Roger Ratcliffe signals his frustration with reality

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Ever tried sticking your head in the sand? I don’t mean going off to a beach somewhere, digging a hole and burying it so deep you can hear the seagulls in Australia. That’s definitely not recommended. No, have you ever tried blotting out bad news, or at least pulling your mental shutters far enough down to avoid feeling ticked off?

Personally, I can’t blame anyone for indulging in a bit of head burying right now. Escapism is the best way of staying sane in these bonkers times. To preserve my own sanity, on some days I use the technique I deploy during the football season, when I shy away from all media so I can watch Match of the Day blissfully ignorant of the final scores.

No offence to those supporters who’ve been hanging on every kick of a Liverpool or Manchester City game this season, but a final score like Ayes 329, Noes 302 at Westminster could be pretty life-changing and I need to be in the right frame of mind to hear it.

So to avoid the now relentless news updates on our omnishambles I have followed in the footsteps of Alfred Wainwright – perhaps Britain’s escapist-in-chief when he wrote those amazing guidebooks to the Lakeland fells – and tried heading for the hills. Once I’m there, happiness is seeing those little words that sometimes appear in the top left corner of my phone screen – “no signal”.

People keep saying this crisis is the worst since the Second World War. Well, when war loomed in the autumn of 1938 old Wainwright tried escaping from it all by taking a long walking holiday in the Yorkshire Dales. There were no smartphones to worry him, of course, but there was still the threat of accidentally hearing a “wireless”. Which is what happened when he got to the village of Muker in Swaledale. After supper, to his horror the nightly news was switched on. Hitler had been speaking in Berlin, the newsreader reported, and Nazi troops were going to occupy Czechoslovakia in a few days. “For the first time in history,” Wainwright wrote later, “a murderer was announcing his intentions beforehand and fixing a date for his bloodshed.”

At least I now know where my sanctuaries lie – those “no signal” blindspots in my mobile network coverage. For example, I can wander all day in Ribblesdale, from Settle north to the famous Ribblehead viaduct, and not get a peep out of my phone while I use its GPS Ordnance Survey maps. The only sounds I can hear are the tranquil cries of curlews and lapwings.

Woods are also an excellent place to hide from reality, creating a sort of verdant shield against everyday life, and I love the idea of so-called “forest bathing” espoused by the singer Charlotte Church. She wrote in the Guardian: “Through hazel and holly and ash and yew, over a treadless carpet of moss and wild garlic, only a few feet into the forest is enough to be submerged.”

So last week I went for a walk through beautiful Grass Wood on the slopes of Wharfedale, another network blindspot… or so I thought. When I crested the ridge “no signal” suddenly disappeared. I heard the BBC’s breaking news tone, and an alert flashed over my screen.

The first word I saw began with B.


Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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