A Long Walk Through a Poem

Time takes on a new pace when you’re walking, day after day. Our path is marked by steady footfall, mind and body become more acutely aware of the environment, and place shows itself anew. Our recent long walk – 16 days, covering 258km – took us on a circuit around the Lake District, bringing together the learning, the landscapes, and the long-distance poem which are at the heart of the Sense of Here project.

At the end of Day One we made the final climb up the Old Coach Road above Threlkeld Common, the last stretch of a long walk (just over 24km) before we made camp.

here we tread

step by step, navigating the rhyming forms of hills
the scribbling of becks, their busy tongues speaking the shape of rocks

our track is a contoured calligraphy of trees, rivers, fells
with the punctuation of birds, frogs, clouds

we walk through stanzas of flowers, enclosed by wind,
a parenthesis between rains


The site where we placed the March Canvas in 2019, with the words WHERE IS THE WILD. In March the woods were leafless and brown, a big difference from the abundant green of July.


After more than a year of research, considering different issues of land, we wanted to take a long walk to get a feel for the national park ‘in the round’ – quite literally. Beginning and ending at the Under Helm Sycamore in Grasmere, we devised a route to pass clockwise around the Lake District, navigating our way by the twelve sites where we placed the canvas in 2019: one in each 30-degree segment of an imagined clock face. Each month, the canvas carried different words: together, the twelve offer a poem, but also become triggers for new poetry.

We walked from one valley, one fell, one lake to another. And we were drawn, always, from one poetic phrase to another. Our footfall, the weather, and the patchwork of woodland, river, bog, tarn, heather, meadow, rock and village, combined to form a dynamic and physical poem: a string of momentary experiences and views, each one linked to the other by the thread of our footsteps.

Taking in the view eastwards from a ledge below Hell Gill Pike, with Greenburn in the foreground.

We did not walk constantly though, as if overtaken by some poetic or artful muse: the act of covering 258km, feeding ourselves sensibly, carrying heavy bags, making camp – all these things are intensely physical, and we rested often. It’s a tough challenge at times, but also a beautiful experience. And it’s a reminder of our own elemental state. Like the landscape, which we may label, manipulate and intellectualise to become something abstract, at the most basic and true level our bodies are physical, and exist constantly in relation to the environments in which we place ourselves. There’s fragility as well as resilience.

Filling up a water bottle from a beck that flows into Haweswater.
One of the daily chores before breaking camp and starting the day’s walk was to shake the tent, emptying it of bits of grass. This morning was one of few sunny starts.

We walked through many different landscape types. All clearly reflect their underlying geology – limestone at Whitbarrow Scar is never going to look or feel the same, or host the same life, as a deep wet bog on Bampton Common, or the sheer screes of Wasdale. Others reveal the kind of weather they are exposed to – like the spreads of mosses, bog plants, fungi and lichens in wooded valleys where cloud lingers longest. And most are shaped by land management decisions and practices that have sculpted the look of this place over hundreds of years: grazing, forestry, industry, dwelling.

Contemplating the impact of human lives became a repeated subject of conversation as we walked, and we reflected on the research that had kept us busy throughout 2019 as we’ve talked to people about the way the landscape has been shaped, and decisions being made now. How is the landscape impacted by sheep, and cows? Where are new trees being planted? Where could new hedgerows be beneficial? What’s the feeling of a valley when it’s lived in, and farmed, and how does it feel when trees and scrub roam instead of sheep? Where’s the balance between leisure, heritage, nature … and who or what benefits from any one action?

Coming away from Seathwaite Tarn before dropping down into Duddon Valley. Another wet day … with more than a few foot-soggying bog crossings.
Checking out the fly agaric in Miterdale Forest.

Our walk has allowed us to weave our way through a patchwork; to see the riotous vivacity of nature where soil, plants and insects thrive; to feel the pulse of humans loving and interacting with the land; to trace signs of long histories of farming, and the fragmented remains of mining and other industries; to notice where help is needed to improve and nurture ecosystems and habitats; and to be reassured by the richness and potential of this place and the way so many different points of view can feed into a holistic perspective.

