Llyn Cwellyn

Llyn Cwellyn (Pron. Klin Kle-ken (sort of)) is a water reservoir just South of Mount Snowdon. It runs West from the Snowdon Base Camp (where my sisters and I set up camp) alongside the Beddgelert Forest. It is the site of many Wild-man spottings or so the annuals of the internet declare. 

The Wild-man or British Bigfoot is a hotly debated phenomenon – is there enough uninhabited land in the UK to hide such a creature? The 2012 National Eco-System Assessment of the UK says that only six to eight per cent of the UK is built up. Which according to the U.K. Bigfoot Society,  is compelling enough evidence to say ‘yes’. I think true believers are probably on medication, but I also love myths and mysteries and those feelings that defy logic – that fill our heads with magic sparks and help us see a land anew. One look at these forests, swirling in mists, left you feeling our Sasquatch cousin was out there. You felt very far away from anything – even reason.

The footpaths on the O.S. map looked substantial. When we came to walking them, however, it was clear they had not been used for many years. They were overgrown and numerous trees had tumbled over the paths. They looked like fallen eaves after a building fire.

We crawled and squatted and climbed over these limbs; ducking through small spaces between these massive branches. We ended up with yellow lichen stains smattered across our hands and clothes.

Yet it wasn’t the severe sense of abandonment that set us at great unease. It was the stillness. No birds sang nor insects swarmed. Camping beside a lake in the middle of summer in a heavily forested area of bog and moor is usually the perfect breeding ground for midges –  yet there was nothing. 

My heart started to beat hard. It was irrational, but a sense of fear had started to run through me like electric. We continued on, staring hopefully at the map. We continued on because we could see two interlocking paths on the map running parallel to each other. We hoped to reach the end of one and then walk back on the other. But we never found it for all our searching…

The sun was falling low in the sky and the gloom was rising. The depths of the forest were black. Out of the dusky murk of densely grown spruces and pines, a bright white light shone through marking the clearing of Llyn Cwellyn itself. The light flooded the sky – now I just felt watched, like two peeled eyeballs were following my every move across the gravelly shore. 

There were old signs of human inhabitance; a fence long fallen and rusted, jutting out into the water; towards the other end of the shore was a stone wall; and littered amongst the slate-like debris of the shore side gravel was the possible signs of charred wood. But it was more than that – the foliage was bent in unusual directions, stones were moved in unusual patterns. Were they footprints in the mud? 

A sudden but colossal shift in the foliage caused us all to stop what we were doing and turn round sharply. It was as if a tree had collapsed – it might well have done – but this crash was accompanied by a sick inhuman shriek. 

We clustered around each other and looked into the darkness. I picked up a stick. There were monsters in this wood. 

We waited a bit – shallow breathing. Swore we saw moving shadows in the brush or a smidgen of red fur disappearing through the trees. 

Eventually, we made our move. Couldn’t wait out the beast no longer, and the stillness of the lake was becoming equally as unnerving. Tramping carefully, we made our way back into the shade and the coolness of the trees, and scurried back to camp as quick as we could. 

But I wasn’t afraid that evening, awaiting the Sasquatch. I was angry. I would not recommend staying at the Snowdon Base Camp. It was expensive, the bathroom block, although well built, was not well cleaned; a fire alarm blared for 30min before I was forced to drive to the pub and tell them to come and fix it. And to top it off, that night, I was awoken at midnight by loud music coming from the car park. 

My mother had hissed across from her tent when I got up, ‘don’t you dare.’ I don’t think she’s even seen Eden Lake. Either way, I did.

In a pink fluffy jumper and my flip-flops, I rapped on the window of a Renault Clio. I was met by a gaggle of dishevelled teenagers on what I presumed was some sort of youth trip gone wrong. I told them they weren’t allowed to play music; it was the rules. They turned it down, and five minutes later I think they went to brave the tent. None the less,  a well staffed and cared for campsite wouldn’t allow such late arrivals. 

I mean I was ready to shank a bigfoot with a tree branch. 

But interrupting my sleep is risky business – I have no humour for it. So look on my wrath, ye youths, and despair. Look out for a beast of pale red hair, grouchy in demeanour, whose footsteps slap on approach. It’ll rap on your window and spoil your party without even a care.

On another note:
This wasn’t the first time I’d had to complain about other people on a campsite. The first time, however, those teenagers were setting fire to a forest and 20min later two fire engines, a helicopter flyby and a police car arrived. The boys scarped and my sisters got to ride around in the fire engine. But that’s a different story…


Links: Report British Bigfoot Sightings



 

LLYN CWELLYN, SNOWDONIA NATIONAL PARK, WALES
VISIT DATE: JULY 2018

The Mist Wraiths of Snowdonia

Snowdon Ranger Trail, Wales
Snowdon Ranger Trail, Wales
Snowdon Ranger Trail, Wales
Snowdon Ranger Trail, Wales
Snowdon Ranger Trail, Wales
Snowdon Ranger Trail

We could see the cloud from the bottom of the hill tumbling over the sharp escarpment like a cavalry plunging into the fray; their beating hooves stirring up a nebulous brume. The cool air pressed lightly upon my skin, emphasising the wriggling of the veins in my hot skin – like a hundred maggots just waiting to burst through the hard skin of an apple. My heat quickly disbursed into the air; bringing a sense of relief to my sweating body, and making me feel uncomfortable in the cold.

The car park at the base of the Snowdon Ranger Trail was a kerfuffle of optimistic chirpings, slamming doors, and mild voices grumbling peevishly over the temperamentality of the ticket machine’s printing capabilities. Two moderately elderly women in trainers and t-shirts raced our group up to the front gate and overtook.

‘Meet you at the top,’ they cooed. From the looks of their supplies, they were inviting catastrophe. Luckily as the path disappeared vertically into Valhalla they disappeared behind. ‘I didn’t think to bring my inhaler,’ one complained, apparently baffled.

Others we passed making a start, as we descended, climbing into the light with dress shoes,  clean pressed shirts and a blackberry – woefully unequipped for any modern interaction it seemed. These are the people that have mountain rescue pulling out their hair. Please don’t be that person.

And then there are those possessed of so much self-control that they run like mountain goats adhering to the falling scree. Seemily adjusting the laws of gravity as they went. We bumped into a troupe of these six-foot-tall monsters, thin, lithe and hard – careening downward as we were still drudging up. Bastards.

I had awoken that morning with a neck so stiff I had to turn my entire body to see anything to the left of me. I couldn’t tell if it was the whiplash injury re-emerging its head from a few weeks ago, or whether I had slept wrong. Never-the-less, being able to barely move wasn’t going to stop me sauntering up a hill they built a bloody train line up. I resented that train and everything it represented. It suggests the mountain is easy – that it was conquered and in chains. That is was bound and broken. That humanity had conquered it, and my feeble ascent meant nothing to its now acorn-sized ego.

The hike was good five to six hours. The weather was muggy and any hopes of a summit view were quickly dashed due to the low lying cloud which left droplets of water clinging to our eyelashes like the sugar frosting on a cocktail glass.

At points up the hill, we sat and watched as a thin membrane of mist billowed like sheet music rippling in the breeze. Or else bulged and rolled like the flutter of a gigantic flag caught in a storm. Back and forth, it swept in eddying curtains up and over the edge of the cliff upon which we sat. The waves of moisture bore down upon us like wraiths – embracing hikers in their spectral arms.

