Hiking in Cornwall – 2017

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Here’s a look back in the diary, to a baking hot June day, the start of a walking trip round the very toe of Britain. We walked from Penzance to St Ives over five days.

On that hot June day we took train from Paddington to Penzance. A journey that started with selfies taken in front of a statue of Paddington Bear; a journey through the very heart of England. We arrived in Penzance, and we found our Air BnB, settled in, and then strolled around the town, visited a chinese chippy, and bought a bottle of cider on the eve of our walk along the Coast Path.

The following day we shouldered our packs, and set off through the optimism and sunshine of a June morning. We walked through suburban Penzance, through lanes and past white houses. Through greenery and parks, and out onto the coastal path. Plenty of money evident here; these are houses built for wealthy merchants. There’s plenty of money here still. Onwards, along the beach, through Newlyn in the breathless hot morning, to that place we spell Mousehole. Rather like the name of a certain well-known port wine, the name of the delightful little village has to be pronounced responsibly.  

At Mousehole we stopped for morning tea at a café owned by an Englishman from the north country. No Cornishman he. We stopped for lunch at Lamorna. I’d never even heard of Lamorna until I planned this coastal walk. Sat on the seawall, we had bread, tomatoes, and cheese. Water was sufficient to wash down such a simple repast in such a beautiful setting.

This was our first day carrying big rucsacs. At Penberth Cove, labouring through the unrefreshing heat of the afternoon, we found an unlooked-for and most welcome supply of cold fresh water. We filled up our water bottles and walked on out up the valley. Tired and worn, we walked through potato fields to Porthcorno, another place I’d never heard of. At the village, the telegraph station was prominent – this was where early telegraph lines from across the ocean, emerged from the heaving waves. The “Cable Station Inn” was the former works social club; it looked and felt like a works social club still.

A young woman of about 22 in a skirt so short I hardly dared even look at her, showed us to our room. Refreshed after a shower and a nice hot cup of tea, but oh so tired after this our first day’s walk (and in such hot, sunny weather) we made our way to the bar for supper. The staff prepared long lunch baguettes for us, to fortify us on our walk on the morrow. This was a shame, as we shall find out: we paid for ‘em, but we only ate about a quarter of them.

Next morning, the weatherbeaten and worn-looking proprietor Mick made breakfast for us whilst humming and singing in the kitchen.  Bless him, he never so much as asked us what we wanted – it was literally – not metaphorically – “take it or leave it”. But a Full English was more than welcome: we took it.

After lingering to chat with the friendly and engaging Mick, we made our goodbyes and set off. Your actual “Lands End” was about halfway along our route today. We found it as dire and as commercial a place as ever we’d visited. That said, having hiked there through the blue salt sea air carrying a heavy rucsac, I found myself thinking, I could just murder a Cornish Pastie: So I bought one.  My wife tasted it and liked it so much I had to go and buy another one for her. And that, my friends, was the end of the lovingly prepared baguette lunch from the Cable Station Inn in Porthcorno.

We hiked on into the afternoon and came to Sennen Cove, a magical place, and again, a place I’d never heard of. Turquoise sea, yellow sand, a little town comparable to Croyde in North Devon, but with a better beach, perhaps.  We had ice cream, and we noticed a glorious cross adorning the wall of one of the surf companies. The first beach we passed by, though it displeased my wife to pass it without stopping. At the second beach – called Gwynmer – it was made clear to me that we would be stopping for a swim. Right you are! And so we did, stopping for a refreshing swim in the sea.

In coming off Gwynmer, we left the SW Coast Path and found ourselves navigating across country to St. Just.  This worked, though full reliance on mobile phone mapping software was necessary.  We got to St. Just and we were worn out. Our Air BnB host here, at a tiny terraced house on the main street, was a pleasant and outgoing lady. She recommended the Kings Arms and so we ate there. The following day we bought lunch baps from the pub landlady’s other business, a sandwich shop in the main square.

During our walk, which was again in very hot weather, we met a very heavily pregnant lady. She was trebly conspicuous, as being perhaps a little older than pregnant ladies usually are, and also she had a dog which had been paralysed from the waist down but had recovered: the dog had a very unusual gait. Our walk took us through an area of industrial heritage – in amongst the lovely green valleys, various ruins and workings. We lunched by a babbling brook nearby another glorious lost beach. As we did so, yet another heavily pregnant lady passed us, her bump out in the hot sunshine.

As the afternoon wore on, we found ourselves at the Tinners Arms in Zennor, where we thought we’d stop for a quick pint in the heat of the day. It was that kind of moment…just a swifty before pushing on suitably refreshed, across the fields to our accomodation for the evening. But in conversation with the bar staff it became clear that there was high demand for tables at the Tinners Arms at Zennor – even mid-week. It was in fact the only licensed premises for miles and miles. We booked a table on the instant! Later, when we did sit down for dinner, our meal was punctuated by the apologetic tones of the bar staff turning away casual enquirers.  Glad we were to have booked in advance.

