The Pennine Way – Day 3 (Standedge to the Calder Valley)

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1 – Day 3 of the Pennine Way took us from Standedge to the Calder Valley and Hebden Bridge. The walk started comfortably, with lots of gentle moorland and some great views, although less epic than on the previous two days. This was also a more urban section of the walk, withseveral roads to cross and Rochdale in the distance for a large chunk.

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2 – At some point on our third night on the trail, we had travelled for as long as the fastest person had completed the route. Apparently, the record for the entire Pennine Way is a shocking 2 days 17 hours.

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3 – The cairns were one of my favourite features of the route. With the stone paths, navigation along the Pennine Way is less ambiguous than it once was. The cairns are now mostly ornamental, but they seem incredibly exotic to me, as if from another  time or place.

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4 – We stopped for a snack just after the M62. As we put on our backpacks again,the rain began. We didn’t think it would be too bad but it soon soaked us to the skin. This was a foretaste of what was to come on day 4 – and a lesson to change into rain gear more quickly.

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5 – We passed the Aigin Stone, a marker from an old coaching route. It also lay on the end of a Roman Road. I don’t know enough about these sort of things to tell if this would have been the original stones that legionnaires would have paced, but it still felt stirring to follow ancient footsteps.

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6 – We paused for tea at the White House Pub, which stands beside the A58. It was a lovely, friendly pub and we wished we’d planned for lunch there. Maybe next time I pass.

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7 – One of the most famous recent walks of the Pennine Way was by the poet, Simon Armitage. Apparently one of his poems is etched into the stone beside the path, shortly after the White House. We missed it completely.

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8 – One of the best thing about walking the Way is meeting other travellers. Of those who aren’t doing the route, many have done it in the past, and will reminisce about it. We met a couple of women who’d walked the way then on to Holy Island, and encountered only 10 minutes of wine. They enthused about the Cheviots, as did a man we met on the third day. Years later, he was still blown away by a view of “Hills forever”.

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9 – Off in the distance we caught sight of Stoodley Pike, where we were due to meet Emma and Justin. It felt exciting to be nearing our end. Stoodley Pike is a 37 meter tall monument, originally erected to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon. This caused a Father Dougal-style confusion with perspective, being both very large and far away. We thought we were much closer than we were.

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10 – We had barely sat down at the monument when we were joined by Emma, Justin and Charlie the dog. They escorted us into the valley and I couldn’t help but feel like a hobbit being led down into Rivendell. It was good to have a night staying with friends in the middle of a long journey.

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11 – I’ve been using the Trailblazer map series, which has a clear and detailed description of the route. And, as promised, a short distance from Hebden Bridge we found the Land Rover in the field.

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The North Downs Way Part 2

From back in February, walking on the North Downs way. We continued from Box Hill, along bitter, windy hilltops and across muddy ground. I managed to fall over in the mud. We found a memorial for a tragic plane accident, two wingtips as markers for where the plane came down.

The route had perhaps a little too much motorway, running alongside the M25. I’ve since passed the junctions we walked in my car, and enjoyed thinking back to the walk. Despite somewhat grim weather, there were few other places I’d have wanted to be than on that walk.

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Pennine Way – Day 2

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1 – Day two of the Pennine Way began with a 300 meter climb spread out over two miles in an incredible valley before following Crowden Great Brook towards Black Hill.

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2 – The day’s walk was just eleven miles, but the many climbs on top of the previous day’s strain meant it took quite a toll. I thought I was used to hiking, but this wore me out.

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3 – We were very lucky with the weather. It was drizzly and windy, but not too unpleasant. Some of the paths ran very close to the edge of tall drops – in windier weather I could imagine this being quite dangerous. But a quick google turns up few reports of people who’ve been hurt on this trail.

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4 – Having done several national trails now, one of the things that fascinates me is that each path has its own language. Or maybe its own voice. The South Downs Way could probably be followed without a map, since there are so many way markers and other walkers. The Limestone Way was incredibly difficult to follow, with the markers disappearing completely once I entered Staffordshire. The Pennine way is an interesting mix of obvious paths and places that rely on the map. When you reach a paved section in the middle of wilderness, it feels like the return of an old friend. Sometimes the path seems tiny, only the barest thread to lead you forward.

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5 – On this stage, Emley Moor Mast became visible in the distance. A huge concrete structure, its twice the height of Brighton’s i360.

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6 – Just before two we reached the A635 where we found Snoopy’s Snack Van. We ordered cups of tea and sat on plastic chairs out of the wind, chatting with a couple of other hikers. I tried one of the egg sandwiches, but the cooking facilities weren’t veggie friendly. I couldn’t finish the food, but the tea tasted amazing.

