Sunday, 6 November 2016

Week 5: (31st October to 6th November 2016) or 'Spells of Mixed Fortune'

The Sun rose on Monday but darkness descended. The sinister tentacles of doom slowly laced themselves around our lives; recklessly lacerating normality like a scalpel. As fires burned, and cauldrons bubbled, fear and dread engulfed the air, asphyxiating stability and threatening the world with a suffocating chaos.

Or perhaps your Monday- your Halloween- wasn't like this, in which case please accept my apologies for starting this week so miserably. I, on the other hand, found myself thoroughly bewitched, bothered and bewildered. The spell must have been cast at 13:20. I was in Manchester Piccadilly, fashioning some satisfaction from a Bacon and Brie sandwich (but not enough, alas, to equate with the pennies spent) and waiting for the 13:20 train to Meadowhall Bus Interchange. I was travelling (or, at least, I had some intention to travel) to Twyford in Berkshire, where there I would be escorted to the Rotary Club of Loddon Vale. You may recall from an earlier post that I regularly guest-lecture at Rotary Clubs on behalf of the Royal Geographical Society. For reasons I shall not engage with here, this particular club was some 300 miles away as the crow flies, but as I'm not a crow, I embarked upon a very involved journey, dappled generously with connections and breaks. My lunch at Manchester Piccadilly was one such break, but I desperately required the 13:20 to depart at 13:20 because I would only have about 5 minutes to alight at the other end and meet my connecting coach.

Needless to say, it didn't. It hadn't even arrived to collect its weary travellers at 13:20. At 13:23, it materialised; languid, lethargic and lifeless. I boarded but now in despair that it would shuttle me off to an interchange, many miles from recognisable civilisation and to a slab of pavement where only minutes prior, happy travellers had boarded the coach I had planned to use. Thus, the ride was dreary and it wasn't uplifted at all by the on-board music: the ever-popular angular tones of a British family who use carriages to experiment how loud their voices can reach. When I finally arrived in Meadowhall at 14:27, I was surprised to see machines still dispensing tickets with 2016 on them. Innoculated with some optimism that coaches are seldom on time, I alighted with all the urgency of one suffering incontinence and scooted towards the bus stop, weaving my way between roaming suitcases and handbags. Would the 14:25 coach still be there?

Needless to say, it wasn't. Vexed by public transport and irked by life in general, I made a low-spririted retreat back to the railway station and considered taking the train down to London. The price of a single ticket almost made my Bacon and Brie sandwich a sensible bargain, but if I had the desire to complete the journey, I would have to bite not bacon but a bullet instead. And so, reluctantly withdrawing my card, I approached the machine. In the immediate eyeline was the coach interchange and the coach bay I had just returned from. And a coach. AND A COACH! The coach hadn't departed on time; it had only just arrived. I spat out the bullet and, with another high-powered dash, made a sprint to the coach bay. Would the journey now resume a positive, unblemished service?

Needless to say, it wouldn't. It was the coach driver's first day and the first domino in a long line of soul-destroying dominoes was about to be toppled: a warning light on the dashboard. From my upper-deck position, I couldn't quite make out the telephoned advice from the engineer but then, it seems, neither could the driver; he seemed to relinquish the phone in similar despair and handed it to one of his passengers. This lady had a go, but evident language barriers tarnished any attempt to yield success. Befuddled, I chewed over whether it would be easier to take the train after all. Even better, to find a witch and hire a broomstick for a day! Thankfully, with a roar from the ignition, the decision to remain on the coach was made and as we bid farewell to Meadowhall, I prayed it was the right decision.

Needless to say, it wasn't. Our journey was punctuated with irritable stops, on hard shoulders and service stations. Drip, drip, drip; we were now soaked in our own gloom. When the coach neared Daventry, the driver once again negotiated us into a service station, not for additional engineering but because he had apparently been driving too long and needed to pass the baton. If only at that moment, I had a baton... Thus, we sat and waited once more. A few alighted, perhaps to check the tariff of the motorway inn, perhaps to assess how practical it would be to hop in the trunk of a London-bound motor. Even I seriously considered escaping and hiking to a railway station but in the way that I have so often become accustomed to, as soon as I'm disengaging the seat-belt, the engine rumbles again and I settle back in anguish. Is there much more anguish to discuss?

Needless to say, there is. I could mention how upon arriving in London 30 minutes late, we were subjected to a thorough Home Border check and how upon relaying to the officer the established recipes for English foodstuffs such as scones and jam, I was allowed to leave. (Actually, it wasn't quite like that). I could mention how I scurried through the underground and arrived for my Twyford train 24 seconds late. I could mention how I apologetically arrived at the Rotary Club and commenced my starter dish as others engrossed into their mains. But, to sustain even the smallest chance of continued readership, I will pass these matters aside and just say this. Next Halloween, I will insist upon staying house-bound.


That spell of misfortune quickly turned itself around. On Tuesday, with the forces of Halloween now dulled and wavering, I got back to my Soil Lifespan review paper. I must say now that I have left this section quite brief each week, which isn't to say that I have not made progress; I'm "ahead" according to my supervisor. However, I have been advised not to say too much about my current scratchings whilst the ink is 'still wet', as it were. What can I disclose, though? Since last week, I have committed to a complete re-draft as I feel my first offering wasn't attacking some of the points I had wanted to tackle. I have also put together an inventory of Soil Production rates from a host of studies; the diversity within the values is extraordinary (see graph below showing soil production rates for soils of different depths, as measured in previous studies). 