Onwards to Tremedda Farm, Zennor: We found ourselves sat outside on an Italian portico, not yet 7a.m and already quite warm enough to sit here in the shade. There’s a refreshing breeze and the wind is rustling in the nearby trees. This house, of Italianate design, is delightful. From where we are sat, it feels Roman, foreign almost, but we gaze out onto an English – or perhaps Cornish – garden.

Last night we had a conversation with the couple in the room next door, an American couple a little older than we. It turned out that she had been brought up in the same small town on Long Island as my wife. There followed a great “small world” conversation whilst they reminisced.

The weather has been very kind to us. Yesterday we met a lone young woman hiking the Cornish part of the SW Coast Path. She said that she had “not expected a heat wave” – and she was an Englishwoman. The peace and the silence has been enough too; the opportunity to slow down, to de-clutter one’s mind and consider what is, and what is not, important. The underlying issues may not be resolved, but being on holiday enables one to get before God, seek His kingdom first, and put things into perspective. Richard Foster writes, in “Celebration of discipline”, that we “must pursue holy leisure [Otium Sanctum] with a determination that is ruthless to our diaries”

From Tremedda farm, onward through the fields, eschewing the strongly up and downstairs coastal path. Thus, we arrived in St. Ives late morning and refreshed, rather than late afternoon and jaded. We dropped our bags off at our accommodations, and went swimming in the sea, then we had a lovely fish lunch in a pub on the quayside. In the evening we took bus acoss the ithsmus back to Mynack, which we’d passed on foot some days before. We watched the Illyria Theatre Company perform “Pride and Prejudice”. There were only perhaps five of them, each taking multiple roles. Elizabeth Bennett wore a dress and Dr Martens boots. The whole thing was hilarious. The Mynack threatre is to be recommended, though the seats – stone benches cut into the hillside – are hard. One can rent cushions for a small fee. The atmosphere is magical, particularly for performances at dusk. It did mean a late finish; we were not back in St Ives til after midnight.

The next day, in cooler weather, we set off on our pilgrim walk north-south across Cornwall, from St Ives to St Michael’s Mount. The “St Michael’s Way”. We hiked on towards Penzance, across the width of Cornwall, in improving weather and improving mood, and then on the following day on foot to St Michael’s Mount – which I confess I found oddly uninspiring and somewhat disappointing.

Our return to Surrey was via a visit to relatives on the Devon/Cornwall border. Train from Penzance to Plymouth, and then later a rather excellent dinner at the Cornish Arms in Tavistock. G&T’s in what to my eyes were vases. I had the Ox Cheek. We raised a glass to my wife’s late aunt, recently passed away – for one might say that this fine evening out was to her memory.

And then we two took train from Exeter – but this time, a Southwest Trains service to Waterloo. We took this service, though slower, because it was less costly to travel first class, and because we could change at Clapham Junction. Everything was OK until we got to Woking when trespassers on the line caused massive delays. Never mind: overall, a fun time and relaxing. We were lucky with the weather though.

The Colditz Night Exercise in 2019

No-one will remember, in years to come, the fact that this year’s Colditz Night Exercise was in fact cancelled due to flooding on some of the country lanes where the hike was due to take place. But already at the point of cancellation I could see that COVID-19 was going to rear its ugly head. No-one would have batted an eyelid had I cancelled the hike due to the Coronavirus.

The Colditz Night Exercise is not unique; any number of similar events take place each year in Scouting up and down the country. When I lived in Derby, there was something called the “Fez Night Hike”, named not for a Turkish hat but for the first names of the three Explorers that started it. The arrangements may differ – but the principle is the same. Young people in Scouts and Explorers gather in teams to conduct some form of initiative hike during the hours of darkness, then sleep on the floor of a hall or Scout hut, have breakfast, followed by a brief award ceremony.

We’re all stuck indoors now: so I looked back in my diary and found a brief account of the 2019 hike, to cheer us up.

I‘m very tired this Sunday afternoon after Colditz. Outside there is an attractive long and slanting summer light, dust-filled and orange, fading to evening as I sit here. Just now there was a brief and somewhat indistinct thunderstorm…This was my third Colditz as District Commissioner. I fretted and worried beforehand. I always do. I organised and administrated my way through the preparations in the weeks beforehand and I had my deep concerns. But it was alright on the night. It all went well. All my concerns were unneedful in the face of the unstinting efforts and tireless contributions of my colleagues and fellow Scouters. A few people stood out; I’ll name them not on a public blog. But everyone contributed something; All played their part – the drivers, the caterers, the spotters, the adult walkers themselves.

We recce’ed the course. In the grey afternoon we put out all the signage at the checkpoints. In the evening we gathered at the school gym. The young people and their elders arrived to the usual organised chaos – an empty hall soon disappeared under a sea of roll mats and sleeping bags. We watched in dismay as the weather deteriorated. The first teams were delivered to the start of their hikes around 9 p.m, in lashing rain and gusting high winds. The rain beat on the tarmac, thundered on the roof of the minibus. Flooded roads, gouts of white water spraying up from the bus.