Snowdon appears from Llyn Cwellyn as a horseshoe of granite, at once intimidating and exacting; it is sobering and rightly so. The path starts as a gentle slope, climbs up an initial hill in long zig-zagging ramps and  then it peters out across the scrubby moorland. Ambling on either side as I climbed were curious long-tailed sheep. Then, out of the cloud, the base of the mountain makes itself known.

Yet somehow, this didn’t feel the same as the other mountains I’d climbed. With them I’d always been surprised that I’d made it – always felt in awe that my lumbering frame had somehow hauled itself skyward. But with Snowdon it felt like a trudging inevitability. No longer did I feel like Frodo on my way to Mordor. I felt more like I was ticking a box – being there for the very sake of being there. 

At the top, the train having recently pulled into the station with the smell of hot oil, I waited in line for the summit. Here I was cajoled into taking a photograph of myself and my fellow climbers. I love taking photos, but I am still working on the sort that documents a journey, and my face, and other people. Sadly, I am not publishing this picture due to witness protection issues. But can we just get back to that queuing to reach the summit part? Perhaps it’s a sign that escaping the seven billion inhabitance of the planet is just no longer achievable. We all seem to live in ants nests, on top of each other, and to escape we all run in the same direction. Alternatively, is it just our perception of the world that causes this phenomenon?  All Googling the same places; all invigorated by the same tales and all wanting to walk in the footsteps of those before us. All wanting to feel well travelled, well climbed and well informed.

I watched an Asian woman decked out in a bright yellow rain-mac and a pair of red converses – she was immaculately beautiful. She clutched a Gucci handbag and a Nikon wielding husband. They posed for quite a while. Why had I come here again?

We didn’t stay for a summit lunch even though we’d carried such staples all the way up there. The cold you see had leached into our bones, and everything was saturated in water. It was 8C. Back home we blistered under 30C heat. 

Reversing our path downwards, we eventually found some boulders slightly out of the wind, beside which to pour, with our numb fingers, a cup of hot coffee. And after throwing a stone in the general direction of a nasty seagull, I took out my tuna sandwich and a Snickers bar. Those of you wanting to glean some helpful hints on climbing Snowdon – take note: tuna sandwiches and Snickers bars are the absolute quintessential mountain climbing food.

As an ending note, Google asked me to review this mountain, and I started my review with two words: ‘adequate mountain’ and then realised that I’ve summed up the whole of Snowdon with more eloquence than a hundred words could produce. And it is indeed wholly adequate, for hikers, for artists, for wandering minstrels, but I cannot truly put hand on heart and say it is my favourite.

PS: Sorry if you were looking for helpful tips on climbing the mountain, but there is a ton of other websites that will give you that information and they are all articulate and charming.

PPS: Did not take a bivvy-bag but totally would have done, if I had owned one, because Bear Grylls is my home-boy. 

Links: All about the routes up Snowdon.



Map UK, Snowdon
SNOWDONIA, WALES
VISIT DATE: JULY 2018
Snowdon Ranger Trail, Wales
Snowdon Ranger Trail, Wales

Caernarfon

Caernarfon Castle
gift shop at Caernarfon Castle
Caernarfon town centre
Caernarfon Castle

If a raven were to glide into Caernarfon, it would be met by a hodgepodge of salt and pepper slate roofs, punctuated by terracotta chimneys and the pearlescent shine of Velux windows offering themselves up to the  Welsh sun. This mosaic of tiles, smattered in oil like patches and porcelain splashes, fans out from the castle walls like a  pigeon’s wing unfurled in flight.

As the humble pigeon lifts his wing, he reveals  an unexpected riot of colours. Visable are the bounding apricot hues, ceruleans, cyans, delicate cottons and eggshells of the houses and shops below. In the distance, the hills curve and jut like the profiles of variously sized crocodiles, all lying next to each other, in roughly textured olive coloured lumps. 

This is Caernarfon, and all this is visible from the battlements of its dour medieval castle.

In 1283, the flinty demeanour of Edward I and his war machine in Wales had turned its hand to oppression through castle building. The walls of the city enveloped the town in their iron grip. Long Shanks (so he was known) wasn’t the first to think that Caernarfon would make a superb fortification in a conquered nation – indeed the Romans, and then various Welsh Princes, had had similar ideas when imposing on the Welsh. It was the perfect spot you see, bordered on two sides by the Afon Seiont and the Menai Strait.

If you climb the ramparts you can look across to Anglesey Island. It would have been a terrifying spectacle in its day and the castle was never even technically finished. The visionary architect of this vast polygonal structure was James of St George, who is now immortalised within the pages of UNESCO for his work. The castle is therefore protected from the whimsey of short-sighted planners. James’ design was cribbed from Constantinople and the architecture soldiers observed during the crusades. His middle-eastern inspiration gave him the idea of striping the interior walls with different coloured stones. And until rock crumbles, this structure will live on in its drizzly position, protected.

This last century, the castle has played its part in the royal pageantry that reminds us, essentially, that the world is not fair, when it played host to the crowing of Charles (Queen Elizabeth II’s son) as Prince of Wales. A loop of flickering grainy film, repeating on a small screen within the main tower, shows Charles perching nervously on the thrown during the ceremony. He looks lost and awkward and a little unsure of himself, but perhaps we all would, especially knowing the ghost of Edward the Ist is looking down on us with his coldly competent stare. For Edward’s world was dangerous and power was for those who could take it, and castles were for Kings.

As I cling rather tightly onto the railing of one of the towers, I try to pry back the hands of time and peek through its veil. The pewter coloured bones of the castle and walls are already in place – the hills and the sky and the sea are unchanged. Small fishing boats rock on an indigo sea as they would have done centuries ago. I imagine mud and straw and rock. I imagine cold air and strong smells. But it is difficult to peel back the facade much further. I look at the artist’s representation of the castle when it was just a fledgeling; it had a cluster of small buildings teaming inside its silvery shadow like bluebottle maggots in a carcass. Still its history didn’t unfold before me with any lucidity.

Sometimes it does. Sometimes a connection between place and time is so strong that you can feel history calling out to you from the ether. But not here.

Housing up to 200,000 visitors a year, Caernarfon is a carnival castle, inviting all those that visit to revel in the very physical joys it has to offer: from gazing upwards and feeling cowered, to running your hands along cold stone, climbing all eight towers and even that tingling feeling in your toes as you tempt fate by looking over the walls. It is a playground.

Kassie (my sister dearest) wore an almost luminescent orange, furry jumper that day and decided to peer over every rail with complete disregard to her centre of gravity. I had echos of the comical thump she’d make as she hit the parched lawn in my ears. She sniggered (rather like an evil cartoon character) and ran on. I’m not afraid of heights, but I am (I soon realised) afraid of castles. I saw  far too many human-sized holes through which I could imagine soft bodies plummeting through. And yet, I guess no one else did. Even Charlie (another sister of mine) didn’t seem to mind, and she hated mountains because of their height. But perhaps, they all have castles running in their blood whilst I have mountains. And that’s much better surely?

