Laurus Nobilis

‘The laurel grows upon the hills

That looks across the Western Sea.

O winds, within the boughs be still,

O sun, shine tenderly.

And birds, sing soft about your nests:

I twine a wreath for other lands;

A grave! no wife nor child has blest

With touch of loving hands.’

  • Ina Donna Coolbrith, With a Wreath of Laurel

Laurus, latin. Given and worn as a badge of honour to heroes and soldiers returning from war. Also to poets, worn out from a battle with words, image and symbol. Wrestling forth figure from ground, image from imagination. Appointed officially as Poet Laureate, state sanctioned, permissible. Sneaking in the radical between the lines. The bacca laureus, a garland of leaves above the hospital door to greet and celebrate newly qualified doctors and surgeons, celebrated with bay upon graduation, hence baccalaureate, bacca laureus the laurel berry.

Sage: Salvia Officinalis

“If the sage tree thrives and grows,

The master’s not master, and that he knows.”

  • J.A. Langford, Warwickshire Folk-Lore and Supersitions, 1875.

Sage is most powerful when gifted by a friend. Purple stemmed with fractal veins running from centre to tip, increasingly dense, requiring the removal of reading glasses and squinting to count to infinity within a single leaf. Purple, the colour of kings. The King and Queen in the royal bath, Solutio est. Conjuntio in the Magnum Opus. The green lion devours the sun, the ruling principle dies in Mortificatio.

Watching a short film of Lucien Freud as distraction. He is walking the towpaths of Little Venice with a hawk perched upon his wrist. A kestrel for a knave. 2010, a few hundred yards from here. Elderly, rheumy eyes glistening in winter sunlight. Bare boughs empty of leaves. Low winter sun across the water. Oils dripping from the wall above the radiator. Pointed daggers of paint, just as a hawk’s beak to rend flesh from bone. In Egypt and the levant, Sage was brewed as a black tea. The desert dwellers would launch their hawks to hunt and spy. Falconry, the sport of Kings.

Edwin Drummond (1945 – 2019)

“Under Stanage, a Sunday in late September, 1985.  The air is kaleidoscopic with flies, sifted from the long, rain-bent grass, by sudden sunlight and a combing wind.  Through the car window the ash trees are flocks of hummingbird-green leaves: leaving. A white butterfly totters past, Icarus for a day” (Between the Lines).

He was a bit of a (anti) heroic figure to me.  He wrote his way into, out of, and all around the climbing experience and the life that goes along with it like no-one else has ever done.  I could go and on and on about just how good those stories and poems are.  I’ve been sat reading them again for the million-umpteenth time this evening at home.

Between the Lines, Frankenstein and Linda, A Grace Period, Child Woman Man, The Incubus Hills… and then the poems:

The Black Lake
(LLyn Du’r Arddu)

From the cliff
the lake waits in the cwm
for the crumbs of scree.

Holding back the monarchy of rock,
she gathers the caddis
in her lap, hikers on the skyline,
purple ravens’ wine.

She does the washing when it rains.
Hanging up the clouds for days,
swilling piss-yellow out of the peat,
pelting the sheep,
rinsing the mountains dusty feet.

Our local black hole, a bowl of plums
when the night wind comes

A choppy day: snappy
as a collie, running all over the place
splattering foam. My teeth chatter.
Skin and bone and stone and stars.

After sunset
she bites. The man in the moon
shivers all night.

The buttery look of the sun.
Lukecool by summer, there are Septembers
water won’t melt in her mouth.
Around November
– organpiping icicles –
she runs aground,
a thick, blue porthole
the rain rivets and the wind pounds…

The sun rusts
away. Days like icebergs

Whistling gleaming creaking
cracks, grass bending
wind winching
– a deep, blue roar –
reopening the colliery of the sky,
making the mountains soar

and tremble… Where I look down,
her wavy, young hair, blown
across his cold, bare stone.

(1975 – 1986)

And then there’s the all the groundbreaking first ascents and reckless expeditions up on high.

Wuthering, The Asp, Flute of Hope, Archangel, Banana Finger, Linden (controversially).  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Great Arete.  The Long Hope Route. The Arch Wall.  NA Wall (solo). T-Rex, The Strand, The Moon, and of course, a Dream of White Horses.

A Dream of White Horses

Palomino in the morning,
as the sun rose higher

they dashed, their manes on fire,
pounding their hooves on the rocks,

And smashed – we were climbing –
sank, broken, foaming…

The wind lashed them back,
combing their matted hair,

swollen green sea mares twenty hands high,
surrounded by herds

of nervous blue stallions,
snorting and champing and trampling

us under, given half the chance.
We stood by – a pitch apart –

watching the rein of our rope,
that led between the last grey overhang,

redden like a vein in the sinking sun,
And breathed again.

Their fire gone,
the black horses were drinking,

and we were thinking of a name…
Nothing had been forced – Then the tide

turned, they surged, rearing
– manes smoking white –

running, running
in the night towards us.



Stud marks

In the early nineties, sometime after I’d taken up running on the roads to kick the smoking habit acquired as a teenager, I began to venture out further into the parks and valleys that circled the city of Sheffield. Following the trails up and out onto the edges of the moors that stretched toward my family home in Manchester.

On occasion I’d be passed by a wiry runner, often stripped down to vest and shorts in all but the worst of weather. They never wore trainers, instead, thin running shoes, the soles covered in truncated pyramids, tiny ziggurats, to afford a better grip whilst flying up and down the peat covered hillsides. These Fell runners were clearly a breed apart from the joggers and the keen road runners of the City. Out climbing on the gritstone edges I’d see imprints of these shoes in the tracks and peat trails leading up to and along the top of the crags. Stud marks on the summits.

In time, I acquired my own pair and took to running the tops when the weather was poor, the crags out of condition or to clear the cobwebs after a Saturday night. After stumbling across an organised fell race, a hundred or more runners snaking out of the Burbage valley I made enquiries and ended up joining the local club, Dark Peak Fell Runners and heading out on the moors on a Wednesday night wearing a headtorch and bumbag under the tutelage of two experienced and authentically bearded runners, Andy and Chas.

They lent me a book once. It was actually a photocopy, the original being out of print for many years and available only to the wealthy or enthusiastic collector. This samizdat edition, stapled in one corner, had passed through many hands.


“Stud marks on the summits” A history of Amateur Fell Racing by Bill Smith was the first authentic account of this most esoteric of British sports. I’ve always wondered whether the title came to him a flash of inspiration or took years of distillation to filter out the words. A mini haiku that means much more than the sum of its parts.

Last week, in a remote part of the Trough of Bowland, rescuers from the Pennine MR paused for a moments silence to pay their respects to the man who’s body they had just recovered from a peat bog. Bill Smith, aged 75 had fallen into treacherous ground and been unable to escape whilst out on a run across Saddle Fell. When he failed to turn up as a marshall at a local fell race the alarm was raised and several weeks later a walker found his body.

RIP Bill Smith.