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7 – One of my favourite things about the Pennine Way is the communication. I’d read about this in Emily’s account of the Coast-to-Coast path. It doesn’t happen so much on the South Downs Way, since the density of walkers is less and people are less chatty. On the Pennine Way people were more up for a chat. That day, a man was walking the route from Edale to Hebden Bridge in a single day, having set off at 4am. Somewhere in the distance was a woman who’d come from Melbourne Australia to walk the trail. I guess some of the people in our wake would have been told about us.

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8 – We found a frame looking out on a view, which reminded me of Claude Glasses, used as a means of viewing landscapes in the 18th century. The idea was you looked through them and found a perfect image, like a painting. The Framing the Landscape project is by Ashley Jackson.

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9 – On this stage and the following day, we passed a series of reservoirs. Near the snack wagon had stood a couple of gateposts, all that remained of the Isle of Skye hotel. It was demolished when the reservoirs were made, because it was thought it would pollute the water supply.

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10 – The Carriage House was a great place to stay – comfortable and relaxed. And it had a bath! We ate an early supper then went to our rooms and fell asleep. The Pennine Way had worn us out.

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Pennine Way – Day 1

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1 – The Pennine Way is 268 miles long, running from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland. On Friday I set out to walk the first 52 miles with Dave, my brother-in-law.

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2 – The Pennine Way was Britain’s first national trail, originally suggested in 1935 by the journalist Tom Stephenson. An American wrote into his newspaper column asking if Britain had anything like the Appalachian trail. Stephenson said there wasn’t, but suggested a possible route, and worked to make this official. The path was formally opened in April 1965, thirty years later. The success of the Pennine Way has led to other trails being opened around the country.

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3 – Despite managing to live out of a single bag for months when travelling, I made a huge mess of packing for this trip. I sorted my things in Derbyshire, at Dave & Liz’s house, and realised I’d forgotten to pack appropriate trousers. Walking the Pennine Way in suit trousers seemed a poor idea, requiring a late-night drive to Tesco’s to buy better attire.

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4 – The route begins at Edale, close to Castleton, the start of the Limestone Trail (which I walked in April). After walking the South Downs, North Downs and Limestone Ways recently, I’d grown complacent. Fortunately I read the Rambling Man guide a few days before and realised I needed to prepare a little better than usual. The maps I bought came in very useful.

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5 – We stopped at a cafe to buy hot drinks in Edale before setting out. We considered food – I fancied a breakfast roll. Dave wanted a sandwich from the lunch menu. They would sell us the latter to take away, but only on condition we didn’t eat it on the premises – they were still on the breakfast menu. There were just two other people in the restaurant. I wondered what disaster or misfortune had led to such a strict policy.

(The sandwiches we brought were tasty though, probably the best packed lunch we had on the trail. The bread was unlike any I’d had before, the surface of the roll tearing like paper)

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6 – It’s quickly apparent that the Pennine Way is not fucking around. After a gentle rise to warm up, the path reaches Jacob’s Ladder, a long stone stairway. At the top of this we were among the clouds, with little visibility. The path across Kinder Downfall ran beside a long drop. And the descent to the Snake Inn turn-off was hard work, with steep slippy rocks. The Pennine Way is a health-and-safety nightmare. It compensates for this with some of the most incredible views I have ever seen.

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7 – Apparently Wainwright hated this path, with its bogs and difficult navigation. With the addition of paving stones, the route across the bogs on the first day has become much easier. These provide both navigation and a trustworthy walking surface. Apparently some people have complained that they make the route too easy. Personally, I was very glad of them.

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8 – Day 1 included some interesting places. We passed through Kinder Scout, site of the 1932 mass trespass. Although it was a little way off the path, we passed near to the crashed bomber on Bleaklow that I visited a couple of years back. We also passed through the narrow twisting route of “Devil’s Dike” (sic). All the high points were wreathed in mist, sometimes with very little visibility.

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9 – The pace of the Pennine Way is defined by the availability of accomodation. There are long periods without any buildings or shelter. Indeed, we could go hours without seeing anyone.  The first stage is 16 miles to reach the Crowden Valley, where we’d booked into Crowden’s only B&B (other options were a short car journey from the trail). For £3 the B&B owner drove us to the Peels Arms where we had a surprisingly good meal

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10 – By the time we reached Clough Edge, the weather had turned sunny, and we had a beautiful descent to Crowden. Dave was adopted by a tame lamb, which followed us through the fence. Eventually he had to walk to the wall and climb over, leaving the lamb on the other side, jumping and bleating.

