The End of the North Downs Way

The final hike on the North Down’s Way was far more interesting than yesterday’s dull section. But, sadly, the trail’s end in Dover is a bit of fiasco.

I’ve been walking this route with Katharine and Romi since January, inspired by the section of it at the start of the Downs Link path. We continued in FebruaryApril and June before finishing this weekend. While weekend walks are easier to schedule than complete hikes, they are hard work. There is a lot of car shuffling and I miss being able to just walk from a B&B onto the trail.

At the start of the walk, it looked like it was going to another trudge through empty fields.

Soon we found ourself walking through some cornfields, which was much more exciting. The sky was cloudy, but the day was warm and dry.

I decided not to use the gate here. Romi claims that this means I didn’t complete the actual North Downs Way.

In this field a cow stood on the path. Katharine and I have had some bad experiences in cattle fields. These cows were quite calm, although passing through was tense.

Just like yesterday, one of the road names appeared to be a metafictional comment on the walk. Five miles to go!

Can you see where the signpost is in the scene below? It took us a while. I’m not sure how many people actual walk the North Downs Way. We met very few people, and some parts of the trail were hard to follow.

On the last few hundred yards, the North Downs Way takes in this scenic car park. Dover is a discordant note at the end of the trail – it’s not a pleasant place to visit.

The end of the trail is almost as bad as the Limestone Way, which concluded with just a one-armed signpost. He we reached the end point in Market Square to find no mention of the trail. We had to google the Rambling Man website to find out that the trail end had moved to the seafront.

We found it in the end, and ate salted caramel icecream on the seashore. Then we had coffee and drove home.

It took a couple of hours to drive home. Along the M25 I passed a section of the walk from February. I’ve enjoyed the project of walking this trail over the last nine months. The question is: what next?

A flat day on the North Downs Way

Every trail tells a story, a sort of narrative. This story depends on the weather, the company, the time of year. It depends on the people you encounter, some of whom share stories about their own journeys on the trail; or about the people ahead of you, who they’ve already met.

Walking the North Downs Way from Chilham to Shepherdwell is not a particularly interesting story.

All trails have sections that are marking time. Sometimes this is forced by roads, other times it’s unavoidable, the dull bits between great views. This section of the North Downs way was a flat and wearisome walk from Canterbury towards Dover.

We started walking the North Downs Way in January, doing a stage every month or two. This weekend is our fifth one on the path, where we will be completing the main part of the route.

The start was promising. The weather was good and the day warm. We passed through a churchyard with a 1300 year old yew tree, killed by falling trees during 1987’s Great Storm.

We passed through orchards full of fat apples where there may have been some scrumping (but not from me). According to Rambling Man, the fruit farm we crossed is the largest in the UK. I was moved to see a grave placed among the trees.

But this section of the walk suffered from missing signs. Even the guidebook didn’t help much, as we kept being sent in the wrong direction. One sign we did find was a road name one doesn’t want to when hiking.

Some of the fields might have been quite interesting to walk if they had crops. Instead we crossed empty flat landscapes, nothing beyond the fields but more flat countryside. Some of the maps were mostly white space.

The middle of our day’s walk took us through Canterbury, where the signs dried up completely. It did allow me a chance to look through some bookshops, but I couldn’t see anything worth carrying for ten miles.

It felt a little strange to have our hike take us through the Saturday afternoon shopping crowds.

We passed through an area or cornfields, pheasants and keep-out signs.

The rest of the day we hardly saw anyone. This is one of the strangest things about the hikes, how few people take advantage of the routes.

Near the end, a pile of litter.

It was well Brexit.

John le Carré Bucket List 2: A Murder of Quality

Yesterday evening I was in Dublin airport, on the way back from a business trip. I had a few books to read (including Naomi Foyle‘s new novel) but I felt jittery and a little burned-out. I needed something light, so instead I settled down to read John le Carré’s second novel, A Murder of Quality.

Similar to the previous book, A Call for the Dead, this is a mystery – although this one has no connection to espionage. A woman in fear of her life contacts a newspaper. The editor calls in George Smiley, a colleague from the war who has now retired. Smiley learns that the woman has since been murdered and sets off to Carne school where he is drawn into the investigation. This recruitment of a retired spy reminded me a little of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The mystery itself isn’t particularly exciting; there’s the obvious suspect, the red herring and the culprit. On the way we get some satirical social comment. The school’s masters are grotesque snobs, unprepared for the changes coming in post-war Britain.