The last teams got “on the hill” as it were (or onto the North Downs country lanes) at 22:11 – about eleven minutes behind the ambitious and detailed plan created by my ADC (Scouts). So far so good. On events like these there then follows a quiet time. One recalls previous Colditz Night Hikes. Driving along a road sometime after 2a.m through patches of mist. A team of girl Scouts sat in the minibus on the way to their drop-off, singing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” at the top of their lungs. The time the Surrey police called out their helicopter because a suspicious householder thought they’d seen armed men in the woods. Or perhaps it was just Scouts with sticks? The time a group of Explorers went the wrong way through the woods – and found and rescued an old man who’d fallen over on his way home.

A few minor hiccups emerge: a checkpoint at such and such a location has fallen over and can’t be seen – drive out there and fix it. A youngster is poorly and needs pulling out and escorting home. Then, not long before 1 a.m, the fastest team – group of Explorers – calls in to say they have finished. How did we do this before mobile phones? The weather starts to clear, and by 2 a.m it is a cold and bright moonlit night. Up on the North Downs, where this year’s routes are, the temperature starts to fall.

I pop up to the refreshments base at Botley Hill to see how things are going. Everyone is standing around shivering, adults and youngsters. Soup and hot chocolate are flying off the shelf. While I was there, two Saturday night idiots, one of them in a red sports car, arrive and start to show off, drifting and skidding their cars round the tiny Botley Hill roundabout. Scouts and leaders look at this display, shaking their heads. Everyone is somewhat bemused by how crass and stupid it is. These people are supposed to be grown men! What did Shania Twain sing? “OK. So you’ve got a car”.

In deepening cold the last teams were extracted from up near Chelsham Common at the quite late time of 4a.m. But they finished! A big shout out to all for their efforts put in. It really is true to say that it is the taking part that matters, not the winning. A distinctive of these slower teams was that little or no navigational assistance was offered to the young people by their leaders. That is certainly not true of all the teams, whatever the leaders may say…

Running back with the last team, I experienced a deep, almost physically nauseating wave of weariness. Anyone who ever stayed up overnight will understand this – tiredness comes in waves. But you may be sure it was most unwelcome while driving a minibus full of Scouts. Only by a supreme effort of will and opening the driver’s window, did I avoid putting the bus onto the grass verge.

Back at base at the Oxted school gym, I needed a break and a cup of sweet tea. While I was “resting” two of us laboriously cleaned one of the minbuses, removing the protective plastic sheeting we’d installed on the seats earlier in the evening. These buses were rented to us by St Bede’s School in Redhill, and they were almost brand new. They even had that “new car” smell. A shame to let them get dirty, even if they are there to be used. Even the best behaved teenagers are in general very hard on the interior of minibuses.

The Scouts slowly settled to some sleep. The ADC (Scouts) laboured over the sums – who was going to win? A hero (again unnamed) drove round all the routes and removed the signposts at the checkpoints. In the cold blue light of early dawn, a colleague and I drove through to Redhill so I could drop off the cleaned minibus, and he gave me a lift back. A trip from Oxted to Redhill and back – twenty miles round trip – in less than fifty minutes. All but impossible in the day time. Back at base, an hours kip. Then, it’s bacon buttie time and the awards!

Who did win? It doesn’t matter – every youngster who ever took part in a Colditz Night Hike has won. How many people do you know have escaped from Colditz right here in rural East Surrey? How many people do you know have hiked through the night in pouring rain, dove into ditches hiding from cars, enjoyed that camaradie of tiredness, and finally fell asleep in the company of others, on a cold hard floor? #iscout #skillsforlife.

What is wealth?

Now you don’t seem so proud
About having to be scrounging your next meal
– Bob Dylan

In a short story by Len Deighton, common soldiers on the front line were discussing what wealth was. Some said true weath was posession of land. Others, said it was energy- fuel, oil, gas and coal, even wood. Still others, said it was gold. One said it was time. For many in the world, it may be not having to scrounge their next meal.

What then is true wealth, where is true value? What things are the most important in our lives? What – conversely – is dispensable? C.S Lewis paraphrases Jesus’ hard-hitting story in the gospel by noting that there is a journey every one of us must go on, a journey on which we may not take our right arm or our right eye. What is really important?

I’ve been thinking about wealth during this first week of working from home. As a boy I read a children’s book on survival (Puffin, “How to survive“), and in it there was an acronym for helping you get your priorities right in – for example – an air-crash. The acronym was PFAWF. Protection – First Aid – Food – Water. In that order. It strikes me as being a most instructive acronym. and indeed possibly quite counter-intuitive. It’s not obvious. Dealing with someone’s wounds or looking for water won’t help you, if you and your casualty can’t survive the night.

As a Scouter taking young people to camp, I recognised a number of things that someone looking after people out of doors in the UK cannot have too much of. The first would be hot water. The second, tarpaulins. As someone who has done a lot of business travelling, I’ll acknowledge that in the end, the only really important things on my person for a long-haul journey would be my passport and my credit card.

In the garden yesterday I picked up a piece of flint – there is much of that round here, situated as we are at the foot of the chalky Downs. More of that flint later. What’s important? What is wealth? Water? Air? Of course. What represents wealth? Cleanliness may – or may not – spring from wealth. Plenty of poor people are clean and tidy of course, and there may be unclean rich people, but it’s fair to say that the means to keep oneself clean and tidy – access to water, clean clothes etc – is itself wealth. As Andrew Marr writes, poverty may be difficult to define, but you can smell it. Wealth is access to cleanliness, access to privacy or indeed, being able to feel the sun on your face.

