Thursday, May 13, 2010
There can't be many stretches of A road in Great Britain where a cyclist can be Queen. I found one on Friday. Twenty two miles of single-track peace and the few vehicles who were on the road gave me priority in the passing places!
This was the A836 from Kinbrace, in the heart of the Flow Country, the name given to the rolling expanse of peatland and wetland, covering 4,000 square kilometres in northern Scotland. The road then winds north through Strath Halladale, bright that day with gorse flower and lamb-studded meadows, to reach Sutherland's north coast at Portskerra.
I thoroughly recommend this route (or going west from Kinbrace) if you want a flavour of African-style open space. There's a unique thrill to having so much relatively featureless country covering such a massive area, and so little human habitation. Having said that, I would hesitate to walk here. I'm with Ralph Waldo Emerson on this, as he said in his essay Country Living, 'For walking, you need a broken country'.
This thought took me to North Cornwall and my experiences of walking in the Valency Valley near Boscastle, where Thomas Hardy once walked and loved, and which inspired me to write this as part of a longer piece when I returned three years ago after a thirty year absence:
'Hardy’s ‘crooked ways’ seem to me characteristic of the scale of North Cornwall, with its tight valleys, intimate fields, and the lanes that tunnel so much deeper than the farmland that border them. It is not clear as I stretch out to the walls of a lane on each side of me whether I touch built wall or bedrock. Has this lane been burrowed into a ‘holloway’ by centuries of recurrent human thoroughfare?
Sumptuous growth over built structures means that walls, corners, culverts, channels, paths, become softened by earth, disguised by ivy, fashioned into emerald tunnels. The scale means that even for a 17 year old, it is impossible to be bored by walking here. A few strides brings a change in view - enough height reveals the next valley; a dropped hedge reveals the sea; once eyes have adjusted, a woody hollow holds an ancient church. Walking unlocks the treasures of this valley.'
The miniature scale couldn't be more different to the boundless horizons of the Flow Country, and made me think how fortunate we are to be offered such contrasting experiences of landscape on this small island.