The rigorous social codes and how characters are classified as being the ‘right sort’ or not are terrifying. Arch comments are made about Smiley’s lack of a dinner jacket when invited to supper. One character is admired because “she did such clever things with the same dress”. Smiley doesn’t like this world, but is at home in it.

The most fascinating thing in the book are the descriptions of George Smiley; physically uncharismatic, he induces great love and faith in the people who know him. He is described by one character as “the most forgettable man she had ever met” with clothes “which were costly and unsuitable, for he was clay in the hands of his tailor, who robbed him”. Another character describes him as “Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for. Had a very nasty war. Very nasty indeed.”

We see how traumatised Smiley is by his experiences: “so many men learnt strength during the war, learnt terrible things, and put aside their knowledge with a shudder when it ended.” Despite being very good at his job, Smiley is repelled by this, having “the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin”. He takes little pride in solving the mystery.

I wouldn’t have read this book were I not reading the complete Le Carré. Like 1971’s the Naive and Sentimental Lover, if suffers in comparison to the spy novels – although the tone and ambience are interesting in places. Next up, however, is the Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Twin peaks and the return of storytelling

I loathe exposition in horror stories, where the disturbing events are explained, systematised, and a solution proposed. The strangeness evaporates into a simple battle of good vs evil.

For much of 2017, Twin Peaks Club would meet at mine on Sunday evenings. We watched the original series, Fire Walk with Me, then the 18 episodes of the Return. In the aftermath of Twin Peaks’ final episode, someone announced that they knew nothing would be resolved. I felt there was a definite conclusion, I’m just not sure what it was.

(SPOILERS BELOW)

Since then I’ve read a lot about Twin Peaks, theories based on triplets, pocket universes, the Tempest and more. Every theory I read makes sense, yet contradicts all the others. I think the show is challenging its viewers to make their own myths.

One aspect of The Return is training the audience to be patient, to understand that there will be no easy answers. Deliberately frustrating scenes demonstrated this: the three minutes of silent floor sweeping, the wild goose chase for keys in the first episode. The show also questions the idea of watching TV – for example, with the glass box in New York, or the crowds watching as Carl Rodd (played by Harry Dean Stanton) cradles a dying child.

Everything looks ready for a curtain call in the last episode. Instead we find ourselves suspended from meaning as Cooper drives towards a conclusion. By the end of episode 17 it was obvious what needed to happen – cherry pie, rescuing Audrey, and defeating Judy. We’d even had some clunky exposition from Deputy Director Gordon Cole (played by Director David Lynch) explaining in simple terms what the show was all about, a long-running attempt to defeat an adversary.

The last hour deliberately undercut the idea of Cooper as hero saving a damsel in distress. The harrowing abuse inflicted on Laura Palmer cannot be removed so easily. We’re left with questions.

One of the joys of the new Twin Peaks is discussing these with other fans. Different details are drawn out. It feels like a collaboration, as if we’re all playing at a puzzle. Did Laura Palmer die? Where is Audrey? Are the continuity errors in the recent Twin Peaks book the result of whatever happened in the final episode? Does the White Lodge exist? Which characters in the show are dreaming? Is Sarah Palmer ‘Judy’? Why did the final scene echo this one from Season 2:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Db9to1uazmU

This is not the last thing I’ll write about the show – I’ve made too many notes about too many theories. I can imagine playing with this puzzle for years. I need to rewatch scenes, listening for the Sarah Palmer dialogue supposed to be heard in the last scene. I’m looking forward to the all conversation where we ask ourselves who killed Laura Palmer.

Bad weather or inappropriate clothing?

I have no idea who first said that ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing’. A quick google search suggests Ranulph Fiennes, Alfred Wainwright or Billy Connolly as candidates. I’m going to add myself to this list: there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.

Day three of my last stint on the Pennine Way was a drag. We were about halfway through when it started to rain. We’d just stopped for lunch and were sure it was going to pass; and putting on the waterproofs seemed like a hassle. The Rambling man website describes this well:

When you’re out in the countryside and the heavens open the last thing you want to do to is undo your boot laces, remove your footwear and struggle into the trousers, then put your boots back on again, often whilst desperately trying not to fall over into the large pile of mud that you suddenly realise is right behind you.

So we set off without waterproof trousers. It turns out that these are a really good idea in the rain. We squelched our way up Pen-y-ghent and trudged our way down again. It was not pleasant. Reaching the Penyghent Cafe was a relief. Few drinks have felt as good as that pint of hot chocolate.

