Eden Benchmarks
Exploring the cultural landscape in East Cumbria
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Kirkby Stephen (Instalment 13)

                                      “They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summers
Still all to come-
                                     And here they are again, here they are again.”
                                                                        Ted Hughes

There are three narrowly walled routes up to Kirkby Stephen from Frank’s Bridge.  The widest of these is called Stoneshot and is just about wide enough for the careful passage of a small car. Apparently it was designed so that it could be barricaded against Scottish attack during the centuries of conflict between England and Scotland.  I assume the name has something to do with Kirkby Stephen folk defending their town by shooting stones from slings and catapults down the lane and onto the heads of their Scottish invaders.

I like the sensation of emerging from a confined space into an open one and I enjoy this feeling as I emerge from Stoneshot Lane into the town.  At times, in the summer, the main street can be congested with daytime traffic, mainly vehicles on their way to and from other places, but often it is fairly quiet and in the evenings almost deserted.  There wasn’t much traffic going through when I arrived late that afternoon and the town was sleepily languid; silent except for the screaming of swifts racing like fighter jets above the rooftops.

These exquisite summer migrants arrive later than the swallows and house martins that share the same hunting sky-scape above the town and leave earlier, at the beginning of August, staying just long enough to rear their young.  Like little honorary hawks they slice through the air on sickle blade wings, snatching insects with their hooked beaks, constantly flying, except when they visit their nests under the eaves of suitably accommodating buildings to lay and hatch their eggs and feed their chicks.  They never deliberately land on the ground as they have tiny feet, which prohibits them from taking off again.  They need the height of their nest sites or a high vertical surface to launch into flight, so apart from when they are rearing chicks, they spend their entire lives in flight, even sleeping on the wing.

When I worked for the old Nature Conservancy in Wiltshire a colleague purchased a house with a badly rotted thatched roof that during the summer was full of nesting swifts.  He couldn’t afford to re-thatch it, so engaged a builder to tile it instead and stipulated that little doors be inserted under the eaves that could be slid to one side when the swifts’ arrival was imminent.  The builder was very dis-inclined to comply as he felt the unorthodox finish would reflect badly on his reputation but my colleague insisted and the doors were duly fitted.  I remember him describing the suspense the following spring, after he’d opened the doors, lying in bed listening for their shuffling arrival and his jubilant relief when they did.  He endured the same bedtime suspense every spring but they always returned within the same two or three nights every April.  That was forty years ago when our globe was in better shape and peoples’ roofs less hermetically sealed.  Now there are fewer and fewer swifts making it each year and a lot less certainty about our eco-system “still waking refreshed” and our globe “still working”.

Kirkby Stephen’s ancient Church is a prominent feature in the town, as the name indicates – ‘Kirk’ meaning Church and ‘by’ meaning settlement.  An impressive building with a long nave and the stately proportions of a small cathedral, it is known as the Cathedral of the Dales.   The name ‘Stephen’ doesn’t relate to the church or an association with St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and is more likely to be a corruption of the Old Norse ‘Vest Idun’ meaning, simply, west of the Eden.  Nobody knows for sure.

“....Loki was interested in chaos – his stories contain flames and waterfalls, the formless things inside which chaos theorists perceive order inside disorder.  He is interested in the order in destruction and the destruction in order.  If I were writing an allegory he would be the detached scientific intelligence which could either save the earth or contribute to its rapid disintegration.  As it is, the world ends because neither the all too human gods, with their armies and quarrels, nor the fiery thinker know how to save it.”
                                                                                                            A.S. Byatt

Inside the church there is a block of stone known as the Loki Stone, possibly a fragment from the shaft of an early cross, bearing a grotesquely carved male figure with horns growing out of his head and his arms and legs locked in chains.  Once again we are in Viking territory as he is generally considered to be the Norse god Loki, although the horns may have been added later by early Christians to make him look like their vanquished Devil.  In Norse mythology he was a ‘giant’ rather than a fully-fledged god but he acted as a kind of clever jester to the gods and was a ‘shape changer’, capable of astounding metamorphosis.  He could be anything he liked and his transformations included a horse, a salmon, a falcon and the ability to change his gender.  He was a brilliant prankster who ingratiated himself with the gods and, because they enjoyed his company and the solutions he often found to their problems, he was able to trick them into thinking he was a god too and became known as the God of Fire. He was also very promiscuous and had several wives and mistresses who gave birth to several children, one of them being Hel, Goddess of the Underworld.

As time went on his mischievous antics got out of hand and he became increasingly and outrageously malicious and full of himself.  So much so that it was said he triggered ‘Ragnarok’, a chain of events that led to the final destruction of the gods and their world.  A.S. Byatt, in her book ‘Ragnarok: the End of the Gods’ sees Loki as a personification of human beings. A species of animal bringing about the end of the world into which it was born, not out of deliberate wickedness but because of a ticking time-bomb combination of god like intellect, appalling greed, unceasing multiplication of its own kind and a pathological inability to acknowledge the irreversible harm it is inflicting on the planet it inhabits.              

