Haystacks – in the footsteps of Wainwright

At first sight, at some 600 metres and surrounded by some of the highest Lakeland peaks, Haystacks looks, in the words of the great writer of Lakeland walks Alfred Wainwright, ‘like a shaggy terrier in the company of foxhounds’.

However the mountain was one of Wainwright’s absolute favourites: ‘Not one of this distinguished groups of mountains can show a greater variety or or more fascinating arrangement of interesting features.’ We had wanted to climb it for many years, and last week at last got the opportunity to do so.

We had stayed the night before in Carlisle and didn’t start the walk until just before noon, which was just as well because the weather had been temperamental. The first shower hit after 20 minutes and others followed, though fortunately the wind was behind us. We managed to picnic in the lee of a large rock before a lull in the rain gave us the courage to attack the final climb.

After a relatively simple approach, the climb to the top was surprisingly challenging, with several pleasant scrambles up rock faces. However the views just got better and better, and by now the rain had more or less relented and the clouds were starting to lift from the surrounding peaks. Here is the view towards Buttermere and Crummock Water.

By the time we reached the summit there was even a patch of sunshine on the delightfully named Robinson, while Great Gable and Pillar briefly appeared out of the clouds ahead of us and we could look down over Ennerdale water. We were by now entirely convinced by Wainwright’s belief that this is one of the best climbs in the Lake District.

One of the many delights of Haystacks is the small tarn at the summit. As Wainwright said: ‘For a man seeking to get a persistent worry out of this mind, the top of Haystacks is a wonderful cure.’

We decided against going down the way we had come up, and instead descended to Innominate Tarn, where Wainwright’s ashes were scattered, and from there worked our way round to the river coming down from Brandreth. Following the previous day’s heavy rain, the expected stepping stones had disappeared under a raging torrent, and the crossing might well have been beyond us but for a helpful guide who told us where best to put our feet and hauled us up on the other side. The adrenaline buzz was worth the wet feet.

The rest of the descent was straightforward. All in all, it’s a wonderful circuit, with none of those tedious stretches you can meet on mountain walks, a new and often stunning view around every corner and no little excitement as well. As Wainwright said, ‘Could you wish a better place?’

You can listen to Wainwright talking about Haystacks here. He describes the walk in his book Western Fells or you can follow it here.

Walking in the Hills of Arran

Where no-one was was where my world was stilled
Into hills that hung behind the lasting water (Alastair Reid, ‘Isle of Arran’)

The Hills of Arran is the title track of my next album, due for release on December 5th with a launch event at CB2 in Cambridge that evening. We needed a photo shoot for the cover and some film for the video. We had never been to Arran, and it came with high recommendations, especially from my grandparents. All good reasons to visit the island that is described as ‘Scotland in miniature’.

Arran2Our ferry had brought us into Lochranza the day before, and we had stayed just outside Blackwaterfoot on the western coast.

The weather forecast for our first full day was poor, so we decided on a valley walk up Glenrosa rather than risking rain and strong winds on the hills. In the event the rain held off for the morning and we rambled up a classic glacial valley with Goatfell, Arran’s highest peak, on our right.

Arran4

Half way up the valley, the first of two remarkable encounters with wild Arran took place. Two golden eagles soared into view and one came quite close to us as three buzzards also appeared. For a while they soared just under Goatfell together, and then suddenly the eagle tumbled earthwards and seized one of the buzzards by the talons. The buzzard managed to fly off a couple of times but each time the eagle went for it again. The two went to ground and as neither bird flew off again we could only assume that a young and very inexperienced buzzard had become the eagle’s lunch.

After our own rather more vegetarian picnic the rain began, the hills did indeed ‘hang behind the lasting water’ and we turned back, well wet by the time we reached the car, but satisfied to be back in the Scottish hills. That evening we watched the rain pile in across Kilbrannan Sound from Kintyre.

