Chestnut Red and Fiery Eyed (Instalment 11)
“There, where the Eden leisures through
its sandstone valley, is my view
of green and civil life that dwells
below a cliff of savage fells’’
Swingy Bridge doesn’t actually swing anymore although presumably it did in the 1960’s. The river has a history of rock ‘n’ roll excess here, bombarding and destabilising the bridge with trees uprooted in fits of rain-fuelled madness further upstream. The structure of the bridge has been replaced and strengthened over many years. I had new beams fitted during my time with ECCP that bent into a bow shape a year later when a huge tree trunk hit the middle pier and pushed it out of line. The bridge remained stable but I half expected, whenever I crossed it, that the pier might suddenly snap back into its central position and shoot me like an arrow through the air. A new abutment has been constructed since then and the middle pier replaced with a more secure foundation on the riverbed.
I stood as I have done hundreds of times, watching the river upstream and down, wishing I could see an otter. The water was golden brown, a rich blend of enfolded sunshine and dissolving peat from the hills, but there was no circle made bright by the sudden appearance of an otters head. Experienced naturalists tell me I would have a much better chance of seeing one if I came out very early in the morning and fishermen say they see otters in the River Eden at all times of the day!
Parting company with the river on the other side of the bridge I followed the path between the stacked stone blocks of the February poem and the derelict byre and turned left, towards Kirkby Stephen, along the narrow hedged lonning that was once a busy packhorse trail between Kirkby Stephen and Nateby.
The lonning gives way to an outlying remnant of deciduous woodland consisting mainly of beech, oak, elm and sycamore standing like great gentle giants with their long toes curled in the soil and their proud heads reaching for the sky. My appreciation of wild nature has always been emotionally and aesthetically driven! The scientific dimension mostly eludes me, to a large extent due to what Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s wayward son Hartley called “the woeful impotence of weak resolve”. Rather belatedly, as I’ve got older, some limited elementary science has crept into my starry-eyed perception of the world. I still take pleasure in trees as living sculptures, but I am much more aware of their biology and the power-house energy of their life cycle and wider ecological significance.
Eden is currently a stronghold for red squirrels although the American grey squirrels are increasingly evident, spreading up from other parts of England - where red squirrels are extinct - and threatening to extinguish the red squirrel population in this area as well. Grey squirrels carry a poxvirus that is harmless to themselves but fatal to their indigenous red counterpart.
“He sees me, and at once, swift as a bird,
Ascends the neighbouring beech: there whisks his brush,
And perks his ears, and stamps. And cries aloud,
With all the prettiness of feigned alarm,
And anger insignificantly fierce.”
Tragically it has become almost impossible, in my lifetime, to enjoy wildlife without worrying about all the doom laden issues relating to its survival, but I can still savour glorious moments like these, shining like beacons through the gloom. This one was a glittering sunburst of indifferent defiance. Chestnut red and fiery eyed, it paused to glance back at me, flouncing its flaming orange feather duster tail, before hopping into the undergrowth, only to emerge a few seconds later, half way up a beech tree. There it settled on a branch for a prolonged preening session. I watched until my neck ached and I was forced to move, but the squirrel completely ignored me and continued to preen as I walked down the track to the footbridge over Ladthwaite Beck into the adjoining field. Ladthwaite Beck twists its way out of the wood here, swerving below a sequestered vertical face of red sandstone before slipping submissively into the river Eden, which reappears obligingly at this point to keep me company again as I walk along the lower edge of the field.
The Beck comes down from Hartley Fell and is propelled along a narrow chute of glistening rock at the base of a precipitous white, carboniferous limestone cliff through an area of sloping woodland called Ewbank Scar Wood. The woodland is an officially designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. Its importance relates to species-rich limestone grassland and ancient semi-natural woodland that has survived over many hundreds of years and supports five nationally uncommon plant species and a breeding population of the scarce northern brown argus butterfly.
I opened up a Public Footpath, lost for many years in an impenetrable tangle of trees, as part of the Discover Eden Project. This was a programme of work, financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to improve and waymark fourteen circular walking routes on public paths at locations throughout east Cumbria to showcase the scenic diversity of the Eden catchment landscape. The area around Kirkby Stephen is well provided with interesting footpaths and bridleways but I was unable to resist the allure of a route up to the nine stone cairns, known as the Nine Standards, standing in a line like sentinels on the distant horizon of Hartley Fell. The path through Ewbank Scar Wood provides a scenically gratifying link up to the fell from the town. I’d had difficulty, on previous visits, identifying the path accurately in a bewildering maze of contouring ridges criss-crossing the steeply sloping wood and all of them obstructed by sprawling and fallen trees. Surveying a path in those conditions by eye, with only a small scale map as a guide, is always a challenge but I suspect the line of the path must have been one of those which was very hastily scrawled on the original 1950’s draft of the ‘Definitive’ Public Path map by a Parish Councillor who hadn’t had time to check it on the ground. After several exploratory visits I chose a line of least resistance, making sure the path descended along some of its length in close proximity to Ladthwaite Beck to provide some good views of the limestone cliff before rising again to the top edge of the wood.
The Eden flows on a straight course as it approaches Kirkby Stephen, still very much in its infancy, only 16 kilometres from its source above Mallerstang. This is an idyllic stretch lined generously with alder trees, where I sometimes see kingfishers and often linger for a while searching for pebbles that have a spherical or elliptical symmetry. Their smooth, water hewn perfection encapsulates the progress of the river over lapsed centuries with such utter simplicity. I have an expanding collection in a corner of my garden like a clutch of fossilised dinosaur’s eggs.