The first day was a hard walk, but I already knew I was going to love this trail.

A book about Chalk

Paul Cornell’s recent novel Chalk is about abuse and folklore and the magic of pop-music. It’s the sort of book that burrows deep into my obsessions (one of its reference points is the Long Man of Wilmington). There’s a lot I can say about this book, and the conversations I’d have in person are very different to what I’d write in a blog post. It’s a book of complicated thoughts and feels.

I heard of the book through an interview with John Scalzi. It proved as shocking as Cornell warned – the incident at the start of the book, which triggers what follows, is very hard to read.

The book contains powerful chains of symbols – chalk outlines, downlands, pre-Roman Britain. There are the tarot suits scattered throughout the story – are the snooker cues wands, the knife a sword? Chalk turns up in different forms, not least on the snooker clues.

Cornell described the book as being about narrative, and the character of Angie has her own form of magic, very different to the narrator’s. The idea of pop music as magic seem familiar from Kieron Gillen’s Phonogram universe, but Cornell’s take on the idea is fresh. It’s a magic of lyrics, where the record at number one tells you what is coming in the future. Bananarama becomes a sort of triple goddess of young one, serious one and leader, but “They’re missing someone. There should really be a secret fourth member, or one we only hear about later”. Reference books listing British pop charts provide birth charts.

One thing I particularly liked was the headmaster’s announcement “[School] is a microcosm of the world. We prepare you for your place in it. History has set out a path for you. We lead you along it” – the school here is a world where the narratives compete. The distortions to this world are grounded while having the scale of cosmic horror, again reminiscent of Pratchett – there is a danger of something breaking through.

I’ve spoken mostly about the mythic aspects of the book. There’s also some very good, very raw writing about the effects of bullying and abuse, about the way in which these things persist in the world. The ending is the right one, true to the book, but it’s far from the one I wanted. But that’s the sort of discussion that works better in person than in books.

Louise said there was chalk in every room now.

The Limestone Way

I spent last weekend walking the Limestone Way. I had a spare couple of days before some work in Derbyshire, so wanted to find a nearby trail. 45 miles was a little longer than was sensible for two days – but I thought I’d do it anyway.

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It was a very different trail to the ones I’m used to, with the ground quite difficult in the first stages. Dad only made a short distance, and it was a good thing I was wearing new walking boots. The weather was also ropy for the first stage but by the afternoon was pretty sunny.

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One thing I’ve noticed is how long trails changes as they cross administrative boundaries. The first part of the Limestone Way was fairly well signposted, although there were a few games of hunt-the-stile. After crossing the River Dove I entered Staffordshire where the signage went to shit. They didn’t even bother marking the trail, just used regular footpath markers. At the end, the route fizzled out even worse than the Downs Link, with no indication it was done. It was almost as if Staffordshire was ashamed of the Way or had a vendetta against walkers. If I’d researched better, I’d have seen the Rambling Man’s account of this issue.

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The stunning scenery made up for all the hassles, my favourite moment being the River Dove valley. Just so much space and green! I’m due to do the start of the Pennine Way next month and I’m very excited about that now.

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This stile was stood on its own in the middle of a field. I have no idea why, but it looked… dangerous. I went around it.

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The first day was about 25 miles, with a couple of miles added on for misdirection. I found the bench shown below just when I needed it most. I stopped, lay down, read for a bit and ate a cookie. I was very grateful for Hilary, in whose name the bench was donated.

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I’m not a big fan of squeeze stiles, which seem to be designed for people with tiny, tiny legs.

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The River Dove valley below. The sort of view that deserves a round of applause.

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This is the trail end. Nothing to mark it, just a post with a single direction marked on it, rather than the two one normally finds on a trail.

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A long weekend

My original plan for this weekend was to attend the Super Weird Happening in Liverpool. But when organising that was proving too complicated I started looking for other things to do. Which led to me spending this weekend walking the Limestone Way.

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The path is 46 miles and the brochure suggests it can be walked in four to five days. As I only had a weekend I decided to walk it in two. The walk was a mix of stunning scenery and appalling signposting. It also would have been better done over three or more days,

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So, I walked 110,000 steps this weekend, and broke the 50 mile barrier thanks to appalling signposting. It was a stupid thing to try, but I learned a lot of lessons – after all, pushing things past their limits shows where they might break. The remaining walks for this year will be much easier.

