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Intrusive Thoughts (Instalment 6)
“Sparrowhawks were always near me in the dusk. Like something I meant to say but could never quite remember. Their narrow heads glared blindly through my sleep. I pursued them for many summers, but they were hard to find and harder to see, being so few and so wary. They lived a fugitive, guerrilla life. In all the overgrown neglected places the frail bones of generations of sparrowhawks are sifting down now into the deep humus of the woods. They were a banished race of beautiful barbarians and when they died they could not be replaced”
J.A. Baker in his book The Perergrine first published in 1967
From ‘Water Cut’ the panoramic vista of the Pennines stretches across the horizon with only a partially glimpsed view of the Eden Valley plateau through a narrow gap at the northern end of the dale. The flat summit of Cross Fell, 893 metres high, and Great Dunn Fell with its ‘giant golf ball’ radar station, dominate the scene over to the left. Ranging across to the right is the huge expanse of fell owned by the Ministry of Defence, one of the biggest army training areas in the UK.
As I stood to resume my walk a female kestrel swooped down in front of me and settled into a pocket of air, quivering like a prima ballerina, on flickering, pointed wings. She hung, in trembling suspense, with huge eyes fixed upon a millimetre of turf ten metres below, before she dropped with ballistic accuracy to the ground, lay briefly in the tufted sedge and then sprung into flight, dashing away with a vole clenched firmly in her talons.
I love hawks. I always feel so immensely privileged when I see them and so sad when I think how the devastating persecution they have suffered in the past continues to this day, despite legislation which is supposed to give all hawks absolute legal protection. Of all the birds of prey, sparrowhawks are my favourite. They were brought to the brink of extinction in the 1960’s, along with peregrine falcons, by the indiscriminate use of organochlorine pesticides in agriculture. Just in the nick of time the Government banned their use and populations of both of these truly magnificent predators have since gradually recovered.
Whereas kestrels seem almost oblivious to human company and are often seen hunting nonchalantly over motorway and roadside verges, sparrowhawks are clandestine hunters; noble savages, ever vigilant, concealing themselves in woods and hedges and looking out at us with angry yellow eyes. That’s why I like them so much; they are creatures of the original ‘wildwood’. Only when they think we’re not watching do they slip out of their hiding places in low gliding forays and burst into action, twisting and turning, to pounce on their prey with a swashbuckling, feather busting, flourish. It seems they are less persecuted than they used to be but long term studies indicate that significant numbers are now starving to death due to a scarcity of the smaller birds they eat. I often hear people blaming sparrowhawks for this scarcity when, in fact, it is modern farming methods that are to blame. Optimum populations of small birds are well able to withstand sparrowhawk predation on farmland when their shared habitats are responsibly conserved.
Certain species of hawks, like hen harriers, are still being persecuted in the remote open uplands they inhabit and are viciously poisoned and trapped on grouse moors, with sickening regularity, throughout the north of England and most of Scotland. If it wasn’t for this illegal slaughter there would be several hundred breeding pairs across England, instead of which only one or two pairs have nested successfully in recent years. The success of breeding peregrine falcons, the aristocrat of hawks, has also been found in recent surveys to be fifty percent lower on grouse moors than elsewhere. Little seems to have changed since the Victorian era. Detecting and gathering evidence of this both pointless and illusive criminal activity is notoriously difficult. Even when there is a successful prosecution, the perpetrator of the crime is invariably a game-keeper who subserviently takes all the blame whilst his affluent and hypocritical employer, who gives him orders and pays the fines, remains beyond the reach of the law.
The trouble with walking is that it stimulates a lot of intrusive thinking which isn’t at all conducive to the pure enjoyment of an actual walk. I like the Buddhist idea of walking meditation, concentrating ‘mindfully’ on the here and now and the contact we feel between the soles of our feet and the ground. Mostly it comes quite naturally and, as I made my way down the hill from ‘Water Cut’, I didn’t find it too difficult to let my feet do the thinking, set my mind free and succumb to the voluptuous transcendentalism of being at one with the exquisite, all consuming immensity of the Mallerstang landscape.
