Soak-walking

I sit on the train after work homeward-bound, watching raindrops pearl on the outside of the dirty, fogged window pane. They skitter down the strange reinforced plastic which half hides the Aire-valley-view, muddying it and keeping it beyond reach. I decide, as though it were an act of rebellion, that I’m for a walk. I turn the thought around for a while, wondering if I really mean to risk the rain. My mind anticipates the sharp cold shock to my skin, but part of me knows the glory there can be in rain: in the loosening of the sky’s burdens, a catharsis. Having filed into the station and then the train – acquiescing grudgingly to diesal air – I suddenly want out of the funk, the many small irritations that amass cumulatively through the work day which slowly compress and dull the soul: make the body small. When I enter the train, my body is no longer mine but communal – here just to sardine in with strangers for a vexed 20 minutes. I float somewhere above myself, above the hot press of bodies and odours. But out of those scratched barrier windows, beyond the faces bluescreen-illuminated, cramped over their phones, I know that everything is getting a little greener in the washing of the rain. So I alight at my stop with jittery anticipation and, coming back to myself by slow degrees, let my feet take me for a soak-walk down by the canal, where I may get a little greener too.

It is June and the elderflowers are opening up clotted cream umbels and the rain is knocking scent off them like a child emptying perfume bottles. The air is all citrus and grape and nectar as I round the corner over the railway bridge and down to the canal. It has been a naive Spring of warmth, blossom-plenty and precocity as though it fancied itself Summer, jealous of a younger sister. May pressed days of close heat upon us – signs of the year brewing to its best – but the chill slap of rain today gives the lie to this. Rain on my glasses and in my eyes is constant pinprick surprise to my senses: feel this, it says.

I have walked the Leeds-Liverpool canal towpath many times, but today’s rain renders it at its active best: making the canal anew, freshening it and adding to its watery DNA. I don’t take in anything but the action of rain on water at first – and I am literally taking it in, absorbing it into my skin, become amphibian. Rain in its different grades has different personalities and thus a rich lexicon has endeavoured to express the different types of rain and its differing moods. This rain is kelching, hossing, siling down: a soss, a sope, a soak of rain. More than a shower but shy of a storm. Stairrods perpendicular to the canal and ground. It is insistent yet playful: hard and nagging like a child with constant questions at your ear, but refreshing and ozone too. It keeps company with me until I am all sensation: wet-waxed hanks of hair snake my forehead and neck; rain-wash coats my hands; cool humid damp is between my clothing and back. It is all encompassing. Constant white noise as a myriad raindrops crack the surface tension. Water, at least for a while, is the dominant element, coating everything in its thin chromatic, electrifying sheen. It brings harsh percussion to the canal’s surface, and turmoil underneath, as silt and sediment are churned and tossed over – more likely than not – discarded shopping trolleys, pallets and pipes, the usual canal finds. I am reduced to membrane, taking in the rain and giving up the day in exchange.

My new-made selkie-skin, after the deadening train commute, is brought to life again, goose-pimpling with hairs raised on end. My eyes search hungrily for the fish-kisses that fat raindrops make on the water, sounding out desire. Transformed from its usual sluggish drawl, the canal is come to muddy life, its surface respiring and dancing as it pocks and heaves, fumbling for rhythm with bubble-jumble. Today it is made river, moving and acting a part, no longer still but vital and full of flow. At the lock it sluices down the overflows, bordered with valerian at their margins, and making right the levels above and below.

The path bubbles angrily between the rain-blatters that are little reservoirs under my boots. Sensation is forcefully returned to me and I begin to notice other life around me. A heron is hunting on the opposite bank, though its manner of hunting is entirely patient, still, watchful; waiting for its prey to swim close. Its head is down-bent, intent, death in its ancient gaze. Blackbirds love the rain, jouncing along in the open, turning their mustard beaks into the soil for surfacing worms. No birds sing. There is now an almost-skip to my step along the clashy churn of the path. Unpeopled by the rain-shy, this path is my chosen company. Under the action of the incessant rain, I feel myself become buoyant, light-hearted, acted upon too, as I pass below the waxy-wet canopies of ivied hawthorn, oak and chestnut, that drop heavy raindrops on my head and shoulders. The oaks were slow to leaf in Spring, their acid green buds opening minutely, conjured slowly, as though the sap were still sleeping. How ebony their barks look now under the darkening of the rain as their branches twist against the sky, the green of their fledged leaves brilliant and popping on the eye.

Down below, something dark and little is moving awkwardly from the canal and across the tow path, almost perfectly camouflaged under the rain’s tumult, making me pause to identify it from its hobbled movements. Something emerging from the primordial ooze, carefully, articulating its disgust for land with slow joints and crabbed, webbed fingers. Moving like the first life form that ever left the first swamp, unimpressed by the uncooperative nature of this new element. Its webbed hands, almost bent back upon themselves, bear it along with obvious effort: its skin bears a hallmark gnarliness. A toad! With surprise and delight cast upon my face, I approach. The rain has made its bumped back reflective and glossy like volcanised rock, polished to a gleam. It seems heedless of my presence, shoveling its feet laboriously behind it, but I see it knows I’m here with that preternatural sense that wild things have. It stops at my advance even though it’s facing away from me. Has the fury of the rain driven it from its accustomed swimming holes? And, half-drowned, is it making for the cover of tree scrub, hauling itself doggedly over slick mud and grass, for a break? I leave it to its task.

