Flower Face

“She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls, and she is for the hunting.”
Alan Garner, The Owl Service

Lleu Llaw Gyffes stood upon the rocky outcrop shot through with obdurate, milk white quartz, high above the cascading waters of Afon Cynfal and raised high above his head his fire-forged spear. With every sinew, every muscle and tendon in his body taught with indignant rage, he aimed his lance at the heart of Gronw Pebyr, lover of his wife, usurper of his crown and author of his downfall.

Such is the culmination of a folk tale that over centuries has woven itself into the consciousness of the Welsh nation and the fabric of a landscape. The evocative story of the love triangle between the heroic but gullible Lleu Llaw Gyffes, the devious Gronw Pebyr and the beautiful flower maiden Blodeuedd, manifested into existence by the magician Math son of Mathonwy, is part of a narrative with origins believed to date back to the post-Roman period of British history but which has become known as the Mabinogion, a collection of medieval folk tales of the Welsh corpus, translated into English and popularised in the early 19th Century by Lady Charlotte Guest. The tale of the entanglement of the three lovers is unique amongst the collection in that many of the geographical locations of the story can be identified in the landscape of Snowdonia and in particular the secluded valley of Cwm Cynfal which lies some miles to the south of Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd.

At the edge of the forest there were scenes of devastation wrought by the winter storms. Over a dozen large Sitka Spruce lying vanquished across the saturated forest track. With a little persistence I was able to clamber across the fallen timber and make my way over the river by means of a small footbridge. Further along the valley, in the centre of a long narrow farm track, I came upon what at first I thought was a sleeping cat, but which upon closer inspection I found to be a young lamb, cold and curled up upon itself; dead, I assumed, abandoned by its mother. I felt I couldn’t leave it where it was to be squashed by the next Mitsubishi to come blistering down the track, so I resolved to move the cadaver into the thicket and let the carrion crows do the rest. As I touched it, the little thing revived, its eyes thick with mucus, its head lolling like a rudely awoken drunk, reeking of the sour stench of death – if not already off his mortal coil, this little one was not far from it. I checked my map and saw there was a farmhouse not a mile further along the track and so despite the mucus oozing from every orifice and the smell stronger than a hikers sock, I took up the lamb in my arms and set off towards the farm.

Fferm Cwm, 1497

Fferm Cwm, 1497 read the sign. A simple but beautiful oak-beamed ‘A-’framed building with a low oak door and an elaborate iron knocker which I raised and let fall loudly. There was no answer. I knocked again, fully expecting a gruff, septuagenarian, hard-minded, Welsh speaking hill farmer with little time for sentimental Englishmen and half-dead lambs, to answer the door. Instead it was opened by a fashionably dress young woman, hair held up with a decorative broad headband, wearing a designer sweater, bright purple leggings and “Ugg” boots. I assumed a holiday let. “Hi”, I said, feeling rather foolish now standing at the door covered in mud and sheep mucus holding a half-dead lamb. I asked if the sheep were her responsibility. She answered in the affirmative, sounding a little vexed, and invited me in.

Fferm Cwm, 1497

The lady led me through to a lounge, which took up most of the ground floor of the building. The walls were paneled with wood, bamboo matting covered the stone floor and thick oak beams held aloft the ceiling. But for the large flat-screen television in the corner of the room showing an omnibus of Hollyoaks, I might have thought I had walked into a medieval hall. Already by the fireplace lay another invalid lamb, feeding on freshly cut grass. The lady of the house took my lamb and placed a plastic cover over him and fed a feeding tube into his gullet so as to administer a glucose solution. He was then treated to a gentle warming from a small hairdryer and placed in front of the fire with the other lamb for company and the afore mentioned television for entertainment.

The lady of the house I discovered was Bronwen, whose father had owned the farm for over forty years but who had sadly died some months earlier. He had been a professor of art at Bangor University and Bronwen had grown up at Fferm Cwm but had moved away to Liverpool in later life. Following the death of her father she inherited the farm and the two hundred sheep that came with it. Initial plans to sell the farm were complicated when the two hundred sheep came into lamb during the spring and something had to be done so she and a couple of friends upped sticks from Liverpool and took up residence as temporary shepherds in Cwm Cynfal.

Fferm Cwm, 1497

Conscious of my boots dripping mud onto Bronwen’s bamboo matting and happy that my little rescued lamb was in the care of someone who was actually capable of restoring him to life, I made my excuses and carried on my way eastwards to the cascades at the head of the valley.

Gronw Pebyr, Lord of Penllyn was hunting in the forest of Hafod Fawr when late in the evening he came upon Mur Castell, the court of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who was absent at the time at the court of the magician Math son of Mathonwy, having left his wife Blodeuedd in charge of affairs. Concerned that her husband would be unpleased if hospitality was not offered to the lord, Blodeuedd invited Gronw and his entourage to stay the night at the castle. However, as soon as Gronw entered the castle and his gaze fell upon that of Blodeuedd, were they both filled with the deepest love for each other and sought that very night to consummate that love in each other’s embrace. Rather than take leave from his host the following day, Gronw sought to stay a further night in his lovers arms and together they conspired how they might rid themselves of Lleu Llaw Gyffes.

Some days later Gronw departed and the lord of the house returned. That night Blodeuedd feigned concern for her husband’s life. Lleu replied that she had little to fear for by virtue of his birth, his mother being the sorceress Aranrhod, daughter of Dôn, it was all but impossible to slay him. Blodeuedd pleaded with Lleu to tell her that way in which his death might come about, so as she may always ensure that such circumstances should never occur. Foolishly, Lleu agreed. Firstly, he told her, any spear able to strike the mortal blow would have to be forged only when people were at Mass on the Sabbath and be a year in the making. Further, a bath of stone would need to be made on the riverbank and that with a thatched roof and by bringing a Billy goat along side the stone bath so as Lleu would place one foot on the edge of the bath and one foot on the back of the goat. Only then could the mortal blow be made. Blodeuedd laughed nervously, for she knew such circumstances were never to occur by chance. None-the-less she sent word to Gronw Pebyr who immediately set about making a spear in his forge.

Blodeuwedd in Bloom by Selina Fenech www.selinafecench.com

A year later Blodeuedd entreated her husband to again regale the details of how his mortality may come about and to demonstrate the same. In order to please her he agreed and so she prepared a stone bath with a thatched roof on the banks of the river Cynfal and gathered as many Billy goats as she could find in the valley and sent word to Gronw Pebyr to make himself ready under the lee of the hill known as Bryn Cyfergyr which overlooks the river. Then Blodeuedd asked her husband to show her the position in which his mortality may be taken by placing one foot on the edge of the stone bath and one foot on the back of one of the Billy goats, and again, foolishly, to please her, he agreed. No sooner did he do so Gronw Pebyr rose up from behind Bryn Cyfergyr and threw the year-forged spear at Lleu Llaw Gyffes such that it struck him in the side, whereafter Lleu leaped into the air in the form of an eagle issuing an ear piercing scream, flying away into the mountains of Eryri.

Beyond the meadow to the east of Fferm Cwm the ground rises steeply to a spur with a natural viewpoint above and the Afon Cynfal tumbles over a series of cascades culminating in the dramatic Rhaeadr y Cwm with a drop of thirty-seven metres over Ordovician shale and sandstone turbidites. Above the cascades the landscape broadens out into open moorland, much of which is above five hundred metres in height. There is a lot of open space up here on the edge of Yr Migneint, an expanse of blanket bog of over two hundred square kilometres, the most extensive in Wales. Sadly, the remoteness of this landscape has encouraged its exploitation for the management of utilities. A line of electrical grid pylons now transect the forest plantations of Hafod Fawr, strung together like enslaved giants, striding westwards to the controversial (it being located in the national park) and since 1991 decommissioned nuclear power station of Trawsfynydd, the presence of all of which somewhat detracts from the sense of wilderness. As I wandered south from Pont yr Afon Gam towards the forest  I was struck, as I often am in such places, by the emptiness of the terrain. As I climbed up onto the undifferentiated summit of Pen y Foel-ddû the sense of isolation just grew and grew.