They’d all be serfs anyway…

CAERNARFON, WALES
VISIT DATE: JULY 2018
Caernarfon town centre
Caernarfon Castle
Lady justice, Caernarfon
Caernarfon Castle

Penmaenmawr to Conwy

The hem of North Wales’ rough gabardine is folded at the coast and seamed with three trailing stitches. The oily bitumen grey of the A55, the rust orange of the railway tracks, and the indistinct fawn of a walker’s path. Its garment is broached at the shoulder by the jewel of Snowdonia – the highest peak in the nation.

This warrior queen dabs a salt-diesel perfume around her ears – it is at once distinctive, sublime and yet cacophonous and uncomfortable. Facing the elements with slate and spear, she is rugged and weary, with scars and pockmarks from her battles with mining and industry upon her facade. 

Penmaenmawr (pronounced pen-men-mar) is a village just off the main road – it is a useable collection of small shops, largely independent, with the exception of a surprisingly upmarket Spar. The shopkeepers’ co-operative has retained a quaint feel to the main street, ensuring all the businesses along the road are styled identically under a steel awning of beige and maroon.

If you walk down the hill at Penmaenmawr you hit the train station; take a right and then a left. Here you’ll find an aggressive innercityesque looking underpass, resplendent with gauche drawings in a bombastic Matisse palette. It was urban-lite, urban-wannabe and I bet all the local teenagers think it’s fun to hang out here.

The beach was a rock-pit, broken into sections by lines of groynes. Avoiding the dog shit, we stared into the sea, of which there was plenty, and sat to eat our dubiously entitled ‘pasty’.

Above us the road, out of sight but not sound, created a miasma of carbon and carcinogens out of a rumble of rubber, grease and steal ball bearings. It cut through the landscape like a weekend DIYer who drips an extension cord unceremoniously across a flowerbed. It is only an eyesore if you believe the land should be without human intervention, and only an inconvenience if you are a pedestrian or, indeed,  wilderness itself. Instead of falling to sleep at night with the sibilant shush of the ocean pounding the cliffs, inhabitants quake under the roar of meaty engines. Even now Wales cannot quite reconcile its image of wild beauty with black soot, lung disease and industrial accidents.

Along the entire sea border, however, runs the Welsh coastal path. A trail that staples the land to the sea. So we turned East and headed towards the medieval walled city of Conwy.
 
It was an easy route, but I can’t say that I recommend it, even if it does epitomise the socialist clash of convenience versus aesthetic. The path weaves in and out of the rail tracks, changing back and forth between unspoilt beauty and the smog of the A55. When the traffic hits the hill, the cars tumble under the mountain through lanes of red crosses and green ticks. The walkers’ path, however, winds upwards, solo, around Penmaenbach point, emerging on the other side in a cloud of petrol fumes.

The path wanders past an arboretum of tree species, from the architecturally inclined Scot’s Pine, harbouring clutches of pine cones in the crooks of their snarled elbows, to stunted oaks and birches. Next came the dunes, awash with sea holly, gorse,  trefoil and rosemary bushes with lilac flowers. Leaning over fences, were charred looking broom twigs: their flat black seed pods fluttering in the breeze like the gnarled fingers of mummified men.

At Conwy, we had a much-deserved break, a cup of tea and a BLT. From the cheese deli below we selected a trio of Welsh made cheeses: a Haford Cheddar, a Teifi seaweed Gouda and a blue called Perl Las (which turned out to be a very sweaty, moist affair). Unrelated to Wales – we picked out a black cheddar (possibly the ambrosia of cheeses) and a soft buttery, pungent pick – not unlike brie – called ‘Roll-Right’. It looked like it had been put aside to mature by monks centuries ago and in the interim years had been dropped repeatedly onto a cellar floor. It tasted a bit like it too. Never the less, we packed with un-abandoned enthusiasm these lactose treats into our holdalls and made our way to the bus stop.

We weren’t walking back. Some of the group was dealing with blisters, others the heat, and whilst the alternative was enduring public transport we made the decision. A rural bus-stop is a unique place where one can rely on meeting the people of the liminal. Usually it is just inhabited by the young with independence blossoming and a pink driving licence still sitting on an expensive hill of experience. Or the elderly – giddy to have a free ride, but secretly, especially to the relief of their families, finally off the road. Their eyesight and reactions having long receded from the point of competence. But then there are those that make you wonder and shiver, and slide away from them along the bus stop bench, all whilst trying to look inconspicuous. You know the type: a woman in her 50’s, frizzy orange dyed hair, the brains of a particularly cunning pigeon and her overbearing friend/carer – also of an age, thinning hair, stomach hanging low over the waistband – narrating the banalities of life for the whole of Conwy to hear, despite no-one wanting to know.

Never the less, after a small mortgage was negotiated with the bus driver, and I gave a silent prayer to the Goddess Hecate; we arrived at near enough the campsite. 

On the grass outside our tent, atop a chequered picnic blanket, we laid out our small feast. We had cheeses and pink peppercorn crackers, fresh bread, caramelised onion relish, salad leaves and radishes, avocado and laverbread. We had sweet passionfruit cider and Welsh beer. We had a feast, and it was soon devoured. 

Later, as the sun started to set, I watched as a  yellow, red and blue stripped ice-cream van raced aggressively over the camping green and blared out a surprisingly bubbly version of Batman.  It can still hear it. It reverberates around my skull when it is feeling particularly empty. It was a surreal moment; the recognition of the tune almost Pavlovian. I felt like I should start barking, or drooling or running or something, but all I could do was watch. 

That night, as the sounds of the A55 filled my sleep, I dreamt I was the caped crusader. And I waded out into the misty grey sea and let the weight of my armour take me down. 

Map of UK, Conwy
PENMAENMAWR TO CONWY, WALES
VISIT DATE: JULY 2018
The coast at Penmaenmawr

Zagreb in Many Colours


I visited Zagreb in the blaze of heatwave Lucifer. The air was an intense furnace blast and for many months after I returned, all I could remember was the intensity of the air. In a zigzag of mirage lines, my memories included: stumbling through Franz Joseph Platz, drunk on 40-degree heat; lurching into museums, corner shops, bakers; and searching for cool and ice and water. It was a feeling akin to walking through toffee. I was demented with heat and all I had to wander was Zagreb.  

The view from my hotel daubed the city in Wes Andersoneqsue grapefruit pinks, aquamarine blues, and comfortable mustard tones. Communist concrete tower blocks punctuated the air space. Terracotta tiles lined the roofs, and art nouveau buildings lounged along the boulevards. I watched the citywide tableaux range out in front of my hotel window; each glass square representing a life unknown, a family crisis and a yard of dreams. It felt old-world and modern both at the same time – but it had no real grandeur. From the dotting satellite dishes to the unwieldy air-con outlets, it felt one part student village, two parts home. It was comfortable and quiet and worn.

The City of Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, was founded 900 years ago. Although as with most European cities, habitation occurred in the thickly forested past at a time when mists would swirl and wolves would howl and myths were born out of fear. It is nestled along the River Sava which is a tributary of the Danube and would have been a hallowed transport network in a land that was once wild.

