Sunday, 22 January 2017

Week 16: (16th January to 22nd January 2017) or 'My week in 2017 and 1846'

"There is nothing permanent except change"

(Heraclitus, 500BC)


In all of mankind's perennial endeavours, is there a quest more hopelessly unattainable, a challenge more insurmountable, or a vision more distanciated from the realms of possibility, than that of achieving stillness?

In the mere second it takes to transplant the word from brain to screen, what once was has become flooded under a tsunami of change. The planet has shuttled another 18 miles across the cosmos. Billions of watches have ticked. Millions of lifts have opened. Thousands of birds have soared into the air. Even here at my desk, a semblance of serenity is rocked by motion; the computer still whirs, the fridge still gargles and the heart still beats. Outside, the cotton wool surfs the skies.

I write, of course, at the end of a week that has witnessed Herculean change across the pond. The waves of the Atlantic may rouse the rudders and convulse the masts of ships, but sailors harbouring along America's east coast find themselves mooring to a country equally swaying upon the ripples of great political turbulence.

There has been great change, too, here at Lancaster University although admittedly not under the spotlight of the international media. Nevertheless, it has to some degree ruptured the vessels of convenience. I refer, for those reading beyond the campus, to the incessant burden of construction work. One's incessant burden is another's dream project and I should admit that when the final brick is levelled and the last builder's tea is brewed, the campus will be undoubtedly transformed.

It has become known as the 'Design the Spine' project, namely because the vital organs that make up the campus - the departmental buildings, residence blocks and restaurants - are the vertebrae that stem from one kilometre-long walkway. For weeks now, workers have endured the toils of bitter wintery weather to build a vibrant, light, weather-protected new route, which I'm informed will offer a "variety of environments, reinforcing its identity as the main campus thoroughfare". Whilst the dizzy heights of progress are slowly scaled, with all emphasis on 'slowly', those wishing to traverse the campus now find themselves engaged in one mass diversion.

I realized the size of the burden on Monday, this week, when striding towards a pocket of campus I hardly ever visit. Whilst my shoes have rarely tread west of the main square, all that changes this term. (Behold, another change; that said, I have been looking forward to this particular change of routine for some time). After hurriedly pacing the labyrinth of a campus without a spine, re-routing and diverting along the way, I finally arrived. Mopping the brow, I entered the County South Lecture Theatre. I was no longer just another breathless commuter, but a Teaching Assistant.

In many realms of life, the way one experiences the world depends quite simply on which side of the counter one is. For nearly two decades, I have observed the duties of a teaching assistant consistently as a 'customer'. I have watched, listened and learnt from their advice, from a classroom desk. In some respects, I think, there's no better manual for a teaching assistant than those valuable years you spend as a student, yourself. As such, never before has the idiom "putting your feet into someone else's shoes" been more appropriate. To be a great salesman, one needs experience as a customer; to be a great host, one needs experience as a guest; to be a great teacher, one needs experience as a student.

Equipped, therefore, with that very experience, I set out on my first duties. The module I am assisting with is an undergraduate Geography class aimed at tutoring students in the art of planning great research. Indeed, research really is an art. It has to be designed in the mind, sketched and scribbled, re-drawn and re-drafted. Creativity is key. When I went round on Monday, asking students what skills they thought were essential, this essence of thinking 'beyond the box' - of thinking laterally and creatively - was highly popular.

In the subsequent weeks, the students will be working on designing a research plan to a project of their choice. As one of the teaching assistants, I was tasked earlier in the month to draw up a series of project proposals, and my duties from now on will be to advise the students who elect one from my list. Here's an example:

I was spared the burden of journeying around cement mixers for the remainder of the week, and spent every subsequent day after my first teaching duties here at my desk, working on my very own research plan. In many ways, the efforts demanded from the undergraduate geographers are not too dissimilar to the enterprise of planning an investigation at PhD level. There (or rather, here) I sat for many days, tapping out a plan of action: the project aims and objectives, the methods I will employ, the timescales I will keep to and, of course, the reasons why it should be executed in that particular way. Alas, as I established at the start of this post, nothing remains still for very long, and I fully expect the plan to be refined and fine-tuned. It will be re-crafted and polished, not solely from my supervisor, but by the twists and turns the wheels of reality like to make from time to time.


It was the finest of wintery mornings. At the feet of Lancaster Castle, a city lay snoozing. A giant, low-lying Sun, sitting on the horizon, began to study the metropolis like an artist studies their subject. Rooftops began smoking their pipes, sending a spiralling plume of misty mystery towards the heavens. Crystals of ice convened meetings on slates before going on their way; some abseiling down gutters, some parachuting down to gardens below, some skiing in the crevices around mountainous cobbles.

