Stone, Wood and Water



As a kid at school a Welsh music teacher told me that a good story was like a fish, with a distinct head, middle and tail.  At the time I thought it was clear that he had never seen an eel, but in a rare moment of student restraint I said nothing.   Like many other teachers of his generation, he mistook his ability to declaim without challenge for an access to the truth.   And for all that the prophets of Post-Modernism would have fainted at such a simple notion of narrative, the vision of that idea has stuck with me.

The idea of the story as a fish is too simple to apply widely, but if ever there was a single place that held the head, body and tail of my story it is the Lake District – The Lakes – in the north western corner of England, just below Scotland.  But even then it’s not that simple.  Some of my stories came to an end in the Lakes, some began and some found the full expression of the middle. 

I first arrived in The Lakes to participate in a Leadership Course – the full spectrum of butcher’s paper brainstorm sessions, introspection and outdoor activity. During those two weeks the Wall in Berlin fell, but no one felt the need to tell us.  It was that kind of time: focused on an inward path that would lead to an outward expression.   The course was supposed to send me back to my community empowered as a leader of some sort, but what it did do was convince me I had to leave it.  (A fish tail if ever there was one). 

(07-11-1989: Lake District: Levers Water, Prison Band, Swirl Howe, Brim Fell, Old Man of Coniston; dull and overcast with some rain)

I returned to The Lakes ready to wash dishes and clean carpets for a couple of months before starting to work as a Volunteer Instructor.  I expected to be there for six months.  I left four years later.  When I arrived I had all my worldly goods in a couple of bags and one box.  I left with a clutch of qualifications that surprised me as much as they would have surprised my generally critical PE teachers.  I also left in the company of the person who is now my wife.  To this day I still don’t really know how I managed to do either.

I walked, climbed, scrambled and even paddled a little.  I met kids from all over the UK and showed them some of the landscape that had inspired poet, artist and tourist brochures; some of them may have even looked at what I was talking about or listened to what I was saying. Some.

Now it was time to show my own kids.

We arrived in the Lakes on a road that runs under the slopes of Blencathra, a many-headed hill that sits on the northern edge of the Lakes.  The small roads and lanes that run away from the main roads are lined with brambles and old stone walls.  On one afternoon, many years ago, we collected blackberries and stashed them in our lunch boxes – later they were converted into a crumble that has gained near mythic flavour.

(21-04- 1990: Lake District: Scales, Scales Tarn, Sharp Edge, Blencathra, Hart Fell; with Jo Bailey and Simon Whalley; good weather)


Just visible was Sharp Edge, an angular ridge that runs upward towards the rounded top of the hill.  In both summer and winter it’s a good way to gain height, but today we are looking elsewhere.

The story of the great blackberry collection walk has been told before, but once more I find myself telling the story, this time to the kids in the back of the car.  It’s a story that has so many strands, food and company not the least.  It’s a story that because of its very essence is about home and place – the provision of food, the finding of comfort.  It’s a story that, like the blackberries, is rooted into a single place and makes no sense elsewhere.  But the meaning it brings is independent of the landscape that made it.  If, through a slip of fate, the story is lost and forgotten, the landscape will remain the same, unchanged by the passing of a story which it helped shape.  We add meaning to landscape, but the landscape remains unchanged.   This is not just some modern, worship of the individual situation, but an age-old issue.

Not that long ago fells like Blencathra and rocky ridges like Sharp Edge would have been seen as bleak and inhospitable and the prospect of walking on them for recreation, strange.  But our view of the world has changed, and once where there was emptiness and chill we now find the tonic of wildness and isolation.  But the bones of the landscape have not changed.

Below the hump-backed fells lies an even older example of our need to bring understanding into the landscape.  Over 5000 years ago people discovered something in the landscape here that they found valuable, and within sight of some of the highest peaks in the Lakes they built what is now called Castlerigg Stone Circle.  We don’t know what its purpose was, but it is beyond coincidence that a work of such effort would be placed without thought or care.  People from that distant age were not brute savages with perpetually grazed knuckles, but modern humans just like us.  We spend hours discussing the placement of glasses on tables and statues in gardens; why would the builders of Castlerigg been any less careful?

