Monday, October 26, 2020

Dodd Wood - and the paths we follow

Derwentwater from Dodd Wood

Dodd Wood is an unassuming tump on the western flank of Skiddaw in the English Lake District. Alfred Wainright in his guide to the Lakeland Fells deemed it a whelp of its loftier neighbour but was otherwise kind in his assessment of the forestation that's turned a forgettable also-ran into something more distinct. These days it's managed by Forestry England, the bright and breezy rebrand of what for years we'd known as the Forestry Commission.

Not that there was any sparkle in the sky this morning - the rain so persistent that the higher summits were out of the question and even a trip round town would have required a level of cajoling that only another whippet owner would appreciate. But as the clouds lifted and the downpour eased, somewhere in the recesses of my mind sprang a memory of this little hill and its sheltered paths.

Dood Wood's network of trails is approached by the road that hugs the shores of Bassenthwaite Lake. Forty years ago, fresh from sitting my A-levels, I'd stayed near here for what turned out to be one of those coming of age holidays where the girls fall out and the boys are pulled twixt and tween in a way that lays bare the naivetes of youth. On our first night the group split into those who'd expected single-sex sleeping  and others keen to take advantage of the opposite. 

And so it was that the next day my girlfriend and I set off up this little hill, her crying like this morning's downpour because her friend had called her a slut and now hated her - and me as well because she'd said as much...  It was a lesson for her in the fragility of friendship, and for me in the rectitude and reproach that's a scratch from the surface of those whose greatest fear is themselves. 

And I remember thinking, as we climbed under the clouds of the day, that you can never truly know anyone else...

More than forty years later my view on that hasn't changed, and I still look for solace in remote and wild places.  Except that description isn't quite complete, for the indifference of the landscape is as much an affirmation as consolation.  Mountains - even small ones like Little Dodd - are a means of connecting to the secular truth that no matter our closeness to others - however in step they may seem - we walk our paths alone.

The route to the top is a three-mile circuit, following the green arrows of Forestry England's new designated trails.  Along the way, they've strategically felled sections to reveal views of Derwentwater and the Newlands Valley.  As we stopped for a breather, I reeled off the peaks in my mind: Causey Pike, Barrow, Cat Bells...  friends from years long past...

Whatever happened, I wondered, to Julie and Ian, Claire and Karen, the two Johns ... and poor Dave, who'd only come with us to climb yet found himself tangled in the knots and nooses of a teenage squabble?  

The summit slopes have been cleared to reveal a prospect that was hidden back then... 

What roads did they take; where are they now;  and do they ever, like me, feel the pull of coming full circle?

None of this is maudlin on my part.  I'm joyful to be back. The life paths that led me here could not have been planned but were less steep and rugged than they might have been. My youngest son strolls with me up the final climb, Jane follows close behind - we're joined by a couple with a cocker spaniel called Jarvis which make us all laugh... the sun shines a ladder through the clouds.

My girlfriend came with me on more and bigger hills that Little Dodd - we married in our early twenties and though parting five years later I don't regret the routes we took. I hope she feels the same. For we can't undo our past and to imagine as much is to deny that it leads to where we are now. The choices and judgements we make - for ourselves and of others - are one-way junctions; there's no going back - we can only come through. 

The green arrows guide us to a narrower path. Our whippet is unsure of the bracken but follows me regardless. I've no recollection of the way which momentarily troubles me, until I realise how ridiculous that notion is - it's autumn not summer, the trees are new growth - it's been forty years for goodness sake!  

As we near the car park the trail turns towards Bassenthwaite's shore. Across the lake is the mountain known as Barf; there's a white painted stone on its screes that locals call the Bishop - I've known that for forty years too and yet never ventured that way. 

Perhaps, I should see where it leads...

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