Above the Lion and the Lamb (part three)

It was past four in the afternoon. We had been walking for over five hours. Despite our best smiles – and Joh’s chocolate – we were tired, very tired.

A home-made drawing of the problem…

We were desperately looking for something – a path that should have been climbing up towards us from the steep lower slopes of the glacial corrie below. But paths – this far into a landscape – can be tenuous things, and all we could see, below and west, was the course of a stream, cascading down the valley.

Searching for any sign of the path, below

Jon was pointing along the line of our high path, towards what I took to be a tarn, set high against the corrie wall. I had a mental picture of Jon’s map and knew that the far glacial wall was too high to intersect our present course.

I knew this wasn’t our path

“No,” he said, immediately understanding my glum expression, and pointing to a gap in the near ridge just left of my line of sight. “There!”

Far below, but climbing towards us, was the path home – seen here with the help of a telephoto lens

I looked… there. A small gulley acted as a cut-away to reveal what I had thought was the far side of the valley. But my perspective had been wrong. Revealed in the ‘V’ was a thin strip of path… climbing to meet the track we were on.

With something approaching joy, we powered up our weary feet and walked forward. In the end, we need not have worried; the two paths intersected not far from the corrie wall – which still towered high above us. We had no desire to sample the – undoubtedly stunning – views from its northern edge.

We joined the downward path – just a smattering of stones at this height – and began our longed-for descent.

The descending path was steep. Even worse, the path and the stream crossed each other all the time, meaning we had to pick our way across the larger boulders to traverse.

In places, the stream would suddenly drop ten, or even twenty feet, turning the way ahead into a partial waterfall. We knew that most walking accidents occurred on the way back from the heart of the walk: when the legs are at their most tired. There was still another four miles of the descent before we reached the level ground at the outskirts of Grasmere…

We were weary, but stopped to photograph this beauty

This is the kind of landscape that will constantly surprise you. When the main section of the descent was done, we sat by the stream – now a river – and had the last of the chocolate and the final sips of water. For some reason, our thoughts turned to the idea of a long, cold beer, reminiscent of the John Mills film ‘Ice cold in Alex’. The idea was potent and spurred us on.

Jon pointed to the top of the ridge, which was now above us and to the left. He thought that there may be a figure standing where we had rested so many hours before, looking down, ruefully, at the bridge… and choosing the long walk.

Figure or bush?

I raised the telephoto lens of the camera and and zoomed in…

Not one, but two late-walkers

To keep our spirits up, we chatted about our favourite sights of the day. Mine had been seeing the Lion and Lamb Rocks from above:

The Lion and the Lamb rocks

Bernie’s had been the hundreds of butterflies flying around a large but solitary thistle bush, close to Gibson Knot:

Painted Lady butterflies

Kathy remarked that discovering that there actually was a path back along the valley had “been pretty special”.

Kathy – “seeing that there actually was a path back!”

Jon remarked that his was yet to come, but he could bear that cold beer calling from Grasmere…

We walked on, knowing that another hour would see us back at our start point in Grasmere.

Around the next bend, a familiar friend awaited us: the bridge we had last seen from nearly 500 metres above our present location.

The bridge to Grasmere

To show her pleasure, the tireless Tess dashed across it and back to collect us.

The tireless Tess, guardian and wayfinder…

We emerged from the glacial Easedale valley and into the farmland around the town. Another half hour to go. But then Bernie looked at her watch and realised we had only fifteen minutes left on the parking ticket.

We reassured her that, at this late hour, we were unlikely to get a fine, but she trotted off, surprising the three of us with her reservoir of energy.

‘Ice Cold in Alex’. The moment will live in our taste buds for ever….

Kathy and Jon waiting for the beer to arrive
18:38 and the best beer I’ve ever tasted…

Bernie arrived back with the car at the same moment the beer was delivered to our table. It was the best beer I’ve ever had…

It was 18:38. We had been walking for nearly eight hours – far longer than we had planned. We had covered eleven very difficult miles. But, we had done three of Wainwright’s peaks and made it home in relatively good shape.

What a day!

