Of Nettles, Cottongrass and Orchids

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I’ve been waiting for the right time to explore Pendle Hill – that charismatic whale-back commanding the western horizon in views from pretty much everywhere skirting the south-western foothills of the Dales.  An inspiration to George Fox  as it was (see my previous blog, November 27th 2016), perhaps climbing it will spark a few more modest thoughts of my own.

In the middle of a heat wave the outlook is likely to be hazy but with overnight rains I’m hopeful that the air will have cleared and I’ll have a good view back towards Settle Moor and the hills east of Malhamdale.  Starting from the cheerful village of Barley I soon pick up the well-signed Pendle Way and begin what becomes before long a relentless ascent.  The early stages are marked by appealing encounters with gnarled, hollowed out ash trees, well-kept cottage gardens and I even find a patch of Nettles in full flower attractive.  Well, if you ignore the stings it’s quite a pretty plant really – and useful!

at their peak – a pretty patch

Hills and the views from them are irresistible if hackneyed metaphors.  Nonetheless the logic works: amongst the many reasons for climbing a hill is to achieve a sense of more than physical distance from the humdrum tangle of everyday matters and their accompanying controversies; to see the bigger picture internally just as the external view unfolds in all its glory.  However, my hopes of a clear view soon dissipate: far from clearing the air, the rain was just the vanguard of a blanket of cloud washing out everything further than a couple miles away from sight.

Just as the weather foils my attempt to look back towards home it provides an equally significant metaphor to the hoped-for sense of clarity: although I might not be able to see the whole picture as clearly as I wished but I can at least see what it is that’s blocking the view; and to decide whether it’s possible to sweep it away, or whether there’s nothing for it but to sit it out and wait for the prevailing wind to disperse it.

no clearer for the rain – part way up Pendle

Up here on the summit of Pendle, it’s not only my own challenges that come to mind when I’m looking for clarity.  It seems to me the current state of the country is no less cloudy than this view.  It would be enough that we are faced with the biggest political, economic and legislative upheavals in several generations in the form of our exit from the EU, profound questions over how our role in world affairs should be played and fractious, wavering governance at home; but the terror and cyber-attacks of recent weeks, the deplorable tragedy of Grenfell Tower and the reports of failing public services all serve to disorientate and prevent objective assessment of how we should be as a society in 2017.  I’m reminded of a slogan deployed optimistically by a certain political party during the 2010 election: ‘We need to heal our broken society’.  I wonder how that’s going?

I have no answers of course; but about the current state of politics I do wonder what might happen if, given the divisive nature of the ideologies behind each party’s approach, instead of any one party attempting to represent the whole country’s aspirations in the uniquely challenging task of Brexit, the government were formed of ministers from every party in parliament?  Forced by the need to overcome differences in the national interest those involved might be led to search for a sense of how best to proceed rather than constantly fighting their predetermined corners in a rearguard action against hostile opposition at home and abroad.  I know this isn’t the cricket we’re used to in UK politics but Quakers can vouch for non-confrontational business methods to resolve the most controversial of subjects; and yes, we do occasionally encounter some very interesting controversies even within what is in essence a highly progressive movement.

Through a cotton-grass carpet

Such are my less than conclusive thoughts as I leave the summit, following by whim an inviting flagged path winding down the back of the hill between endless stretches of cotton-grass.   Now there’s one of my favourite things: for some reason, cotton-grass really cheers me up.  In fact it’s up there with halloumi cheese, Chopin’s piano concerto in E minor and Edinburgh.  And I might have gone on thinking that was the best result I could have hoped for from this walk on a dreach day until lower down in the valley I come across a swathe of exquisite orchids dotted about in a fabulous meadow.  It really was worth the trip just for that.  After all, looking closely at the details is just as valuable as seeing the bigger picture – there being, of course, a right time for both.

perfect clarity in miniature

A cry for Manchester: when words fail

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Sometimes there are simply no words.  Thoughts and sentiments beat the exits of the mind, jumbling together in an incoherent mess.  For the time being, no thought, no idea remotely helpful can be formed.  There is no response but shock and no help but silence.

Such is the reaction I find myself locked into this week.  Appalled and stunned along with the rest of the nation, I watched and listened in tears to the news as the awful experiences of ordinary people were described.  Innocent people caught up in the consequences of one of the most disgraceful acts of barbarity ever committed on these islands.  I’ve struggled to comprehend what could make it possible for any person, let alone one born into our own tolerant, multi-cultural society, to destroy the lives of dozens of people including children, wrecking their families, obliterating their potential.  I’ve rallied to the sight of thousands gathering in Manchester’s Albert Square determined to express their solidarity and strength, their willingness to come to each other’s aid and to fight hatred with the far more powerful common bonds of love.  And I’ve asked myself how it’s possible that these two extremes can so evidently co-exist amongst us; and which will ultimately shape our future most strongly.

