TWO MONTHS of lockdown really should create the head space to get so much done… and yet sleep trespasses into day from night; cooking graduates from necessity to hobby; the novelty of projecting Amazon Prime onto the living room wall still captivates; des-res-decluttering and grand-designs gardening are central pillars of the home-based New Normal; watching podcasts and webinars is a mandatory exercise in sanity – and exercise, physical that is, consumes any leftover scraps of time that may remain.

So, by now, I should – really, really – have completed my revision of my “1990 classic”, The Line That Refused To Die, done all the desk-based bits of the two narrative non-fiction titles I’ve been commissioned to write by the same publisher, and polished 20,000 words of my next novel to tout around agents while they too, allegedly, are sitting on their hands with nothing better to do than scout for “new talent”.

I should also have moved forward significantly on developing an online version of the creative writing courses I was hoping to set up in lovely little eco-resort, on Lanzarote. And I really should have been keeping both this blog and my travel blog refreshed with exciting new material to amuse people during their enforced captivity.

Each week, I earmark a day for doing these things and, unfailingly, each week passes without my having done so. But now it is All Change! Weekends are going to become flexidays, shifted each week to match the best of the promised weather, now we can venture further afield, and I shall be at my desk, or the table in the garden, no later than nine each day. So, to the occasional sound of high-flying plane (Newcastle Airport is down to about one a day), the odd train and occasional passing car, I’m reviving my blog with but one grey cat for company.

My publisher, Sara Hunt, at Saraband, has been great, giving me the green light to carry on with things, even while she’s been setting everyone up for home working and creating an online sales channel, while bookshops, the very lifeblood of the smaller publisher, have had to close their doors. So, Settle & Carlisle: The Enduring Life Of The People’s Railway, is with the editor now, albeit with COVID caveats to my final crystal ball chapter, and the intention remains to launch this one in October. Completing the other two remains at present in the lap of the corona-gods. I need to complete about 20 days of walking, which is now once again broadly possibly, but if I can’t stay places and meet people along the way, the essence of the books will be lost.

I completed the first two day-stages of Walking The Line, which is based around a hike of 90 or so miles from Settle, in Yorkshire, to Carlisle, back in October, when the world was a quite different shape. I drove down the to the iconic Ribblehead Viaduct (the main picture shows shows the Tornado steam locomotive crossing the viaduct), from where I took a train to Settle and began by calling to chat with the lovely Mark Rand, whose converted water tower at Settle Station, was an early star of Channel 4’s Restoration. I enjoyed the wonderful Black Horse Jazzmen at the Royal Oak pub (“What’s a pub?”) and now fervently hope that none of these aging super-musicians has been afflicted by COVID.

Mark and Pat Rand on the roof balcony of their Settle Water Tower home

The next day I set off in the inevitable rain to walk the 15 miles back to Ribblehead, pausing at Horton station for an unexpected visit to an exhibition by two local artists, Hester Cox and Charlotte Morrison. Hester makes me tea, while I change my socks after the peat bog soaking I got when my route-finding went awry. I love her little paper moths, based on wallpaper patterns found at an old coaching inn on the North York Moors, but buying art is impractical when carrying only a light load.

That evening I chat with Kacper, the impeccably well-spoken Polish barman at the Station Inn, Ribblehead, and urge him to ensure he and his family get their Settled Status sorted, little suspecting that a far greater existential threat than Brexit lies over the horizon.

As I walk the ten or 12 miles to Garsdale the following day, I increasingly find that the act of exercise is stirring up hidden memories from the 13 years I spent living at the head of Wensleydale, and I come to appreciate in a way I hadn’t hitherto, the immense formative influence those years had on me and who I am today.

Back home, I turn many stones to re-establish contact with some of those I knew back then: people I met while running my publishing business, Leading Edge Press & Publishing; colleagues from when I worked for the national park; friends from my hang gliding days; friends who became friends through the mutual experience of raising children in a small, remote town.