Arran_stonesThe next day we walked along the beach out towards Drumadoon Point, scattering oystercatchers as yet more showers built over the mainland. We continued on to the remarkable stone circles of Machrie Moor – Stonehenge without the crowds, the fences or the A303 and all the more magical for that.

For our final day the weather at last settled down a little. We set off from Thundergay up the hillside towards the delightful Coire Fhionn Lochan.

About half way to the lochan a group of red deer hinds were silhouetted against the distant Sound of Bute.

Red deer

Clouds still hung around the hilltops as we reached the lake, Arran1and it would be some time before the sun timidly appeared. Inspired, we set off up the steep slope of Meall Biorach, reaching the first summit just as the mist rolled away from the surrounding hills. As the sun steadily grew in strength, we carried on up Meall Donn, to be treated to magnificent views across the Arran hills and the surrounding mainland.

An eagle flew past us, hugging the ground as it reached a nearby pass before descending into Glen Catacol towards Loch Tanna.

Arran5Heading down towards the other side of the lake we heard a red deer stag roaring and watched as his herd moved up the hill opposite. The early evening light showed the lochan in its full glory.

We were taking a short break walking back down from the lochan when our second remarkable encounter with wild Arran took place. A young meadow pipit flew under our legs and a moment later there was a rush of wind as a female merlin aborted her dive on the pipit. The pipit fluttered out two or three times and each time the merlin attacked again. Eventually another walker went by and the pipit flew off using him as cover. I saw the merlin fly off, apparently with empty talons. We appeared to have saved the pipit but left the merlin hungry.

The following morning we left Arran with heavy hearts. The filming was successful, though, and I’ll post a link to the video as soon as it is available!

Arran3

Nine Wells

Nine_Wells_Track

All lovers of nature have their favourite wild places. I’ve written about some of mine in other pieces – many are in the north of England or in the Eastern Pyrenees, which are the areas we tend to walk in most, or on the windswept coasts of East Anglia. But it’s important to have wild places nearer to home, and one of my favourites is the area around Nine Wells, just south of Addenbrooke’s hospital on the edge of Cambridge.

At first sight you could be forgiven for thinking that the area is unremarkable, made up as it is mainly by arable fields. Indeed I have heard it described as ‘uninspiring’ and I fear that some on Cambridge City Council may share this view. But getting to know it better brings many rewards.  Along with the arable fields there are woods, area of scrub, springs, streams, hedges and White Hill – the final chalk rising before Cambridge and the fens. And of course the local nature reserve of Nine Wells itself:

Nine_Wells_landscape_2014

All wild places are full of surprises. One early spring afternoon a fox sauntered down the field from White Hill, crossing the track about 20 metres in front of me – the wind was behind me so it must have been aware of my presence. And just recently I watched a marsh harrier languidly quartering the largest field for half an hour. Forty years ago just a single pair nested in Britain, and although there are now over 300 pairs across the country they remain a rare sight away from the coastal marshes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut for me the stars of the area are the birds of arable farmland. When I was a child, these were the numerous and everyday companions of spring and summer. Singing skylark (right) were my first sign of sign of spring, while yellowhammer and corn bunting reeling away across the ripening corn were the very essence of summer. These birds, which were then so common, have suffered catastrophic declines: we have lost 90% of our corn buntings and grey partridge since 1970, and half of our skylarks, yellowhammers, linnets and yellow wagtails.

Yet around Nine Wells their numbers are remarkable – this year there are over 20 pairs of skylark, 10 pairs of grey partridge, almost as many linnets and yellowhammers and a couple of pairs each of corn bunting and yellow wagtail. One warm summer’s day I sat for a while looking up at White Hill, with a corn bunting singing behind me and a yellow hammer in the hedge to my left. Partridge (below) chuckled among the peas growing in front of me, while overhead dashed swallows, house martins, swifts and ‘parcels’ of linnets.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Yellowhammer_AddenbrookesI worry that this area – currently designated as green belt – may be released for development. Already the ever-expanding Addenbrooke’s is growing inexorably towards it – on the right is a yellowhammer singing in front of the new hospital car park – while over the railway line the new Great Kneighton/Clay Farm development emerges.