I am walking past the stream where I saw a dipper skip down the water bubbling down to the river. The memory of this encounter always provokes me to examine the place closely for a second sighting – but all I have ever conjured is the afterglow of that first encounter. After almost three years of living here (and still a newcomer), I am slowly mapping the neighbourhood with my memories of the things I have experienced here. Such mapping is the mind’s way of working itself into a place, of connecting. The vestiges of things seen and experienced are – as the word suggests – like clothes or skins we shed along the way and then put on again when we are inclined to walk these ways again. These kinds of topographies are personal, particular and one of the most important ways in which places work themselves into us as well. Maps are another kind of membrane, allowing for exchange between personal encounter and memory and place. There are vestiges of myself left forever in the wild, as long as memory and place co-exist.

Wetchered, that is to say wet through after rain, I return to my own front door unburdened like the sky of its load. Rain is such a small word.

At the time of hay-making

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The air hangs in heavy skeins about us, thick as threads to walk through and swollen with pollen almost tasting on the tongue. Unlike in the cities, the sky is split wide open here in the Dales and stripped by the hungry cries of the swallows winging it above, skirting the stone barns and scooping their dinners out of thin air. They swing loose on invisible paths, their characteristic forked tails making perfect stabilisers as they sail gracefully through each arc. It is pleasing simply to watch them belly out across the view and join up the two halves of the valley like a pendulum. Is it my fancy that they seem to fly southerly, as if rehearsing the end of year exodus to warmer climes? The snap and glide of their wings is nearly all one hears on this sultry day in the stillness of the meadow, and I think to myself: their dynamism is mine too. My thoughts follow them freely, hitched to their flights.

We’ve come to the hay meadows at Muker like pilgrims, humbly and seeking something rare: Yorkshire’s wildflowers grown undisturbed on Yorkshire soil. We are pilgrims in spirit at least, because in terms of transport we’ve cheated and driven in the VW to get here, parking up under a tree where the bank falls away into the river. The busyness of Muker envelops us from first footfall on its soil: sounds of water and laughter, ice creams being bought and slurped outside the general store which has faded postcards on sale at the door for 30p, proof that some things stand still. As we made our way over country-cambered roads, the farmers of Swaledale were out in force making hay while the sun shone, big machinery methodically cleaving, releasing into the air the acrid tang of newly cut grass so that it smelled ozone green, sappy and harsh to the nose. But at Muker the grass and flowers are left long until late in the season, an agreement between the conservationists and farmers to let the native wildflowers and the biodiversity they encourage thrive for as long as possible. It’s June. The meadows are not for harvesting yet, but are still in their growing season. Borrowed time.

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The heat is not yet the smothering heat that will settle in this summer and cram like cotton wool in the ears and the mouth. It lilts on the tops of the buttercups, the yellow rattle and the delicately lobed flowers of the stitchworts. The shepherd’s purse is not leggy, stressed or dessicated with it yet, nor have the speedwells faded to palest blue, the edges of their petals crisped by the scorch of the sun. The tiny white tubular trumpets of the eyebright are still stout and unwavering in the embrace of the rattles and grasses; the cranesbills livid bruises of colour. Time for wilt and running to seed all too soon. There’s the promise of it even now in the building noonday heat.

Meadows like those between Muker and Keld are many decades in the making. Yet you can make a meadow in just a year too, proving that endurance is harder than beginning. They are part of the DNA of Muker and Swaledale now – a “unique selling point” the guidebooks depressingly averr, as if here were to be found a commerce of flowers; nature’s supply and demand.  People travel to Muker specifically to see the meadows, as did we when first we visited in May, walking slowly but purposefully up the hill from the main street, anticipating our first view of them laid out under the sun, our imaginations having conjured great tempting images of meadows flower-full and an orchid in every patch. To see a wild orchid was the apotheosis of my desire and I coveted it like a child that wants the most prized sweet in the shop. I knew such images were traps for disappointment, but no one can control their wishes. Such was my wistfulness when, stopping to admire some flowers accidentally-on-purpose growing in a trough, we were accosted by one of the residents who took this as her cue and nipped in to provide botanical assistance. Cuckoo flowers, she informed us: pale, lavender-pink and lovely, clustering on slim-throated stems. The visual counterpart to the bird which (if you’re lucky) you hear calling at this time of year. The encounter savoured of the professional Mukerist, I thought at the time, fully aware of the town’s draw and perhaps assuming that the average Joe doesn’t know the names of Britain’s wildflowers. And I don’t really blame her – there are few enough of the native species about these days to make their names familiar.

