Monday, 26 August 2013

West Witton Fell Race

I entered a fell race over the weekend - the first time I've done so for years. I think it was climbing Meall nan Tarmachan brought it on (see previous post). The West Witton Fell Race (4.1 miles, 1,116ft of climbing) involves an ascent of our local big hill - Pen Hill. (It always happens on the same evening as the local tradition of The Burning of Bartle, during the weekend of the Witton Feast. Coincidentally, my stepfather had been judging the produce there earlier).

I paid my four quid at the playing field and pinned my number to my vest. I walked to the start at the far end of the village. A small crowd of participants and onlookers were gathering there. The participants in the Senior Race were called to the line. Looking around the serious, wiry, scantily clad  people around me I had the horrible feeling that everyone would finish in minutes and the organisers would be left waiting hours for me to turn up. A few minutes later we were off up the lane that led to the edge of the fell. It's a familiar scenario to those like myself. You get odd feeling that you are running backwards as those around you pass you. But not everyone did. To my relief, a handful of us were left at the back of the field to fight it out for last place!

The first part was the hardest. The lane sloped gently upwards. On a steep part of a fell race only the most able keep running - often, most of the field are reduced to stomping up with their hands on their knees or even crawling if it gets really steep. Trouble is, on the gentler slopes you have to keep running - or get left behind. The lane ended at the edge of the fell. Ahead of us we could see the leaders moving effortlessly up the fellside to the left of Black Scar crag. All of a sudden we were threading our way through the reeds of a boggy area. Wet feet. Then the fell reared up in earnest - suddenly the ground was in front of your face. In places you just had to crawl. (It would be easy to over-dramatize this. In fact, for an enthusiastic -rather than good- runner like myself, negotiating these climbs is sometimes easier than, say, the pressure of really keeping going towards the end on a flat road when running a 10k).

At the top of Black Scar we turned East, running along the edge of the plateau. This was pretty straightforward, though broken here and there by short, boggy sections. The view from here is great. We rounded the Iron Age chieftain's grave and made for the pile of stones (pictured) at the Eastern end of the plateau. From here, the route plunged down the steep end of the hill and then down through steep fields, back to the village. In the last section there are four dry stone walls to climb over - it feels a bit like a steeplechase. I came in about half an hour after the winner - it took me just under 58 minutes (57:55). I wasn't last. A plastic cup of squash never tasted so good.

I immediately regretted not running the race before - I've lived here for nearly two decades and this was my first time. The atmosphere is great, everyone gets a finisher's medal and you can always hang around for the Burning of Bartle (West Witton's answer to The Wicker Man - minus the policeman), although I couldn't, this year. There are races for senior men, senior women plus a junior race (which was run with talent, guts and enthusiasm).

Why don't more people enter fell races? Perhaps there's a perception that it's tougher than running 10ks and half marathons. In my limited experience it isn't. And for me, the combination of the "high" one gets from running and the views and the closeness to nature makes it hard to beat. It's a shame more people don't give it a go. But then perhaps it isn't - enough people do it already to make it exciting and perhaps it's best it remains one of athletics' best kept secrets.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Meall nan Tarmachan

Last week I went up to Glasgow with my two sons to see my daughter and her partner. Our plan was to see the sights in Glasgow when it was raining and go for a mountain walk when it wasn't.It was really great to be together and do things together for a couple of days.

The mountain walk in question was the Meall nan Tarmachan ridge. The Gaelic name means Ptarmigan Hill in English but that name is never used -  and if you were to use it people might think you were referring to Ptarmigan, the subsiduary peak of Ben Lomond.

Meall nan Tarmachan is a Munro and is famous for the interesting ridge-walk that connects it to three other mountain-tops. I've been collecting Munros for years - I say "collecting" them rather than "doing" them as I'm unlikely to ever ascend all of them. Collecting them though gets one around Scotland and helps one resist the temptation to keep going back and walking up the same favourite hills. Meall nan Tarmachan was a new addition to my collection and, for the other four members of the party, their first Munro.

