Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Literature and history has provided us with a great many metaphors and images for London: a dark city, a labyrinth, a forest, Hell itself, a battleground, a ritual chamber, a market. TS Eliot used one of my favorites, simply referring to London as the 'unreal city,' a place that couldn't possibly exist and yet somehow does in spite of itself.

London is unusual in that the founding of the city can actually be traced to a specific period of time; in this instance, the landing of the Romans and the conquest of Brittania, where Londinium was a key military supply point and fortress. After the Romans withdrew, the city weakened and eventually passed from importance as the Saxons and Britons squabbled over control of pieces of what Rome left them. It wasn't until the late Dark Ages that London once again became important, and has continued to grow in importance ever since. It is arguably a city like no other, and certainly one of a select group which only includes New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Tokyo - and others one would no doubt argue belong in this set. Cities where things happen, events that trickle down into the rest of civilization. Vast centers of moneymaking and culture.

While many poets and sociologists no doubt have arguments as to why this is, I would offer a rather simple solution that the sheer numbers of people in these places offer no other possible conclusion. In less flowery language, it's the 'million monkeys' principle: they'll eventually produce something, be it Shakespeare or this blog. Or something entirely new.

And that's the problem I've found with trying to describe London in any of the metaphors I've encountered: they're too specific. The very thing that makes London so unique is that (as the quote at the top of this blog says) it really does contain everything. It in and of itself is a metaphor for the existence and condition of our entire species. That's some crazy mojo, dude.

The metaphor I've come to apply to London is that of a vast organism. Similar to the movie Pi, where the narrator describes an impossibly complex system 'screaming with life,' that is how London appears: a place where due to the sheer numbers you will encounter anything and everything, from the very best to the very worst humanity has to offer. In the scant few months I've been here I've seen people do heartless things to defenseless and crippled homeless people, and I've seen incredible displays of compassion for total strangers. If there is a representation of the city as anything, it's an extension of what makes us human: it's like a vast series of cells with the people as various organelles running to and fro, and the cells working together to make the organism work.

London isn't a tree or a creature or even some Cthulhoid monster that I might call it if I were less imaginative and observant. It's more like one of those massive underground fungus' scientists have discovered, something so ancient that it's hard to conceive that it started as a few simple cells and now covers miles of space. But that's exactly what London is: nothing more or less than the people that live here and make up the city. If the organelles were to stop working, London would simply cease to be and quietly slide back into the earth, awaiting the next militaristic expedition that realized the Thames would make a good shallow port for landing supplies.

I must admit the seduction of making London more than this. It is an inspiring city in all of its massed urban glory, and one that cannot help but fire the imagination in ways you'd never conceive. It is - unreal.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Last Thursday Was the Winter of My Discontent

Further Down the Valley
The Valley
Made glorious summer by my decision to take a long weekend and go on a hiking and writing retreat to the North. I needed a little time off; I haven't really had any since before the move apart from the trip to Prague, and that was pretty high-impact touristy. I needed something more chill.

I started with the vague idea of holing up in a country inn somewhere, hiking, writing and drinking beer. My requirements were pretty simple:
  • Had to be outside of a major city. Preferably a small town. Preferably with 2000 people or less.
  • But easily accessible by train and/or bus.
  • With hiking trails in the area.
  • Maybe in a National Park?
  • In a pub. Or at the very least a place I didn't have to go outside to get a drink if all else failed.
In five minutes of Googling, I found the Blue Bell Inn in Kettlewell, North Yorkshire. In the Yorkshire Dales National Park. With train tickets to nearby Skipton and a 30-minute busride, the location was perfect. And miles of hiking trails. And beer. In a small town. It was exactly what I wanted.

So I booked the room and train tickets and had a couple of weeks to look forward to it.

I took Friday and Monday off work because the bus didn't run on Sundays and I wanted to take advantage of my time there - two full days of hiking plus travel days. I arrived in Kettlewell early in the afternoon on Friday, checked in and immediately headed out.

Now, National Parks in the UK are a little different than they are in the US at least as far as trails go. The parkland was formed in the 50s, but obviously people have been living there far longer - for thousands of years. So it's a full, working rural area where people make a living from their farms. It's not like hiking through Yellowstone or the parks in Washington - it's more like hiking through rural Ohio, through people's fields and pastures and sometimes their backyards.