Now, finding so many still alive and doing interesting things “beneath these stones” is deeply rewarding, and weaving some of their stories into my book is giving it more of an autobiographical tone than I’d perhaps anticipated. One such is person is Eliza Harrison, who, as Eliza Forder, and with her then husband John, created beautiful and in many ways pioneering books that captured the Dales and the Lake District and their people in classic monochrome and, later, colour, back in the 80s. Eliza is very mystical these days and runs a meditation business, still near Dent, that most archetypal of Dales villages.

She tells me about her novel, The Mystery of Martha. It’s about the idea that Yeshua – Jesus to you, me and the Vatican – might really have set foot on this Green and Pleasant Land, but that his true story, perhaps told in the Dead Sea Scrolls, has been both lost in translation or suppressed by the Vatican. And I tap her local knowledge in my quest to get to the bottom of the controversy that has divided Brontë scholars over whether a slave-owning family in Dentdale may have been the true inspiration for Emily’s Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

I now have tentative hopes of continuing the journey north from Garsdale to complete the five days to Carlisle as early as July, many things permitting, so publication can take place, as scheduled, next Spring. I hope too to get half of the walks done for Walking The Stones, which is a journey that takes in more than 20 ancient stone circles that surround the Lake District. Last year I researched a couple of the non-Neolithic back-stories by visiting the World Gurning Championships in Egremont, West Cumbria, and taking part in the World’s Biggest Liar competition, at Santon Bridge, in Wasdale. You may even have glimpsed me telling my lie on the One Show. I adapted it from a tale in my novel The Episode, in which a mad scientist creates weird creatures in a submarine hidden in the depths of Wastwater.

But I stood no chance against either seasoned stand-up competitors or the novice winner, Phillip Gate, a 45-year-old Sellafield “data information architect”, from Workington. His convoluted story was all about how west Cumbrians came to call each other “jam-eaters”, an insult traded between Whitehaven and Workington folk that – according to the Whitehaven News at least – is a taunt about not being able to afford meat for their butties. Gate came up with an alternative theory, about the region being rich not just in coal but also sugar, with underground “sugar seams” breaking the surface to provide the natives with jams of every hue and flavour.

Meanwhile, a planned new print run for The Episode is on hold, pending my being able to resume readings and tutorials, and I’m still struggling to find the right title for novel Number Two, which is a dystopian satire set across time in a fragmented United Kingdom, which has taken a quite different course since World War Two. I’ve decided it will end with the arrival of COVID: to speculate on what any future – real, surreal or merely imagined – feels deeply unwise at present.

I conclude with a reflection that the country is no longer just divided between the comfortable and left-behind; between the Brexiteers and the sane, or between those who genuinely believe the Government is making a decent fist of handling our current calamity and those who think that lying serial non-finisher will never change his spots, even after a brush with death. But now there are further within the divided segments: those who believe Heathcliff came from Haworth and was white, and those who think he was mixed race Dalesman; or between those who read and those who don’t. Guests on the BBC’s “remote” arts show invariably station their home studios in front of shelves replete with books. These may be ordered neatly by author, title, or even size, or rather chaotic, like Simon Scharma’s. But books they are, and in abundance.

Contrast this with the sterile bookless homes featured in reruns of Grand Designs, or Rio Ferdinand’s fly-on-the-wall about his new wife adapting to life with step kids. I want to like Rio Ferdinand for his honesty, as I felt the first series, about how he and his children managed the loss of his of his first wife to cancer tragically young. But I felt more in his dad’s camp rewatching an episode of the second series the other night. Remarrying so soon feels like a big risk to me and I hope he doesn’t come to regret it one day, having shared it all so publicly with the rest of us. I don’t think I’ll be reading the inevitable book.

But I digress too far, which most probably means I have said enough for today.

  • Settle & Carlisle: The Enduring Life Of The People’s Railway should come out in October
  • Walking The Line (with the provisional subtitle of A Journey Through The Life and Lore Of Settle & Carlisle Country) should come out next Spring
  • Walking The Stones (with the (very) provisinal subtitle of A Journey Through The Mysterious World of the Neolithic North And Other Stories) should come out in Spring 2022, with a Winter Solstice prelaunch in December next year