After driving for four hours on the road north, there is a brief glimpse of a hillside on the horizon which, at this time of year, is the one thing I am waiting to see. If the light is right and the weather kind… and if the heather is in bloom, the shadowy hilltop wears a faint purple smudge.
It doesn’t take much for this smudge to be hidden or indistinct. Without it, I have to drive another half an hour before seeing the first possible patch of heather. On days like this, that means an anxious wait. I usually have just one chance every year to see the heather in full flower.. and this was it. I had missed it last year, seeing only the tail end of glory and was really hoping that this time, the timing would be right.
Ever since I moved away from Yorkshire, first to France and then to the south, the moors have called me home. In spring, when new life is beginning to break through the winter pall…even though the moors seem to change little at that time of year… and again mid-August.
It is a curious yearning. There is beauty enough in this land to heal any heart, without purple hills, but if you have heather in the blood, no other sight fills you with quite the same joy and sense of homecoming. When you are far away, it tugs at your heartstrings and I held my breath as I crested the hill.
I was out of luck. Low clouds and racing shadows obscured the view of the distant hills. I would have to wait until I rounded the corner below Gardom’s Edge… and there, the dull, faded purple was a body blow. Either the heather had not yet reached its full flowering or I had missed it…and it looked like the latter. The extremes of weather this year have thrown the flowering out of its usual pattern. I would see no vibrant purple hilltops, no seas of colour…and I was devastated.
It rained all the next day and we had meetings cross-country. The following day, I had an unexpected day to myself. A day when I had absolutely nothing to do except rest, potter and read, with no clocks to watch, no-one waiting and nothing at all demanding my attention.
It was odd, because I had said only the day before that I couldn’t remember the last time that had happened, at least, not without me first having to be at death’s door. And it was weird. I am so unused to being free of all duties, responsibilities and time-constraints that I barely knew what to do with myself… until the sun came out and I went out to play.
A little warmth had dried the sodden heather. It was definitely not at its best and hilltops that should have been brilliant with colour were a dull, reddish hue. Even so, this is a landscape I know and love… and it is never less than beautiful. I took the hidden backroads that are usually empty of all but a few walkers, even in summer, and drove out towards the Snake Pass that links Yorkshire and Lancashire across the Pennines.
It is a road I love to drive, being full of twists and turns that lead up from the valley onto the highest moors and back down again on the other side. There, I would turn around and drive back. There are few places to stop, but I know them all… and each one unveils a vista very different in character from the rest. There are green vales, high moors, silver streams and tumbling waterfalls… and, when the season is right, whole hillsides covered in heather and perfumed with honey.
I had to laugh at myself. Only desire and expectation were responsible for my disappointment. I had focussed solely on the heather and forgotten the beauty that surrounds it. How could I possibly be disappointed when I had a day to play in such glory?
I drove on, stopping here and there to contemplate the view, drinking from a stream whose golden waters taste of home and memory…and found swathes of almost perfect heather on sheltered hillsides. It felt as if I had only needed to realise the lesson I had been offered before the gift was given.
Expectations narrow the parameters of hope. Expectations restrict the possible to a mere fragment of what it could be, leaving disappointment to become almost inevitable. Hope is expansive by nature…it takes in as many possibilities as we will allow and, if we let it blossom, we remain open to wonder. Once again, the land had been my teacher, reminding me to focus on a wider picture… to be not just grateful for what was, but to revel in it. And once I had been reminded, I lost myself in joy.