Notes From the Edge 12 – Cracker Ridge

It is a place of broken ambition and broken toys but when the trip is a short one there’s no need for ambition and even broken toys keep the kids busy for a while. Mostly it is a place where time has broken and flaps along like a broken wing. It takes a gear shift coming here and this is what long journeys are for. They extract us from the plastic tightness of the city and with every mile pull from us the bits that still cling stubborn and elastic and try to drag us back. 

Cracker Ridge wears the forest like a hairpiece when viewed from a distance. You can’t see it from the cottage but at night you hear it breathing and in the day the direction of travel in the air is that way. It is still a fair walk to reach the outer edges of the trees and we don’t always go that way; sometimes we’re pulled with gravity down to the village and the Red Lion then rue the walk back up. On days that we trudge to the top of the ridge there’s the reward of an easy walk home. 

It is not an old forest so there’s some great sadness that hangs in the air with each foot of summer growth; a sense of inevitability and impending doom. But isn’t it better to see things like this rather than pretending we’re surprised? It is a generational forest. I have made that up because it fits the best to describe how the growth lasts around thirty years, just to the point where the forest has become permanent and the shadows cast across the neighbouring fields a constant thing; time enough for a folklore to grow and a hundred generations of smaller creatures to live and die and forget the great devastation. 

When I was fifteen I watched it fall and I cried with every dragging truck and biting saw at the great injustice. I watched creatures leap and bound in panic and the little pools I had known shaped by giant tyre tracks and slick with oil. And then the great silence when the men had taken what they wanted and left. It felt like some terrible crime had been committed The men laughed as they leaned on their trucks and smoked cigarettes, flicking butts into the puddles they had made. 

A heavy silence like the stunned silence after a great battle, for days and weeks nothing daring to move; nothing able to move. A forgotten oak, left like a joke; an island in the carnage and crammed with refugees; a kite floating on the breeze looking to profit, the crunch of dead branches and discarded chunks of timber uselessly sliced and left. 

But the path, though we had never noticed it before, raised from the rest of the forest, suddenly afforded new views across the space that had been created. Views that I had never seen before and that stretched impossibly far to the dark peaks that dipped their toes in the sea. Where the forest had been the land undulated and dropped sharply to a valley that I didn’t know was there and undiscovered streams threaded like veins. Forlorn stumps of trees, their open wound still sticky with sap and smelling sweetly of Christmas, would soon be overtaken by new life that seized its chance to breathe the free air and soak up the rays of the sun. For this underlife it is the trees who are the oppressors because there’s always another angle. The villain in the tale has his own dreams, too and doesn’t consider himself in the wrong. 

But that was then. A lot has happened in the gulf between and walks in the woods on Cracker Ridge belie all of that memory. It is how memory is meant to work; we fill the vacuum with the things we want to remember the way that the milk-sodden Weetabix fills the void left by the spoon. As a man I walked in the shadows of the trees that had returned and enjoyed nervous love in little glades; as a husband I walked and made improbable plans that I knew would work out. And later still, little faces poking from pouches or perched on shoulders, little voices singing in the echoes of the trees along with mine and then walking beside me and holding my hand. 

And to now. I tell them that when I was their age or thereabouts I watched as they pulled all of this down and Cracker Ridge was shorn of its hairpiece. I told them of the silence that descended for a while and how I walked with a feeling of emptiness. But they didn’t believe me, of course. It is all too permanent. It is the beauty of youth: that great belief in the permanence of all things. 

Notes From the Edge 11 – Cracker Ridge

I have pockets filled with gold 

When I walk these paths with you 

The pieces jingle and sing 

And remind me I’m a rich man  

Every year she encroaches a little more, tests her nerve and reclaims another half foot or so. They can’t fight her off like they used to – it’s a full-time job and they’re only part-time there so we can’t see the house from the village anymore. Like in the older days after the long ride we’re reach that exact point by the church where the hills opened up for a brief moment and there it’d be, Cracker Ridge, high enough up to catch the rain as snow and in the middle, white against green, Cracker Cottage. At Christmas the house would be all lit up and fairy lights wrapped around the conifers, I would slow to pick it out and we’d be warmed before the big climb. 

It’s too much now and nature has tipped the scales in her own favour. From the road there is nothing but green hillside and the untamed branches squeal along the side of the car as we nudge up the drive. It has been a long time. One whole lockdown and a little more since we were up at Cracker and after the rain and shine of the past few weeks there is a burgeoning that has run out of control. 