(01-10-90: Lake District: Thirlmere Car Park, Helvellyn Gill, Lower Man, Helvellyn, Swirl Edge; at night with Jason C et al)


There is a freedom to be had in a visit to Castlerigg.  The rituals and ceremonies that occurred there have been lost, but it was clearly a place to visit; a place where people – or their leaders at least – came together.  And today you can stand within, next to and even on the stones dependant on mood and your respect for regulation.  This is not like Stonehenge where you can only stand outside to look in and take it on faith – possibly an appropriate reaction at such sites – that the stones have not be stolen away in the night and replaced by concrete and fibreglass replicas. 

The stones at Castlerigg do not sing at dawn.  You cannot strike your fist on the hard slate surfaces to summon a wizard back from his battles with the dragon.  The Druidic rituals of pop culture are an invention of a romantic age far more modern than the stones themselves.  But for all that, the stones have a simple and magnificent presence.  When you lay a hand upon them it’s the closest you can get to time travel.  You cannot help but think ‘why?’  The organisation and  effort needed to drag these stones into this formation would defeat most well fed modern communities, but 5000 years ago people thought it was worthwhile.

People eat their lunch, backs rested on the cool stone.  A man and woman, with separate paint boxes but shared water, paint watercolour landscapes.  I can smell coffee being poured from a flask.  People are still drawn to the flat field and its stones in the shadows of the high fells.

Effort. Meaning.  Landscape. Place and space.  Fish heads, fish tails and fish middles are rolled into one and blended into stories that people will take away and spread.  The stones stand still, but the meaning they help people make spreads like ripples on a pond. 

Back in the lane where we left the car an ice-cream van has parked, and people fret over the cost of a 99 and suggest that the flakes are not the best quality.  A meadow-brown butterfly works its unsteady way along the hedgerow.  Somewhere in the distance a cuckoo calls a few times and then falls silent.  There are many things more precious than ice-cream, but not everybody seems to notice.

(08/09 – 04 -1991: Lake District: Lakeside, Grizedale, Coniston, Torver, Blind Tarn (Bivi) – Buck Pike, Dow Crag, Brim Fell, Swirl Howe, Tilberthwaite, Little Langdale . Solo)

We head south down one of the valleys that radiate out from the central core of the lakes.  Think of pinching a ball of putty with the fingers, so that a cone forms in the enclosed scape between the digits.  The shape the putty takes will be a model of the Lakes – a central high area, with valleys spread around the edge.  First carved by rivers and then enlarged by glaciers, there are almost as many long valleys in the Lakes as there are numbers on a clock.  And each valley holds one or more bodies of water.  I use the term ‘bodies of water’ because only one of them is called a lake – the rest are meres, waters and tarns.  This is like a private joke that The Lakes only contains one lake.

Memory is such a strange thing; even though I never lived in the Northern Lakes they seemed so familiar.  Road signs and junctions appeared just as expected, single trees by the side of the road, which I had never photographed, but always noticed, were still there.  The place was strangely unchanged in many ways.  After the expanse of Australian roads I had expected the Lakeland ones to push in at the edges, especially where they were flanked by snaggle-toothed drystone walls.  This proved not to be the case.  I still caught up with (other) tourists who, intimidated by the imminent demise of their cars’ paintwork, decide to drive along the middle of the road, rather than keeping to the left.  My old frustration with caravans resurfaced.



If my memory of the Northern Lakes was remarkable for its clarity, my memory of the ground closer to the place I called home was notable for its ambiguity.  I could not identify the corner in Hawkshead where Battersby’s Garage used to be and I had swapped the locations of two of the village pubs.  The clash between the certainty of my memory and the evidence of my own eyes was off-putting.  If the Kings Arms and the Queens Head can merge in memory to become one misplaced entity, what other of my memories were false or constructed? 
The south Lakes are almost the picture perfect English countryside; woods, small hidden ponds with rushy edges and the look of fish, wooden way-marked paths that criss-cross the fields.  In the distance you can see higher hills, maybe mountains in the imagination, and certainly so in the winter.  You can choose your own adventure.  You are never that far from a pub or a cafĂ©, which you can use as a goal in themselves, or as a reward at the end of a longer day.  For the best part of five years I called this part of the world home, and even now, twenty years later, it would be an unusual week for me not to think of it.

