The Book of Gaddings and of How it Manifests Itself in my World
Gaddings Dam is a swimmable reservoir on top of a hill above Todmorden. It (in)famously has a beach on its eastern corner - a tiny triangle of natural sand formed by Gaddings’ consistent westerly winds. Because of those winds, the beach is generally the least comfortable place to be. Nevertheless, it remains the most popular spot. People enjoy sand in their face and wind in their socks from time to time, and I get that. To the south is a wilder edge that the cows love. It’s sweet when they visit, and I leave that area to them. Most of the rest of the reservoir is surrounded by steep stone walls, but a few spots here and there allow for good access to the water, protection from the winds, and just about enough space to change and have a cup of tea.
Earth underfoot, Fire overhead, Zephyr blowing, Water surrounding, Aether circulating - Gaddings on a sunny day aligns you with the classical elements. It’s initiation, ritual, circumambulation and pilgrimage. With Tod being in Todmorden, you can’t always expect the Fire … but four out of five ain’t bad.
This book isn’t about the dam, it’s about my relationship with it. It’s a love letter. We all need love in our lives. You might have a strong emotional bond with another human being.
I have a puddle.
Narcissus, naked, kneels at the dam’s edge, transfixed.
‘You’ve got me wrong’, he says, ‘I don’t love myself, I loathe myself.’
‘And anyway, I’m not staring at my reflection. I’m just waiting for you to go in first.’
I first learned about Gaddings Dam soon after moving to Todmorden in February of 2018. J, one of the first people I met in Tod, mentioned that he regularly walked up to the reservoir for outdoor swims.
R: How’s the water? It must be freezing?!
J: It is cold, but I wear a wetsuit. Not everyone does, but if you want to properly swim at this time of year you’ll probably need one.
R: How long does it take to get there?
J: From the centre of Tod it’s a lovely 40-minute walk, give or take. You can park opposite the Shepherd’s Rest if you have a car, but it doesn’t save you all that much time. From the gates there are three main paths up to the dam. Most people walk straight up the hill, which is the fastest route. But if you have more time, the other walks are great too. The path to the left takes you past an old quarry, with great views over Lumbutts and into the valley towards Hebden. The path to the right gives you views over Walsden and takes you past a historic rock called the Basin Stone. You can’t go wrong. Eat a banana and charge up that hill!
[a few months later, at the Lion]
R: So, even in winter you go in without a wetsuit!?
P: Even in winter. We have to break the ice sometimes.
[this, at that point of my life, seemed rather excessive behaviour]
P: You build up your tolerance first with cold showers, or a bath is even better if you’ve got one. It only takes a few weeks for your body to get used to it. You’ll soon wonder if all that puffing and panting isn’t just amateur dramatics. Start cold, and then go hot afterwards if you want to.
R: Yes, but… but… WHY?
P: Cold water immersion is meant to be really good for you. It has all sorts of health benefits. Have you heard of Wim Hof? He recommends a cold shower every day. He’s also got a breathing technique you might find stimulating. You should look him up on YouTube. He’s an interesting character.
[Why not? Why not? Why not?]
After a few months of cold showers and breathwork, I had my first dip in the dam in March. I lost my breath when I first submerged. I froze up, and had to come out quickly. After collecting myself in the sunshine, I returned for a second dip. It was easier, and I was able to stay in longer. Afterwards, I felt amazing. I was humming, numbing, buzzing and full of content excitement.
These days, even though it’s the middle of winter, I hardly feel any shock at all. There’s always a slight shudder upon entering the water, but my mind is steady, and I keep control of my breath.
The feeling of content excitement and buzzing joy remains as strong as ever.
I'm a paragraph. Click here to
Gaddings is like a well:
used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
filled with infinite possibilities.
It is hidden but always present.
I don’t know who gave birth to it.
It is older than Tod.
- Tod Te Ching (translated by Stephen Mitchell)
add your own text and edit me. It's easy.
Three great sages read about Gaddings Dam - the ‘highest beach in England’ - on the Manchester Evening News website. On the next sunny day, the three sages drive up from Whalley Range to Todmorden. As they wind their way up the narrow Walsden roads in their rented Ford Ka, the first sage, famed across the heavens for his patience, starts losing his shit. While pulling over - again - again - AGAIN - to allow a car to pass, he exclaims, ‘Why are so many people here!?’
‘Because we are here’, replies the third sage.
Eventually the sages find a ditch to park in a few hundred metres up the road from the Shepherd’s Rest. They carry their inflatable dinghies, umbrellas and cooler boxes to the gate and follow the pilgrim crowds up the hill. As they climb, it starts raining heavily, and horizontally, in the strong winds.
