Being on high

A song of Ascents.
I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; from where shall my help come?
Psalm 121: 1

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On an autumn Saturday just gone with some of my family I walked from Wasdale Head in the English Lake District up, and up, and up. It wasn’t an unusual walk: we followed the ridge from Brackenclose and Lingmell Gill up the ridge to the peak of the same name, then across and up to Scafell Pike, England’s highest top, then across to Broad Crag and Great End before descending via Esk Hause. Nor was the weather unusual: we ascended into clouds as we climbed Lingmell, and were in and out of it until coming down past Sprinkling Tarn.

All in, we spent maybe three or four hours walking around between the tops of things. Paths, especially the drudgy walk up Scafell Pike, were rocky and the green slopes of the lower fells felt a long way away. But what a feeling it was to be so high up! And not only high up, but at the ceiling of England. There are higher places, even in Britain, but the noises of rock on rock on foot; the cawing and popping of what looked like a raven and the occasional dripping of an infant spring seemed to be amplified by the cloud and almost echoing.

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The sun shone brightly on the way home, and had dipped behind Yewbarrow by the time we reached the Wasdale Head Inn. It was stuffed with people and we sat outside, elated and tired. Later we walked back to Brackenclose and could see the headlamps of late finishers heading down the Tourist Track from Scafell in pitch black, with stars and evening chill for company. Lucky us.

Morrissey: Southpaw Grammar

How did Morrissey follow the incomparable Vauxhall & I? This masterpiece, gentle, lyrical and, with its climactic ending, forming what could have been a full stop in fact turned out to be a series of ellipses, and a pause.

The silence was shattered remarkably quickly. First by Boxers, following on lyrically and musically from Vauxhall. Morrissey fans down the front at his concerts have never struck me as the wallflowers they’re painted as, and never seemed to have too much trouble identifying with laddish anti-heroes found in his songs, and the unfortunate pugilist ‘losing in front of your home crowd’ who wishes ‘the ground will open up and take you down’ fitted right in to the cast of characters we meet in Vauxhall like Spring-Heeled Jim and Billy Budd. It was not a stretch to imagine Morrissey enraptured by a night down the front at York Hall. This Morrissey then let rip with another album to echo down the decades.

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A few months later and Southpaw Grammar arrived. Now on RCA/Victor, the first of Morrissey’s nostalgic record label rejuvenations, here was a new record in every sense of the word. I was never more devoted than in 1995 and can still remember getting the record home and putting the first side on. The Teachers Are Afraid Of The Pupils is quite unlike any song ever recorded, 11 minutes of mildly jarring strings, with Morrissey siding with teachers struggling with classroom anarchy. A long way from his cathartic character assassinations of his own teachers, this felt like an older man looking at what he sees – or thinks he sees – and shuddering. Oddly, it felt in tune with my own feelings of school: the teachers are trying, and they’re alright. It’s your fellow students you’ve got to watch out for. For this song alone this album is unmissable.

Follow that? Two songs that sound like singles, if not terribly strong ones. Reader Meets Author and The Boy Racer. The latter sounds tame on record but live at Ilford and Battersea Power Station (Moz lamented on stage ‘Yes I thought it would be inside the power station too’ as he sung from inside a large tent next door) it rocked very hard indeed. I don’t think The Operation was performed at either of these shows, nor at any Morrissey concert I’ve been too, which is a shame as it shows of Spencer Cobrin’s drumming in a lengthy solo, followed by another fight song, roaring along like something off Your Arsenal.

You fight with your right hand
And caress with your left hand
Everyone I know is sick to the tattoo of you

The ‘you – oo-ooo’ later in the song is a classic vocal growl. Like Black-Eyed Susan, the beautiful and strange song that surfaced as a b-side to Sunny, this song is a pretty bold experimental mix. When I listen to it now I’m struck by how well it works, and can understand Morrissey’s frustration at the lack of credit Boz Boorer and Alain Whyte as songwriters. Then again, everyone else’s loss, like anything to do with Morrissey’s solo career. I do wish he’d play it live though, mainly for the mosh the end section of the song would have engineered. Some of his later solo shows would be considerably livened up by a bash at this rather than another Smiths rehash. The Operation is another long song (6.52) that doesn’t feel long.

