Thank you to everyone who’s looked at my Pennine Way Blogs. I hope they don’t seem grumpy. They were a labour of love, a paean to a path, albeit an account as faceted and solipsistic as any memoir. It’s taken a couple of months for my knee to heal, during which the blogs more or less flooded out. Yet another verbal strandline washed up onto WordPress.
I hope nobody thinks I’m fit and strong, still less some kind of expert ultrawalker. I’m quite old, I’ve never been athletic and I’m returning to hillwalking after a pretty sedentary adulthood. So far it’s felt like a second childhood. So far the trail’s been a beach, and I haven’t died.
I’ve an awful lot to re-learn and I’m grateful for any advice. In the aggravating manner of an old bird, I guard addled eggs of prejudice and opinion within a rackety nest of stringy, out of date data. I squat on them, chittering crossly, like a threadbare Booby on its bed of six-pack rings and guano. I’m a superannuated seal that’s flippered through an infinite information slick, slippery opinions blocking the pores of my blubber, free-riding my rubbery hide like Remoras. I’m prone to lame anthropomorphic analogies.
The plan from now on is to learn by doing, by getting out more, experiencing the outdoors in more intense, vivid and preferably hilly ways. Part of the plan is to account for myself in doing so, via a periodic tide of online memoir along which a few enabling facts will hopefully bob, like firewood among the flotsam.
I live by the sea in north Norfolk. Here, it’s hard to get hill-fit and harder to stay that way – the highest point locally is an awesome 78 metres above sea level. Sea level walking it is, then. I love hills, but I have to travel to encounter them and when I do they affect me in a profound and atavistic way, like storms.
Most winters on the North Sea coast we get storm surges: high tides blown onshore by northerly gales. That of December 2013 was quite destructive, although not of course as bad as 1953’s in which several people died locally and hundreds overall. Another pretty major event on Friday night – Friday the thirteenth – has again flooded some of our coast, including the paths I walk most days when at home. You’ll find videos of the storm at its height on Twitter, BBC News, etc. While it was raging I took the opportunity to sleep out in the garden, testing a new four season sleeping bag I’d bought myself for Christmas, like some big kid. The review’s in the works.
The young are drawn to the oncoming ocean. As a child I was transfixed by the power and personality of waves. As I lay idiotically in my tent at the height of last week’s storm, social media showed me local youths playing a damp variant of chicken on piers and promenades, seemingly unaware of the numerous fist-sized flints that are pitched high and fast by north Norfolk’s breakers. Ensconced not only among a population of sleeping bags that might interest Malthus but also in one of the later ages of Man, I nowadays find myself more interested in the ebb, in the recession.
I’m intrigued and captivated by how water seeps away into the secret byways of the sea, as Pennine streams sink through limestone, melting it into vast, secret caverns. I enjoy observing how bodies of water, for which Norfolk folk should by rights have as many words as do Inuit for snow, separate and merge again in evaporative ballet, the ultimate slow TV. The bloated and sludgy hang around at this pool party, double-dipping each new tide of snacks. The svelte and shiny slip away still hungry in aquifer taxis.
Dampened denizens re-emerge; the Stonechat picks over the brash, I pick my way along my path. It’s been transformed into a maze of new data, hydrological, ecological, sociocultural. Wigeon whistle and graze in place of cows, the ripped up roots of familiar plants are nakedly alien. Plastic garbage, nets, shattered structures. The flood has not only wrinkled and rotted a familiar topography, it’s dumped a hyperdiverse crud-collage onto the palimpsest of the land.
My head reels with not just the power in watts, joules and horses but the multivariate content delivered by and within a flood, its origins, its ramifications. Little wonder that even before the mysterious hieroglyphs on foreign cosmetic bottles emulated pharoahs in their inscrutable immortality, people who lived among and in contact with nature constructed myths that simplified the unparseable narratives and shallowed the unplumbable depths of experiential complexity. No wonder we still cleave to simple certainties in our lives, our relationships, our politics. I’m reminded of how plastic on a beach evidences the official creation myth of ‘The Made in China’ in Will Self’s fabulous (in both senses) novel The Book of Dave.
Above all, I’m struck – ha ha – by how large, heavy objects are carried to destructive prominence and power by otherwise benign tides, of water, of discourse, of data. These big beasts of the flood are ugly and annoying enough while lounging around in washed-up isolation, squashing the homes of smaller neighbours, seeping pollution, tripping the unwary. Borne on the shoulders of a million wavelets they acquire a malign momentum.
Note to self – try to avoid thinking about politics while outdoors. Like golf, it spoils a nice walk.