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Above the Lion and the Lamb (Part Two)

We were on the Helm Crag plateau, about to climb up and beyond the Lion and the Lamb rocks to reach the start of the ridge. When you’ve just done a steep climb, it’s natural to feel that you’re ‘at the top’. In our case, this assumption was to prove expensive…

A home-made drawing of the problem…
Above: it was time to say goodbye to the gentle landscape of Grasmere, below us

It was time to say goodbye to the glorious views of Grasmere – though we were to get one last unexpected view later in the walk.

Helm Crag lies at the southern end of a long ridge. My simple picture, above, shows its location. Helm Crag is the point at which the photograph below, was taken. Our Collie dog, Tess, is looking at the start of the path which climbs up and along the ridge.

Tess looks, warily, towards the start of the ridge path
(Above) The climb up the back of the Lion and Lamb reveals the A591 main road to Keswick far below…

The path up to the ridge is quite a scramble – and very steep. One of its pleasures is a view of the A591 – the main road between Windermere and Keswick. Once at the top, the landscape changes dramatically. Gone is the gentle basin filled with the bright green of a grassy plateau, to be replaced with the undulating and rocky surface of a different world.

Once we had reached the ridge at Helm Crag peak, we faced a stark choice: we could take the footpath to the left (orange on the drawing) and make the quick descent to the bridge over Easedale Beck – shown below at the end of a long lens – or we could carry on along the top of the ridge, taking in another two of the famous ‘Wainrights’ peaks – a term that refers to a set of hand-drawn and hand-illustrated guides to hundred of walks in the Lake District.

Above: ridge paths can be very narrow places – looking back from Helm Crag at Grasmere, far below

We choose to risk the ridge, knowing that it would take us longer than leaving the high-ground at Helm Crag and descending to the bridge below. What we didn’t know was how much longer the ridge walk was going to take…

I pointed the camera at the vital bridge hundreds of feet below. The long lens made it look much closer than it was. But it was to be a lot more distant before we had the chance to change direction, again….

The Lion and the Lamb Rocks are visible from below, but it is only from above that you get the sheer scale of this famous landmark.

Above: seen from the peak, the Lion and the Lamb rocks reveal their true size

We had made our decision and now time was passing – and we had a long way to go. We estimated that the walk along the ridge, alone, would be at least five miles. Walking at an average speed of between two and three miles an hour, we reckoned that it would take us at least two hours to pass Gibson’s Knot and reach the junction of paths at the head of the valley below us and to the left.

Our first surprise was that we had to climb, again, to follow the ridge-path. Not only that, but the path that had been smooth and stepped on the lower slopes now became rough and rocky. Walking became a process of carefully placing each footfall… and was consequently very slow.

I didn’t help much, either. The trip was the first outing for my new camera. The telephoto lens was wonderful at reaching into the far distance and I ended up taking over a hundred shots… stopping each time to compose and frame them. The photo below illustrates what happens when you do this and look up to see where your friends are!

To our right (the east) the outline of the vast edge of the Fairfield Ring was becoming clear. The Fairfield Ring marks the high glacial bowl (Corrie) from which one of the largest glaciers carved out the northern basin of Lake Windermere – England’s largest lake.

From this perspective (below), you can only see the rim of Fairfield. The full walk around it, beginning at Ambleside, takes six to eight hours! These are not trivial landscapes!

To our left, the steep sides of the fell showed evidence of less and less habitation, as the ground gave way to the rocky floor of one half of the Easedale valley – known at this point as ‘Far Easedale Gill’

Above: Flashing forward in time… The ridge and valley: the two halves of our eventual walk. The photo was taken when we had finally ended our walk along the ridge – but still had to walk back to Grasmere along the valley floor.

The above photo shows the hidden difficulty we faced: each section along the ridge was a serious further climb; a fact that we hadn’t realised when we left Helm Crag. Locate the second ‘hump’ on the ridge. This is the point we had reached in the narrative…

We had developed a method of making as much progress as our diminishing strength would allow. We would walk for an hour, solid, then stop to sit on a pile of friendly rocks and share water and some fruit chocolate that Jon had resourcefully brought with him. It was only later, looking back, that we realised how much we were climbing in each leg.

