It’s been raining forever. Days and weeks of rain, barrelling relentlessly. The people I pass are filled with it: must rises from their clothes and only rain flickers like white noise behind their eyes. The window ledges in my house are beginning to swell and crack: blooming with the watering. I think about the sky as I head for the train. I haven’t seen it for weeks here in the narrow valley. A crack in the sofa already, now covered with a smothering blanket, seemingly forever.
2015 was not good. Family stress, death and sadness at the start of the year. Then a broken leg that kept me caged inside all through the summer. Two car crashes, both cars written off. One life saving, but life changing operation. The threat of impending funding cuts and our potential forced redundancies. We became carers for our family companion animal, who old and blind, filled our hearts with love and worry, and kept us rigid in a new routine of rushing home as quickly as possible. When we, red-eyed and hearts broken, had to let her go in the twilight of our front room, we were gifted a new freedom we did not want. Just as the sodden valley walls slipped to cover the train tracks a week before, we were finally consumed by the year’s sadness. Too much of it for too many loved ones. There were two more family deaths over Christmas for good measure: the last on Christmas day. The valley flooded.
And then Jesus, if it didn’t flood for real: deep and filthy water that washed through homes and businesses. People lost everything, except their hope and an unshakable community spirit. The floods left a deep silt of mud and human shit that seemed perfectly fitting, considering.
New Year has always been a vaguely meaningless chance to celebrate to me, but this year it felt incredibly important: the opportunity to wave two fingers at the previous twelve months. We have a sort of New Year’s tradition of driving the four or so hours to Allendale in Northumberland. It’s an eight hour round trip for maybe an hours event if you really stretch it out. The journey there takes us over familiar, empty motorways, glowing orange in the still driving rain. In the dark, we can’t see the space around us once we hit the hills, but we can feel it, vast and dark as the land drops away to seemingly endless blackness. We stop the car and share crisps and sandwiches, the Dropkicks blaring. We’re a punk rock Roy and Hailey. We see other cars floating in their own bubbles of light, and as we near Allendale the line grows through the land in every direction. This is a pilgrimage we make, away from the year and away from the world. We are all heading for the fire in the darkened land.
The villagers at Allendale make a pile of their old Christmas trees in the square, which would probably smell heady and evocative if it didn’t stink of a very great deal of petrol. There are hundreds of people swaddled against the wind in the square or hanging out of pub windows. At about 11.40pm, a brass band farts into life. Sudden heat flares in the cold as a procession of men, each born in Allendale, hoist whiskey barrels filled with flaming tar onto their heads. They begin to move slowly and very carefully around the square, down onto the road and around the streets.
This feels ancient and ritualistic, but in reality the tradition probably began fairly recently, around 200 years ago. We get our first real look at the tar barrel carriers as they head back towards the square. The flaming procession and the timelessness of night evoke rough robes and long swinging belts, but the nearest is dressed as Scooby Doo. Behind him, a storm trooper repositions the barrel full of fire on his alarmingly slippery plastic head.They return to the square, each throwing their flaming barrel onto the bonfire as they go, to the cheers of the crowd. A midnight fire to burn the year away. The fire is always wild and the air burns orange: often the crowd runs from the heat, choking on smoke and patting at the cascade of hot sparks. This year I watch the trees burn and feel a deep and victorious joy. Burn, you fuckers.
We share a (very small for the driver, not so very small for me) tot of whiskey, and make for home, reeking of smoke and with singed hair and coats still gently melting. The journey back completes this ritual. It is a return to the world from this between – moment: a journey into everything that is to come.
The New Year. Todmorden station always makes me happy. It has a bookshelf, and a bright orange cat called Garfield. It has herbs for you to pick in the summer, and it’s own art gallery. You can see the hills and the top turret of Dobroyd Castle. (It also has terrible disability access. By train, if you have mobility challenges, you can leave but never come back, or be forever stranded on platform two on your return). I join the cue of dripping coats and umbrellas, and we each squelch forward, steaming gently, to buy our tickets out from the Valley.
The train smells of wet upholstery. There are new waterfalls rushing down the valley sides, which gently flatten as the sandy stones of Yorkshire give way to Manchester’s red brick. The brick, the team, the Mancunian blood in my veins, the colour of home. I’m thinking about journeys and about change. Last year was lived on hold. I have been trapped, disconnected in amber, and I need so desperately to get out. This year I’m seeking out life, exploration and connection.
I have over 8,000 social media followers across twitter and Instagram. I’m connected to a world of experience but not by experience; we are all too often passive watchers at the window of each other’s lives. Over the past few weeks, people have begun sharing their favourite or indeed most hated places with me: a memory, a visit, a week, a moment. They’re giving me a bit of their lives, and I’m going to go explore their memories. I’ve already completed January’s (and I’m working on that), now I need the next. I’m looking for some real connection to place, and to see if the places can connect me to people. I’m calling it a year of living.
If you’d like to send me to somewhere you love or hate: pop it in the comments section here. If you’re happy to, share a memory, a photo, a story that belongs to the place. A perfect or terrible moment. Be my tour guide for the year of living.
Thanks, I’m really excited to see where you send me.