I’ve not been here for a long time, and now I’m back.
Some things have changed. For example, my trees.
This is how they used to be: http://coppicewithstandards.com/2014/05/
Now they are like this:
I’ll write more soon.
I’ve not been here for a long time, and now I’m back.
Some things have changed. For example, my trees.
This is how they used to be: http://coppicewithstandards.com/2014/05/
Now they are like this:
I’ll write more soon.
Suspended on a wooden floor in the upper chamber of a sailless windmill, wind swaddled the tower in a sinewy vortex.
We’re on the first high point inland from Praia Guincho, one of Europe’s wildest surf beaches. The wind is awe inspiring.
Our walls are at least two feet thick, the tower shaped like a squat pepper grinder. No sense of danger. Outside, though, the palms and pines are strafed and raked, their fronds and needles shriek.
Stood on the warm stonework of the quay at Claverton Weir, I registered the familiar anxiety that preludes diving into a UK river/lake, or the sea: is it safe?
Warley weir – photo by Tom Edgington at: https://flic.kr/p/d9YrFo
It was a halcyon day. The sun throbbed, cows browsed the opposite meadow, another train would soon chunter past. I had already sidled along the plant-strewn weir and was now poised to plunge deep into the water. I was not alone, as well as my partner and our children, the quay was packed with excitable youths replete with scant swim-wear and sunglasses. I reached for my son’s hand, he joined his with my daughter, then my partner, her son and his friend. We leapt off…
The surface of the Avon erupted in multiple explosions, screams, limbs and laughter. It was utterly euphoric. For several hours, we dived and swam, immersing ourselves, our permeable skin and vulnerable mucous membranes in the dark river. Five out of six of us spent the next few days either vomiting or stricken with diarrhoea.
The Environment Agency provides a useful online map of local water quality. Looking at the closest sample site (the confluence of Wellow Brook and the River Avon), the data suggests that the water quality here was grade A between 1993 and 2009.
The term Grade A water could be seen as misleading. Saturated with man-made pollutants, it is by no means pure. Levels of nitrates and phosphates in the river are also measured in the E.A. sample, and were rated consistently at level 5 between 2004 and 2009. Level 1 is described as a very low level of pollution, level 6 is the very worst.
The Wild Swimming Quick Guide to Water Quality explains that Grade A and B water is fine to swim in and that high levels of nitrates and phosphates are not dangerous to human health, but surely the effect of these contaminants on the occasional swimming human is only of elementary concern? High levels of these chemicals cause water to become eutrophic- rich in nutrients that support plants, which flourish, then decompose, depleting oxygen levels and killing animal life.
The local water authority, Wessex Water, have encouraged farmers to reduce their use of pesticides and fertlisers. This is part of a wider strategy by the Environment Agency which incentivises farmers to sign up to an Environmental Stewardship Scheme. The E.A. has published a map of NVZs (Nitrogen Vulnerable Zones) so that farmers are aware of the potential damage chemical run-off can have to local watercourses. Natural England is the government’s environmental advisory body and is responsible for payments to farmers based on a sliding-scale of how environmentally accountable they are. Their website shows a typical payment in 2013 to a lowland farm with 100 (qualifying) hectares as £3000. Clearly, encouraging farmers to regulate their use of dangerous chemicals is a good idea, the quantity of pollutants in our waters has decreased hugely over recent years. The problem is that improvements to water quality have plateaued. Despite the efforts of the governmental bodies, the levels of agricultural pollution in our rivers remain unacceptably high. However important the environment might be, farmers have crops to maximise, supermarkets to stock and bills to pay.
Run-off is not the only pollutant in our waters. Sewage is also regularly dumped into rivers courtesy of an out-moded system of combined sewer overflows (CSOs). Whenever there is an extended period of wet weather, many of our rivers (and therefore coastlines) have raw, untreated sewage spewed into them. Referring to work already done by Wessex Water in 2003 to over 100 CSOs around Bath, a spokesperson for ongoing projects said,
“River water quality is not the primary issue, the Avon is a large, healthy river. Water quality is hardly compromised by the discharge of sewer waters. This scheme is primarily about aesthetics.”
The aesthetics alluded to are, presumably, faecal waste, tampons, condoms and toilet paper. The logic here seems to be that water dilutes things- the bigger the river, the smaller the problem of waste becomes.
