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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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.
*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.