The ridge was narrow, and each twist of the path revealed new vistas on the right and left. We were ascending, of course, and could see more of the surrounding landscape from each intermediate peak.

It was only when we realised that we had passed Gibson’s Knot (see schematic) without noticing that we became aware of how fatigued we were becoming. Our tireless Collie, Tess, was doing her best to help us – continually running from the back of her ‘pack’ to the front to keep the herd motivated to maintain their progress to market… a true ‘drover’. The photographer was often guilty of being some way behind the other three!

We took another break and reflected… It was 15:41. We had been walking since mid-morning. We had no choices left. Our only hope was to continue along the ridge. We looked at the diminishing water supplies and watched Jon search his backpack for more chocolate… worst of all, we were still at least an hour from the most northerly point of the valley; in other words, we were still walking away from Grasmere, the point where we started!

img_4570

Would our bleached remains be found by future walkers?

A slight panic tends to set in at such times. It pays to think laterally if only to clear the head. I found myself wondering if we could cross the high wall of the glacial Corrie to our north and hitch a lift from a passing 555 Bus, which would take us back to Grasmere… clearly ludicrous, as there were no paths marked on the map.

Then, ahead of me, I saw Kathy turn herself into an aeroplane and try to fly… so I wasn’t alone. Could we camp out on the mountain, Bernie might have been  thinking. I could tell by her knitted brows she was worried…

Only Jon seemed calm. And he was studying his map, intently. He looked up and smiled.

“I think I’ve got some good news,” he said. We moved closer, following his pointing finger…

p1020012

To be concluded in Part Three

Other parts in this series:

Part One,   This is Part Two

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Above the Lion and the Lamb (Part One)

(Above) The Lion and Lamb rocks, above Grasmere

We were delighted to meet up with some friends from the UK who had emigrated to New Zealand many years ago. Bernie went to school with Kathryn and the couple had kindly collected and put us up in Auckland – their home, now – at the end of our short cruise from Sydney, last November.

Jon is a keen walker, and has fond memories of the Lake District from when he lived in England. He asked if, during their few days with us, we had time to fit in a ‘decent walk’. We decided that the ‘Lion and the Lamb’ offered the best combination of a relatively quick ascent and the possibility of fitting it all into a half-day; thereby allowing some time to wander around the delightful ‘Wordsworth’ town of Grasmere, which nestles below the Lion and the Lamb rocks.

(Above) The Lion and the Lamb sits at the end of a glacial valley overlooking Grasmere (photo from the author’s own map)

The small town of Grasmere is one of the most beautiful in the English Lake District. Famous as the place where William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, lived and wrote much of their work, the town also boasts some of the most spectacular and accessible fells of Lakeland’s central region.

(Above) The start of the climb

We began the four-hundred metre ascent by following the Easedale Road, northwards from the centre of Grasmere. The main A591 road between Windermere and Keswick runs parallel to this along the steeply glacial valley that is part-formed by the fell on which the Lion and Lamb rocks sit.

(Above) The main A591 – visible as a tiny strip in the distance – follows the valley to the east of the Lion and the Lamb

The path to the Lion and the Lamb summit winds up from the river valley to the west of the fell on which the rocks sit – Helm Crag. The river Rothay, below, is formed from the confluence of the Easedale becks that cascade down the steep, glacial landscape.

Even after a short ascent, the valley floor begins to reveal its features; one of which is the lip of Easdale Tarn, which I hoped would form the second leg of a triangular walk, following the ascent of Helm Crag and a cooling drink beneath the Lion and Lamb rocks.

(Above) You can just see the surface of the water of over the lip of Easedale Tarn in the distance.

The path gets quite steep as you near the first summit – Helm Crag. It was there that we encountered a group of the local Herdwick sheep. Herdwicks are a hardy breed, much treasured for their fine and warm wool. They begin as black lambs, then go deep brown and, finally, grey-white.

(Above) The Herdwick lifecycle conveniently displayed! Black (lambs) to brown to grey-white

The final leg of the climb is what used to be a steep meadow; but we found that the ferns had overgrown much of the surface and, in places, there was barely a path remaining.

