Open spaces…

When I was growing up in semi-rural Nottinghamshire, I had this thing for wild places.

I was always something of an ‘outsider’- in every sense of the word- and the possibility of being in a world without boundaries always seemed to me to be impossibly romantic.

I lived in and around what was left of Sherwood Forest- long since rid of it’s merry men, and for the most part cleared to fuel the industrial demands for timber and coal. But there were bits that were left that seemed magical.

Over the past two weeks, I have spent longer in the place I grew up than I have done for 20 years, and depsite the trying circumstances, I found my eyes wandering again towards the forest as I drove backwards and forwards to hospitals and to visit family. I realised that the  bits that always excited me were the woods that draw you in to their dark interior, and promise to go on for ever…

As I grew, I ventured out into Derbyshire- on the bike, and on the bus. It seemed so much bigger and more exciting than the landscapes I was used to.

In particular, I was drawn to certain places on the OS maps that were fringed by a purple line- signifying ‘open country’- with rights to roam free. The nearest one of these was around the Gritstone edges- Curbur edge, Froggatt Edge and so on. From the stones hereabouts were carved millstones- some of which lie there still- and became the training grounds for the worlds greatest climbers. But for me, they just provided a kind of freedom.

I took Michaela and William (along with my nephew Nat) there for a walk last week, and discovered that the old magic was unabated.

There in that old landscape, it was possible again to feel a kind of freedom- despite the circumstances that you are experiencing.

I have known wilderness of a much wilder kind.

But this small one felt (paradoxically) like home…

Wilderness retreat weekend- update…

Just an update on our planned Aoradh Wilderness Retreat– which will be from May the 1st- 3rd.

I am just trying to nail the venue for this weekend, and thinking about different venues. I think there are about 9 people confirmed, with another 5 or so possibles- this time it looks like there will be possibly 2-3 women coming too- brave souls that they are!

Terry may join us for the sea voyage out (or return) too.

Nick and I are keen to continue to use some of the ‘wilderness meditations‘ on the weekend- although Nick himself may not be there.

The prefered option was Lunga, Treshnish. However, I think this might be turning out to be potentially too complicated. The route to get there involves two ferries- one to Mull, then a bus, then the small boat out to Lunga. It is a lovely journey, but will take most of a day each way. Also- the ferry operator has been rather unhelpful, and appears to want to charge us more than his regular day trips. He did not reply to my questioning of this! There are other boat operators, but I think costs will climb, and we will also need to factor in the trip onto Mull, and driving over to where the boats operate from.

Which is a long way of saying that I think we need to simplify, and head out to either the other Lunga, or to the wild west coast of Jura.

On closer examination of the maps, I think Jura offers the most. It is not as romantic perhaps- but it offers beaches and caves to shelter in if we get bad weather in the evenings.There are a couple of lovely bays that we can base ourselves at- with brilliant walking/exploring/scrambling/wildlife watching/sitting contemplating opportunities- according to your choice!

So- here is the question. To those who are coming- can you let me know if I should go ahead and confirm the boat from Ardfern to take us out to the other side of Jura? This will mean a wonderful trip through the Gulf of Correvreckan, past the famous whirlpool.

Cost of this trip will be about £250 in total- shared between however many of us go.

Yesterday there was spring in the air… not long now!

Look upon my works you mighty and weep…

For I have walked the wild country

And watched the sun slipping slowly down

Turning green to gold

working alchemy before my very eyes

I have seen the mountains

Lifting up their faces to the sky

Gathering in the starlight

So beautiful it makes me want to cry

And I can hear a voice- its calling me

Can you hear the voice?

It says;

Look upon my works you mighty and weep

(CG 2001)

Wilderness- ‘My side of the mountain’

I have just finished reading a book to my son William at bed time. It was a book that I had read at primary school. In fact I think I never took the book back to the school library, so it is still the property of Croft Primary School, Nottinghamshire County Council. I must turn myself in to the police…

But the book had a profound effect on me.

It told the story of a boy who ran away from home in New York, and made a life for himself in the Catskill mountains. He lived off the land, and hollowed out a tree to make a house.

I think it had such an effect on me as some aspects of my childhood were very difficult, and I spent hours in my own dream world, longing for some kind of magical escape.

But it also filled me up with a longing for wild places.

I now realise this this book (which I have never heard anyone else mention) is a famous work of children’s fiction, and was made into a film. Indeed it is part of a trilogy, and so I plan to read the rest of the series with Will.

I found some bits of the film (made in 1969, when I was 2 years old)- and was amazed how much it still stirred me. Some liberties appear to have been taken with the book though- don’t they know that they are messing with my memories?!

Wilderness- Dick Proenneke…

I am thinking a lot about wilderness again- because of my weekend in the mountains, but also as Nick and I are getting further into our next writing project- trying to gather together a collection of things we are calling ‘wilderness meditations’.

The place of wilderness in this world seems more important to me than ever. As we continue to move into a post modern world where the rise of scientific rationalism has been put to the sword, the longing for simpler, more sustainable way of living is ever more on us. Getting ourselves loose from the noose of debt and wage earning in order to maintain the debt payments- this is a dream for many.