Abandoned farm buildings below Pen y Foel-ddû

The Ramblers Association have for some time expressed concerned that since the passing of the CROW Act in 2000 the use of open access land has not been embraced by those who engage in outdoor activities as perhaps was expected. This may be due to several reasons, not limited to a lack of confidence in navigation skills, over-dependence on GPS units, guide books which still slavishly stick to established rights-of-way and perhaps more than any other, the fear of getting lost. In her book “A Field Guide to Getting Lost”, Rebecca Solnit laments the disappearance from our maps and atlases of the term ‘Terra Incognita’. With our reliance on technology, we in the 21st Century often rest under the assumption that no region of the globe, no square kilometre of our planet, remains unknown, for everything is photographed and mapped by satellites, charted and measured by global-positioning systems. Something the tragic disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 must remind us all is that this protective veil of technology is not infallible.

Solnit argues that any map only provides a restricted view of a particular landscape, limited by the information left out: the unmapped and unmappable. We may look at the Ordnance Survey map of the Vale of Ffestiniog, look at the ochre contour coils against the pale yellow patches between reference squares 7138 and 7642 and notice the lack of little black or green dotted lines there, but unless we take our compass in hand and step out into those contours, to all intents and purposes they remain ‘Terra Incognita’, their story forever silent.

Ruins of the Norman Motte and Roman fort at Castell Tomen-y-mur

Nineteen hundred years ago this moorland may have bore more trees, but perhaps this broad, open landscape and sense of isolation was what drew the Roman Legions to use the area for training camps. Where the Afon Llafar tumbles down from the twin lakes of Llyn Conglog-mawr and Conglog-bach are remains of many Roman practice works. It was common, when moving large numbers of troops across hostile territory, to build fortifications overnight and raw recruits had to be trained how to do this efficiently. Here too, passing Dolbelydr, Sarn Helen, the main Roman artery through occupied Welsh territory, climbs towards the Roman complex at Castell Tomen-y-mur, in its time the most extensive Roman complex in Wales comprising a military tertiata fort of over four acres, a stone built principa, annexe buildings and even a small amphitheatre for troop entertainment. When the Roman legions withdrew from Britain, the territory left behind fell into the hands of tribesmen and warlords. The presence of a Norman motte here indicates that the site was variously occupied until around the early twelfth century and the ruins of a hafod, a small farm dwelling, indicate that the site was occupied for agricultural rather than military purposes well into the nineteenth century. But today the once centre of Roman provincial power, Mur Castell, the court of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, as imagined in the Mabinogion, is occupied only by sheep who ruminate on the abundant thistles.

And so Gronw Pebyr wasted no time. He returned victorious to Mur Castell and with Blodeuedd by his side took possession of the lands of Ardudwy, which once were the province of Lleu Llaw Gyffes. When Gwydion, Lleu’s uncle heard of his fate he was greatly distressed and set off to search for his wounded nephew. Through all the country of Gwynedd and Powys he searched until he came to a valley where he saw a sow feeding on rotting flesh and maggots beneath a great oak tree. When Gwydion looked up into the tree he saw a wounded eagle resting in the upper branches and every time the eagle shook itself, the rotten flesh and maggots would fall from his wound and so the sow ate them. And so by means of singing an enchanted song to the bird, Gwydion was able to entice it down from the tree whereupon he struck it with his magic wand and Lleu Llaw Gyffes was restored to his former shape, yet gravely ill.

After many months recuperation Lleu Llaw Gyffes mustered an army and set out to Ardudwy determined to reclaim his lands.  Upon hearing of his coming Gronw Pebyr and Blodeuedd fled, Gronw to Penllyn and Blodeuedd into the mountains with her maidens, who, being so filled with fear would only walk backwards and so fell into a deep pool and were drowned, that lake now bearing the name Llyn Morwynion, the lake of the maidens. As for Blodeuedd, when Lleu finally caught up with here he intended to kill her for her betrayal, but was none-the-less filled with love for her and instead transformed her into the shape of an owl, a bird so cursed that she may only hunt at night and towards which all the other birds were filled with enmity. And her name was henceforth known as Blodeweudd, Flower-face.

Gronw Pebyr appealed to Lleu Llaw Gyffes for clemency in exchange for silver and gold, but Lleu would have none of it and instead requested that Gronw meet him by the cascades upon the river Cynfal and receive from him the same blow that Gronw had unleashed upon Lleu. Gronw reluctantly agreed, and so they both came to the banks of the river and Gronw stood by the stone bath on the banks and Lleu Llaw Gyffes took up position under Bryn Cyfergyr and aimed his spear at the heart of Gronw Pebyr. Wait! shouted Gronw, pleading with Lleu for clemency, that as he had not acted alone in his deceit he be allowed to place a stone, which he saw by the river bank, between himself and the spear. Lleu Llaw Gyffes agreed and so Gronw Pebyr held the stone before his chest and Lleu Llaw Gyffes threw his spear with all of his strength and the spear pierced the stone and Gronw’s chest and broke his back and he fell to the ground dead.

And should you care to, you may wish to visit, on an overcast, rainy afternoon, an innocuous, rather muddy field, populated by indifferent sheep, above a farm known as Bryn-saeth, the hill of the arrows, and find under the dripping hawthorn Llech Gronw, the stone of Gronw Pebyr, with a hole right through the middle of it made by the spear of Lleu Llaw Gyffes. And as you walk from the stone, as the light beings to fade and the gloaming gathers amid the oak trees of Cwm Cynfal, you may hear the cry of an owl as she mounts her nightly hunt.

An abridged version of this article appeared in the Great Outdoors Magazine

Of Rifted Rocks and Ghoulish Green Men

Staffordshire Moorlands

The Staffordshire Moorlands are nothing if not a surprise. In the formative years of my exploration of the Peak District, I was astonished to discover that a sizeable portion of the gritstone uplands of Britain’s most popular national park, including the village of Flash, at 463 metres (1,519ft) above sea level the highest in Britain, lie within the administrative county of Staffordshire, more famous perhaps for pottery, Stoke City football team and the dolesome Alton Towers amusement park. More recently, as I find my time increasingly consumed by worldly concerns, it is among the nearby hills and dales of the Peak District that I find solace.

So with Hallowe’en fast approaching, the turning of the year echoed in the turning of the leaves to amber hues, I had hitched a lift from an old friend to the market town of Leek, from where I intended to make the long journey home to Manchester on foot.

Approaching the hamlet of Upper Hulme along Whitty Lane, the sky to the west began to cloud over grey and the fresh smell of cold air heralded light rain, which soon turned into a heavy downpour. Before long I found myself beneath the slim finger-like battlements of Hen Cloud – Cloud being a Staffordshire dialect word for hill – and sought to take shelter in a small wooden shed, which had been erected by the side of the road. These impressive towers of Carboniferous stone extending almost vertically into the leaden sky constitute the most southerly outcrop of the gnarled and contorted sandstone escarpments that are collectively known as the Roaches, their name being taken simply from the French word for rock.

By the tiny dwelling I was accosted by a man bedecked in dark green waterproofs, clasping a large and slightly threatening pair of binoculars. “Can I help you?” he ventured, and for a moment I wondered if, given recent seismic political movements in the country, the Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000 had overnight been repealed and I was trespassing on ‘his’ land. I subsequently noticed that I was standing beside a large and colourful banner proclaiming the work of the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, which I had not previously noticed having been cocooned within the hood of my waterproof jacket in a vain attempt to keep out the driving rain.

Hen Cloud, Roaches, Staffordshire

The gentleman in question was not an irate gamekeeper but rather an enthusiastic volunteer named David who wanted to show me a pair of nesting Peregrine Falcons who had taken up residence some weeks earlier in the lofty fingers of Hen Cloud. “Do you see that central finger of rock, up there?” he pointed through the now stair-rod thick rain to the top of the aforementioned hill, “well, if you drop down on the crag about fifteen feet you can just see where the nest is.” I couldn’t see a thing and David offering the use of his steamed up binoculars made little difference, but for a good twenty minutes the pair of us stood there in the criminally torrential rain, two relatively sane, intelligent men, becoming increasingly saturated, trying to spot a pair of nesting birds of prey who probably had far better sense and were bunkered down within a protective crevice high up on the south face of Hen Cloud waiting for the storm to pass. In many ways I wanted to prolong this very British folly but I made my excuses to David, consulting both my watch and map, thankfully both contained within a waterproof casing, as to the next leg of my journey, and left him to his stewardship of the mighty Peregrines of Hen Cloud in the rain.