For a prisoner in a labour camp, wealth may be access to slightly more food. Prisoners held in slave camps dream of fatty foods – cakes and so forth. Wealth may be a brief moment of respite and peace; it may be just a cushion under your arse. It may be a pair of shoes that don’t leak. It may be a pair of shoes. It may be shelter from the rain and the grinding, incessant winter wind.

Back to the flint: our ancestors used flint as a tool. There was a far-off turning point in pre-history when humans became greater than animals, a point when our ancestors’ lives became slightly more bearable than the life of a brute beast. At that point, you find sharp objects – tools. You find pieces of flint. Tools. Knives. Lewis and Clark explored North America with little more than rifles, knives and axe heads, and the means to sharpen those tools. Today for all the technology that surrounds us, we could barely live like hunter-gatherers without sharp implements. That piece of flint once represented wealth. We should consider today what is important -what represents true wealth, and that which is dispensable.

One who looks forward

“One who looks forward must see this: that things will not remain as they were”

So says J.R.R Tolkien’s character Hurin to his wife Morwen, on the eve of a great battle in the elder days of Middle Earth. On my morning walk today, before starting work-at-home, I could see that things would not remain as they were. The very first thing I saw was that an elderly neighbour, taken to hospital after a fall yesterday, was now back at home. The next thing I noticed was that London’s orbital freeway, the M25 – within six hundred yards of us here – was as noisy and therefore as busy, as on any other day.

But then I heard woodpeckers – their distinctive noise the machine-pistols fired by the advance guard of spring. And I knew that things were going to change. There’s a hint of colour in the air; the depressing grey of winter is slowly fading to green. The birds are singing. Spring is coming.

What will become of us? This is a legitimate question, not defeatist or negative in any way if asked appropriately. Often, dystopian stories portray apocalyptic events as happening suddenly – almost overnight. In a hundred brief minutes in the cinema Hollywood shows us earthquakes, super-storms, wars and plagues, fiery meteor strikes. We see what happens first to the collective, and then, a focus perhaps, on one hero or heroine and their family.

But changes are now afoot that are not so sudden, nor so dramatic – yet, nonetheless profound, deep-rooted and potentially long-lasting. Changes that have the power to affect us all individually as well as collectively. Changes wrought not so much by the disease COVID-19, as by the consequences it brings in it’s train. Our leaders are starting to calculate the human and economic cost of those consequences, and they are, I think, proving to be very difficult sums. There is perhaps a thin, unyielding mathematics to be performed. As yet, most of us have not so much as sat down in front of the maths teacher.

Big events are being postponed – football matches, concerts, gatherings, parties. But there’s an implicit assumption that things will return to normal, that in due course things will be as they were before. I am not so sure. As one who does looks forward, I foresee that things will not remain as they were, nor will they return in the short term to how they were before. To 2019, there is no returning.

Of course we must take care to be positive, upbeat and appropriately encouraging – but at the same time, we must prepare for living differently. Living kinder, living slower, living more locally. A lot of people face financial difficulties in the months ahead as the economy shrinks. There’s potential hardship and ruin for many, except we find a way of sharing what we have, better than we do now. God knows I’m no expert on this…but I think there’s opportunities ahead for us all to demonstrate that we do see that things have changed, and we can do things better and differently.

A journey through a nuanced apocalypse

We’ll remember yesterday’s date for some years, that’s for sure. The day when the time of closed-in living began for middle England. Putting aside all the shameful panic-buying (who ARE those people?) middle England is actually very supportive and helpful when the chips are down. Or when old gaffers fall down. I was walking along the road into town yesterday afternoon when I saw a gathering up ahead. A couple of cars were stopped; two or three ladies were stood in the road. An older gentleman was sat on the grass verge, which at this point, was a steep bank a foot or so above the road.

An old fellow, making his way home along the awkwardly cambered footpath, had slipped and fell into the road. All the ladies had gathered round to help, rather than pass by on the other side; one offered to call an ambulance. But the chap seemed to have suffered little more than bruises and getting mud on his trousers. He seemed a little unsteady, and it was appropriate that I rather than they should to offer to escort him back to his home. Which I did. It reminded me a little later of an incident in John Wesley’s journal. Writing nearly three hundred years ago, he recounts how as an older man he fell over on a street in some town in England. Someone helped him up and brushed him off. Someone from a nearby barber’s shop brought a chair out for him to sit on. Someone else fetched a glasss of water.

By the time I’d seen him safely home, and turned back to the shops to do what I’d set out to do, I missed most of the astonishing announcement from the PM which changed everything. I missed a call from my boss getting behind Boris’s instructions to us all, reiterating that I should work from home henceforth.