Side Two dawns with Dagenham Dave, which though not one of his best singles, has a brilliant video - especially where Dave replaces the names of ladies in his life with ‘Moz’. The video finishes with Dave himself smashing a gold disc, which looks like Vauxhall & I. You could write a book about that video alone, and the man himself looks highly dishy in it.

Do Your Best And Don’t Worry is another rocker, with Alain’s backing vocals keeping things perky. It’s a bit turgid compared to other things on here but works with the album, though Moz sounds a little non-committal.

I don’t really have much interest in the minutiae of Morrissey’s personal life, so The Best Friend on the Payroll’s references are lost on me but, again, the backing vocals are amazing. That it was played in concert a decade later says something about how good it is, and how lost it got in all the other stuff rumbling around Morrissey in the press at this time. In a more sensible era this song, and this album, sounds fantastic.

The closing song, Southpaw goes back to Boxers territory. I’m not sure the whole album is about boxing, but much of it is about violence and laddishness and society’s stereotyping of young, often very sensitive males. Like here:

A sick boy should be treated, so easily defeated
So you ran with your pals in the sun
You turned around, you were alone

While Speedway sounded like the end of a career as well as an album, finishing with Southpaw is something of a tease. Ten minutes of instrumental, after the vocals have warned ‘There is something that you should know, the girl of your dreams is sad and alone…’ ducks back into Strangeways territory, leaving questions hanging in the air.

This album was not followed by more of the same. Or was it? Sunny, then a period of silence, then Maladjusted, with it storming title track and the brilliant Satan Rejected My Soul, but like the anaemic cover of the album there was a lot missing. This left quieter evenings to fill with visits back to the England painted by Southpaw Grammar: tough, exciting, unforgiving, but fragile.

Two swims in Wastwater

Growing up in a family with a serious Lake District obsession means that Wastwater is a near-mythical body of water. England’s deepest body of water was, and is, inevitably reached after a mammoth journey, and like nowhere else signals that you’re in the deepest of Albion’s mountain territory. Beyond here is remote Wasdale Head, and all around are great sentries of green peaks: Great Gable, Lingmell, and the two tops of the Scafell Massif.

The lake itself is no mere decoration. On Friday I did something I’d been thinking about for some time. From the warm comforts of the Brackenclose, the Fell & Rock Climbing Club hut that stands sentry at the foot of the tourist track up Scafell Pike, I strolled down to the lake shore. There are a choice of entries – a grassy slope over towards Wasdale Head Hall Farm, a rocky beach where the Mosedale Beck flows into the lake. I went for somewhere in between after hopping a gate which led to the water.

The sun was, after an afternoon of rain, shining straight down the lake, turning a strip of the surface yellow. Swimming into the sun like this is intense and thrilling. Perhaps buoyed by the excitement, the dark water wasn’t as cold as I’d expected. Still gasp-inducing, still exhilaratingly cold, but soft, deep and lovely to splash about in.

Flipping on to my back the magnificent cathedral of rock that is the Wasdale Valley came into view. I barely had to move my head to take in Yewbarrow, Great Gable, Lingmell and Scafell Pike. Turning again, I swam into the golden sun briefly, then clambered out.

After two days on the hills, climbing some of the tops I’d gazed at from the water and exploring Mosedale Valley in bright sunshine, I walked down the track again on Sunday afternoon. A bright morning had passed, and the sun that had shone on the screes on the southern slopes of Illgill Head had just popped behind the now-glowering cloud. No matter. Time for another dip.

This time I didn’t enter the water with anything approaching grace, more slipping on some rocks and ending up half-crawling until at swimming depth. Strange and different: the water felt much colder, more like a winter swim than the late-summer fun I’d had 48 hours before. This means you can feel yourself getting colder as you swim, and swear a lot. My father-in-law’s suggestion of fifty strokes out and back, whatever the temperature was duly completed, and I walked fast and shivering back to the Brackenclose open fire.

Swimming in the Lake District is shake inducing and breathtaking: pack your trunks and join in the excitement.

Going to a record shop and buying some records

‘The Joy brings you many things
It does not bring you joy’

The opening lines of Morrissey’s ‘Mountjoy’, the penultimate track on mighty ‘World Peace is None of Your Business’ long-player suggest a place, real or imagined, that cannot possibly make the visitor happy. As places offering little joy go, online record shops must be close to the ultimate in neutralised comfort.