Don Whillans Hut

Nestled beneath the lower escarpment of the Roaches, half enclosed by the earthen-red rocks themselves, stands Rock Hall, formerly a summer house of the Roaches Estate, now owned by the British Mountaineering Council and given the epithet of the Don Whillans Memorial Hut. Don Whillans, a dour, stocky Salfordian with as much a taste for scrapping as for making breakthrough climbs on northern grit during the 1950’s with his buddy Joe Brown, is a bit of a hero of mine. Don, who grew up on the hard knocks streets of post-war Salford in Greater Manchester and quite literally punched above his weight when it came to breaking into the elitist world of British climbing, put up some of the landmark climbs on Peak District grit, most notably, at the Roaches. In his beautifully written biography of Whillans “The Villain” Jim Perrin describes how on 21 April 1951 Don had travelled to Leek by bus and having walked up to the climbing crags on the lower tier of the Roaches had watched as Joe Brown’s second had been unable – or unwilling – to follow the line of Joe’s ascent of Valkyrie buttress. Don had quickly volunteered to take up the slack, sprightly following Joe up the route that they later named as Matinee (grade HVS 5b) because of the crowd that had gathered to watch the spectacle. This was the first recorded climb of these luminaries who would go on to revolutionise traditional climbing. Just three years later Joe Brown and Don Whillans would have moved on from the gritstone crags of the Roaches, via the volcanic crags of Clogwyn Du’r Arddu in Snowdonia, to the lofty needles of the Alps, making the first ascent of the Petit Dru West Face, Chamonix in 1954.

Whillans went on to be a leading figure in the British mountaineering community of the 1960’s and 1970’s completing the first ascent of the Central Pillar of Freney on Mont Blanc with Chris Bonington and Ian Clough in 1961, the first ascent of the Central Torres del Paine, Patagonia again with Chris Bonington in 1963 and most famously the first ascent of the south face of Annapurna with Dougal Haston in 1970. Don Whillans sadly died in his sleep on 04 August 1985 – he was just 52 years old.

As I ascended the climbers’ steps at the rear of Valkyrie Crag to the second tier of the Roaches, the weather turned from inclement to tempestuous. The occluded Atlantic front which earlier that day had swept across the Western Approaches of the British Isles now slammed into the elevated ridge of the Roaches with all the malignant force of the wailing Banshee supposed to inhabit the moorland tarn known as Doxey Pool, beside which I now stood. Surmising that the Banshee’s curse had certainly come upon me by virtue of hail stones like shot pellets which now dug themselves into the saturated sandy ground around me with sufficient velocity to create tiny craters, I struggled manfully away from the accursed pool with as much speed as I could muster, soon arriving at the white washed ordnance survey triangulation pillar that marks the highest point along the ridge. I continued bravely northwards, losing some altitude through the swirling mists and biting hail, until I caught a glimpse of a sizeable object sheltered in the lee of a dry stone wall.

Being chilled thoroughly to the bone by precipitation as cold as a widow’s elbow, I considered the possibility that first stage hypothermia had set in and as a consequence I was hallucinating, when the object in question assumed the tangible form of an ice-cream van, its colourful logos enthusiastically advertising ice-cold drinks, various flavours of ice cream and cheerfully exhorting me to ‘have an ice day!’ Salvador Dali himself could not have conjured up such a surreal juxtaposition. I considered ordering a ‘ninety-nine’ but my fingers were too cold to open the pocket in my rucksack where I had stashed away some lose change. Thinking better of it I pushed on and as I followed what sometime earlier that day had been a path but now was most definitely a stream, towards Gradbach Wood, the hailstones ceased their torrent of abuse, and in their place came a relatively welcome fine British drizzle.


Lud’s Church

Amongst the mixed deciduous woodland of Back Forest on the north facing slopes of the Dane Valley, where larch, pine and hazel give way to a plantation of slender silver birch trees, is hidden a narrow chasm, sunk some twenty metres into the fractured millstone grit. My understanding of this curious feature is that it is post-glacial in origin, most probably having formed following the retreat of the ice caps at the end of the most recent glacial maximum, some twelve thousand years before present. It is essentially an expansion crack, as might appear as the result of settlement in the plasterwork of new buildings. In much the same way, as the weight of ice was removed from the land and isostatic uplift resulted in geomorphological instability, the rock has fractured, moving several metres into the Dane Valley, itself a product of glacial run-off waters, the line of fracture exploiting weaknesses in the Carboniferous rocks that may have existed for millions of years. This geomorphological phenomenon is known locally as Lud’s Church, the etymology of which is anything but certain.

The verdant chasm known as Lud’s Church

Myth’s and legends gather about Lud’s Church just as the emerald mosses, ferns, grasses and liverworts cling to the near vertical walls of the chasm. Being in shade for much of the year, the direct rays of the sun only penetrating the depths of the ravine during the season around midsummer when the midday sun is directly overhead, Lud’s Church provides the perfect habitat for woodland species that are able to exploit the dank, moist ledges, crevices, corners and fissures in the rock face on the cavern walls. Rock ledges are garlanded with Oak and Holly Ferns. Wood sorrel grows in abundance among Elegant Silk Moss (pseudotaxiphyllum elegens) and Crescent-cup Liverwort (lunularia cruciata) and where the dominant species allow, waxy green lichens such as Sticta Canariensis take a hold, punctuated by the occasional cluster of Cladonia coccifera or devil’s matchsticks.

Followers of the 14thCentury non-conformist preacher John Wycliffe, known as Lollards, were thought to have met at Lud’s Church for religious worship in order to avoid persecution. It is believed that following one such secret meeting a notable Lollard, Walter de Ludank was arrested here, the chasm thereafter taking his name.

A popular misconception holds that the term Lud’s Church is associated with the Luddite movement of the early 19thCentury. This is no the case. Luddites were textile workers, mainly in the north of England, who protested against the mechanisation of the textile industry by the deliberate vandalism of new weaving technologies such as stocking frames and power looms. Any similarity in name is purely coincidental. Despite these associations, and further legends that other notables employed the chasm as a refuge from authority, including Robin Hood, Friar Tuck and Bonnie Prince Charlie, is more likely that the name ‘Lud’ has a much older etymology and may be Celtic or pre-Christian in origin.

Sir John Rhys, the 19thCentury pioneer of Celtic philology, identified several characters from the collection of medieval Welsh folk tales known as the Mabinogion as potential Celtic deities. One such character is Nudd, whom Rhys believed to be cognate with the Roman-British deity Nodens, or Núadu in the Irish literature. It was Sir John’s belief that three specific characters from the Mabinogion could be linked to the deity of Nudd, these being Lludd Llaw Eraint (Silver Hand) father of Creiddylad who appears in the Arthurian tale of How Culhwch won Olwen, Lleu Llaw Gyffes (Skilful Hand) whom appears in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion and Lludd ap Beli, ruler of the Island of Britain and brother of Llefelys, the primary characters in the brief tale of Lludd & Llefelys. Rhys, partly influenced by the French historian Henri d’Arbois de Jubainville, went even further to suggest the existence of a pan-Celtic deity combining all of these characters known as Lugus (Hutton, 2013). It was this association that linked the name of Lud’s Church in Staffordshire with worship of the pagan god Nodens. In contemporary times Lud’s Church is still an important location for those practicing the Wiccan or neo-Pagan path of spirituality to which the presence of a votive coin log in the main chamber of the chasm attests. 


Gawain

Taking medieval linguistics as prima facie evidence, scholars generally agree that the Staffordshire Moorlands are the dialectal epicentre of a piece of late 14thCentury poetry written in Middle English, known to the British Library as manuscript Cotton Nero A. xbut more widely known as the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This surviving manuscript, which would easily fit in the palm of your hand, was held in a private collection in Yorkshire during the 16thand 17thCenturies. It was first edited and printed in the original Middle English in 1839 and most famously translated into modern English by JRR Tolkien and EV Gordon in 1925.

Thought to have been transcribed around 1390, the alliterative poem is without doubt one of the finest examples of medieval poetry in the English tongue and tells the story of a young, perhaps somewhat naïve knight of King Arthur’s court named Gawain whom is challenged to a rather gruesome duel by a most curious and unearthly creature.

