Friday 28 February 2014

Dove Cottage

What do you do in the Lake District on a wet weekend in February? You might go up a hill in the rain. You might, as I wrote in my book The Weekend Fix, 'clack-clack your twin walking poles round the Beatrix Potter nik-naks' of Coniston's tourist shops - or trial and buy outdoor gear, the Lake District having more outdoor shops in a greater concentration than anywhere else in the UK. Or you might take advantage of the Lake District's great literary connections and visit Hilltop - Potter's house, or Wordsworth's Dove Cottage.

Wordsworth is most famous for Daffodils. Personally I don't think that much of it when he has lines like:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
          But to be young was very heaven
Now that is poetry! Wordsworth and Coleridge helped to launch the Romantic Age in English literature with their 1798 joint publication Lyrical Ballads. Along with their contemporaries Blake, Keats, Bryon and Shelley they were famed for taking English language poetry to a new level, away from the mannered Augustan verse of Pope and Dryden and into the realms of fancy. At the same time, and in the same way that Beethoven almost single-handedly redefined the image of the classical composer as a troubled, willful genius, Wordsworth and his contemporaries remoulded the image of the poet from an urbane dispenser of epigrams to the image still dominant today: a sensitive fop, musing over flowers in the rolling English countryside. They were the Beatles, Stones, Kinks and Who of poetry, moulding the genre forever in their image.

Dove Cottage:

But Wordsworth and his sister were no fey dandies. They were robust outdoorsy types, walking impressive mileages each day. It would have been easy for Wordsworth to be lazy as he'd been fortunate to discover early on a rich patron, whose generosity allowed him to buy Dove Cottage and concentrate on writing. But his friend Thomas de Quincey (who moved into Dove Cottage after the Wordsworths moved out) estimated that Wordsworth walked 175,000 miles, or an average of eight miles a day, every single day of his long adult life.

He could hardly have chosen a better place to walk. Hills in every direction, wooded lake shores to explore, quiet, yet with basic roads and facilities already in place. The only problem would have been the weather. We took a short walk from Dove Cottage to a knoll between Grasmere and Rydal Water, deciding that on a day of rain and sleet, when cars had their headlights on at 1pm, that this was far enough for us today.

Rydal Water:

Wordsworth would have hardly got into his stride at this point.

Saturday 22 February 2014

The Wallace Monument

Head for Stirling Castle on its rock and you may find your eye drawn instead to Abbey Craig and its striking tower. The tower is topped by an unusual stone crown, the like of which is seen only in Aberdeen's Kings College and St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh. This is the National Wallace Monument, opened in 1869, the construction funded by public subscription.

Stirling Castle with the Wallace Monument left and behind:

Inside are displays from the medieval period, 'Wallace's Sword', a gallery of modern heroes, and from the top, fantastic views of Stirling, the Carse of Forth, and the Ochils.

William Wallace is Scotland's national hero. In an age when submission to Edward I of England was the sensible thing to do, Wallace's uncompromising attitude provided inspiration to his countrymen. He defeated an English force in 1297 but was betrayed and martyred, and it was to be Robert the Bruce who wrested the crown of Scotland from English control. But like Joan of Arc after him, it was Wallace the ordinary people wanted to hear tales about.

(Monuments to Robert the Bruce are much thinner on the ground. At the same time as the National Wallace Monument was inundated with subcribers, a Bruce monument planned for central Edinburgh was canned due to lack of public interest.)

Wallace Monument on Abbey Craig from the Ochils:

The Wallace monument was constructed at the height of the British Empire. Why would the Scots want to remind themselves of a time when they were engaged in damaging warfare with England? A clue is given in Graeme Morton's fascinating book Unionist Nationalism. At its time of construction, Scots played a major part in the empire. Yet the United Kingdom itself was a looser-run affair than it was to become in the 20th century, the spirit of laissez-faire entrenched, the ever-tightening tentacles of central state control decades away. Provided they sent tax revenues to London and men to fight the empire's wars, the Scottish establishment largely ran its own affairs. This happy circumstance (grumbles over the amount of tax sent to London without benefit to Scotland notwithstanding) led to an argument that sounds unusual to modern ears, but made sense at the time. Unionist nationalists argued that it was only thanks to the Wars of Independence and continued resistance to English domination, that Scotland finally gained its position as an equal partner to England in the 1707 union. Scotland's hard-fought independence meant that come the union, her trading rights were enhanced and her legal, educational, ecclesiastical and local government establishments preserved, as opposed to the sorry state in 1542 and 1801 of Wales and Ireland, which were incorporated into England's establishment whole. The synthesis of philosophical opposites allowed Victorian Scots to retain their national identity without it threatening the British state.

The Dryburgh monument:

There are several other Wallace Monuments. Off the top of my head I can think of a statue in Aberdeen, one at Dryburgh, a monument in Elderslie, a striking modern scupture at Loudon Hill, a plaque at the site of Dundee Castle, a cross at Robroyston where Wallace was captured, and a plaque at Spitalfields where he was killed. The list-ticking geek in me wants to visit them all...

Sunday 2 February 2014

Beinn Damph, Torridon

I've been experimenting with taking digital photos of slides. They aren't great, but are coming out marginally better than my scanned slides. I suspect they will look overprocessed - what do you think? The main benefit is the speed with which I can photograph a slide compared to scanning one! 

A while back I took slides on a trip to Torridon with the Lomond Mountaineering Club, spending the weekend in the Ling Hut. We had an early night but were woken by folk arriving late, doors banging, whispering, bags rustling, torches shining in faces, the cold coming off the jackets of the new arrivals as their senses adjusted to the environment of a dark dormitory.

Ling Hut and Liathach:

Next morning brought dirty weather. Whilst everyone else headed for easy Coire Mhic Fhearchair or the challenging traverse of misty, snowy Liathach, a couple of us chose the middle course of Beinn Damph.

We decided to head for the corrie directly east of the hill’s summit to minimise contact with the day’s westerly gale. A sharply scented pine forest and foaming river to start, then bog hopping over tough heather and moraine debris. We reached the corrie quickly, the cloud fortunately lifting enough to illustrate our one feasible ascent line. It was still fairly steep, and I forced myself not to worry on looking down from near the slightly corniced top. An exhilarating ascent, although I didn’t fancy going back down that way! The cloud had been lifting at the same rate as we were climbing, and on the top it cleared totally.

Beinn Alligan from Beinn Damph:

Liathach's arrowhead summit was plastered with snow and sunshine; views across Applecross, Skye, Torrridon, Kintail, and Glen Affric. Maol Chean Dearg and An Ruadh Stac looked magnificent. I was delighted we’d come up a hill that had such an excellent view. But of course, everywhere in Torridon is a great viewpoint!

Maol Chean Dearg from Beinn Damph:

We lingered at the top for a good twenty minutes or longer, drinking it all in, before heading back down for a bimble round Shieldaig then games of limbo dancing and table-traversing in the hut. (Could I traverse a table today? I don't think I could!) The next day the entire club drove round to Loch Clair and headed for the two Corbetts of Sgurr Dubh and Sgurr nan Lochan Uaine - or at least I thought we were doing both! Not being Corbett-baggers, everyone else, including my lift home, was content with a single summit, and so I was forced to follow with petted lip.

The glen to Coire Mhic Fhearchair from Sgurr Dubh:

No matter - I want to visit the Coire of a Hundred Hills below Sgurr nan Lochan Uaine some day anyway. I guess I will climb the hill then...