We put our names in the hiker’s register that the cafe has kept for years, which now stretches to multiple volumes. We also heard the tale of a couple of cyclists who that very day had quit their Land’s End to John-o-Groats ride, spirits broken by the headwinds.

I am unsympathetic. If you’re planning a huge cycle ride in September you need to consider the weather. You don’t discover it’s difficult halfway and then give up. If they were doing this for charity, I hope the sponsored organisation tracks them down, and lets them know how many orphans their failure will force to go hungry.

I’d wore what Amazon described as a “Waterproof US Army Hooded Rain Poncho”. If this is indeed US military style, it explains why the US military has recently fought in hot, dry countries. It didn’t keep me very dry.

Day four, the sound of rain woke us in the night. Lesser souls might have given up at Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Not us. I layered up: long johns under my trousers, waterproofs on top of them. I borrowed a jacket to keep my top dry. And it worked – despite worse weather than the day before, worse than I’d ever seen in my life, maybe, I stayed dry. Water didn’t run down our legs, which meant it didn’t pool in our boots.

It turns out that there is no such thing as bad weather in the right clothes. And before the next walk I will buy some better trousers, ones I can put on when it starts to rain.

Story: The City and the Country

There was a time when it was dangerous to explore villages you didn’t know. The world was smaller then, and a tiny place could be its own world.

If you travelled a lot, you learned to tell the signs (if you didn’t learn, you’d not be travelling long). You’d keep an eye open in case the church was chained shut, the grounds not tended in years. I left one place when I saw the yew trees had been burned; I later learned that witches ran wild there. This whole country was once filled with cults.

Now it’s safer in the villages, since the mystic clans of England are dying out. There are few jobs in the countryside, no way to make a living; most of the young leave. Even if they could find work, it wouldn’t buy a house there. Second homes and downsizers have pushed up the prices. Murder and disappearance would never stem the tide of people looking for a cosy cottage with which to impress their friends. A village could be unspoiled for centuries; then it appears in a guardian supplement. A couple of years later, the magic is gone.

The young from these cults struggle in the city. You can make prayers to the green man at a road crossing, but it’s less powerful than a riverside. Harvest offerings made in a supermarket are soon swept up; spells are forgotten under florescent lights. They do their best – instead of corn dollies, they tear coke tins into shapes of tiny people. Sometimes the chalk of a hopscotch grid contains a trace of magic; or shop dummies seem to watch the way the scarecrows did. But most of them struggle, falling prey to the magics of seagulls and litter bins. There are streets here that can eat you.

A few find their way. They are cared for by the cash machines and learn their own tricks. Even in the city, there are people you can sacrifice and no-one cares. There are people who have vanished while they are still walking the streets. If you can survive, you can eke out power, find new things to pray to. You can build villages in the cities and suburbs


This story was inspired by a conversation with Justin Pickard. I’ve been thinking about these thing s for a while, so there may be more to follow. It’s a first draft written while waiting for a plane.

A rainy day

Prevouisly, this weblog might have given the impression of a cavalier attitude toward preparation. This is probably the dregs of teenage suspicion against anything looking too much like ‘effort’. And, you know, the fact there are no pictures of Lou Reed, David Bowie or Kanye West in waterproofs.

Which is fine until you’re dealing with the rain. Throughout Saturday’s walk on the Pennine way we dodged the showers. Yesterday, the downpour started as we stopped for lunch and pretty much continued until the day’s end.

The rain soaked my trousers as I’d not had chance to put on waterproofs. Slowly my boots became sodden, every footstep squelchy and gross. And my poncho kept getting whipped away by the wind. 

I’m more of a fan of rain in theory than practise. Take Madonna’s song, which compares rain to love; this couldn’t be further from my experience of continual showers and drizzle. Listening back to Rain, I can tell Madonna hasn’t faced a wet day on the Pennine way. She is not someone who owns waterproof trousers.

As we approached Pen-y-ghent, the mountain was invisible. We never saw more than about 50-100 metres in front of us. We had no idea how far we had to climb until we reached the path at the summit. I have no idea what this mountain looks like.

The ascent was more challenging than we’d expected, with a little scrambling over rocks while high up. As there was a break in the rain I took off the poncho to stop it blowing about. We kept going, excited about the summit, and what the guidebook described as a “sublime shelter”. This turned out to be two sets of benches, well designed so that one set would always be out of the wind. It gave us somewhere to rest and eat, but to be called sublime, a shelter really needs a roof.