I boarded a train. For just over half-an-hour, we roamed along the edges of fields where shepherds and flocks were seeking fresh ground. We cruised over the estuary of the River Kent; a giant pancake of silts and clays. Occasionally, little craters appeared, imprisoning pools of stagnant water that shimmered under the morning light. Morecambe was nothing but a silhouette behind a veil of mist. The carriage curtailed to a halt and I alighted. I took my first steps in Grange over Sands.

Seldom, when travelling, have I stepped down from a railway platform and instantly wanted to change my address. And yet, I had been in Grange for a little under ten minutes when an overwhelming sense of emotional attachment began to infuse into me. I began promenading around an arc that sits comfortably between the estuary and a series of garden terraces. Ogling the view out to the bay, a parade of boulders sat wearing wigs of violet heather, which drooped casually down to study the shoes and paws of passing traffic. The ornamental garden that assembled behind them lived up to its name.

I have walked all day in London and not once have I been greeted with "Good Morning" or, under the circumstances where the morning is for some reason not good, simply a "Hello". My amble in a town with 0.04% of London's population was a just under an hour and yet I had received 10, 15 perhaps 20 greetings. I will never forget the young boy, riding a tricycle and wearing a large orange helmet, who rode up beside me and said hello. Behind him, an example of first-class parenting was signalling calls of encouragement. On and on I walked in what progressively seemed a blessed place. Even the dogs paused to rub noses.

The high-street has shielded itself from the claws of globalisation. An establishment such as the 'Sunrise Café' may seem a cliché, but in Grange one is assured that such a café, with its warm and friendly service, lives up to its name. I wandered into a bakery and, to no surprise, it was thriving. Customers and cashiers were engaged in a lively discussion about last night's pub quiz. Here in Grange, customers and cashiers by day come together in the evenings as simply one friendly community. With that quintessential English aroma of pastry finding its way to my nostrils, I could not resist the temptation and parted with a sausage roll. Here in Grange, no sign reading 'Homemade' is required. It's taken as a given.

If there is a sign, though, that encapsulates the true spirit of Grange, then let it be this one.

I enjoyed every flake of my sausage roll under the clock tower, with a vista of the bay. Tidal inlets seemed to stretch into the distance like colonists searching for unsullied land. Still the mist lay outstretched across the horizon. I relished the idea of the world ending here, in Grange; perhaps, the last frontier.

Blessed with great weather, I took up a walk in the afternoon, parting ways temporarily with the idyllic Grange and up along the limestone pavements to Hampsfell. A familiar quilt of shallow soils, tufted grass and drystone walls blanketed the undulating landscape. Some fields were crowned with tall, steep-sided cairns which casted long, afternoon shadows across the moor. Tall, wind-swept skeletons of trees punched through the horizon.

I had perhaps walked an hour when I happened upon what at first looked like a castle. It turned out to be a hospice. With a steep set of steps along one of the flanks, I ascended to the top and found myself in the middle of a war; a battle between vistas. Each claimed to be the most supreme. To the North rose the Lakeland Fells; to the East, the Yorkshire Dales; to the South, Blackpool Tower. Though the hostel provides this panorama, it was originally commissioned not as a viewpoint, but as a shelter and it was its capacity to nurture the weathered traveller that I would investigate next.

You enter by way of a rusty, iron gate. History shrieks from the hinges when you open it. From inside, the wind that blows over the moors is simply a groan, as if it's slightly annoyed that you've escaped it. At times, it's a whistle; a high-pitch call, a well-hatched plot to make you return outside. 

The hostel, which is no larger in floor area than that of six red telephone boxes, was commissioned by the pastor of Cartmel in 1846. As you sit down on a slab of stone that grows from the wall, it still is 1846. In the corner are the charred remains of a fire. You liked to imagine the hands that it's warmed; perhaps, the glow of the embers that have shone hope to those hopelessly lost in the wilderness. On the walls are the words of Cartmel, himself.

This hospice has an open door,
A like to welcome rich and poor;
A roomy seat for young and old,
Where they may screen them from the cold.

Three windows that command a view,
To North, To West, and Southward Too;
A flight of steps requireth care,
The roof will show a prospect rare:

Mountain and vale you thence survey,
The winding streams and noble bay:
The Sun at noon the shadows hides,
Along the east and western sides.

And so there I sat, in Cartmel's hospice. In 1846.

If stillness is a prize still yet to be claimed, if there is a place that thwarts the howling winds of change, could this be the very place? And could there be a better neighbour, equally stalwart in the face of global dynamism, than Grange?

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