Eden Benchmarks
Exploring the cultural landscape in East Cumbria
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A Tumultuous Tangle of Copulating Frogs (Instalment 1)

“Eventually, all things merge into one and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the World’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.
                                                Norman Maclean – A River Runs Through It

In the south eastern corner of Cumbria two springs of crystal clear water called Red Gill and Slate Gutter ooze out of Black Fell Moss, a remote bog high up on the eastern side of the spectacularly beautiful Mallerstang valley.  Liberated from the saturated, clinging peat, they scamper over the brow of the hill and converge to form Hell Gill Beck, the boisterous, adolescent stream, which runs south west, down into the valley bottom and swings abruptly north to become the River Eden.
For many years, as the curlews return to greet the arrival of spring with their plaintive, bubbling cry, I have visited the source of the River Eden; a personal annual pilgrimage after the long, cold paralysis of winter, to celebrate both the awakening of the new year and the embryonic rise of the river.

On my last visit it didn’t feel at all like spring up there; lines of thick snow zigzagged across the moor and grey sheets of ice glazed the pools of water skulking inside its dark peat hollows. The bleak high fell was still chillingly comatose under a leaden grey sky, frozen in the tenacious grip of winter’s malevolent spell.  There was no sound of the curlew that had earlier greeted my arrival in the valley below and I listened in vain for skylarks or meadow pipits or the distant fluting of golden plovers. The morose moor was unrelentingly silent and a screen of smoke rising on the horizon, where gamekeepers were burning the heather, partially concealed the stark outline of Ingleborough, lending emphasis to the melancholy of a lost wilderness.

I didn’t stay long.  My annual pilgrimage this time was also the start of a journey along the entire length of the river Eden, which just had to begin at the top of the hill known as Hugh’s Seat.  There, at a height of 389 metres above the valley bottom, I could attain a real sense of the watershed where ‘Heaven water deals’ and ‘Heaven water divides’. 

With Mallerstang Edge to the east and Wild Boar Fell to the west, virtually identical heights of just over 700 metres, Mallerstang belongs, geologically, to the limestone country of the Yorkshire Dales.  Dominated by horizontal layers of carboniferous limestone, capped with gritstone escarpments, it represents over 350 million years of geological history.  Derived from sediment deposited and compressed by shallow tropical seas and primeval rivers, lifted by tumultuous upheavals in the Earth’s crust, they were cut into shape by the interminable passage of ice age glaciers and the melting, manic water in their wake.    

Surrounded by that vast ancient landscape I always feel acutely aware of the fleeting and miniscule time span of human history; a mere two million years.  A very small stone cairn on top of Hugh’s Seat, inscribed faintly with the initials AP and the date 1664, puts this neatly into perspective.  The cairn is Lady’s Pillar erected at the request of a remarkable 17th century landowner called Lady Anne Clifford, the Countess of Pembroke, who owned vast tracts of old Westmorland stretching between Mallerstang and Penrith.  It marks the source of the river and commemorates her notorious predecessor, the Norman knight Sir Hugh de Morville, who owned the same estates 500 years earlier and was one of the four knights who murdered Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

My plan was to travel the route in stages, short sections at a time, sometimes walking, sometimes by car, over the course of the proceeding seasons.  I descended from Hugh’s Seat feeling disappointed that there were no stirrings of spring at the source of the river to accompany my pilgrim’s moment.  But I still had the warmer embrace of the green valley below to look forward to, with its promise of skydiving lapwing, their sharp ‘pee-wit’ squawk complementing the curlews’ lugubrious refrain, and perhaps the sight of a few early spring flowers on sheltered grassy banks.   

As I proceeded down the hill a pair of grouse hurtled out of the drab, brittle heather in front of me, whirring and gliding, a feather’s breadth from the ground, on stubborn, stubby wings and seemingly mocking my retreat from the moor with their call to ‘go bak, bak, bak, bak’.  At that moment one of the frozen pools erupted in a turmoil of spluttering, spouting, silver bubbles like a cauldron of boiling water.  For a split second I thought I’d encountered a geyser of hot spring water bursting through the peat from the subterranean depths below Black Fell Moss.  Drawing closer, I realised it was frogs; a tumultuous tangle of copulating frogs rising to the surface in a frenzied orgy of vernal ecstasy!  Perhaps the grouse were right and I’d been too hastily dismissive of the desolate moor.  In being so preoccupied with watching and listening for manifestations of spring in the air I’d been ignoring the ground beneath my feet.

It was perfect; water was going to be my regular companion as I travelled along the length of the river and here was an entirely unexpected aquatic affirmation of renewal that lifted my spirits and filled me with an almost delirious surge of excited anticipation at the commencement of my journey.  The now confident stream was gathering momentum, channelling its way along the bottom of the steep-sided gully it had gouged out over thousands of years.  Its eroded banks are jagged with crumbling landslips and strewn with big broken slabs of stone that are testament to the water’s more aggressive progress and continuing excavations after heavy rain. Scrambling down the slope into the gill, shut off from the wider landscape, I felt a profound sense of intimacy with the river.  As I walked along its cloistered banks, the sound of rushing water filled the air like a chorus of excited voices chanting a mesmeric mantra “from the basement of time”.