It wasn’t long, however, on this occasion, before my intrusive angst intruded yet again. Some years ago the path was deeply rutted and potholed and permanently running with water but it was dramatically improved with the installation of some substantial culverts and extensive resurfacing after it became part of the officially designated Pennine Bridleway. Bizarrely, because of its historic status as a ‘road’, it still legally facilitates vehicular rights and is officially designated a Byway Open to All Traffic. Those in the know call them BOATS. It always seems like an odd anomaly to me; our world is already overwhelmed by the internal combustion engine, literally with CO2 emissions polluting our skies as well as the air we breathe. Our everyday lives are massively tyrannized by the noise of traffic and the relentless proliferation of roads and motorways to accommodate it. So why must we suffer the intrusion of ‘off road’ motor vehicles shattering our peace in the quieter, more remote parts of our rural environment?
At that very moment, as if by some vindictive magic, a vehicle appeared at the bottom of the hill and I watched it, with some irritation, lumbering towards me, alternately disappearing and reappearing as its driver negotiated the sharp bends and dipped into the hollows to cross those purpose built culverts over the traversing becks. As it drew nearer I tried to suppress my annoyance. At least it was just the one vehicle. They usually travel in convoys, sometimes in dozens of vehicles at a time. This one contained a plump, sweetly smiling, middle-aged couple clearly enjoying themselves enormously and, as they greeted me with excited, friendly waves, I regretted the meanness of my reaction.
It was still a beautiful day, their purring engine hardly intruded at all and within seconds they’d gone; back to mindfulness! The valley at the base of Wild Boar Fell, beneath the railway line, is a pleasing mix of farmsteads, walled fields and scrubby woodland. There is a Public Footpath alongside the river there, unlike elsewhere in Mallerstang. Public Rights of Way often follow, what seem to us, irrational routes because they originate from a time when local residents were mostly obliged to walk almost everywhere. Consequently most of the paths in Mallerstang follow the shortest routes connecting the houses, churches, chapels and schools. The fields containing the barns are, or were, hay meadows. The barns were built with two floor levels so that hay, cut in the summer, could be stored upstairs and fed directly to cattle, which were housed downstairs, in the winter. Since the advent of the tractor, farming activities have become more centralised so most of the field barns, such a characteristic component of the traditional dales landscape, have become obsolete and are gradually falling down.
Looking up at the lofty limestone escarpment of Mallerstang Edge reminds me of the dramatic scenery in cowboy and indian films and I half expect to see a band of Sioux warriors sitting on their horses in a row, staring down at me with steely disdain. It is much more likely they would be Viking ghosts. The area surrounding the bottom of Lady Anne’s Way is called Boggle Green and Boggle is a Celtic/Norse word for a ghost, so if ever I do see a line of horsemen up there, it will probably be Viking zombies riding spectral steeds to the ghoulish nether regions of Hel Gill.
It was almost a relief to emerge on the road and walk along to Outhgill, a hamlet of seven or eight houses; at one time they included a public house, which would have provided me with some welcome refreshment but it closed a long time ago. A blacksmiths, a community hall, a shop and post office and a school are also long gone. The little church was built in the 14th Century and lay in ruins for many years until the ubiquitous Lady Anne Clifford came along and restored it.
A replica of a stone pillar called ‘the Jew’s Stone’ stands on the village green where it was erected in 1989. The original pillar was installed by a man called William Mounsey near the source of the river Eden in 1850 and destroyed by vandals twenty years later. Mounsey lived north of Carlisle, at Castle Town House in Rockcliffe overlooking the salt flats of the Solway Firth where the River Eden pours into the sea. He was apparently rather an odd and unconventional character who had bought himself out of an unsuccessful army career and, although not Jewish, affected the appearance of an Orthodox Jew and studied Jewish history. He erected the pillar to mark his completion of a walk from his home in Rockcliffe along the length of the river to its source.
