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Sunday, 19 August 2012

A giant pachyderm? Or a flea? Hard to tell in the rain.

It’s been a rum old weekend, as they say in Yorkshire. I phoned my daughter in London an hour ago and she told me it was unbearably hot down there, with the temperature around 32 C (90 F). Ha! Up here in the north-east it was 17 (63). And wet. The day had started off rather well, being 24 (75) and sultry when we left home at midday. Pleasant enough, but already the sunshine was giving way as a layer of high, thin cloud spread across the sky.

We were heading for Wolsingham, in the Wear valley, planning a two or three-hour hike before calling in at a farm where our friends had promised us as much rotted cow-muck as we could fit into the Ford Fiesta.

Not long after we set off along the Wear - and as we paused to photograph the steam train that runs from Bishop Auckland out to Stanhope (above, and below) - the rain had started in spits and spots.

By the time we approached the top of the hill, within sight of our favoured picnic site, it was somewhere between steady and heavy. Our destination was a place we have named ‘the elephant trees’. And here’s why.

From a certain angle - probably not this one - the little stand of beech trees does assume the outline of a certain pachyderm. Well, roughly speaking. I have to admit that from this shot you might mistake it for a giant flea, or a couple of mammoths, nose to tail. But that’s all beside the point. The elephant trees are rather special to me. It’s where I chose to spend the night of my birthday a couple of years ago. A. had asked me what I’d like to do for a special treat and I replied, ‘Sleep out under the stars.’ It’s something I started doing occasionally about ten or twelve years ago - and I am glad to say that she finds it a vey agreeable way to spend a summer’s night. (I could add that we also slept out on 31 December 2008, in a gale-force wind… but I won’t.) So we packed our sleeping-bags, our stove, a couple of steaks and some wine, and went up there in the early evening. Of course, after we’d eaten and bedded down, it rained, but only gently. And we had our bivvy-bags to keep ourselves more or less dry, so no harm done.

It’s a hugely uplifting experience, sleeping in the open air. I should say a spiritual one. It has given me two outstanding memories. One is of a night high up in the Pyrenees, close to the Spanish border, when a full moon seemed to settle on the top of an adjacent ridge and roll along it. The other is of an April night on the North York Moors. We’d lit a fire down by a Loskey Beck, cooked our supper, then taken ourselves up onto the heather so that we could watch the stars come out. I remember awaking about six next morning to find my bag white with frost, and illuminated by a fat moon; but by the time the sun’s rays had reached us, about eight, we were perfectly dry and rather cosy.

I recommend sleeping out, just now and then. Try it close to home. That way, should you have a bad night, you’re not too far from a hot shower and a cooked breakfast. You soon get used to it, and you soon get a little more daring.    

We arrived at our friends’ farm around four to find them in the kitchen, warming themselves beside the four-oven Aga with a strong smell of freshly baked cakes hanging in the air. ‘Too hot to cut,’ was the verdict on those, sadly. So we settled for a cup of tea and a chat, then went and filled eight or ten large plastic sacks with well-rotted fold-yard manure before driving home to eat a dinner of casseroled lamb with potatoes, broad beans and peas from the allotment. My kind of Sunday.

Tomorrow I have to apply myself to work. Last week was a lesiurely one, and we can’t have too many of those - although I did gather together details of all income and expenditure for the last tax year and deposit that with my accountant. I am hopeful of a more or less tax-free year. I feel I deserve it.

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