As part of the STARS (Soils Training and Research Studentship) programme, I am looking forward to meeting fellow soil enthusiasts in a few weeks time as we all put down our spades and shovels and spend a few days getting to know one another. Until then, you can meet them yourself. We've each uploaded a photograph and profile of our research to the STARS website, so do take a look.

Witch: female, cunning, manless, old,
daughter of such, of evil faith;
in the murk of Pendle Hill, a crone.

Carol Ann Duffy, The Lancashire Witches

Some might say it was too late. I had been injected on Monday by the repugnant forces only Halloween could assemble and thus I was being heedlessly transformed into 'one of them'. Well, not quite, but I did spend the best part of my Saturday following witches; that is to say, figurative witches emblazoned upon fifty or so wooden arrows, scattered throughout the Borough of Pendle. 

Ever since I arrived here in Lancaster, I have been aware of this great narrative: the famous trial of the Lancashire Witches in 1612. In the murky depths of Lancaster Castle, ten women were found guilty of witchcraft and were sentenced to execution at the top of Pendle Hill. Whilst their resting places have never been found, Pendle Hill has enchanted the minds of curious parties for over 400 years. Including me. 

To access the hill, I took the train from Lancaster to a small, unarresting town called Nelson and then the bus to a quaint village called Barley. I would happily ride that bus anywhere- even to a Rotary Club. The driver sports a silvery beard, enough I ponder, to render him worthy of a velvety red suit come Christmas time. It just so happens that his second part-time job is as the local Mr Claus. He whirls through the countryside with all the merry of Santa, too, and the ride, albeit not on a sleigh, is still highly spirited. Toe-tapping tunes from the sixties join in on the rattling tour; some passengers sing out on the better-known choruses. When they alight, they thank the driver not for the journey, but for letting Gerry and his Pacemakers ride with them. 

Barley is pleasant, but I made for Pendle Hill relatively quickly, given the fact that a 10 mile walk was ahead of me. In sheltered pockets behind dry-stone walls, the air was cool yet not overwhelmingly crisp, but as roads curled, air currents reclaimed their dominance and I had to double my efforts. I traversed about two miles or so before reaching the base of the almighty climb, bidding many cheerful hello's to roaming sheep and receiving many silent replies. All the while, in my sights, was that 'pile of earth' known as Pendle Hill.

A road that reached up to the constellations;
A pile of earth, that propped the firmament;
A landmark, for the sea-traversing nations;
A universe-o'erlooking battlement

William Billington, Pendle Hill (1876)

My ascent up this 'universe-o'erlooking battlement' was nothing short of a clamber. I remember thinking that the witches must have been half-dead anyway by the time they tottered up to the summit. Step by step, with every tendon crying for rest, the wind seemed to amplify in energy rendering the most sturdy of broomsticks defective here. At the summit, I found adequate shelter in which to enjoy the view. And what a view! I sat there, feeble and frail fingers clutching to the crumbs of a sultana scone, thinking about the situations in which one dies. Often, it is a sterilised, curtain-walled hospital wing, with no hope of any view. They may have been killed for their spells, but at least their final glimpses of the world were these scenes. The Pendle Witches were executed, but they left some spellbinding views.

From Pendle Hill, I negotiated a descent and continued my walk; a showreel of ever-changing vistas. I passed by reservoirs and along hedgerows, over grassland and under bridges. Unlike Pendle Hill, which attracts a fair number of visitors, I spent many miles in a charming solitude. I crossed farms, with that recurring feeling of encroaching on private land and followed the path through woodland. The woods I ventured through were some of the wildest and austere I have ever paced. Rays of light are oppressed so that what one can see is not complete darkness but the shadowy constellations of stumps and trunks. Spying from ahead is a dense canopy, swaying with ghostly spirits in a tempestuous bluster. You pray, not to escape alive from the other side, but that in this veil of darkness, there is an exit.

As the Sun started to rest its weary head, I found my way back to Barley. One final sultana scone was munched and then that charming bus and its joyous driver returned to take me back to Nelson. The cusp of dusk was approaching, and we motored through the country, the radio now tuned into a selection of contemporary mellow classics. Those hully gully passengers, who waved their return tickets to The Monkees, were now slumbered back, and tunefully singing along to Karen Carpenter and George Benson. An orange ribbon unfurled over the horizon, and from my window, I could make out Nelson in all its twilit spendour. Golden balls of light flickered over the town like a blanket of tealights, dazzled in their glory only by the darting trails of red and white. Under thousands of those tiled roofs were families, back together after the day's work, sitting down to something warm and savoury. Soon they would don their thick, winter coats and head back outside into a piercing cold to spectate an annual firework display.

When I arrived back in Lancaster, thousands of hats and scarves were assembled on the bridge. A froth of excitement was bubbling through the streets as one by one, families sauntered down to see the firework displays. Children were playing swords with glowsticks; their parents recalling the days of sparklers. Security personnel enacted their very best (and thoroughly rehearsed) expressionless faces and I found a convenient space to wait. The display was worth waiting for. And it goes to show, at such a time when the country seems weak and divided, and efforts to fuse communities back together are not working, after all!

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