Off duty…

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.

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Great Expectations..?

It had been a month since I had last been in the north and, as I took to the road once again, there was the familiar frisson of excitement that always runs through me as the journey begins. This time, however, there was something more… a longing that hovered between fear and anticipation. Last time, the heather had just begun opening its petals… and we had enjoyed a month of unusually hot sun. Would it still be in bloom?

The moorlands that I love are where the heather flowers. Most of the year, the moors are brown and gold. When the bracken unfurls its fronds, they glow with a vivid green… and when the heather blossoms, it paints whole hillsides with its distinctive hue; the air is fragranced with honey and the land wears its soul, at once regal, soft and earthy.

The road led me through six counties and a change of season. In the south, the trees still wear the deep greens of midsummer. Further north, and the touch of ochre dapples the leaves… barely visible yet but assuring me that autumn is not far away. Wildflowers still bloom, vivid against the dry stalks of gilded grasses and clouds of downy seeds follow the breeze in search of a home.

I love the autumn, and I feel in tune with the change in the air, as my own seasons turn with those of the year. But, for once, I hoped autumn would stay its hand, just a little while longer… just for the heather. As I round a bend near Bakewell, there is a far-distant hill that gives me my first glimpse of the moors. When, at this time of year, there is a sunlit streak of purple, my heart lifts and sings. This time, there was only an unrelenting smudge of brown and for a moment I felt near to tears.

Perhaps I was wrong… maybe it was just the dark grey clouds that robbed the hills of colour. But no, my next glimpse confirmed my fears… the best of the heather was over and I would not see it in full bloom this year. For a moment, the disappointment was all I could feel… and a wry acknowledgement that I was being ungrateful. I almost carried on driving.

Instead, I turned the car up towards Curbar Gap and found a place to park. I had an hour or so before I was meeting my friend in Sheffield… and although the heather was over, I love the moors. It is a place where the earth sparkles with quartz from thousands of years of wind and rain whipping the surface of ancient stone. A place where the cobwebs of the journey and the tatters of my disappointment could survive no more than a moment in face of its beauty.

Only expectations lead to disappointment. I have been blessed by past summers… I had seen the first buds break this year. I let the wind blow away my silliness; I need only be grateful for the beauty I have seen… and for this moment… and enjoy my hour amongst the stones of the high places of the moors that I love. I let disappointment go. I have seen enough heather to bring me joy for a lifetime. To see it just once would be enough to imprint it forever in memory, and yet I have seen it bloom for more than half the summers I have lived. I have walked in it, slept in its fragrance, laughed, loved and learned within its misty haze. I can call it up in my mind’s eye and paint the mountains purple. If I close my eyes and conjure a vision of some personal heaven, it holds the perfumed bluebell woods of spring and the fragrant heather of summer.

And yet… there was heather. Not the great, glorious swathes I had hoped for, but the last, tenacious shreds of beauty, sheltering in the lee of the stones as the wind whipped over the Edge. I walked between the gritstone boulders, drinking in the distant hills and the green of a landscape undaunted by drought. Stern iron skies reached down to embrace the earth and, in that moment, there could be no finer place to be. I was content.

The land is a wonderful teacher. Had I succumbed to the disappointment engendered by expectations, I would not have walked the land here, nor been open to its beauty… nor the heather nestled between the rocks.  As I turned to retrace my steps to the car, a rift opened between the clouds. A stray sunbeam touched the hills below me… and where the sunlight melted the shadows, there was one brief flash of glory that lit the land for me… and the last of the heather.