When they finally reach the ‘beach’, the first sage is deeply disappointed. His experience is sour. He sees litter everywhere, he sees people acting without respect for tradition and custom, and he sees a hundred people crowded on a tiny patch of sand.
‘What the fuck is this? This is not a beautiful beach! It’s not a beach at all. The Salford Quays is better than this, or at least that other place we passed by … Hollingwood, was it?’
The second sage says the experience is bitter. ‘It’s our attachment to the idea of a sunny beach that causes our sorrow. Life is only suffering, and all desires lead to pain.’
Only the third sage is smiling. He leads his friends to the other side of the dam, where he finds a bit of space for their dinghies, cooler boxes and umbrellas. He undresses and slips into the dam, saying, ‘That which offers no resistance can enter where there is no space.’
In the waters I’m always at peace. There’s nothing between you and the sky, which expresses itself in a wondrous variety of moods and forms; it shimmers and dances on the dappled water. Today it was the pastel pinks and blues of a winter afternoon. A sliver of a new moon hung above passing clouds. Yesterday the hills were covered in snow. From the tops we were above the clouds, which sat over the valley like a duvet. My mind feels clear in the water, and life is perfect exactly as it is. I don’t get in the water to swim. Some go for the act or exercise of swimming, but even in the warmer months, when swimming is much more inviting, that’s not what calls me. Gaddings is a meditation. Getting in the water might be the keystone of the experience, but it’s held up in the heavens by grand arches on either side - the journey there and back again.
Over the past year I haven’t had a particularly structured life. It’s been easy for me to feel behind my non-existent schedule, trying to do everything at once, and wondering how I’ll fit everything I want to do in the day. I’ll be doing one task, but thinking about another. I’ll get caught up in anxious thought patterns and find it hard to enjoy or focus on anything at all. Sometimes I decide to go to the dam in exactly those moments.
You might think that taking two hours out of a busy day would only increase my time-related anxieties. In practice I find the opposite is usually true. Once I step out of my door, my mind calms. I know exactly what I’m doing. I’m putting one foot in front of the other until I step into the waters, then I’ll make my way back. I go into a zone of focused relaxation. On the way to the dam, almost every step is upwards. I focus on trees. I focus on friends. I’m getting better and better at keeping my phone away. Gaddings always feels like the right thing to be doing.
I pay attention to my breath, heart and body as I climb the hill, mentally noting any particular feelings of tiredness or vigour. It’s an interesting barometer of my state of being, though I haven’t quite learned what to do with the information. Sometimes I pant and puff, and my heart flutters like a little bird. On other days I bounce up the hill like the happiest of goats. I try not to overanalyse it. I appreciate that I can get up the hill at all. I’ll turn around at some point to enjoy the mercurial play of light and shadow on the valley. These are the good old days.
At the top of the hill, the final stone steps up to the dam’s edge appear ancient to me - lost in time, ancestral, a Mayan temple. And after this final ascent, after seeing the waters - a baptism, a destiny. The most important aspect of the journey for me is maintaining the focus and strength of will to get in the water deliberately and calmly, regardless of how uninviting the idea might seem in the moment. It might be windy, snowing, raining, or all of that at once, but the decision has already been made. A part of me, which has grown quieter and quieter over time, wants to complain, but I quell that voice with determined action. Stepping into the dam is an act of self-empowerment, of mind over matter. I melt and freeze into ecstatic serenity. Gaddings is a union of opposites.
I don’t wear a wetsuit, swimming gloves or socks. I want to be limited by my body. As it happens, I’m very limited by my body in the winter waters. I can’t stay in much longer than a few minutes, and that’s with my fists tucked into my armpits. My bliss quickly modulates into a little pain here and a lot of pain there. Ouch! I’m ready to get out. I step out of the water and feel the air on my skin. On the coldest days my body is red, stinging, numb and invigorated all at once. I towel my torso and legs as best as I can. It feels sandpaper rough and hurts so good as I scrub my skin. Let’s not kid ourselves, there is something deeply masochistic in all of this.
I tune into my fingers, and gauge whether they’re numbing or not. I watch for signs of an ‘afterdrop’, the drop in body temperature that continues after leaving cold water. Well, there’s nothing to watch out for really - you know about it straight away - it finds you! Such moments are as close as I get to panic at the dam, but with experience it’s become more focused concentration than fear. I race to get my pants, trousers, socks and shoes on while steadily losing more and more sensation in my hands. My instinct is to warm my hands, not to stretch them out to my feet. But I need to protect my body - I need to get these flippin’ socks and shoes on (but, oh yes, trousers first of course).