To remind those who decide such things how valuable the area is for farmland birds I carry out an annual survey of the area. Here is my report for this year – please do download and share.

Nine Wells Survey 2014

Edale and Kinder Scout

Edale 1

This May we celebrated Isabelle’s 60th birthday with a day’s walking in Edale and up on Kinder Scout, in the Derbyshire Peak District. At 636 metres Kinder is the highest point in the Peak District – indeed just about anywhere in England south of Yorkshire – and the nearest place with real hills to Cambridge.

Edale 2Edale is famous for several reasons. It is the start of the 267-mile Pennine Way – though somewhat confusingly when you leave the village you are offered two versions of the route, up Grindsbrook or Jacob’s Ladder. As Edale can get very busy on a warm spring Saturday, we avoided both, preferring the Crowden Clough footpath which also leads up to the Kinder Scout plateau.

Edale 3Crowden Clough is usually quiet and so it proved on this occasion – we passed but a handful of people on our way up the valley, and probably saw more dippers and grey wagtails flitting around the waterfalls. Curlews hung on the air as we made our way up towards Crowden Tower and the start of the plateau. As we stopped for lunch, a ring ouzel was singing on one of the rocks across the valley.

Edale and Kinder’s second claim to fame is the mass trespass. On 24th April, 1932 a group of Sheffield ramblers, protesting for the right to roam, set off from Edale for a mass trespass on Kinder Scout, where they successfully met a second group of ramblers who had started from Hayfield on the other side.

Kinder_trespass_articleFollowing scuffles with gamekeepers six ramblers were arrested and five were found guilty and given sentences of between 2 and 6 months prison. Their efforts were not in vain when seventeen years later the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act led to the establishment of the Peak District National Park, and the first recognition of a right to roam. Ever since the peaty bogs of Kinder have been a prime target for the walkers of Sheffield and Manchester.

At the trial, Benny Rothman spoke memorably: ‘We ramblers, after a hard week’s work in smoky towns and cities, go out rambling for relaxation, a breath of fresh air, a little sunshine. But we find when we go out that the finest rambling country is closed to us, just because certain individuals wish to shoot for about ten days a year.’

Ewan McColl was to succinctly rephrase this in The Manchester Rambler: ‘I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday’. There’s a video of Mike Harding singing the song at the Moorland Centre in Edale, or another good version from Sean Cannon of the Dubliners.
Edale 4
It may have been a Saturday rather than a Sunday, and I haven’t been a wage slave in the strict sense of the word for some years, but we certainly felt like three free men and a free woman as we stood up on Crowden Tower. From here there are several choices – you can turn left along the edge of the plateau towards the Swine’s Back, Kinder Cross and along to Kinder Low or down into Hayfield.

One clear day, armed with a compass, I set out straight ahead across the plateau. After what seemed like endless peat bogs I eventually emerged at Kinder Downfall, little more than a trickle on that summer’s day. I have seen it as a spectacular waterfall after wet weather, with the west wind blowing the water back up onto the moor, or reduced to icicles in a harsh winter.

This time, with a long drive back to Cambridge ahead of us, we turned right along the edge towards Grindslow Knoll. We passed more weathered Edale 6gritstone outcrops and appreciated the National Trust’s attempts to improve the path as it crosses the degraded peat.

Edale has long been one of my favourite places in the country, with special connections to my family. My father and grandfather were walking there when my mother went into labour for my birth. We in turn were there on the cold New Year’s Eve when my father died. Growing up in Manchester and Rochdale gave me a love for the gritstone moors, and it’s the place I head to when I need to escape the flatlands – good both for the feet and the soul.

Edale 7We have walked around Edale in all weathers, but never as fine as this day. The sun was still shining as we headed down the slopes of Grindslow Knoll back towards the village, past the fortunate drinkers in the Rambler Inn who had less far to drive home.

