In serious need of some walking therapy I take the dog up to Nether Row for one of my favourite “Back o’ Skidda” walks. At Potts Ghyll the snowdrops are showing white but are not quite open. The Gill Beck, which oozes out from the soggy lower slopes of High Pike, slithers and skitters under the new wooden footbridge.
Out on the open moorland it still smells of winter. The tattered remnants of last week’s snow stick stubbornly in north facing gullies. The rushes are dry and brown - sere that onomatopoeic word the Romantic Poets would have used. Last year’s grass is pale like winter hay. The wind tangles a strand of wool, caught on the rusting fence. But there are no sheep on the fell – they are overwintering somewhere on the Solway Plain.
The hillside sounds different today – it is so quiet. The breeze is blowing from the south west, down from the summit, so there is no traffic noise – not a tractor, a car, not even a brace of RAF planes on a training mission. Muffled sounds are live, not mechanical – a dog barks at a distant farm, far down in the valley jackdaws chack in the bare trees.
It’s the quietness that makes me think of R S Thomas’s miniature masterpiece, “The Moor”, a poem I learned by heart years ago:
“I entered it on soft foot,
Breath held like a cap in the hand.”
I’ve always read this as a sign of reverence – the moor as sacred space – but now I realise there is another layer of meaning as that image is picked up in the penultimate line of the poem where the poet describes himself as “simple and poor”. A poor countryman holding out his cap for whatever he is given. I would say he is a beggar but that word has too much derogatory baggage attached to it (like the word peasant which R S Thomas in a pre-PC age used elsewhere).
It’s February. Fifty years ago Sylvia Plath committed suicide in that cold snow-bound seemingly endless 1963 winter that has passed into weather mythology like the Great Storm of 1987. February is not a good month for our emotional well-being. I once asked an inhabitant of the remote island of Foula how she coped with the long dark Shetland winters. “I go on holiday in February to somewhere hot and sunny” she replied.
But today’s walk has lifted my spirits. It’s half past three and I’m on my way back down to the valley where I’ve left the car. I pause where a dry stone wall marks the boundary between open grazing and enclosed fields. The apparently randomly placed rocks of the wall are a found poem in stone. Where I stand, the sun, for perhaps the first time since the solstice, is still visible above the dark outline of High Pike. The low westering light brindles the hillside’s humps and hollows. I’ve had a good walk and so has the dog – even if he is a rather muddy.