My first experiences of these numbed sensations felt threatening, but I’ve learned to trust that everything’s just fine. The feeling in my fingers and toes, with a bit of wiggling, jumping and clenching, will come back sooner or later. It’s not K2, it’s not Annapurna - it’s a small hill behind Tod. It’s rare that I feel this race against time. A toe or ten usually goes AWOL, but I tend to keep my fingers. I tend to feel blissed out and completely centred. We’ll have a cup of tea and a chat before setting off again. Life is beautiful. I’m with people I love. What more could you possibly want? A rainbow? Look to your left.
That post-swim moment is very different when I’m alone, and especially when nobody else is at the dam at all. I’ll stare out over the waters, that sea of tranquillity, and to the sky. I’ll observe the birds, the light on the water and my eternal sadness. The dam can be a pool of tears. The dam can mirror the pain in your soul. But there is no judgement. It’s you as you understand yourself. It’s you as you love yourself. It’s silence, reverie and communion with the eternal wound, healer and witness.
One day, as I ascended the steps and looked into the dam, I saw that only one other person was swimming. I felt that I had perhaps intruded upon their silence, reverie and communion. There was a sense of transgression, but entwined in that, a fascination. I had a quick dip and paddle, then continued on my journey.
When I open my front door two hours later, I often find that I have more time in my day than before I left. It’s still only 12 o’clock. The entire day is ahead of me. What was I worrying about? Gaddings can be magical like that.
During the first lockdown, in that warm and sunny spring, Gaddings became a haven - a sanctuary from the ‘new normal’. Woah… I just had déjà vu typing that. Eternal return. I’m always typing this. It wasn’t just Gaddings; a spirit of liberty and refuge was a sentiment shared around the tops at that time. On my walks on the hills I’d bump into people with smiles on their faces, walking together with their family and friends like … human beings. We’d share happy greetings as our paths crossed ways. If I happened to know them, we’d stop and chat. I even chatted to a few strangers here and there, amazingly. On the tops there was an openness to positivity and sharing space. One sensed life could be as it always has been, and that physical human interaction could be fundamentally joyous. Upon returning to town I’d be struck by palpable shifts in expression towards the withdrawn, introverted, masked and fearful.
Over the holiday season, with Marbella off the cards, local beauty spots became busier than ever. Gaddings was no exception. It was often packed, with almost a festival atmosphere. I took to calling it the Costa del Tod, caustically, but also with love. People felt free at Gaddings to enjoy nature and human company in fresh and open air. I, for one, couldn’t have been happier with seeing the crowds up there during lockdown (except when my spots were taken, of course). It gave me hope that there would be some appetite, eventually, for people to live parts of their futures in physical communion. When so many poor souls across the UK and beyond were locked up in stuffy inner-city flats, how grateful and lucky I felt to have access to Gaddings, and how happy I was to share it with others. Incidentally, there has been no evidence to suggest that the packed beaches and crowded (righteous) protests of this summer led to any significant increase in Covid cases. But let’s not go there…
In warm weather Gaddings has long been notorious for attracting the Outside. Many of the complaints are valid. As our three sages found out, there isn’t the infrastructure to support many more than about 10 cars at any one time, at a push. On a hot and sunny weekend you’ll typically find dozens of cars parked and piled higgledy-piggledy up and down Lumbutts Road. The story goes that the swarm of visitors are more than just a nuisance for local residents: they’re a danger. They prevent access for emergency vehicles. I can imagine that to be the case, though I haven’t made the measurements.
I’ve heard people say that Gaddings should be taken off listings and websites like the Manchester Evening News. I’ve heard locals call for a campaign to leave bad reviews about Gaddings where possible, or at least to provide descriptions that let potential visitors know that it’s not exactly Mauritius. I understand why local residents want to stop the influx. Having lived in touristic areas before, I know full well the annoyance of having to drive through Disneyland to buy, for example, haemorrhoid cream.
(Un)fortunately, the truth of the matter is that Gaddings is a wonderful spot. It really does deserve to be on ‘Top-10 Secret Beach’ lists, as irresponsible or obnoxious as such listings might be. I understand why visitors flock to Gaddings from far and wide. It’s bewitching, it’s *waving my hands* all this. Everyone I’ve taken up from the Outside, like some sort of latter-day Сталкер, has loved it (except for one, but she’s very hard to please). That said, I do wish that the teeming hordes would pick up their fucking litter.
Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il Decameron, completed around 1353, is a frame story set in a villa outside of Florence during the Black Death. At the villa, 10 characters take shelter from the ravages of the plague, and over the next 10 days they tell each other 100 stories.
Gaddings, our plague sanctuary, has also been a place of storytelling. I doubt we had 100 stories by day 10, but I’m sure we got there before day 100. It’s now day 333. Over the months, walking up and down the hill, we’ve shared oh so many rumours, tales, dreams and themes. Perhaps, when this is all over, I’ll write a book about them. This isn’t that book.
It’s not over yet.
I first hiked up to Gaddings at night long before I started swimming there regularly. I climbed up to experience a partial lunar eclipse. The skies were only a little cloudy, and it was a warm enough evening, so I took my front row seat for the performance of heaven. I found myself, incidentally, alone, apart from a few night sheep. As I got out the popcorn, a layer of low cloud blocked my view of the Moon, but above the clouds was a clear and starry sky, so I was hopeful that the clouds would shift for the peak of the eclipse. They didn’t. I felt that old familiar feeling of missing out on a celestial wonder in England.
Then, as can happen with the skies, and life, an unexpected opening appeared, and there in the sky gleamed our silver pearl, still dragon-bitten. I watched in trance as the Moon moved out of our shadow and lifted higher and higher into the night. I saw that old familiar sight of how mysteriously the clouds dress the Moon in ethereal robes. Then I turned my attention to its glittering reflection on the water, brilliant and incandescent, glistening and shimmering.
There’s a story that Gaddings was drained during the Blitz to prevent the moon’s reflections from helping guide German bombers back to Hitler. According to the Gaddings Dam Group, the story is probably a myth, as evidence suggests the dam had been empty since at least 1933. Remembering the spectacular glow of moonlight on the dam, I can see why that story held water for some. If Gaddings hadn’t already been drained, it might’ve been a good idea to do so. Then again, it’s not like we’re short of Moon-reflecting reservoirs around here. And moreover, I doubt Nazi navigators relied on clear skies to get them back to Das Vaterland.
Anyhow - back to the Moon. Did you know that some people think the Nazis built bases on the Moon, where top Nazi officials escaped to after the war?
Anyhow - back to the Moon - sans Nazis.
One of my favourite Gaddings swims was on a clear and warm summer’s night with a full moon rising over the dam. I can’t remember exactly what time it was, but it must have been near midnight, given the darkness of the skies. Slipping into the black waters and looking up at the Moon was - again, ever - spellbinding.
Moonbathing is terribly underrated.
The hunter lifts her eyes above the surface, tracking his supple movements, his sinewy limbs, his moonlit shield, his killer’s tusks, his spurting wound, his dying breath. She empties her lungs and dives beneath the ice. A flower is born of blood and nectar.
For a moment, everything was perfect. It’s not anymore, but it was, then. It’s coming again, it’s happening now! Hold it in the lungs. I always remember what’s always forgotten, but then I forget it again, again. Let it go.
But now what?
I’m dead yet still you berate me. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the flowers, but must you air our tragedies into eternity, and, worse still, in front of my new friends? One can’t even take secrets to the grave these days.
At some point in my childhood I became ashamed of my body. I used to live in Southern California, with walking access to three beautiful outdoor pools, and plenty more functional ones, to say nothing of the nearby Pacific Ocean. I’d hardly ever go swimming, largely out of self-consciousness. I felt too ugly to inflict myself upon others. Later on in life I lived in a coastal town in North Africa. I could see the beach from my balcony, just about. Again, I hardly ever went swimming, largely out of self-consciousness. I felt too ugly to inflict myself upon others.
I confronted that with Gaddings, though not alone. The nudists helped. The atmosphere helped. My friends helped. A certain wisdom helped. I no longer felt that in order to disrobe I had to be a David - the sculpture - both in physical perfection and whiteness. During my first Gaddings swims, taking off my clothes was more difficult than getting in the water.
Over time I’ve become (more) comfortable with my body. We are always under the gaze of others, but it feels slightly less oppressive than it used to. I learned to integrate something of the old saying that you wouldn’t care so much what people thought of you if you knew how little they did. That said, small towns often belie that platitude. Sometimes they really are talking about you.
One day, probably while alone, I’ll go in nude. So far, it hasn’t felt quite right. Yet.
Do you know what happened yesterday?
Someone landed a helicopter next to the dam, went for a quick swim, then took off and flew away!
Really?! Did you see it?
Really. I saw it.