Facebook and postcards

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I’m not a Facebook-hater. I know its interests aren’t perfectly aligned with mine; but as long as I don’t give it too much time, it’s fine. And I love that it’s kept some friendships going, long after distance or time might have had them dying away.

But Facebook will never be as great as the real world. It’s the same as how downloading an e-book isn’t the same as an Amazon order dropping through your letterbox. A postcard is always more fun than a tweet, whatever new updates Twitter roll out.

I love the postal system. I still like to write letters (and am massively overdue for my next one to Louise Halvardsson). One of the main texts for my (abandoned) PhD was Jacques Derrida’s Post Card. My pretend publishing company is called Postal Press. I await silent Tristero’s Empire. There’s something magic about the mail.

While I love the way Facebook keeps people in touch, it’s a rather passive communication – like a stream of round-robin letters. You can follow someone without really engaging with them. There are even a few people on my friends list that I can’t remember where I know them from. So I thought I would try sending postcards to as many people on my friends list as I can.

(I currently have 573 people on that friends list. This may take some time. And a lot of stamps.)

It will be good to get in touch with old friends. I suspect this will also be an interesting experiment. There’s something transgressive about blurring the online/offline boundaries. I imagine there are people who are happy to be friends on Facebook and don’t want to share their postal address. And, like all experiments, there is the possibility of something unexpected. (But, don’t worry, I’m not planning anything too real, like the woman who tried to visit all her Factbook friends).

Well, I’d best get started. Who wants a postcard?

First Impressions of Virtual Reality

I recently had my first chance to experience virtual reality. I’d played around with Google Cardboard, but the Oculus Touch headset was a whole world away from that. And, as impressive as the visual aspects were (and they were very impressive) the thing that amazed me most was how well the controllers worked, how easily I could interact with virtual objects.

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The first surprise about the two handheld controls was how they were present in both the real and virtual worlds. It’s strange being blindfolded from reality by the headset, but the controls are still visible, their position tracked by the cameras, even when you’re not holding them. Once you pick them up, sensors guess the location of your hands, then render them in the virtual world. I looked down to see my hands replaced with robotic ones. It was an incredible illusion.

The Toybox Demo was amazing. A virtual robot hands you objects which you can grip. The feedback from the sensors when you grasp things is crude, but it works. You feel as if you have a real presence and agency in the imaginary world.

I played the game Robo Recall and was blown away. I was immersed in combat with the robots, nervous about them getting behind me. The techniques for ‘walking’ around the game world were effective, meaning I had a sensation of exploring without having to move in reality (and therefore walk into the table).

There are two downsides to virtual reality. The first is the nausea – not as bad as I’d expected, but I suspect I’d suffer if I played for much longer than half an hour. The other is the cost – about £700 for the kit, and on top of that the cost of a powerful PC. Hopefully the price will fall quickly.

As a child of the 90s, I’ve spent decades being told that virtual reality was the future. I never had a chance to try out those early, cheesy demonstrations, but saw intense VRs represented in comics, books and TVs. The Oculus felt like all those promises were coming true. And, in a nice touch, the makers seem to have adopted  a lot of the signifiers of fictional VR in the Oculus (Japanese architecture, welcoming by female voices, use of infinite white landscapes etc) and that made it seem somehow familiar.

I can’t wait to get a longer chance to play on one of these. And I really want to try out some horror games.

The turning of Brighton’s seasons

Via scribe, I recently read an article on kigo in the modern world. Kigo are the seasonal words and phrases used in Japanese Haiku. As the form has spread across the world, there is a debate over how these concepts translate and whether they are essential to haiku. Many  kigo are local; for its entry on kigo, Wikipedia lists a selection of Southern Californian seasonal images.

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Last night I went for a walk along Brighton seafront. The i360 was dark, as if ashamed of its recent breakdowns. Crueller people, including the BBC, have labelled it ‘faulty tower’. The tide was out, meaning it was possible to walk along the sand. We could have walked among the West Pier ruins, had they not been demolished to make way for the i360.

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Further along the seafront the carousel had been erected ready for the summer season.

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I don’t know exactly when it went up this year – it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve been down this end of the seafront.A few years ago, I performed a piece called Two Towns, about how Brighton was two places, one in summer, another in winter. Brighton can be a depressing place in the cold, but it’s glorious on a sunny day. The return of the Carousel means the year has turned (see also: 2010, 2016).

Last weekend, it was bright enough that I got my first sunburn while I was out hiking. The town is filling up with visitors and the clocks have gone forward, giving everyone a couple of hours between work finishing and dark. While there are people out swimming every day of the year here, it will be soon time for the summer swimmers to join them. It’s good to be in Brighton right now.