Of course, natural waste produced by animals living in or alongside a river is also an important factor. E. Coli and cryptosporidium are rife in freshwater, each causing a variety of health problems, both non-serious and life-threatening. The Swim Healthy leaflet from Public Health England is clear and straightforward,
“Open water is not considered to be of bathing quality as it can contain sewage, livestock contamination, and pollution from farming or industry.”
Rats also like to swim in rivers. Whenever one mentions wild swimming, the apocryphal threat of Weil’s disease surfaces. In fact, out of the variety of dangers lurking in our waters, leptospirosis is the one we are least likely to encounter. The NHS website cites 44 cases in 2011, none of which were lethal.
The small stretch of the Avon that I like to swim in only serves as an example. The following graph is taken from a highly critical EU: Water Framework Directive Implementation Report 2012, and indicates the state of UK rivers back then:
The gradual revival in bathing beyond the municipal pool may well have been reinvigorated by Roger Deakin’s brilliant travelogue, Wild Swimming. Since its publication in 1999, there has been a steady flow of books on this theme and the phrase wild swimming has entered common parlance. The activity itself, like tattoos and graffiti, has entered the mainstream; there is no shortage of hearty folk lining up to take the plunge. At Claverton Weir, what was once a local secret now clamours with people. It is a spectacular meander set, amphitheatre-like, amid a deep, forested valley. When I visit, however many people fill the cow meadow, the landscape itself exerts a strong sense of permanence, as well as beauty: we did not make this, it does not exist to serve our fleeting purpose.
This year, I brought shears to clip back the thriving nettles and invasive Himalayan balsam that overhang the top of the weir, growing almost hydroponically in the fertiliser-rich river . Freshwater mussel shells glimmer in the shallows below, evidence that the Avon remains a viable habitat, despite its impurity. A family of swans glide into the scene, there are dragonflies. Immense willows and alder hiss in the breeze. I stand again on the brink, poised, tremulous. Having reviewed the data for this piece of paradise, it will no longer be the prospect of mind-numbing cold that fills me with dread, or uncertainty of what lies beneath, but rather knowledge, sharp stark statistics, of what I’m sharing the water with.
Swinton Bike Insurance are offering a prize-draw:
Exmoor – monsters and minnows
A sudden bout of vomiting (my partner’s son’s) meant our planned tour of Southern Ireland was scuppered, so we sulked for a few days before settling on Exmoor. We decided to spoil ourselves to make up for the disappointment and booked this place:
I had to learn a polka for a friend’s wedding in a few days, so I had to pack my accordion. The VFR had little trouble, but we were pretty cosy with two side-panniers, a top-box, the accordion bungied in front of the top-box, J- my partner- and me. Tight!
All I’d known of Exmoor before then was Butlins. This time, there were no yellow-coats, just seething fields of heavy corn, ancient woods and hidden valleys. The VFR is a heavy bike but, as we joined the B3188, it plunged easily into the sinuous, tree-tunnelled fringes of Exmoor.
We stayed at Yarde, soon discovering the landscape is dense with holloways, high hills and quick-running streams. Owls accompanied our later-than-planned pub walk to Stogumber with their plaintive calls.
I had been nervous about taking the VFR, J and myself up Porlock Hill. Wikipedia states that it is `a very steep hill with gradients of up to 1 in 4 and hairpin bends.’ It is the steepest A-road in the country. I’d asked several locals if motorbikes went up- they all seemed confident that they did. Thing is, I’m not tall (5’7″) and the combination of heavy bike, pillion, 1:4 gradient and hairpin bends seemed challenging. There is a get-out, a toll road for less intrepid travellers. That decided it.
There is an ominous sign replete with dire warnings at the beginning of the hill.
We cruised past, it mattered not. J and I don’t use a motorbike intercom system, so I doubt whether she was aware of how psyched I was. Every sensory nerve was firing, a steady mantra of `low gear… use clutch… perfect line…’ looped in my head. The gradient suddenly tilted upward and we were committed, there was no way I could even attempt a U-turn now. The V-four engine pulled smoothly in 2nd as the first hairpin scrolled toward us. Then, somehow, it disappeared behind us with barely a conscious manoeuvre. Following the racing line (though not at racing speed) with a deep lean to the left, the second hairpin passed without incident. Unseen, inside my helmet, I gave a slight `woop’ and grinned, then pulled back on the throttle.