It is inscribed with some text in Latin and Greek. The Greek inscription starts “Seek the river of the soul, whence it springs” and equates his journey with the prospect of an anticipated place in heaven but the Latin text conveys the more grounded statement, “William Mounsey, a lone traveller, having commenced his journey at the mouth and finished at the source, fulfilled his vow to the genius and nymphs of the Eden on the 15th March 1850”.
There is also one of Andy Goldsworthy’s ‘Pinfold Cairns’, hidden behind the house at the top end of the village green. Goldsworthy built six of these egg shaped cairns in six upper Eden villages as part of his county wide Sheepfolds project.
“This summer did I cause a wall of lime and stone to be built round about that piece of ground which I had taken in about Pendragon Castle, of about 10 quarters in height and 90 roodes in compasse, and two gates to be made to lett in horses and coaches. And within the sayd wall I caused to be built a stable and coach house, a brewhouse, bakehouse and washhouse, and a little chamber over the gate that is arched.”
Lady Anne Clifford. Entry in her diary 1662.
A little further along the road sits the intriguing 800 years old ruin of Pendragon Castle. The name Pendragon is Celtic for ‘Commander in Chief’ but the supposition that it was occupied by Uther Pendragon and his son, the mythical Celtic hero King Arthur, is unlikely to be true because castles were not built with stone until the much later Norman period. The Norman Knight Hugh de Morville was one of its earliest owners, in the 12th century, when it would have been three storeys high with a ground floor basement, a great hall and vaulted chambers. It was burned down by Scottish raiders on numerous occasions over the years. Later owners included two remarkably independent women, Lady Idonea de Veteripont in the 14th century and that indomitable Lady Anne Clifford in the 17th century. Both women had acquired the building in a ruinous state and restored it to its former glory but after Lady Anne died it was dismantled, plundered for its stone and left thereafter to the ravages of the weather. Lady Anne had inherited Pendragon, when she was sixty years old, along with her three other castles at Brough, Appleby and Brougham. Despite her advancing age, she then devoted the remaining years of her life to restoring, improving and living in each of them in turn, for months at a time, as she constantly went the rounds of her Westmorland estates. She was 86 when she died.
Prior to Hugh de Morville’s time, Celtic and Saxon people constructed fortresses with wooden stakes so there is every possibility that a succession of fortified timber structures preceded the stone castle on the same site. There are no documentary references to the name Pendragon Castle, however, until the 14th century. Perhaps it was Lady Idonea de Veteripoint who dubbed it Pendragon simply because she liked the mysterious Arthurian frisson it gave to her isolated and lonely Westmorland residence so far away from the bustle of fashionable society further south.
The ruin is now managed and, inexplicably, kept closed to the public by the Frankland Estates, with a committee, which has supplanted its recently deceased owner, local landowner and naturalist, Juliet Frankland. It was purchased in 1962 for £525 by Juliet’s late husband Raven Frankland who had the walls consolidated and pointed with lime mortar to prevent further deterioration.
“The future flutters on the wing of a dragonfly as it soars
by with our dreams.
Forever, we hold hands,
the hope and love still shining in our eyes.”
On the afternoon of 8th July 2006 my daughter Oonagh and her partner Chris, with Juliet’s kind permission, held a Humanist wedding here; Humanism is a secular, non-theistic philosophy of life and a framework of beliefs that provides the basis for a moral outlook without recourse to any notion of the supernatural. The occasion, none the less, had much in common with a traditional religious wedding and they exchanged their marriage vows and rings and drank sweet violet wine from a ‘loving cup’ in a ceremony borrowed from the Celts. Nature’s glorious landscape was our church on that utopian day and, just as the wedding finished, a family of excited oyster catchers flew overhead, as if on cue, like aerobatic harlequins, piercing the air with a jubilant fanfare of cacophonous whistling.