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Unstoppable Fecundity (Instalment 7)
“Blown bubble-film of blue, the sky wraps round
Weeds of warm light whose every root and rod
Splutters with soapy green, and all the world
Sweats with the bead of summer in its bud.”
Lady Anne Clifford’s Way follows a narrow section of tarmacked road behind Pendragon Castle, where it crosses the River Eden and turns uphill before turning off, to the right, on a rough, but level, track. The road, known as the Tommy Road, continues over the fell to join the main road between Sedbergh and Kirkby Stephen. It was surfaced with tarmac sometime after the Second World War. A little way along the track, at the bottom of a steeply plummeting gill, the river emerges dramatically from behind the preceding hill with an increasingly assured flourish, swollen with the constant recruitment of numerous converging becks.
There is a lime kiln here, on the fell to the left, well preserved with a neat arch still intact. Once used to burn limestone quarried in the vicinity, the lime dust produced was spread on the fields as fertiliser or made into mortar for building and whitewash for painting walls. More recently, a few years ago, the kiln served as one of a series of stage sets for the Brough Players, most of whom were local schoolteachers who acted out the story of Uther Pendragon and Merlin in a series of linked performances on a walk from Pendragon Castle to Stenkrith Park on the outskirts of Kirkby Stephen. As part of the Kirkby Stephen Walking and Countryside Festival, until its untimely demise, the performance walk was an annually recurring event for a number of years. I had introduced the idea of the walk to the festival committee and provided the funding from East Cumbria Countryside Project’s interpretative events budget. The walks attracted perambulating audiences of up to eighty people. Different plays with varying themes were performed each year alternating between Uther Pendragon stories and Viking mythology. I liked the first one best. Written by a writer in residence, with help from pupils at Kirkby Stephen Primary School, it was called ‘Penning the Dragon’. I had asked them to incorporate a conservation theme and they invented a story about a dragon’s egg, representing “our countryside, our landscape and our life”, rescued from imprisonment at Pendragon Castle and carried on a journey back to its birthplace in a cave at Stenkrith Park. The main character was Merlin who materialised intermittently, in voluminous puffs of coloured smoke, to pose riddles and offer the gifts of earth, air, water and fire.
As I wandered along, lost in my recollections of the actors brilliant performances, my ears suddenly picked up the ethereal mewing of two buzzards gliding in dreamy circles across a clear blue sky. Several weeks had passed since my wintry visit to the source of the Eden and spring had arrived with unstoppable fecundity. Buzzards are big languorous raptors with a tendency to eat animals that are already dead so, to some extent, they are left alone to grace our skies with their delightful thermal surfing. It may not be long before they are joined by red kites. Over a three year period, commencing during the summer of 2010, ninety red kites were released by the Forestry Commission from Grizedale Forest in the Lake District. This was the final number released as part of a bigger red kite reintroduction programme, started in 1998, involving eight locations throughout England and Scotland. Superficially similar to buzzards in their behaviour, red kites are easily identified by the russet red of their plumage and a distinctively forked tail. Primarily a carrion eater, even more so than buzzards, they were once our most widespread bird of prey, commonly seen in medieval times scavenging in the rubbish strewn, rat and mouse infested streets of our cities. By the end of the 19th century relentless persecution led to their total extinction in England and Scotland and left fewer than a dozen survivors in Wales. With concerted conservation measures in recent years the Welsh population has increased to compliment an expanding population of over 2,000 reintroduced birds in the UK as a whole. Experts assure us that they happily coexist with buzzards.
The grassy track continues along the lower contours of Birkett Common taking me downhill to a flat expanse of ground closer to the river where I added a pair of wheatear to my list of newly arriving spring birds, the male ‘chack, chacking’ and flitting and dashing along in front of me, showing off its bright white rump. I used to think they were named wheatear because the pattern on the sides of their heads vaguely resembles the shape of an ear of wheat but it actually derives from the much less subtle, but diagnostically appropriate, description ‘white arse’.