In struggling with these questions I quickly realise that even if there are answers, I’m the least capable of finding them.  These events are far from not only my experience but mercifully, perhaps that of most people.  We who are spared exposure to this kind of suffering can only watch in sorrow, mourn with the bereaved, support those whose work it is to rescue and relieve, and calmly and rationally assist those whose responsibility is to prevent and protect.  But perhaps the most useful thing for the majority to do is to give space to real discussion about the things which threaten peace, educating ourselves about the whole society in which we live and move and in our public conversations and debates allowing all issues to be examined that might influence the decision of a person to commit unspeakable crimes.

For now, however, I return to silence: a space in which I can by feeling the mix of horror, pity, despair, solidarity and hope reaffirm the connection I have with the communities in Manchester and everywhere scarred by brutal acts of violence.  They it is who will rebuild their own cities but they can do so in the knowledge that people around the world stand with them, pray with them and will support them in peace and friendship as they strive to overcome their present darkness.

Getting used to nature’s timetable

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A new resident finds its feet in Malhamdale

Spring is at last well under way as Malhamdale glistens like a many faceted jewel.  Is it me or is the sunlight somehow cleaner than it’s been for months; cleaner here than anywhere else I’ve lived?

I say ‘at last’ as it seems to me in my impatience that my sowings and plantings are taking their time this year.  Moving north by 150 miles last autumn I should of course expect things to wake up more cautiously in this part of the world although weren’t those crocuses on display just as soon as in my home in the midlands?  The ‘early’ potatoes are particularly slow; in spite of weeks chitting followed by weeks in the soil, pre-enriched and pre-warmed under black cover, not a single shoot is emerging.  Broad beans are almost as shy.  I’ve all but given up on some shrubs and herbaceous perennials completely; but at least the Hostas in the bog garden I made after Christmas are sending up determined spears and will soon make a great show of leaves – if the slugs don’t stop them.

King Cups in the recently replanted bog garden

I shouldn’t be so impatient but that’s the kind of gardener I am: I want to be out making things happen to my timetable, testing nature’s boundaries with schemes to warm things up, catch the light, beat the pests, put on a show.  Nature, on the other hand, is quite happy with its own plan.  The scattering of flowers growing around the Meeting House without any intervention from me is proof of that.  Best be guided by its schedule rather than trying to control everything; grow what wants to grow when it wants to grow and not what doesn’t even if it’s feasible with large amounts of energy and inputs to force it.  That doesn’t stop tinkering of course.  In fact, it’s almost the first thing to do in a new place – otherwise how do you find out what will work?

One of the most useful pieces of advice from the world of permaculture is to ‘observe and interact’.  Both are crucial to discovering how to work with any particular environment.  We need to watch what happens naturally, then watch what happens if we move a pebble to know if moving pebbles is a good idea.  All very scientific and all quite challenging for impatient types like me.

On the money – Lunaria in flower

It doesn’t just go for gardens either.  Leaders of any description do well to wait a while before suggesting any changes to the way their teams, groups or movements go about things.  And in everyday life, moving to a new place prompts a great deal of finding out about how things tick, the better to find one’s place in the community.

What’s more, observing and interacting don’t need to stop; in fact they should never stop if we’re to be successful gardeners, group members, creatives, people.  Why?  Because like it or not, things evolve.  We only need to look at the state of the world in 2017 to verify that.

A ride around Malham Tarn

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not as mild as it looks - a snowless Malhamdale in January
not as mild as it looks – a snowless Malhamdale in January

It’s an unpromising looking morning of the sort that in many locations would inspire me to stay in and do precisely nothing; but in the Yorkshire Dales landscape there’s no such thing as a lack of promise, be the sky leaden and the prospect ever so bleak.  The late dankness has been replaced by a spell of dry weather, though the clouds still loom low over the hills.  So, with no pressing engagements I set off on a cycle ride, determined to reach Malham Tarn – amazingly for the first time.

The great wall of landscape centred on Malham Cove and stretching to either side taking in Pikedaw Hill to the left and Gordale Scar to the right is an imposing barrier approached on a bicycle in the best of weathers.  In the lowering cloud cover on this January Saturday it’s enough to make me contemplate turning this into a little jaunt to the Old Malham Café for a relaxing brew and a slice of their fabulous Yorkshire Curd.  However, dogged determination to make the most of a rare dry day spurs me on to tougher if not greater things.

I’m no sports cyclist by any means, normally using the bike to get from A to B with a maximum range of a few miles – so I have to grit my teeth to make the ascent out of the village along Malham Rakes – a climb almost as demanding as High Hill Lane out of Settle and at least as long.  Before long I realise I’m making slower progress than a very nonchalant looking hiker a few dozen yards ahead, especially as I keep stopping – to admire the view of course…  That view fades and bleakens gradually as I climb into cloud so that as the gradient finally flattens out the cycle ride and in fact whole landscape take on a completely different complexion.  Up here on the moor, the moist air is still, silent and bitterly cold.  Everything is either grey or a bleached brownish green.  Few trees and even fewer boundaries structure the landscape which seems to be framed only by low hilltops clothed in rough grass and sedges.  It may not sound convincing as a beauty spot but actually this eerie emptiness is one of the things the north of England does really well; and to the busy soul drunk on the bustle of urban life (as I suppose I used to be before moving to Airton), a bit of isolation goes down quite nicely.

