Tuesday 7 August 2018

Walking stories by Dawn Finch

I would say that the question of where we get our ideas from is one of the most frequently asked. The reason this one is so hard to answer is because a lot of the time we don’t know, and don’t want to look foolish. We can make things up (“excessive marshmallow consumption”, “staring at the moon”, “I buy them from itinerant sailors” etc) but in truth our ideas spring from all sorts of things. We have become accustomed to watching out for them, or listening for them, or just seeing things that perhaps others have missed. It would be easier to answer the question, “where did you get THAT idea from?” In fact I think that’s pretty much what we are answering anyway.

One of my favourite places for ideas is when I’m out walking. I don’t drive and so spend a great deal of time on foot. I both write and take the pictures for my non-fiction and so I am out standing in my field (did you see what I did there?) in all weathers and this does often allow other ideas to drop into my head. It’s hard to photograph and write about places like Hadrian’s Wall without some of the stories seeping into your imagination. That tiny shoe, that fragment of jewellery, the small bones found beneath a barrack-block floor… all of these things find a space to lodge in your mind and each is not just a fragment of the past, but a fragment of a story.

One of the great advantages of walking (almost) everywhere is that you see things that would otherwise not come to your attention. We talk about the wild and the great expanses of nature in the UK, but almost every bit of the country has been carved, sculpted, changed by human beings. There is nothing a human being likes more than leaving a mark, and our landscape is scarred and moulded by the humans who lived there, and we can find the remains of their stories all around us.

We know the big things, they come easy – the Wall, the standing stones, the earthworks, they are all there for us to see. I like to find the odd little stories, the ones that take a little more work to find. I will share some of my favourites with you, but if you steal them for your books I may have to come and weep my lament outside your windows. I’m not telling you where they are, because they are all earmarked for future stories.

 I know of a spring high up on top of a hill, on the footpath towards an Iron Age hillfort. The spring never runs dry, and the story says that it has been flowing since the 15th Century. Local legend says that it is the tears of a heartbroken soldier who returned from battle to find that his wife had wed another after believing him dead. On seeing him return, she dropped down dead, and then so did the soldier (that sort of thing seems to happen a lot in this kind of story). They were both buried on the spot, and the spring runs eternally with their tears.

I regularly walk out to a cairn in the forest that is on the site of an ancient trackway. It marks the grave of the chief of a band of robbers who plagued the road and allowed no passage. They would rob and murder and flee back into the forest. Eventually their leader was caught, tried, executed and buried on this spot. It remains as a warning to others who might also take to robbing travellers.

One of my favourite walks along the coastline takes me past the remains of a hut built into the rocks on the beach. It was once the home of a French sailor who deserted not long after the First World War. He hated life in the French Navy and so when his ship docked in Plymouth, he legged it. He took up an alias, and set off on his travels. He must have seen a lot of the coastline as he made his way north from Portsmouth to the far north of Scotland. There he stopped, and slowly began to build his new home out of anything he could find on the beach. He lived there for thirteen years until he was driven out by a local landowner claiming ownership of the beach. He tried to hand himself over to the Navy, but was locked up instead.

Just three stories all found in the same weekend, now I suppose I’d better write something. Maybe just one more walk, there’s that ancient woodland where the trees are supposed to sing…

Dawn Finch is a children’s writer and librarian.


Ann Turnbull said...

Lovely post, Dawn - thank you! I'm also a non-driver and walk nearly everywhere, and yes, I too find that my local environment - where I've lived for more than forty years - is full of story ideas. It also gets me outdoors and connected to nature (writing is such an indoor activity.) All I need now is to learn how to manage increasing arthritis in my knees. Uphill is okay, but downhill is difficult - and there is very little flat ground around here. Devising routes that are almost entirely uphill or flattish is one way of keeping the brain going, I suppose.

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H said...

Great post. I never know what to say to people when they ask me that question. 'I hang out with a lot of thieves, organised crime overlords and special forces soldiers' never seems to be the answer they're looking for! :-)