Yesterday, cut loose in town, I strolled along to Rough Trade in Brick Lane. I’m not much at home in this part of town, its colonisation by the greased moustache and vest brigade making it far more alienating than in the days when it was a place for a half-decent curry Jack the Ripper walk. But Rough Trade itself retains a good stock of vinyl making it worth braving the trendier-than-thou atmosphere of a Saturday afternoon posing.

Some weeks ago, tempted by being busy and picking up Mozzer’s new one for a few quid off I’d ordered from an Amazon reseller that hadn’t turned up. The speed with which they refunded me suggested they hadn’t ever had a copy to pass on. Two-click purchase, dry and unsatisfying, followed by silence, waiting and eventually nothing.

The alternative was glorious. In the shop I met that curious chap, the teenage me, mildly overexcited to be surrounded by records, flicking through Smiths albums although I’ve had them all for nearly two decades. We both grabbed what we were looking for and then headed to the counter, pausing only to add something improbably esoteric to the pile before exiting, poor in pocket but rich in spirit.

That vinyl is now turning in front of me as I write this, the needle riding the grooves and playing layer upon layer of lovely sound. And then the stylus swings into the centre and turns in silence, and I mustn’t forget to turn it off.

European Rail Timetable: the stuff travel dreams are made of

The digital world may dominate how we plan and book travel, but real things still make for the best inspiration.

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Take the European Rail Timetable, the reborn monthly publication brought back to life by ‘the former compilers of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable’, or the wise old heads of European train travel as we should probably call them.

This wondrous tome is, apart from the Thomas Cook branding, unchanged since my first forays on the continent’s railways in the early 1990s, and probably for decades before that. The cover remains Leyton Orient red, the paper thin, the print on the timetables small. Each table is packed with symbols to make Dan Brown salivate, and with surprising ease and elegance in the presentation of information a lifetime’s potential journeying around Europe slowly unfolds. Should you wish to detain your dinner guests in a newly-decorated toilet I suggest leaving a copy in there, as my father does.

Looking through the August 2014 edition there’s the reassuringly familiar order to the book: news first. Seasonal services, easier links between northern Sweden and Finland, storm damage to tracks in Montenegro. The high-speed service in Turkey has still not fully started. Then the all-important index, city maps and then country-by-country routes. It’s not fully comprehensive, but then how could a 600-page guide cover all of Europe, but there’s everything you need. If you’re heading somewhere without trains like Iceland, once the timetable has gently chided your chosen destination for not having rail services principal bus lines are noted. There’s even some coverage beyond Europe, varying continental focus on a rolling basis and making a subscription well worthwhile.

Here are five highlights of this edition that got my feet itching, how about you?

1. A car-carrying train from ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands to Koper, Slovenia. Car plus you and your family sped across Europe in classic vehicle-on-vehicle action, with the added excitement of a sleeper journey thrown in. Your kids would love it.

2.Luleå to Narvik across the roof of Sweden. The train leaves Luleå at 0553, when the Arctic will be alight, but asleep.

3. Nice to Moscow/Moskva. Nice, the heart of the glitzy, sunny south of France to brooding Moscow via Austria, Czech Republic, Poland and Belarus. The heart flutters just thinking about it.

4. Then why not cross Moscow from Belorusskaya station to Kiyevskaya and roll to Ukraine and Bucharest, from where one can connect through Bulgaria to Istanbul? Double-headed eagles of Byzantium all round.

5. Ferries: Barcelona to Tanjah (Tangiers, Orlando) and Hirtshals (Denmark) to Torshavn (Faroe Islands) and, if you’re very lucky, Seydisfjördur in Iceland. Zoinks, what a trip.

Europe is best seen slowly, and best from a train. The pages of the European Rail Timetable make for very satisfying series of ‘what ifs’ and no travel library is complete without several copies, preferably used on the road.

The White Rose Classic – a high time in England’s high lands.

29 June 2014

Only a few hours on from this remarkable ride and things are still coming back to me.

Parts of yesterday were played out in excruciating pain, with cramping quads and calves, aching shoulders and the feeling that my head was going to burst.