(02-05-1991: Lake District: Rydal, Nab Scar, Heron Pike, Rydal Fell, Great Rigg, Fairfield, Hart Crag, High Pike, Low Pike, Ambleside, Wilfs. Dull and Overcast although tea at Wilf’s very nice. Solo)

We collected the keys to our rented house and drove away from Hawkshead.  Once we were back on the narrow roads my memory recovered – the kink in the road where the last house on the way north pushes out into the road, the old Courthouse by the bridge where we turned left up the hill.  If we drove too far we would start to drop down towards Coniston, with its history and speeding ghosts.  However, we had detailed directions, which ended with ‘and then turn right down the rough track marked by the blue wheelie bin and the triangular back of a road sign’.  What this lacked in formality it made up for in accuracy. 

Passing through two gates, both held in place by improvised latches of string and wire, we arrived at the house.  Built from rough-cut slate blocks the house was in fact an old water mill.  Build in a formidable L shape the heel of the house was set deep into the ground, so that all you could see from the track was the roof and the upper floor room.  In its entirety the mill stepped down through six floors, all but one of which was a single room.  A staircase, creaking wood in its upper sections and foot chilling stone in its lower, spiralled down through the building.  It smelt of the woodland that surrounded it.  With the windows open, it rang to the sound of the stream that flowed past the toe of the L, over a long unmoving water wheel.  Bird feeders hung outside the windows and I could hear Wood Pigeons in the trees.  In the kitchen the water ran fridge cold from the tap, and the cistern in the toilet filled at an unmodern and leisurely rate.  Although it was summer, the grate was still full of recent ashes from a coal fire.  If a small black cat, with an under-chin white spot, had walked into one of the rooms I would have not been surprised as this building was hauntingly similar to the house I was born and brought up in.  But just to prove that progress was possible this one had running hot water and a working stove. The longer I stayed there the greater the sense of familiarity became; the uneven stone floor under foot, the way the lock on the back door clicked twice as you unlocked it.  The cat never appeared, but behind the mill we found evidence of other black and white residents.

The flat stone bridge over the stream had one section that rocked with a hollow tic-toc that marked your passing.  Oak trees shaded a vague path and hazels, already robbed of nuts, hung their soft round leaves at head height. The path skirted a small, steep sided valley so that the ground dropped away steeply on the right and rose up to a fence line on the left.  This was classically English habitat; damp, green, soft, small.  And pouring down from the fence line, in fan shaped sweeps, was the evidence that we shared these woodlands with badgers.

There were half a dozen fans of excavated soil below the fence line, and moving away from them in many directions were paths of flattened plants.  The bottom wires of the fence line held clumps of stiff hair, and one of the flattened paths carried on out into the uncut summer meadow beyond. 

I liberated a few handfuls of peanuts from the bird feeders and scattered them near the entrances to the sett.  Peanuts are essentially Badger crack – a combination of tastes and textures that they find irresistible.  We left the peanuts to do their addictive best.  The next morning they were gone; not a single one remained in sight.  The piles were replenished in anticipation of the coming evening.



At just past dusk we walked out over the flat-slab stone bridge that spanned the stream behind the mill.  The noise of the water, increased by overnight rain, covered the tic-toc of the wobbling slab. The sett itself was just over a slight rise, maybe some form of mill archaeology long buried in leaf litter.  Whatever its origin the rise and the voice of the river allowed us to walk to within a few meters of the setts unseen and unheard.  I had briefed the kids on the need for silence – a fool’s errand if ever there was one – and to my surprise it seemed to be working.  We moved forward a feather step at a time until we could see into the mouth of the nearest hole.  And there was our target, in one of the entrances to the sett hidden below a hazel thicket – just a black and white shape really – busily hoovering up my offering of peanuts.  It was hard not to laugh; you could hear all kinds of munching and slorphing noises emerging from the gloom.

(01-09-1992: Upper Teesdale; Micro Nav and Nav Practice behind High Force; Loads of rabbits)

This was more a proof of concept sighting than real badger watching, but it set us up for the nights that followed.   There was something undoubtedly magical about having badgers just over the stream.  Of course our presence made little different to the badgers (peanuts excepted), who, from the size of the sett, had probably been there for many years.  But it made this a special place for me; a place that was so rooted in classic Englishness that it bordered on caricature but for all that it was real.  I took a small piece of woodland and let it become all the things I missed in my new home.  It became a distillation of the things I thought I would do, before my journey took an unexpected turn and I headed south.