The Story begins at Christmas time as the King’s courtiers are enjoying the commencement of a fortnight of feasting, when the festivities are disrupted by the arrival of a ghastly creature, half man half ogre who seemingly unchallenged rides into the court astride a green horse, himself dressed in garments of emerald green, his hair and skin the very same colour. The uninvited guest lays down a challenge before Arthur and his knights, that he will permit any such knight brave enough to take up the challenge to strike him at the neck with an axe, on the understanding that the very same knight will seek out the green ogre at the turning of the year to receive from him the very same blow. Thinking he cannot possibly lose this strange engagement, the young Gawain steps forward to accept the challenge and with a single swing of his axe cleanly smites the Green Knight’s neck, the severed head coming to rest at the feet of King Arthur himself. The assembled guests look on in horror as the beheaded Green Knight steadies himself, then grasping the bright green locks of hair, picks up his own head from the reed strewn floor and turning to Gawain, repeats the terms of the pledge, counselling Gawain to keep his word or be forever known as a coward. With all mouths agape the Green Knight mounts his green horse and, head in hand, gallops from the hall. Over the course of a year, Gwain is forced to overcome many obstacles and temptations before he ultimately finds his way to the Green Chapel, with which Lud’s Church is colloquially associated, to keep his ominous appointment with the ghoulish Green Knight, the outcome of which I will refrain from revealing.

God Speed by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1900

Naturally, doubt exists as to the validity of the transposition of a fictional story onto an actual geographic location, but standing within the richly abundant cascade of verdant plant life, everywhere alive with the whispered drip, drip of water, it is easy to see how the human imagination could transform the deep, narrow rock chasm into the cathedral nave of some long forgotten nature cult, or the great hall of some malign ogre or pagan god.

Emerging from the rank foliation of Lud’s hidden Church, blinking in the now brilliant sunlight of early afternoon, I saw ahead of me the outcrop known colloquially as Castle Rock, where I found a suitable prospect from which to view the valley below. Vaporous pennons of mist rose incrementally upward from the body of the forest, the saturated trees exhaling into the clearing sky, patches of blue breaking apart the sulphurous clouds. Having rested, I descended through the forest to Gradbach Mill, no longer a place of textile production but a beautifully situated youth hostel, alongside which, by means of a narrow stone bridge I crossed the ebullient waters of the River Dane, into Cheshire.

Macclesfield Forest

At Heild End Farm I crossed the A54 Buxton Road and wound my way passed a fine, though slightly dilapidated two storey barn, its slate roof still more or less intact, an ideal place to shelter from a storm or even spend a night, should one find oneself benighted on the moor, and dropped into the vale of Wildboarclough. By the time I reached the Crag Inn the weather had turned around again and the fresh smell of rain and the vanguard of descending, distended drops forced me to stop and adjust my clothing. The east slope of Shuttlingsloe is the steepest of the sharks-fin hill, known locally with much conviviality as the Cheshire Matterhorn, and I certainly felt the pull of gravity on my calf muscles as I laboured my way to the hills crazy-pathed summit.  Sticking my head above the outcrop of Chatsworth Gritstone on the south east edge of the hills summit plateau, I was met with a blast of cold, damp air a across the Cheshire Plain translucent sheets of rain swept inwards, propelled by cadaverously oppressive clouds. I elected not to linger and instead descended rapidly to the north and the relative shelter of the Sitka Spruce plantations of Macclesfield Forest, finding shelter beneath the interlaced branches of pine needles as swathes of sleet blew in form the west. 

To the north I took refuge from the inclement weather inside one of the jewels of the western Peak District. As the dates above the gabled entrance indicate, the Forest Chapel, or Saint Stephen’s Church as it was consecrated, was almost entirely re-built in 1834 following a fire, but stands on the site of a former chapel of ease constructed in 1673, the stone bearing this inscription having been preserved from the original building. To step inside the Forest Chapel is to step backwards in time to the austere non-conformist existence of the generations who have eked out a harsh living from the bleak Pennine moorlands since the Royal Forest of Macclesfield became common land in the 15thCentury. 

Saint Stephen’s Church, commonly known as the Forest Chapel

I sat for some time as rainwater from the stone-clad roof collected in the lead guttering and splish-splashed onto the paving outside, until ultimately the light in the chapel brightened and brief shafts of sunlight, at acute angles from the south transept windows, blessed the silent nave, and the rain stopped, like the silence that follows the prayers of four hundred years. Outside, a Highway’s sign proclaimed Charity Lane unsuitable for motor vehicles, the very sandstone bedrock having been exposed by years of runoff water from the surrounding hills. As I contoured the higher ridges, the forest below me exhaled again into the now blinding evening light, plumes of vapour rising effortlessly through the suddenly undisturbed forest. I had been walking for over ten hours and as I climbed the steep hard-set path towards Tegg’s Nose, the sacroiliac joints of my pelvis began to complain vociferously. Not wishing to chance a sustained injury, I staggered down the Old Buxton Road to Macclesfield Station from where with prospects of real ale and painkillers, I telephoned a friend and procured a bed for the night.


This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine.

A Haunting on Bleaklow

“I don’t like the look of those clouds,” said Alison, as we made our way beside Torside Clough onto the plateau expanse of Shelf Moor, an icy north-easterly wind picking up the spindrift of the overnight snowfall and whipping it against our faces. 
“We’ll head for the Wain Stones at Bleaklow Head,” I suggested, “we might get a little shelter there.”

“I don’t like the look of those clouds” on Bleaklow Hill

Alison’s meteorological prediction was correct. As the black clouds pressed down on the featherbed heather of Bleaklow Hill, they gave up their cargo of ice crystals in abundance. Carried along by the same northeasterly wind a wall of white soon bleached the sky and moorland of any contrast and within minutes where there had been clearly distinguishable shapes, there was only whiteout.
“We best get the emergency shelter out,” I suggested. Alison, daughter of a Malpas farmer and raised to the harsh conditions of the farming calendar gave me a look far colder than the blizzard which now engulfed us.
“Behind the stones will be fine,” she shouted above the now howling wind. We crouched down in the few metres of relief from the wind that the kissing gritstone gave and searched for the hot chocolate hidden somewhere in our rucksacks.

Boom! And then again, Boom!

From the south the heart stopping sound of explosion fell through the cloud with oppressive weight. “What the hell was that? It sounds like they are dropping bombs over there.”
“I don’t know,” said Alison, “but I don’t think we should stick around to find out.”
“It could be thunder,” I suggested, “but I’ve never heard thunder like that. And we’re at the highest point here. Not a good idea in a storm. We’d best get to lower ground.” But the Pennine Way, elusive at the best of times on Bleaklow Hill, had vanished into a chiaroscuro landscape of black peat groughs and white snowdrifts glimpsed briefly through the brief respite of the spindrift swirling around us.
“We’ll have to do this on compass,” I said.

I took a bearing to the north-east and began to pace out the three-hundred metres to where, as indicated by the map, our intended path turned northwards, but the undulations of the peat groughs, the eye stinging snow and the rapidly deepening snowdrifts made the going almost impossible. The cairn that indicated the swing in the Pennine Way to the north was lost somewhere between the rough white landscape and the bleached white sky.

“I think we’re lost,” I shouted to Alison above the wind. 
“We can’t be,” insisted Alison.

I suggested we retrace our steps on a back bearing to Bleaklow Head, but that wasn’t going to get us off the moor, or down to lower ground. Instead we decided to head out north from our current position, the logic being that ultimately we would descend into the Woodhead Pass. Staggering north through the biting wind, we eventually reached a wire fence transecting our path, which, for no other reason than it being the only distinguishable feature since leaving the cairn at Bleaklow Head, we elected to follow it to the west, which thankfully, turned out to be a good decision as it led directly into Wildboar Grain from whence we had originally come.

Even the harshest winter will give way to snowdrops and catkin-tails, so spring once again took it’s fecund hold over the Derbyshire hills and I was keen to return to Bleaklow Hill to retrace navigationally challenging steps and to explore what I knew to be up there on the sandy soils of the gritstone plateaux and what had been eating away at my imagination since Alison and I had heard the sounds of explosion in that blizzard.

Approach to Higher Shelf Stones along Doctor’s Gate

On this occasion Allison (same name, spelt with two l’s, different person) and I approached from Glossop along the course of Doctor’s Gate, the old Roman route across the Snake Pass, the precipitous cloughs sweeping down from the high moorland making one of the most dramatic landscapes in the Dark Peak. The magnificent re-entrants slicing through the Namurian millstone grit proved too tempting and so we crossed Shelf Brook and began to scramble up Ashton Clough. We had not climbed far when we stumbled upon the first evidence of what I had been expecting to find. A hunk of silver metal, possibly some type of steel, about a metre in diameter and very badly weathered was sitting in the centre of the small stream that falls from Ashton Clough, its once moving parts petrified by decades of rust. 