The cloisters in front of the church was built in 1810 and once served as a butter market but there has been a regular market of sorts in the square since the royal granting of a market charter in 1353.  These days it’s where the local disaffected youths hang out to agonise over the meaning of life.  Their anguish seems to generate a lot of shouting and distribution of litter.  Thankfully there was no sign of them as I sat down on one of the benches in the market square and surveyed the town.  They must have gone home to their long-suffering mums for tea.  I shut my eyes and listened to the swifts, only to open them again when the swifts’ screams were suddenly augmented by the raucous screech of parrots.  In many ways Kirkby Stephen is quite an austere town.  It was a Roundhead town during the English civil war and still has a plain no nonsense air, so it surprises visitors when pairs of macaws, resplendent in bright red, blue, orange and yellow plumage, unexpectedly alight on chimneys squawking their heads off.  Kirkby Stephen’s understated facade belies the amiability and good humour of its resident human population, and the macaws, which fly free most of the year, provide a succinct expression of it.  They are kept in a private aviary, along with a diverse collection of smaller parrots that can sometimes be seen out and about congregating in trees on the outskirts of the town.   

Kirkby Stephen has endured all the usual conflicts thrown up by its history and many of the buildings bear witness to disputing factions within the community itself.  Mostly it was religion verses alcohol.  At one time temperance marches and rallies were a regular occurrence in Market Street and there were fourteen pubs jostling with almost the same number of churches and chapels.  Currently there are four pubs and rather more religious establishments, but the people who live here now mostly live and let live and it is a very pleasant little town.  Like any remote, working, rural community it struggles with a fragile economy.  It has a thriving farmers’ mart which is at the heart of a very energetic and determined wider agricultural community.  Businesses and shops come and go, as do new initiatives, like walking festivals and mock medieval fairs, yet the town battles on and I suspect it will win through in the end.  It is, after all, at the centre of a veritable countryside paradise surrounded by its nine satellite villages, Ravenstonedale, Crosby Garrett, Soulby, Warcop, Great Musgrave, Winton, Hartley, Nateby and Outhgill, nestling luxuriously in their bucolic upper Eden splendour; a kaleidoscope of wildlife habitats, including the nationally acclaimed Smardale National Nature Reserve and three other botanical treasure troves managed by Cumbria Wildlife Trust.  The river Eden itself and most of its tributaries are collectively a Site of Special Scientific Interest, recognised on a European scale with Special Area of Conservation status; its headwaters around Kirkby Stephen are where it all starts.

It’s a very accessible paradise too; a blissfully vibrant, time layered landscape interconnected with innumerable quiet and sequestered footpaths, bridleways, byways and old railway tracks that radiate from the town and absorb walkers, horse riders and cyclists alike.  It always feels to me when I set off to go walking in the upper Eden area, as John Muir the Scottish environmentalist once said, “more like going in than going out”.

North of Kirkby Stephen I followed a length of public footpath by the river Eden through ‘Edensyde’, a field where, in 2009, the Town Council planted 500 native trees, including ash, oak, hazel and hawthorn, to be managed as a community wood.  The Council had purchased the field many years before as an amenity area for the town, but nothing constructive was done with it until someone proposed concreting it over and turning it into a skate park.  It so happened that shortly before I heard this staggeringly insensitive and inappropriate suggestion I’d received some information from the Woodland Trust outlining a scheme whereby it was offering free trees to communities who wanted to create new amenity woodland.  With eager anticipation I attended the next Town Council meeting to convey this fortuitous opportunity. The councillors were all present at the meeting, and there were nine of them, which I took to be a good omen and, sure enough, they all shared my alarm about the prospect of a skate park destroying Edensyde’s special riverside charm.   It wasn’t that any of us objected to a skate park per se.  There had been support for building one much more suitably, as had been the original intention, on a defunct football field next to the Grammar school.  We all agreed that a community wood was a much better idea and, in due course, the trees were delivered and volunteers from the Rotary Club and the local Scout Group were soon busy planting them.  2009 was a dry year and the trees were slow to get started but two or three wet summers since have invigorated their growth and they are now thriving like an irrepressible, woodland kindergarten.

I was watching out for the iridescent flash of a kingfisher as I emerged onto the road bridge and glanced down at the river from the parapet.  There, instead, was a male sparrowhawk, resplendently slate blue and orange, gliding inches above the river’s surface, head inclined towards the far bank as he searched for prey.  He spotted me suddenly and, with palpable irritation, quickened his flight under the bridge to emerge on the other side in a long, backtracking, sinuous loop into the sky where his surprise appearance detonated an explosion of panic stricken, small green parrots from their hiding place in the topmost branches of an alder tree.  It might have been fanciful thinking but I was sure I counted nine of them!