The views from the top of Pen-y-ghent were disappointing.

During the first day walking the Pennine way, David and I met two women who’d done it done years back. They told us they had seen only one afternoon of rain the whole time. An enviable experience, but it gives them little to talk about when the conversation turns to the Pennine Way’s reputation for bad weather.

The experience of waterlogged boots and clothing was unpleasant. But it was never dangerous, since we had a warm place to stay at the end. The weather could well have been worse – it was warm, at least. And I found myself enjoying the challenge, knowing that I could endure everything that the rain was throwing at me. I was content, maybe even happy. There were few places I would have rather been.

Lying in bed now, a little after 6, I can hear rain lashing the windows. My car is a little way off in Hawes. I’m not looking forward to setting out, but I’ll make the best of it.

Too lazy for amazing things

Time after time, I run into this same problem. It’s mid-afternoon and I’m somewhere amazing; any other day I’d kill to be there. It might even be somewhere I’m unlikely to return to. But I’m worn out and can’t summon the energy to explore further.

This happens to me a lot when I’m being a tourist. I spend the morning seeing a place’s main sites; by the afternoon I’ve had enough of beauty, and desire rest more than amazement. (A friend told me that students at the Sorbonne are told to spend no more than two hours at a time in the Louvre to avoid this sort of problem).

The most recent time I dodged something wonderful was when walking the Ridgeway. For me, one of the route’s highlights was the Uffington horse. We arrived there late on a long, hot afternoon. I could have spent hours exploring the landscape – if I’d not been walking all day. Instead I had a quick look at the horse, took some photos, then we carried on walking.

(See that flat-topped hill with a chalky patch? No grass grows there because it’s where at George killed the dragon. Allegedly)

The problem with travel and hiking is that they’re tiring. Yesterday’s trip on the Pennine way was hard work. We saw some amazing landscapes and some odd places, but my pack was a little too heavy.

We’d also been dodging rain all day. There was a shower times just before we left the canal and could hide under a bridge. Long rainy spells came and went as we lazed about in Gargrave’s excellent Dalesman café.

We arrived in Malham tired and damp. I knew that Gordale Scar was about three miles away, but that seemed too much for two weary hikers. As we checked into our home for the night, I asked whether it really was worth the extra walk just to see another amazing view, particularly after a day of them. We were told it was.

I pointed out that the weather looked shifty – was this worth seeing in the rain? We were told it was especially worth seeing in the rain. So somehow we summoned the energy for a last few miles’ walk. The initial omens were good:

We passed Janet’s Foss, said to be the home of a fairy queen. Pretty nice.

Finally we walked along a small ravine. Pleasant.

And then we turned the corner. The photo doesn’t quite do justice to the scale of the looming rocks and the sound of the water. Sheep ate grass at the very edges of the drops. We’d seen some great views but this was the best of the day.

On the way back, we found rotting fallen trees into which people had hammered copper coins.

This reminded me of something similar in Kathmandu – a block of wood which people nailed coins to. According to the guidebook, it was to ward off toothache.

I don’t always summon the energy to go exploring and that’s a shame. Sometimes it really pays off.

Mobile blogging is the future

Yesterday I wrote a blog post on my mobile phone. We used to have a word for this. It was called moblogging, and it was going to be the future.

I’ve been re-reading articles about this from around 2003.  There’s a weird optimism about how hard people were trying to make moblogging happen.

Back then, blogging from a mobile phone was tricky. You could send a blog post via email or MMS, but you couldn’t edit it until you were back at a computer. This was a time before apps and iPhones, when the few applications for mobile were rudimentary. But people still persevered with moblogging. Part of this was the struggle to find a use for camera phones and MMS – which a lot of people originally found unnecessary.

This was the early days of mobile computing. The guardian even tried to edit its G2 supplement from Brighton beach during summer 2003. At the time, this was the world’s first beach with WiFi, where volunteers had set up the pier-to-pier network. WiFi was still sometimes hard to find then – during the party conferences you’d see people at night using laptops on the seafront benches. 

(That article contains someone speculating that people “could get a wireless device to walk around the city and it would ping them with announcements saying look up here, and here’s some information about this building…” I’ve seen similar ideas pitched repeatedly over the last 20 years. The technology for this is now ubiquitous, but the applications are still not being produced. ) 

One of the pioneers of moblogging was Warren Ellis, who wrote back in January this year: “Remember “moblogging”? I was doing that in the 1990s with a collection of kit that even at the time seemed the product of a dated alternate future.  Modular, silvered plastics, plugs and stub antennae. Nokia phones of styles you wouldn’t have been surprised to encounter in SPACE: 1999.” Other posts from 2006 and 2004ish give an idea of the issues involved.

