by Ben Myers
The cottage sits in a small village in a cleft in the land. Its position gives the impression of a small boat amongst rolling hills and open moorlands that rise and fall like great green waves around with the changing of the light.
I am here to seek solitude – and to finish off a couple of writing projects. A surprise prize win brought me here at a time when it was much needed; a time when the book business couldn’t be less interested in dark novels about rural life in those corners of the north. Thank god for benevolent literary charities, then. Thank god for independent publishers.
The village has no amenities. It is seven miles from the nearest shop, post office or pub, thirty from the closest train station. There is no television or phone signal, but there is an internet connection. The sound of water shifting over river stones just yards away provides all the music I need. There are others houses in the village but many seem to be second homes not often in use. Some nights I step out into the lane and look at the nine other houses on the row in darkness, their chimneys smokeless. Only the rectangle of light from my living room picks out a yellow patch of life on the frosted ground.
Though I am in Scotland it is not the Scotland of the glorious Western Isles or dramatic Highlands, nor are there any lochs across which to observe the morning mist rising and twisting, but the border country of the Lammermuirs (from “lamb’s moor”) whose soil is soaked with the blood of generations of battling clansman contesting the invisible changing boundaries between two countries. Down the coast and over the border at Lindisfarne, Christianity was born. But is nevertheless beautiful. The sky is huge. The moors are full of red grouse and the managed pine plantations that patchwork the moors thrum with the sound of pheasants.
I have a theory that solitude and silence will become the chief currency of the future, as near-necessary as water – and just as nourishing. Modern media might keep us interconnected, but the global conversation is relentless. What we will increasingly crave – and find difficult to achieve – is, I suspect, silence and solitude. And space. Space in which to reflect, observe and remove the masks we wear daily. In the future everybody will be anonymous for fifteen minutes.
I slip into a routine of walking and writing, walking and writing. An hour of one followed by two of the other. I explore woodlands and moors and valleys that have been carved by Ice Age glaciers. I see lone chimneys where remote cottages once stood. I watch hares sniff the warm spring air and I dig up a brutal animal trap, discarded in the Victorian age and now rusted and impotent, its sharp jaws locked forever shut. I feel uneasy as I see fen traps set on poles laid across burns to catch anything that cares to scuttle across them. Watching a badger sett I see a dog emerge backwards from it, its eyes rimmed with red dirt as it blinks into the daylight. How long it has been down there I don’t know. It flees when I try to approach it.
My own dog provides company and an excuse to go places where walkers do not go. Because unlike my regular haunts of the Cumbrian Lakes, the North Yorkshire Dales and the Pennines where I live, people just do not walk around here. I see no-one but a man trimming furze on the fell. A quad bike across the moors. One angler up at the reservoir. That’s over the course of a week. The driver of every car that passes waves.
My cultural intake during my stay seems to further enhance the experience. Without forethought I find myself reading Thomas Firbank’s classic 1940 nature book I Bought A Mountain and watching films like Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac, filmed in a castle on Lindisfarne, and Ben Rivers’ Two Years At Sea, a stunning cinematic portrait of a man living alone deep in the woods of Aberdeenshire (and indirectly inspired by one of my favourite isolationist novels, Knut Hamsun’s Pan). I finally listen to a copy of Bon Iver’s debut that I find in the house, only because I heard it was recorded in a remote cabin.
Such voluntary solitude and silence does strange things to you. Anxieties are either amplified or they abate and Radio 4 stays on all day (appropriately Scottish independence is under much discussion). After many days of no human contact thoughts become focused and clear, though the two backpacking Nepalese gurkhas who I meet wandering around the village seem a little surprised when I practically drag them into the house for tea and conversation. I find myself bidding for pointless things on Ebay, the impulse to spend and consume deeper-rooted than I realised. My girlfriend visits and I am grateful. She has her own work to do and our routines converge. The evening meal and the building of a fire becomes the day’s focus.
Only when something goes wrong does this beautiful remoteness suddenly become a foe and the landscape takes on a darker hue. And so it is during the second (or is it third?) week I manage to slip sideways off a rotten tree trunk under which my dog had chased a river rat, and land on a spiked stump just where my right kidney is. It hurts. Given that I only have one I am concerned. My body goes into shock; I take to my bed. I call a local GP for advice and he groans when I tell him where I’m staying. “We call that place ‘God’s Forsaken Us’” he said, neatly rhyming with the (actually very beautiful) hamlet’s name. We run through a series of checks and a further conversation with NHS Direct confirms that I am be sore but fine. Six weeks will see the bruising disappear.
Two days later as I hobble out with the dog I see the woods differently. Each gnarled root or stump is a potential pit-fall, each algae-green sheep skull or keen-eyed hovering hawk a reminder of death being close by – always. The fattening pheasants that strut across my path are unaware that come August they will be moving targets for wealthy city folk.
But then the solitary white weasel that I see picking its way across boulders in the first real sun of the year reminds me that hope always springs eternal. The book is finished and e-mailed to my publisher. I arrived in winter during a storm of powdery snowflakes and I leave with the sun on my back and snowdrops lining the roadside, red grouse exploding from the heather as I pass by.