England’s Last Wilderness

This article first appeared in TNT magazine.

Northumberland, the most sparsely populated county in England, is the nearest thing to wilderness south of Scotland. There are only 63 people per square kilometre and, standing on a mile of pristine beach, with a castle brooding over the shore and hills fringing the horizon, I wonder why. Then the wind starts. Ten minutes later, I’m sandblasted from the beach. So that’s why no one comes here.

Puffins on the Farne Islands
Puffins on the Farne Islands

Well, no. It’s not just the weather, though a typical Northumbrian day will include four seasons, a taste of an Ice Age and half an hour trying to see the hand in front of your face when the sea fog (sea fret as the locals call it) rolls in. Northumberland is border land, it’s been border land since the Romans came up here, decided they’d gone far enough and built a wall, and its history dictates its present in a way unknown elsewhere in England.

There’s no better way to understand history than digging it up, and with the Bamburgh Research Project (www.bamburghresearchproject.co.uk, from £171 per week) I could do just that. The BRP is an ongoing archaeological project, open to volunteers, excavating in and around Bamburgh Castle. If there’s a more spectacular place to do archaeology, I don’t know it. The castle squats on a huge great hunk of dolerite, an outcrop of the Great Whin Sill that formed 295 million years ago when magma squeezed between two layers of softer rock and set hard. Since then, the soft rock has been eroding away, and outcrops of the Great Whin Sill form some of the key landscape features of the north, including High Force waterfall in Durham and the Farne Islands, a couple of miles out into the North Sea from Bamburgh.

Digging for understanding
Digging for understanding

“You can tell by the sound your trowel makes what you’re digging through. Grit is hard and clacking, sand is abrasive and scraping, clay produces a smooth hiss.” Paul Gething, co-founder and co-director of the BRP, sits back on his haunches and explains to the week’s intake of volunteers what we need to look – and listen for – as we excavate. Among the amateur archaeologists are students gaining credits for archaeology degrees, a seventy-year-old inspired by Time Team and those inspired by what Paul calls “the raw power of the past”. Most spend the week camping with the archaeologists at a nearby camp site, juddering in to the castle each morning in a bumpy Land Rover before spending the day digging with increasingly finely graded implements (culminating in the gingerly wielded toothbrush that I used to scrape sand from a tibia emerging from a rediscovered graveyard), sifting excavated materials through flotation tanks, and tagging and bagging the day’s finds (from the ubiquitous bones and pottery, through stycas – Northumbrian coins – to exquisite pieces of gold jewellery).

Yeavering Bell
Yeavering Bell

But if you’re the sort of person who finds even the handful of people on the beach at Bamburgh too invasive, head inland. In the lee of the Cheviot Hills is Ad Gefrin. It’s a field now, but it was once the summer palace of the kings of Northumbria. Looming over Ad Gefrin, the conical hill of Yeavering Bell is also testament to the illusions of power. During the Iron Age, the greatest chieftain of the land built a fort atop the hill, its great, tumbledown stone ramparts still crowning the summit. But the chieftain is forgotten, his people gone and, as I stand on the summit, I reflect that I have not seen another human being all day. And, rubbing aching legs, that our ancestors must have had thighs like bloody tree trunks.

Watched bird bites back
Watched bird bites back

A mile out from Bamburgh and accessible by boat from Seahouses (www.farne-islands.com, from £13), the Farne Islands provide a clucking, hissing cornucopia of life: 37,000 pairs of puffins, 50,000 guillemots, more than 20 other species of birds and 6,000 grey seals. St Cuthbert lived as a hermit on the island in the seventh century, when he instituted laws for the protection of Eider ducks and nesting birds; the National Trust rangers that live on the islands today continue his work. There’s stiff competition for the posts, but the eleven rangers, who remain on the islands for nine months from April to November, have as raw an experience of nature as anyone in Britain.

But that’s Northumberland: England’s last wilderness.

Recommendations

Eat

Seahouses has a number of establishments vying for the title of best fish and chips shop in the north east. Neptune Restaurant (www.neptunefishandchips.co.uk, from £7.95 for cod and chips, with pot of tea and bread and butter) is one of the main contenders. The Copper Kettle Tearooms (www.copperkettletearooms.com, mains from £4.95) in Bamburgh cooks its home prepared food fresh each day, so can run out in the afternoon – get there early.

Drink

Most Northumbrian pubs serve hearty food, but a good pint can be had at the Castle Inn (http://castleinnbamburgh.co.uk/, pints from £3) in Bamburgh and the backdrop is hard to beat. Local pubs can be insular, but the Victoria Hotel (www.victoriahotel.net, from £3.40) is friendly and doesn’t demur when BRP students spend hours over a single coffee while using its free WiFi.

