Which way is North?
To start again.
The tiny group of people stood in a huddle waiting for the sun to rise, they wait silently and with a stillness that only experienced hunters can achieve. They are on the top of Glastonbury Tor, the rising sun will show them directions, since the ancient words they followed said the sun was from the east. From this they could select their path for the day. All around the ancient Tor is black water, thick with reeds and mud. Emerging from the waters are the ruins of a world that had once been so sure of its future, so certain of its ability to master nature and so careless about its past.
The sun rose and the group turned to check which landmarks could reveal the direction they must take. They knew the journey was towards the North, but in the darkness no one knew which was was north. Their leader unrolled the last surviving paper map that they had of the old land, the land before the pride and certainty of humanity was brought down. He lined up the marked compass point with the sun in the east. They now looked to see if anything was in line with the north they wished to reach. Those with keenest eyes could see a distant hill, distinguished by its height and shape. A direction to follow, but experience had shown this group that a landmark viewed from the top of a hill was of little use when down at water level. As the sun brightened the shadows it allowed the trackless waters into sight. They agreed on a path through the meres and reeds, through the small muddy islands that rose up from the water, all places they could mark as heading towards the north.
The north was higher ground, the north promised dry feet and crops to grow, animals to hunt, skins to keep out the winter chill. The north where a diet of eels and mud flavored duck could be abandoned. The north, a promised land, a land of salvation but also of uncertainty. They had no idea how many others were also seeking this utopia, nor had they any information about what it was actually like. The leader had said since it was higher land rising up from the water, it had to be better than the swamps and dampness they had been forced to live in, up to now. They had all seen the tattered remnants of books from the world before nature had taught human kind the last great lesson in humility. These books had pictures of vast fields of growing crops all serviced by strange machines, machines that controlled and mastered the pictured landscape. None of the group had ever seen such machines in real life. They were fifth and sixth generation survivors, an ever shrinking number of humans striving again to find food and purpose for their continued existence. What few children were born into this sodden and dripping existence had very little chance of surviving to reach a useful age. Diseases that they no longer understood or controlled, killed nearly all babies while they were still dependent on their mothers milk. Desperation had driven this small group to seek the north.
They made their way down the slippery grass covered slope, back to where they had tied the wooden rowing boat to a thorn tree growing at the foot of the Tor. The leader took the rudder while the other four rowed, they used the wind to help direct them, it blew from the east and so they could steer towards the north, but wind is a fickle servant. It changes direction, it leads people astray. They rowed for three of four hours then searched for a landing place with another hill to climb, another chance to check direction and a possibility of dry wood for a fire and may be, with luck, a rabbit for breakfast. They tied the boat fast and unloaded their fire pot, that smoldering ember that was used to fire up tinder and bring warmth and hope. While two searched for fuel the leader climbed the hill to seek signs of progress. The other two searched for signs of land based life, they were lucky. They had landed at one end of a large island, one that was always clear of the enveloping water, one that had no humans for many years. They found ruined building and a small herd of goats, wild and scrawny but unaware of the danger humans brought with them. Killing a couple was easy and quick, they had the carcasses skinned and butcherd by the time the leader returned to them. They eat the roasted meat, packed the surplus with care and refilled their fire pot. Life was suddenly filled with hope, with full bellies and warm sunshine, all was much more appealing. The leader confirmed they were heading towards that promised land of salvation. The finding of the goats and dry buildings, ruined but dry, were such good omens for the future of their quest.
