Sunday, 18 June 2017

Week 37: (12th June to 18th June 2017) or 'Paradise Found'

Stand in the right spot in London and it is possible to roam across the sprawling palm of the city without moving a muscle. The spot in question is a carriage that whisks through the intestines in the very belly of the capital. I minded the gap in London Liverpool Street and boarded one of London's arteries; the blood-red Central Line heading westbound. Just as this underground capsule was ready to depart, germinating from a crowd of summer caps, a couple sprang to life and made a sprint towards the closing doors. The following five, perhaps ten seconds must have seemed like an eternity. The gentleman lunged forwards so as to defy the gnashing jaws of the tube doors, and being in a position to help, I assisted in pulling his suitcase through. The doors, those gnawing molars, were only the more desperate to close. The gentleman turned to lend a hand to his partner but it was too late; the lips of the doors were satisfyingly pursed. A few seconds elapsed where his eyes met hers and I watched at their collective longing for each other as the train started to pull away. I imagined what was going through his mind. Perhaps he began to place his feet inside her boots: would she stay and await his return? Would she take the next tube and meet him at the next stop? Would she go on to their final destination and wait in patience? I thought to myself that this is surely the strength test of understanding for any relationship. The gentleman alighted at Bank and I nearly joined him on the platform, purely out of curiosity to witness the outcome of this subterranean drama. But I had a train to catch and so the case remains, at least to you and I, unresolved...

So often the carriage of the train or the decks of the stagecoach are awash with postcard narratives like this. I have promised to myself that one day, when the burly of life has become less hurly, I will make a tour of this little island solely on public transport and document the fascinations that occur along the way. If you were to take the train from Birmingham to Manchester, you would inevitably find a sign decorating every carriage window reading: "We want everyone to have a great journey so please consider others around you". How true those words are, for my most enriched journeys are those where I've simply sat and considered my fellow travellers; their unspoken oddities, their curious dialogue, their role in such theatrical mundanity. One day I shall embark on such a pilgrimage, but not today.

I had parked my PhD in a short-stay car park and had taken a couple of days off to make a fleeting visit to Norfolk. But now back in Lancashire, and back in the driving seat, I was ready to make progress along the road to where all PhDs eventually park: the graduation hall.


Where along that journey is my PhD currently? I am encircling one of those many roundabouts, where avenues of choice sprawl out like tentacles, each promising a slightly different future. Quite apart from the impetuous reflex of quick decision making that taunts (or invigorates) the driver of the motorcar, the PhD student must digest each and every option, muse out loud their predicaments, consult with their supervisory assistance, and then once the decision is made, turn on the indicators. The roundabout I am currently girdling is that of 'Experimental Design' or, to exemplify, planning the vital details of my summer fieldwork campaign. It is with some sense of ease that I can report that this task is going well, but there had been one aspect that for some reason or another I had omitted until now: the meeting with the statistician. The blueprints of experimental design must be fondled at least once by a statistician for they have the judicious skill of scrutinizing a series of fieldwork plans and informing whether they have both the rigor and the precision worthy enough to be carried out. And so, I found myself travelling to Nottingham to see one of the country's most respected geostatisticans: Dr Murray Lark.

What is the point of Statistics? I imagine those words, or words to that effect, have been whisked in the minds of nearly every student obliged to employ them. For those who do not elect the Statistics for Geographers or the Statistics in Geography as 'light' reading material before switching out the lights (and let me assure you, I join you) let me nevertheless justify one of the major strengths of this mathematical toolkit. If I were to ask you to inform me as to the average number of seats on a standard UK bus, you would face a daunting challenge of traversing the country and tallying the numbers of seats on every single bus. Although I admit the challenge would be enthralling, it is hardly an efficient method and I may find myself without an answer for some foreseeable time. No, what you would do is sit aboard a sample of buses, perhaps 100. The experience would, no doubt, be similarly interesting. Thus, the power of statistics is the means by which a sample can be used to inform one of a much larger population.

I was thinking about this as I alighted off the bus in Keyworth. Alas, I did not count the seats, which remains a task for another visit. My arrival to the British Geological Survey was an early one, perhaps too early, so I took a walk around the village of Keyworth before making my entrance. Should one require a representative sample of an ordinary British suburban village, one need travel no further than Keyworth for soaked into the fabric of this neighbourhood, I found an irrepressible ordinariness. There are few things to stand aghast to in Keyworth. Gardens sit like welcome mats on the doorsteps of detached abodes; each separated by a little wall of hedge. Cars sit on the road with two feet up on the kerb. A few weeds take refuge in the gorges that open up on well-paced pavements. I wandered up Mount Pleasant and found the experience to be exactly that. I became a little irritated that around no turn, nor deviation from the path, gave way to shock or surprise. And upon returning to the entrance of the British Geological Survey, I was neither elated nor inspired.