A few years ago I finished writing Hold On during a day’s walk from Kinder. Here it is, with Lester Lloyd-Reason on lead guitar and Amanda Hall on harmony vocals:

Walking the streets of Paris in the footsteps of Louise Michel

It was just after we joined the Rue des Fossés St Jacques on a cool August evening that we found, painted on the footpath, the words: ‘Au Panthéon; Simone de Beauvoir et Louise Michel’.

We had celebrated my birthday in a Greek restaurant just off the Place St Médard, at the southern edge of the 5ème arrondissement. After eating we had climbed the rue Mouffetard towards the Place de la Contrescarpe and the Panthéon, the final resting place of the great men of France. Of the 71 worthy people buried there only one, Marie Curie, was a woman. I could understand the case for de Beauvoir joining her; but Louise Michel was new to me.

I visit Paris regularly but over the years I spend less and less time on the Champs Elysées and the grands boulevards for which Haussemann had in the 19th century demolished large swathes of an older Paris, leading Baudelaire to write in Le Cygne: ‘Le vieux Paris nest plus; la forme d’une ville change plus vite, hélas! que le coeur d’un mortel.’ (Old Paris is no more; the form of a city changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart.)

I prefer the less ordered older quarters of Paris that escaped Haussemann’s  attentions, mainly those clustered around the hills or ‘buttes’ of the city, including Montmartre. My favourite is that which tumbles down the contrescarpe along the rue Mouffetard. As we walked back down the slope I determined to find out more about Louise Michel.

By the time we set out again the following morning a combination of an iPad and hotel wifi had given me a short introduction to the remarkable life of this anarchist, teacher and poet. Born in 1830 in the Haute-Marne as the illegitimate daughter of the son of the local chateau and one of his servants, Michel trained as a teacher and moved to Paris where she opened a school, wrote poetry, corresponded with Victor Hugo and became active in left-wing republican politics.

We walked along the rue Pascal, following the course of the river Bièvre which used to flow past the Gobelins and the tanneries at the foot of the Rue Mouffetard but is now confined to an underground canal. We were heading in the direction of the Butte aux Cailles in the 13ème arrondissement – in 1871 one of the last strongholds of the Paris Commune.

The Commune was established in Paris (and in many other major French cities) following France’s defeat at the end of the war against Prussia. The spark that lit the uprising was the French army’s attempt to take back the cannons that had been used to defend the city during the siege of the final months of the war. And it was Louise Michel who had alerted the people of Montmartre to the presence in the city of the French army.

We crossed the Boulevard Auguste Blanqui – named after the revolutionary who had been imprisoned by the French government to prevent him joining the Commune – and ventured up the rue Daviel towards the Butte aux Cailles – in English the ‘hill of quails’. This area is another where much of the old housing has survived since before Haussmann, and numerous narrow streets and passages scramble up the hillside, lending the area a village-like feel until a more modern tower block looms up ahead and brings you back to modern Paris.

The Commune survived for two months – time to introduce new ideas and practices far ahead of their time – but eventually the French army began to move into the city, massacring thousands of communards as they went. Louise Michel fought the soldiers in the suburbs and later the city barricades. At her trial Michel denounced her persecutors:

‘Puisqu’il semble que tout coeur qui bat pour la liberté n’a droit qu’à un peu de plomb, j’en réclame une part, moi ! Si vous me laissez vivre, je ne cesserai de crier vengeance… Si vous n’êtes pas des lâches, tuez-moi!’ (Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom has the right only to a little lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I shall never cease to cry for vengeance… If you are not cowards, kill me!)

At the top of the butte we found the place de la Commune de Paris and drank tea in the cooperative café Le temps des cerises, named after a song by Jean-Baptiste Clement which the author later dedicated to a nurse who had been with him on one of the final barricades:

Mais il est bien court, le temps des cerises,
Où l’on s’en va deux cueillir en rêvant
Des pendants d’oreilles.
Cerises d’amour aux robes pareilles
Tombant sous la feuille en gouttes de sang.

