Kotor: a vertical walk
‘But the fact is that writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and so unexpectedly. If they remained locked away, they would become heavier and heavier as time went on, so that in the end I would succumb under their mounting weight. Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some way blind us to life… And yet what would we be without memory? We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere never-ending chain of meaningless moments, and there would not be the faintest trace of a past. How wretched this life of ours is! – So full of false conceits, so futile, that it is little more than the shadow of the chimeras loosed by memory. My sense of estrangement is becoming more and more dreadful.’
(The Rings of Saturn, W.G Sebald)
Accepting autobiographical convention, this is a very brief history of events leading up to my first meeting with a literary society, in the wild. I am writing this only a few months after splitting from my long-term girlfriend. And as such, it has become an attempt to leave behind misery, weariness, everything feeling dead, an attempt to quantify the past somehow and apologise, without sentimentalising history. Travelling back in the main to one afternoon of walking in particular, completed only a few days prior to my initial contact with the original literary society; The Edward Thomas Fellowship. It was so strange that it was still fresh in my mind whilst wandering the semi-mythical South Country with them the following weekend – along with something that I tried to keep under wraps, which I will begin by stating here: I am not a walker. Well not in the rambling outdoorsy sense. Like everyone else I dislike being cold and damp. And I never learnt, or got taught how to walk in such a way; how to appreciate the great national parks like a poet. To clarify: I had probably been for about twenty real countryside walks in my whole life, before the summer of 2008. Of these twenty walks, the majority were with my parents in the Lake District. Even then, most of the day would be spent staring through the car window, sat in a twee little coffee shop leafing through guide books, or on occasion stood beside a lake, usually Windermere, admiring the view out across the great literary landscape – Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter, Wainwright and their texts mutually encountering, enacting, unsettling, transforming, interacting, inventing and reinventing the Lakes for a kid from a cotton town. Thinking back now, going for a walk as a child actually involved very little opportunity to stretch my legs. At most we would walk for a few hundred metres, taking two or three hours to do so – once you include a refreshment stop. Planned walking routes which looped over hills and through trees, were very rare. I vaguely recall a moany walk which gave on to a beach somewhere. It was a line walk of roughly a mile, climbing a knot and descending to the sea. Beyond that memory fails me. I am assured though by my parents that we walked reasonable distances on occasion. When I left school, as is common, these excursions ended altogether. Leaving me all alone with some guide books, stories and poems, to crack the country code and find out how to walk vast landscapes properly. Needless to say, there was no attempt made to do so and venture rural. I resolved not to leave the safe confines of the city again, in order to walk. And have never owned a cagoule, or some walking boots, or a stick. I did not need to in Manchester. A city haunted by its faded past. The place where it all began: smog, chimneys, factories; industrialisation, capitalism. Remnants still exist: a shock of red brick here and there, a few canals, a number of now renovated mills and a number of ruins in Castlefield and Ancoats, and the imposing civic architecture along Oxford Road and Deansgate. While south of the city centre are Rusholme, Fallowfield, Didsbury, Levenshulme, Burnage, and Longsight and rows and rows of terraced housing. And beyond the concrete collar, the orbital motorway, sits Hulme, cut off from the city for years. The Arndale still squats hideously over Market Street too. More or less the Manchester W.G Sebald witnessed, all lurking behind the recently fitted stone and glass facade. Derelict industrial edgelands, ruins, ignored meadows, guerrilla forests, the city parks, urban nature, found via ginnels, back streets, buildings, culverts, tunnels, and canals, as I criss-crossed the city on foot: stitching my psyche to its fabric. Places dotted around the city where I would go for bits of time: houses, pubs, lecture theatres, benches, restaurants, clubs, squares, buses, libraries, cafes, shops, bars etc. Usual haunts. There was one walk beyond the city though from that period, which I can remember well. The only walk forever enshrined in my memory. It happened a few months before I moved down south. And I was on holiday in Montenegro with my then girlfriend, who had also participated in the no rambling rule despite being from walking stock – her great grandfather was a pivotal member of a noble body of scholarly and cheerful pedestrians: The Order of the Sunday Tramps.