I then realized how extra-ordinary Keyworth is. Although a prevailing air of normality rides over the rooftops and swirls around the cul-de-sacs, not every suburban village can boast of having one of the world's leading geological organizations as a neighbour. Keyworth is far from ordinary! I began to cross the large car park towards the visitor entrance. With giant rocks peppering the site, and peculiar patterns garnishing the pavement slabs, both of which I can never adequately identify, I always feel the faint tinglings of being an imposter here. There is also a certain and eerie sense of tranquillity here. I am often prepared for a large explosion or perhaps the tremors of a controlled earthquake, but such geological activity never arises.

"Not as geological as I thought," I remarked, as I shook hands with my supervisor Dr Andy Tye.

For the best part of two hours, Dr Murray Lark, Dr Andy Tye and I played Jenga with my project's experimental design. (Those who didn't relish an afternoon's enjoyment as a child playing Jenga should make up for lost time, but essentially, wooden blocks are removed from a tower and repositioned so as to make it appear, at least at first glance, a less stable structure). In much the same way, the building blocks of my experimental design were each removed, studied, debated and repositioned. Some aspects were dropped, some rearranged, and some were left in place. One interesting conclusion was made. Until now, scholars measuring soil production have seldom acquired more than one 'production rate' for any one point across a study site. To a statistician (and to employ our earlier analogy), this is akin to counting the seats on just one bus and using that as a representative average for the entire UK bus fleet. We all agreed that it is essential to make more than one measurement of soil production rate at each study site.


The second hand of my watch is a baton held currently by the final minutes of an early summer's evening. Effortlessly, it is about to be passed on to the first minute of Midnight. In these ephemeral moments, I lean against the windowsill of my hotel room. From the sixth floor, my eyes reach out like a net to capture the vista of a city asleep. The minutes that pass now are those that occupy the binding of diaries and the lines on calendars; a transitory wave of time where anything seems possible. My eyes wander across the rooftops; there are no shops, nor businesses, nor homes in this twilight. They are simply blurry solids, separated by the gaseous voids of roads and alleyways. Stabbing the horizon are towers, which ascend into the air perhaps to rest their brows on one of the sky's white cushions. I listen intently to the moaning and humming that bleeds out from the ring-road. Buses that are 'not in service' are retiring to their depots, a boy speeds on a bike to deliver a pizza, empty lorries return to the warehouse for a midnight feed before they are discharged once more. Townsfolk step out from the streetlamps, meandering lazily across the road, their wallets lighter and their livers heavier. Two men wade into a pool of light to enjoy one last cigarette.

On the top floor of an adjacent premises, I gaze at what appears to be the most peculiar burglary ever to take place in Nottingham. A few silhouettes are dismantling a door frame. I watch it being divorced from the door it once embraced and carried down a stairway to emerge out on the street below. Another shadow opens the hatch of a lorry and in it goes. Kidnapped, with little chance to escape, the door frame is now hurled around the labyrinth of the city's backstreets and I watch in subtle amazement as the lorry fades from view.

I should go to sleep... but I search out the horizon, one final time. There in the far distance is a soup of lights. Some of those lights are those from the dwellings on Mount Pleasant; they overlook the city centre like the audience in the Grand Circle. I try to imagine that Keyworth community; the ordinariness of the village, the weeds in the pavement, dirty cups in the dishwasher. Some of those twinkles are from the British Geological Survey, as guards stand with hot cocoa to protect some of the country's most celebrated geological findings. I stumble into bed...

Another morning promised is a promise kept. But Nottingham, I conclude, is a puzzle. At night, it is bewitching, as if the Gods of Twilight freshen the air each night with the vespers of an irresistible enchantment. But that allure has diffused by morning, and now from the ground, a conscious urban reality rises from slumber. I walk to the railway station. How can it look so grotesque? Concrete germs, sneezed out from the uninspired and dull wits of the 1960s architects, plague most of the inner streets. Fine architecture seems all the more appealing now; it's as if these ornate designs are attempting to turn your head away with the comforting message of "Don't look, don't feast your eyes on those wearisome car parks; turn to look at me! Don't I dazzle your eyes with such resplendent design? Don't I exude glee and splendour with my irradiant beauty?" I walk past a lorry, with the side hatch up. Out of curiosity, I peek in and search for a door frame. A young man is sorting through many brown sacks of Lincolnshire Potatoes. The door frame may well be out the country by now, I thought.