Sure enough, another fifty metres higher, now half buried by soil, we found what was still just discernable as the fuselage of an aircraft. The skeleton of this airframe was thin and flimsy, constructed of aluminium alloy. This cocoon like relic was the remains of a C-47 Dakota aircraft operated by the 314thTroop Carrier Group, which crashed on 24thJuly 1945 on Shelf Moor. Over the course of seventy years parts of the aircraft, including this section of the rear fuselage, have been moved down slope into Ashton Clough. Alan L. Clark, author of a walkers guide to aircraft wrecks in the British Isles, reports that the aircraft was on a transport sortie from Poix, near Amiens, northern France to Renfrew (now Glasgow airport) but failed to arrive at destination. All five crewmembers and two passenger were killed. The official USAAF report on the accident blamed low cloud.

At its steepest point, in situ gritstone causing the little stream of water to tumble in pleasant cascade, Ashton Clough suddenly pops out onto Shelf Moor below James’s Thorn and the full unsheltered expanse of the Bleaklow plateau becomes visible (in good weather that is). Allison wishing to practice some navigation skills suggested we ‘leap-frogged’ our way over to the trig-point at Higher Shelf Stones. The navigation technique of ‘leap-frogging’ can be used in restricted visibility, such as in low cloud or at night whereby two or more people can use each other as reference points from which to correct a directional bearing.

Just a few hundred metres north of the trig-point we found the first piece of twisted aluminium lying against the black peat, shining in the sun as if it were newly cast, while in fact it had lain here, high upon the moor, for seventy years.

It can take a little while to orientate yourself over the expanse of wreckage spread out over a hundred square metres, but eventually the fragments of an aeroplane begin to knit together to form a whole: engines first, four of them, then undercarriage, wings, tail-plane, and then you think of the crew. This USAF Boeing RB-29 known as “over-exposed” on 3rd November 1948 was taking payroll and mail from Scampton in Lincolnshire to Burtonwood near Warrington, once one of the largest USAF supply bases in the UK. Due to poor weather conditions the flight was being conducted on instruments, the pilots effectively flying blind. It is thought that due to a navigational error the captain understood his position to be further to the west than it actually was and began to descend on the approach into Burtonwood too early, with disastrous consequences. All thirteen crewmembers were killed.

It is perhaps difficult to imagine in todays age of computer assisted flight and instrumental landing systems, but the vast majority of wartime aircraft did not carry on-board radar and did not have pressurised cabins. This meant high altitude flight was often not an option and that navigation in poor visibility could only be achieved by a process using compass bearing, airspeed indicator and stopwatch, a type of aeronautical Naismith’s Rule. As a consequence, errors were common. The high ground of Britain, in particular the Peak District is littered with such tragic sites.

Unsurprisingly, a modern mythology has grown up around the area. There are tales of phantom aeroplanes and ghostly apparitions. Gerald Scarratt of Longdendale, whilst exploring the RB-29 crash site discovered what he thought to be a washer, but on later inspection found to the gold ring belonging to the aircraft’s captain Langdon P. Tanner. Returning to the site with a group of aircraft enthusiasts, Gerald was recounting his tale when his companions turned ashen faced and began to walk away from the site. They later claimed to have seen a pilot in full post-war flying gear standing behind Gerald, although Gerald himself remembers seeing nothing of the sort.

The reservoir cascade of Howden, Derwent and Ladybower were famously used during the second world war as practice locations for the attack on the dams of the Ruhr Valley in western Germany by the specially adapted Lancaster bombers of the 617 Squadron, now more commonly known as the Dambusters. Something has undoubtedly become lodged in the collective unconscious and folk memory of that part of the Peak District. Urban myths of plane crashes and ghost aircraft about.

Howden Dam, Upper Derwent Valley

Dr. David Clarke of Sheffield Hallam University has recorded the tale of how on 24thMarch 1997, police in the Dark Peak area received calls from various members of the public, including a special constable and two gamekeepers, claiming to have witnessed an aircraft crashing into the moors above Howden Reservoir. Taking the calls seriously, the police alerted the local Mountain Rescue Team, but despite a widespread search, no evidence of any crash could be found.

And what of my own experience? The sound of explosion heard by Alison and myself above the wind at the Wain Stones on that icy cold day. Of course, it could have simply been thunder (but it didn’t sound like thunder) or some other meteorological phenomenon. Or perhaps we heard the sound, somehow transmitted across the decades, of that fateful accident in 1948 when thirteen young airmen lost their lives.

On Higher Shelf Stones, the sense of pathos is tangible. Here and there people have placed small wooden crosses and silk poppies, which stand out white and red against the silver-grey of the weathered wreckage and the monochrome pallet of the exposed peat hags, a reminder of the young men who’s sense of duty led them to a cold, windswept moorland in an unfamiliar country. 

Stillman, Sappho, Swinburne and the Sapphic

One of my most treasured books, which I return to for reference more than any other book I possess, is The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary, first published by the American academic and poet Frances Stillman in 1966. The dogeared copy on my bookshelves was purchased in 1991 upon it’s eighth re-print, since when it has influenced and informed my understanding and appreciation of poetry. An invaluable pre-internet resource for any aspiring poet, in addition to a complex and comprehensive rhyming dictionary her book contains seven chapters outlining the traditional structures, meters, rhymes and forms of poetry as appreciated towards the termination of the twentieth century, illustrated with excerpts from many well known poets and a modest scattering of her own verse. 

Although copies of her books can still be found in second hand bookshops and even on certain online book forums, sadly, Stillman herself seems to have slipped into obscurity. A brief obituary from the New York Times dated 5 February 1975 reads as follows:

“Dr. Frances Jennings Stillman, assistant professor of English at City College and a writer and translator, died Monday at New York Hospital of complications resulting from kidney failure. She was 65 years old. Dr. Stillman, who also had taught at Brooklyn and Hunter, Colleges, was the author of “The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary.” She translated “Flemish Tapestries,” written by Roger D’Hulst, and “Oriental Love Poems,” among other works. For many years, she was an officer in the New York Chapter of the American Association of University Women. Dr. Stillman earned B.A. and M.A. degrees at the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. degree at the City University of New York.” 

It was Dr Stillman who, through her book, introduced me to the lyrical form known as the Sapphic, named after the enigmatic Greek poet who lived on the island of Lesbos during the sixth Century BC. 

The historical biography of the poet known as Sappho is fragmentary and speculative. She was believed to have been born on the island of Lesbos around 620 BC. During antiquity she was regarded as one of the finest lyrical poets of the time. Plato revered her as the tenth muse (in Greek mythology there were traditionally believed to be nine muses devoted to poetry, history, music, dance and astronomy, amongst other things). 

Sappho, as envisaged by Charles Mengin, 1877. In the care of Manchester City Art Gallery.

Many of Sappho’s poems have been lost, and much of those that survive do so in fragmentary form, but her influence upon modern poetry, particularly the Romantic movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, cannot be understated. Her poems have been translated by Sir Philip Sidney, Percy Shelley, George Gordon, Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson and many others, including the nineteenth-century Greek poet Aléxandros Soútsos. The spontaneity, simplicity, and honesty of her verse strongly influenced the Romantic idea of the poet as a creature of feeling, one whose solitary song is overheard, as opposed to the classical didactic model of the poet as a cultural spokesperson.

As Dr Stillman teaches, the main building blocks of the sapphic are trochees and dactyls. The trochee is a metrical foot with one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, while the dactyl contains a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. The first three lines of the sapphic contain two trochees, a dactyl, and then two more trochees. The shorter fourth, and final, line of the stanza is called an “Adonic” and is composed of one dactyl followed by a trochee. 

The following deconstruction uses a verse from a modern English translation of Sappho’s Anactoria poem.

The Sapphic form explained, after Stillman, 1966

The extant fragment of this poem explores Sappho’s longing for her lost love Anaktória, and her admiration of the female form. 

Some there are who say that the fairest thing seen 
on the black earth is an array of horsemen;
some, men marching; some would say ships; but I say
   she whom one loves best

is the loveliest. Light were the work to make this
plain to all, since she, who surpassed in beauty
all mortality, Helen, once forsaking
   her lordly husband,

fled away to Troy—land across the water. 
Not the thought of child nor beloved parents 
was remembered, after the Queen of Cyprus
   won her at first sight.

