Saturday, 29 August 2009

The Long Way Round to a Sense of Quietness

Sour Milk Ghyll gearing up for the rainy season

Sometimes, the best laid plans just aren't meant to happen, and as Rabbie Burns aptly pointed out, go 'agley' (whatever that means). Often, as Rabbie said, you're left with naught but grief and pain, but sometimes, maybe, a sense of peace and stillness can break out where you least expect it.

It went fairly 'agley' for me recently on a run round the back of Blencathra. I'd carefully planned an elegant but simple loop for the day, ending on the mighty track of the Cumbria Way. It didn't take long to realise it wasn't going to be straightforward, as the wind picked up and repeated storms flashed over and over. I was, in defiance of the weather, wearing too little. Breaking in some new fell shoes was another distraction from the real point of the run. And most irritating of all, the fells seemed to be coated ankle deep in moving sheets of achingly cold water.

To cut a long story short, I never made it even half the distance to my intended destination. Relief at reaching the river Caldew and the lovely Cumbria Way path just beyond it was dashed as I saw what the river had become. It was huge, and erupting rhythmically into big, brown standing waves like the backs of roaring bears. Dangling a leg in to see what it was like, I knew I had only one choice. Run round, or be mangled trying to cross it.

It turned out to be quite a long way round. The going was tough without real paths and with all that sheeting water. This was clearly the road less travelled as I eyed the alluringly- smooth track just a few metres away, beyond the Zambezi in full spate. But I did come across a beautiful badger's sett on this unpeopled side of the river, and felt little clouds of stillness rise up from the reeds.

After a few miles I was able to cross the torrent at a bridge, and ended up at the beautiful Lakeland hamlet of Mosedale. The day might have gone a bit 'agley', but having been forced to follow the Caldew all the way to its resting place on the flatlands, I had been tipped out of the fells at the Quaker Meeting House. Open for tea and cake, it said. Muddy, scratched and not a little bit damp, I sat on a pew and drank in the sense of immense, timeless peace.

Over a pot of tea and slice of cake, I listened as the lady at the urn recounted tales of entire trees being swept downstream, and once, her hen house. And in between conversations, the walls oozed stillness. Four hundred years of thoughtful meditation. I walked out of there a little different from when I went in.

Would I have felt this if my day's journey had been an easy run, predictable, planned, and executed to the letter? The answer is, I just wouldn't have got there at all.

Brass rubbings inside the Quaker Meeting House, Mosedale

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Missing Queen of Inchmarnock

Inchmarnock is just one of those places. The sort of place that captivates and beguiles with a past so outlandishly interesting that you just have to go there. And we're certainly not the first sea kayakers to be lured by its charms. But, as is often the way, our visit to this tiny, teardrop shaped isle was anything but predictable. And this only added to its fascination.

Up till lately, Inchmarnock's claim to historical fame lay in the bones of a Bronze Age Queen found lying in a cist at the north end of the island in the late 1950's. The owner, Lord Smith of Kelvin, had placed a glass cover on her final resting place so that she could be viewed- sparking the curiosity of many a sea kayaker looking to unravel the fourth dimension. In the last few years though, the mystery deepened. The Queen somehow just disappeared. Douglas Wilcox wrote to Lord Kelvin to ask what had become of her, and his wife's reply, though courteous, gave no clues. She assured Douglas that everything would be explained, but stopped short, leaving us all hanging in space.

Having made it to the island, we found the open cist heaving with blackberry thickets and hoofmarks. We seemed to be no closer to answering the questions that surrounded this vivid reminder of our deep past. Settling back to an evening of watching the gannets plosh into the still waters, we saw a motorboat approach our end of the island. The two men on board stopped the boat at the beach and wandered up to the tent. I assumed this was not a welcoming party.

After fearing the worst, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the two men had just come to warn us about the Highland bulls- very excitable at this time of year. Whilst they didn't ask us to leave, we didn't need much persuading to relocate the tent to a safer spot. The boatmen turned to go, and I seized my chance in a split second. I enquired as to the whereabouts of the Queen.

In a great display of Scottish understatement, one of the men said "She's away just now". The older man was more forthcoming. He explained that she'd been taken away for DNA testing and face reconstruction. And apparently, she wasn't very easy on the eye, didn't eat fish, and was very local. We talked about the other archaeological research going on on the island, and his parting words were "you could work here for 25 years and still be finding things".

The Hostage Stone, depicting a Viking raid

And so it seemed. Farther south near the site of St. Marnock's chapel, an early Christian writing school was unearthed, with tablet after tablet of inscribed slates in Ogham and Latin script. The most extensive find of its kind in Scotland.

The cows found us a little after 11 pm, and started baying and pawing at the ground. They were curious, highly intelligent, and a little feisty. By morning, a thick clod of hairy beasts was peering dimly through Irn-Bru coloured manes at us as we attempted to make a dash for the kayaks. They were not the problem as such, but one of them was baying constantly for El Toro to help them out. In due course, the rippled black silhouette of a perfect bull in characteristic stance thundered up and screamed to a halt. After a few slightly tense moments, he collected up all his cows and calves and pelted off into the undergrowth.

The last inhabitants of Inchmarnock left in the 1980's, and it is now the home to the excitable hairy beasts. It would have been a complete paradise, as the last inhabitants still remember. Wandering through the ruined farm at Midpark, I found drifts of mint, angelica and medicinal herbs surrounding orchards of old fruit trees protected by tumbling walls. In the Queen's time, the island would have been lush, fertile and tree covered. It is extraordinary that she was preserved in her completely airtight cist for three and a half thousand years, just one out of many that escaped the attention of scavengers and grave robbers.

With the mystery of the missing Queen solved, we left the island to its hefty cows.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Running Mad on Arran

The bunkhouse shoe collection

A few Eden Runners were up on Arran last week for a spot of bog trotting...and what a week it was. Amongst turbid and cloudy skies, the tumbling granite peaks arranged in wonderful horseshoes, the world was our oyster...almost. The weather played a blinding hand though, leading us on to thinking the worst on days that turned sunny, then luring us onto the tops in hideously wintry conditions.

Leaving Beinn Tarsuinn

Never mind this though. Arran is a place to come back to, to plan further runs, glen to glen. The sense of drama on the granite tops, weathered into cartoon mountain shapes, is fantastic. A mountain paradise.

The beautiful ridge of A Chir.

Running melded into scrambling amongst the boulders and ridges on the high peaks of Arran. Not for everyone, for sure, but for us, a gift.

Glen Sannox

Gill on the fast descent into Glen Rosa

Happy donkey, Glen Rosa

We need a holiday to get over the holiday- for us a full on, high octane mountain-fest of fun with friends. However varied our individual ambitions for the holiday were, I think we all had a scream of a time.