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Sunday, 28 May 2017

Cut loose for the myths of the hinterland: Deep Topography, Deep Catalunya

Oh Lord, thou switherest 

Back-of-a-fag-packet route map

I never really intended to be a pilgrim, it happened by accident or, if one is spiritually inclined, as I am from time to time, by some sort of grand design. Hiking, however, has always been in my blood - my heart has always been in my boots, if you like. 
As has, of course, landscape. Not just landscape as a backdrop; not landscape as a veneer, a thin sheen of skin on which the earth plays out its existence but landscape as a living, breathing substance that pulses through my veins. Landscape as existence, landscape as the be-all and the end-all, landscape as love, life and death.
Ever since my adoelnce reached its 'sensitive' phase (somewhere between winning and losing my first love), my modus perambulare has always been to get under the skin of the land and breathe into it an effervescent and irrepressible life. Had not dreams of rock 'n' roll stardom intervened, I might well have turned out to be a more orthodox geographer and ended up in a local governement planning office churning out an endless stream of well-meaning but ultimately futile documents and strategies. As it was, my first (and not entirely succesful) encounter with academia was through the scholastic mish-mash that was Geography and Landscape Studies.
Once on the periphery, always on the periphery. Circling round, eyeing the lie of the land, wondering what makes it tick. My undergraduate dissertation dealt with landscape and literature in a post-Hardy Wessex and had I been a less louche character I might have followed it up rather than being drawn into the world of soil engineering then spat out into Latin American politics and theology. I am the land, the land is me, receptacles into which the chaos of our lives has been casually tossed, sediments of memory and experience, good and bad, as volatile as magma, as brittle as slate. 
I was never taught that, not at school, not the sixth form nor the Institute of Higher Education where my pathetic flush of A levels led me; it was something I had to learn. That landscape was a messy business that coudn't be crammed and shoe-horned into the dreaded geographical models so beloved of the structuralist. Do you know what? Thirty years later I'm still fighting to persuade my impressionable, adolescent students that geography really isn't as dull as ditchwater or taught by bearded men sporting Hush-Puppies and elbow patches. 
John Wylie writes of the landscape as tension: 'a tension between proximity and distance, body and mind, sensuous immersion and detached observation' (2007:1). Since inadvertently becoming a pilgrim junkie I've been feeling a similar conflict, torn between the lure of following - perhaps unthinkingly and unimaginatively - a clearly defined and signposted trajectory and following my nose and the contours on the map. Pilgrimage and/or thru-hiking is all very well, and the glamour boosts my ego (student: 'how far are you walking this summer, Sian?' Tutor: 'one thousand two hundred of my European kilometres').
So the plan was to fulfil a long-held desire (well, since 2013) and walk from the Mediterranean coast of Spain to the Atlantic, via Santiago and the Via de la Plata from Sevilla. But even as I was planning the route I slipped in a sneaky week-long introductory pedestrian excursion through the foothills of the Catalan Pyrenees - the Pre-Pyrenees, as if that was where I felt I really belonged.
Then matters of the heart intervened (the landscape isn't immune to the slings and arrows of love) and I ditched the linear for the circular (ish); I wanted to explore that hinterland where Catalunya meets the mountains, the not-quite-elite landscape frequently overshadowed by the grandiose, snow-clad peaks to the north. 

I take as my template the deep topography of Nick Papadimitriou's wonderful psychogeographical explorations of the 'uplands' of south Hertfordshire and north Middlesex; the foothills of the Chilterns, if you like. It's a landscape I know well, from various sojourns in the Home counties, and one which Nick Papadimitriou brings to life in a manner which reminds me of the final pages of Gabriel Garcia's One Hundred Years of Solitude - a sort of psychogeographical and suburban magic realism.

Hinterlands, not forgotten lands. The landscape that gets ignored and left behind, the landscape that is perceived as a means to an end rather than an end in istself. The landscape through which the masses scamper in their desperation to reach the mountains or the sea. Deep in the hinterland I dwell, have done ever since I was an adolescent. In Weymouth I eschewed the beach for the allure of the mysterious intricacies of the backstreets around which I wove my own dreams, like a teenaged John Cowper Powys. In Dorset I deviated from the coast path for the layers of chalk and clay that lay behind, and the sensuous sinuosity of the River Frome as it meanders its way languidly towards the sea. 
I fell out of love with England a long, long time ago but its landscape still exerted a magical pull. Until 23 June 2016. I was in Catalunya when the British voted to leave the EU and I returned a furious rebel and saboteur. A couple of weeks later I was back in France, trekking towards Spain the Pyrenees on the Camino but in the intervening period I ventured out, tentatively, onto the Blackdown Hills. I wanted the landscape to work, for it and I to click, if only for old times' sake, but there was nothing. Nada. Rien.
So once again I turn my wrinkled features and fading locks to my homelands. In Catalunya, I think - perhaps delusionally - that I might have found my space, in its physical and cultural hinterlands. Neither one or the another, a place apart, detached but not severed. 
I am the land, the land is me. Or is there more to it than that?