Since young brides have hearts that can be persuaded 
easily, light things, palpitant to passion
as am I, remembering Anaktória
   who has gone from me

and whose lovely walk and the shining pallor
of her face I would rather see before my 
eyes than Lydia’s chariots in all their glory
   armoured for battle

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864 Simeon Solomon 1840-1905 Purchased 1980 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03063

The erotic homosexual content of many of her poems has won Sappho the accolade of being the first (first recorded at least) Lesbian, the very term being derived form her Aegean island home of Lesbos. Undoubtedly, it was the freely erotic components of her work that fascinated certain protagonists of the Romantic movement, who in their own somewhat chauvinist way were striving to break free of the cultural conventionality of  eighteenth and nineteenth century society. 

Perhaps the most accomplished Romantic exponent of the Sapphic form was Algernon Charles Swinburne. Very much a product of the English Victorian establishment, born to a wealthy family in the North East of England, educated at Eton and at Balliol College, Oxford, Swinburne none-the-less became a preeminent symbol of rebellion against the conservative values of his time. Greatly influenced by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other member of the Pre-Raphaeltie Brotherhood, his poems were often explicitly sexual, perhaps designed specifically to shock the very establishment from which he came. Swinburne gained notoriety in 1865 with the publication of Poems and Ballads, a collection of poems which many critics of the time regarded as indecent. 

Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1862, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The fragment below is taken from his poem Sapphics, written in the Sapphic meter as described above and undoubtedly in homage to the poet Sappho. 

All the night sleep came not upon my eyelids,
Shed not dew, nor shook nor unclosed a feather,
Yet with lips shut close and with eyes of iron
   Stood and beheld me.

Then to me so lying awake a vision
Came without sleep over the seas and touched me,
Softly touched mine eyelids and lips; and I too,
   Full of the vision,

Saw the white implacable Aphrodite,
Saw the hair unbound and the feet unsandalled
Shine as fire of sunset on western waters;
   Saw the reluctant

Feet, the straining plumes of the doves that drew her,
Looking always, looking with necks reverted,
Back to Lesbos, back to the hills whereunder
   Shone Mitylene;

Many years ago, inspired by Dr Stillman’s tutelage, I put pen to paper and came up with the poem below, which I called Castaway. It is based on the myth of Calypso, as told in Homer’s Odyssey, who detained the Greek hero Odysseus on the island of Ogygia during his long voyage home from the Trojan wars. 

Calypso & Odysseus by Sir William Russell Flint

Wreckage adrift on blue Aegean waters
Clinging the rope cut fingers burn and blister
Slowly cracking the salty sun bleached timbers
   bake in the sunlight

Came I to these islands by currents rolling
Red kelp and oyster shell over and over
Till bound in their shackles washed ashore on her
   shingle she found me

Almond Oil and Meadow sweet, fresh mint from the
Mountains, yellow Broom and Oak flower petals
Smoothed by her spidery fingers worked warm through
   my still dormant flesh

Lips part to tongue touching teeth with each whisper
Soft scent of apples her dark anaesthesia
Heady the night the breath of her warm body
   falls sleep over me

Daylight gold in her hair veils sweet soft hollows
Wine blushed lips taste the damp dew of the morning
Naked children of an absent god giggle
   at their honesty

Long shore pull drags the hissing shingle seaward
Roar of the deep wave beckons the shifting tide
Impudent voice of reason voice of motion
   still calling, calling


Frances Jennings Stillman obituary from the New York Times: accessed 6 August 2019
https://www.nytimes.com/1975/02/05/archives/dr-frances-stillman-dies-english-professor-at-city-65.html

The Hunt

I had that dream again, you know
the dream I often dream …

There I am, standing in the crowd,
Some way to my left I see
the stoney pillars of the Friend’s House,
to my right, pennants and banners,
a multitude of colours, gently waving in the breeze
a sea of motion,
the murmur of fifty thousand expectant voices
punctuated by cries of victory, of Liberty, Fraternity
Ahead the hustings pulled into position as Orator Hunt climbs the steps to the stand
waving his oversized white hat,
to the assembled multitude
He dun’t half think a lot of himself, says Mary
threading her arm through mine

Faces turn to the rear now
Far behind us red coats gather in ranks
their bayonets glinting in the mid-summer sun
The Riot Act read from an open window
falls on deaf ears
arrest warrants handed to the constable
pleas for assistance dispatched to the Yeomanry and the Hussars

Mary’s grip upon my arm tightens
as the crowd suddenly surges forward

Pounding, the rhythm of horse’s hooves
upon the desiccated earth send
a shock-wave of panic across St Peter’s Field
speakers silenced, placards discarded,
faces etched with fear,
“Universal Suffrage” trampled into the dust
trampled beneath a hundred thousand feet
running for their very lives,
weeping in desperation for her unborn child,
Sweet Mary running beside me, falls, and cannot regain her stance

Assistance is useless
I cannot stand with the weight of the crowd upon me
So close now, the yelping dogs
the pounding of hooves
closer and closer
their baying bloodlust an augury
of the knife white teeth
each blast of the horn,
each bark of the riders,
a portent of death
ever closer, their scornful breath
until the hounds teeth tear
until the rapiers are brought down upon Mary’s flesh
the incisive canines cutting, lacerating
until flesh is no more,
her bloodied dress; the bloodied muzzles of the dogs
still barking, barking, barking!

I wake!
Throw open the window to catch my breath
the sky
bright with every light in the universe
has thrown out a mantle of white
across the cold, crisp night.
The only motion the blinking lights of an aircraft
circling in descent
And the russet flash of a fox
half hidden in the shadowed coppice, he barks,
his mournful, wicked bark
for a moment our eyes meet
then he turns and is gone
the two of us only somewhat reassured
that tonight the hounds are silent
the privileged riders confined to barracks
and for now, the fox and I are free

Mary Heys, a mother of six from Oxford Road, Manchester was one of eighteen peaceful protestors killed by the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry at St Peter’s Field, 16 August 1819. 

It is estimated that between sixty and eighty thousand people had gathered in St Peter’s Field, Manchester to hear the radical speaker Henry Hunt and to protest against the limited suffrage afforded to working people and the North of England in general at the time. In 1819, Lancashire, with a population of over one million, was represented by two members of parliament; whereas so called rotten boroughs such as Old Sarum in Wiltshire, with one voter, elected two MPs, as did Dunwich in Suffolk, which by the early 19th century had almost completely disappeared into the sea.

Manchester Heroes, Sept 1819 Credit: The Art Archive / Eileen Tweedy Ref: AA327714 BBC History Magazine

The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were an amateur militia of local businessmen and their sons, described at the time by the Manchester Observer as “the fawning dependents of the great, who imagine they acquire considerable importance by wearing regimentals” and also as “younger members of the Tory party in arms.” Their sabre charge of the crowd at St Peter’s Field left eighteen dead and hundreds wounded.

Mary Heys was pregnant at the time of her death. 

In memory of Chris Grice

Chris and I were not close friends. I think I should be clear about that. I last saw him just before Christmas, I think. Memory does not serve me well, because the last thing I was expecting was to not see Chris again. He was forty-three years old for heaven’s sake. 

In the deceitful way that it does, social media had replaced direct contact. I Iast communicated with Chris just days before his death. He had posted a “memory,” a photograph of the some Cheshire Walkers taken at Ashness Bridge in the July of 2008, Chris casually sitting on the little stone packhorse bridge with his long legs dangling over the waters of Barrow Beck. “11 years? OMG!” I commented and Chris recalled how the photo had been taken the day after we had climbed Scafell Pike, how some members of the group had drunk a little too much that night and had been told off for being rowdy at the campsite. I am looking at Chris’s Facebook page as I write this, in the peculiar way that our social media profiles survive us posthumously. 

A regular member of the Merseyside “Fillyaboots” Ramblers’ club, Chris would on occasion appear on a walk with the Cheshire Walkers, the Rambler’s club to which I have been ensconced for many years. So it was through these sporadic appearances that I came to know this tall, enthusiastic Liverpudlian. Again memory fails me as I try to recall the first walk on which I met Chris, but I certainly remember him being with us on some classic days out such as our circuit of the Snowdon Horseshoe in June 2008 and a rather cold and damp linear walk I led one Easter over Mynydd Mawr in Gwynedd when we took the Welsh Mountain Railway from Waunfawr to Rhyd Ddu.