It is a good hill for those unacquainted with Munros. Not only is the ridge-walk interesting but the most popular ascent starts 500m above sea-level, on a minor road the runs from Loch Tay to Glen Lyon. Since the summit of the mountain is 1,043m above sea-level, that means you're more-or-less half way up as soon as you get out of the car. Also, there is a path almost the whole way.

The first peak one reaches on the ridge in the Munro itself. There's room to park off the road where a land rover track sets off left to a disused quarry. On leaving the car there was nothing to do but set off philosophically to get most of the day's climbing done.  A few yards down the track and on the right, a good path sets off across moorland to the obvious ridge that forms the skyline. The view is magnificent, particularly of the Ben Lui group and the Munros around Loch Lomond and Arrochar. The ridge undulates, then steepens, then you find yourself at the top.

Getting there was a great feeling. While we were climbing up I'd noticed cloud gathering around the summit of the Munro next door,  Ben Lawers. It would have been annoying to get to the top of our mountain to find the same thing had happened.  Fortunately, the cloud stayed high for us. It didn't rain either - the weather remained good all day. On the ascent the view has been restricted to the Southern Highlands. All of a sudden, when we reached the summit, we could see much of the rest. There were mountains as far as the eye can see - and beyond. It occurred to me that it had been over a decade since I'd stood on a Munro summit and I was relieved to discover that I could still name some of the hills I could see - the imposing bulk of Buachaille Etive Mor, at the entrance to Glencoe, was particularly distinctive.

We ate our lunch at the summit - hummus and salad sandwiches in the main, although when frantically making sandwiches that morning we'd run out of hummus and used tahini and soya sauce instead, mixed into a paste (great with spring onions, if you've never tried it). Since the weather promised to be good there was no need to rush. To the West, the main section of the ridge zig-zagged North to South and up and down. The next peak, Meall Garbh, looked quite close and its narrow, knobbly summit looked an interesting challenge. From where we sat we couldn't see the "rock step" that separated it from the next peak, Beinn nan Eachan. That hill looked steeper. The last top, Creag na Caillich looked like a straightforward walk.

It only took us a few minutes to reach Meall Garbh. Its summit indeed turned out to be a fine viewpoint and the beginning of the most interesting part of the ridge. For a short distance, the sides dropped steeply away - walking along it was not unlike walking along the ridge of a roof. Soon after we reached the rock step. It's easy but quite sustained. Most of us took the slightly easier path that bypasses it.

Beinn nan Eachan turned out to be a less stiff ascent than we'd feared and we were soon descending towards Creag na Caillich. Up to this point we had been following a very definite path. From here, the path is not quite so well-worn and sometimes splits into various alternative routes. Had visibility been poor, this would perhaps have been the easiest place on the ridge to get lost. I'd not visited these hills before and I got the impression from the lack of wear and tear from here on that people sometimes omitted or turned back from this final hill. We stopped on top to finish off the food which, as everyone knows, is easier to carry on the inside. We didn't stop long as we were beginning to get chilly. We carried on, only to discover that at one point, close to the end, the path runs right along the rotten, broken edge of a breathtakingly massive cliff that falls, almost uninterrupted, down to the moor below. Needless to say, we stayed well away from this section, sticking to the pathless, grassy top of the ridge instead, before zigzagging down to the track across the moor that would take us back to the start.

There was no reason to hurry - it was quite late but sunset was a long way off. I think we probably spent more time sitting or lying in the heather than walking - enjoying the view, the stillness and the general ambience of the place.

Once back in Yorkshire I got out my list of Munros to have a serious "tally-up".  It took a phone-call to an old walking-companion just to makes sure of one or two details I needed to be absolutely sure of my list but Meall nan Tarmachan turned out to be the 65th one I'd climbed. I must admit to feeling the old compulsion to bag a few more. I'm reminded of fictional tales of people being hypnotised then, years later, going off to do things they'd been hypnotised to do when the hear a certain word or phrase. Munro...