This morning for a walk through the fields, before starting work at home. My thoughts might be a little unsteady – a walk out is always good to help with that. We listened uncritically to the PM and his advisers yesterday. They’re doing the best they can; doing a difficult job in difficult, unprecedented times. It would be churlish to find fault with them personally – though I see on social media that there is no shortage of people doing just that. It might be slightly easier, and more legitimate, to question their wisdom once – as the French say – “l’esprit d’escalier” kicks in. We’ll see as events take their place. One thing seems clear – though perhaps not yet to everyone. There’s going to be no swift return to “normal” life as it existed as recently as yesterday afternoon about three o’clock. It’s not quite the end of the world; it’s quite not the apocalypse. Not as we know it.

“You have arrived at a complex junction”

As a youth learning computer studies in the evening at the local technical college, I and others from my school used to have access to a large computer. One of the programmes on it was the text-based adventure game “ADVENT”. This game is the ancestor, really, of all modern graphics-based computer games. When playing this game, the player typed in command – “Take weapon”, “Fight dwarf” “go left” etc., and the computer would in due course respond with a new situation. E.g. “You have arrived at a complex junction”.

This phrase came unbidden to my mind the other day when I was sat during my lunch break in Upper Grosvenor Park, that small triangular slice of grass and plane trees a couple of hundred yards from Victoria Station. I believe in running with my thoughts and hunches. I don’t think there are coincidences, and God above does direct our thoughts as He sees fit.

Both in my personal life and in the life of the world and the nation, this time is one of complexity. We often say that we live in unusual or interesting times. That’s been true throughout my adult life, even allowing for a healthy degree of English understatement. But now, in these times of the Corona Virus, we live in extraordinary times, even – and I don’t like this over-used word – “unprecedented” times. I think this is a badly overused word, misused by journalists chasing a cheap sensation – for there to be “unprecedented” weather or storms is the most common example I’ve seen recently. Really? Was it? Rather like describing something as an “incredible” experience. Yes, I rather think it probably was.

Yet, nothing like this has happened in our lifetime. Last week many of us were literally waiting on the outcome of the Cabinet office “COBRA” meeting. We’ve heard of any number of such meetings for one crisis or another – but since when did ordinary working people wait on the outcome of those meetings? The press briefing on life TV afterwards was sane and sage and measured in it’s tone: but what could happen? What does “delay phase” mean, what does “herd immunity” mean? In the meantime the trains get quieter, and London’s Victoria station at 7 o’clock in the morning looks oddly deserted.

The Chief Commissioner for Scouts in the UK, Tim Kidd, has written to members noting that we must continue to respond to the developing situation in a calm, measured and appropriate way. More typically English sound and sage advice, for I fear that the recent news frenzy about Corona Virus has not been calm, measured or appropriate. The media scramble over tiny scraps of news, like the gangs of monkeys so recently filmed fighting over a banana in some city in S.E Asia. Everything is hyperbole, journalists and reporters hyperventilating, almost, with excitement. And yet, it’s not even really started yet. Where will we go – which exit will we take from the complex junction? Both as individuals, and collectively as a civil society?

The end of the world is nigh”...What, right nigh? We remember this one of the funnier Ronnie Barker sketches with a wry grin perhaps. We use the term metaphorically – but it is literally true of every day – the world we know disappears at sunset and is made new the following morn. As Linkin Park sing, “things aren’t the way they were before“. After this, things won’t be the way they were before. 2019 is more inaccessible than the other side of the universe. We can’t go back there. Companies will go bankrupt. Habits will change. Society will grow and alter under the influence of what is happening around us. People will die – yes, we knew that and it is deplorable, but no-one lives for ever.

It’s already been noted that pollution levels are falling in some places as a consequence of there being fewer aircraft in our skies. We find ourselves wondering what we can do in these times to be more careful of the vulnerable and the aged around us – how can we help when there is enforced self-isolation? Perhaps one way forward from the complex junction at which we find ourselves, is towards a world where we are much more deeply aware, both of the need to look after our planet, and also of the need to look after our nearest neighbours.

The Massacre of Mankind, by Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter, one of the most prominent sci-fi writers around today, has written a sequel to H. G Wells’ “The War of the Worlds“. I confess I never read Wells’ original, but like most people of my generation I’m familiar with the story. Jeff Wayne’s concept album has played it’s part in that familiarity of course; “Forever Autumn” remains one of my favourite songs. A couple of years ago my wife and I went to see the stage show live in London – a real experience. It’s a story that touches every human heart.

I’m no real fan of H.G Wells, whilst acknowledging him as the outstanding futurist of his generation and one of the grandfathers, as it were, of the science fiction genre as we understand it today. I did read one of his short stories – written in Edwardian England more than a decade before the Great War and the invention of the tank – in which he describes great metal wheeled “landships”. It’s pleasing to read Baxter gives them more than a passing nod in this sequel.

The story, written in the same laconic narrative style as H.G Wells, recounts a second invastion of Earth by the Martians, in 1920. It’s readable and a page-turner, but I will reveal no more about it other than recommending it highly.

But here is where I enthuse about Stephen Baxter’s work, for alternative history is his real forte. He manages to challenge the idea that what happened in our past was immutable and things could only have been that way. The Martians invaded in 1907: they were foiled in their attempt by deadly pathogens. But as a direct consequence England and the British Empire never joined what his characters refer to as the “Schlieffen War” in 1914. In his history, there was no Great War, there was no Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks were all defeated and tossed into prison.