Of course it was none of the things I made it.  It was just a small patch of Cumbria, as distinct and different as it was homely and reassuring.  But for one week, for me, it became so much more. 

A few evenings later we were all sat around the base of an oak tree in the gathering darkness of the evening.  The midges, tiny biting flies which are surely the product of the dark side of evolution, were mercifully scarce and the mosquitoes largely absent.  We could hear a badger eating its fix of peanuts, but all we could see was a lumpy form in the deep shadow of the sett entrance.  The badger, presumably having finished its peanut starter dish, emerged from the shadows and trotted stiff legged up the slope, away from us and towards the fence line.  I assumed it would disappear into the meadow beyond, but the crashing and rustling up by the fence suggested otherwise.  At this point it became clear that badgers do not have a stealth mode.  The badger was uphill from us and this meant that every so often a face would appear silhouetted against the relative lightness of the sky.  A triangular face with rounded teddy bear ears would look down the slope in our direction.  I’m sure that the badger knew we were there, somewhere, but it was unable to determine where.  It turned its head so that its long snout pointed off to the left – a perfect silhouette of the long angular face.  You could just make out the pale markings.  There was more crashing from above us and I am convinced that there was more than one animal up there – maybe young ones, clumsy at the world’s novelty.  The woodland falls quiet, save for the whispered reports of bats from my children.

The rocky stone bridge welcomes us back home.  A Tawny Owl kricks from somewhere further down the valley.  The back door clicks shut. I pour a beer.  Out in the woodlands the badgers go about their night-time chores.

Early morning sunlight filters through the trees that shade the mill.  Motes of dust.  Light beams.  The cool of a summer morning moves through the open window and promises clear skies and light winds.  I listen to the woodland awake as my family lies asleep. 

05-02-1991: Lake District: Tranearth, Walna Scar Rr, Boulder Valley, Levers Water, Coniston Fells, Tilberthwaite.  Overcast, Snow in afternoon; With Pat Parker)

Behind the village of Coniston a steep road runs up and away from the valley floor with its stone edged fields and solid slate built houses.  It’s a road to traumatise drivers used to freeways and city slopes.  The very top of the steepest part is marked by a sharp left hand corner, followed by a right.  The very end of the road is marked by a gate – The Fell Gate – that separates the enclosed lowlands fields from the open fell beyond.  The Gate and the wall it passes through are a clear boundary between two different, but linked worlds.  But it is also a meeting place where things long disconnected come together and reconnect.  Uplands and lowlands.  Summer pasture and winter shelter.  And it is a place where you can arrange to meet friends with the certainty that everybody knows the place you mean.

There is a car park of sorts beyond the gates, which slowly starts to fill. Most of the cars are driven by people I have not seen for years, and the back seats are filled with children I have never met.  Twenty years have passed since we all worked for the YMCA (please don’t sing the song) on the shores of Windermere. Five years, ten years, even twenty years have passed since I last saw some of these people but the smiles of recognition are ready and real.  We all used to take other peoples’ children into the mountains, and now we have met to do the same thing with children of our own. So many meetings and collisions, so many separations and reunions; so many story lines that intersected in the past briefly reconnected, at the Coniston Fell Gate

With the exception of a few of the kids we had all done this walk before, in winter, in summer, rain and sunshine, in company and on our own; sometimes carrying ropes accompanied by the tambourine rattle of climbing gear, sometimes carrying little more than a flask of coffee and pack of Eccles Cakes (Made with Real Butter).

(07-02-1993; Dow Crag Coniston, Giants Crawl, Grade; Diff. Multi Pitch.  Very Wet and incredible slime; Escaped to Easy Terrace; Epic Day out with Glyn M)

On this day some people brought children and some brought dogs, some brought both.  Some brought cameras and walking poles.  Everybody brought chocolate. Everybody brought memories. 

The walk was probably incidental, just an excuse for slow moving conversations and selective catching up – nobody needs to hear the bad stuff.  We walk along the Walna Scar Road, once a thoroughfare between valleys, but now more trod for pleasure than commerce. I pass the spot where I first met Nick, who in later years would come to Australia to be at my wedding; the start of a story to say the least.

