The sun is being played by clouds, lining the high points of fells with gold for brief moments. Here in the valley the light is bringing the subtlest of blues out of the black-white tumble of the beck. We’re very gently gaining height as we stroll up Greenburn, with the beck to our left and the bracken-covered fells towering on either side of us.
We heading towards Helm Crag. Beneath the crag, on a sliding slope of scree, stands the Under Helm Sycamore. It’s a tree we know well, and we have selected it as the hub of a wheel, a still centre in a turning world where questions arise, and around which revolutions turn. Over the coming year, our walks, camps and conversations will consider many different places and issues, but will relate back always to this point, a reminder that everything is connected, and there is always more than one perspective on a single place. Today our walking route will take us in a small circuit around this tree, to mark it out as the centre, and to centre ourselves.
Our day starts in the kind of wintry quiet that settles around the sound of a river in a windless valley, and we are beginning to sink into our own thoughts when the sound changes: Will Benson from Town Head Farm is approaching on his quad. He stops to chat, joking that Rob and I are still walking to that tree, the Under Helm Sycamore … we explain that yes, we are, again: this time to circumnavigate it, treading an ellipsis as we mark it out as the centre of the wider space of the Lake District.
As we share our reason for being here, Will shares his: he’s checking on his Herdwicks. They’re grazing the walled-in fields beside us, every sheep with a red smudge behind its head – the smit mark that shows which farm it belongs to. All of the sheep are ewes, except for two: tups whose chests are marked bright blue. The ewes almost all have blue marks on their back ends, showing that the tups have been busy. Between now and spring, when the lambs arrive, checking the ewes is a daily job, involving a tour of the inbye land and the higher fells every day.
We almost always cross paths with Will when we walk in this area, and our conversation marks the passing of time through the seasons. When he leaves, the noise of the quad soon fades to nothing and we are left again to hand our thoughts over to the rhythm of our footfall, the sound of water, and the feel of the winter air.
The path climbs then reaches a lip, to level out. We step into a feeling of wild: spread before us is a wide basin of drumlins and bog. There is no-one else here, and the entire space is bronze and gold, the narrow river reflecting the bracken-covered fells so brightly it could be molten metal. We walk into a burnished land.
This open space is part of a vast area of common land. There are no walls here, but we do stumble upon an old sheepfold. It’s an usual shape, almost a triangle, making use of three huge boulders that would have been left behind by a retreating glacier. The sheepfold might have been in use as much as three hundred years ago, when shepherding practices were different. I step inside and soak up the feeling of a past forgotten, and imagine whose memories reside here.
We head straight up from here and the tug of uphill walking with a body that’s not as fit as it might be is a real effort. I feel it in my breath and in my calves. Under my feet the ground is covered in sphagnum moss and tufted grass. It squelches with each step. How this earth could hold any more water I can’t tell; and how long it would take to empty out, if no rain fell to replenish it, I can only wonder at. I rest from time to time on boulders that hold the signatures of ice and water and time.
We join the ridge at Moment Crag. The sun is bright and from this rocky vantage point we’re looking down on a land that’s folded in browns and greens. The wind is making a mid-range whistle in the long grass. I’ve squatted down against a rocky outcrop to take myself away from the path of the wind and settle into the present moment, on the Moment. There’s a nice ring to that: a moment of time, a moment of place. I am quiet, my senses keened to the wind and the temperature, Guilly at my side. The light is picking out the lines of the fells: Steel Fell in the foreground, Seat Sandal and the Fairfield ridge beyond. A race of cloud shadows plays over the glowing land. Further north, and dark for now, is Dollywagon Pike.
A few minutes later and Dollywagon has lost its shadow and seems to rise higher than before. I look around. Nothing in the landscape is changing, but with the shifting light, everything is changing. I think about the fact that any one moment could be the pivotal point of change, the start of something new.
And just when I think that it’s strange not to have seen a raven, I smile at the sight of a two graceful black birds, gliding, playing and racing through the winter wind. This is their place, more than it is mine, and any walk in the high fells seems empty if there are no ravens along the way.
We’ve come here to complete the circumnavigation of the Under Helm Sycamore, but also to plan where to put the canvas that will mark the start of the project. We scout the land around Helm Crag and I pick out a way through a chaos of ice-fractured, weather-beaten boulders. I’ve walked up here many times, but never on this side of the crag, and this harsh, rocky patch of land is a revelation to me. Just goes to show when you think you know a place, there’s always something more to find.
We pick a spot and check it out to ensure it is flat and wide enough to support the canvas. Rob is waiting for the light to change, with his camera pointing towards me. I am looking back at his silhouette on jagged rocks; behind him, the setting sun presses through low clouds and floods the Coniston fells with a shining grey: a pairing of landscape and light that leaves me speechless.
The sun dips, and beneath the high blue of evening we zigzag down the edge of the crag towards the sycamore, and then back to where we started. We have circled the tree, got a sense of the centre, and are ready now to move on.
And here I stand
In the sun
In the wind
Land beneath me
Hope and thoughts and the elements paving the road ahead