Once in the city though, especially if you are not here for very long, you may entirely forget that a river runs through this urban amalgamation. Zagreb is bigger than Paris (at least geographically), but it feels quite provincial. Never the less,  it is important to remember that this is the centre of intellectual development in the region and one of the main transport hubs connecting Central Europe with the Mediterranean and South East Europe. And in many ways it feels exactly that, it has some of the food culture and cuisine from Italy; the techno, indie club vibe of Berlin; the creep of communism from its time as Yugoslavia – the war recovered from but very vividly remembered.

The day was a little underway by the time I prized my eyes open. So I sat a moment, at the window, sipping cold water and drinking in the view. I’d rather be nursing a cup of tea, but they didn’t do that sort of thing here. There are no teabags in little packets, sachets of coffee, little milk cartons and those weird, but surprisingly tasty biscuits at the Hotel Panorama. Everywhere is different and sometimes leaving behind the rituals of home is difficult, but necessary. Tea is just something I miss though.  I should really start to bring my own supplies, but I don’t think a travel kettle would fit in my tiny bag packed with Tetris like skills. So artfully squished and pulled together, it can always be counted on to incur no additional costs on a budget flight. 

I stepped out the front of the Hotel. It had the right architecture to be grand (on the inside at least) but felt like a forgotten place. Like somewhere  Scooby Doo or the Ghost Busters would come to investigate. Or perhaps the setting to an early 00’s drama; where a dour but handsome protagonist is fighting the crippling boredom of being in Zagreb. Not that Zagreb was boring. Only, the hallowed hush that had fallen upon the city, as all locals hid inside waiting out the end of the heat, now made the place seem slow and painful.

My friend and I were disagreeing – about everything it seemed. The last few times I’d travelled, I’d travelled alone and I’d developed a hard waxy shell – like a passionfruit. I liked doing what I liked doing, and I couldn’t fathom someone that didn’t love museums and their dusty quiet halls filled with curiosities and knowledge. Museums are exciting, right? Indianan Jones? The Mummy? Stargate? Museums are magic and I wanted to see them all. I wanted to learn. I wanted deep down to be a better person…maybe like the ones off the telly?

The moment I stepped out the building I couldn’t help but be aware that I might actually be cooking, but I had exploring to do and an addiction to satisfy.  A plethora of institutions were opening their grand doors and inviting me to spend an afternoon basking in their knowledge. 

My friend wanted to do other things. I’m not quite sure what those things were; we’d argue and peel away from each other at times. The arguments were born out of stress and a slowly melting sidewalk. Neither of us thought that we’d be where we were in our lives when we booked this holiday. We were both taking on new jobs and facing the prospect of moving across the country. Our lives were changing, and I wasn’t entirely sure mine was for the best. She missed her mum. We were frazzled.

But we both wanted to go to the grandly titled Museum of Illusion which is filled with half-hearted games and photo opportunities. This tourist trap is essentially a Daily Mail article with a clickbait headline paired with some selfie opportunities. Safe to say, it was nothing I hadn’t seen before, or anything executed particularly well. I don’t like to call anywhere rubbish, but this was a bit, and the entrance ticket was more than most other attractions in the area.

Of much more importance, both in terms of a sense of place and history, is the Croatian Museum of Naive art. Naive meaning untaught or self-schooled. The paintings here possess a strangely lucid quality. The sort I’d rarely seen in galleries elsewhere. They were psychedelic, dreamlike and haunting in their brutality and use of colour, but also bewitchingly beautiful at times. I bought a handful of postcard reproductions and they are now hanging from my wall. Their emotional resonance at times arrests my gaze with such force that I worry they will go ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ on me. I fear they will take on a life of their own if I look too closely.

I also stopped in at the Museum of Modern Art, where a room attendant grilled me about Brexit and tried to convince me that  a degree in textiles was very difficult to earn. I’d met a lot of angry young boys on my Fine Art course – so this was nothing unusual – but I found myself getting quickly bored. Word of warning to all of you grandstanders out there, make me laugh or make me think, don’t make me yawn.

Then there was the more melancholic Museum of Broken Relationships, which through a series of objects, grieving singletons would tell stories of heartbreak. I love people spinning tall tales and stretching out the truth for a gasp and a laugh, so in theory, this sounded like the perfect afternoon. There are some that talk with a hushed voice about the quasi-religious experience they have at this place, but I thought it was a bit self-pitying at times. It, however, was a quirky and innovative stance to curation.

Zagreb also has a tiny funicular – which some people criticise and call pointless because there is also a staircase, but I loved it because I have a massive soft spot for bizarre and antiquated methods of transport. 

There’s loads beside to see and do (other than what I mentioned).  I spent one lovely afternoon in the Zagreb zoo. It was a strangely deserted place; financially very reasonable. The whole time,  it rained and the heat began to cool. I know some people think zoos are cruel, but they are no more so than our own confined existence perhaps.

Speaking of cruelties, the Museum of Torture catalogues, across a series of small spaces, all the spikes and probes one could ever wish to inflict upon an enemy. In many ways – it’s a bit like Zagreb. Not that Zagreb was especially boring or painful. I just perhaps wasn’t having the best of times due to the whole skin cooking debacle. Or actually, it wasn’t really my skin, it was more like my lungs and my heart boiling in my chest cavity. 

And on the last day the heat broke and we crawled the bars. It was a lot of fun.  I remember playing mum and looking after some very drunk baby Australians. We rode the night trams home and my friend screamed out loudly, ‘They’re dead! They’re dead!’ But they weren’t dead, they were just the homeless and the drunk riding the trams round and round in the midnight air. Bored to death…in Zagreb.

I actually really enjoyed Zagreb, but somehow whenever I tried to write about it in the past, words failed to materialise. Even now the melancholic nature of my review surprises me. Every word is honest, but my trip was tinged with anxiety and stress. It colours a view, even in retrospect. 

ZAGREB, CROATIA
VISIT DATE: AUGUST 2017
Zagreb at Night
Zagreb Cathedral at Night
Zagreb at Night
Zagreb
Zagreb
Zagreb
Zagreb
Zagreb
Museum of Broken Relationships
Museum of Broken Relationships
Museum of Broken Relationships
Museum of Broken Relationships
Museum of Naive Art
Museum of Naive Art
Museum of Naive Art
Museum of Naive Art
Zagreb Modern Art Gallery
Zagreb Modern Art Gallery
Zagreb Modern Art Gallery
Zagreb Modern Art Gallery
Zagreb
Zagreb
Zagreb
Zagreb
Zagreb
Zagreb
Zagreb
Fish
Zagreb Zoo
Tarantula
Zagreb Zoo
Museum of Illusions
Museum of Illusions
Museum of Illusions
Museum of Illusions

Plitvice: A Paradise Born of Magic

That blue: it’s the blue of dreams. It creates flecks of white as the sun refracts; it creates shadows as it laps against the land. Furrows and ripples intertwine, and silver slips of light like stars on a clear arctic night, flash and flicker. It’s supernaturally clear surface will distort your depth perception: centimetres will turn into metres and metres will turn into miles.

This is Plitvice National Park, UNESCO protected, Eden like, with a beauty so bewitching it is like an outer-body experience. Nestled in between a few Croatian regions and near to the Bosnian border, it is a sacred monument to nature.

You weren’t allowed to swim  in the waters and I could understand why. The chemicals, the suncream, the crush, the ruin – but my God. It was like my body was screaming for water.