The theme of “what might have been?” has entertained thinkers for all of history. What if Alexander the Great had lived? What if he had not recovered from a dreadful war injury he received when he was younger still? What if Henry VII’s oldest son had not died as a youth, leaving the throne open for his brother who became Henry VIII? What if the Nazis had successfully invaded?

Stephen Baxter in a number of his works, covers the the space-age era in this kind of detail. In “Voyage” he argues that humankind might have gone on from the Moon to visit Mars in the 1980’s – we could have; we just didn’t, for whatever reason. In “Titan” he sees an expedition to circum-Saturn space using Apollo-era technology, whilst Earth collapses into war, recrimination and apocalypse. In his short story “Sheena 5“, genetically-modified intelligent squid are sent to the asteroids to explore on behalf of humankind, because sending people is too expensive. They were betrayed: they were supposed to be unable to breed, but they could, and they did. Aggressive, intelligent, and capable of hard thinking, they return to Earth decades later as a space-faring species, to find humankind again mired in war, recrimination and apocalypse.

In “War birds” we see an alternative twentieth century far worse than our own, far worse than the worst nightmares of those who look down their nose at Donald Trump. The title refers to NASA’s space shuttles, which are seen and used almost entirely as fighter/bombers. We see Nixon rehabilitated; Tehran destroyed by an American atom bomb. A nuclear rocket blows up, rather like Challenger did in 1986, smearing radioactive material across the Florida sky. Reagan’s response is to start a nuclear war and destroy the Soviet Union. It gets worse…Stephen Baxter is willing to imagine the unimaginable in a quite relaxed and very English understated way. In his novel “Moonseed” (which does end on a positive note, though not before the Earth has been destroyed with billions dead) someone notes (after Arthur’s Seat becomes an active volcano) that “Edinburgh is Olympus Mons now”.

Reflections on a decade of reading

To early morning prayers on the first Saturday of this new month, this year, this new decade: outside, squirrels and magpies go about their winter business. As the day dawns, the exquisite light cheapens and becomes more banal, less delicate.

And now a look back at some of my reading over the last ten years. I have – at least according to my own records – read 491 books. Of those books, 349 I read for the first time: the rest, were books I have read before, sometimes once, sometimes more often. Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion” and C.S Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” top the re-read list, followed closely by Tolkien’s “The Children of Hurin” and R.A Heinlein’s “The cat who walks through walls” and “Friday”. Did I re-read any non-fiction? Why yes! I read twice these last ten years, Sebastian Junger’s “War” and Jon E. Lewis’s “The Making of the American West“. Also, Anthony Beevor’s account of the Spanish Civil War, and N.A.M Roger’s history of the Royal Navy, “The Safeguard of the Sea“.

I read two books called “On writing” – one – most excellent work – by Stephen King; the other, by George Orwell. I’ve read every one of Alan Furst’s dozen delicately written European spy novels set generally at the outbreak of World War II.

Alex Scarrow’s “Last light” was an apocalypse based around the end of electricity – how thin is the barrier that keeps the rule of law in place? How quickly could a person – or a society – somehow stumble through that barrier, and find themselves trampled to death by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse coming at a fast gallop in the other direction? In Scarrow’s book – about 48 hours. The Prime Minister fumbles a vital question in a press conference on a Monday morning. Wednesday afternoon, a policeman is shot dead at a motorway roadblock – and so the die-back begins. It was reminiscent of Nevil Shute’s propaganda piece “What happened to the Corbetts“, which was a fictional account written in the late 1930’s, of the bombing and destruction of the city of Southampton by an unknown enemy.

I had a re-read of Antony Beever’s masterful account of the Spanish Civil War – a book I enjoy reading, as he deals very lightly with the grey areas, the nuance and complexity of that conflict. I read a paper copy of the collected short stories of Arthur C. Clarke – always a pleasure to re-read the story of the Master, or the story of Grant and McNeil marooned on their freighter between Earth and Venus – with only enough air for one. I read and re-read Bill Bryson’s book “Mother tongue” about our great language. I was particularly impressed with “The man who went into the west“, being a biography of that sublime and yet oddly disquieting English poet, R.S Thomas. A clergyman who hid from his parishioners, a most peculiar and perhaps unlovable man, and yet, what poetry:

 The priest would come
and pull on the hoarse bell nobody
heard, and enter that place
of darkness, sour with the mould
of the years. And the spider would run
from the chalice, and the wine lie
there for a time, cold and unwanted
by all but he, while the candles
guttered as the wind picked
at the roof.

I read a number of China Mieville novels, and was most impressed by “Embassytown“, a story where the human ambassadors to a race of beings who speak with two mouths, have to be telepathic identical twins trained from birth. A very strange story – but fundamentally, all about language and communication. I read a couple of the memoirs of the late Clive James – what a writer, what a great guy. There are and have been few role models in my life, but God knows I’d regard him as one. Inspiring to me because he came from nothing. In “Unreliable memoirs” he writes of small boys throwing stones at an old lady, and compares it with Kristallnacht, noting that “the difference between mischief and murder is no greater than the law allows“.

