Land & Nature / Walking Through Midsummer

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Journal notes, Little Asby Hawthorn, June 17, 9.25pm: Grass dancing over limestone. Sunbiggin Tarn has taken on the colour of washed-out heather. From our tent we see for 360 degrees: Eden Valley, Alston, The Howgills and the eastern Lake District fells. Distant rain in curtains, coming, going. We are at the first of seven trees. We have closed the door on the house and all the commitments that typically keep us in place: parenthood, meetings, an attachment to comfort. Tomorrow, we will set off on a seven-day walk. It’s 34 kilometres to the next tree.

Our long walk across the Lake District, marking the long days of midsummer, took us not between summits, but between seven trees. Rob and I have been visiting these trees in all weathers, night and day as part of ‘The Long View’, a two-year project collecting images and stories of the trees and their environments. The trees are spread from east to west like a constellation, the paths between them spanning a distance of almost 120km.

We have been getting to know these seven trees through repeated visits to each one in turn but we wanted to cover the ground between them to get a feel for the land – its highs, lows, woodlands, moors, lakes and rivers. We decided to do this during midsummer for the best of the year’s light. To walk such a long distance, carrying all our gear and camping at the end of each day, would be a challenge to us both. But it wasn’t just the personal challenge that lured us – walking between the seven trees gave us the chance, step by step, to become more in tune with the land they inhabit, slowing ourselves down more and more, day by day. There’s a beautiful, gentle sense of freedom in this, a kind of sublimity. Even so, there were times when we questioned our decision to walk between 15 and 34 km a day, with average ascents and descents of 1000m, carrying heavily laden rucksacks – my bag weighed over 20kg, Rob’s was close to 40kg.

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Journal notes, June 20: Yesterday we arrived at the Troutbeck Alder in driving rain. Our spirits were low and our feet were soaking. Seeing orchids and tormentil in the grassland barely summoned a smile. For hours it had rained, and our feet were feeling the strain of our heavy loads. We put the tent up, dried it out as best we could and made camp. Got in and stayed in. It rained all night, relentless. It’s 7am now, it’s still raining, and the discussions have begun. Do we carry on? The challenge is tougher than we thought it would be. Our bags are heavy, our feet are sore and if we carry on there’s another ten-hour walk ahead of us. But it’s not all bad. The act of walking with a heavy load is one that demands a lot of the body and asks less of the mind, and from this comes a lightness, a semi-emptiness so that thoughts do not get in the way of the physical experience of being in contact with the land. We decide: we will continue.

Seven days in the fells, simply walking. No roof but the sky, air always fresh, bodies engaged, minds on the basic task of putting one foot in front of the other. We looked closely at trees. We marvelled at small bugs and at the variety of grasses, at the movements of clouds and the breathtaking views across hills that are ruffled like giant knuckles, and land that is marked by ancient stone walls. On Midsummer’s day we were on top of Helvellyn, the second highest peak in England’s second highest peak, being buffeted by a fierce wind that drove temperatures down to 2 or 3 degrees above freezing. The valleys, though, were hot, and the long days meant we were released of pressure to rush

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The walk held a kind of magnetism – the draw of the tree ahead and the presence of the tree we had left. And this long stroll has granted us a new way of knowing the land, measured and memorised now in footsteps and gradients, birdsong, weather and views, and in the feelings, conversations and thoughts we’ve had along the way. Through it, we’ve gained a deep appreciation of our own and the land’s vitality, and the simple pleasure of slowing down, and taking each moment as it comes. We called the walk the ‘Light Walk’ as we were walking through the year’s lightest week, but on reflection there is another kind of lightness that came with this long stroll, and it is this that will spur us on to do the same again.

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The seven trees are featured in The Long View – a two-year project of walking, photography, writing and art installations. The Long View exhibition is at Grizedale Forest Gallery from June 21st – August 31st 2017 and will be touring the UK in 2018. Read more here.

Words by Harriet Fraser, Images by Rob Fraser

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