There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more
~ Byron, There is Pleasure in the Pathless Woods
I was writing poetry on Sunday night. Night and morning are interchangeable terms for me in the 3/4/5am period, so when I say ‘last night’ I mean any time from 12 – 5. It was late, put it that way, and I was sitting at my desk trying to remember what soil tastes and smells like. What do trees sound like in the wind? What do damp leaves smell like, and how do they feel against skin? So I’m sitting there with my head in my hands and I’m there – I’m in a forest, it’s night, and it’s raining. I can hear a bird calling far off in the distance, the canopy of leaves above me shivers in the cold. Then I write it all down, and when the connection severs I clamp my hands back on my head and enter that place again.
Then I got quite upset. The poem was coming along fine, good even. I was upset because I wasn’t in a forest, in the rain, in the dark – I was in a house, at a computer, clean and dry. I found this really upsetting. So after a fitful sleep I packed a few things into a bag and headed out for the Pentlands. I needed to be outside.
I’d been to the Pentlands previously, but I hadn’t really explored it as such. I’d only really seen a small section of it – the forested area I had come across the first time I’d made my way in was enough for me, for a while. Looking at the Pentlands on a map I realised I hadn’t even made a dent. The place, though small compared to the likes of Loch Lomond or Cairngorns, is huge compared to the area I’d been brought up in. This image might give you a better idea:
So the Pentlands is about half the size of Edinburgh (give or take), and on Monday I decided that rather than cycle to the edge, potter around a little bit, then go home, I’d actually venture into the middle. I did. I almost made it out to the other side but got distracted by the reservoirs. Then I wandered into a place full of fishermen and later found myself in a field I don’t think I should have been in – full of large brown-haired horned cows. I left my house Monday morning dry, clean, fresh and full of enthusiasm. I returned covered in mud, bicycle creaking and groaning with grit, legs weary from the hills and a rather large smile on my face.
So, on entering the Pentlands via Bonaly I climbed the first hill I’d climbed before, but this time rather than prancing around near the top I went over it. A whole new set of hills came in to view. Cool. Awesome. However, rather than cycle straight to them I decided to stop for a bit. I wanted to see what I could hear, what I could smell, what I could see. I sat there for a few minutes and then came to the conclusion that Scotland is weird.
When wandering in East Anglia if you sit down for a bit you’ll often find your ears treated to the tweety-derps and tinkle-tweets of birdsong; the air is thick with birds there. This is not true of the more mossy/heathy areas of Scotland, it seems. It was quiet, like almost dead quiet. All I could hear was the wind, maybe the occasional call of a far off bird and the baa-ing or groaning of nearby sheep. I’m unsure as to whether this silence was a peaceful silence, or disturbing. It felt as if the land were dead, that all living things had been torn from the earth – not quite hell, but a kind of anti-life. The moss and shrubby thrived, however, and seemed more than content in this eerie solitude.
The track grew muddier (and thus more exciting) as I rode down towards Glencorse, and it was evidently frequented by cyclists more than walkers. The path was a complex web of intermingling tracks that wove through one another; thin worn brown trenches that would catch at your pedals or green crests that would drop suddenly like miniature cliff faces. Little furrows had been dug across the path and held firm with large stones that, to the walker, were easily hopped over, but proved a little more exciting on two wheels. Where the landscape levelled the ground had turned to a green marshy mush that was indistinguishable from the firm landscape around it. These bogs were near-waist deep at points, and on my bicycle they easily reached the top of my boots. I got very muddy, very quickly. The views were spectacular.
The track eventually dried a little, and I emerged on a well worn sandy track that proved popular with mountain cyclists. It was a lot of fun to be fair, hurtling down the last section of the hill after spending so long climbing it felt very satisfying – if a little scary. Fifteen miles per hour seems really fast when you’ve been cycling at a snails pace for the last hour. I came upon a gate leading out onto a small road, and then realised I had no idea where I was or where I needed/wanted to go. My phone had no signal, so I couldn’t pull up a map of the local area. It felt good to be lost (even if I knew my way back, and knew that the Pentlands was small enough for me to escape within an hour or so of cycling in one direction).
