Eden Benchmarks
Exploring the cultural landscape in East Cumbria
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Passage (Instalment 9)

Once.....once upon a time....
Like a dream you dream in the night,
Faries and gnomes stole out
In the leaf green light.
Walter de la Mare

I turned onto the footpath leading to the river, which is the one the local Ramblers Association group suggested at the start of the Wharton Hall public paths rationalisation saga.  The speed of the river quickens as it changes direction through a narrow ravine, funnelling its way below the arch of the road bridge and swirling between and over huge slabs of potholed, water worn stone. 

I crossed the road into Stenkrith Park where the freshly emerging foliage on an understory of twisted hawthorn trees was catching the sunlight and glowing like an effervescent green mist.  Stenkrith Park is one of those special little places that exudes an ambience all of its own.  A genius loci surely resides here, if not a community of fairies.  I breathed in the pungent smell of wild garlic and descended the well-trodden track to walk with the river again.  The garlic wasn’t in flower but the ground was bright with the starry white petals of wood anemones, a few yellow patches of primroses, daffodils, celandines and tiny clusters of purple violets.  The river struts gamely out from below the neat stone arch of the road bridge and the elegant curve of the blue metal footbridge, veiled by the lace of overhanging trees. 

The galvanised steel footbridge strikes a Victorian note in style but is actually quite new having been built to coincide with the Millennium. Its installation was delayed until 2002 because of the access restrictions imposed during the foot and mouth epidemic the previous year.  Designed by Charles Blackett-Ord, a local civil engineer, it was commissioned to provide a pedestrian crossing over the river to connect with the redundant railway track, which is now a footpath between Stenkrith and Hartley.  The footpath was the brainchild of Mike Sunderland, a local school teacher, who was so incensed when a dilapidated fence preventing public access along the track was renewed, he decided to investigate its ownership and discovered, to his surprise, that most of it was still owned by Railtrack.  As the line includes two picturesque viaducts, Podgill and Merrygill, he contacted the Northern Viaduct Trust, an organisation set up to renovate obsolete railway viaducts.  They, in due course, purchased the line, found the money to restore it and converted it into a wonderful resource for walkers, cyclists and disabled people in wheelchairs.  Mike’s unwavering tenacity drove the project forward and his project management skills ensured that the highest quality was achieved in every detail.

The footbridge also provides a viewing platform from which to look down at the cascading water in the gorge below.  A great, elliptical shaped crater has been scooped out of the craggy rock by the river’s powerful current and the abrasive, churning scree of small stones it carries.  The crater has been known as the Devil’s Mustard Mill in the past, or more logically, the Coopkarnel, a Danish word meaning cup shaped chasm.    

‘Passage’, the second Eden Benchmark sculpture, is located here and well named.  Of all the Benchmarks this is the least popular, partly I suspect, because it exactly mimics the water eroded rocks in the river and people judge it to be bland and unimaginative.  Laura White, the artist concerned, was anxious to avoid making a sculpture that would impose discordantly on what she recognised is a very sensitive site.  She had just returned from a sculpture symposium in Japan when she started her residency in Kirkby Stephen and had been inspired by the “less is more” philosophy of Japanese culture.  The shapes she carved in the stones are clearly derived from the shapes she observed in the riverbed boulders, but carefully refined, like the words in a poem.  Unfortunately, Laura’s choice of stone proved to be a mistake.  Instead of a hard Cumbrian limestone, she insisted on using Ancaster Limestone, a softer stone quarried in Lincolnshire, with characteristic blue veining which conveys an impression of flowing water.  I liked the idea too, at the time, but what I hadn’t anticipated was its propensity to crumble.  Its detractors will be pleased.        

Laura graduated with a first class honours degree in sculpture from Loughborough College of Art and Design.  Preoccupied, in her early work, with stone carving that explored elaborate and tactile organic themes she has since developed an interest in making sculpture that combines a range of materials with mixed media and projected video images.  She is now, as it happens, more interested in exploring transience and decay, so she might well approve of her bio-degradable Stenkrith sculpture.  She lives in London and teaches at Goldsmiths College, London and Manchester Metropolitan University.