Chris was a consummate mountain man; a fearless scrambler, often leaping ahead over rock steps whilst the rest of us struggled to haul ourselves up at the rear. He often spoke of his joy at completing the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glen Coe, not once but twice. And this is what I will remember about Chris, his joy, his enthusiasm for being in the hills and mountains of the British Isles. 

Crib Goch, Snowdon Horseshoe June 2008

The nineteenth century American environmentalist Henry David Thoreau said “On the death of a friend, we should consider that the fates through confidence have devoted to us the task of a double living, that we have henceforth to fulfil the promise of our friend’s life also, in our own, to the world.” Death often comes as a wakeup call to those who knew the departed, especially in the case of one taken so young. This weekend I will be out walking in the countryside, and in future, whenever the opportunity arises; whenever I make the opportunity.  In some small way Chris will be with me, with others who knew him and walked with him, as his promise continues to be fulfilled.

RIP Chris Grice. Rambler. 1976-2019

Pripyat: City of Ghosts

As the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was managed by Soviet authorities in Moscow, the government of Ukraine did not receive prompt information on the accident, and hence, on the morning of the 26 April, the fifty-thousand inhabitants of the City of Pripyat went about their business as normal, unaware of the catastrophic events taking place just five kilometres away. Within a few hours of the explosion, dozens of people fell ill, later reporting severe headaches, a metallic taste in their mouths, along with uncontrollable fits of coughing and vomiting. It was not until the morning of 27 April, some thirty-six hours after the initial explosion, that the decision was made by a joint Ukrainian/Soviet commission to evacuate the city. Residents were initially informed by the authorities that the evacuation would be temporary and to take only essential items. On 28 April the area of evacuation was extended to a ten kilometre radius of the Chernobyl plant. Ten days later this area was extended to a radius of thirty kilometres and has remained in place ever since. As a result the inhabitants of Pripyat never returned to their homes, leaving many personal belongings behind.

Pripyat founded 1970

Palace of Culture

The people carriers parked opposite the Palace of Culture, the former civic centre of the city and after further briefing on safety precautions (it’s best to avoid moss as this holds radioactive particles like a sponge and can emit a radioactive dose of 25,000 µSv/h) we were allowed to wander around the immediate vicinity, including the elementary and high schools, the now famous Azure swimming, the equally famous Pripyat amusement park, and the Palace of Culture itself. Out-of-bounds areas were indicated with red flags. 

Pripyat
Pripyat

Wandering around the central precinct of Pripyat, a post-apocalyptic relic of the twentieth century’s most notorious industrial accident, was an emotional experience. Excitement and awe at being physically in an area which for so many years had been closed off to human access combined with a deep sense of tragedy, and what I imagined was an echo of the fear felt by the thousands of souls that had fled in what I can only imagine were horrific circumstances. At around 14:00 on 27 April the evacuation of the city began but took several hours to complete as the citizens of Pripyat had to be mustered at various locations around the city, forming orderly queues for buses that would take them away from immediate danger. 

Strikingly, within the assembly hall of the elementary school, several hundred gas masks still lay in a pile upon the floor, their lifeless eyes opened wide as though in shock at the unfolding disaster. Part of me suspected that this disturbing scene had been staged for the benefit of tourists like myself, but it felt genuine, the masks dusty and colourless, untouched for decades. They would have offered little protection against radionuclide from the burning reactor, and perhaps in the rush to evacuate the children from the school a decision was made to leave them behind. 

The Pripyat Amusement Park, comprising four rides: a twenty-six meter ferris wheel, bumper cars, swing boats and a paratrooper ride, was scheduled to open on 1 May 1986 as part of the Soviet May Day celebrations. Some accounts claim that the park was briefly opened during the day on 27 April, possibly in an attempt to distract the residents of the city from the rumours that were wildly circulating about just what was happening five kilometres away at the Chernobyl reactor, but images I have seen claiming to be of the ferris wheel in operation show a different supporting structure to the Pripyat wheel. The park has become a cultural icon of the Chernobyl disaster and has appeared in the video game Call of Duty 4 and the film Chernobyl Diaries.  A significant part of the plot of the 2013 Bruce Willis film A Good Day to Die Hard is set in Pripyat.

After an hour or so of exploring amongst the ruins of Pripyat, seemingly more concerned about keeping to the timing of the tour than of any risk of exposure to radiation, our tour guides ushered us into the people carriers and we were ferried away to the main reactor complex. After a relaxed lunch at the Dining Chernobyl Nbr 19, a former canteen for the power plant workers we were invited to visit the statue of Prometheus, which stands be a memorial to the power plant workers who were killed in the disaster. 

Prometheus

Sarcophagus

The final stop on the tour was the Sarkofag Chornobylʹsʹkoyi Aes, a viewing point approximately three hundred metres from the sarcophagus covering the remains of reactor 4. This was as close as we were permitted, and certainly as close as we wished, to get to the sight of the 1986 explosion. Construction of the first sarcophagus began in May 1986 and took two hundred days to complete. The sarcophagus locked in 200 tonnes of radioactive corium, 30 tonnes of highly contaminated dust and 16 tonnes of uranium and plutonium left behind after the explosion. In 1996 concerns about the structural integrity of the sarcophagus were raised, specifically corrosion of the supporting steel structure by contaminated rain water, and a decision was taken to replace it with a New Safe Confinement structure. With the help of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a conservation programme was completed in 1998, which included securing the roof beams from collapse. The New Safe Confinement structure was completed and moved into place in 2016. 

Sarkofag Chornobylʹsʹkoyi Aes, reactor 4, Chernobyl
New Safe Confinement Structure, source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_New_Safe_Confinement

Environmental Effects

On the drive back to Kiev we stopped at an iron frame road bridge spanning a water channel into the cooling pond where we fed enormous cat fish with hunks of bread. These remarkable fish are Wels Catfish (Silurus glanis). Despite much speculation their gigantic size is not a result of radioactive mutation, rather they have taken advantage of the sparsity of the human population to fully take advantage of their environment. The BBC reported in 2016 that wildlife in the Chernobyl exclusion zone is thriving. This is not to say that the effects of high levels of radiation immediately following the explosion were not devastating. During the first two years following the reactor fire many trees within an area of coniferous forest covering between 4 and 5 sq km died. The dying needles turned rusty red, earning the region the name Red Forest. During this period, in the most contaminated areas many soil invertebrates were killed, and the small mammal population plummeted. Thirty years on radiation levels within many areas of the exclusion zone have dropped significantly. Although, like the Wels Catfish, many species have exploited the absence of the natural world’s most devastating predator, homo sapiens, a study undertaken in 2009 by Anders Møller and Timothy Mousseau suggested there was a serious impact on insect abundance even in areas of the exclusion zone where radiation levels are now extremely low. Research into the long term effects of the Chernobyl disaster continues. 

Studies continue into the long term environmental impact of the Chernobyl explosion

The Future of Nuclear Power

The UK currently has 15 nuclear reactors with a total generating capacity of 10 gigawatts of electricity (GWe), operated by EDF Energy. These stations generate around a fifth of the UK’s electricity, yet all but one is scheduled to be retired by 2030. With the exception of the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) at Sizewell B, the UK power plants are second generation Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors, considered to be considerably safer than the RBMK graphite-moderated reactors of the Chernobyl plant. Although many modifications were made to the RBMK reactor design following the Chernobyl accident, as of December 2017 there were still eleven RBMK reactors, and four small EGP-6 graphite moderated light water reactors operating in Russia.

Artist’s impression issued by EDF of plans for the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, from https://www.energyvoice.com/

The current UK government has expressed a desire to expand nuclear power generation over the next ten years, however, these aspirations were thrown into doubt in November 2018 following the decision by Toshiba to withdraw from the proposed NuGen PWR construction project in Cumbria. In January 2019 the Hitachi owned subsidiary Horizon Nuclear Power announced its decision to halt production of the Wylfa Newydd Advanced Boiling Water Reactor power station located on the island of Anglesey, North Wales. Both companies sited an inability to attract investors as the primary reasons for withdrawal from the projects. The only new nuclear power station project currently underway in the UK is the EDF Hinkley Point C PWR plant, scheduled for completion by 2025 at a cost of £20.5 Billion. 




Chernobyl

The HBO miniseries Chernobyl has awakened interest in the twentieth century’s most notorious industrial accident and also my memories of the final decade of the Cold War, and my visit to the Chernobyl Power Plant in 2011. In two parts I tell my story of this fearful place.