In September and October Psilocybe semilanceata begins popping up on the hillsides and banks surrounding Gaddings. As a popular spot for walkers and foragers alike, they disappear fast, but with a tiny bit of focus you’d have to be unlucky to not come across the ceramic beauties of the liberty caps on some swim or another. Indeed, they’re often harder to miss than to see, once you tune into their frequency. You sometimes find happy little families of the beautiful mushrooms, with their adorable hats and squiggly stems, growing right next to the stones leading down to the water.
Of course, the moment you pick those wondrous gifts of nature out of the ground, you instantly become a vile criminal. Leave those Class A’s be. Be a good citizen and smoke a pack of cigarettes, drink a bottle of whiskey and eat a box of Kellog’s Krave instead.
Are a stage for the performance of heaven.
Any audience is incidental.
- Ted Hughes
P.S. The poem continues, but that’s my favourite bit.
I referenced it earlier, if you’ll recall.
One day, as I found myself heading towards Cornholme in the autumn, I was struck by how much the foliage had changed since I’d last been among the trees. ‘Why am I not spending more time in the woods? How am I missing the turning of the leaves?’, I asked myself.
The reason was Gaddings. I realised that for the past three weeks, every one of my walks had been to Gaddings. I reflected on all the wonderful walks I hadn’t done over the spring, summer and autumn. I thought about the many nearby sites I’d yet to visit, from Healey Dell in Rochdale to the opening of the Peak District behind Marsden. I thought about all my favourite local walks I hadn’t been doing, such as the rolling hills behind Cornholme, and the rushing Gorpley Clough. I felt a pang of concern in that moment as I asked myself, ‘Why is it always Gaddings?’
The reason was the rush of the cold water. It was surely that intoxication of sensation, energy, endorphins, adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin and everything else I’ve heard explain the pleasures of - shall we say - certain other pastimes. Something (al)chemical happens when I dip into the waters, and whatever happens summons me time and time again. It’s always Gaddings. Gaddings has been an addiction. But as far as addictions go, it’s probably healthier than heroin. Then again, there’s only one way to really find out …
Maybe the secret of health, speaking for myself, is to develop healthy addictions. But I do hope, with spring around the corner, to broaden my horizons and explore some other walks this year. At the very least, I could visit other swimmable bodies of water. That said, one day in the early autumn I found myself swimming in Stickle Tarn, a beautiful lake high up in Langdale, in the Lake District, surrounded by views of endless peaks and a majestic cliff.
It was almost as nice as Gaddings.
[adapted from the start of a correspondence project with a friend - 20 June 2020]
Right, let’s try this again. Take two. In my first attempt I stepped boldly out onto the moors of divine art, only for my foot to sink into a bog and my shoe to come off. Well, I wasn’t born to these lands after all. It takes time to learn a new terrain. Speaking of bold steps and divine beauty - today, with a mission in mind, I set my alarm for 3.33am. The plan was to catch the solstice sunrise with a friend at 4.44am, before going for a morning swim at Gaddings Dam.
We met each other outside of the library at just past 4am. We stumbled up past the churchyard and towards the hills with woozy heads but happy hearts. A lone planet watched over us to the south, while to the east the glow of a new dawn diffused so beautifully into the violets of the dying night. We took a seat at the top of the hill, with Gaddings just behind us, and waited for the sun. Its face was hidden at first behind a low layer of cloud rolling out over the horizon in cascading crests of waves, horse heads and fractal wisps. A spark ignited; a crack of fire formed. We sat in silence as the sun lifted above the clouds above the mists above the green valley I now call home. When it became too painful to look at directly, we turned around, said hello to our shadows and went for a swim. Before stepping into the water, with reverie broken, I took the time to take this picture:
I recommend catching the sunrise at this time of year. It’s rare to experience a clear day’s first light while being vaguely warm in Britain. An effort is required, but it’s worth it, if one is sensitive to such beauties. The need to go out of one’s way, leaving behind a society lost in soon to be forgotten dreams, makes the experience feel like a pilgrimage. Gaddings is always a pilgrimage.
Sound the trumpets! Strike up the band! Let’s get this show on the road with pick and mix metaphor time - the new dawn, the coming light, wading into new waters, baptisms of fire and horse heads in the sky. That last one is more hallucination than metaphor, but hey, no one ever said sleep deprivation was easy. What I want to pick and remix from that opening are these two phrases: ‘I wasn’t born to these lands’ and ‘the green valley I now call home’.