They set off again in a much better collective mood, this mood enabled them to take a risk they had never dared do before; they rowed across an expanse of water which while calm and shallow, was so large they they were out of sight, from their low level, of any land. Fear and doubt began to creep into minds but the combination of wind direction and the sun still visible over his left shoulder, gave the leader conviction and they held their course. Going towards the North. Hours later they sighted land again, they had not dared to rest but now tired muscles were forgotten, they were heading towards mountains, the North. Another hour of rowing and they tied the boat to a ruined structure that must have been part of some huge achievement, now a heap of concrete and stone. Limbs were stretched, fire was set going so they could boil the brackish water before tasting it and roast more of the meat. They rested, eat, drank and prepared to search the land they had found. Was this the dreamed of north? Or just a place on the way to paradise? When they looked at the tattered map they decided must be at a place called Cardiff so they had reached south Wales still hundreds of miles from “the north” of their dreams. They had no comprehension of the scale of the maps, no previous experience of measured distances, their life and the lives of their parents had been one where survival day to day was the only objective, learning and understanding the past came very low down the needs when starvation, death and pain were the normal parts of every moment. The map showed a land of mountains and fertile valleys but now the valleys were under water and the land was a harsh collection of rocky islands raising up out of an inland sea. The remains of the previous industrialized and urban human existence were visible in places but very little lived on the rocky islands. A few nesting birds and an occasional mountain hare. They agreed to set off to the west before again going north, the map showed that once out of this rugged area they should find smoother going.
They dragged their boat to be clear of the water, turned it over to keep the rain out and piled rocks all around it to keep it safe, none intended to return this way but caution was a way of life, a vital part of survival. They rigged the fire pot on two poles so it could be carried by a pair of them walking in file. The others carried what food and drinkable water they had. The clouds now covered the sun and the wind was swirling around constantly changing direction. Navigation had to be by reference between the map and how the scenery looked now. They carried no tents but relied on the ancient ruins for shelter. Progress was slow as the soil became thicker and so vegetation become more brambles and less sparse coarse grass. As it became darker, rain fell and most ruins had lost their roofs but they were used to such damp existence. They protected the fire pot, managed to kill a couple of rabbits and find a resting place. One with enough dry timber to get a fire going. Sleep was easy, they were relatively dry they were well fed, something there were no accustomed to and they were so tired so that idea of one having to keep guard was dismissed. They slept. They woke and so their journey carried on day after day. Time and distance became meaningless each day the same as the previous one then one morning
they woke to a dawn of mist and drizzle, no sun to fix direction, no wind to use as a guide. The land was green but from nettles, that ever powerful sign that humans have been there, and from brambles that hampered walking and tore at skin and the loose animal skin clothes they wore. Their feet had coverings of rough hide which kept most thorns from the skin but where constantly snagged and pulled around by the thorny strands of brambles. Ensuring that the fire post was not upset by the stumbling and tripping became a main issue. They only covered a few miles but it took 3 hours of heavy effort, they had no idea which way was the north. They decided to camp and wait for the mist to clear, wait for the sun to again give direction. It took another hour to find a ruin that still had a part of a roof, and enough wooden wreckage to provide a fire. The two hunters set out, being careful to note signs and physical pointers for the way back. They found a small pathway through the overgrown thickets, an animal track. Going so carefully and quietly they found a small clearing which had once been a paved courtyard to a grand house. The cracked and now uneven slabs of stone kept the vegetation to a minimum. Standing in the far corner of this clearing was a fully grown deer, nervous of any sound of a predator but unaware that the scent of humans also meant death. One of the hunters risked a shot from the crossbow that their grand father had made. The bolt struck the animal bringing it to its knees, the two of them rushed at it with knives at the ready. Blood and guts son filled the clearing, driving away any and all, other possible prey. While one skinned and butchered enough food for a week, the other started to clear away some of the undergrowth. He found a tin box rusted but whole. Risking his knife he prized it open to find inside a heart shaped locket and some pieces of paper, since he had no previous experience of money and no use for ornaments he discarded the lot and returned to helping his friend with their kill.
Their triumphant return to the camp began a feast, they had never had such an abundance of meat roasted and washed down with boiled nettle water. The 5 decided this was the north, this was the promised land. They must settle here and start a new human existence. They had found s stream of fresh water, there were deer, rabbits, birds, and even small patches of clearings, there were enough ruins to provide materials to rig up better shelters. There was fuel for the fire pot, they were in heaven; this was the north, they must be there.
If they could understand the map better they would know they had gone west to Worcestershire but then North is a relative direction and it is as good a part of England as any, to begin again.