There's a bus to Paradise. It scoops you up in Gargrave and heads towards this other Eden through some of the most tranquil country lanes you could ever hope to travel. You watch as wild hedgerows attempt to board and travel with you; they try to cling to the panes of glass, offering their sticky seeds the promise of another home. Occasionally, the bus pulls to a halt and collects more passengers. There are no bus shelters nor signs, but little figures standing idle under the canopies of Oaks or sitting upon the dry stone walls. On board they come, joining a congregation of light chatter. You gaze once more out of the window; an ever-changing tapestry of Constable's landscape commands your view. Like an unfinished painting, the sheep are little white blobs that paddle around in a pool of luscious green velvety paint. Droplets of blue dye are being discharged from the heavens to diffuse into a blanket of white clouds and soon each patch of the quilt is coloured. Soon you arrive into Paradise.

"Right, everybody," goes the driver, whose pitch ascends on the final syllable of each sentence. "Have a good day! If you're coming back with me...half four... here. Okay, everybody, have a good day!"

You alight and the first thing you notice is that Paradise is spelt wrong. It's spelt 'Malham' here.

For some weeks, I have peered out the window back in Lancaster and watched as little droplets of the Atlantic Ocean slide down the glass. So you may imagine my delight when this weekend promised no such delivery. There are only two buses that visit Malham everyday; one in the morning, and one in the afternoon, and it was vital that my adventures sandwiched neatly in between these two non-negotiable crusts of time. I had planned an eight mile walk that vowed to encompass the major highlights of Malham and I made for an immediate start.

It wasn't long before I stopped. I admit I was beginning to feel like I was on a conveyor belt, or perhaps on one very long ride at an adventure park, being moved along by the pace of those parading behind me. Thus, I decided to 'hop off' the ride and sit alongside the edge of a stream. The channel pleasantly drifts between two meadows. Riparian grasses overhang the sides of this miniature valley, peering at their own reflection in the continuously shifting mirror. For a while, the clear water appears almost sedate, gliding smoothly as a singular ribbon. How innocent it moves towards a war downstream. Ahead and inescapable are four or five boulders that rip that ribbon of tranquillity apart, awakening each bubble from its coma, and hurling them over their rocky shoulders into a tumultuous chaos. At the feet of each boulder is an anarchy of individual bubbles; it's every bubble for himself now! They roar in anger at being awoken; some eddying around as if protesting to the boulders, some fleeing from the unruliness. Disaffected, the boulders remain still.

I climbed back upon the conveyor belt and continued the walk. Summer caps and straw hats were being taken for a day out both behind and ahead of me. Soon, the unannounced tour entered what appeared like a kitchen, and those short of sight would have not revised this initial conclusion. In every aspect apart from the visual evidence that it was indeed a woodland, this stretch of the walk felt like we were trooping around the kitchens of Venetian restaurants. A river rushed past us, gurgling and bubbling as if it were boiling vegetables. And drifting around our nostrils were pungent Ramsons or 'Wild Garlic' that had taken root around the trunks of the more venerable trees. Scattered like the herbs a chef might shower a dish with were Broad Buckler Ferns, the 'Lady of the Valley', the Herb Paris and Dog's Mercury. Sizzling ahead of us was a waterfall, behind which legend states lives the Queen of the Local Fairies. Only in Yorkshire would such a member of divinity be called Janet!

The claws of time have gnawed away at Yorkshire. The scars of mutilation leave irreversible impressions in the landscape and in the minds of those who traipse through them. Gordale Scar wears a skirt of loose debris, and short blades of grass grow from the valley walls to make this gorge appear like an unshaven giant. Visitors quite innocently saunter through this gorge everyday, unaware that ahead of them lies a trap. I was about to fall into it.

Bearing right around the gorge, for it is no straight cavity but a hook-shaped void in the landscape, I saw it. There, with striking menace, was the end of the gorge and guarding it, fierce cascading water. Like so many other walkers, I took a moment to review my steps. Had I taken a wrong turn? Had Janet, the Queen of the Local Fairies, played a trick upon me in revenge for me pitying her name? And like so many other walkers, I concluded that this was indeed the route. Now, I find it difficult to express the raw emotions that transpired at this point. Amidst the cataclysmic surge of water bellowing in pain as it crashed against the boulders below, I had a decision to make. Was I to join only a handful of experienced walkers in climbing up the face of the waterfall as my directions suggested? Or was I to re-navigate back and seek an alternative route? I ran and re-ran the scenarios in my mind. From the position I was in, there seemed no safe route up the wall of the gorge, and any attempt would be a temporary defiance against gravity. As I moved in closer, I began to map out a route. A few beams of sunlight seemed to be glancing down at the action, revealing how polished these rocks were, as if beckoning me to reconsider.