I wasn’t born to these lands, but they’re now my home. Since the beginning of lockdown, however many months ago that was, I haven’t left the valley. Like many others, I lost my job and all sources of income. But in spite of that, and in some sense because of that, I’ve been very happy and healthy. I’ve been finalising creative projects, starting new ones (hello!), exploring the beauties of spring, and reaffirming my relationships with friends and family. It’s been a spiritual time for me, a time to focus on where I am in life, what I’ve accomplished, what I need to work on and where I want to direct my future.
For better or worse, it’s been easy to ignore the fact that our world is threatened by a global pandemic, an economic collapse, a climate catastrophe, populist politics and the growing threat of authoritarian oppression. With my claims to happiness I don’t mean to sound like I’ve been burying my head in the sand, nor am I boasting about any stoic resolve in the face of danger. On one level, particularly as a parent, I’m deeply worried about our political and environmental crises. I’m doing my best, in my way, to support my community and help those I can. It’s just that the problems of the world can feel far away when one is happy at home. Or is that exactly the problem?
And am I home? Home has always been more conceptual than spatial in my life. None of the traditional definitions have ever fit me well. Home is the land of your birth - I was born in Jordan, but I never lived there. My father’s family only moved there at the point of a bayonet. I spent most of my childhood in Kuwait, where my father was teaching chemistry, but I went to an American school, and lived largely in an expat bubble while there. Kuwait was a home, then, but it’s not my home.
Home is your motherland - well, that’s complicated too! My mother identifies as Mexican American. She was born in San Antonio, Texas to Mexican parents. Being born on American soil made her an American citizen. Being born to her made me an American citizen. My Mexican grandparents emigrated to the USA because it provided them an opportunity to provide for their family. But, for my grandfather at least, as an immigrant and socialist, American society was never a culture he fully adopted. It wasn’t all bad. He did love baseball, but Mexico remained his idea of home. Nowhere is perfect. Home isn’t about perfection: it’s a notion of rootedness, of belonging. Or so they say. I have no idea.
Eventually, The USA became a home for my family as well. In the years we lived in Kuwait, we’d escape the summer heat by visiting our relatives in Jordan, Los Angeles, Texas or Mexico. While we were in Mexico in the summer of 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. From the moment the first grainy news reports of tanks and military parades reached us, it was clear we were never going back home. As an eleven-year-old, I processed that understanding as never seeing my old friends again. For my parents, it was losing their livelihoods, their documents, their photographs and many precious items besides. Remind me of that documents point sometime - there is a tragicomic story there.
The United States became my new home. In many ways, as the child of two immigrant families who each found refuge in the United States, I was a manifestation of an ideal, mythic America - the melting pot, the nation of immigrants. Nevertheless, I never felt entirely at home there. American schooling did its best to win me over to the project. Every morning at school, with hand over heart, I’d face the flag projecting from the corner of the classroom and declare:
I pledge allegiance - to the Flag - of the United States of America, and to the Republic - for which it stands - one Nation, under God, with liberty, and justice, for all.
Throughout my ten years in the US, a longing to leave grew stronger and stronger in me. When I finally left American shores again, through a study abroad university programme, I found myself in Brighton, England in the year 2000. I fell in love. I felt at home in my new home… for a while.
I’ve heard myself described as a ‘third culture kid’: a child who spent a significant period of their developmental years not living in their parents’ home culture, but rather in a third cultural bubble within a new host culture. It refracted further than that with me, as my parents were from such different cultures from each other, and I never learned either of their native languages fluently. I was reading the other day that third culture kids, for all their strengths, can find it difficult to be emotionally present in situations and relationships. They live with deeply ingrained fears that, sooner or later, they’ll be separated from who and what they love. To protect themselves, they learn to not allow themselves to get too close. I’ve lived my life, and loves, with one foot in and one foot out.
Third culture kids tend to identify more with friendships than geography. They’ll relate more to people who have shared their experiences, or who otherwise are the outsiders and the marginalised of a given society. That certainly rings true with my experience, but life is always changing. My years in Todmorden, and especially this past year in lockdown, have marked a distinct shift towards a centring of self in place and landscape. I’ve been identifying with these green hills, and their slow and steady rhythms of seasonal change, more profoundly than I’ve ever done before. I feel as rooted in these hills as I ever have in an environment, but I still don’t feel home.
I don’t expect I’ll ever feel home. I used to flip that to its positive corollary - the world is my home - but experience has taught me that I’m more at home in some places than others. I used to say that ‘Manchester is as much a home as I’ve ever had.’ But that Manchester is gone. And I’m here. These days I don’t feel so special. I’ve learned that everyone feels alienated on some level or another. We’ve certainly all been uprooted by recent changes. ‘Covid is the great equaliser’, says Madonna in her petal-filled bath. Haha.