We parked further on at County Gate, a National Trust car-park with massive views
trekked along the coast there and did some painting. On the way back, as the sunset gave way to a chilly evening, we decided to hook a right off the A39 onto the New Road which flows smoothly down into the Doone Valley.
We were both gradually overwhelmed by the weathered, simple beauty of what the road revealed. It is not easy biking- tiny lanes, loose gravel and blind bridges- but it was a valley of unceasing allure. The Oare Water ambles darkly along the valley floor under stone arch bridges, fish darting into shadow. Faded, Georgian manor houses hide just beyond sight amid rambling gardens of rhododendron. A fox and his vixen froze at our passing, then padded away in opposite directions. We parked up and stood by the river, breathing deeply and feeling like we had stumbled backward in time. Apart from the cooling motorbike, there was no outward sign of modern technology for miles.
Reluctantly, we left. It was late twilight, we were hungry. The road wound its way back toward the A39, then perversely morphed into a far more challenging series of hairpins amid steepness than Porlock Hill. Somehow, despite my tiredness, I managed to ride us safely upward but there was no avoiding riding up the wrong side of this capricious lane.
Our getaway on Exmoor ended too soon. We had come here to soothe the regret of missing Ireland yet, we hadn’t spoken of Ireland once. The polka was learned, stresses purged, new roads embedded deep in our memories and pledges made to return on the motorbike to this happily underpopulated corner of Somerset.
My daughter took this photograph a few night’s back. It’s useful because it is me as I am, here and now.
The bonfire that lit me is ashes, but I’m stood in the same place. It’s just started to rain, there is that sense of electricity, the scent of it has risen into the air. Although it’s nearly sundown, I’m waking up. I’ve been waiting for this moment for hours.
My daughter has just berated me for stealing her pillow. She has been tucked into bed, but opened the window and yelled, well within earshot of my Polish neighbours two doors down who are having their usual summer evening smoke and chat. The neighbours stopped their chat, I went back inside. By now, she’d found the pillow I didn’t steal, but she’s still angry. Just angry, no reason. Grudgingly, huffing, she went back to bed.
I am supposed to be doing some other writing, but gave myself a break to water my garden, which has now given way to this.
This is my horse chestnut
It is over 5m tall, and about that many years old. I grew it from a conker from my garden back in Eynsham, Oxfordshire. J and I repotted it a week ago Sunday into a half sherry barrel that is too small. I will order a more suitable one here: huge pot
The 230l one should do the trick.
I love repotting plants.
This is one side of my row of pots
Five lavenders, strawberry trough/lavender, rosemary, and a young birch sapling.
This is the other side of my row of pots
Horse chestnut, two lavenders, scots pine, ash, rocket, willow, hazel, blue tub of rocket, olive, french marigolds (not sprouted), willow/lavender, mini Christmas tree, lavender…
The young ash has thrown up its first leaves of the year this week
I’m very proud.
The plants are all in pots because I’ve moved three times in the last five years.
The plants might represent several aspects of me:
1. I made mistakes
The first of the three moves was to move myself and my daughter in with a girlfriend. It lasted three months before she found out I was flirting with someone online.
It is the worst thing I’ve ever done.
I’ve tried to reason out why- maybe it was a result of the damage done in my own divorce, the unfaithfulness of my wife. Maybe it was some need to not be instantly, entirely merged into someone else’s world. As likely is that I am not perfect, that I am capable of baseness and cruelty. It’s been three years and I’m still feeling guilty.
2. I need moments of calm
I usually water the plants after working-out in the evening. For the last four months, I’ve given up weights and adopted this programme: Medicine ball workout Maybe I’ll write about that another time, but it is good, despite the fact several of the exercises make you look like a bell-end. In between sets, I like to fill up the watering can, then get close to the plants and carefully water them.
There was a toad amongst the strawberries once
Beautiful creatures. Orwell wrote an essay (Some thoughts on the common toad, 1946) in which he describes the toad’s eye:
…the toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the gold-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl.