We turn right, uphill, towards Goats Water and Dow Crag where we stop for the ritual of morning tea.  Rock chairs or beds are chosen as suits the individual.  Beyond the water the path rises steeply and I stop to take pictures and catch my breath.  At the summit – The Old Man of Coniston – the jokes are predictable and well known.  The land falls away in all directions.  Memories rise from all directions.  The walk back to the car is too short for all the conversations that come to mind.


The Old Man was the first hill in The Lakes I know I climbed.  For a while it will also be the last. 

Head.
Middle.
Tail.

(12-07-2014 Lake District: See above)



Coast to Coast



There were house sparrows bathing in the dust and barn swallows hawking for insects above our heads.   Starlings, with their electric crackle voices, chattered   on the wires. The low hum of bees and hoverflies spread out from the flowerbeds, and an occasional wasp, yellow striped and predatory, flashed by. In the distance, the dull roar of waves, still pushed by yesterday’s winds, added a base background to the noises around us.

The farm buildings stand solid and thick walled against the wind.  Most of the windows look south and west, away from the cold fingers of the East wind.  A small herd of cows adopt a similar alignment; backs to the wind, showing how good design can flow from observation.  Classically black and white and wet nosed they stared over the fence, agricultural but domestic.   The soil around the gates is poached to muddiness by their heavy, lingering feet.  Beyond a neck stretch and tongue length, a line of taller grass grows, proof of the old adage correct.   Gulls pass overhead and what seems to be a single cloud hangs over the castle in the distance.

While this is almost Scotland, there is something classically English about the landscape; soft and well tended, managed down the years by the changing hand of agriculture and only fought over in the distant past.  The views in all directions have a kind of ephemeral beauty, which close inspection renders ordinary; and that is its charm.  The beauty of the mundane and the commonplace, stacked layer upon layer, to form something remarkable and effecting.   There are no grand mountains or shockingly deep canyons.  The sea is more often muddy brown than blue, and the skies are often clouded.  I miss landscapes like this in a way that is almost tangible; the memory of place and the understanding of shape.  The feeling of shared history and common struggle.  While such feelings and understandings do grow for elsewhere, they grow with geological slowness.  For all my efforts, I remain a product of this small island, of these small and delicate landscapes. 

The kids seem to notice that I have stopped packing the car.  That I am staring up the coast towards Bamburgh.  They ask if I am OK, and I am stuck by the impossibility of an answer.  Young swallows on the barn roof ask different questions of their own parents.  I slide a suitcase into its now familiar position in the back of the car and walk back across the garden and into the house to collect the other bags.  I check under beds for things that have been lost, forgotten or left behind.  As I walk back to the car I suppose I do the same thing again.



We turn inland, south and west, my natural direction, and drive away from the coast and its terns and puffins.  The ups and downs, lefts and rights of the road require a close eye and a light right foot.  Past farm gates with more dust cleaned sparrows, under flocks of rooks and jackdaws, through a strange mist of flies that pitter pat to their deaths on the windscreen we head towards Rothbury, morning tea and walk by the river.  I hope for Dippers, but, appropriately enough, I don’t see them.  A few trout dimple the surface, but scatter as we skip stones over the water. 
The river is called The Coquet, and once, not that long ago, it was England’s cleanest river. These days the river has lost this crown as agricultural chemicals have leaked sideways from the fields into the water; but the water still sparkles, and the disturbed trout are soon safe and sound, holding in the buffered current caused by the bridge footings, darting into the swifter water to take their own morning meal.  Many years ago I found Lamprey in this river, strange jawless, eel-like, fish that writhed in the bottom of a net aimed at stoneflies and mayflies.  Primitive and old; a compelling link to a younger, cleaner world; the gill slits behind their head opening and closing as dark holes in the suffocating air. 

I was younger when I saw them, standing on the edge of a change that I did not know was coming.  Standing on the edge of a plunge into waters deep and cold, the ripples from which would wash back and forth for the best part of ten years. 

The ripples have subsided.  I wonder if the lampreys are still there.

We walked into town, confident I knew where I was going, and became lost almost at once.  Buildings, which should have been on the left, were on the right and the river was behind me when it should have been in front.  Half remembered memories, pulled from long ago, were less use than the simple experience of the new.  We walked in circles through the town, below solid buildings, set with small windows and heavyset roofs, built from cut stone that still held the marks of hammer and iron.

Maybe it’s the use of local stone that does this, or maybe its that the town has yet to be subjected to a planner’s enthusiasm for change, but it felt practical, lacking in architectural excess, and wonderfully rooted in the landscape.  The roads and laneways met at odd angles, pavements mysteriously disappeared from one side of the street only to reappear on the other and shops and houses were scattered almost at random.  The town was small, unpredictable and old, much like the landscape around it.  Eventually we collided with an ice cream, which on such days is a fine substitute for morning tea, and our bearings fixed we headed back to the car. 

In the car park I noticed a sign that warned of sudden flooding in heavy rain – which is hardly a once in a lifetime event here.  I wondered if my thoughts of rootedness and connection were an illusion.  Above the river were clouds but no rain.  The Coquet was still safe within its banks as we drove away.


To the south lay the old industrial cites of Newcastle and Sunderland, and further south still Middlesbrough.  Towns sat astride the rivers that flow from the central high ground of England, east to the North Sea; the Tyne, the Wear, the Tees.  As a kid these were distant places, essentially unknown, apart from their appearance in football results and legends of coal, iron and steel.  When I was 19 I left home to study, and spent three years on the Wear, before moving to the Tyne.  But the landscape though which we new drove almost eluded me.  It was only through the company of others, other with cars, that I began to find this wonderful, strangely empty landscape.  It was good to be back.

On the east coast the valley of the Tyne pushes west up into the higher central ground of England.  On the west coast, the Solway estuary with its feeding rivers pushes back east.  The two rivers form a neck that separates the body of England from the head of Scotland.  In the winter, geese from the frozen east and north fly up one valley and down another, heading west, seeking the warmth of the Atlantic coast, with its muddy estuaries and its Gulf Stream moderated climate. 

Such a journey, up one side and down the other, must have been common for more than geese.  And maybe the beaten track of commerce marked the way for the wall that followed.   In about AD 220 Hadrian decreed that a wall would be built along this path, and in places – about 1800 years later – it’s still there.  The grey stone of Northumbria was taken and shaped to form a wall between the known of the Roman Empire and the unknown, or at least poorly controlled, lands to the North.  Myth and school history has it that the wall was built to keep the Scots out, but it’s just as likely it was built to regulate trade and collect taxes. I can’t help but wonder if it was also built in response to concerns about ‘northerners coming down here and taking our jobs’.  Hadrian probably promised to ‘Stop the Picts’ and who knows, he may have.


Hadrian’s Wall runs through wonderfully open farm and moorlands, punctuated by regular tourist information signs about the wall and its history. It’s a land close quartered by Short-Eared Owls and of cool winds that, even in summer, encourage you to turn your back, as well as your collar.  It’s a place that expands to the call of the Curlew, soft and sad, where grass is king and the slow march of woodland is held back by the teeth of sheep.   It’s in places like this that the well-worn nature of England comes to the fore.  While we can no longer call anywhere a wilderness, England is more garden than Garden of Eden.  It’s probably not an exaggeration to think of each square foot of land , of each handful of soil, as offering a source of history and understanding. 

A single rook called from the trees in the car park; unusual in its isolation, maybe the rest of its building, parliament, clamour or storytelling were elsewhere.  The collective nouns speak of conversation, or things passed down the line (along the wall?), of things that should be long lasting and important.  There are times when I think a Parliament of these dark, intelligent birds would serve us all better than the ones we elect.

Housesteads is, according to the well-placed boards, the most complete Roman fort in England.  Viewed from above through the surrogate of Google Earth you can see its straight walls and its crisp, geometric plan.  The outer boundary wall turns at well-rounded right angles and the wall itself flows east and west away from the fort.  This is a wonderful contrast.  The fort itself, tightly planned, possibly even built from off the shelf plans, so different to the plastic flow of the Hadrian’s wall, which buckles and turns in tune with the fall and rise of the land.


Standing on the boarder wall of Housesteads you can see the Hadrian’s wall walking off in both directions along the Whin Sill, a strip of hard igneous rock the runs east to west and is last seen as the islands of the Inner Farnes, with their puffins and singing seals.