Maybe we only notice it because we have snapshots at intervals; we notice the narrowing of the path to the front door and the loss of view from the front. We’re not used to a view like this so we seek it out the minute we’ve dropped out bags; we look back the way that we’ve come and capture between out finger and thumb that valleys that we passed through an hour ago. 

It’s only the human things that are decaying: the wooden deck that pokes out into the space between here and home; the gate at the bottom of the steep drive that hangs now on its hinges; the old barns that are help up only by what’s inside. Nature – she’s doing ok. In fact, in this place she’s not done so well for a century or more. But old eyes don’t see these things; old eyes that see the same thing every day and see only by the tiniest degrees, the slow approach of the wild that taps now on the window when the autumn breeze picks up. I wonder if one day I will come and have to carve through this jungle to get to the side door. I expect that I would find them huddled in the centre of the room while vines poke down the chimney and the windows are darkened by the rhododendron bushes and branches thick as a child’s arm. 

It’s how it will be, I’m fairly sure of it. They will not move unless sealed tight in a box and I think they have made their peace with that idea. The run they have had has been a good one and we have caught the best of it. I suppose we cannot complain if we suck out what juice we can find and resist the urge to ask for more. It is this and this is enough. The girls play with the dogs in the field and the startled sheep huddle together and take turns to be in the middle of the huddle like penguins. They have not seem movement like this for a long time up here and in their little brains it is alien and a threat The girls squeal to be free; to be out of the lockdown bubble, finally 

We could not be further from the bubble here. We are so far that we cannot even see the circles that pulse and grow – even with a view like this one. The route home is a winding one that skirts these places along the back roads. This evening we will sneak back under the covers and Lullaby Ridge will be a dream again. 

Notes from the Edge: Circuits 3

It is the rutting season and I suspect that I was standing between him and his girl.

So, you made it out – well done. This is the edge. It’s the only place to be. 

The air takes a little getting used to but it’s ok to breathe, in fact breathing is heartily recommended. Move away from the road a little and take a deep breath. Don’t look back – you’ll be sucked in soon enough – look forward. What’s there – have you ever really looked before? Which way to go? Forget the normal rules: they don’t apply here. Your feet are allowed to leave the tarmac and distant views aren’t just for looking at now through the blur of a car window but for discovering… 

I always try to find a new path, or at least a new bit of a field or a wood that I’ve never walked before, and I try to do that every day. It gets tricky as the weeks and months rattle on but that’s a good thing because it means you have to look further and push out into the unknown. It is incredible how many of the secret ways that criss-cross our daily lives remain largely undiscovered. It is the will that takes us t these places as much as the legs. Try to remember that the nettles are there to do a job but they can be pushed aside if the way you want to take lies beyond them. Don’t think of it as a sting, think of it as a tingle – I tell my girls that it’s stingle. It’s the feeling that your brain’s telling you should hurt but at the same time realises that the man who never felt pain never felt anything.

This morning, and this is typical, I did this: Up at 5.55 and out by 6. Remember: a pair of shorts, a t-shirt and some decent shoes. That’s it. The stick is optional but I always take one for pushing back nettles and testing boggy ground. Maybe for warding off unfriendly dogs, too, though I’ve never had to use it for this. The sodium-arc light outside my house glows orange but shut down an hour or so ago. I know it won’t be long before I catch it again, in the long mornings where maybe I won’t be able to take the same route over the fields.  

It’s too early for the dog-walkers so I’m not lured into the loop and I cut through the little alley and scuttle across the road. It’s busy again now: the lockdown has faded and things are back as they were and we’ll probably never see it again like it was for those strange few months when we could sit in the middle of that road (if we wanted to) or saunter along the central white line and push down the cats-eyes. It’s a long way from that now: the national speed limit means that they can go pretty fast and the lorries push the air about so that it takes your breath when they pass. 

We’ve had rain for a few days and the ground is sodden so I’ll stick to the track that runs through the field. The proper footpath is to the left but with the wheat up at knee-height I’ll have wet socks before I’m five minutes in. The farmer won’t be up yet and I’ll be through the gap in the hedgerow soon and onto the golf course without any harm, though with the rain I will have to check the ground – it gets marshy here and there’s talk that he’s going to flood the little valley to create fish ponds. I poke at the ground with the stick. The grass is as happy and green under the water as out of it. The water’s so clear that there seems to be little difference. 