(But it is too short, the time of the cherries
When together we gather them while dreaming of earrings
Cherries of love dressed in red robes
Dripping from the leaf in drops of blood)

Louise Michel was not granted her wish by the court, but was instead exiled to New Caledonia, where she supported the indigenous people in their fight against French colonialism, and ran a school with methods that were a century ahead of their time. It was there that she concluded: ‘C’est que le pouvoir est maudit, et c’est pour cela que je suis anarchiste.’ (Power is cursed, and that is why I am an anarchist.)

She was eventually freed and returned to Paris in November 1880, to be welcomed by an immense crowd. She continued her fight for social justice and remained a thorn in the side of the government, spending several stretches in prison. She wrote extensively – poems, pamphlets, an autobiography and a personal history of the Commune. When she died in 1905 some 100,000 people followed her cortège through the streets of Paris.

We continued to wander around the Butte aux Cailles, lingering in particular in the passage Boitton with a Parisiénne who spends her spare time exploring and photographing the backstreets of her beloved city. She told us where we could find the graffiti below.

There is talk that François Hollande may decide to include another woman in the Panthéon, and Michel would seem an ideal candidate – along with Simone de Beauvoir and Olympe de Gouges, who published a Declaration of the rights of women during the revolution of 1789. In the meantime, she retains an alternative commemoration beyond the gift of any of today’s politicians – Victor Hugo dedicated his poem Viro major to her:

Et ceux qui, comme moi, te savent incapable
De tout ce qui n’est pas héroïsme et vertu,
Qui savent que, si l’on te disait: « D’où viens-tu ? »
Tu répondrais: « Je viens de la nuit d’où l’on souffre. »

(And those who, like me, know you to be incapable
Of all that is not heroism and virtue,
Who know that, if you were asked, ‘Where do you come from?”
You would answer: “I come from the night where there is suffering.’)

We walked back along the Avenue des Gobelins and that evening ate in Les Bugnes, a Basque restaurant just off the rue Mouffetard. And here is the video of my song, Rue Mouffetard, with some echoes of the Commune.

For more about Louise Michel you can listen to one of the BBC’s Great Lives radio programmes, read a blog from Pam McAllister or listen to a talk from Paul Foot about her and the Commune.

Walking near Rutland

Cambridgeshire has long declared war on grass. The fens to the north of the city and the low chalk hills to the south have all been put to the plough, and at this time of year provide a monotonous vista – black to the north and brown to the south.

To find the pleasing green of meadows and pastures you have to head west, and so on the last day of September we set off for the Rutland/Leicestershire border and Tilton on the Hill – a typical village of the area with quiet streets of warm stone, perched on top of a 200-metre high ridge.

We tumbled down the hillside in the direction of Lowesby, disturbing the tranquility of flocks of sheep and flights of sparrows.

After a while we crossed one of Beeching’s disused railway lines – though remarkably the isolated Lowesby station is still intact and lovingly cared for. It put me in mind of Michael Flanders’ ‘The Slow Train‘ – ironically just a day after I had learnt that his daughter Stephanie, purveyor of the rampant market economics that had cost us our rural railways all those years ago, had left the BBC to join J P Morgan.

As the sun burst through we picnicked overlooking Lowesby church, surrounded by munching cattle and watched by wheeling buzzard, red kite and kestrel. A passing walker told us of the 100 bus which still runs from Leicester to Melton Mowbray through these villages, somehow surviving Osborne’s cuts, and allowing fellow walkers to leave their cars at home.

Moving on from Lowesby we wandered through more fields of rich green to Hamner’s Lodge Farm, another survivor from a lost age when farmyards were less tidy, more ramshackle and full of animals. A largely unconcerned ‘guard’ dog looked vaguely in our direction, leaving it to the cattle to warn disgruntledly of our passing.

From the farm we continued to climb back up the escarpment amidst clouds of linnet and charms of goldfinches. We stopped again for a while to soak in the views west to Charnwood and far beyond towards the Peaks before turning back into the easterly wind towards Tilton and thence home.