[later in the correspondence]
What I like about Gaddings Dam is exactly its inadequacy and minimalism! Gaddings is a blank canvas on which I project fantasies. There is nothing there, at the top of England, to interfere with my flights of fancy. Sometimes, when it’s sunny, I imagine I’m back on the coast of North Africa. Sometimes I find myself in Spain. Sometimes I’m back in California. Sometimes I’m on another planet circling another star. I enjoy Gaddings not only as fact but also as metaphor.
One trick is to not look to the other side of the reservoir, but instead to focus on the shoreline and the water just beyond. Then create an imaginary reality around that meeting of water and earth that suits your mood.
Imagination is limitless. It's my home.
I’ve been privileged enough to have had a life rich in travel and international experiences, such as the good fortune of being displaced by war. Life, aye? One of my dearest friends lives in Mauritius, and I was lucky enough to be able to spend my 2012 summer - their ‘winter’ - with her. The water temperatures in the lagoons that surround that beautiful island felt paradisiacal to me, even in their coldest months. And, mind you, this was years before I had any notion of cold water being pleasant. We’re talking an average of around 23 degrees Celsius or so. Mauritius, and my summer-winter there, was a dream in a dream.
On my travels, I often collect as souvenirs one or two legal and inconspicuous stones, shells or the like that, in my ignorance, I determine won’t be missed by a landscape. I make mindful transgressions of the diver’s code to leave nothing behind and take only pictures. You might think I’m part of the problem, but, you know … you know … I was about to attack you for your hypocrisy … but, really, I have no excuse. I’m not perfect. But is it so bad? Swiftly moving on…
One of my mementos from Mauritius was a tiny segment of dead coral that had washed up on a beach. I kept it with me for 8 years, and often literally on me. One day last summer, I felt a weird impulse that Gaddings needed a bit of Mauritius in it. Carrying the coral in my hand, I swam out to the middle of the dam, or thereabouts. I kissed the coral, and let it sink to the bottom.
I hereby let it be known that there is a bit of Mauritius in Gaddings, linking, in some way, two of my most treasured watery worlds.
There’ve been times in the past, while stuck in a Manchester office in the middle of winter, when I’d fantasise about holidays abroad. Listening to Hulme's dawn chorus (car alarms) from the discomfort of my office chair, I’d look out the window at dull grey skies and dead concrete. I'd stare blankly at the rain tapping that still-there packet of Space Raiders and dream of going ... somewhere even bleaker and colder.
I suspect, if I’m to believe what people say, the usual fantasy is to dream of an all-inclusive to Marbella or Mauritius. ‘Let me feel the sun on my skin and warmth in my bones. That’ll revitalise me and see me through this dark winter.’
Not I. I’d dream of Iceland, Siberia or darkest Norway. I’d want to visit somewhere so unspeakably frozen and dark that coming back to Manchester’s damp excuse for a winter would feel like I’d returned home to Marbella or Mauritius - but with Space Raiders. Gaddings in winter has a bit of that spirit, at times. One of my solutions for dealing with the cold these days is to get even colder.
I’ve also always wanted to see the northern lights, but that’s another story.
[from my dream journal - 26 October 2020]
I’m walking up a grassy hill on an ancient and familiar path. It’s a clear and fine morning, and I’m heading for a cave entrance at the top. The walk is in the shape of Gaddings Dam. It’s Gaddings, but not the eternal Gaddings. The Gaddings that can be spoken of is not Gaddings. A woman is walking ahead of me in white robes and sandals, who turns around and says she feels like Moses. I smile, understanding what she means, and tell her that the walk feels even more biblical in the summer, when the grasses die and the landscape turns arid and red. Was I remembering Spain, in its transition from verdant spring to dusty summer? At the top of the hill I see the temple steps, but instead of dropping into the dam, they descend into a cave.
Within the cave I find myself in a library. As I’m browsing the collection, Mozart picks a book off a shelf for me and tells me I should read it. He plops it nonchalantly on a table for me to peruse. It’s a thick red paperback, a modern edition of a dense, ancient text. As he drifts away I tell him apologetically that I don’t read French. Then I notice it’s in Spanish and jokingly add ‘¡un poco mejor!’ He drifts off into another room. The Spanish is archaic, and I don’t recognise a single word of it. Still, I’m excited.