I went through a Dennis Wheatley phase, once his material became available on Kindle, and relived some of the stories I first read in my early twenties. Evan Connell’s “Son of the morning star” was a biography of General Custer – and hence, of the development of the American west. That is a particular historical interest of mine. F.A Hayek wrote “The Road to serfdom” – a destruction of the errors of socialism – and perhaps the most influential book I’ve read this last ten years. Though oddly, it did not stand up (or has not yet done so) to re-reading.

I went through a Bond period and re-read much of Fleming’s original 007 stories. Great, spare writing. I also read a good few of Iain Banks space-opera novels, and also his de facto autobiography called “Raw Spirit” which I found encouraging. I read some of Keith Laumer’s science fiction stories, and Lord Moran’s excellent “The anatomy of courage” which every single one of us ought read. I read the journal of the Lewis and Clark expedition- that was long and tedious in places, but rivetting and exciting in others. Neal Stephenson’s work was a blessing to me – particularly “Cryptonomicon” and “The System of the World“. Nevil Shute’s “In the wet” I’d also highly recommend. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the radical and strange voting system he proposes in that story.

Who else is there to mention? Kipling, perhaps. I went through a Kipling phase after one of my daughters spent time at Simla, and later, lived for a year or so near New Delhi. “Plain tales from the hills” demonstrates that astute observer of the human condition in his best form. “Kim” I would put on the list of books everyone ought to read. Two interesting things about Kipling’s “Kim”: 1) it is available extensively in translation throughout India – but it is not available in Urdu and hence not available at all in Pakistan – where much of the story is set. I leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about that. 2) It is not so much the startng point of the Scout movement – that would be B.P’s “Scouting for Boys” – as the grandfather or underlying source material for Scouting. You want to understand what Scouting is about? Read “Kim”.

We may add the former astronaut Stephen Baxter. Whilst no crackerjack conspiracy theorist, he suggests that NASA exists not to faciliate human space flight but to prevent it – we could have gone to Mars in the 1980’s. I recommend “Flood” and “Ark” and especially “Moonseed” with a character whose immortal line is – after Arthur’s Seat becomes once again an active volcano – “Edinburgh is Olympus Mons now”. Also the learned Doctor Theodore Dalrymple. Never less than a pleasure – such works as “The politics and culture of decline” and “The Wilder shores of Marx”.

Tom Bingham wrote “The rule of law”, a helpful book on a vital concept. It is a book I bought and read after an oddly encouraging visit to Parliament which my wife and I won in a raffle. Up for re-reading in these interesting times, is that one. The leather-faced explorer the late Wilfred Thesiger was one of a series of Arabist explorers of the last 150 years. He was effectively guilty of opening the flood gates and allowing the desecration by oil companies of the Rubal Khali or Empty Quarter of Arabia. But he writes wonderfully of the (now doubtless long-vanished) desert Bedu. Read his autobiography “My life and travels“. Read “Arabian Sands“.

Much that perhaps ought to be included has been omitted. But I just read a book called “Steal like an artist” by Austin Kleon, and he notes that the future, in the present world where we are swamped by easily available data and information, belongs to those who know what to leave out. It was perhaps ever thus…and on that note, I bid you good day.

Nick Hough <nick@houghlife.com>Fri, 3 Jan, 18:46

More Scottish travels

After a work-related evening in The Dutch Mill in Aberdeen, the following morning I set off up Deeside towards Braemar. My first stop was Gordon’s Tea Rooms in Braemar, an excellent little gaff where I had a latte and some rather tasty fruit shortbread. I did like the lamps each hung on a miniature sheave.

From there, over the blasted wilderness of Glen Shee. A typical Scottish ski-station at the top of a pass – deserted other than under winter conditions. On the Aberdeenshire side, deep, thick mist. Oddly enough, a change in the weather meant that the Perthshire side of the pass was much clearer – an odd effect of the mountains. Thence, through to Pitlochry. Amidst rain and tourists, I sought lunch. Pitlochry has not changed for the better; the retail trade is in deep recession, and the main road through the mountains has long since bypassed this town – and it shows. I went to see the Fall colours at Garry Bridge, but it was no weather to be outdoors in town clothes. I pushed on towards the central Highlands, toward the dreary 55mph treadmill of the Pass of Drumochter.

Long before I got there, I happened upon the Atholl Arms Hotel on the north side of Blair Atholl. I like an historic coaching inn every now and then, and I turned into the car park with no further ado. Grey stone, an imposing frontage and large display windows that seemed almost Mackintosh-esque to me. Coats of arms prominent, yet not covering itself in tartan, nor in the cross of St. Andrew. So far so good. In a cosy little reception area to the right of the front door, a blonde lady in blue suggested a single room for £50, or a double for £75. I opted for the single. It was off to one side, clearly an erstwhile room for students or staff. The room looked dreadful: it was ill-lit; there was woodchip on the ceiling; 80’s pine furniture, and a single bed jammed against the wall. I liked it. It also had a perfectly excellent shower, a fluffy white bath towel, and the makings for tea included a little teapot. I was set up! I went out for a run up Glen Tilt.