Montenegro. I had booked us in to the Hippo Hostel, Budva, for ten nights – about seven more than everybody else staying there. It was cheap and we had the only private room in the plain white building. Inside the room was squeezed a narrow hard bed with a chrome fan as its face. The shower room, shared by forty or so people, was opposite. Not exactly high end, but it was everything we had hoped for. The bonus was the garden; a quiet, still, little haven, which you had to climb down and in to from the road. I spent a whole day there once, lazing beneath the flowering vines, reading the W.G Sebald book, Vertigo, whilst my girlfriend, C, read Kafka. The quiescence played with the range of fleeting memories written delightfully and the next day the book was taken on a trip to the world heritage sight, Kotor, with us. It was safely stowed in the pink Eastpack – a monkey key ring dangling and guarding the zips – whilst we rattled along on the humid old bus watching the landscape slide by. It took about an hour to get there, winding along possibly the most picturesque road in Europe; skirting the edge of the Bay of Kotor, beneath sheer limestone cliffs. It was familiar scenery to me, reminding me of a youth spent driving around the Lakes. That did not stop it from being an epic and entirely different experience though. The sun helped, causing the vast bowl to glisten and blind, distancing my thoughts of Cumbria. As soon as the bus pulled in at the ruin of a bus station in the old town – desperate to cool down – we walked directly to the water and jumped off a thin stretch of boardwalk, into the crystal clear fjord like river canyon. I have always felt more comfortable wild swimming than rambling and this time was no different; my body seemingly evolved to a life aquatic instantly, leaving me free to dive down to the rocky bed visible deep below. Whilst coming up for air, I saw others mirroring my movements. We all then floated for a while on our backs in the freshwater, like a wreath of lily pads, looking up at the mysterious castle. It appeared unreachable and inaccessible for tourists. C broke the silence and splashed me a few times. She wanted to climb up to the castle that we were all inadvertently focused on. I was not so keen after polishing off three bottles of red wine the night before. To save my pounding head I stated confidently that it would be a hopeless pursuit; we’d be turned away at the gate no doubt. C swam in though adamant that we should go and transfixed her gaze on the narrow path, zigzagging upwards. Towelling off in the shallows she once again implored me to walk up to the medieval fortress. I finished bathing and paddled out but only rested for a while on the shingle, pretending to read a little more of Vertigo. After a few moments I put the book down. My mind was on the cloud castle, as I knew, was C’s still. Sitting and looking up into the heavens, we were drawn on to our feet simultaneously; we must give it a go, hangover or no hangover. The tip of the tower miles up above and the tiny flag fluttered proudly, beckoning us forth. There was no harm in seeing whether we could pass the gate in the old town, at the base of the mountain. It was midday and the sun was baking our faces, so we stocked up on loads of water – weighing the pink bag down – before attempting to sneak in.