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To say their names out loud all together is my kind of liturgy – lady’s bedstraw, yellow rattle, eyebright, meadow cranesbill, self-heal, stitchwort, shepherds purse, speedwell. Sacred almost, and to be spoken of in hushed, reverential tones – or a jubilant incantation: a spell. And in one sense, these flowers were thought of as spells: self-heal for minor aches, cuts and pains; buttercups to tell if you like butter; stitchwort to relax spasms. All your cures at your feet, as it were: nature’s walk-in pharmacy for those who lived on and worked the land.

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Now that it is June and our second visit, we approach the start of the way through the meadows knowing a little of what to expect. It’s the buttercups we notice first, as though the tips of the meadows unfolding before us have been burnished with yolky liquid light. May was good for this – but June! June is godly. To see them now, numbering in the thousands and clothing the earth with gold is mirage-like. You or I would dream a place like this. It is this vague elusiveness that enriches the sense of the meadow’s impermanence. You walk through it aware of the cycle of the seasons and each flower seen is as flash-by-soon-die as if it were already cut and dried.

My gaze snags on the roughened walls of the stone barns on the approach, already looking ahead greedily, but as with so many national trails and popular beauty spots, there is a bombardment of signage at the start which arrests you just as you’re ready to begin. At Muker, these signs are mostly wooden with some plastic and metal ones for variety. Variations on ‘keep your dog on a lead’, ‘stick to the paths’ and others trumpeting the rarefied nature of the meadows jostle on a crowded wooden post. Admonitory salutations to get us on our way with the appropriate air of solemnity for the task at hand. Meadows are not to be tripped through lightly, you know.

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When we embark into the first, we do so paying the required fee – the cost is to our dignity by having to push ourselves through the stone squeeze, like camels through the eye of the needle. The passing from each meadow into the next is conducted in this fashion: through the sutures of stone squeezes in various sizes. The effect of so many uncomfortably close encounters with the local stone is to transform the simple act of passing through a gate into an event, and entry into each meadow is bargained for in this way. That’s fair enough, I think to myself, secretly enjoying the ceremony of passing through each different stone ‘cwtch’.

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I find the meadows themselves slightly self-conscious of their draw for the tourist: divided by a flagstone path up the middle with a to-ing and fro-ing of dog-walkers, families and hikers processing up the line. One man calls out in our general direction as he passes, “I’ve not seen a single insect in any of these meadows!” It’s a baffling salute to strangers on the way, as if the meadows are not performing satisfactorily in his eyes. We ourselves have witnessed many insects, and bees in particular, and I share a look with my companion, again thinking of the profesional Mukerist, preoccupied with demonstrating their conservation-mindedness, here to affirm their allegiance to the local flora and fauna.

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The valley is so far removed from its glacial founding that it feels a little like a large open nave, with worshippers treading the old stone aisle cutting up the centre. Curious. The flagged path serves the twin purposes of keeping the wilful worshipper along the straight and narrow (and in case you don’t get the message there are signs telling you to keep to the path), and forcing your momentum as you proceed ever onward. There is of course an onward inclination to every path, and I am driven by the hunt for the elusive orchid too, my heart a little sore at not having found any. But I must confess what is most attractive in the idea of a meadow is the dilatoriness it invites. The way in which it calls one to meander in amongst, not simply through. Dogs illicitly off the lead have made canine desire paths through the long grass, and Oh how I wish I could join them. With regret, I discover that the Muker hay meadows do not encourage dilly-dallying, and you are certainly actively discouraged from all thoughts of wandering in amongst them. Bent backed, our heads at flower-height, we must appear oddities to those toeing the line. At this level, the bouffant heads of the clover are rendered in beautiful and particular detail. Our survey of the flowers on offer is of necessity limited to those which can be glimpsed from the path, and our naming of them is something between tentative skill or guess work and clumsy misattribution.

It is not that I do not understand that the walker is corralled in this way to protect the flowers, but that I regret that such prohibition should be necessary at all. The path through a meadow feels as unnatural as a corset and the experience of walking it – for one who has come to see the wildflowers – thrums with latent frustration. I am heartened to see one woman, having abandoned the path, sitting against the dry stone wall of the last meadow before the river and simply relaxing into the moment as swallows jettison their bodies with abandon above.

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You can stare at a clutch of flowers against grass for a long time until the mind slowly unstitches them into their different forms. Sense is made slowly of them. More enchanting perhaps than any orchid are the heart-shaped seeds of the shepherds purse. And plantain – which I’d been used to think of as a playground weed, so sad and lank in tarmac crevices – when in flower has brown heads dusted with white pinpricks like sugar. My favourite flower glimpsed this day? The eyebright, once thought to be a remedy for soreness of the eyes; its little hairy stems support spires of brilliant and tiny white lipped flowers, not unlike those of the penstemon family. Beautiful, all clustered together, like nuns’ wimples or arms stretched wide.