Friday, March 23, 2018

Mixed News for Local Writing

In keeping with the ambiguous season neither winter nor yet spring, we have a mix of news for local writing.
The good news is the announcement of the 1st John O Groats Book Festival
which will include half a dozen local authors, including myself, on the Friday evening as the warm up act for the visiting authors--all favourites of mine.

The not as good news is that Iain Grant, editor of the John O Groat Journal is leaving. I have had the good fortune to write articles for both the Groat and the Caithness Courier through the tenure of three editors now. We all know it's a hard time for newspapers everywhere and it appears that, like so many things in Caithness, Inverness and points south want to call the shots. I think it is a false economy. The USP--unique selling point for those never burdened with learning bizspeak--has got to be local news, local context, local interest.  I want to hope for the best, but in the meantime I'll post here my most recent article to appear in The John O Groat journal. It appeared March 9, 2018 under a different title.

Skirting Giggleswick Scar
 The washing machine is working away, the bird feeder has been filled again, the cats have been out-in-out-in and now sleep on the foot of the bed, even the snow and the wind are still. I am free to walk again the hills between Newby and Giggleswick Station. Although it is 12 hours by train from home, Newby is much like here—Greenland and Newby are both signposts on corners of country roads where a farm town used to be. My friend and I tumble out of the car pulling on extra layers against the cold. The sun is clear and gaining strength in the run up to spring and summer, but winter is still holding on. In Yorkshire, as here, the weather must never be underestimated.
We cross a busy road where a café has recently been re-opened. In the emptied spots in much of rural Britain, a newly opened or re-opened café or pub is especially welcome as a sign of ongoing vitality. Just past the entrance to the café car park is a familiar wooden sign post, ‘Public footpath’.
Sometimes they offer more information such as 1 ½ miles to another place that may exist now only as a name on a map. A favourite pastime for both of us as we walk the broad country lane with remnants of ancient hedgerows and senescing trees is to imagine those who have come this way before. Later when I read about the first person to start a charabanc in this part of Yorkshire who married a woman from a nearby farm, I am sure that they met accidentally on purpose on the very path we walked. My own grandmother went ‘sparking’ with her intended under the roof of covered bridges in Southern Indiana. Walking makes those kinds of connections in our imaginations. I like to think it is a better way of learning history than the litany of dates and battles usually presented in classrooms because walking helps us see the things we have in common rather than our differences.

Much as I love trees, there is something spectacular about coming out of the treescape into an open field. A few days after our walk I read an author who claims that our love of this mix of trees and open grasslands stems from our distant ancestors who first walked out onto the African savannah. Perhaps. For me the connection is closer to home. Limestone. My bones are no doubt full of the mix of ancient seas laid down as mud and tiny creatures. Of the elements I am, thus, earth and water. It explains a lot about who I am. Such things make sense as you follow a sheep track up a hill in Yorkshire.
At the top of the hill I turn not just to catch my breath but also as I say to my friend, ‘to drink it in:’ the greener than here grass, the regular rhythm of drystone dykes up and down the hills, the nonchalance of the sheep, the distant village of houses clustered together among so much openness as if huddled together for warmth.
We’ve earned our pub lunch. My friend says we’ve been here before. We’ve walked so often now that sometimes we conflate walks. We ponder the menu and try to remember what we ate before—we can’t recall what, but we recall enjoying it, which we both decide is more important.
Back on the hills, my friend says her legs feel as if she has just begun walking. Mine do not, but my legs and I just smile and nod. We cross fields and climb stiles for relatively easy walking, and my legs take heart. The way to Giggleswick station, where the car is waiting for us, is downhill from Buck Haw Ridge. We’ve been walking gingerly for half a mile or so over limestone outcroppings above the surface of green grass like the curds of cottage cheese but hard and just the wrong size for feet. It is slow going and the light is fading and my legs are getting rubbery and slow. My friend shows me the map, which I am learning to read in small doses like a child learning the alphabet. I can see the fastest way is directly down a ridge of unknown steepness and surface. We didn’t bring walking poles and in the shadowy light, we agree the best way is to weave back and forth along the hill following layers like the edges of a gateau slowly making our way downward. I can see my friend is worried about my legs, so I reassure her and myself by concentrating on how beautiful it all is. We move around a quarry—‘Caution: Deep Digging’ and past scrubby grass with an occasional sturdy juniper hugging the ground, recalling the juniper we discovered at the top of the iron age fort near Betty Hill.

Words on maps such as ‘scar’ and ‘fell’ still conjure for me the terrifying story of Heathcliff on the moors I read as a school girl in Indiana. Giggleswick Scar, however, whose name I’ve borrowed for this walk, deserves more than the simple description of her geology: ‘Giggleswick Scar is a long limestone edge forming part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park’s southern boundary.’ From above, she might well look like a scar along the face of the hillside, but she is more like the dowager queen of this hillside. To earn her place on this lump of earth in Yorkshire she has survived eons of oceans and lakes coming and going across the land. Nestled deep within her weather-worn spine she harbours the relics of a million small creatures. She may even remember when the world was only a single land mass. With this in mind it is only right that our path offers her the deference she has earned, so we zig zag downward looking out the places the sheep have trod before us.


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