3. I want a future in which I can plant my trees into the ground
I keep the plants in pots because I am too selfish to leave them to whichever tenant moves in after I leave. I love my plants, particularly the saplings, and want to sustain a mini arboretum which increases each year. Medium specimens of all my favourite trees. One day. One year, I will buy a house, or we will build our own, with some land into which I will plant the trees, the lavenders. Their roots will sink deep and they’ll flourish.
My plants will go with me wherever I go. I provide for them, they grow and provide me beauty and joy. My children too.
My hopes are the same. For them to come to fruition, I will ground their roots in endeavour, nurture their growth with clarity of purpose, honesty and humility.
To everything there is a season,
a time for every purpose under the sun.
A time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to lose and a time to seek;
a time to rend and a time to sew;
a time to keep silent and a time to speak;
a time to love and a time to hate;
a time for war and a time for peace.
The students sat in a grey classroom. Ignore the fact that it is actually painted light green. It is almost square, filled with utilitarian grey rectangular desks, and the students are doing exam practice. The effect produced is of a grey room. The students have being doing exam practice for the last three months. Solid. Outside the classroom, there is a corridor that surrounds a sunlit quad, and in that quad, a mother duck has nine ducklings. While the class warmed up to a Monday morning’s study, the caretaker came into view through the glazed door and opened another door onto the quad. He had slices of bread in his hands, which he broke into small chunks and threw to the duck and her ducklings. There was a frisson. Somebody pointed out the ducklings were outside. The sweet, trilling whistles of the ducklings seeped into our room, seeming to beckon us to them. It was a natural thing to do, to go and see them. Even the lads, normally so inscrutable and resistant to emotion, were itching to look. I stood up and opened the door. “Come on, let’s have a quick look.” The teenagers did not need the normal cajoling, and hustled out of the room. A light wind frisked through the corridor, the sound of the ducklings was distinct and clear. We clamoured against the windows of the quad and gazed out at the gentle scene. A mother with her young- nine trembling clusters of brown and lemon curd-coloured feathers. A powder blue sky hung with armadas of billowing clouds. Sunlight on every surface. For about ten seconds, we were free. We had been absolved from the monotony of exam prep, our minds tethered to the prescriptive tasks, the cramming before the final judder of the educational conveyor belt. In two weeks, the class will be spat out and left to fend for themselves but, for now, a moment of respite and shared wonder. ”Get back into class, there’s exams to be prepared for!” A voice of authority. The deputy head. It was uncanny that she had managed to glide unnoticed toward us, like a graceless nuclear submarine. Strangely, our moment of wonder had provided the perfect smoke-screen behind which she had got within range, then loosed her salvo.
The one road south to north on Jura roughly follows the line of the east coast. Fifty minutes of driving around some interesting bends brought us to Inverlussa, twenty-five miles from the dock at Feolin. The notorious Paps of Jura were shadows within cloud as we passed them, but the range of hills behind showed as a vast, jagged wall. We arrived at Inverlussa late in the afternoon. We were renting heather cottage for a week because of its relative nearness to Orwell’s Barnhill, and the whirlpool of Corryvrechan. The key was in the door. Inside, the living room was high ceilinged, clad in white-washed tongue-and-groove planks with a simple fireplace. The bookshelves contained genuinely readable books and local literature. The kitchen was small and well-equipped. I put the kettle on and hung our damp clothes above the fireplace on a clothes rack suspended by a pulley. We brought in our luggage and multiple bags of food and wine, almost enough for a week of good eating. I made a pot of tea. J went out to collect coal from the coal shed and engineer a makeshift barbecue. When I went to help and share wine, I found her lighting charcoal whilst suffering our first encounter with midges.
An example attack on an island further north…
My oily skin and blood-warm pate are an irresistible lure to all biting insects, let alone the insatiable midge. I couldn’t cope and retreated inside to rub cumin into lamb. Which reminds me:
Soon, we were inside with the fire, eating char-grilled lamb steaks, halloumi, fresh made flat-breads, salad and red wine. Outside the window, highland cattle and deer crossed the bridge over the Lussa river and began to mooch around in front of the house. J and Rob surveyed the map to decide what we should do the next day. We would go to Ardlussa Bay.
To get there, we walked back along the one road and through the Ardlussa estate. There were ancient stone outbuildings still in use, an open double door revealing a beautifully organised collection of tools and an alcove containing at least a hundred empty bottles of Jura whiskey. We brought a picnic with us, Rob had his Kindle, and I carried the beach casting rod I’d bought recently in Cornwall. The owner of the tackle shop there had promised me a lesson off Pendennis Point, Falmouth, but never showed. In the forty minutes I was in his shop, he had drawn for me some guides of how to set a line. Today, it was to be float fishing.
