cathedrals of breathtaking beauty and melancholy.

Gravestone, Iona Abbey

Once again, the ruined black houses were places we sought out. Miles from anywhere (across acres of torrid bogs), tucked onto hidden slopes and out of prevailing winds, these tiny abandoned communities were captivating, yet very sad places to be.

Beautiful stonework, ruined black house, Breachadach, Ross of Mull

We were all too quickly sucked back to the 21st century: past Loch Lomond's golf course with its manicured, kidney-shaped sand pits. Trees budding shocking green shoots. Mazes of built-up housing.

Feeling a little culture shocked, we're back in the real world now, but the hidden valleys of Mull will occupy a very special place.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Friday Night on the Rocks

It's hard to know where we are with Lakeland climbing these days. Endless routes on crisp, grey Mediterranean limestone have lead to a slight feeling of...well...anti-climax on the local cliffs. In between bolt-clipping holidays, we've slunk away from many a Lakeland beauty spot with little more than an abseil off a tree trunk to show for it.

Determined to break the spell, we'd decided, from the comfort of a sofa, that maybe a season of climbing nothing more than classic Lakeland V Diffs was a good plan. As well as being spoilt on bolts, I had had a run-in with a Hard Severe a while back which did nothing for my confidence. And then there was the business of Walthwaite, or Yosemite Crack. Climbing up the ever-increasing off-width, yawning crack, I mentioned to Stu that this yawning pillar was moments away from a major rockfall. He casually dismissed my concerns, although 100 tonnes of rock did crash to the ground a month or two later.

So as the blue hues of interleaved hills faded into the distance, I stood holding the ropes under a hanging garden of Babylon at Quayfoot Buttress on Friday, hopeful for a clean pass at a route. Balls of moss were rolling down under Stu's footfalls, and the Borrowdale-brown, blotchy rock looked a little soapy. The first pitch was moist, then increasingly damp, then frictionless, but undeterred, we carried on. It was a stroke of bad luck that the route we'd chosen then wove onto a side face of the crag, where the rock went from patchy dryness to torrential rivulet.

I started looking for a tree.

We set up the abseil in silence. The tree was quite a bouncy one, and my imagination had already lept to conclusions about its weight-bearing capacity.

"Well, you'd better b******r off then.." Stu intoned in his dry Geordie way.

I collapsed into a fit of laughter, which Stu took as a spirited attempt to diffuse the situation. It was really the ridiculous and over-melodramatic thought that these could be the last words we spoke to each other.

As our climbing degenerates into part-farce, part hilarious pastime with ever-decreasing goals, it is hard to know where we go from here.

But we do know with some certainty that the only way is up....

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Decisive Moments...

"...the decisive moment, it is the simultaneous recognition,
in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event
as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that event
its proper expression..."

Henri Cartier-Bresson

It's probably very passe to talk rather pretentiously about the decisive moment. It's a much-abused photographic paradigm these days, it's true.

But it is a fascinating thing that the best photographers seem to know when the moment is right. Perhaps it stems from a primaeval hunting instinct. In my case, I prefer to think of photographic skill using the old principle that if you throw enough mud at a wall, some of it will stick.

Back on the north Yorkshire coast the other weekend, the tides appeared right to spend a pleasant afternoon combing the beach for some Jurassic fossil wood fragments. Hmm, not everyone's cup of tea, for sure, but perhaps it's what they represent rather than what they are now that is captivating. Well, to me, anyhow...

These wood chunks left the Jurassic coast 170 million years ago, floating out onto an azure sea. Various life forms latched onto these floating rafts and carried on the journey. Bivalve shells, crinoids. That sort of thing. Once the wood became waterlogged, these babies would sink like submarines onto the dense gloop of the sea floor, and there, covered over with more gloop, would be entombed. Walking over the shore and discovering these little life rafts seems like the unveiling of a 170 million year decisive moment, a dot in the ocean of time.

Today, all I was to find were some beautiful wood fragments, preserved in shiny pyrite. No tentacles. And that's why I ended up following a wetsuit clad surfer to a distant part of the beach, where I took some photos. It just happened that the surf was in at Staithes. The tides were right, the wind had picked up, and there were a number of black bodies in the water. Turns out that they were picking their decisive moments on one of the best surf beaches in the world.

Click on this one to make it bigger...

Complete chance or a moment of decisive knowing? Probably mostly chance. But for once, it felt like I was in the right place, at the right time.