Over the hills and far away


I’m not going to mention the ‘c’ word. We all understand these are unprecedented times, so suffice it to say I appreciate we’re all going through the mangle at present. As I write this, I’m sitting out on our patio, the temperature having reached the late teens. The sun is shining, a robin is singing its plaintive song from a hedgerow, I’ve got a glass of red in one hand and my first havana of the year in another. The tobacco’s a bit dry if I’m honest, despite having replenished the water in my humidor box on a regular basis, but I’ll take what it has to offer gratefully. It’s a time to be reflective and if current events have highlighted anything, it’s the need to take stock, view things from a different perspective and offer a message of hope. So, here goes …

Led Zeppelin have always been one of my favourite bands. Somehow, the stars were aligned when Jimmy Page drew the likes of Robert Plant, his mate, John Henry Bonham and the multi-instrumentalist and arranger John Paul Jones together. Every one of their first six albums could arguably be considered a classic but, if I had to choose one as my ‘desert island disc’ it would be Houses of the Holy. The third song on this disc is ‘Over the hills and far away’. A number of the lyrical lines start with ‘many have I …’ and there’s one particular part of the stanza that says, ‘many dreams come true and some have silver linings, I live for my dream and a pocket full of gold.’ Another reads ‘Many times I’ve gazed along the open road.’ I’m not sure exactly what was going through Robert Plant’s head when he wrote this, but the words always conjure up a sense of possibility with me. When I first heard them I was in my early teens and the future held a host of possibilities that varied from the improbable to the downright impossible — discover my latent superpower to gain admittance to the current Marvel group of choice, get discovered for my amazing lead guitar prowess, become a pilot or tour the world documenting wildlife programs — just like David Attenborough. More often than not, my dreams just consisted of exploration, discovering what the secret corners of my native Cumbria and its myriad landscapes held.

Listening to the song the other day took me back to a story which captivated me as a youngster called ‘The tale of Pigling Bland’ by Beatrix Potter. The nineteenth century author lived only a short distance away from me in the Lake District, a place called Sawrey. I loved the stories of Squirrel Nutkin, Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck in particular. Pigling Bland was a slightly different kettle of fish. I’m not sure I read the story all the way through but I was captivated by the author’s pictures that accompanied the story, and I’d look at them again and again, particularly these ones:

They show Pigling Bland looking into the distance at Westmorland (the place of my birth) and longing to go there because he believes he will find the market … his version of Robert Plant’s pocket full of gold. My mother used to point out that the ‘distance’ was a long way away. To a young mind this ‘distance’ was an actual place you could arrive at, which confused me somewhat, because when we took our regular trips to relations in Yorkshire or the Berkshire Downs, I and my brother would ask the usual infantile question: how long before we get there? My Mother would say, ‘Not far, you can see it there in the distance. This confused me because I thought The Distance was in Westmorland! It’s funny how we can fixate on a word and think we know the meaning, only to have our preconceptions turned upside down when we later find the true definition of the word.

Fast forward to the present day, and I was out walking (something I’m doing more and more of during these times of isolation) up one of my favourite hills, ‘The Ridge.’ On a clear day you can see to the borders of Scotland. It looks a bit like this:

Iphone pictures never seem to capture the grandeur of the vista. Down there in the foreground is a pine copse we used to call the ‘Wild Hamster Wood’ when we were young. Somehow, wild hamsters were to be avoided like wolves, according to my father who accompanied us on that particular trek — a rare thing indeed. I always wondered what was on the far side of those woods. Now, with the intervening years and growth of trees, land slippages and what-not, I imagine what I would find today would be very different from that day forty five years ago.

I guess I’m still searching for what lies in the distance in terms of my writing and imagination, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never find Pigling Bland’s ‘market.’ Then again, he didn’t either. The story ends with Pig-Wig and himself running away from a ploughman and the reader is left to speculate on the final outcome of Pigling Bland’s adventure. As to the fate of his brothers and sisters who got carted away in a wheelbarrow and cart at the request of their mother — well, suffice it to say Ms. Potter weaved many a dark tale.

Funnily enough, the Pigling Bland story recites an age old nursery rhyme (or variant):

‘Tom , Tom the piper’s son, stole a pig and away he ran!

‘But all the tune that he could play,

Was ”Over the hills and far away!”’

Maybe Robert Plant, Pigling Bland and myself have a lot more in common than we originally thought!

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