Stay

Up the coast from Bamburgh, Pot-A-Doodle Do Wigwam Village (www.northumbrianwigwams.com, from £15 per person per night) provides accommodation in wooden wigwams, with three yurts thrown in for good measure. The living quarters at St. Cuthbert’s House (www.stcuthbertshouse.com, from £90 for a double), a renovated 200-year-old chapel, are considerably more luxurious. Their breakfasts, locally sourced, are wonderful.

Book review: The Sea Kingdoms by Alistair Moffat

The Sea Kingdoms

This is the third book by Alistair Moffat that I’ve read and, as you’d guess given the fact that I’ve kept reading him, I’ve enjoyed them all. The Sea Kingdoms is an attempt at a history of Celtic Britain and Ireland but, by the nature of the subject and the sources, it’s more a series of impressions and snapshots: places, events, people, all serving to illuminate some aspect of the other history of these islands, the history that has never been written but has been sung, recited, felt.

It’s as much a geography as a history, or a story of how the two interweave in the language and culture of a people acutely aware of the beauty and awe of their land. But, being united by the sea, the sea has also washed much away, leaving traces in the sand but only impressions where there was once much more. It’s unlikely that even the best efforts of archaeologists will retrieve too much else, and the history of the Celts, like the people, is bathed in the westering sun setting in the circle sea.

Book review: Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins

A lovely, but slightly strange book. Higgins writes of her journies around Britain, in a rather asthmatic VW camper van, in search of the traces of Roman Britain. She writes of the places she visits with a journalist’s gift for telling detail and a botanist’s delight in plants, and sprinkles the text with fascinating anecdotes about the antiquaries of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries who first went looking for Roman remains in Britain, as well as the archaeologists who followed them in the 20th century. But, at the end of the book, Higgins remains as elusive as, well, Roman Britain itself. I’ve got very little idea about her, of what she’s like – this may be intentional of course – and the four centuries of Roman rule also seem to dissolve away under close inspection. They’re obviously not so inaccessible as the centuries that precede or follow them, but where the rest of Empire is illuminated by contemporary writings, Britain seems oddly silent, as if still existing in the mists of Oceanus. The letters discovered at Vindolanda go some way to rectifying that, but they are fragments, frustrating; imagine trying to recreate 21st-century society from a random collection of tweets for a flavour. A fine book, nevertheless, that suggests its subject as well as exploring it.

Catastrophes and Cataclysms

The discovery of the deep past in the Victorian era by geologists such James Hutton and Charles Lyell carried with it an equally deep commitment to the principle of uniformitarianism: that the Earth of the past operated in the same way as the Earth does today and, as a corolllary, that the planet was formed and is formed by gradual processes; an immortal sparrow, wiping its beak every day upon a mountain will grind even Everest down to dust, given enough time. In part this commitment was born from revulsion against Biblical catastrophism and the explanation of everything by reference to events like the Flood.

Only, it turns out, the Earth’s history is full of catastrophic events that wiped lands from the face of the planet and brought peoples to extinction. Here’s just a couple that occurred over the last few thousand years, a heartbeat in geological time.

The Storegga Slide happened 8,000 years ago, when a huge area of coastal shelf off Norway slipped into the Atlantic abyss, triggering a huge tsunami that inundated the eastern side of Britain and drowned Doggerland, the low-lying land mass that stretched into the North Sea and physically linked Britain to the continent.

Here’s a short video about the Storegga Slide.

The Earth had suffered through the long cold of the last Ice Age and, at last, the glaciers were retreating and people started moving north again. The warming seems to have been extraordinarily fast, and the glaciers melted quickly. Unfortunately, melting glaciers produce water, lots of cold water, and that has to go somewhere. Most drained into the oceans, but the geography of North America was such that an immense lake formed roughly where Lake Winnipeg lies today – only it covered a vastly greater area. Lake Agassiz contained more fresh water than all the lakes and rivers in the world today, and a chain of still unbroken glaciers held it in place, stopping the water draining into the ocean. But then, the dam broke.

Lake Agassiz
Lake Agassiz

Vast amounts of cold fresh water drained into the North Atlantic Ocean, reducing its salinity and stopping the Gulf Stream dead in its tracks. The Ice Age went into reverse, the glaciers started grinding south again, and the cold returned, just as quickly as it had left.

The Weird of Alderley

This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine.

England is tame. It’s been shorn of mystery, its wildness cut away as mercilessly as Aslan’s mane. But there are places where something wild and mysterious lingers on, and some of these places lie hidden in plain sight, side by side with all the excesses of modern-day England. Of these, none is stranger, nor juxtaposed more jarringly with its surroundings, than Alderley Edge in Cheshire.