It’s the touches of old that endeared it to me…the wooden sash windows, the 1970’s light fittings, the domestic patterned glass in the windows was probably older than I am. For £50, it was atmospheric and excellent. But I could not hope for a great breakfast. I went down with low expectations, and I was disappointed. I had as good a full breakfast as anywhere in the UK, served by friendly and engaged staff in an enormous baronial hall fully two floors high – the recipient of light from the aforementioned large display windows. The ceiling was Robin Hood green, the walls, a deep maroon. Crossed swords and pikes were hung on the walls, interspersed with stags heads.

The following day at noon, after trundling through rainswept countryside along single-track roads, I stopped in Kingussie and took coffee in the “Sugar Bowl” cafe. I was luckier with the second-hand bookshops and picked up Geoffrey Household’s “The Sending”, Iain Banks “Raw Spirit” and Christopher Sommerville’s “The January Man: a year of walking in Britain”. I happened to glance at my phone, looking for information about a heritage railway I knew was somewhere near here, and I saw that there was a Diesel Gala Day – today. I put on my coat and hat and left for Aviemore on the instant.

The High Peak Trail – by bike from Edale to Whatstandwell in 2004

A propos of this rather excellent Go-Pro timelapse footage of a cycle ride down the High Peak trail, https://youtu.be/mbttC49o5Hg, here is a slightly slower but just as interesting account of a similar journey taken in 2004 before Go-Pros were invented…

Arriving at Edale Station at 10a.m, I set off uphill, and was soon walking… Nevertheless 10.25a.m saw me at Hollins Cross on the Mam Tor ridge. You could not walk from Edale Station to Hollins Cross in twenty five minutes. Thence riding and walking up to Mam Tor, and carrying my bike down the stairs to the road. Thence down Winnats (peaking at 37mph just before the Speedwell cavern), through Castleton and up into Cave Dale, where I had once again to carry my bike, so rough was the ground. I was up and out of Cave Dale and onto the moor, whence I lunched, at 11.35a.m. Then onwards over bridleways, quite slow going, bringing me down through some quite delightful woodlands to Peak Forest on the A623. I came east a few miles along the main road – unpleasant work, mostly uphill with heavy freight traffic sweeping past me, and very little safe room to walk the bike – and then struck south to the west of Tideswell, along minor roads firstly, and the Limestone Way secondly, bringing me to Millers Dale after a decent interval, again mostly by bridleways.

From Millers Dale, up along “long lane”, another bridleway, strongly upstairs, to the A6 at the western end of the Taddington bypass. Through Taddington and further south again, minor roads leading me to the “Bull in t’ Thorn” on the Ashbourne-Buxton road for a much needed pint at a little after 1.30p.m. Thence a hundred yards or so to Hurdlow. The first section of the ride was over – 20 miles in a little under four hours. Very good riding but quite slow. At least five miles on foot, maybe as much as a mile having carried my bike.

I hared off down the High Peak Trail, whizzing through Parsley Hay about 2.05p.m. This were my target points – Parsley Hay by 2p.m, High Peak junction by 3p.m (I gravely underestimated the time and distance – nearly 18 miles – from Parsley Hay to High Peak junction.) So concerned was I with keeping my speed up, that I missed the junction and continued burning down the Tissington Trail, only realising my mistake at Hartington signal box! I was able to cut a couple of miles across country on a bridleway, getting myself easily back onto the C&HPR.

Thereafter, a very long leg with only one or two brief rests, along the railway track, which due to the pace I was having to sustain, was only slightly enjoyable. With increasing saddle sore and tiredness, wrist pain and thirst, I came to Wirksworth a little after 3pm. I had made 32mph down Hopton Bank, but so slow was my progress (8mph) down the much steeper Middleton Bank, that I abandoned the High peak Trail and went down the much faster main road into Cromford, arriving at Cromford Wharf at about 3.25pm.

I had planned to arrive at High Peak Junction – still a good mile away – at 3p.m. I was running very late and had been thinking about that for well over an hour. It wasn’t that I couldn’t make it home, it was that I wanted to be home in time to get showered up and ready to take Cubs at 6.15p.m. Had I rode all the way home to Derby, I should have arrived, very tired and very stiff, and most likely well after 5p.m. I needed a break with the trains. So I was very pleased when, almost as I turned into the car park at Cromford Wharf, the clickety-clack of an approaching northbound train could be heard across Cromford fields.

I now knew that all I had to do was ride along the towpath through to Whatstandwell station in the time it takes the train to run up to Matlock, rest a while and set off back again. I  figured I had a little under half an hour. I pushed very hard along the tow path, hindered in the first mile by pedestrians, and I had to draw on inner reserves to keep the pace up as I drew near to Whatstandwell. I was constantly expecting to hear the sound of the train running through the woods, signalling that I would have to ride all the way to Derby. But, I need not have worried. I was ensconced on the station at Whatstandwell after a fifteen minute dash, and the train did not arrive for another ten minutes. An excellent day out in the White Peak.