There is a stripe of mysticism in me. No matter how much I argue with it, fascination with the esoteric, with things unexplained, remains. My explorations of such subjects are cautious and cynical, refusing to believe in or subscribe to anything in particular. Yet still, there is something and I remain unsure as to what exactly that is. Perhaps it is just an ancestral connection to the old ways. At least, this is how I explain my increasing impulse to mark the Solstice with as little bullshit as I can muster – living back at the co-operative, I am again amongst people who say things like ‘I identify as a rainbow warrior’ without a hint of irony, so I may be off-kilter.
With the days lengthening dramatically, I was drawn North again, back across the county line to Duddo Five Stones. Feeling bereft of meaningful countryside and opportunities for swimming in Durham, I wanted (relatively) clean rivers and country (relatively) unravaged by urbanisation and industry, so I aimed for the low ground of Northumberland.
Taking the now familiar A1 through Newcastle and then the long winding fork towards Wooler, there was a bright June sun warming the world from huge northern skies. It feels rare for it to be warm up here, so it was a joy to be outside, the Solstice was blessed this year with the weather. En-route I had made up my mind to try the mighty border-river Tweed out for swimming, and this had me ending up quite naturally at Coldstream, just along the road from Wooler.
The world seems palpably different across a border. In the span of a sluggish, peaty and rather forbidding looking river everything was resolutely Scottish; the accents in the Co-op, the old fashioned gold-on-red pub signs, the font on the signs outside offering en-suite rooms and sky sports, a chippy from 1987 (menu unchanged) all said I was somewhere else. There is something very un-trendy about the high streets that Scots towns seem to share, even the architecture – grand neo-classical facades interspersed with bleak pebble dash and double glazing – seemed definitely Scottish.
I wandered about for a while, and I think I can vouch that the town’s principle attraction is the Tweed, running lazily around the town’s ankles as it does. I watched the anglers and looked for a possible way in to swim. After finding nothing remotely enticing I procured some ancient scampi and insipid chips and returned to the safety of England on the opposite banks and I again looked for swimming spots. Again, it was not fruitful, all I found was a meander that was slow-moving enough to be swarming with flies, shallow accessible only through Gunnera (which I am not actually sure about but have garbled warnings in my mind about the sap being unpleasantly caustic?) and bramble. Thus I was defeated by the Tweed.
Happily, as I cut back south through the expansive agricultural lands of Northumberland, I found the River Till instead. This beauty of a river rises in the Cheviots wanders through the lowlands and eventually meets the Tweed, just east of Coldstream. One of the villages it meets on its journey is called Etal, and in this tiny, prim little place, past a ruined castle, was as perfect a swimming spot as I could have hoped for. A large picnic green, from which a weir reaches out and forms a small but relatively deep pool.
English rivers in the height of Summer invoke some odd pastoral resonations in me. Perch, trout, and carp rise from the cold, slow, green water, mayflies and dragonflies hover and dip, swallows dart, beetles dive and willow fronds drift. Perhaps it is that Cornwall doesn’t really have rivers like these – ours flow shallow and fast from moor and then quickly become estuarine – but now and again I feel a longing to see, sit by and swim in the peculiarly evocative inland rivers of England, enveloped in green, watching the river-life and here I got exactly what I wanted.
Tempering this bucolic idealism though is the knowledge that our rivers, though much improved, are still vastly polluted. Agricultural runoff, pesticides, sewage, household waste, chemical pollutants, plastic, invasive species, and general rubbish enter all of our waterways at all times, choking life and depleting biodiversity. Swimming in our rivers is one of my favourite things, it gives a sense of freedom in a land of laws and warnings, but the onus is also on us to know that they are threatened.
Swim I did though, and the pinching temperature of the Till quickly took my mind to other things. As I recovered and made my way upstream against a slow current, watching the swallows take the spindly insects over my head, each one haloed by a lowering sun, I wondered about just how fucked we are…is it as bad as it seems? Worse? Better? When are we going to find out? In time? Out of time?
After slowly warming up, I followed the lowering sun a few miles north to Duddo with these questions. Alas, I was not the only one who had the urge to spend solstice amongst old ones. The lane, from which the path to Duddo starts, was bunged with large and expensive cars. I was admittedly slightly disappointed but I reasoned this away by telling myself it is an odd thing to frown upon other people who are doing exactly the same thing as you.
The path to the stones is only a mile or so, but it cuts through incredibly vast fields of wheat, still young and green at this time in June.
After a short while, there was only unbounded monoculture, eerie and impressive. Every stalk the same as the next, countless square yards of exactly the same thing. I imagined being the size of an Oil Beetle in this immensity, endlessly wandering through monotony, I suppose that would be purgatory.
The unnatural yet natural endlessness of it is a bizarre thing. Dreamlike, a half memory, an infinity of blandness.
After not so long, the stones appeared, crowning the wheat, and mingling amongst their mass were silhouettes of people.
The people that greeted me, quite warmly it has to be said, were not what I was expecting. It was mostly a large party of upper-class folk, with a veritable squadron of black labradors (immediately indicating guns, hunting and therefore in all probability, a good deal of land). They handed me a plastic glass of prosecco and carried on laughing and talking away in very unvernacular accents and generally creating a quite agreeable atmosphere. I chatted with another outlier, a photographer from Leeds, and we wondered if perhaps they were going to hunt us peasants through the wheat after sundown in some pagan, cultish homage to Theresa May.
It was a particularly spectacular sundown. Unfortunately, all of my photographs were shit. So you’ll have to imagine an immense sky over immense fields, stretching far out over the Borders into Scotland. The pale gold, turning pale pink slowly turning into an ever-darkening purple-blue.
The stones themselves are a massive presence, heavily eroded and oddly shaped. They have a friendly and magnanimous feel, idiosyncratic, much different from the Cornish granite circles. Further, they sit in a ten-metre radius of wild meadow, conscientiously left by the farmer upon whose land they reside, a welcome oasis of heterogeneity.
I did not linger long after the crowds left, the only people left was a canoodling couple and myself. So I walked back through the fields in the sharpening air, still light enough to walk. I was satisfied as I lay drifting to sleep beside the Till back in Etal. It was a trip that provided exactly what I hoped of it.