Walls, Walls, Walls

…and only plants know how to climb them.

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These are the bones of Pickering Castle, a watchman of the north for centuries. Today it rests on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, flanked by a market town also made mostly from stone.

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It’s almost symbiotic, the connection between humanity and rock. It shelters and guards us, while we craft it into new purposes. But it does not always need our hands to build walls. There are other, much older edifices, and those watch the North Sea.

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The cliffs at Whitby are of Jurassic age, and dinosaurs and crocodiles sleep within them.

Even without fossils, their patterns catch the eye.

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An invitation to walk onwards, to learn more lessons of the walls.

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Dagger in the Clouds

Matterhorn: king of mountains, definition of mountains, the raw heart of a mountain after ice and erosion have stripped everything superfluous. Standing high, monstrous pyramid of unbreakable gneiss.

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Switzerland: home of mountains. I’ve been needing to come back here for a long time. Even the train from Geneva painted alpine through the windows, pure white ridges and their epaulettes of clouds, cut in pieces by high towers of bare rock. At their feet are lakes as blue as gentians, and meadows that remind the rest of Europe that modern agriculture does not have to mean environmental death.

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And so, into the Mattertal valley, on a cog railway that clings to the narrowest of ledges between mountain shoulders and a canyon that plunges to a milky glacial river, criss-crossed by stone bridges that make you giddy even while seated on the train. But, for certain, there is only one mountain, and rounding the last curve of track it greets you, a dagger pointing above the station to the stars.

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The Matterhorn is irresistible to humanity. Flanked by higher peaks, yes, but none so perfect, none so tyrannical. It is easy to imagine the terror of early travellers across the 11,000 foot Theodul pass, shadowed to the west by this highest of triangles. Early mountain people speculated that the summit held a city of the dead – unreachable, and mystical.

But not everyone was convinced that it was beyond mortal man. It was my own country that supplied some of those who first scrambled up there – in a time before crampons, GPS or headlamps. Edward Whymper survived that day in 1865; four of his party did not. The rope that broke on their descent now lies in a glass case in Zermatt. It is hardly thicker than a human finger.

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Today, most people who climb the Matterhorn do so under the watchful eye of highly experienced Alpine guides. The mountain ignores them, shouldering its glaciers and dazzling the valley just as it has since humans learned to count time.

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As Luna rises over the forests of Monte Rosa’s flanks, it is time to reflect with a map and ponder tomorrow’s hiking trails.

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Not going too close to the king of mountains. But its presence adds a royal intensity to the path.

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There is only one mountain, and this is its realm.

Roots of the Mountain

Huge areas of England are hollow. Hard to believe, looking across mountains capped with snow and heather, lined with dry walls and wandered by idling sheep. But there is so much more beneath.

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Britain is, for its size, the most geologically diverse area in the world. We have collapsed volcanoes, cliffs that crumble amongst dinosaur bones, and chalky hills that support an incredible diversity of flowers. Beneath it all, a new and exotic landscape awaits.

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The Pennines are England’s backbone, running from Derbyshire up to the Tyne Gap. But like real bones, they are not solid. Water has scarred them, carved them, painted them with ghosts of lost rivers on the ceilings of caves.

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Derbyshire has a sparkle about the edges. It is almost the only place in the world where Blue John – a type of fluorite – occurs. Some is still mined and turned into jewellery, but other specimens are left in the rock for visitors to ponder.

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It is old, very old. It was here when the abbeys of Yorkshire were full of human life.

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It will remain here as water whittles the hills afresh.

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A quiet witness, like the snow that is transient in the Dales.

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