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Deep in the Heart of Dorset

I call myself a psychogeographer, as I plod across the fields of Wessex or, more frequently nowadays, the Caminos of the Iberian peninsula, I often feel I'm in danger of breaching the Trades Description Act. Sure, there's plenty of psycho, probably more than is healthy for a woman of my background and breeding, and girt, humungeous dollops of my beloved geography but if you're looking to radical derives through urban edgelands a la Ian Sinclair then I'm definitely not a good example of the genre. 
Every which way but loose ...
Take last weekend, for example. Not for me forty-eight hours exploring the nitty-gritty in nearby Bristol. Rather, I jumped in my car and set off for the familiar, comforting hills of rural Dorset. I'm safe here, aren't I? Sure, I get my kicks from trudging up volcanoes and hiking hundreds of kilometres of mountain and meseta but here, in my safe Wessex homeland, nothing can happen, right? 
Desire lines, striations across my soul
If you scratch the surface the landscape will bleed. Profusely, excessively, like the non-stop sobbing of tears, speaking to me of loves lost. The earth beneath my feet laced with memories like a minefield, every step an encounter with the past, stirring yearning and a deep desire. I am the land, the land is me, carved from clay, chiselled from chalk, and laid down to rest. 
Deep, down below, someone is stoking the fires of hell
Something isn't right. Something is very, very wrong, even though the sun's out, spreading warm tentacles across my naked forearms and raising a moist sweat. Am I, Sian Lacey Taylder, out of kilter with the land or is the land out of kilter with me? It happens, sometimes; on a hot summer's day back in 1988, lost in the labyrinthine folds of West Dorset the landscape hounded me out and more or less expelled me. What I'd done for it to take umbrage so I really don't know, perhaps I'd become complacent, a bit of a braggart: 'oh, me and the land, we go back such a long way, nothing can tear us apart'. But now I never take it for granted, even though it appears to be my destiny - or fate- to walk the paths and the tracks alone and into eternity, a sort of Kubla Khan de nos jours
How green are my valleys?
It occurs to me, as I move seamlessly from my Cretaceous to my Jurassic, unable to move forward in time, that I'm turning into a long-playing record, wearing myself into a deeper and deeper groove at fewer revolutions per minute, from 45 to thirty-three-and-a-third. Well, not so much a groove as a canyon, whose walls are steep and slippery, not that I have any desire to escape. I tread the paths from day to day, year to year with weary eyes red-embered like burnt out stars. This is all I need: to walk and to walk and to walk ... because I can't do anything else.

Get into my groove
If there were an English shire to which you could trust your soul you'd put your money on Dorset, a supinecreature with come-to-bed eyes. You wander lazily through its scarp and vales on a sultry summer's day and all is right with the world. Tell me, then. What happens when the earth beneath your feet rises up and goes for your jugular? The day drags on, I slip deeper into Dorset, deep into my subconscious, deep into my own private uber-gothic. Deep in the heart of Dorset, here be dragons.

The roof of Dorset, the roof of heaven
Cut loose for the myths of the borderland, it's between the scenes I ramble: faster, faster, faster until my lungs are fit to burst. But can I out-pace my past? Can I hell! I comes creeping up behind me, dragging me down with its overbearing, overpowering gravity. But still I walk, because that's all I know and it's all I can do.

The night is a wire 
Deep in the heart of Dorset is my Faust. One night, deep in the heart of the nineteen-eighties we sat down together in the woods and hatched out our plan, raising a glass of Pernod-and-black to seal the deal. Oh what bliss it was, to be alive back then, in a landscape full of possibilities. I sold my soul; not for rock 'n' roll, worst luck, but to the earth beneath my feet. From thereon in, for the rest of my life, everything and - more importantly, everyone - would take second place to my pursuit of landscape and the incessant need to keep on moving, to never, ever stop. Love and life and happiness? To the back of the queue with hope and prosperity. And stability. Obviously stability. especially stability. I am the land, it unhinges me.
This way lies madness. And all the joyous treasures of human existence
You think that Deep in the heart of Dorset is all patchwork pastoral and Laura Ashley landscape twee. You think it's all Enid Blyton Famous Five or Thomas Hardy costume drama, Poldark without the porn. You think it's all fifty organic shades of pastel green, bland and anodyne. If I tell you
Deep in the heart of Dorset is all prelapsarian nature red-in-tooth-and-claw you'll snigger and gently - and very politely - mock my neo-romantic leanings and get back to your Deleuze and Guattari. This is what happens, you'll say, when the subjective is given its head. Give them the facts, Sian Lacey Taylder! Give them the effing facts!