The sea at Ardlussa Bay is clear, you can easily follow occasional ribbons of seaweed-drifts to their roots in the shingle. After a while sitting, smoking, reading, Rob waded into the bay and swam eastward to a ridge of rocks four hundred yards away. There was a steady cross current, he made gradual progress. About twenty minutes later, he climbed out onto the rocks and was surprised when we pointed out several quite deep lacerations on his body, no doubt inflicted by the sharp shelving of the outcrop.
When we had first got to the bay, J and I ambled about, digging among the tiny pebbles, crab elements and sea-smoothed coal. I remember being acutely conscious that beach-combing should be a singular pursuit, yet J’s movements, always somehow in my periphery, beckoned me; today, I just wanted to be close to her. I found a small black rectangular stone with an exact white X across one of its faces. I gave it to her. We sat gently for some minutes before I headed around the north edge of the bay to find a fishing spot on a spit of rock that curved around the headland. The bay was fringed with yellow iris and tufts of marram that gave way to saturated grass as I walked upwards onto a sloping chase. There was a large paper target nailed to a wooden frame, splintered with rifle fire. I ducked behind and made my way through a narrow band of firs into dense rhododendron thicket. I plunged inside, rod in hand, threading myself ever deeper into a diabolical network of stone-hard rhododendron branches. I knew the others were expecting me to emerge onto the headland, and so pushed inwards toward what I knew would soon be the edge of a cliff. The trouble was, I had no idea where it would be, such was the density of the strange, semi-tropical foliage. I felt like Laocoon, hung in a three-dimensional game of Twister.
The leathery leaves thickened above me and blocked out the sun, my foot slipped and I dropped about ten feet directly down. Somehow, the rod stayed intact, but it was clear that I was now very much snared in this unnerving place. I was in the foundations of an old croft that must have stood on the coast here a hundred years ago. One of the walls remained, but the rest was granite-rubble, utterly subsumed within the monstrous organism. I felt very alone. Rob and J could only have been a quarter of a mile away, but I was by no means sure I’d be able to extract myself. I peered out at the sea through a tunnel of forked boughs; there, a few hundred yards out from the cliff, a small herd of seals were sunning themselves on a rock. The others had to see. There was no way I was staying here. I javelin-ed the rod through a gap above me and lunged upwards. I caught hold of a snaking limb, swung myself into the canopy, and painstakingly spider-ed my way through the endless loops. I was the end of a knotted piece of string, being drawn through one bight after another. After I finally escaped and stood in fresher air, I realised I had utterly lost my sense of time. I could have been fifteen minutes or an hour in that gloom. Looking back, the experience was uncannily like a recurring dream I used to have as a child. I was in the cellars of some vast industrial space. It was always dim and claustrophobic, there were innumerable hot water pipes and ducting, giant cogs smeared with grease, a cement floor and the faint humming of unseen machinery. I can’t have had this dream for at least twenty years but, back then, it would revisit me at least once every few weeks.
I walked back to the bay. J caught sight of me and strode to meet me. She didn’t know how glad I was to see her, how the sight of her gave me heart. We hugged. I probably pressed my face into the hollow above her clavicle. I told her about the seals and we decided to get to where we could view them by edging around the base of the cliffs. We managed this easily, I used the rod like a tightrope walker’s pole to balance along some of the sheer edges. We rounded a small inlet, then found we could peer across at the islets in the water. There they were, the herd of seals, still basking. It was clear the tide was rising and that soon they would be buoyed away. We skipped along the spit of land that narrowed into lively waves. After initially attaching my reel upside-down, I made ready for my first cast into Scottish waters.
