Monday, 26 September 2011

Poucher's Peak and Pennines

I'm off north tomorrow, on my way to carry out an interview in Penrith on Friday. I'm stopping off in Leeds, then spending a couple of days in Wharfedale, Yorkshire - I'm planning to get up onto the moors and find some space and silence.

It's years since I was last in Yorkshire so I've been hunting for my old maps and guides. My favourite disintegrated long ago - a nice little pocket walking guide - but I found an immaculate copy of Poucher's The Peak and Pennines. I see that I was given it for Christmas in 1982, my first winter in Yorkshire as a student. Though it was written in 1966, my edition was from 1978 so it must have seemed reasonably modern to someone. I didn't use it much because it turned out to be a guide to how to find the best rock outcrops, and I've always been a walker rather than a climber.

However, it's splendid.

It's wonderfully formal, and as an early 21st century reader it's easy to laugh at the tone. But I rather like the respect Poucher has for his reader, even if not many of us would follow his advice:

'Clothes are perhaps a matter of personal taste, and there are still a few climbers who delight in wearing their oldest cast-off suits, often intentionally with brilliant patches as a decoration!'
 'String Vests worn next to the skin have reduced the risks of cold, and by their use the number of pullovers can be cut down considerably.

'Leg Gear is a matter of personal taste; some climbers swear by trousers while others prefer plus twos. I have found the latter more comfortable and in addition they allow more freedom about the feet. The material from which they are made is another consideration. Many have a preference for corduroy, but I do not care for it because it is made of cotton and therefore cold to the skin, and when it gets very wet the material acts like a sponge and retains an excess of moisture. The weight about the legs then increases and is attended by much discomfort.'
What you should wear, of course, is tweed. And on your head?
Headgear has changed considerably in many years, and the feathered, velour Austrian hat is seldom seen nowadays.'
Instead, Poucher recommends either a 'Bob-Cap' or 'an old-fashioned Balaclava Helmet', both of which I can admit to wearing still.

I shall of course be taking a compass, as Poucher recommends. But I've never heard of anyone carrying an aneroid to help forecast the weather and obtain (Poucher's style is infectious) a rough approximation of altitude.

Finally, I shall be looking out for 'Brocken spectres' and 'Glories'. A Brocken spectre, Poucher tells me, is your own gigantic shadow on the surface of mist - usually you're standing above the mist, perhaps on a ridge, looking down on the mist in a coombe below you - and Glories are coloured rings around such a shadow. I've seen Brocken spectres, but never Glories - and I'd no idea they had such lovely names. The forecast is for sunshine, but at least if it's wrong and mist comes over the moor I'll have my compass, spectres and glories for company.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011


OK, I dare you to guess what this is. And if you're a woman, once you know, to imagine its use.

This, oh brace yourselves, is a 19th century cervical dilator. I saw it today, and it's about a foot long. I kid you not. It's in the Old Operating Theatre Museum (  and this picture is from the museum's website - the caption says 'the instrument shows wear from use but may be a prototype as even when closed it has a very wide gauge tip for actual use'. I just checked and modern ones are really rather friendlier in design. Why did the guy who designed this think he needed the barbed, pointed ends? All the medical instruments in the museum were designed by men as far as I could see.

I was in London today for lunch with a favourite client, and as she works round the corner from London Bridge, I thought I'd finally get round to visiting the museum. It's tiny - and don't go if you can't cope with incredibly narrow windy stairs - but brilliant, especially if you're lucky enough to be able to join a talk about the operating theatre itself.

We were treated to a blow by blow description of an operation for stones - which took 40 minutes when Pepys had his done in the 17th century, but was down to under a minute by the end of the 18th century. They could take a leg off and have the patient back in the ward in 20 minutes. Speed was pretty crucial as there was no anaesthetic so the patient felt - and saw - everything. The pain was the least of their worries, though, as vast numbers of patients died of septicaemia - unsurprising as the operating table was wood, the bandages made of any old cloth lying around the hospital, the surgeon wore a blood and pus-covered apron (to show how experienced he was) and he didn't see a need to wash his hands or the wound.

No wonder most people steered clear of hospitals.

A month ago I saw the Dirt exhibition at the Wellcome Collection ( just before it closed and among the artefacts was this 17th century Dutch household book of remedies. A woman would have to know so much just to keep her family safe - it's humbling for those of use who simply ring the doctor, or Google our symptoms (and wish we hadn't).

Of everything I saw at Dirt - and there was a lot to see - this is the one I felt a direct connection to. I can imagine sitting at a table with the writer of this book, comparing notes and sharing remedies. I rather wish I had.

Monday, 19 September 2011

My tamed landscape

 My camera's just broken so I finally downloaded the photos on my phone, to see what's been hiding in there. I'd forgotten about this sequence of pictures, taken on a walk in the wood on the hill behind my village. I saw no one - I walk there all the time and rarely do meet anyone - but there was no escaping the fact that people were all around.

I saw balloons, polystyrene cups, iron fences absorbed by trees, paint marks on the plantation trees, the trees themselves planted in regimented rows up the slope, a pump housing and water pipes, the back of a wooden sign ... It's a reminder of how interfered with our landscape is, how un-wild.

Is there a square inch of earth here in the Weald that no one has ever seen? I doubt it - people have lived here at least since the iron age, and even the empty places now were once settlements, fields and hunting grounds. I've never lived anywhere where people haven't made their mark on the land. It feels very safe. I wonder how I'd feel in a landscape where no one has yet walked.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Heaven and hell

This week a magazine asked me (and lots of other people) what my ideal conditions for writing are. I chose silence - though I dithered over normal domestic background noise, as that's what I normally write to.

Today, I was in writer's hell. Everyone was out so I should have been in heaven. I had some copy to write - three pithy statements about a London homeless charity. I'd loads of material and ideas and made great headway, until half way through the afternoon when I suddenly became horribly aware of the builders' cement mixer.

They're working next door and have set the mixer up in the front garden - about ten feet from my office window. It's been running for weeks now (they're doing some serious brickwork) so why, today, did it make me scream with frustration? I had to give up writing and stamp about. I had a shower. I put coffee cups in the dishwasher. I footled on Google, though I really didn't have time to mess about.

Eventually, they went home. And I got back to work, brain refreshed from its compulsory break.

The funny thing is that several years ago, I wrote a book. And I wrote the whole thing while we had builders in our house, on a decrepit borrowed laptop because my office was the only room not being rebuilt, so it was stuffed to the ceiling with furniture, pots and pans, and anything we needed to keep clean of builders' dust.

There was no way I could work in there. So I moved around the house, my sources in a box at my feet, my ears filled with hammering, boots running up and down the stairs, and the latest gossip from that day's Sun (I never did persuade them to read the Guardian). And I really don't remember ever struggling to write, no matter what was going on, and despite often being shattered from working through the night because I had so many words to write and so little time.

Have I become soft?