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Down South

A friend, M,  recently invited me to his wedding - in East Sussex, on the South coast. It's a long way away and I'd been saving up reasons to go for a while. I've always wanted to go to Charleston farmhouse, home of the painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and regular retreat of the Bloomsbury Group. Then there's Virginia Woolf's house in Rodmell.  Also, an old friend, B, who I'd not seen for many years lives in the area, where he works as a piano technician and story-teller. He's recently made a CD of his songs, too (see below).

Instead of a best man, my friend M had settled on having a team of "best people". One passed him the ring, the others spoke at the reception. I'd quite given up hope of ever being asked to be a best man so I was well chuffed to be asked to speak. Who doesn't want the opportunity to make one of those slightly scurrilous speeches - or, at the very least, want to be asked to? It was great, too, to meet his wife for the first time and members of his family I'd met before, but not for many years.

Charleston was at least as enchanting as I expected it to be. I can't find any images online that do justice to its interior. For anyone who doesn't know, it's cram packed with art and has been extensively decorated by the artists who lived there - the woodwork, the fire-places, the table-tops. Perhaps the highlight for me, though, was Maynard Keynes' bedroom. As usual when I visit such places, I'd not done a lot of research or pored over the guidebook. I just wander, look and soak it in. I'd forgotten about Keynes' association with the Bloomsbury Group and to suddenly find myself in his bedroom brought it home to me what a historically significant person he'd been. One usually thinks of Bloomsbury in terms of writers and painters. Moreover, Virginia Woolf is probably my favourite English writer. Looking at the bigger picture, though, I have to admit that Keynes was probably the most influential and indispensable person to be associated with the group. I felt quite awestruck.

As I did when we moved on to Rodmell. I had been unaware that Woolf's ashes were scattered under a magnolia tree in the garden there. There are advantages to not doing your homework - things you think you "ought" to know take you by surprise.

My old friend B -it was great to see him again- took us on a tour of Hastings, the highlights of which were the Jerwood Gallery and simply sitting on a hill by the castle overlooking the seafront. The work of Christopher Wood was new to me and, as for the hill, I could have sat there all day playing the "is that cloud or is it the French coast?" game.

On the way home, we stopped off at Rudyard Kipling's house, Batemans. It's rather a cold place, I thought. Walking round the rooms, I couldn't get the terrible story of his son John's death in the First World War out of my head. Rejected from the services more than once due to his poor eyesight, John only got to fight because his father pulled strings to get him in. He was soon killed.

In many ways Batemans and Charleston could not have been more different. For me, the former felt dark and oppressive, the latter light and airy. One theme connected them, however. Over Vanessa Bell's bed hangs a portrait of her son Julian who died in the Spanish Civil War, aged 29, while serving as an ambulance driver. He died at the battle of Brunete, at which an estimated 35,000 people were killed. Vanessa had been against him volunteering and, after his death famously said to her sister Virginia "I shall be cheerful, but I shall never be happy again."

Monday, 5 August 2013

The River Dragon

I've been getting out to swim as much as I can recently. I've discovered a place just a few minutes down the road - Redmire Falls. Between the stone steps of the falls are at least two -I've still to explore the place further- long, wide sections of deep water.

It's odd how you can feel deep water beneath you as you swim. It reminds me, at the other extreme, of how the quality of the air changes as you approach a mountain summit. It may be all in the mind - but it's surprising how often one can swim along a stretch of river, think that the water "feels" deep and, by reaching down with one's feet into the imagined darkness, discover that it is, that the river-bed is nowhere to be found. (Who hasn't imagined monsters rising up out of that darkness? There be dragons). Similarly, when climbing up a mountain in the fog one sometimes senses a change in the air and, lo and behold, moments later, one finds oneself at the top.