Of course, at the gate was a sign telling us to buy a ticket, otherwise we were not to go any further. Unfortunately, finding out where to buy a ticket from, proved difficult. We wandered back into town thinking we must have missed the booth and eventually resorted to asking somebody. It turned out to be just beyond the sign itself, slightly further up the great never ending steps. A lady sat on one of the thousands of steps in the shade of a tree, a few metres below a little chapel, selling tickets. She spoke very good English and in no time at all we were on route up the mountain. With a large yellow ticket in hand, should we get stopped around the bend. A perfect line of poplar trees focused the eye forward, dead ahead, to the chapel the lady guarded. The path – flanked by a low banister of stone – was at this point wide enough to walk side by side, and talk of the increasingly spectacular view of the fjord from round the next zig or zag. We chose to walk on the rough gravel, rather than up the steps – as the slope was quite shallow – completely comfortable in the intense heat; walking hither and thither across it with ease, taking lots of photos and canoodling. I have the photos somewhere but I don’t want to look at them just yet. They will only send me into my familiar state of melancholia. Back to the mountain side: We were scooting along nicely, taking hairpin bend after hairpin bend at a fair old rate, and enjoying the sublime scene laid out before us – monumental mountains, pretty old town, clear fjord, and clear sky – when we stumbled upon the beginnings of the fortress, despite being still hundreds of feet beneath what appeared to be it. A number of half ruined stone walls converged, creating a succession of roofless cubes. We looked inside them all. In the last was a rectangular opening, it allowed us to peer over the edge at another little church. This one was in the middle of a field and had beardy horned goats guarding it, ably supported by hopping bunnies. It was the rabbit hole. The field and church had no right to be there. We were ascending a slanting staircase carved into the side of a mountain! It made no sense. Something had gone to pot with my internal bearings. I was left with a feeling of disbelief at what I was seeing, so surprising was it. Acres and acres of fine grazing land just appearing out of nowhere – a hidden plateau as smooth as a bowling green or the baize of a snooker table. I half expected a giant red ball, followed by a colour to be aimed at the pocket we stared in from. The church was a lot further away than it seemed. C did not come down with me. I continued with C and the hole getting smaller and smaller for a few minutes. Goats began to surround me though and I decided that it was all getting a bit weird. The church could house anything, or anyone, and it was no closer than when I stood at the gateway peering in. On turning back, I noticed C was no longer stood in the opening. The dark rectangle was the only feature on the great grey wall before me. I aimed for that, quickly, leaving the church and goats behind. It took some effort to reach the opening with a hand but I managed unaided luckily.
Back on the path, C was snapping away at the fjord unaware of the surreal experience I had just been subjected to. Water was necessary I recall, as my mind wandered back into wonderland. Gulping the liquid down provided scant relief from the sun, which had now been searing our scalps for almost two hours. We discussed giving up and going back down but the flag still beckoned us; two ships in the night drawn on to the rocks. It didn’t look much further at that point. So we continued to climb the zigzagging path, coming across more and more bizarre walls spreading out like the roots of a tree holding the mountainside in place. The higher we climbed the narrower the path became. And it had no banister or steps at all by then, forcing us to straddle the limestone at times. I was worried that C would fall off and crash to her death before my eyes, leaving me to find her smashed carcass at the bottom two hours later. I resorted to telling her about every single rock on the path, an arduous and dizzying task in itself, bringing on attacks of vertigo. Meaning that on each bend I would stop to take on the drips of water left from our two large bottles. We were making incredibly slow progress; baby steps were a necessity at this altitude for novices like us though. The path felt like it was never going to end, and we could continue forever, zigzagging all the way to space. But it did. All things always come to an end, supposedly, as I now know only too well. It was an odd ending though. The path did not stop its zigzagging. In fact it carried on, twenty or thirty feet above us, ascending into the clouds. But we could not follow this thread any further; we had exhausted its connective possibilities. Downhill was the only way from here. The flag was at eye level though, along with an extensive fort; releasing the child within me. I played war for a bit, ducking and diving in and out of empty rooms, pretending to shoot C. Until the sun overcame me and I had to sit in the shade, massively dehydrated and bright red. C took a photo of me. We then took another photo with the flag behind us, our big faces covering the landscape, the only people for miles. I then sat down in the shade again and gazed out at the fjord, now so far beneath us. Wordsworth would have appreciated the vast view out across the water, arced by jagged mountains, scraping the bluest sky – and Kotor looking like utopia from up high. C brought me a cold fizzy Fanta. Where had she magiced that up from? Of course, it turned out, as I found out later, that there was a Montenegrin up there in the castle. He had lugged a huge drinks cooler up the side of a mountain, in order to sell drinks to the plucky tourists who made it all the way. I remarked, once back in the old town that the pink bag had felt like a fridge. How I descended the staircase to the old town, I don’t really know. It was all a bit of a blur and was over quickly – everything crashing down around me. I had managed to get mild sunstroke mixed with waves of vertigo. Maybe I was carried down by the drinks man inside his cooler, or laid across the backs of that herd of beardy horned goats. Or maybe none of this happened at all, and we just sat beside the fjord all day reading our books and sipping on cool refreshing bottles of Nikšičko Pivo; after all I am not a walker.
Preston, January 2010