The Dorsetshire Gap: Everything that Dorset now is, everything it ever has been and always will be flows through this void
I lasted thirty-six hours, dear reader, and then I had to head for home. Deep in the Heart of Dorset I lost my heart and my soul as well as any remaining vestiges of perspective. And somewhere up there, in the roof of Dorset, I said farewell to love and humanity. From now until the end of my days there is only the path and the lie of the land, everything else is beyond me.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Saints and Cynics Days 12-14: Los Arcos & Logroño

Preparation, so they say, is the key to a happy and succesful Camino. I'll tell you something for nothing, I've never trusted the shady but ubiquitous they; they don't so much proffer advice as demand you do things in the clear and chronological manner which they stipulate. They invariably want you to go about your Camino business in exactly the same way they did. They will broach no deviations for they are über didacts par excellence.
Let's get things straight, I like to do things my way, even if it means cutting of my nose to spite my face - a rebel without a cause, a rebel without a clue. The truth is that I set out from Artix to join the Chemin du Puy without any physical preparation whatsoever; I had eight weeks on the road, the Way would sort me out, turn me from flabby geograpgy tutor to finely-tuned perambulatory goddess. The Pyrenees would make a woman out of me. 
And so they did. By the time I reached Los Arcos I was beginning to feel the burn, my body was begininng to revel in its new-found liberty; was becoming aware that it would go on for a very long time. 
I hadn't intended to take a rest day in Los Arcos. It's a small town of only 1200 inhabitants and while it counts with all the necessary facilities, it's the sort of place you might breeze around in a couple of hours, whilst waiting, for example, for cold-beer-o'clock. But then again, I hadn't intended to spend the entire night in a bar on the plaza, knocking back the vino tinto - I don't even like red wine! - and watching an extraordinary evening of spontaneous Camino entertainment draw in both pilgrims and locals. I'm told it went on until two in the morning with only the threat of calling in the local policia bringing the festitivities to an end. My fellow pilgrims, staying at the same pension as myself, somehow managed to rouse themselves for a curtailed 8km hike to Torres del Rio where the previous night's alcohol-fuelled shenanigans repeated themselves. 
Being both pilgrim and researcher puts me in possession of a trump card. I'd already flourished it in Pamplona and, suffering from the sort of hangover that only red wine can induce - it doesn't happen with gin - I played it again. I'd take advantage of the peace, quiet and excellent wifi to write up my notes. 
So did I spend all day labouring at my impromptu desk? Did I eff! Once again I took the fine art of procrastination to new heights and spent most of the day listening to eighties-flavoured big-haired bubblegum pop-rock, as is my wont. 
Tell me, dear reader; do you believe in a god? Any sort of supernatural being or prime mover will suffice. As a bit-part, small-time theologian I suppose I have to, that is, after all, why I walked the flipping Camino in the first place. As a rule, my god is a benevolent creature who bears a striking resemblance to Joey Tempest's twin sister but on Day 12, over chicken and chips in the plaza, she turned nasty and loosened the filling on my front tooth which promptly fell out. 
Ugh! There's nothing so off-putting as a pilgrim's smile with half a tooth missing. 'You should have gone to the dentist beforehand' tweeted one of my followers, rather unhelpfully. Strange how a missing half tooth came close to calling time on my camino after less than a fortnight, in all my summers hiking across Latin Europe I've never succumbed to physical injury beyond a sore knee occasionally precipitated my steep descents with a heavy rucksack*.  
The following morning, feeling a little more level-headed, I jumped on a bus to Logroño in search of a dentist. I wasn't the only pilgrim, beside me sat a sixty-something American who I'd met on the climb from St Jean Pied de Port. His knees were giving up on him so he was taking a break. Back in 2012 I skipped a couple of stages of the Camino Francés, this time I was determined to hike the whole hog but already my plans had been scuppered. True, I'd be spared the tedious 10km plod into and through the outskirts of Logroño but as the bus wound its way through the vineyards of Rioja the first pangs of regret began to make themselves felt. And those ominous twinges of guilt that curdle in the pit of the stomach, insisiting and insinuating that I was commiting some sort of venial sin.
With 24 hours to kill before my dental appointment, I had time enough to return to Los Arcos and complete the stage but retracing my steps to retrace my steps, as it were, seemed, to my simple soul, quite contrary. Going backwards was not an option; once Logroño had been reached, by whatever means of mobility, it had been reached. The stage had been completed, it was time to move on. 
I'd intended to get back on the trail as soon as the tooth was fixed but by the time I left the dentist, complete with numb mouth, it was close to noon and the thermometer was climbing so I wandered back to my hotel and booked in for another night.
So one rest-day - brought about by a hangover and the heat - metamorphosed into three. It was a curious intermission, I felt strangely lethargic and out-of-place. Three days of not-walking, enough to drive an obsessed pilgrim crazy; I can't imagine how those who suffer more serious, debilitating injuries cope. I've come across them, even tended to them once; it's an ill-fortune the likes of wish I'd only wish on those who voted 'Brexit'. 
Yes, it's that bad. 

* Ironically, I returned from the summer's hiking with a mild case of backpacker's palsy, more of which anon.