What is Alderley Edge? In the blunt fashion of so many English place names, the answer is given in the asking. It’s a sandstone ridge, an edge that, depending on how you look at it, is the last ripple of the Pennines before it sinks into the Cheshire Plain or the first step upward from the flat lands. As such, it is border country, and this quality of strangeness is still palpable today. It was this strangeness that made the Edge the ideal setting for Alan Garner’s classic children’s books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. 2010 is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Weirdstone, and the book has remained in print throughout.

Beeston Castle from the Cheshire Plain.
Beeston Castle from the Cheshire Plain.

To get an idea of the geography of the area there is no better vantage point than Beeston Castle (Tarporley, Cheshire, CW6 9TX; 01829 260464; www.english-heritage.org.uk; £5.30 adults, £4.50 concessions, £2.70 children), which is about 25 miles south west of Alderley Edge. The ruins of the medieval castle stand atop and around a great rock crag jutting some 500 feet out of the plain – it may be the best view for the shortest climb in the country! To the west are the Welsh hills, south lies The Wrekin and east is Alderley Edge, marked out by the unmistakeable circle of Jodrell Bank just in the foreground, with the Pennines lying beyond (the visibility of the dish does rather depend on where it is pointing though). But what the view also shows is that this is a settled land, one deeply embedded in history and legend. And it is this that makes the British Isles so much more evocative than their size or comparatively gentle landscape would suggest.

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In the Pink on Yeavering Bell

Yeavering Bell is an Iron-Age hillfort in Northumberland, one of the largest in the country. The tumbledown ramparts, still clearly visible in the photograph below, were originally 10 feet high and they enclose an area of  some 12 acres.

Yeavering Bell with ramparts clearly visible.
Yeavering Bell with ramparts clearly visible.

The hillfort looks over the site of Ad Gefrin, Edwin’s royal palace and the place where Paulinus baptised for thirty days in the River Glen at the bottom of the valley. Ad Gefrin is now a wind-swept field of grass, but it remains a hugely evocative place.

The field of Ad Gefrin, with Yeavering Bell in the background. 'Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair.'
The field of Ad Gefrin, with Yeavering Bell in the background. ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair.’

The rock that was used to build the ramparts of Yeavering Bell is a local andesite that, when first quarried, is bright pink, before lichens and weathering grey it. Where a stone has tumbled, revealing a previously hidden face, it’s possible to see just how Barbie-esque the fortifications would have been when first built.

The salmon pink of fresh andesite - once all the hills were laced with it.
The salmon pink of fresh andesite – once all the hills were laced with it.

There is, to my mind, something wonderful about the thought of these grim hills – almost all of them had hillforts on them – necklaced in salmon pink.

Bede the Gentle-man

In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People the Venerable Bede invented the very idea of England. Reading the book today, I’m struck by its generosity, its concern for historical sources but most of all by the evident kindness of Bede himself. This was a good man. I wonder if the quintessence of the ideal of England – the gentle-man – was prefigured and, in a way, preformed by the man who invented England, Bede himself. I can think of few better patterns for a nation than the man from Jarrow.

The_Venerable_Bede_translates_John_1902

Book review: Before Scotland by Alistair Moffat

The problem with prehistory is that there is no history. That is, there are no stories, no names, none of the usual hooks upon which we hang our understanding to enlighten, entertain and help us remember to guide us through the greater part of human existence. All there are, are mute remains and although these can be eloquent in their own way, notably the village excavated at Skara Brae in Orkney, yet they are essentially still silent about the men, women and children who once lived. So, it’s a measure of Moffat’s achievement here that he makes the silent people before Scotland existed come alive, at least as far as is possible, and without entering into speculation and fantasy. He does this through a disciplined use of ethnographic parallels and examples drawn from Scotland’s historic past which, he believes, were continuations of pre-historic practices. The writing is lively and entertaining throughout, the text studded with fascinating little boxes giving insights into other parts of the world apart from Scotland, and the book taught me a great deal about prehistory in general, not just that of Scotland. Recommended.

Current Archaeology reviews Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom

Current Archaeology magazine has reviewed Northumbria: the Lost Kingdom in issue 278. Reviews aren’t online, so they’ve kindly given me permission to reproduce the review here.

Once, Gething and Albert write, ‘Geordies ruled us all’. While not strictly true, there is no doubt that during its 7th- to 8th-century Golden Age, the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria was one of the great powers of Medieval England, home to ecclesiastical heavyweights like Bede and Alcuin, and to stunning artefacts like the Franks Casket. But these achievements are too often overshadowed by other kingdoms, particularly Wessex, the authors argue. To redress this, historical sources and archaeological evidence are woven together in a rich tapestry, using findings from the Bamburgh Research Project (CA 239) – of which Gething is a co-founder and co-director – and other excavations to expand our picture of Northumbria from the monastic and royal spheres that form the focus of most contemporary writings. This is interspersed with interviews from archaeologists and historians with expertise in a wide range of fields. A lively and interdisciplinary book.