I decided to take the risk, for if risk is to be taken, it should be executed in youthful ignorance. I clambered over boulders towards the rock face; the foam swirling around the soles of my boots as if attempting to pull me away from inevitable danger. On I went, across the last couple of boulders and now the climbing began!

My future was shared equally among my four limbs. I stretched out to the rocks protruding through the face; my boots wedging in to little caverns below, and up I climbed. Down below, I noticed some of the new arrivals, putting hands over the 'O' of the open mouths as they stood, as I did, aghast that a young man was climbing over the face of a monster. Soon, I emerged on the brow and arranged myself into a sitting position to stare back over the gorge I had climbed. Adrenaline was powering through my vessels as fast as the water that was free-falling to the bottom of the valley below. But how to celebrate my victory, my successful conquest against gravity? I could have defaced a rock with my initials, or asked a walker to take a photograph of me proclaiming triumph, but I'm as British as they come so I walked out onto a grassy meadow and enjoyed a Ham, Cheese and Tomato sandwich.

Is there any other country where the mood can shift so rapidly? No further than a hundred yards from the waterfall, I found myself as small as a pinhead in a vast, open landscape. The birds were once again making melody, and the drone of the solitary bee passed by me in those sleepy meadows. I walked against the wind, an ancient wind, a wind that had howled continuously for millennia over these Yorkshire Dales. Eventually, my route brought me to the edge of Malham Tarn. There, along the lakeside, I shared with a hundred or so cows, an inescapable blueness. I have rarely seen water so blue, apart from perhaps in the Mediterranean. There was an Aegean feeling here, too. The water, far removed from that which confronted me at the waterfall, seemed too delicate, too ethereal, to touch. But how I longed under the beating heat of the Sun to paddle in one of Nature's most graceful baths. I looked over at the cows, grazing at the grass and gazing at the view. How quintessentially English the scene appeared!

I had become spellbound. And lost. No matter which route I tried, I would invariably pause, reassess my position on the map and withdraw. Was I on the yellow line? Was I on the dotted line? Was I on any line?

"Am I going the right way?" I asked. There was no answer.
"Please, is this the way to Malham Cove?" And yet, still no answer.
"Because I think this is the dotted path to Malham... would I be correct with that?"

The sheep just kept grazing and so down the track I continued.

I am writing on the edge of Malham Cove, where an assembly of clints and grikes meet a blanket of air. Once a pavement of limestone, the rocks now sit apart from one another, as if like distant friends, cautious of each other's personal space. It is the world's most 'near-complete' jigsaw, for if each rock was nudged closer to its partner, a solid pavement would manifest again from history. But, alas, like nervous dance partners, they stand still in their own individual micro-worlds.

Without doubt, this is one of the most glorious views in England. It is indeed a challenge to know what to write about. Perhaps, the seemingly endless stream that carves through the valley. It's as if a child has taken a finger to a large slab of green marzipan. Now, in the blue ribbon that winds itself away from Malham Cove, small children splash around in their imagined worlds. I can hear their cherubic cries of joy that travel on the back of the stream and into that vast openness of the valley. Perhaps I might write about the miles of dry-stone wall that stitch together this patchwork quilt. How those walls keep the cattle in, but oh how pathetic - how surmountable - they appear from here. I can run my little finger from field to field with ease, crossing no stile, unfastening no gate. Perhaps I might write about the cattle that dot the landscape like measles, or the farmyard buildings which crop up from the ground like molehills. Perhaps I might write about the way the vibrant green slowly dilutes with distance, to turn into a misty grey upon the horizon; the great battle between the hue and the haze. Perhaps I might write about that which is unseen; the farm-worker who stands in one of those white cottages, sawing a loaf of homemade bread as he makes an afternoon sandwich; inside the minds of the sheep as they dutifully mow the pasture; the tentacles of the trees that stretch and unwind into a hidden underworld. Perhaps I might write of the gentleman who sits next to me, with his partner, half admiring the scenery, half assessing whether to 'pop the question' against a backdrop of this truly British countryside. 

Perhaps I may not write at all. Perhaps I will just sit here, where Paradise is far from lost, and gaze.  

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