As you peer downwards, into its glassy pools, you find twinkling chub, roach and trout sprats, suspended at different levels in the lake like garlands of jewelled tinsel strung across the lagoon. I watched with excitement as a thick black snake, like polished obsidian, curved and weaved its way through the aquatic fry before creeping into the bullrushes along the shoreline.

Like a gymnast on a balance beam, my converses pattered down onto the polished boardwalks that crisscrossed and circumnavigated the entire park. Their slats looked as if they had been salt scrubbed and worried smooth by a stormy sea. There were no edges, no handrails, nor any limits. Paths merely tapered into oblivion and left you pitched over clear waters. And it was busy.

Sometimes I hit clear a run, and could almost sprint through that forested wonderland. At others, I was weaving and ducking like Bruce Willis in an action flick, against a ticking clock – hurtling past busybodies and babies. I was perching on the edge of stability – temping fate’s long thin twitching fingers with my presence. At any moment I felt I could just fall in – I’m surprised I didn’t see any mishaps. 

There has been much speculation over the centuries concerning how these lakes were formed. The most credible, however, is that they are the work of black magic, or more precisely, that of The Black Queen. Fantastic above all the other fairies in the dark forest, she was said to be, quite contrary to our instincts, a kind-hearted soul. Clothed in sable and soot coloured armaments, gauntlets of steel and a cloak that when shook would bring midnight across the land.

One day, she looked down on the suffering peasants of the village. They whimpered under the gold, unblinking light of Ra; watched as their fields crisped and cracked and their crops withered and paled. Drought bedevilled the land, and the only water that fell were tears, and even they were minute and salty. Until one miserable Wednesday, when the last trickle of water spluttered its way along the Black River, before finally surrendering to the sun. The people despaired. 

So she took her cloak and shook it across the land. It signalled the start, and the weather changed suddenly. The wind scattered empty water buckets with a clanging knock between their houses, stray chicken feathers and dried hay, billowed into a noxious cloud. Then upon the horizon, lined-up like the horsemen, came four enormous thunderheads. These monstrosities reached up into the heavens and plucked out Ra’s solitary, staring eye. They grumbled and groaned as they reached the valley, cracking like huge oak galleons creaking through a gale. The ground quivered as these juggernauts pushed through the forest. Sparks of lightning zapped and burnt – whilst fires and earthquakes hammered themselves into being across the land.

Until, with an enormous howl, the storm broke open.

First came the ice: balls the size of eggs. They slammed into the parched earth, wedging themselves into enormous soil cracks. Then came the rain. It tumbled down like spears thrown across a battlefield, blackening the sky like arrows at a siege – and still, the thunder boomed.

The village sat at the top of the hill; its people exposed and frightened and hiding inside their little homes, under their blankets, under their tables. Praying that what they had asked for wasn’t worse than what they already had. 

And still, the tempest blew all around them, blasting out in a wicked chorus like screams escaping from the inferno. But she was not going to solve this measure by halves. She was going to solve this problem forever. For her home would be no dessert

It rained for a week solid and the villagers did not leave their homes, as much as it was becoming quite uncomfortable. They slept, for the most part, drank cold water from buckets held out the door, or else just lay on their furs and listened to the furore. Until they woke one morning and it had stopped.

Emerging into the cool light of early morning, before the sun had risen, the villagers stared at the land around them, newly filled and carved into sixteen interlocking lakes. They lived off freshly barbecued fish for the first few months, planted their fields anew, and fattened their best breeding stock on the first green shoots of grass. Life was bountiful and they all worshipped Her as the millennia ticked on. Plitvice was born.

Rather enticingly, the inhabitants of the region decided that the majority of the lakes would be named after those that were said to have drowned in them, and not one is named in honour of the Black Queen. Perhaps she is plotting her revenge; perhaps she feels that her obligations are finally at an end; or perhaps, with a little sadness in her voice, she declares that all she ever wanted was for them to be happy.

The crystalline qualities of the water are supposedly derived from the calcium-rich rock which dissolves in the water and absorbs impurities making it clear. At least that is what the UNESCO website informed me; whilst there, in the flesh, it just seemed like magic. The bottom is apparently calcified, reflecting light, which when coupled with depth, helps to make it that blue, and its unique plant life (including mosses and phytoplankton) add that alluring green tinge to the lake.

Interesting Links: 

PLITVICE NATIONAL PARK, CROATIA
VISIT DATE: AUGUST 2017

Underneath the Plješivica mountains, the Željava airbase.

The airstrip outside the Željava airbase
The runways outside the airbase.
the Željava airbase
The aeroplane shaped entrance.
Inside Željava airbase, Croatia
The entrance – beware it gets dark quickly
Inside Željava airbase, Croatia - the blast doors.
The aeroplane shaped doors to the bunker were blown apart by C4.
Douglas C-47 at the Željava airbase, Croatia
The old Douglas C-47.
Inside the Douglas c-47 at the Željava airbase, Croatia
Inside the plane.

Deep beneath the hills of Plješivica, the Yugoslavian military dug like Tolkien’s dwarfs. They hollowed out the great mountain, creating mess-halls and assembly stations, aeroplane hangars and radar rooms, creating safety where none felt attainable during the cold war years after 1945. Željava airbase – codename ‘Objekat 505’, stretches over 3.5 kilometres underground, and it is into this dark place that I ventured.

From the outside the locale resembled a nature reserve. Looming mountains, a road overgrown and  bouncy with potholes, vegetation abundant, lush and heavy. The entrance to the cave gapped wide open and revealed a gallery blasted into the bedrock. The cavity was tattered and frayed with the living artefacts of a wild existence: dandelions, creepers, broadleaf bushes and deciduous trees, all scratching a living along the concrete boundary between runway and wilderness – between darkness and sunshine.

I went with a tour group of four other people – apparently someone had specially requested a trip to visit some of the key military sights important in the break up of Yugoslavia in 1991. But who that person was we never found out, I think the guide just liked it here, and I wasn’t about to argue with an adventure.

The cliff stood flat above me like some enormous forehead. I observed, the deep cracks that ran along its surface like the wrinkles on a perturbed mind. I wondered whether they’d crack and collapse onto our very heads as we passed beneath their scorn.  All around lay the rubble and refuse of this great subterranean airport, a dugout chasm of militaristic might. The entrance was blocked with a heap of concrete to stop people driving straight through to another country. What was once one was now two and  the five entrances opened between Bosnia and Croatia.

It’s dangerous. Dotted signs warned of mines still in the ground. The last victim reported online was in 2000. He was a mushroom picker, a Bosnian official, at least that’s how the story goes. I can’t help but think it would be the perfect place to fake an accident and carry out an assassination. Other dangers include the radiation from the disintegrated smoke alarms, and the chemical compound PCB which is lying around I gather. I don’t know where – just don’t lick the walls or take bits of rubble with you. Our guide jovially suggested that we shouldn’t worry about the mines. But the Bosnian Federation still use this ground to train its K9 units in finding explosives. I wouldn’t feel confident exploring alone and keeping my legs.

We looked up and down the concrete stretch – this was the first of two major runways, along with a three further, but smaller, taxi-ways. These were used as rapid reaction takeoff sites. I imagined the planes tottering out of the mountain before streaking into the skies.