‘Dalefoot’ farmhouse, on the other side of the river, is on the site of a house called ‘Blue Grass’, which in Lady Anne Clifford’s time was the tenanted home of the notorious Robert Atkinson who, in her diary, she referred to, as her “great enemie”. My dismissive impression, when I first read about him in Lady Anne’s diaries, was that he must have been a rather nasty, bad tempered thug, but I later modified that opinion when I realised he was, in effect, waging his own, personal, war with the landowning gentry. Lady Anne was his great enemy! This was a time of widespread unrest. The Civil War had ended in chaos and left ordinary people seething with resentment. There was actually a class war simmering and grass roots rebellion was rife. Lady Anne, a staunch royalist, was extremely wealthy, whereas most of the common people in Mallerstang, Ravenstonedale and Kirkby Stephen were poor and thoroughly downtrodden by the rich ‘upper’ classes. The Quakers were emerging as a significant rebellious force, promoting their cause by peaceful means, and being thrown into prison as a consequence. Robert Atkinson obviously didn’t share their pacifist convictions. He was a volatile character who had killed another resident of Mallerstang in a sword fight near Pendragon Castle and, as a republican captain in Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentary army, fought in the Civil War against King Charles 1 and was Parliamentary Governor of Lady Anne’s Roundhead occupied castle in Appleby from 1645 to 1648. But it was probably his refusal to pay arrears in rent and manorial tithes in Mallerstang, accrued in her absence, which really annoyed Lady Anne. She was eventually relieved of his antagonism when he was arrested, tried for treason and executed for leading the Kaber Rigg Plot, an abortive uprising in 1663, which included an attempt to recapture Appleby Castle. A touching footnote, to Lady Anne’s great credit, is the fact that she befriended his widow, thereafter inviting her regularly for dinner and allowing her to remain, with her children, as a tenant of Blue Grass at a much reduced rent.
As the path veers up the fell overlooking and parallel with a widely sweeping shingle bank in the river, a quite different landscape comes into view. The flatter lie of the land here has been exploited by more intensive farming methods, its human and natural history subjugated by the removal of old field boundaries, the ploughing out of ancient herb rich turf, reseeding with rye grass and regular application of herbicides and artificial fertiliser. The lush, almost luminous, sward adds a surreally stark quality to the sadly dilapidated condition of the 14th century pele tower called Lammerside Castle. Not much is known about it and nobody seems to care that it is close to total collapse.
The luminous fields were crowded with a mix of cross bred ewes and their milk-fat, twin lambs languishing nearby; a few early swallows, still hungry after the exertions of their long flight from Africa, darted and twisted in pursuit of the flies buzzing around just inches above the sleepy ewes’ round woolly heads. Oyster catchers are numerous on this stretch of the river where the heaps of shingle are much to their liking. I saw four pairs sitting together, peering down their long red beaks at nothing in particular. They certainly don’t seem to mind the uniformity of the grass monoculture. I always smile when I see them. They arrive inland in the spring to breed, along with lapwing and curlew, but have a bemused, ‘morning after the night before’ appearance, still resplendent in their black and white best bibs and tuckers.
Further on there is an extensive area either side of the river, which has been planted with native trees, where I hoped I might see more summer migrants. It would have been gratifying to hear chiffchaffs or wood warblers, but all I could hear was the persistent bleating of the sheep. Successful bird watching is as much dependant on listening as it is on looking and there are many birds, with higher pitched calls, I can no longer hear due to slight deafness in my advancing years.
A bird I definitely can still hear, however, is the fieldfare and as I rounded a corner into the next field, a, large noisy congregation of these handsome Scandinavian thrushes had assembled at the top of a tall sycamore tree, filling it’s trembling leaf layered crown with a mighty crescendo of excited guttural chattering. Unlike all the other migrants I encountered that morning these birds were looking forward to leaving Britain for the summer and I left them poised in their crowded, sycamore vaulted departure lounge nervously preparing for their impending flight to some distant Norwegian wood.