Dub Hut, a shelter maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association, was a much-needed haven; we stopped for half an hour’s rest. Harriet had run out of energy after a very long morning’s walk that had taken us up and over two high passes from Wasdale. Outside, wind roared and rain smashed against the hut: a day that felt more like October than July.
At the end of Day 11, a long way from Wasdale Head, we ended up at this wonderful spot. A dis-used but well maintained sheep dub beside a beck that flows from Dalehead tarn.
Castlerigg Stone Circle, bright sunshine and a lot of happy people. Imagine what it might have been like here on a sunny day 5000 years ago.

After thirteen full days of walking, we returned to the sycamore tree where we began. It’s a tree and a place we know very well, but this time we saw things differently:  the completion of the walk marks the beginning of something new, a new way of seeing.

Back at the Under Helm Sycamore after 13 days walking. Although in the same physical space we started from, our view has changed, refreshed by a deeper encounter with the land.

resilience

this small skin-held society, my body,
feels its way over grass and stone

                        leans into wind

an ecology of muscles, sinews, joints
breath, eyes, feet

knees find their own consciousness
pain rises, eases

                        like a river after rain

day by day body takes over mind
shows what it knows

                        learns as it goes

when weariness sets in
the mind compels those final movements
to fix up home, to make food
to eat

then, lying flat, the body lets go
muscle by muscle
tendon and nerve

                        relaxes into healing

and over time, like land weathered
the body finds its strongest form
to be upright, and certain

                        in the face of a storm


At Low Rigg we installed the canvas last December, with the words WHAT CAN CHANGE. Revisiting this spot marked an important moment at the end of day 12 of walking.

We will be bringing together our reflections on this walk for the ‘Sense of Here’ book, which will be out in early December. We’re also working on a 3D sculptural representation of the walk, using a beautiful cross-section of sycamore wood – this will be in the exhibition, which opens in the galleries of Grizedale Forest on October 1st.

If you’re curious to know more about the walk, including the route we took and what we encountered each day, there are day-by-day posts on our Facebook Page (@somewherenowhereCumbria). Scroll down the timeline if you’d like to read the entries.

Coming off High Street and down into Haweswater with a spring in our steps. The morning had been wet and the cloud hung low obscuring all the tops. Walking in sunshine makes everything seem better.

*A note on camping … While we camped in two campsites during our trip, most of our nights were spent in the fells. We follow both common sense and widely accepted etiquette of what’s known as ‘wild camping’: we pitch our tent late, pack up early, and leave no trace. You can find out more about camping outside official campsites from the National Trust website here. Our habit of brushing the grass where our tent lay is something of a ritual … you may think this is going too far but there’s something wonderful about leaving a place looking, well, as if we’d never been there.


5 Comments on “A Long Walk Through a Poem

    • Thanks Pete … particularly like the fact that you’re enjoying the bonus poetry! Noticing your interest in archeology, you might be interested to know that we carried a 5000-yr-old axe head from the Langdale Valley with us on the walk. It was given to us by an artist friend, Gavin McGregor, and it will be featuring in the exhibition. Felt good to be carrying time with us in more ways than one …

  1. Sorry, my comment seems a little trite in retrospect. I liked the analogies to the convolutions of literary composition entwined with the landscape in “Here we Tread”; sounding pretentious now!
    Love it that you carried an axe with you, especially as it was another kilo to lump about. I often mull over what it would have been like 6000 years ago prospecting for tuff across the fells, tough comes to mind.
    Would that be the same Gavin McGregor who is also a very creative archaeologist?

    • No need to apologise, not trite at all. The axe was not a whole extra kilo, just the stone axe head which added an almost insignificant 50g to our load (although every bit does count, that’s not much!). And yes, that is the same Gavin McGregor – who presented the axe head to us in a box inscribed with the words ‘We are but a moment in the flow of time …’.

      • Ah, I thought so, I guided him round on a tour of some of the Langdale Pikes stone axe quarries a few years ago, like his Burning the Circle works on Arran.
        On another note I look forward to the day when the NP & NT lead by example and finally grasp the nettle in doing some extensive work on rewilding the NP, sadly the WHS status seems to have relegated it to a Beatrix Potter themed sheep ranch.

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