I’d probably be about fourteen when I first heard of Mirkwood. It was on a walking holiday in North Yorkshire and as we entered a forestry plantation the chap who was leading us said ‘this always reminds me of Mirkwood.’
So I asked what Mirkwood was and he mentioned ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ and other things and somehow there was magic hung around the name.
I’d be fifteen, perhaps sixteen, when I inveigled family into buying me ‘Lord of the Rings’ for Christmas. I read it in three evenings! Indeed on one of those evenings a young lady approached me with other plans and I confess I was so far into the story that I stuck with the book. Perhaps if I’d taken her up I’d have been writing in a different genre.
Still, life goes on, time passes. Early this year I’d been looking at the map and had seen what seemed to be an interesting walk, down a path from ‘Little Tesco’ to the Abbey, then follow a path which criss-crosses under the railway to Dalton. Then via ‘St Helens’ (No not the one with the Rugby Team), along Rakesmoor, down through town to Morrisons, along the docks, and out along the old line and home. It’s not an outrageously long walk, fifteen miles tops, but it never happened because I never got a decent day to do it in. It wasn’t a walk I wanted to do in the rain, and this year has presented us with little else.
So today, after feeding round and doing a few bits and bobs, I grabbed a sandwich for lunch and set off. It wasn’t what you’d call beautiful weather, but there was some blue sky and it almost certainly wouldn’t rain. Admittedly I was going to run out of daylight before I hit Morrisons but I knew the last bit well enough and it was a path with no traffic.
A good walk, I enjoyed it. But it was when I got to St Helens that I was on ground I hadn’t seen for years. I’ve never known that area well. But I’ve not been there since Keith sold up and retired. Some years before, perhaps in the late 1980s, we bought some milk quota from him. Back then you had to do some sort of tenancy arrangement where you rented land with milk quota and returned it without the milk quota. It’s amazing the bizarre hoops you’ve got to jump through to run a business when both the EU and the UK government get into full legislative mode. Anyway, technically you had to ‘occupy the land’. So I talked it over with Keith and a quiet Simi cow, who [presumably] rejoiced in the name of Clover, and her three calves, travelled to St Helens to ‘occupy’ the land in question.
The required number of weeks later I arrived with a tractor and cattle trailer to fetch them home, our legal obligations fulfilled and bureaucratic severity of an inordinate number of mandarins assuaged. Keith had put Clover and her brood onto a ‘handy bit of land’. Some surfaces were horizontal, some were not quite vertical, but you got an awful lot of grass per ‘plan acre’ and there was always a dry spot to lie, always a damp place which had grass even in a drought year, and there was always shelter whichever way the wind was blowing. It was the sort of land which is useful to have but you don’t boast about. Anyway it was beautifully manicured by Clover and a collection of bonny dairy heifers and looked remarkably picturesque.
Today I walked past it and thought, ‘There’s something familiar about that land’. And then the memory flooded back. Except now, someone has planted trees all over it. Now looking at the spacing of the young trees in their tree guards, this isn’t going to produce the ‘Greenwood of Merry England’. No, at this sort of spacing, we’ve going to get Mirkwood.
As I continued on my walk it struck me that this sort of revelation is becoming more common. The world I walk through is no longer quite the world as I remember it. Not all changes are good, not all are bad, and some I’ve probably not even noticed. And this is in places I’ve lived all my life. Lord alone knows what I’d see if I revisited the place in North Yorkshire where I first heard of Mirkwood. It’s probably been clear felled and replanted by now.
Yet, whilst the world I live in refuses to match my memories of how it should be, Mirkwood itself remains as magical and as mysterious as it always was. I’ve got to the age where parts of Tolkien’s Middle Earth are more real than places to the other side of my home town.
Perhaps here we hit the core of what it means to be a writer. The Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe is more real for many people than the modern American city of the same name. Perhaps we ought to be careful about the worlds we create, as we get older we might end up living there.
Oh yes, and before I forget, Happy New Year.