I flicked the rod behind me, and flung it forward. The ball weight smacked miserably into the sea barely five metres from where I stood. Even worse, my line unspooled into wild coils that sprung rapidly outward, becoming instantly knotted. I was silently furious, embarrassed. I had a white and blue nautical shirt on, my best hat, decent kit- I looked the part. But now it was clear, I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. J came over, wordlessly. Her fingers deftly reordered the wire and wound it back around the reel, her fine hair brushed my face as the wind blew, calming me. Her hair and the line became, for a moment, indistinguishable. I cast again. This time, the float caught in the seaweed at the base of the rocks. J knelt and extricated it. Rob arrived from his swim, we marveled at his cuts, his endurance of the cold. While they both went to watch the seals, I cast again and again. I gradually improved, learning the gearing of the reel, which position to keep the bale in. My casts eventually reached about thirty yards. I caught nothing. When the seals were evicted from their rock by the tide, we made our way back around the edge of the shore. I swam out into the middle of the bay, taking in the amphitheatre of land about us. My head bobbed on the surface the way a seal’s does. I watched J curled on a rock in the sun, Rob had a cigarette. Time stalled a little. I returned to the shore, dried myself and lay against J’s warmth, anchored.
We walked a mile or so north on the road towards Lealt. There was a small cairn on a rise at the road’s edge. J observed: That is the least impressive cairn I’ve ever seen, it’s more like an elephant turd. The air became humid, the flora about us seemed to vary, as if we passed through shifting hemispheres. There were huge ferns, then weathered beeches; deforested slopes of burnt trees, then dense woods; moments of moorland and swift burns; countless mushrooms: slippery jacks, false chanterelles, an orange boletus. There were huge dragonflies. We turned back after admiring the coastline from a crumbling vantage point. Just before we descended to Inverlussa, we watched a herd of Whiteface Woodland sheep grazing. One particular sheep with jester-like, asymmetrical horns wandered across to a neighbour and pissed liberally on its head. Rob named him Crumplehorn and headed home.
From Feolin, we drove around the southern edge of the island, eyes scouring the moors and coastline for the Jura-ness of this new place. Something dark and sinuous sprang across the road, none of us knew what it was. Young pheasants were scrutinized lest they be something more highland– ptarmigan, grouse, perhaps. We eased down the road into Craighouse as the sun finally began to fall. We had travelled around 513 miles.
Camping is free on the lawn beside the sea in front of the Jura Hotel. In the grainy light, we pitched our tents.
J had understood the depth of my hanger earlier, and had phoned ahead to have food prepared at the hotel before the kitchen closed. I love her in many ways, but when she makes food happen in times of need, the feeling becomes something religious.
Once our duvets were stowed in the tents, we entered the hotel amidst a wedding party. A live band began. We sat exhausted in a bay window and ate chicken and potatoes, lentil bake, ales and Jura whiskey. Slainte. Thank god.
Simple, nourishing food and strong drink had us soon heading back out into a soft night of gentle drizzle. We zipped ourselves into our tents and lay down. The sound of the wedding singer’s Mick Hucknell-esque vocals, and a strangely arhythmic drummer soon faded as we fell into heavy slumber.
Morning came gently, its light filtered through the opaqueness of my tent. I lay cossetted beneath a billowing white duvet, skin against J’s. I drank water and unzipped the door.
I stepped heavily on dewy grass, unsteady and unbalanced from yesterday’s journey. On the pebbled shore, I left my towel and slowly walked into the pure, cool sea of Small Isles Bay.
We breakfasted in the hotel (we were late, made do with tea and bacon butties), left the tents until later, walked out of Craighouse and onto the moor. Along the road, we passed a paradox that Rob, being a collector of odd signs, could not resist.
We passed one of the warehouses where the Jura distillery leaves its whiskey to silently mature, the angel’s share drifting out through the timbered walls, lost on the wind. The yard was stacked with hundreds of empty casks. We left the road and entered the dark margin of a small pine wood where many of the trees were toppled, unable to support themselves in the wet ground.. Moving forward was tricky, we leapt criss-crossing channels of peaty water, scampered low beneath the spiny branches. The dark, resin rich floor was strewn with red mushrooms, many of them Russula emetica, The Sickener.
A sudden rainstorm met us when we ducked out from the fringe of pines. Deer spotted us at a thousand yards and moved deftly upwards. Our initiation into true bog lay between us and the small waterfall we were heading for. In bog, each footstep must be carefully considered for potential stability and tactical advantage. Once committed, a footstep should be continually monitored in order to assess the extent to which it has sunken into the bog, and/or is becoming rapidly flooded. Should this occur, the appropriate action must be immediately taken: either leap maniacally away like a Gaelic dancer under fire, or sink heroically, ignoring the creeping ooze entering your shoe. We each opted for both of these many times.