There was a cute little farm to my right – over a small bridge, in front of me was the pseudo-wetness of Glencorse reservoir, and to my left the road weaved off into a small collection of buildings. I know buildings to be boring things – signs of civilisation, places in which humans live – so I took to the right and followed the road round Glencorse. God, roads feel so damn good when you’ve been riding on unstable ground, and you can go so fast! I’d become used to it from all my inner-city couriering, it seemed.
Glencorse reservoir was half water half brown muddy dried cracked earth. The large body of water was swamped with parties of fisherman stuffed into boats. I’m not lying; each boat accommodated a good six plastic-wrapped bodies. The dry earth was webbed with fissures, fiery red in places, and on the shore the water marks could clearly be seen. I followed the road past the farms, now following a river between two steep inclines, then the land opened up again.
I was getting closer – closer to what though? The centre? Getting to the middle no longer appealed to me, being inside was enough. Now I just wanted to explore – to hear, to taste, to smell, to get covered in mud, to fall over, to not think, to be. I was to realise this later whilst sitting down and getting swamped by sheep; I love writing, I exist in it and it in me. I bubble and boil with plots, characters, themes, lines, ideas, and they have to be written down. I can’t leave them be. What would I be if I didn’t write? I’ve thought about this many times – maybe I’d hold down a full time job, come home afterwards and do nothing. No, that’s not like me. Truth is, I think I’d be outside all the time, maybe forever, in these kinds of places. I’d get some money together and buy myself the essentials, then head out to somewhere big, green, dramatic, and just walk without direction. Live off beans and other things…
These kinds of little adventures are as important to me as writing. Potentially even more important.
The road ends and I find myself on a track leading round a farm and into rockier ground. I stop for a cup of tea and underestimate the ability of my thermos cup to keep things warm. I can’t cycle and drink tea, so I sit down for a breather. The ground is pillowy soft with moss, and as each minute passes by I feel my back giving way to the ground. Sitting quickly turns to lounging, then to laying. I close my eyes and listen to the soft baa-ing of the lambs and the barking of the farmers dog in the yard. The wind whips through the glen and whistles against the sharp rocks. I feel nothing, however; lying by a short sharp incline of rocks that protects me from the wind. I doze for a while. Sleep, perhaps, but only for a few minutes, as I’m woken quite suddenly by a loud baa-ing in my ear…
And so some very curious sheep appeared! They weren’t nearly so confident when I stood up and attempted to reclaim my bicycle from them… I continued and the route roughened – interestingly, the path no longer stuck to dry land, and begun drifting through streams. On a bicycle these were great fun to ride through, though I did wonder what walkers would have to do in order to cross without getting their feet wet!
From here the path curled back up into the hills, over some more farmland, then back down to meet some other reservoirs. The paths were more popular here; frequented by dog walkers, families and fishermen. There was an attractive little wood near Threipmuir Reservoir which I dallied in (and came across some lovely little flowers), and some large birch trees nestled in large beds of moss. I met a bee that wouldn’t leave me alone not far from me, and joined in with the buzzing. The bee left quickly after I’d started. I guess he/she didn’t like my bee-ing.
At this point it was beginning to get late – the air felt cooler, and the walkers in the woods were starting to thin. I figured I should start thinking about heading back and, though I didn’t have a clear idea of where I was, I knew where I was in relation to the tops of the various hills. I spied a path that seemed to lead up and between two of the hills I had passed previously. That path, in theory, should bring me back to Glencorse. It did, but as I made it round the final bend and through a clump of trees I realised I might not be on public land.
Across the stile was a large group of menacing looking horned brown cows. Cows are fine, I’m cool with cows, but there were no signs on the fence providing any warning and footpath signs had vanished. The footpath had grown into a tired tractor path filled in with fresh stone carved from a hill. From the non-cow side of the fence I could see the road I had been aiming to get to on the other side. All I had to do was get across this field and out through the driveway.
I have no images of this, because trying to push a bicycle through a boggy field whilst avoiding the local wildlife was hard enough without trying to balance a camera at the same time! I got past without an issue, and managed to make my way out of the driveway. From there it was a pleasant cycle back home!
A wonderful day, I think I’ll go back and explore some more this weekend. I think I managed to see quite a lot in one run, though I’m sure there are plenty of other little areas to explore. I’d very much like to return to the woodland by Harlaw Reservoir though, it was so peaceful! Tomorrow, maybe – and I’ll bring a good book with me.