The trails vary greatly as well, from paved one-lane roads to unpaved country roads to bridleways for horses to tracks through fields - sometimes just a bit of trampled grass. And they aren't always well-marked; more than once I got lost trying to figure out where I was supposed to go next, because signs tend to hide or have been knocked down. Other times, they're just blank or very hard to read, or so general that you can't quite tell where you're supposed to be.

Kettlewell is in a valley (as most towns are) and most of the trails head up into the hills so you can get out on the moors. The first day I started winding up a trail and made it as far as a farm before I turned around - I didn't realize that I was actually on the right trail, I thought I'd ended up on private property. Turning around was damn lucky though because soon after I did a storm rolled in and started dumping a sleet and rain combination on me. By the time I got back, I was soaked.

The next day I picked up a poncho from the helpful village store along with a guidebook to walks in the area - which combined with the ordinance survey maps I had with me was perfect for getting around, because the OS maps helpfully do not label any trails, and the book used fairly recognizable landmarks.

Path Under Snow
Snowy Moor
Day 2 started out innocently enough; I decided to do an approximately 10-mile loop to the next town, then across the moors and up to a mountain called Great Whernside. The hike ran for two miles along the river, passing through low pastureland broken only by the characteristic stone walls. I saw plenty of wildlife, from sheep to lambs. And rabbits, and grouse. At Starbotton, the next village, I began climbing to the hills. As I climbed, the sun disappeared and things started to get cloudy - especially back towards where I was hiking yesterday. At one point as I reached the high moors I could see the rain falling in the area I had just covered - so I pulled out the poncho and prepared for it.

The rain was heavy. Really heavy. Heavy like sleet, then hail, then heavy English snow.

45 Degrees
Hard Rain
You can see from this picture exactly how hard the rain was falling - luckily it was at my back most of the time, but it eventually covered the trail, so much so that I got lost and had a really hard time finding my way back and almost trampling a grouse's nest in the process. I wasn't cold and I wasn't wet, but the area I was in was also really boggy and one wrong step could have had me knee-deep or waist-deep in some really cold muddy muck - not what I wanted when I was five or six miles out of town. I reached a small country road that was the last ditch before climbing Whernside and the weather up top looked even more miserable. I met a couple of hikers who had just come down and had stopped for tea (hey, this is England after all) and talked to them about the trail - it was rocky and slippery and likely concealed under snow by this point, and very steep. At one point the weather looked like it was going to clear so I decided to chance it, then got summarily worse so I turned around and took the road back to town. All in all, clocked about eight miles that day and still had a great time.

Day 3 I decided to do a southern route, which would take me not up a mountain but across the high moors, through some forests and back along some ruins. The weather was much more cooperative - even though I had the poncho there was no rain, and the walk was incredible. The high moors were absolutely deserted, although I did meet a couple of other hikers later in the trip. The climb was gradual; it took about an hour and a half to get to the top but I stayed up for another hour and a half, including the time I got lost and ended up way the hell off course but in the middle of an amazing moor, with more rabbits than I've ever seen before in the wild. I also saw hawks, although they were smaller than their American counterparts, and the corpses of rabbits - so there were probably foxes around as well, even if I didn't see them.

In all, I clocked about 20 miles between all 3 hikes, wrote around 10,000 words, took about 10 pages of notes for a couple of projects, and came back completely relaxed and refreshed. It was exactly what I needed, and today was one of the easiest and hardest days at work: hard to go back, but easy because I was so recharged and chill.

One or two of these a year and I'll be a much happier camper. Hiker. Whatever.

Complete Yorkshire Dales National Park Picture Set on Flickr.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

April Snows Bring.. ?

Bus Stop
I rolled out of bed this morning and was halfway through getting ready for my morning walk when I happened to looked out the window and noticed a lot of cold, wet white stuff falling from the sky. Somehow, on April 6, it was cold enough to snow - and snow real proper snow. Big, wet white flakes rather than the kind of anemic little balls of slop I've seen so far here.

That was two hours ago. It's stopped now and it's already starting to melt - it never stuck to the streets but it did stick to the trees, as you can see - but it was beautiful while it lasted.