Politics of Fear

The death of Soviet Leader Yuri Andropov in February 1984, quickly followed by the death of his successor Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985, lead to a period of political instability within the Soviet Union that was matched by an increase in Soviet paranoia in Western nations, specifically within the Republican Reagan administration of the United States. Following his landslide election victory in 1981, Ronald Reagan was keen to reject the containment and détente strategies of the preceding Democratic Carter administration and to put into practice the concept that the Soviet Union could be defeated rather than simply negotiated with. It was Reagan who had labelled the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire” in his 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida. It was Reagan who in 1983 had announced the development of a Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), a missile defence system intended to protect the United States from attack by ballistic strategic nuclear weapons, a political game play that Mikhail Gorbachev’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov described as “very successful blackmail.” This hard line rhetoric was, in the eyes of the Reagan administration, designed to “write the final pages of the history of the Soviet Union”.

In 1983 the incumbent Conservative government, led by Margaret Thatcher, had allowed the installation of American Cruise Missile units at the Greenham Common airbase in Berkshire, a decision that was described by historian and peace campaigner E P Thompson as “a manifest symbol of subjection.” For many the cruise missile program was seen as part of a strategy by the Americans to fight a ‘limited’ nuclear war in the European ‘theatre’. It certainly made the United Kingdom a legitimate target for the SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles that the Soviet Union had positioned in various locations within Eastern Europe. This was cold-war high stakes poker at its worst, and no one was sure who would blink first.


Nuclear Culture

The growing political tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, and fear that Britain would be caught in the crossfire, took root in the popular culture of the time. The US television film The Day After, which first aired on ABC in November 1983, was followed in 1984 by the UK production Threads. Both films depicted the escalation of conflict between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries, ultimately resulting in all out nuclear war. That my parents forbade me to watch either of these films on their first release only added to the fascination I had with all things nuclear. 

In 1984 the Liverpool band Frankie Goes to Hollywood had their second number one hit with the song Two Tribes, a thumping funk/R&B anti-war song that became the longest-running number-one single in the UK of the 1980s. I bought the twelve inch re-mix version, played it constantly and painted a copy of the mural of Lenin that daubed the record’s sleeve as part of my O level art project. 

Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

There I was, a cold war kid immersed in the nuclear zeitgeist of the mid 1980s, when a friend informed me about a student exchange scheme being organised by my six form college. The destination was Kiev, a city behind the ‘iron curtain’ of the Soviet Union. I couldn’t wait to sign on the dotted line. 


The Nightmare Begins

The first news reports spoke of a fire at a nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union. The Soviet news agency would only conceded that a minor accident had occurred. At 21:02 on the evening of 28 April 1986, a 20-second announcement was read out on Soviet television. “There has been an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the nuclear reactors was damaged. The effects of the accident are being remedied. Assistance has been provided for any affected people. An investigative commission has been set up.”

What had actually occurred on the night of 26 April was a catastrophic nuclear accident. During a late-night safety test designed to simulate an electrical power outage, during which both emergency safety and power-regulating systems were intentionally disabled, a combination of inherent reactor design flaws and an unstable arrangement of fuel and control rods within the core resulted in uncontrolled reaction conditions. Superheated water was instantly turned into steam, causing a destructive steam explosion that took the roof off the reactor building and a subsequent open-air graphite fire that burned for nine days with the reactor core exposed to the atmosphere before it was finally contained on 4 May. When the full magnitude of the situation became clear, the South Manchester College student exchange trip to Kiev was cancelled. 

Cherbobyl Power Plant, Reactor 4, showing the effects of the steam explosion.

Kiev

Twenty-five years passed before I eventually got to visit Kiev, by then the capital of an independent Ukraine. As per the agreement with the Chernobyl Tour Company we were collected in people carriers from Independence Square early on a wet Wednesday morning for the 150km drive to the edge of the exclusion zone. Officially known as the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation, the exclusion zone was established by the Soviet Armed Forces soon after the 1986 disaster, initially at a radius of 30km from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It has since been extended (yes extended) by the Ukrainian authorities to cover approximately 2,600 sq km where radioactive contamination from nuclear fallout is highest and public access and inhabitation are restricted. 

Independence Square, Kiev

How much Radiation is too much Radiation?

The dose of radiation received by the human body is measured in sieverts, abbreviated as Sv. As natural background radiation levels are generally low most dosimeters measure the received dose in Millisieverts, one thousandth of a sievert and abbreviated as mSv(1000mSv = 1Sv), or more often than not in Microsieverts, one millionth of a sievert and abbreviated as μSv (1,000,000μSv = 1Sv). The global average exposure of humans to ionizing radiation is about 2.4 – 3 mSv per year, 80% of which occurs naturally. The radiation levels in the area of the reactor building in the first 48 hours after the explosion at Chernobyl have been estimated at 300Sv/hr, (300,000mSv/hr) providing a fatal dose in just over a minute. 22 years after the explosion radiation levels inside the reactor hall were approximately 34 Sv/hr, providing a lethal dose in 10-20 minutes. 

Radiation levels within the exclusion zone vary considerably, dependent on a number of factors including the original distribution pattern of fallout from the reactor fire, vegetation cover, terrain, weather conditions, etc. Average background radiation levels within the exclusion zone, and specifically in the abandoned city of Pripyat, vary from 0.3 to 300 μSv/hour.

Taking a dosimeter reading from moss

Dosimetry

At Dytyatky, still thirty kilometres from Cherbobyl, we reached the check point at the perimeter of the exclusion zone. Here our passports were taken and we registered as having entered the exclusion zone. Dytyatky is also a dosimetry control checkpoint and visitors are required to have their radiation dose levels checked whenever entering and leaving the exclusion zone. Once cleared through the check point we continued north for a further thirty kilometres to the town of Chernobyl, the administrative centre for the management of the decommissioned nuclear reactor complex. Here we were provided with a talk covering many aspects of the history of the Chernobyl incident including management of nuclear energy, ecological and environmental impact, radiation dosimetry, medicine, psychology, ethnography, and disaster management. 

On Kirova Street we paused at the memorial to Those Who Saved the World, constructed in memory of the firefighters who gave their lives during the initial containment of the fire at reactor 4. At the ten kilometre boundary we passed through the Lelyov checkpoint, again being required to pass a dosimetry check, and proceeded along an eerily empty highway, our people carriers the only visible vehicles, hemmed in on all sides by dense coniferous forest through which, every so often, came glimpses of abandoned buildings. 

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant complex is located ten kilometres north of the town of Chernobyl, where the waters of the Pripyat River were diverted to create an enormous cooling pond for the reactor complex. Some five kilometres to the northwest of the reactor complex is the abandoned city of Pripyat, designated at its foundation in 1970 as the ninth nuclear city of the Soviet Union, constructed for the habitation of power plant workers and their families. 

To be continued in part two, Pripyat: City of Ghosts.

This Quiet Morning

a poem in remembrance of the Manchester twenty-two

this quiet morning on the corner of Oldham Street 
a barista takes plastic cups of hot sweet tea
balanced on his Bakelite tray so carefully
to policemen who stand at ease, tired on their feet
 
shading their eyes from the bright May sunshine
fatigued, weary, unaccustomed to the sunlight
grateful for their cuppa having been up all night
together a fragile but united thin blue line
 
this quiet morning separated by circumstance 
friends exchange messages of love though miles apart
the old lady selling Ariana love hearts 
offers me a blessing, leaving nothing to chance
 
handing back the keys of her response vehicle 
a paramedic hugs her colleague so tightly
he feels his spine will break as if cinder toffee
the only sound between them the short-wave crackle
 
this quiet morning an invisible cotton shroud
has muted the routine hubbub of the city
united in this moment of grief, stepping deftly
through the disbelief and the silence of the crowd 
 
Shaun stood selling news on the corner of Deansgate
stabs his finger at the headline so bitterly
it ain’t the first time though is it our kid, says he
keep the change for a brew I say, God bless you mate
 
it is as though death has woken us from slumber
as cold and indiscriminate as death can be
we have remembered for this moment what truly
is of value, just what blessings we can number
 
this loss is the banal reality of war 
that tears away the very soul of our belief
we can forge no lasting weapon against this grief
but to embrace in the wake of deaths we abhor
 
this evil tide we will forever disavow
this quiet morning, although we bow our heads to cry 
we will not die when our brothers and sisters die
we shall avenge their deaths the one way we know how
 
by choosing to live