A cross-section of bog:
The rain passed over quickly and we meandered over the moor, following the line of least saturation. We discovered bilberries to eat amongst the heather, and set to picking the hidden ripe ones that had eluded the deer. This was the view from the waterfall
I lead the way upwards on terrain that was less waterlogged and becoming springy with small, rotund accumulations of moss. As we neared the top of Brat Bhein, a sudden heavy rainstorm blew down on us, forcing us to scatter and take cover in the leeside of the hill. It was like being behind a waterfall, but cossetted in a gentle fold of the hill within waterproofs, while fierce rain struck the hillside, inches from my face. Again, it soon passed and we gathered together by the triangulation point at 309m. We weren’t bothered to reach the summit, the glinting loch below was calling.
I bounded off, plunging down into ferns and heather, soon reaching the shore of Loch a ‘Bhaile – Mhargaidh.
The Ordnance Survey map of Jura had been on my bedroom wall for over three years. The sensation of now being in it overwhelmed me many times in the course of the week. On the scant occasions where we are exactly where we want to be, the desire to inhabit the moments entirely can feel almost desperate,
Time passes. Listen. Time passes.
Rob and J joined me, we sat and picnicked there, wavelets breaking at our feet, a wind of heather scent and clarity passed over us and upwards. Something animal showed in the shallows, I took off my shoes and waded in. A deer antler under the water, one of countless shed yearly by one of Jura’s more than eight thousand red deer. I would have kept it, but there was a visceral, jellyed sinew still attached to its base. I cast it away. Rob suggested we skirt the edge of the loch, rather than climb up and around. We coastered, then, laughing, slipping, occasionally dunking our feet around the eastern edge of the water. At its far end, the loch met a man-made wall with a low channel made for letting the loch’s overflow fall downhill as a stream. We skipped across, sipped a little coffee and began our journey back.
We had tea in the Jura tea room, went back to the field in front of the hotel and took down our tents. I drove out of Craighouse onto the only road on the island towards Inverlussa.
It’s been twelve days since I returned. For that whole time I have been carrying clear, watery, scented thoughts and experience, both tranquil and strained, like casks of fresh water in a boat at sea.
Nearly every day I have felt that I must try and open the sluice on what Jura is, and how it is to be transported to a place so empty of humans, so beautiful and so full of what exists when we are not dominating. How it was to go there with the one who is more beautiful than anything, who it showed me to be, and what it showed me about how fragile life is, I am, we are.
My son’s godfather, Rob, got to Bristol on the Friday evening and we drove to Jura the following morning, Saturday, 17th August. It took us around four hours to get to Glasgow. We listened to Rob’s choices of music initially. I particularly remember liking the singing of The Dirty Projectors. I swapped the driving with J, and nodded off as we passed through the drama of the Lake district, (http://www.visitcumbria.com/m6/).
I woke in Scotland, about forty five minutes south of Glasgow, gradually getting more and more excited about returning to the city I’d spend my first year of Uni at (in 1994). The architecture of Glasgow, particularly through Ibrox, Partick to the West End is comprised of tenement blocks and grand avenues, long faded. The pubs along the main road through Partick were all of a type entirely foreign to this car full of comfortable southerners: hollow, faded dives behind peeling wooden frontings; dark, drear, almost empty grog holes that promised piss-saturated urinals and a punch in the mouth. We stopped near the University. We walked up Byers Road, and I had the uncanny experience of being in a place I both knew and did not.
It felt incredible to be on Byers Road. There was an incredible fishmonger- we had an oyster each for lunch that was like a sudden dunking in the Irish Sea; my mouth, startled by the restorative, was invigorated with the raw mineral essence of the ocean.
We bought enough fine food and wine for five days and headed out towards Loch Lomand.
From this point onwards, Scotland firmly impressed upon us its magnificence, unambiguous and awe-inspiring gravitas and beauty. It had seemed a land of broad moorland, sinuous hills and a brazen city but now deep, granite-strewn valleys, mountain after mountain, rivers and lochs of impossible strangeness were steadily revealed. We followed the road for three hours, far from Glasgow, along the northern coast of Loch Tarbert. We stopped in rain at Inverary
then drove briskly to our ferry at Kennacraig.