Some estimates surmise that this entire place cost 6$ billion to make i.e. the most expensive European military instalment in history. It was rumoured to have acted a little like NORAD in Colorado, as an advanced warning base in case of nuclear war. Built from 1958 to around 1965, it was equipped with radar, but no nukes. It, however, was a secretive affair.

Some guy on a bike turned up and after a quick chat with our guide, accompanied us inside – I imagined he felt a little bit safer with a crowd. A wrong turn could take you to Bosnia and land you facing  the border police and a fine. But to my mind, this might be the least of your worries. I suspected smuggling by unsavoury characters. Regardless, you should always let officials know before you go nosing around. At Izačić (the border) we had already informed them of our intentions. On the way there, we drove past a landscape littered with burnt out buildings, pocked with bullets and empty of inhabitants. People not having the will nor the money to move back.

To this day, each former Yugoslavian country has committed to not having a military based within 15km of their border, so this ruin will last forever and it grows more unstable every year. The war in Croatia was slightly outside my time, coinciding with the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991. I knew of it, but not much about it. I trace outlines on the map; trace the old borders of Yugoslavia, The USSR, find Kosovo, find East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Follow these old borders that still fall well within living memory. I considered the echos that touched decades of time, all fluttering out of that epicentre that was the Second World War – the second apocalypse – because we hadn’t learnt enough lessons with the first.

Inside, the silence was total, as was the dark. Our guide handed out some torches which needed a bit of shaking to stay awake. And even then he didn’t quite have enough, but I wasn’t bothered. I needed two hands for my camera.

The tunnels were all aeroplane sized. I pictured the shadowy hush their wingspans above me might have created. Then I thought about the soldiers and saw that stereotypical image – the same one used in films about the Napoleon war to those on Iraq – of men sitting around on crates, smoking and playing cards. Except in this picture they were called things like Ivan or Radič.

I read later online, that the mess hall could cater for up to 1000 men for 30 days should the mountain be hermetically sealed i.e. should it be forced to withstand a 20 kiloton nuclear warhead (the same size as the one that hit Nagasaki) which it was made to do. The place had an underground aquifer, and fuel was delivered via underground pipes from the nearby village of Bihać. It was a fortress.

We walked out of the second entrance past where one of the blast doors had been C4’d out of existence. Eyewitnesses say that the cavern smoked for the next 6 months – like the last cold breaths of a dragon. But I bet this place must have felt safe in its heyday. Wearing a stiff starched uniform, hunkering down under the protective hunches of Plješivica – safe in the belly of the beast amongst the two full fighter squadrons of MiG 21 jets. Nowadays though, I wouldn’t go too deep; the structural integrity of the base has been severely compromised by the bombs.

Outside stood an aeroplane – a Douglas C-47 shipped over when Yugoslavia still had good relations with the Americans. I hauled myself into the carcass of the plane. My fingers flicked all the switches still attached to the cockpit; moved the levers up and down. Still slightly afraid that the burned-out wreckage around me would shudder into life and take me away.

THE ŽELJAVA AIRBASE, CROATIA
VISIT DATE: AUGUST 2017
The Bosnian/Croatian border
Plješivica mountains
Mine warnings at the Željava airbase, Croatia.
Inside the Željava airbase, Croatia.
Inside the Željava airbase, Croatia.
Inside the Željava airbase, Croatia.
Inside the Željava airbase, Croatia.
Inside the Željava airbase, Croatia.
Inside the Željava airbase, Croatia.
Inside the Željava airbase, Croatia.
Plane at the Željava airbase, Croatia.

Boiling on the Adriatic

Split is a city flung onto a piece of rocky coast along the Adriatic sea. It was established by Diocletian, one of the few Roman rulers to drag himself up from the gutter. He worked his way up from a relative nobody to head of the Roman Empire. Leap-frogging from infantryman to commander of the cavalry, to Emperor of Rome. 

A friend and I stayed at Solin (his birthplace) in a very well maintained Airbnb, a short bus ride away from Split (his death place). Diocletian was one of the first Roman Emperors to retire (rather than die on the job) although it is said, he was strongly coerced into doing so by the ambitious young Galerius. He lived out his retirement in the palace, tending to his vegetable garden which sounds rather lovely, but I wonder how much of his later years felt like exile. 

Diocletian’s legacy was arguably something which he could look upon with pride. He is said to have stabilised the Empire by defeating its enemies at the edges of its borders. This sounds quite bloodthirsty to our modern sensibilities, although I’m sure it would have been respected as an act of necessity at the time.  And that was nothing compared to some of Diocletian’s far darker acts. Some of which were deeply criticised and unsupported even a few millennia ago. Take one winter’s night in Nicomedia…. 


The feast was over and Diocletian sat in his chamber poring over some of his latest correspondence. The merriment hadn’t buoyed his spirits, but it had left him with an overwhelming feeling of contentment, which he was desperate to hold onto. And because of this, he didn’t want to sleep. He feared it would wash away all that he had achieved throughout the day. So he read instead, on the couch, blankets around him, and a fire lit before him. 

A chill was in the air at Nicomedia and he was waiting for dawn. Waiting for a time when his psyche could find no more excuses to hold onto consciousness; until the heat of the magisterial sun would burn away the sentimentality of the night; until the voices inside him hushed. But for now, he was content to watch Selene pull the moon across the sky. Content to watch the night; feel it, even, upon his skin. 

‘May we speak?’ A voice grated upon his revere. He inclined his head to see Galerius standing upon the threshold of the door. The guards were clearly visible, but never the less, given the hour, Diocletian didn’t feel too comfortable.

‘We may,’ said Diocletian. ‘Although, if you don’t mind being quick – I want to watch the moment Helios harnesses his chariot.’

‘We have time yet,’ Galerius replied, apprising the night. ‘It is a straight forward matter.’ The younger man was a formidable force. He captivated the men with his enthusiam, but he was no Diocletian. Diocletian was filled with the authoritative gravitas and choler of a true ruler.

‘Your requests are rarely simple when examined,’ reapproached the elder with a knowing look.

Galerius cleared his throat and seemed to straighten his shoulders.  ‘I think we need to extend our ideology.’

‘I am not an ideological man,’ said Diocletian, a little peeved.

‘I mean the Manichean sentiment,’ said Galerius.

Diocletian frowned. ‘Those heathens at Alexandria?’ he asked, puzzled. Galerius nodded. Diocletian roughly remembered having most of them killed, burning their scrolls and slaving the rest. 

‘But this time, we need to rid the Empire of  Christians,’ interrupted Galerius.

‘I see,’ said Diocletian, carefully. ‘That’s the one with the crucified gentleman and the cannibalistic rituals, isn’ it? Well, I am inclined to agree…’ he said, taking a deep breath. ‘But it will cause more trouble than it’s worth. Before it begins to salve, I mean, and I don’t have the appetite for it, if I’m quite frank.’

‘When has that ever stopped us,’ he hurried. We’re planning for the future not appeasing!’ 

Hard work isnt something to shirk.’

‘I do not need to be reminded of my own position and responsibilities. Ruling isn’t just a matter of doling out rule – regardless of how much you want it to be – people, you see, have minds of their own. And most are ingrates and short-sighted fools. But even fools can take up arms.’ Diocletian took a breath and stared deep into the fire’s flames. ‘We will ban them from offices of importance and the barracks.’