At one point at Redmire one can enjoy that sensation of depth while swimming under the trees alongside a cliff that rises from the water. At least, I think you can. It's such a magical place when there's no-one about and memory's a funny thing: some moments can be recalled vividly, others blur into an impressionistic haze.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Walking the Black Dog

That mighty if diverse handful of people who regularly read this blog might be mystified as to why it seems to have dried up. There has been a distinct lack of rain round here lately but, no, that 's not the reason. It is certainly the case that the end of the summer term is a hectic time when it comes to paper-work so that does  take precedence but the overriding reason has been that I discovered I'd torn a retina. The upshot was that I really wanted to do as little as possible with my eyes for a few weeks. Anyway, enough. It received prompt treatment (full marks to the amazing NHS) and I've been told everything has healed up well. I've every reason to think that's that.

I've just read an interesting article by Will Self about psychiatry. In it, he highlights the lack of real science behind the claims "big pharma" make for their drugs and asserts that one day, current approaches to diagnosis and medication will be seen as no better than past, discredited (and often downright harmful) treatments. We've treated mental health issues medically over the years because we feel a social imperative to do so - not because we have real answers. Psychiatrists who do make a difference to people's lives do so not because of the diagnoses they make or the medications they prescribe but because they are skilled helpers.

I used to work in the helping professions and my job brought me into regular contact with psychiatry and, based on my own experience, I would go along  with what Self has to say. I would, though, ask the question, if psychiatry is bunk then how come anti-psychiatry (as advocated by R.D. Laing) has not evolved into a rip-roaring success? I don't ask this as a rhetorical question but as a very real question, as I do not feel I know how to answer it.

It may be that problems tend to cross our paths like London buses -none for an age, then several at once- but, over the past year, I've found myself listening to a frightening number of people (including, even, a waitress in a coffee-shop I'd visited)  who have to battle with the most seemingly intractable problems. (We certainly live in difficult times which, to put it mildly, doesn't help - over half those questioned in a poll recently said they were faced with financial problems that were out of control). Years ago I trained as a social worker. I don't think learning a bit of theory and a few skills makes one less "emotionally accident prone" - I've had my fair share of hard times and some of the people I've met in my work in the caring professions have had terrible problems of their own. But I do think  there are some things I learnt when I trained which could be taught in school as part of the mainstream curriculum. We teach people how to treat colds and cuts without going to the doctor - so why not some basic emotional problem solving? Areas covered -I'm sure you can think of more- might include the following. If they are already covered in some way then all I can say is that they need to be given more emphasis:

1. How talking makes you feel good but if you have to talk about your problems every week it's merely a treatment, not a cure.
2. Apportioning blame and solving a problem are not the same thing. It's the latter we should be more interested in.
3. Looking out for vicious circles. (When you find one, ask yourself what part are you playing in it? Change the script - and break the circle).
4. (At the risk of sounding glib) the importance of being kind.

Regarding physical health, we are comparatively well-aware that if we ignore warning-signs, we might end up presenting the doctor with a barely-treatable advanced condition. However, we tend to pay scant attention to our mental health (and to that of those around us) until the problems become so serious that they seriously interfere with our functioning. We tend to think we should "pull ourselves together" - everyone else does, don't they? This alone makes it hardly surprising that mental health treatments are seen as ineffective, as too often they only begin once the condition is well-advanced. Add to this Will Self's well-founded doubts about the effectiveness of the diagnoses and treatments we're talking about and the need for effective basic education in problem-solving and emotional well-being could not be more apparent.

If there were not "first aiders" and first aid kits in every workplace, if people were not aware of how to clean wounds and  treat pain and common bugs with Paracetamol, if there were no media campaigns urging us to eat healthily, or spot the symptoms of serious conditions, then surely we would be a lot less physically healthy in Britain and make more demands on our health services.  If we paid as much attention to our basic mental health self help as we do to our basic physical health, we would surely be happier on the whole and have less need to consult what Self amusingly calls the "black dog walkers".