We joined the small queue of cars and watched the ferry docking. Its black maw split in two from an invisible seam, its serene demeanor altered; Rob said it looked like a transformer and proceeded to voice its actions:
Start your engines. Board me.
The voyage was gentle and mesmeric. We sailed through the middle of west Loch Tarbert, watching the occasional log cabin or laird’s castle drift by. Mistaking perspective and scale, we assumed the Isle of Gigha to be both Islay and Jura in the very distance. When Islay became apparent, it was through the fore windows of the modest cafe, and it was a fine sight. We stood on deck as the ferry turned in towards dock at Port Ellen. I hadn’t eaten properly and I was overcome by a badly timed sulk: hangry. I noticed but was unmoved by the waning sun streaming across the hills and water
the beautiful lighthouse and the white facade of the Port Ellen Maltings. As we disembarked, a woman sounded her horn accidentally with colossal, pendulous breasts. We left most of the cars behind at Port Ellen, and drove out into a landscape of bog, moor and distant mountains. Near Islay airport, there were pool-sized trenches cut into the land, plastic bags of the harvested peat stacked alongside.
We had started out from Bristol just after eight o’clock and now, as the sun was starting to set, we arrived at Port Askaig for our five minute ferry to Feolin, Jura. It was waiting for us. We chugged out into the fast running currents of the Sound of Jura, clouds were condensing upon and coldly cascading down the slopes of Beinn a’ Chaolais
Red deer and stags grazed the water’s edge as we drove off the tiny ferry.
After so much pleasure and fulfillment, a day of discovering my own company. I haven’t been out on the motorbike for almost a month and so today, despite heavy clouds and strong winds, I packed, trundled the bike from the back of my house, and went out. After passing through Clifton, Bristol to drop off a broken amp and buy a small watercolour kit and paper, I went against the current of the Avon, under the suspension bridge and left the city by the south road towards Weston-super-Mare. I followed my nose. The bike was smooth and I felt like a child again, swooping and flicking the front round pot-holes and puddles. I eventually ended up in the Mendips, south of Priddy, above Wells, on a hillside above Lower Milton. There was just room enough to park the motorbike by a stile that lead downwards. I locked the bike up and mounted the stile. Ahead of me, the hill dropped down, bordered by a line of hawthorns along the ridge, and a tunnel of hazels interspersed with tall ashes below. My eyes lifted to the horizon to see the distant Glastonbury Tor gazing back at me.
I walked down, a little awkwardly in motorcycle boots and headed for the trees at the bottom. I could see a stream flashing out from beneath the low canopy, so climbed over a fence alongside and sat against the base of one of a pair of massive ashes that stood alongside the water. This is what I saw:
I lit my smoke and opened my new watercolour kit. It is a Windsor & Newton Sketcher’s Pocket box. Inside, there was an excellent and detailed folded instruction leaflet that I read whilst I smoked, the sound of the stream and nearby sheep increasing my sense that I had found the right place.
The instructions suggested that I begin by sketching an outline. This, I did:
I dipped the seed head of a flowering grass beside me into the stream at my side to wet the paper.
I then applied my first set of washes, left to right, as instructed:
I added in the next few stages of darker washes:
While that deep blot of green mid-left dried, I went for a stroll.
The stream delved down into a cleft that led downhill amongst yet more hazels and ash. I had to dip and clamber through several thickets until a clear path appeared that followed the stream, only deer-prints suggesting any other visitors here. It is an enchanted place, verdant with self-seeded plants at the feet of their mother trees, ripe with the mushroom-like fragrance of ancient boughs decomposing in the cold, moist air. I found a lurid chicken-of-the-wood mushroom to take home and cook:
A black cat appeared from nowhere, slipped across my field of view and disappeared. For a moment, I thought I saw a deer in my periphery and my senses sharpened. They then heightened and my whole spine tingled in caution as the image resolved to this:
A decaying chair. A sinister throne with its ghastly sitter momentarily absent. I leapt across the stream to take some other shots:
The feeling that I got seemed to suggest that now was a good time to leave. I headed directly up the bank
I walked back towards the shadow of the trees, past a rope swing, and added the finishing touches to my first ever concerted attempt at a watercolour. I used the stream to rinse out the palette,
then added what I could to finish the painting: