Tuesday, December 4, 2012

How to write on a camel

Walking with animals Part 2

Camels are a bit different to ponies (see last post). Getting on and off them is more interesting for a start. But they have quite a different rhythm to ponies. It seemed to lope up through the songs drummed and 'clash-clashed' with the local castanet-cum-cymbal instruments around the firelight of our Saharan camp on an excursion from Cafe Tissardmine. (For more on what I was doing there, see this post). Writers spend a lot of time sitting down, so we might as well sit somewhere interesting. On a camel you are high up with a great view, and if the rhythm also serves the writing, so much the better!

What I discovered on this trip is that not all camels are equal. Hamud, pictured above, had an armchair style and his long-paced rocking rhythm made the words flow. For evidence, the tiny area scribbled in black (to the left) is what happened when I held a pencil point against the paper in my notebook and let the rocking motion register - a sort of 'camelometer' developed by Debra, the rider pictured. My writing was legible, just.

Alfredo, however, the younger, smaller, less experienced camel at the back in the photo below, gave us a more jerky ride, as can be seen by the second  notebook page. Not such a good writing camel.

Fortunately we had opted for two camels between four of us, which meant we walked a lot too. One of the interesting observations we all made was that we noticed more when we walked rather than rode. Perhaps the view from the top is over-rated.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Walking with animals

My article below has recently appeared in The Geographer, the newsletter of the very wonderful Royal Scottish Geographical Society who helped organise this July 2012 journey in partnership with Speygrian. Any observations on walking with animals very welcome.
A Love Affair and a Dirty Right Arm       

 ‘If this is Montana,’ Vyv said, ‘What I want to know is, where’s Robert Redford?’
We were in the southern reaches of the Cairngorms, at Kirkmichael, and our two and four-legged cavalcade had just carved its way through the hills from Newtonmore via Blair Atholl, taking five days to cover 60 miles. The journey itself over rivers, through forests and valleys sculpted by ice, had seemed so much longer, made us feel so much smaller than the miles implied. Obviously, we were in Montana.
Our group – a sort of mobile conference of teachers, artists, writers, ecologists, pony enthusiasts, geographers – grew and shrank, transforming across the week. At our communal heart was a fascination with journey, as well as individual motivations such as a wish to walk with animals, explore and draw inspiration from the landscape, follow old ways and keep traditions alive.
Through glens and over passes we followed routes which had once forged lively connections between places. On the second day, we climbed high out of Glen Feshie, into smirr, onto Meall an Uilt Chreagaich. From there, a steep and slippery traverse south west over Leathad an Tobhair, would join us to the Minigaig Pass, the summit of a once important north-south road, and a possible route for drovers from Speyside to the cattle sales in Crieff or Falkirk. After Wade built the military road over Drumochter in 1729, it was used by many more drovers to avoid paying tolls.
The difficult, trackless section had challenged us, unsettled our steady progress. Laughter had hushed. Then, processing across a high plateau with banks of cloud rolling at our side, and perhaps in one of the remotest places in Britain, a large lump of white quartz gleamed against the dark heather, out of mist.
‘Here we are,’ said Ruaridh.
A further glint of white ahead, and another, more mistily beyond that, confirmed we were re-treading an ancient way as hooves and boots struck into soft peat on our gradual descent into Glen Bruar. As the first party to take animals this way for 100 years, we drew confidence from our forebears.
We only had cattle with us on the first day, but our Highland ponies, provided by Newtonmore Riding Centre, came all the way. They were sturdy and yet spirited, descended from mares owned in the early nineteenth century by a famous Lochaber drover. I’m sure those of us who had not travelled with pack animals before anticipated an easier hike without the burden of a heavy rucksack.
However, handling the ponies needed constant communication and concentration, not least in an effort to keep our feet from under theirs. With one hand on the rein we sought a trusting connection. Too long and she might trip on it or sense a lack of guidance; too short and her freedom to jump obstacles on rough ground or find the surest way was compromised. All other tasks – sandwich eating, rearrangements of pannier or rucksack – had to be carried out with one hand. The clothing of our leading arms was gradually rubbed dark against sweaty necks, grassy mouths.
Our steps soon rhymed with theirs. With their heads nodding, breathing softly next to us, they clip-clopped their way into our hearts. Their names rang in our mouths like a poem: Torr, Zino, Bean, Blue, Breagh, Alice, Ailsa, Micky, Mack, and Marigold. The rhythms of any camping journey – pitching tents; cooking; sleeping; were extended by looking after the ponies’ needs – untacking; turning them out; finding water. At night they grazed close to our tents, their snorts oddly comforting; hooves drumming through our dreams. In the mornings they gathered at the fence, watching us, apparently curious.
Despite our often remote location, and the sense at times of a haunted, abandoned landscape, each night we had extra company of some sort; folk joining us with songs or stories, or hosting us in their fields and steadings. At Bruar Lodge, three girls welcomed our tetchy arrival with smiles, and carrots for the ponies. At Newtonmore and Blair Atholl, ‘Meet the Drovers’ events gathered local people and tourists to pat the ponies and ask about the journey. We drew local families after us in a carnivalesque wake for the sunny miles down Glen Fearnate and into Kirkmichael before our final event there. It was clear a nerve had been tingled by our quirky procession; a way of life suggested; a landscape looked at in a new light.
For this drover at least, my walk across Montana was enriched by rekindling a teenage love affair. I never did see anyone resembling Robert Redford. But, ah, the ponies and their dear sweet ears...

Friday, June 1, 2012

The King's Way

 A delightful four-day walk over last weekend, joining up places I know with new ones, and making them into a continuous journey: Inverness to Tain. Lines carved through ripe barley fields; sunshine, skies of searing blue followed by cool, clamping haar; Hugh Miller’s fossil rich sandstone coast up the Black isle to Cromarty; cavorting dolphins gathering a hushed congregation on the beach, resembling churchless worshippers.

 Walking with a friend who will soon start training as a Unitarian Minister, we chose the route because we liked the idea of Pilgrimage. Known as ‘The King’s Way’, this was a pilgrimage trodden many times by James IV to reach St Duthac’s shrine in Tain, but was only the northern section of a much older pilgrimage route which linked St Ninian’s shrine near Whithorn in Galloway, spanning a huge swathe of Scotland.

I came across this quote by Austrian philosopher, Martin Bruber, back in June: ‘All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware.’ It rang true with me. How impossible it is to say what you will experience, what will reveal itself on the way. The Churches didn’t disappoint – in particular Fortrose Cathedral and the beautiful church at Nigg surrounded by its leaf-shaded, mossy graves. But it was the Pictish relics which really grabbed me on this trip, and remain somewhat mysterious. At Nigg, Shandwick and Hilton of Cadboll, gorgeously carved monuments have stood since the early centuries of the First Millennium, which as Stuart McHardy says in A New History of the Picts represent ‘one of the most under-appreciated collections of art in human history’. I hope the photos here speak for themselves. But I am hot-footing it to the National Museum of Scotland to see the Cadboll one which is on display there. They seem to me a wonderful fusion of pagan and Christian symbolism, and the lack of written records from this period maintain their enigma.

I love the opportunity to learn on a walk, and the surprises. So perhaps it was a pilgrimage of sorts, after all, even though we missed Saint Duthac's shrine (it closes at 5pm) and had to make do with a dazzling arrival at Tesco's for cold pepsi instead!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

In Explorers' Footsteps

I was honoured to spend World Book Night (23rd April) in the Explorers' Room at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Perth reading from 'Following our Fathers' ina room packed with maps, photographs and books. What a treat! I was reading with Gavin Francis, talking about polar travels, and Jamie Grant talking about following his father on the Bolivian Altiplano. A great evening.http://www.rsgs.org/projects/fmh.html

Friday, April 13, 2012

walking home from the office

‘Nothing educates the eye for the features of a landscape so well as the practice of measuring it by your own legs’. Leslie Stephen said this in an essay, ‘In Praise of Walking’, and it perhaps sums up best the impulse that pushed me out of my office and through the back gate of Stirling University to start my walk home on a sunny March evening recently.

I emerged into the leafy streets of Bridge of Allan, passing through sandstone mansions, the scent of cherry blossom, the thwack of tennis balls across nets. It was all pleasingly familiar, with the Ochil Hills just behind the town hinting at remoteness, and the A9 humming in contradiction. And yet I had never walked home before. I’ve taken an hour to drive this route countless times over the last 17 years, travelled it by trains and buses more recently, since not having a car. But I’d never had the experience of measuring it with my own legs, perhaps not surprisingly as the journey is about 50 miles long.

I’ve worked part-time as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Stirling over the last three academic years, and with my time there now coming to a close, it seemed appropriate to ‘walk home from the office’ as a sort of ritual of transition. Long journeys on foot make wonderful rites of passage – to draw a line under a job, mark a significant birthday, or any kind of change in our lives. There’s time to think and there’s the rhythm, the fresh air, the observations and so on, and there’s a pause in normal life while the transformation settles within and starts to flourish. It is meditation and refreshment.

On my first full day of walking, high up with curlews burbling around me on the Sherrifmuir road in the Ochils, the spread of Strath Earn still to cross below, and the rise beyond of hills marking the start of the Highlands where I would climb in two days time towards home in Aberfeldy, I took a phone call. A new position was offered to me, a departure and a challenge. It seemed an intrinsic part of the walk that I was leaving one position and could begin looking forward to another.

The timing of this walk was significant in another way. Queues were snaking from petrol stations as the fuel ‘crisis’ took grip. I’ve often enjoyed reading accounts of people walking significant distances to jobs, or to fetch a cow or go to university prior to our seemingly universal expectation of car-use, and I enjoyed a sense that I was doing the same – walking to get
somewhere because that’s what you do. I was appreciating the real distance. And perhaps within my lifetime, the real distance will become more of a consideration in the planning of our journeys.

Although the round hills and green valleys of Perthshire are unremarkable in some ways, at the pace of foot travel and with the dullness of familiar vision removed by a slightly different route, giving a fresh angle, they became less so. (Not to mention the delirious thrill of early Spring sunshine). There are so many natural features here to enjoy – the river Earn snaking me through rich farmland to lead into Crieff; the canyon-esque entrance to the Highlands represented by the Sma’ Glen. And the human features here whisper of layers of history and sometimes conflict – Roman forts; graveyards; abandoned farmhouses; a disused railway to follow as part of the route; golf courses and wind farms. But the final day of my walk was the most exciting in terms of undiscovered history on my doorstep.

I’ve always wanted to follow Wade’s Military Road between Crieff and Aberfeldy. In the winter light especially, I’ve caught sight of it marching straight across the moor when the road veers, but never fully realised that it’s possible to walk its 25 mile length with recourse to only tiny stretches on the A822. Built as part of the attempt to quell the Jacobite uprisings in the early 18th century, the road is not only still easy to follow, but also makes a really enjoyable route, passing over the delightful bridges which characterised Wade’s roads, and often still visibly bordered by two lines of boulders. It kept me marching all day, enthralled to discover each new section after 17 ‘blind’ years of living and passing so close by.

Finally it tumbled me down, sore-footed but exhilarated to be in my home valley. I crossed the field that I often walk, its path bordered with twin lines that I now realised were distinctive to something greater. With dusk falling and hunger rumbling, Wade deposited me in the Town Square, just outside the Co-op, where I prepared for a feast.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

'Following our Fathers' reviewed in Northwords

The current issue of Northwords, a marvellous journal, carried this interesting review of the new wee book:
Following Our Fathers –
Two Journeys among Mountains
by Linda Cracknell
Best Foot Books (www.lindacracknell.com)
Review by Stephen Keeler
Beginnings and endings are rarely clear-cut,
discrete or readily identifiable. Towards the
end of the first of the two accounts which
make up this heart-warming little treasure of
a book Cracknell suggests that she ‘set out on
this walk principally for a holiday’. It is clear
from the outset, however, not only that she
set out for rather more than a holiday but also
that she had ‘set out’ long before she arrived
in Norway to do it.
Cracknell’s first account, ‘Losing my footing,
finding my feet again’, is of her ‘walk’ in
the footsteps of Sven Sømme, a Norwegian
biologist arrested by the German forces occupying
his country in 1944 for photographing
a torpedo station near Åndalsnes. An activist
in the resistance movement, Sømme escaped
during transportation to the regional military
headquarters for summary trial, and headed
for neutral Sweden across Norway’s backbone
of high fells and towering alps. His compelling
and deeply personal account of the arduous
and hazardous trek was published in 2005, as
Another Man’s Shoes, and is Cracknell’s companion
guide, along with Sømme’s daughters
Ellie and Yuli, on a commemorative walk, sixty
years later, to ‘reinforce their father’s route’, to
create their own ‘pathways of personal meaning’,
and to ‘reclaim Norway as a country to
which [they] belonged’. Heady stuff, even for
readers not prone to vertigo.
Cracknell’s skill as a writer is to combine
the poetry and the prose without appearing
to have to try too hard. The hills may always
‘tremble with promise’ but they never cease to
be what Robert Louis Stevenson called ‘granite
underfoot’. The Norwegian west coast
evening ‘stretched out long and late with its
layering of blue-island silhouettes reminding
[her] of the Summer Isles’, but ‘the path crosses
a featureless plateau, and circles behind a small
hill, after which we descend back towards the
lake through rocky outcrops’. Unsurprising
that her desk and computer seem ‘remote
and irrelevant’, that she should contemplate,
in the silent sleeplessness of the high alpine
valley, not only the Sømmes’ genetic legacy
stretching back like the valley itself, but eventually
that of her own family. Just like Sven
Sømme, Cracknell’s father died of cancer in
1961: ‘Although he was a keen mountaineer,
I know little of what and where he climbed.
I have no scent or record of his adventures.
For all I know, he might have climbed here
in Norway.’
And so, of course, the seeds of Cracknell’s
second piece are planted. Lying awake in the
chill of a high Norwegian mountain pass, she
is inclined to think of her ‘valley’ as ‘strangely
punctuated’, as something of a terminal moraine,
perhaps, and of herself as ‘a full stop’: ‘I
returned home thinking about this. I wanted
to follow more whispering ways; to seek out
stories that still echo underfoot…’
The second piece, ‘Outlasting our Tracks’,
is the story of Cracknell’s attempt at the
Finsteraahorn, in the Bernese Oberland
(Switzerland), and is a mountaineer’s account
of a serious climb, full of the insights and detail
an armchair climber longs to read: ‘The
rope makes a team of us, pulling us out of
individual reveries and slow waking with the
need to communicate. Like riding a tandem,
pauses will need negotiation.’ It is also an account
of Cracknell’s attempt to ‘colour in the
shaded outline in [her father’s] photograph’,
for at half her age he had led an expedition to
the Finsteraahorn, in 1952, and this was her
answer to the call to follow him.
Her account of the climb, of fewer than
forty rather small pages, soon has me breathless.
By the time they reach the crest I – merely
a reader – am exhausted by the terror, the effort
and the concentration, and I am about to
be assaulted by a ‘dark twist’ in the narrative
which will replace triumph with solemnity.
There is, however, a sense of loose ends being
knotted, a tidying of affairs: ‘this experience
will echo on. A spell has been untied; a story
retraced and given words out of silence.”
I finish, and put my copy of the book
aside with a sigh. Some readers will find the
photos and maps that occur at various places
in the book add little, and may even detract.
They do, however, emphasise the personal
nature of both the writing and the subject
matter. There is a particular tenderness when
Cracknell considers fathers and their daughters,
as far removed from sentimentality as
it is possible to be. There are gentle insights
into the deep-rooted bonds of kinship, and
a merciful absence of fashionable angst. This
is a book to take with you somewhere quiet,
but take a notebook, too, so that you can jot
down your plans to follow, metaphorically at
least, in the author’s footsteps.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Following our Fathers - new from 'best foot books'

My latest ‘best foot book’ is officially published in a week’s time. Following our Fathers: Two Journeys among Mountains is non-fiction mountain literature with personal stories at its craggy heart. As the blurb says:
‘Two men make significant journeys on foot, one in Nazi-occupied Norway, 1944, and one in the Swiss Alps, 1952. Both die as young men from cancer in 1961. More than half a century after their journeys, the writer finds their routes still ‘way-marked’ by memory. By sharing their footprints, she makes memorials to the men as fathers – one of them her own.’