And a reality to few.

I came across this man recently, building his beautiful hut in the Alaskan wilderness.

And the envy was on me.

To live in a pristine land unchanged by man…
to roam a wilderness through which few other humans have passed…
to choose an idyllic site, cut trees and build a log cabin…
to be a self-sufficient craftsman, making what is needed from materials available…
to be not at odds with the world, but content with one’s own thoughts and company…
Thousands have had such dreams, but Dick Proenneke lived them. He found a place, built a cabin, and stayed to become part of the country. This video “Alone in the Wilderness” is a simple account of the day-to-day explorations and activities he carried out alone, and the constant chain of nature’s events that kept him company.

Aoradh wilderness trip, 2010…

We are planning another wilderness trip over the bank holiday at the beginning of May (1st-3rd of May.)

This has become something of a tradition every year- a few of us take some tents to a wild place, and spend time on a kind of retreat…

See here for last year’s trip, and here for the year before…

We have enjoyed some trips to tiny Hebridean islands- Scarba, The Garvelachs, Iona, Coll, Little Cumbrae, as well as some land locked places in the Lake district, or Wales in the more distant past. What started as a few friends who liked to get away has become a more open trip- and we love to invite others of a like mind to come with us.

So, if you fancy coming, here is what to expect-

  • A chance to get to somewhere absolutely beautiful- isolated and wild.
  • The probability of being wet and cold.
  • Gorgeous sunsets.
  • Being close to wild creatures.
  • Lots of laughter- some of it of a rather risqué nature!
  • Some prepared ‘wilderness meditation’ exercises- a chance to make a Spiritual journey. A pilgrimage.
  • Friendship and camp fires.

If you come, you will need to be self supporting- in the sense that you come at your own risk, taking responsibility for your own equipment and supplies. We offer friendship and opportunity, but this is no package tour! If you come, you should be used to being outdoors, and be up for a challenge. If you are unsure, then get in touch, and we can give you more details!

This year’s trip may well be to Lunga, in the Treshnish Isles. Cost of getting there from Oban will be around £50.

To whet the appetite- here are a few snippets about the place-

The Treshnish Isles are formed from 8 principal islands varying in size from less than 4 hectares to 60 hectares. The archipelago lies, at its closest, 3 km west of Mull and extends along a northeast-southwest axis for a distance of 11 km. The islands are uninhabited but that wasn’t always the case, hill forts, medieval chapels and castles prove that humans were once permanently living on these remote and unsheltered islands. The population in 1800 on Lunga was about 20. Year-round occupation ended in 1824 when Donald Campbell and his family left the island.

The Treshnish Isles are one of the most scenically evocative features of the Hebridean landscape. The islands are exposed to the open ocean, uninhabited and have no good landing sites, hence the presence of vibrant wildlife communities. The Treshnish Isles possess unique landscape, rich wildlife communities and contain habitat, which is vital for several vulnerable species. They have an archaeological history dating from early Viking times. The islands already have international recognition of their heritage value. They are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981) because of their unique geomorphology, populations of seals, cliff- and burrow-nesting seabirds, wintering wildfowl and populations of house mice.

So- if you want to join us- drop me a line…

Postcards from the western fringe 4- footpaths…

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I took this walk out along the coast towards Bosta.

It was lovely. Wind coming in from the sea, sun shining through scudding clouds.

And I started thinking about footpaths. And theology.

It started with a boggy patch- you know the sort- a lush patch of green that looks all firm and supportive, but turns out to be a cunning thin skin over a foul boot sucking bog. Such things always remind me of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian wending his way on the journey of life, until he leaves the path again, and falls into the slough of despond.

It seemed to me that this way of understanding the walk of faith weighed on me for years. It is based on a view that God has proscribed paths for all of us, and should we step to the left or the right of it then well betide us. The best we could hope for, like Bunyan’s Christian, is to stumble back out of the wilderness back onto the golden path…

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Now paths are useful things, as long as

  • You know where you are going
  • The destination is the object of the journey
  • Others have been there before and marked the journey well

But what I found in my spiritual journeying was that the linear, proscribed paths I grew up with became no journey at all. What Bunyan’s followers handed down to me was a spirituality that mapped and measured the life out of each step. A Spirituality that had all the signposts, but had lost all the adventure. That became fixated on the destination, not the joy in the moment, and the companionship of the road.

Walking the mountains of Scotland, as opposed to England, means contending with a much wilder country. The few footpaths are faint, and easily confused with animal tracks. Making your way over rough land is hard work. But these landscapes are no mere backdrop to be drawn past the journey- they are the very place were we encounter the quickening that comes from being tested, inspired and humbled by real wilderness.

The old well trodden spiritual paths are falling out of use. People no longer appear to believe the old signposts, nor are attracted by the destination.

Perhaps the analogy of faith as footpath to be mapped and trod is a poor one. It certainly lacks something for me.

Perhaps the useful analogy should be less focussed on destination, and more on encounter, adventure and dependence. Of moving outwards, looking for the traces of Jesus and listening for the whisper of the Spirit in the wind and the waves.

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But in this wild country, we still need pioneers. We still need to connect with others who walk in the way…

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