(Above) The ‘meadow path’ to the first summit – Helm Crag

Then, suddenly, the climb ceases and you are in one of the most beautiful grassy plateaus in Lakeland. To the east, south and west are some of the best views of the central Lakes region.

To the south, Grasmere is revealed in all its picture-postcard beauty. The weather helped, too!

The town of Grasmere and its beautiful lake. Wordsworth’s house is to the left of the town, next to what is now the main A591 road

To the west, the twin valleys of the glaciers that formed this region are revealed. One contains Easedale Tarn – a possible return leg for our walk; the other is bounded by the ridge formed from Helm Crag and Calf Crag; seen here in the distance. Glaciers from both ‘corries’ forged the landscape here and south of Grasmere.

The head of the former glacier near Calf Crag – from later in the walk

To the east, the scenery of central Lakeland gives way to the rugged and high fells that lead hardy walkers to Helvellyn and Fairfield, the latter is the glacial basin that formed the northern half of Lake Windermere. You can see why the Lion and the Lamb walk is justly famous for its views…

(Above) One of the walker’s ways to Helvellyn or Fairfield…

We looked at the views and thanked the elements for such a lovely day. The ever vigilant Collie, Tess, had ‘driven’ us up the hill, front and backing the pack as we climbed. It’s what drover dogs do, in contrast with Border Collies and other herders whose genetic pattern is to round-up.

Tess the ever-watchful Smooth Collie

I had envisaged that, from here, we would descend to cross the river at the bridge and take the short walk up to Easdale Tarn, completing the triangle back to Grasmere…

But Bernie and Jon, who were both voracious studiers of maps, instead proposed that we might enjoy a simple walk further along the ridge (that we had already climbed) and a return leg back via the head of the valley and Calf Crag.

It was a fateful moment… and, contrary to anyone’s expectations, it was to cost us another six hours walking, but led to the best beer any of us has ever had…. But that part of the day’s story will have to wait…

Part two to follow next week.

The Bedouin

Image by Cuyahoga from Pixabay

It is said we learn most from those we would wish to emulate. Not copy, perhaps, but take from them an essence of thought, of action. If we are younger, of style, even…

There must have been a thousand people in the room. The university hall was full. When he stood up to speak, his movements were relaxed. His body language gentle, open.

What was it, that air? It wasn’t bravado…. just a sense of being at home, there.

Before him, there had been a speaker giving lots of do’s and don’ts – mainly don’ts. The celebratory mood with which we had all gathered had been blunted. The new speaker looked around the room to encompass the space – as though drawing in all the negative energy and using it as raw material for something very different – like crushed stones in roadbuilding. That act, alone, taught me so much; that you can always ‘dance on’ negativity and treat it as a foundation layer, thereby giving it a home, rather than resisting it. Therein is true magic…

He looked around, drawing in breath to begin. Then smiled…. just that; a silent smile. I swear that all of us leaned forward when he did that, waiting for him to fill the pause: the not-thing, the empty glass he had just created. Instead of words, he filled it with gesture. There was a hush as everyone realised that they were not smiling and addressed it accordingly.

We smiled….

“Good morning,” he said, not looking or sounding like anyone should after a recent transatlantic flight.

Everyone responded, some twice and more loudly the second time. Laughing, good-natured. So far all he had done was to speak those three words; yet most of those watching were already with him, already a joyous part of what was being created.

And that was when I had the mind-picture of drifting sand; sand making lazy, curling and twisting patterns in the hot breeze…

“So the question is…” He spoke fluently, breathing and talking in measured beats, letting the rounded language sink in before moving to the next idea in what he was building. The rise and fall reminded me of a wave… and then I saw where the wave and the tumbling sand were headed. And I saw the dune – a vast wind-blown barchan, set in the middle of a hot desert, with a beautiful blue sky. A savage place to be, perhaps, but not in this projected mental space.

“I need a couple of people to help me?”

My raised hand was too far back to be noticed. His playful eyes ranged over the first few rows, picking out a man and a woman. They rose from their chairs as assured as I was that they would form part of something wonderful – that they needed to have no apprehension, let alone fear, in the spiritual composition to come.