It’s impossible when sanding on these fallen stones not to imagine what it must have been like to be stationed here, on the edge of Empire, so far from home.  Its hard not to think that the climate, the food, the locals and the lack of comfort so far from the comforts of Rome were probably constant topics of conversations.  But such imaginings are probably wrong.  The wall now sits in a modern landscape, shaped by the ebbs and flows of economy, technology and history.  So what we see is not what they saw.  The fact that another wall – The Antonine Wall – sits to the north gives a lie to the edge of Empire myth.  Built more of earth than stone, the Antonine wall succumbs to our fondness for the memory of stone, rather than the memory of earth and soil.  Stones may linger, but it takes more care to find the stories told by the soil on which we depend.

But sometimes that truth of a story can be founds, especially when it is read by those who specialise in finding things that lie buried. Wooden tablets – about the size of a post card (remember them?) - have been found buried in wastes below wall.  Thrown away but preserved by soils soaked in acid and chilled by the same winds than made me flick my collar, the tablets are some of the oldest known writing in England.  And just like post cards they are full of chitchat – the lack of decent olive oil, a shortage of socks, birthday party invitations.  It would only take a complaint about the lack of a Wi-Fi single to turn them into a Facebook post.  

Even though the fort is now nothing but ruins, there is a complexity to the buildings that rams home the idea that the people who built these were no less sophisticated than us.  I think it would help the world if we remembered that about all people.

Although we can’t really tell, the trip away from Housteads takes us down hill, into Cumbria and back down towards the sea.  And towards a coastline that has been greatly changed by the hand of industry.

If I knew little about the North East of England as a kid, I knew even less about the North West, especially its coastal fringe.  Hidden behind the beauty of the Lake District was a hive of industry that went largely unnoticed by most people.  Iron, coal and steel were the pillars of its old economy, and the region has not done well in recent years.

The iron industry dominated some parts of the coastline, with blast furnaces producing steel in abundance.  But now this industry is gone, leaving behind some strangely empty fields, a small pond containing carp and roach – although on the day we visited nobody was fishing – and a beach of remarkable strangeness.



Harrington Beach is as much a product steel manufacture as it is a product of nature.  From the car park by the pond you walk along a footpath by an abandoned railway.  The path itself sparkles with broken glass and is studded with a minefield of dog shit.  Fragments of metal, old fridges and (somewhat incongruously) an old lobster pot are half hidden, half visible in the long grass.  The tunnel under the railway is partially blocked by the exoskeleton of an abandoned tumble dryer.  Empty larger tins replace plants as a ground cover.  It’s a place to watch where you put your feet. 

There were no signs telling you where to go or what to see.

The beach itself looked normal enough, with wave-smoothed rocks and pale cliffs – but looks are deceptive.  There was a slightly strange smell in the air; not the classic seaside odour for decayed seaweed, or the faux perfume of ozone.   It was not a strong smell, but it was there just at the back of your nose, like an olfactory whisper.  The beach smelt of damp rust.  It smelt like the back of the garage in winter, where you store half-empty paint cans in the optimistic hope that you may, one day, use their contents to path up the wear on the window frames. 



The rocks that cover the beach may not actually really be rocks at all – and the cliffs are certainly not.  The whole beach is covered in and made from blast furnace wastes.  Dark flows of iron rock seep across the beach and where water pools on them, it turns livid orange.  The perfect combination of water, oxygen and salt turn the iron to rust and the water to orange.  It’s like a classic classroom experiment poured out over the landscape. 

Tens of thousands of tons of white-hot slag was carried in hoppers from the blast furnaces that once lined the coast and dumped into the sea.  It may have been out of mind, but I doubt it was out of sight.  In places the slag build up in layer upon layer to form white cliffs that look natural enough from a distance, but on close examination contain layers of bricks and foundry wastes; industrial fossil beds between strata of igneous wastes.  The whole cliff defines the classifications of nature.   In places chunks of iron still sit, whole and unblasted, on the beach surrounded by bricks and mortar set within solid stone.  Bolts and nuts show through other surfaces, not driven in by force, but wrapped in a once molten mitten.  Such things seem to violate our understanding of solids and liquids.



Such places make you think.

Back at the car I notice a council placard that warms of fines for fly tipping.

Back on the cold hills of Northumberland the archaeology of deep past is polished and buffed as a tourist hot spot.  Here on the coast the archaeology of a still living community is largely ignored, as the Irish sea slowly removes it from memory.