‘I think it best if I prepare the gallows,’ replied Galerius.

Diocletian snorted in laughter, surprised at how quickly Galerius escalted the issue. ‘They’re good slaves; leave them be with their indignities.’ He shifted in his seat around the fire. ‘The Gods need to feel their importance, Galerius, and they can only do that when there are others that show them how high they stand.’

‘They will feel great knowing their enemies are in the afterlife!’ replied the younger.

‘Their enemies?!’ answered Diocletian, outraged. ‘They are our enemies – and but ants to the Gods. I have agreed as much as I wish. Their suffering will be a warning against betraying the rights and traditions of our hallowed pantheon.’

‘But surely they must be destroyed in their entirety!’ cried Galerius. ‘We do not want to risk the anger of the Gods.’

‘Let’s ask them then – shall we?’ said Diocletian. He turned around to look out through his window and realised that day had dawned and any semblance of contentment he had once felt was bleached from his very being. ‘To the temple of Apollo,’ he said curtly, nodding his head. ‘Awake the Priests. We’ll do this now.’

Without replying Galerius turned and left the chamber. And after one sad look at the rising sun – Diocletian left also. 


Christians of the empire did not fare well under the rule of these two xenophobes. Within the next few weeks the newly built church of Nicomedia was destroyed, all scriptures burnt and assets seized. Seems Apollo was in favour of the destruction of this relatively youthful religion after all. 

Following many unnecessarily gruesome murders – the pair then fled the city. Their edicts were largely unsuccessful at the time and did not have much longstanding effect on the popularity of the religion. Diocletian’s name, however,  became synonymous with evil. In Serbian mythology, Diocletian is even seen as a Satan like figure. One who, apparently, stole the sun from the sky and was only tricked into returning it by St John, a Christian hero. 

Here in Spilt, his Palace stands centre stage. Tracking steps underground, we traipse through some of the main halls. Hidden in these cool subterranean spaces are stalls and eager vendors. We follow the tourist trail onwards – looking at art, postcards, bunches of lavender, plates and soap. All things the minimalist in me shuddered to imagine taking home. My souvenirs are tickets, photos and memories only.

It was hot. I’m glad we’d turned up for a wander in the evening, but then so did everyone else; so tired they were of spending the daylight hours under the aircon. 

Split was Venitian for many years, and looking at the architecture (especially now I’m home and whilst not having to wipe sweat out of my eyes) I can very much see its influence upon the buildings. The ruins were a play of light and dark upon small alleyways and wide squares, and it very much reminded me of the watery playground of Venice. It felt safe, even if it was just too hot to commit any crimes. 

I spotted a solitary Roman soldier haunting the streets, out of time, but looking to hustle some kunas from tourists. Was he Diocletian in his youth?

SPLIT, CROATIA
VISIT DATE: AUGUST 2017

Climbing the Pike

The Lake District Mountains in Mist
The view in the Lake District
Derwent Waters, Looking Towards Keswick
Towards Keswick
The Lake District
Almost there, across the scree.
Summit of Scarfell Pike
The summit

‘You going up t’ Pike?’ questioned a cheery middle-aged man with a geography teacher aesthetic to him.

‘Is it far?’ I asked.

‘Just over there.’ We squinted into the distance and spied Mount Doom.

Armed with some tuna sandwiches and a Snickers bar, and labouring under heavy breaths, we plodded onwards. We hadn’t planned to climb the highest mountain in England. Whilst I could see it on the OS map, it seemed to be several pages away – maybe we’d gone further than we thought? The lines and squares on the map were clearly marked, one square for every kilometre, but effort and distance are very easy to mix up when you are walking vertically.

‘We’ll see you at the top’ he said, and marched off in the right direction as I was still spinning my map so that it correlated with the world before me. He was hiking with his young daughter: she was about eight and scrambled with the dexterity of a mountain cat. I watched enviously as their genetically akin skinny legs clambered into the distance.

‘Ach, it’s only over there – let’s go,’ I said. My sister and I both agreed we’d made it this far, it was still early and the weather was good. Afterwards, I realised (upon further Google inspection) that I was following the 15km route from Seawraithe which starts in the Borrowdale valley up to the Pike – possibly the 2nd most difficult, but commonly attempted route. This route is a lot quieter than the walk from Wasdale – which, I hear, is a lot busier due to the shortness of the trek and the lovely National Trust carpark marking its beginning.

The mountain stands at 978 metres. It’s not towering, but it feels important. I used to think English mountains were a bit of a joke compared to Scottish mountains, but Ben Nevis is only an additional 367meters and Snowdon an additional 107m. Which in the grand scheme of things isn’t that much extra – unless of course you are from the Netherlands where the highest mountain, isn’t even a mountain, but a hill of 322.4 metres named Vaalserberg. It is so minimal that the additional 40cm seems to be noted with glee.

A quick glance at some other European countries suggests that the mountains of England are actually not too shabby when compared to places like Denmark where the highest point is Møllehøj at 171m, or Estonia where Suur Munamägi sits at 318m. If you play your geographic cards correctly, you can be quite an accomplished mountaineer without much effort. You could easily boast about how you have climbed the highest peak in numerous counties. If you’re an island hopper, it’s worth noting that the highest point in the Maldives is five metres, or even more horizontal is the three metre height achieved on the Ashmore and Cartier Islands. You can be very much hashtag-winning with a quick saunter in such places.

Growing up in Scotland, I’ve rather naively thought that the entire world was mountainous, and that the Fens (my new home) was an anomaly – an aberration on the norm, a world of flat. I hated the monotonousness of a land without hills, and never appreciated it until I started to drive. Then there was an infinite amount of love for long flat roads and minimal effort.

But, back to the mountain. The summit was shrouded in mist, but the rest of the hillside was open to the sun – the occasional cloud freckling the moors below with shadow. The last final scramble lay ahead of us, over a dusty, boulder-strewn ascent, that moved underfoot and caused large granite lumps to tumble downwards into the ether.

My sister baulked. She could see the drop either side and decided it was too precarious. She waited on a springy patch of moss whilst I went to see the top. I was greeted by an opaque dome of white mist which encircled the summit and the central cairn. Up there,  was a busy scurry of about a hundred people who had chosen to eat their lunch without a view. So I quickly joined my sister back on the moss and we ate our lunch watching sheets of fog run like silk over the rocks.

The trudge back was laborious, but the scenery no less magnificent. Yet, I can’t help feel, like Venice, this is a place that now lives in my memories only. It’s fleeting in its wonderment; shifting in graces; statutory in significance.

SCARFELL PIKE, CUMBRIA, ENGLAND
VISIT DATE: SEPTEMBER 2016

Histories from the Lakes

The Lake District, Forest
The Lake District, Forest
The Lake District, Lake Dewent
The Lake District, Borrowdale Valley
The Lake District, The Borrowdale Valley
The Lake District, Lake Dewent, Lake

Last September, I packed up the car and headed off to the Lake District in Cumbria. The National Park immediately struck me as a tamer, greener version of Scotland. Not that I wish to undersell its sublime qualities; it truly is the land that inspired Wordsworth. But this week’s story is not about  William or Dorthory, it is set in 2000BC, or there abouts, (with a few liberties) and tells the story of Holtfevar and Revan two Neolithical members of the Stone Axe Cooperative. 