It includes maps, photos and illustrations I’ve drawn myself, has been packed into a neat 120 page pocket book, and self-published; this project has been a long time ‘cooking’. The post below tells how it came about. You can read more or purchase a copy of the book for £7 inc p&p from my website http://www.lindacracknell.com/ and it has a facebook page where you can follow its progress if you 'like' it.
My father was a mountaineer. He was also a motorcyclist. I know about the latter because my mother used to talk about the time she fell off the back of it. It became one of the repeated legends from the early life of our family.
I am also a bit of a mountaineer; a bit of a motorcyclist. A genetic inheritance or a coincidence? It seems unlikely I was influenced by a man who died on 31st January 1961 when I was 18 months old and he was only 33.
In the summer of 2004, I filled a 55 litre rucksack with stove, tent, books and clothes to join an old friend, Yuli Sømme, and her siblings who were following their father’s escape route 200 miles across the mountains from west coast Norwayto neutral Sweden, pursued by Nazi soldiers in 1944. It was a celebration of his life as well as his journey. At nights, wild-camping and mosquito-ambushed, we read extracts from his own account of the escape aloud. His euphoric sense of freedom often came across more strongly than fear of his predicament. He was breaking away from a settled life and work to make his own way in the mountains; he observed the spray kicked up by the heels of a herd of reindeer, ate cloudberries, and sang.
For Yuli and her family it was an emotional journey. But it was for me too, reminded with every footfall of my own lost father. As we walked, and talked about what we knew of our fathers (who died of cancer in the same year) and their passion for the mountains, I began to think about a walk to pay homage to my own father of whom I had no memory. I thought it might be either a journey he had always wanted to do, or retracing one that he had done. But the family’s collective memory was hazy.
The journey that was best recalled, because it generated lines in a newspaper which were duly stuck in a photo album, was an ascent of Finsteraarhorn, the highest summit in the Swiss Bernese Oberland. My mother photocopied the photos for me and the process polarised the black and white, so that the dark rock spars in violent angles and steep slopes up to a fierce point, the blank paper showing a formidable banking up of snow. There was also a small photo of my father, Richard Cracknell. Facing the camera, hands on hips, he wears rough canvas trousers and a long-sleeved shirt with big pockets and a cravat. Under a lop-sided, broad brimmed hat, his face is shaded but there is a small hint of white teeth, a smile, a suggestion of my own brow.
So this mountain (which became treacherous and traumatic for my father) presented itself to me in 2008. Standing at 4,274 metres and with a very long walk in, it was a considerable challenge, requiring mountaincraft. How to go about it? By coincidence, my friend Rick was planning an Alpine climbing trip with his friend Colin as a way of marking both their fiftieth birthdays, and Finsteraarhorn was their first choice. When we discovered this, they bravely agreed I could join their expedition. I knew they would be good companions – both first and foremost passionate about the experience of being in the mountains, having fun, appreciating flowers, and notobsessively ticking off conquests.
My first Alpine climb was an exciting prospect, but as a rather cowardly climber, it also jangled my nerves. I’ve climbed plenty of winter hills in Scotland, learnt some basic belaying techniques on ice, done a bit of rock climbing and have been at altitude a few times over the last 20 years – although not always comfortably. But I knew it would challenge me technically in terms of ice, snow and crevasses and there were a number of unknowns – how my veteran body would cope, the timing of the right weather window and what the party’s fitness would permit. I reassured myself that to be in the alpine environment would feel a meaningful pilgrimage in itself, even if we failed to summit.
The emotional challenge seemed to match the severity of the physical task. I hoped this journey would bring me closer to the memory of my father, the man I know was a well-loved friend, a chemist with a gift for languages, who cooked and cared for his children before he became ill. A man who loved mountains and motorbikes.
Following our Fathers overlays accounts of my own walks in Norway and Switzerland with the journeys taken by Sven Sømme and my father. One of the great joys of being a writer, and especially of taking excursions into non-fiction, is that I can relive and re-celebrate an experience such as this as I craft it into words for a page. It’s taken its time and I won’t pretend that finding an effective way to write about it hasn’t been a steep climb too…!