There is a natural dip in the centre of the field where the water runs after rain. A culvert lies underneath from the village at the top where the spring rises but the run-off from the field takes the overland route. It’s like a huge book, this field, and the central dip is the spine. The heavy pages lol in graceful arcs on either side and to paint the picture for you a little better, I came in at the bottom-left hand side. I’ll cross the spine and disappear bottom-right. But I won’t be far. I’ll skirt the edge of the open book field on the golf course track and keep my feet dryer. the rows of wheat are like lines on the page and they tell they story of every day.

There’s some artificial grace to a golf course that I both abhor and admire. It’s a playground of the wealthy and they look with contempt at anyone not wearing polka-dot socks tucked into expensive cotton trouser cuffs. Always a tank-top that doesn’t match and fine leather gloves – or if they really fancy themselves: a single glove. They strut up and down the fairways as if they own the place – which, on some level they do, and they look at people like me as if I’m about to nick the flag. I have been tempted to nick a ball or two after it has been driven down the ground, or kick it in to the rough but I find that I don’t care enough to do that. 

It’s too early for golfers and the action up here now as I rise with the swell of the land is the groundsman and the gentle whirr of the tractor he glides about in, preening the greens and checking that the flags haven’t been nicked. He’s friendly enough, though I shouldn’t really be on here, and he’ll give me a wave. It is enough. I don’t want conversation. I don’t think that I could muster it at this hour and am content with my own company. 

I have heard the distinct call of a peacock somewhere across the course, though I’ve never seen it. It could be deer shouting but I don’t think so. There are deer, though. Last week I poked out in to the field and walked across the ridge for the better view and there out of the middle of the wheat poked the glorious shoulders and head of a roe stag. It is usually the startled behind that I see bounding off into the safety of the trees but this one stood his ground and eyed me as I passed, his three-pronged antlers skyward and his eyes never wavering as his ears twisted and turned for best advantage. It is the rutting season and I suspect that I was standing between him and his girl. It was one of those rare occasions where I had the mind to take out the phone and grab a couple of shots. From the angle, right up along the right-hand edge of the open book I could see the way that I had come and got the picture I wanted with my own tiny home, where my girls were still sleeping, captured between those antlers. 

I had not walked far, yet I had walked out of the bubble and though I could see it shimmering grey and fast below me, I knew that it didn’t see me, nor care about me. I had found the gap between the circles, and it really wasn’t hard. I was satisfied and pocketed the phone with a deep sigh of simple contentment. One of those moments that you wish someone else had been there to see also, maybe.

The rabbits that darted in surprise as I made my way along the rest of the path were small beer now, though I counted thirty before I gave up and gave my attention to dividing the nettles with my stick so that I could pass. I startled a tiny rabbit last week. It knew that there was a need to panic because all of the others were running this way and that but clearly had no sense what the danger was because it ran right at me, thudded into the side of my boot and then hopped away a little dazed to join the others. A fox was down on its haunches ready to launch an attack on another unsuspecting bunny when I arrived and did for his element of surprise. 

By this time I had reached the village and it was time to step back onto the black-top and follow the lane back down to where I had started. It had been shut for the whole of the lockdown for gas-works which meant that, while the cars couldn’t get through, walkers like me could. What had been another little artery serving the town was quickly absorbed back into the wilderness for a while and pheasants roosted on the ground, deer skittered without alarm and I sauntered along the middle as though it was my own paved footpath.

I tapped my stick to the morning rhythm as I walked and I smiled because I knew that most people hadn’t even woken up yet and would never know what I had already known today.  

Cheers!

They’re calling it our independence day. Grown women and men are teary-eyed at the prospect of a pint at the pub and dreaming already of tomorrow’s hangover. It has been three months and more since the pubs were open and the nipple’s about to be returned to the puckered lips of the nation. Let’s hope it stops them whingeing so much. I mean, come on, it’s not like there’s been no alcohol and, what’s more, for many of those who like to go overboard: no work to get up for the next day. But the way they’re talking on the telly, on the radio, all over the place, it’s like some great oppression is about to be lifted from a nation of worthies. 