The frosts had come early that year; their crystalline arms embracing the forest floor in their sugary grip. Holtsfevar dreaded the big freeze. The time of year when the river would turn solid an arm-length down. When the horses’ hooves would clatter into solid puddles, causing spear like shards of ice to ricochet.

 With every step Holtsfevar took, the verdant salad of leaves underfoot cracked and shivered. But the birds were not singing their requiem mass yet, and the heat of the sun would soon clear the slippery potholes from the mountain roads. Today was not winter yet.

Never-the-less, Holtsfevar did not like travelling in these temperatures. He imagined the horse careening off the track into the lake below – bodies rolling in the inky abyss – sinking in silence.

Revan rode beside him quietly, unaware of Holtsfevar’s racing mind.

Both men were hiking Westward towards the coast with their unfinished shipment of stone axe heads. At the sea, the craftsmen would polish the stones with quartz-sand, and the ships would then ferry them to the four corners of the sacred isle. They’d go north to the bear clans, and their kingdoms of ice and pine; south to the cave-dwelling cheesemakers; and east to the sheep farmers and their great oak forests.

The journey wouldn’t take two weeks, but Holtsfevar didn’t like it. Winter was near and he should have been hiding indoors huts, cutting wood, and telling stories. He pictured home, this wife, his smiling daughter. But they didn’t have enough food for the winter, or at least not an easy one, and this shipment could be exchanged at the port for dried grain or salted fish or even livestock (valuable as they were).

‘We should bed for the night,’ said Revan squinting into the setting sun. Holtsfevar grunted in affirmation. The two, quite wordlessly, set up camp and built a small fire to roast their rabbit upon. The men then set snares for the next day and checked their bread supply. All was good.

I’m not happy with this,’ said Holtsfevar, the orange flames of the fire causing shadows to fall heavily across his face.

‘About what?’

‘Winter will be here soon – if we are lucky we’ll return just before the long-night feast.’

‘I’m not afraid of a bit of ice,’ said Revan. ‘I’ve got my furs and my woollens. What I’m scared of are the others.’
   
‘The other what?’ replied Holtsfevar, frowning.
    
‘The others – the ice ones. The ones with milky bellies and eyes like red currants. The ones that come down from the mountains to eat our children.’

‘Horseshit,’ exploded Holtsfevar in a cloud of laughter.  ‘I live in those hills – I would know if we shared this land,’ he said exasperated.

‘You wouldn’t,’ said Revan. ‘And they might not live in our valley, but were not in our valley anymore.’ And Holtsfevar had to grudgingly agree – they weren’t.

That night, Holtsfevar dreamt of the ice-men. He dreamt of their moon-white skin, needle-sharp teeth and bulging red-currant eyes. He dreamt of their hungry mouths clamping onto the wriggling flesh of a living human. Their meat-screams the dinner choir serenading the banquet.

Holtsfevar woke with a start; the fire had burnt down to the embers and a thin trail of smoke reached skyward. There was no frost this morning – there was also no Revan.
  
Holtsfevar usually had to awaken Revan with a shout and a push – but today there was merely a hollow in the grass where his body had been.

The stone hunter felt cold with worry.

‘Revan!’ he shouted. ‘Revan!’ But he knew instinctively, that Revan had stollen the axes. There was no sign of the horses – or of the cart.

And then Holtsfevar realised his dilemma; he could either return to the village, or track the cart into the forest. Would he physically fight Revan for the shipment? 

What was that noise? Holtsfevar froze. It has sounded like people rustling in the blackberry thickett – too small for a bear, too inept for a wolf, too big for a fox. Perhaps Revan was playing a trick? Maybe it was the ice people. He ran angrily through the bracken towards the brambles and scattered some blackbirds towards the clouds.
  
Perhaps he just imagined it. Revan had driven him crazy.
He looked forwards into the deepening forest, following the wagon marks in the soft soil – and turned and looked back home. He imagined the cries of hungry children – he imagined his hungry children and knew he couldn’t return empty handed. 

* * *

A few days of pursuit and still Holtsfevar had not gained on Revan. The horses had made his job easy – but Revan must have walked through the night with a flame to have gained so much ground.

By now the snow had started to fall and Holtsfevar was afraid.
  
Up ahead, on the breeze, he caught the whinnying cry of  horses – several whinnies in fact. The horses sounded in dire distress. It was just typical, Holtsfevar thought, to run the horses at this pace, in his weather, with their load. They must have slipped and fallen. Again that image of a lake rose in his mind, of falling through the blackness, and the cold heavy press of water against his skin.

Holtsfevar picked up the pace. A few moments later he heard Revan cry in pain – and whilst he still hated him, the sound of his kinsman so injured filled him with panic and altruistic thoughts.

As he got closer, though, he heard the cheers of other voices.

He crawled up the escarpement and peered over the edge into the eddy of snowflakes. He could see Revan in the snow, stripped of furs. His hands and arms and legs were tied together, with each rope knotted to a long branch so he couldn’t sqiurm.And there they were – the ice-men, with their bulging redcurrant eyes and  milky bellies exposed to the cold. 

This was a celebration – whether of a successful hunt, or the first snow, Holtsfevar didn’t know but they were gleeful and hungry looking. At the tree line some of the ice-people rolled great drums towards Revan. They stood their barrels up and started to play a terrible rattaling tattoo.

Another cheer went up, but it wasn’t like the summer chorus of the villiagers from the valley, this was deep and glutteral, haunting and horrible, like their vocal chords had been bitten and frayed by a cruel God.

The ice-men picked up Revan’s small body and held him over and above their heads. Their Chieftain approached – her rank surmised from the crown of bones she wore on her head, and the mangled yew staff in her hand.

The drums suddenly stopped and they lowered his  body  so that it was right in front of her, level with her chest.

She twisted the staff deftly and sank the sharp end into his fleshy torso. Blood gushed out, and the Chieftain lent forward. She held her eager mouth against the font.       

All the while,  Revan screamed.

Suddenly chieftian whipped back her head. Exposing her grimace and the sticky lines of blood oozing out of her mouth. She cried triumphantly.

In unison, her trusted breathern descended upon Revan with bone knives. Creating great nicks, and pressing white lips to his bleeding body; they drank with a furious thirst.

Holtsfevar turned away, the screams floating away on the darkening air, the drums renewing their vigour, and ran and ran and ran and ran, and never returned.

The Borrowdale valley was an important site of commerce in Neolithic Britain as it produced a great number of stone axe heads. These were transported as far afield as Scotland, Yorkshire and Cornwall, which highlights the quality and importance afforded them. Whilst I am not completely sure of the logistics of the Neolithic transportation system out of Borrowdale, there really isn’t any way to know for certain what people did and didn’t do. I will also admit that, as far as I have heard, there was no trouble with cannabolism in the area, although the practise had been observed in neolithical societies in Cheddar (south-west England). Ice-men, probably, didn’t exist. 

Links
If you are interested in reading about neolithic sites in the Lake District click the link. 

PLACE OF INSPIRATION: THE LAKE DISTRICT, ENGLAND
VISIT DATE: SEPTEMBER 2016