I sat for a while, contentedly immersed in the “leaf green light” of this microcosmic arboreal sanctuary listening to the music of the water and relishing the wise council and visual theatre of the trees. Sheltered on the far side below the high, tree covered bank, this stretch of the river is endlessly fascinating, stretching wide as it percolates through serried ranks of fissured and perforated blocks of flat rock.  On days of incessant rain the blocks disappear under a swelling rampage of swirling whirlpools filled with pebbles, which resume their frenetic grinding of the cup shaped holes.  On calmer summer days the river subsides and children collect the polished pebbles in buckets, spending many happy hours playing, paddling and picnicking just as they would at the seaside.  Geologically, Stenkrith is the place where the pale grey limestone of the Dales meets the dark red sandstone of the Eden valley and most of the rock is a naturally occurring conglomerate of the two, called Brockram, consisting of limestone fragments cemented within highly compressed sandstone.

Two dippers were flying, hither and thither, alighting on the stones, bobbing and curtseying to each other in an elegant waltz and, every so often, plunging underwater to walk on the river bed in search of insect sustenance.  Chocolate brown with expansive white chests and constantly twitching tails, they sing a surprisingly sweet, rippling song.  They were suddenly joined by a pair of grey wagtails skittering back and forth, stealing the limelight, dashing from boulder to boulder, dancing the fandango, long slender tails bouncing in time to the tempo of the rushing water and the male flashing his yellow breast provocatively at his partner. Gnomes and fairies.

Stenkrith is like a tiny vestigial forest.  The landscape we have around Kirkby Stephen today, with its patchwork of fields, drystone walls, hedges, small woods and shelter belts, along the river valley and rising up to the high bare hills, is the result of an uneasy alliance between farmers and nature that started thousands of years ago.  Nowadays it is predominately sheep rearing country and farmers are no longer so concordant with nature.  Some cattle are kept but the hill farmers’ year mainly revolves around the care of sheep with a particular focus on the Swaledale breed. 

In prehistoric times it was a forest-covered wilderness, teeming with wildlife, where our earliest ancestors made small clearings for their huts when they were hunters and gatherers.  Then, as time went on and their agricultural skills developed, they cleared more and more trees to make room for crops and grazing animals.  So the wild wood diminished.  By the thirteenth century almost nothing of the original woodland survived and most of the remaining fragments were managed for timber production.  In the succeeding centuries, as marshy valleys were drained and agriculture evolved to become more centralised and efficient, some of the cleared woodland on marginal land regenerated and farming practice, based on a system of commoners’ rights, coexisted in harmony with wild nature.  Small woods were coppiced in rotation, maintaining many of the ecological characteristics of the forest, where flowers, insects and birds could thrive.

This harmony was largely coincidental, arising from the farmers need to synchronise with the natural scheme of things and be self-sufficient.  Since the Second World War huge advances in agricultural productivity and transport have made it possible for farmers to over-ride ecological processes.  Developments in mechanisation and chemical technology subject wildlife to unprecedented pressures, detrimental to its survival, so that nature conservation is now greatly dependent on modern farmers making a conscious effort to facilitate habitat management as an integral part of their role.  Farmers are under pressure in the 21st century to be wildlife habitat managers as well as food producers.  Kirkby Stephen’s landscape is spectacularly beautiful.  Local farmers are quick to agree that this makes it a very special area in which to live and work.  They seem less prepared to admit that an ecologically robust countryside is a crucial factor in relation to the high quality of their meat and dairy products along with the importance of recreational access and tourism in support of a sustainable rural economy.

All these aspects of countryside management are inextricably interdependent and all of them entirely reliant on the ability and willingness of farmers to reconcile society’s frequently conflicting demands on the landscape we all share.