Parts of it were grinding, steep climbs that made a joke of cycling being a fast way to get anywhere, followed by swift, terrifying, exhilarating descents.

Some parts were fun.

Climbing slowly over Langbar. At least the bike looks good.

Climbing slowly over Langbar. At least the bike looks good.

The White Rose Classic is not, then, a ride to be taken lightly.

I arrived full of beans from what I thought was a pretty good training programme after a string ride in the 85-mile Tour of Flanders in April. I’d also heaved a 31kg tent home on the tube from Central London on Friday and done more heavy lifting on Saturday.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be overly surprised, more than anything, that I hit an upper limit of performance somewhere along this route. 3000m of climbing is 1.5 Mount Ventoux’s, the fearsome Provencal giant that repels ill-thought approaches. Yesterday the cuddly-sounding Yorkshire Dales threatened at several times to spit me out and had me seriously contemplating abandonment.

Yet I didn’t, so hurrah for the human body. Bravo to knackered 37-year-old muscles and in particular to the stubborn streak that keeps legs turning when things feel lost.

What’s most memorable about the ride? A few things. Mainly the climbs, not Alpine but steep, stubborn rakes that don’t seem to like you very much. Fleet Moss is home to Yorkshire’s highest road and provoked considerable argument from quads and calves. That I made it over without trouble lulled me into a false sense of security and I didn’t do what I saw others doing at the Hawes feed station: swilling energy drinks in a quest for electrolyte fuel.

Somewhere outside Hawes a thick fog descended in my head. I pulled off the road for a stretch, trying to rid myself of increasingly painful cramp and trying not to panic. By the next climb – the Coal Road – I was gobsmacked to find myself pulling up with shooting pain, walking for a few metres, then falling off when trying to remount. I got going again, still at the base of the climb only with considerable dull-headed stubbornness, and have no recollection at all of the brief descent before Garsdale Head or that climb itself. The view down into the next valley was jaw-dropping enough to jolt me awake. I definitely got a kick out of the descent towards Ribblehead.

Around here the fog clears and I went from counting each pedal revolution to feeling like I was a certain finisher. Just as well as I was only just over halfway at this point. I can’t really make sense of this section of the ride as it seemed to take place in my head. I was certainly glad to leave it behind. By the time we reached Settle I was bristling for a scrap with the steep hellingen I’d lost to on my last ride round here, and summitted noisily, yelling something that may have sounded like encouragement to those around me also puffing their way to the top.

It was from here a small matter of getting back to Ilkley in a decent time. That I did, but the middle section wiped out the sense of joy I have had after other long rides. I was glad it was over, even if now I’m starting to feel some pride at making it both in the immediate circumstances and given the challenges of training for such a ride right now.

As ever, at the finish fellow riders got stuck into beer and swapped stories, while I rode quietly away. I’m more certain than ever of the beauty of the Dales and that a bike is the best way to see them, and also have a funny feeling that I’m not done with the White Rose Classic.

*Update: revisiting this piece after a week I have a greater sense of achievement than at the time, and possibly less inclination to sign up again. Though I can feel that passing too.*

24th May swim

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Almost twenty-four hours later and the thought remains of sky, cloud, sun and water. Sometimes the pond is gentle, green water and quiet. Last night it shouted “ELEMENTAL!” in a way that I can’t quite imagine ever being able to forget. To think, the drive over was in a storm so thick I struggled to see, and I was expecting water, on water, in water.

As I arrived the last drips fell, and I walked along the jetty in some haste, but the sun soon blew out from behind a dark grey cloud and poured through the trees, defying me, the lone swimmer late on Saturday to look at anything else. As I rounded the final turn it was shining straight at me, setting the water alight with bright yellow beams.

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I duck-dived down, swam along underneath for as long as I dared, then surfaced, blinded and reborn. How people used to worship the sun! Scrambling out, I could not resist more, traversing the open water in unusual directions, routine out of the window. Eventually I got out, cold and chilled further by the evening air. I stayed cold all night but somehow have held on the elation, partly because I am now in Yorkshire and close enough to the Lakes to reach out and touch them, smell the air, dream of the walls, fields and streams. And the thought that in life there are endless streams to find and bathe in and mountains to march up thrills like that stream of golden light, last night.

25 May 2014, en route to the Lake District