Reading back on these days is strange. It’s easy to forget the time when we used to go to a particular room in the house to use the internet.

In 2003, a Jupiter analyst claimed that of the estimated 500,000 bloggers, a quarter might one day  use moblogging tools to update their sites. He said “This isn’t the killer app for mobile devices.”

More optimistic was Tom Hume of future platforms: “The whole point of weblogging is ease-of-use: that it makes it simple for people who don’t care about technology to run their own sites. Moblogging is a natural progression from this: as long as it’s easy to use and marketed well, I believe it’ll lead to a surge of all sorts of folks creating their own content.

Moblogging never took off, at least not under that name. But Tom got it right, and moblogging became so successful that the term has actually disappeared. Companies like Manywhere, Moblogger, Wapblog and FoneBlog failed to deliver moblogging to the masses. Instead it was three companies that had yet to be born: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Everyone is moblogging and nobody thinks anything of it. But I’m writing this post on a smartphone app using WordPress. The jetpack server plugin means WordPress’s app is finally usable (even if it eats the occasional post). Moblogging is here now.

Of course I could just post to Facebook. But the great thing about moblogging is the openness of it. It harks back to a time when it was easier to distribute your content between sites; twitter has long since turned off its RSS feeds. Everything is being locked behind walled gardens, access swapped for marketing. Judging by the scale of these platforms, most people aren’t too worried. But I’m happy to be finally moblogging, 13 years after I first tried to do it. And I’m still excited about moblogging’s future.

On poor planning and a fantastic train station

​When I go on holiday, I tend to plan the whole thing in detail – maybe too much detail. My hiking plans tend to be looser. I book the places to stay in advance, but the rest is an undignified scramble.

Sometimes, like my trip to the devil’s punchbowl, this works out well. Others, like not buying walking boots for the South Downs Way, can be more painful. And I always end up carrying a heavy pack with too much food. I’ve got a bag of nuts with me on the Pennine way that I’ve walked 200 miles with, simply because I never check ahead and see there are more than enough places to buy hot food on the way.

Books on hiking recommend some practice hikes to get an idea of how far you can walk. I initially based my distances on accounts of WW2 POWs. I mean, if they could walk 16-20 miles a day after years of malnourishment, I could follow the twenty mile a day schedule in the south downs way book.

Most of my planning goes on clearing the decks so I can disappear for a few days. I’d planned to buy waterproofs and a new rucksack before the next Pennine way stage. Instead I squandered the preparation time writing work emails. I was quite lucky on my first Pennine way sections as I read the Rambling Man guide beforehand and realised it was a slightly more challenging path than the ones in Sussex. I bought maps, although not proper waterproofs. And then, the night before setting off, I realised I’d not packed suitable trousers, and had to drive to a 24 tescos megastore.

As my current walk approached I found myself rushing through a to-do list. I wonder if I should maybe take my laptop or not go at all. I had a horrendous drive up the M1 the night before, and the drive to Hawes was grim – my car started bleeding in a service station car park.

But the stress soon vanishes. For me it was when I found myself at Garsdale station. It wasn’t just the amazing setting:

No, the station had a cosy waiting room. And, to make it even better, a complete set of the Encyclopedia Brittannica.

I read the entry on Varanasi. “The sacred city is bounded by a road known as Panchakosi; every devout Hindi hopes to walk this road”. While I’m not religious, this is the hike I’d most like to do.

Another great thing about Garsdale station was the statue of a dog. Ruswarp was the mascot of the campaign to keep this station, and had even legally signed the petition, the pawprint accepted since he was a paying customer. 

Ruswarp’s companion Graham Nuttall died in a mountaineering accident in 1990. Ruswarp stayed with his body for eleven weeks in the depths of winter. The world would be a better place if there were more statues of doggos and fewer of generals.

While I was in the waiting room, someone on the other platform called to me. They said that, in six minutes time, a lumber train would be coming through from Wales. I came out to see it, pressed myself against the wall as the train hurtled through.

As the air filled with the scent of timber, I wondered what type of trees these were. I daydreamed about changing careers, to become an FBI agent investigating crimes in quiet places like this. Life is good.