He gave them each a simple prop and asked them to describe it, moving with the microphone to stand alongside them – not across – as they spoke. He nodded at the answers, taking what he needed from each.

“So what happens when we combine any two of these?” he asked.

As in a dance, he moved the two of them around the small stage, being playful but purposeful. At each key angle of his imagined circle, he stopped to check the arrangement and smiled. Whatever was being built grew…. there was no doubt in anyone’s mind; we could feel it. We might recognise the elements being used, and the circular pattern, but what he was creating was still a mystery.

“And now any three of them…” From his battered leather document case he produced a crescent of silver… and the beautiful desert in my mind was suddenly under faint stars and a bright moon. His two volunteers saw the pattern, and each, independently, began moving towards their host.

Three figures stood at the top of the dune. He took their hands and aligned them, stepping behind both and disappearing…

For a moment before the thunder of applause struck, the hall was full of a beauty that could never be rehearsed. Then the wind blew and the beautiful grains of desert sand dispersed into the imagined night…

I never forgot the Bedouin… and I have carried his lesson with me ever since.

©Copyright Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

“The best day, ever” in Eden

They were watching me from the side of a steep bank that frames the inner edge of a huge surface of concrete which will soon be Eden North, replicating – but with differences – the internationally famous Eden Project in Cornwall.

The space used to be Bubbles swimming pool and, before that, was the renowned Super Swimming Stadium, the centre of so many children’s holidays before their parents discovered you could get more reliable sunshine than Morecambe’s on a suddenly affordable Spanish Costa Brava.

They all died a kind of death, then, the Victorian seaside towns… But some of us keep the faith, if only for that steaming mug of a ‘milky coffee’ in the depths of freezing winter, when we’ve finished the dog-walk.

The two young girls. I had seen them arrive a few minutes, before – with their mother. She looked the very picture of care-worn but caring. It’s a look you see a lot in poor seaside towns… Morecambe has been a long time in the doldrums, but there is a light on the horizon; one begun by Urban Splash’s refurbishment of the Midland Hotel – a surviving Art Deco masterpiece.

We had the first night of our honeymoon there, in 2010, a year after its opening. Bernie is from Morecambe… well, actually, Heysham, its sister town a few miles to the south. It’s pronounced Hee-sham, not Hay-sham. She’s very particular about that, so I thought I’d better include it! We both love Art Deco, and had followed the hotel’s rebirth with a great deal of pleasure.

The new Eden North promises to make a great difference to this once-proud resort. It can’t happen soon, enough. The Eden people know what we have never forgotten; that across the vastness of Morecambe Bay lies the whole vista of the Lake District…

It takes a seed of something to bring true life back to a place or a person who has become sad… in body, spirit, career, in their home, in their life… Sometimes, you don’t know you have the power to do this until you find yourself equipped – often in the most unexpected way.

I looked at the frustrated collie and I threw the cheap frisbee again. The wind was behind me and defeated what little aerodynamic soundness it had. You don’t get much from the seafront beach stop for three quid. It had been two, but I decided to add another two ‘tennis’ balls to the bag so that we had a spare in case Tess (the collie) lost one. Her frustration with Dad had begun when we got to North Beach for her usual ball or frisbee session of sandy madness and discovered that the ball and chucker were still in the back of the departing Toyota, now too far away towards Sainsbury’s and shopping to call back. “Perhaps a stone or two?” I had said, weakly, into the betrayed hazel eyes, knowing the result…

Now, twenty minutes and five hundred yards further south, the cheap frisbee was suddenly seized by the wind and carried along the vast concrete expanse in a motion that I can only describe as ‘skittering’. Round and round it turned, whilst travelling at increasing speed towards the grassy boundary – within sight of the Midland Hotel.

The collie’s interest was renewed by this magical motion and, howling, she sped after it, only to snap her strong jaws over its momentarily upended motion and break it in two.

You don’t get much from the beach shop for two quid.

The two young girls were now only yards away from me – and squealing with delight at Tess’s antics. I turned to look at their joyous faces – full of simple happiness – and asked if they’d like to have a go… but I could see the disappointment as they gazed on the distant plastic ruin, now in two bits and still being blown onto the distant grass.