Malham Water winding to oblivion
Malham Water winding to oblivion

I plan to circumnavigate the Tarn and choose the clockwise route, bearing left to stay on the tarmacked road past the watersinks car park.  Watersinks is a prosaic and aptly descriptive name for the spot where Malham Water peters out in the grass on its journey to the base of the cove where it re-emerges as Malham Beck – a strange surrender of a river to the ground which only adds to the mystery of this wild place.

Looping north along Cove Road I still haven’t caught sight of the Tarn, which as waterbodies go seems remarkably well concealed.  Not until passing through the edge of some woods along the Pennine Way bridleway does the shoreline appear between the trees.  It’s an entrance to beguile the most cynical of travellers (if there are such people…).  Having climbed a thousand feet up a seeming vertical highway, here in the clouds I find a lake of tranquil beauty surrounded not by peaks but gentle shores of an almost fenland character.  It’s as though the world has quietly reorganised itself while I was looking at the road, putting things the opposite way around to where they ought to be.  But it’s all real – as is the bird hide I take shelter in to drink in the amazing serenity of it all.

horizontal world
horizontal world

As for the birds, apart from a few tufted ducks and coots near the opposite shore, most of the many species of wildfowl that habituate the Tarn are keeping out of sight – possibly not very impressed by the temperature.  And were it not for the cold I could stay here all day with a good book and a pair of binoculars but there’s something else on this ride I’m quite looking forward to: freewheeling more or less all the way back down to Malham – about the most fun you can have on a bicycle, due deference to oncoming walkers & vehicles excepted.  And this being a bike ride rather than a walk, I’m back in Airton in time for a warming lunch of soup & home baked bread by an open fire.

Malham Tarn: a place out of time
Malham Tarn: a place out of time


When first impressions cover an extraordinary story

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It’s easy when encountering a place for the first time to imagine that everything there is as it has always been, even when you already know that the place concerned has only recently been changed and refreshed.

Barn dormitory today
Barn dormitory today

On my first visit to Airton Meeting House and Barn I was sold on the idea of living here as warden almost instantly as much by the attractive, tranquil and well-ordered nature of the complex as by the wonderful welcome of the people who interviewed me and the potential to grow the programme of events and activities on the site.  I knew that both the Meeting House and the Barn had in recent years been refurbished and was impressed with the result but remained unaware of the depth of the transformation – particularly where the Barn was concerned – until some of the members of the Meeting showed me photographs of the interior prior to the alterations.

one of three former upper floor dormitories (photograph Laurel Phillispon)

The images were a revelation.  I was looking at pictures of tired, dishevelled rooms of a character with which anyone who frequents old church halls or Victorian community buildings up and down the country would be familiar.  Looking at these photos, dank, musty aromas almost reach out of the images and the cold air seems to fill with footsteps and voices echoing off hard, dreary walls, floors and ceilings.  In the old photos of the Barn, those ceilings appear low – too low to correspond with the comfortable spaces I’d first encountered – and contribute to a desultory atmosphere of unreconstructed gloom.

the upper ground floor entrance before re-ordering (photograph Laurel Phillipson)

This was the first indication that the refurbishment had been more substantial than the refit and decorate that I had imagined – albeit a thorough one.  After checking the location of the old photos and standing as close to the equivalent spot as possible, the real nature of the changes became clear.  Walls had been removed, floors lowered, staircases re-oriented.  None of the new fixtures and fittings stood in the same place as their predecessors, so that to effect the changes, the entire building had been rewired and re-plumbed.

from the same location with stairs reoriented and floor flush with outdoor ground level
from the same location with stairs reoriented and floor flush with outdoor ground level

In short, none of the former spaces seemed to map onto what I knew.  ‘Before and after’ photos tell the story: dingy corners are replaced with light-filled rooms, care having been taken to ensure access to windows from all directions wherever possible; clutter is exchanged for simplicity and order, patchy surfaces of multiple dismal shades superseded by a simple palette of warm colours, cleanly applied.

A glance at the plans revealed how space had been gained by incorporating the former garage of the Nook (now the warden’s residence) and two rooms above it into the Barn – as would have originally have been the case, since the division between these distinct building structures always lay where the join is today.

the kitchen in the lower floor before the re-ordering (photograph Laurel Phillipson)
the kitchen in the lower floor before the re-ordering (photograph Laurel Phillipson)

These alterations must have involved extraordinary technical challenges and in my view the incredible transformation of the Barn, carried out by builder Colin Atkins under the direction of architect James Innerdale,  is if anything more spectacular than the excellent refurbishment of the Meeting House.  Taken together, the two projects represent an exceptional achievement on the part of a few committed individuals, Airton Meeting’s current clerk Laurel Phillipson and the late and much loved Kevin Berry being particularly instrumental.  Their efforts – not least in raising the £300,000 required within the constraints of Quakers’ principled opposition to the use of lottery funding – ensured not only the buildings’ conservation and ongoing use but the continued presence of a living Quaker heritage in Airton, one of Quakerism’s oldest heartlands.  May it be so for many years to come.

the lower floor in the Barn today
the lower floor in the Barn today