I wonder how much the commentators and reporters actually feel what they say; it’s all so heartfelt and emotive as they sit in the windy beer garden of some damp and miserable town and sup bitter or merlot. Do they really feel the ecstasy as it slips down that they’d have us believe the rest of the British public does? I’m expecting queues up the lanes and suburban housing estates of England; I’m expecting tearful reunions with long-lost beverages because, let’s be honest (they’d have us believe) what’s the point of it all if not for this

There’s a science to it, though. There always is. David Cameron’s government recognised the “positive impacts of drinking on adults’ well-being, especially where this encourages sociability.”1 and if wellness, as they say, is all in the mind, then it stands to reason that what makes you feel good has to have a positive impact on the rest: you work hard all week and the distant prospect of a weekend on the razz slowly comes into focus. It makes it all, almost, worth it and the balance is just about achieved. The hangover reminds us that we’d never sustain it for more than a couple of days as the week at work eases our guilt and refreshes the purse for the next weekend. It’s a bit like religion in the way that usually sensible men and women are driven to childish and illogical distraction by this substanceless idea and its temporary fix. 

The report also highlights the importance of a boozy nation on the economy as a whole and the wider implications of the £11.5bn that was spent in the first quarter of 2019 in England and Wales alone. Considering that the tax man claims around a quarter of this, it’s no wonder why the balance between health of the individual in these Corona days, plus the extra load on the NHS, come an easy second to the financial health of the nation. “Go out! help the economy back on its feet!” shouts one; “stay home! avoid the pubs!” says another. We’ll see how it pans out. 

But there’s more to it than meets the eye and it’s not just a local thing. The link between recent social shifts around the world and alcohol trends is stark, if you look. 

We’re all philosophers when we’re drunk and the world’s a hell of a lot simpler when the senses are on limp-mode. Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Zombies’ tells the story of de-evolution, where a bunch of bright university students attach defribulators to their temples and fry their intelligent brains so that they can live in a state of ignorant bliss. Palahniuk’s is a parody of every Friday and Saturday night in my town, except the effects aren’t permanent and the weekend zombies go back to their jobs in between binges. While they escape what Plath called the “dead stringencies” of life that claw at our sober minds, the inebriated mind is also incapable of forming any real plan to combat the machine: even the violent drunk is a docile philosopher because he tends to forget his mantras in the morning.  

Keep them drunk and stop them thinking is a method of social control that might well have contributed to the relatively settled centuries that these islands have enjoyed. Relative to the French, say, who have never quite got their heads rounds a good piss-up and succumb, every single day, to the socialist movement that is, for the ruling elite, annoyingly sober, clear-headed and able to really have a good think about the state of things and muster up a revolution from time to time. 

The UK population increased by 6.6 million between 2001 and 2016 and 80% of this rise was down to immigration2. When demographics change so dramatically then so do indigenous traditions and customs. Such large communities of different cultures means that there is no need to integrate into the traditions of a nation hence a new nation takes shape out of the old. Pubs are closing at a rate of one every 12 hours, according to CAMRA, and this is set to get a lot worse as a result of the pandemic. Recent health-drives and developments in medical diagnosis mean that the younger generations are realising new ways to get high without having to clog up the liver or be jostled in sweaty crowds on sticky carpets to be ripped off with a glass-full of dead calories and additives.   

Whilst the death of the drunk culture might appear as a great boon to the emergency services and a welcome easing of the strain on local resources, it only appears that way. The police love drunks. The government loves drunks. In no other circumstance can a British national in his or her own country be dragged along the floor half-naked and steeped in vomit, be slung in the back of a van without having been read his or her rights and imprisoned without charge overnight, and then be let out again the next day. The drunk feels that they’ve got away with it and remembers very little anyway, and the police know that the worst it will get is a bit physical. Much better this to deal with than the sober philosopher and the organised uprising. It is no coincidence that the cities where cannabis and marijuana are legal boast the lowest crime rates in the world. The drunken loutish football yob can be dealt with a lot more effectively than the organised, sober terrorist…   

The drunken philosopher is dying and there’s a much bigger threat on the horizon. We will long for the days of boozy bar-fights and foul-mouthed pissed-up single mothers; we’ll be all nostalgic over fatties innocently urinating on sacred monuments and students vomiting in shop doorways. We know what we’re getting there because it’s what we’ve always had. 

The Arab spring of the last decade, the Chinese surge and Brexit in this: people are thinking and they’re getting ideas and it’s making life difficult for the people at the top to keep a grip. 

Despite the pandemic, or maybe because of the danger that all this time on our hands is making us think, the government today is proffering the nipple. “suck”, it’s saying. “For the love of the nation, get drunk and please: less thinking, more drinking.”