The tennis balls! I had forgotten those…

“Would you like a go with Tess and a tennis ball?” I asked, looking up at an anxious Mum still on the promenade. I smiled and waved, showing her that her lovely kids were in safe hands.

“Could we?” asked the eldest girl.

“Of course,” I said, delving into the bag and extracting a new tennis ball. It was offered and taken.

“We’re on holiday,” said the eldest girl.

“I’m on holiday, too,” added her younger sister, looking very proud of the fact that they were in this adventure together.

“How about you take turns,” I said, gently.

The eldest bobbed her head. The youngest almost bowed hers. Tess trotted up to her new friends, tail wagging, mightily. Things were looking up… The girls stared adoringly at the collie.

When both girls had taken a turn, the eldest offered me back the ball.

“You can have a few more goes if you like?” I said.

And that’s when it happened… The elder sister looked across at her mum and turned back to me, saying, as she danced a step, “This is the best day ever…”

I can only say that I was broken at that moment; and fought to suppress the tears that formed, not wanting to spoil their fun. That such a simple act of kindness could have brought them so much joy was so very… unexpected.

I pretended to fumble with the ball and composed myself.

“How about we have one go each and three rounds of it all?” I asked.

“That would be nine chucks!” said the elder girl, laughing at the chance to show off her arithmetic.

Nine chucks later they looked up at their mother, who was moving slowly along the prom and waving at them. She looked happy with the turn of events, though she had kept her distance.

The youngest gave me back our ball. “Thank you!’ she beamed. “We’re off to the beach, now.”

I could see the excitement on their faces at this further delight. And then I remembered the small carrier bag by my ankles.

“Do you have your beach tennis balls?” I asked, conspiratorially.

Two earnest little heads shook, negatively.

“Better take these, then,” I winked, passing them the little white bag, with its two new balls. “Go now! Your mum is waiting!”

They danced off, but the eldest turned to wave, one final time, before they took their mother’s hands.

My own young grandchildren – two girls – live in Australia. One day when they visit, I hope to bring them to see the new Eden North Project; and point down to where the barren concrete was; on the best day, ever…

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Pen of the oyster-catcher

Portmahomack, a fishing village on the north shore of one of the fingers of land that jut out into the North Sea, thirty or so miles north of Inverness.

There is something perfect about it.

Somewhere close, our collie dog, Tess, is barking, playing with the waves. I follow the waterline, ensuring that only the thick soles of my boots get wet. It is March and that green-grey sea is icy, here on the Sutherland coast. We’re an hour’s drive from John o’ Groats, the most northerly point on the British mainland. Had it been May, I might have paddled…

I am here to write, not play on the beach; though the early mornings and evenings will be devoted to making sure that the collie has lots of exercise and that I don’t become dull by sitting too long at that old wooden desk in the hotel room; the one that smells deliciously of ancient wood and generations of preserving polish. It even has a hole where the inkwell used to be.

The Oyster Catcher will do nicely for the evening meal. A latté, by itself, for breakfast – the mild hunger helps me think – and, at this time of year there’s nothing better for lunch than a steaming bowl of fish chowder with a chunk of locally-baked bread. I’ll see if I can persuade the hotel to do it; perhaps swap them a glowing review on Trip Advisor… It’s worth a try.

But food is for later. For now, I just want to drink in where I am, a writing castaway in this quiet and relatively unvisited place – at least I judge it so, as we are, as far as I can see, practically alone in Portmahomack.

We each have our own writing triggers. For me it’s a combination of sky, landscape, beaches.. and some inspirational music. Sometimes, I find a place that combines them all… This is one such. I’m looking forward to meeting a few of its residents, but not too many. Maybe a couple of beers, or a glass or two of wine after the evening meal, then an early night with one of my current books – I’m studying how William Boyd writes such apparently simple novels, yet hooks you into the plot early in the first chapter. Try ‘Any Human Heart‘ if you want to sample his best.