[darkness within darkness is the source of the mystery]
In waking life, my six-year-old son asks me, the next time I see him, ‘Papi, do you remember going to the cave with us?’ His mother informs me that he’d woken up that morning insisting that his dream from the night before had been real, and that we had all been in a library in a cave together. I laugh, and respond with all the sincerity in my heart:
‘I do! I remember it exactly. Mozart gave me a book to read.’
‘What book did he give you?’
‘I don’t know, I couldn’t understand the Spanish.’
I check my dream journal later on in the day, to remind myself of the details, and realise I’d had another series of Gaddings dreams a week earlier, which also involved my son.
[from my dream journal - 20 October 2020]
P and I are having a conversation as we drive to a Gaddings that’s not Gaddings. We’re debating the nature of waking consciousness versus dream consciousness, and my argument is that there is a distinct difference. Unaware that I’m dreaming, I argue that waking consciousness has an obviously different consistency, linearity and stability that isn’t present in dream states. P disagrees, arguing that there is no fundamental difference. Life is, as the song goes, but a dream.
When we reach the dam, P jumps into the water off a diving board. He climbs out and immediately ascends a high rocky cliff for a second jump. He leaps into the water again. This time he barely makes it, nearly smashing himself on a stony edge. I’m happy that he’s safe.
In the next dream I remember I’m with my son, and I recall having had the dream conversation above. Only, I remember it as having been with my son, and not P. In the dream, I tell my son about the dream I’d had, and about how we spoke about dreaming, and about how all the while I didn’t realise I was dreaming (all the while not realising, again, that I was dreaming). He smiles and finds it amusing and interesting in his wise-beyond-his-years way. I get lost in a thought of a dream in a dream in a dream in a dream … then it slips away, and I wake up.
In waking life, on that day or not long after, a group of us are sitting in a corner of the dam. P tells a rather awful story about a stuntman who had a back-breaking accident while attempting to film himself jumping off a tall ladder into a swimming pool.
I respond, ‘You know, it’s funny you say that…’
[darkness within darkness is the source of the mystery]
‘If you gaze for long into Gaddings, Gaddings gazes also into you.’
- Freddy Beachtzsche - Beyond Tod and Hebden
One day in late December or early January the waters froze over for the first time. I found myself living the moment I had, from that first conversation in the Lion, been manifesting. The seed P planted in me had sprouted, grown and, at long last, unfurled an icy flower.
I cracked a hole in the ice with my heels, or perhaps a shoe, then used my legs and hands to break a path into the water, just far enough to fully submerge my body. But as I sat, I wanted to go a bit further. I improvised a technique of breaking the ice from underneath with my shoulder. The ice cracked with such satisfying snaps and pops and squeaks. I noticed specks and slits of bright red blood streaked on my hands, contrasting beautifully with the blue-white ice. After getting out of the water, I felt exceptionally energised. I thought to myself, ‘I’m not the person I was a year ago. I’m capable of more. I’m stronger.’
Later on in the shower I noticed sores, marks and dotted scabs on my shoulders. I hadn’t realised that I’d done quite that much damage to my then-numbed skin. I was surprised at first, but my emotions modulated into a proud and calm joy.
I liked how the cuts and scratches looked on my shoulders, and how it felt to have been sliced by ice. I prodded them with my fingers to elicit what pain I could. Had I unknowingly slipped into realms of self-flagellation? In breaking the ice, with my mind focused entirely on the moment, with my eyes turned towards blue-white heavens, with my body full of numbed sensation - perhaps then I was with God.
Gaddings Dam, Gaddings Dam
Dam Dam, Gaddings Gaddings
L’appel du vide
After breaking a hole in the ice with a rubber mallet, I slide my body under the white blanket covering the dam. I prod the surface from underneath with my freezing toes, watching them slide around beneath the frosted glass. In that moment, I feel compelled to close my eyes and dive beneath the ice. I imagine the hole I’ve created freezing up behind me. I imagine freezing with it.
I didn’t expect to feel the call of the void at Gaddings. But when I think about it, the dam has always been next to death in my mind.
I always feel more alive after a swim at Gaddings. Gaddings is a union of opposites.
Hello! Are you going for a swim?
I think so.
Are you part of the Crisis group?
Well, I’m clearly in some sort of crisis, but not the
official one. I’m more freelance. Zero hours actually…
[polite to sincere laughter]
I like that you’ve folded your trousers. Are you sure
Yes, thank you. I know my body, and I don’t push it
in this weather.
Did you just swim in that?
Are you cycling on an icy hill?
Gaddings Dam. Crazy place. It’s changing again though, isn’t it? Do you think? Can you feel that?