It helps to fall to asleep reflecting on how great writers do it… and wake refreshed and determined to have a go…

I’ll set the alarm so that I wake about six. I will open the curtains and look out at that vista, listen to the sea and drink in the the sheer wonder of being here. The start of the day will see me making a rubbish cup of tea from the contents of the wooden tray in the wardrobe, before taking Tess onto the beach across the road. Then I’ll sit down to begin the writing, knowing, at the end of the first couple of hours’ creativity, that a delicious coffee awaits at the tiny cafe along the quay. Later on, someone might be making chowder with home-made bread in the Oyster Catcher.

Sky, landscape and beaches… You can see from the photos how lovely this part of Scotland is, but none of them convey the sheer size of the Scottish sky. We’re less than an hour north of Inverness on the east coast of Scotland, yet we could be in a different world and in a different time. Most of our previous trips have been to the western highlands, which are glorious; but this part of the highlands has been a revelation. We are told that there are far fewer midges here in the north-east of the country. Depending on the time of year, this can be a life-saver.

Across the waters lie the mountains of South Sutherland – which don’t appear to have a generic name – but that may just be my lack of knowledge. We are well north of the famous skiing region of the Cairngorms and the landscape is very different. Golden beaches seem to be everywhere; most of them empty. Good to walk on and Collie heaven…

It’s not so much a question of writing a book as finishing one. Several years ago, we ran a Silent Eye weekend workshop called ‘River of the Sun‘, a modern mystery play, told in five acts, and set against the backdrop of the 19th Dynasty in ancient Egypt. The man who would become Pharaoh Ramases II is sailing back up the Nile to be at the bedside of his dying father – the, arguably, greater Seti I.

Ramases knows his father has little time left, yet he seems in no hurry to return to the royal palace. Instead, he mounts a night-raid on one his father’s favourite temples on an island in the Nile, run by a high-priestess the son suspects of heresy… The audacity and spiritual violence has far-reaching consequences…

The workshop was a success. Several people commented that the plot would make a good novel. As a test I serialised the first part of the book as a series of blogs (see list at the end of this post), but time has passed and I have yet – and inexcusably – to complete it. Hence being here…

We have reached the quayside. It’s quite windy and the farther out along its length we go the more we get blown. We do not linger… but return to the shelter of the village streets. Other days will dawn and the wind will have abated.

From along the beach, my wife, Bernie, calls… Tess barks for our reunion. My wandering reverie is broken. With a sigh I turn the corner of the quay and begin my walk back to where she and the Collie are waiting by the car for us all to depart. In a second, my fantasy of a creative break in this newly-discovered haven vanishes. It is not that it is impossible, just that it will have to be another time, as we are staying in a cottage forty minutes south of Portmahomack, not here.

I take one last look at this idyllic fishing village and get into the car. Tess licks my face and Bernie smiles at my wistful expression.

“A writers’ paradise?” she asks.

How well she knows me… But I will be back, though some other writing room may witness the creative conclusion of The River of the Sun.

For now, there are other places to visit on this lovely winter tour of north-east Scotland. Who knows what other writer’s dens I may encounter in this magical land.

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Index to opening chapters of River of the Sun:

Chapter One – Gifts From the River

Chapter Two – An Agony of Sunset

Chapter Three – The Dark Waters

Chapter Four – Touching the Sky

Chapter Five – The Fire Within

And heaven was a breakfast…

And heaven was a breakfast…

A tiny Salford cafe on the corner of the busy road where we turned for the final leg to work. Half an mile away but a full hour to get there…

Within Paul’s Cafe was Paul; eclectic, gregarious. A man who had walked away from the edge of Salford’s gang culture and made great food, instead. A friend who would be friendly, but leave us in peace with our bacon butties, brown sauce and mugs of steaming tea… magically-refilled, without us asking.

Bacon butties, done ‘crispy’… And just the memory brings a fresh rush of goodness, now – and a sense of loss; even though that was a long time ago, and Paul’s Cafe is a memory buried beneath the white verticality of high-rise, modern docklands Salford.

Nearby, Media City glitters, now – and wonderful it and The Lowry Centre are… but I am lost in the simple pleasure of the memories and the taste of what was there, before….

It was a dirtier, grittier time, but, for us, there will never be another cafe like Paul’s.

©Stephen Tanham