‘In Northumberland alone, both heaven and earth are seen.’ So wrote the historian GM Trevelyan and, if hell is other people, then the reason for this quickly becomes clear. There’s no one else around. Northumberland’s 1,936 square miles are the most sparsely populated in England, and less than 2,000 people live within the 405 square miles of the Northumberland National Park. If that doesn’t give you sufficient air to breathe, the Cheviot Hills are the least visited part of the least visited national park in England. Is that space enough?
So, it’s empty, but is that it? Is there any there, there? Well, if adjectives like solitary, windswept and bleak fill you with anticipation rather than a desire for a Martini and decent reception for your mobile phone, you may just have found your earthly paradise. After all, in these crowded islands, a place where you can walk all day and not see another soul is precious.
Now, the normal practice in a travel article would be to write about the geology (worn-down volcanoes and built-up silt), archaeology (hunters, gatherers, hill forts) and history (the Romans came, looked around and went back behind the Wall) of the area, but while all of this is valuable it’s not the best way to convey an idea of the Cheviots. For this is a land of impressions, of cloud shapes cast upon hills of green and brown, and its essence lies in the waving flags of cotton grass, the brief blaze of heather and the fleeting glory of hay meadows. It’s a paradox of place that these smooth-backed hills leave fragmentary images in the memory: tangles of wool dangling from hollowed-out gorse bushes like tattered beards; flowers small and bright as stars speckling the grass.
But before we climb up to the high places, let’s look around. The hills are demarcated by heather and bracken, plantations and moors, but most of all by dry stone walls. These are so much a feature of the environment that it’s easy to overlook what an extraordinary exercise in hard labour and applied topology they represent. The illiterate labourers who made them would be worthy of a chair in mathematics at Cambridge University today, such was their ability to add irregular, multi-sided objects together and make a smooth-sided wall.
Of course, the other great shapers of the landscape are the self-powered mowers that bleat. Sheep speckle the hillsides and lonely walks (and every walk in the Cheviots is lonely) produce curious musings about the creatures. Venture up on to Housey Crags on the way to the distinctive round top of Hedgehope and the large amount of sheep droppings reveal that the beasts must have a desire for romantic vistas and breezy landscapes to match the most athletic of the Romantic poets. It can’t be the grass, there’s bugger all to be found on these exposed rocks.
Mind you, sheep aren’t the only ones to frequent the hill tops. Our Iron Age ancestors studded the area with their dwellings, but we still don’t know why they switched to building hill forts around 500BC, nor the reason for constructing them in such high and exposed positions – defence, prestige, both? – but one thing quickly becomes apparent when labouring to the top of Yeavering Bell or Brough Law: they must have had thighs like tree trunks.
That walk to the hill fort on Yeavering Bell in particular produces musings on the fate of Ozymandias (‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair’), for the climb begins at the site of Ad Gefrin, the palace of King Edwin that Bede chronicled in his history. It’s now a field. And sheep graze where the chieftain of Yeavering Bell once sat, lord of all he surveyed. But then, maybe transience came as little surprise to that long-ago king. For even a high king’s orders must have sounded different when uttered in the heights. Try it yourself. Try speaking out loud when you’re alone on the hills. Your voice will sound different, like breath blown by the wind: quiet, fleeting, mortal.
Other, different, voices sound more at home here. The hay meadows of Barrowburn are heavy with the buzzing of bumblebees, while the whale backed ridge of The Cheviot – the singular hill from which the range takes its name – comes alive in summer with the song of the meadow pipit, singing as it labours upwards and then falls, trilling, away, or the skylark, diminishing to a black dot against the clouds, its voice filling the empty, windy wastes with bubbling, trilling, streams of music. But most of all, the high hills are the range of the ravens. If you’re lucky you might see a pair, riding the rolling air, or hear their extraordinary call, like two pieces of hollow wood being clapped together. The lower reaches are where their more voluble cousins, the rooks and the crows, abide, in gossiping, hurrying flocks, looking rather like the crowd at a Sisters of Mercy gig.
The world has changed a great deal since people first came to the Cheviots. Then the Wild Wood was an encroaching threat on the scattered pockets of humanity, now it’s reduced to a few preserved islands in the sea of humanity. The hills stand largely bare in a sombre, grave landscape of muted greens and browns. They don’t invite you. They don’t even notice you. But should the press of people become too great, the endless procession of anonymous faces too numbing, then come here, stand upon a cloud-flecked hill and hear the voice of the wind. You’ll be the only one listening.
At the edge of the world, on Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides, I went out hoping to see the stars, and then stood there for an hour with my jaw hanging open. I was looking at the numberless stars of heaven’s field. I’ve not seen anything like this for years. We were somewhere where the only artificial lights were our own, with only the faintest of horizon glows from the the direction of Glasgow, and the stars, the stars came out! Even where I could see no distinct points of light, there was an impression, a graininess to the darkness, that suggested impossible expanses of stars and galaxies receding into forever.
We have lost so much by the light caps we’ve placed over our our cities, sealing ourselves away from any direct sense of the cold splendour and depths of the universe. And it’s effect may be deeper than we realise.
Ennui, the sense of the pointlessness and meaninglessness of life, is perhaps the characteristic emotion of the modern age. Medieval man might have starved, or been prey to wandering warbands, yet he never questioned the point of existence. The sheer struggle to survive added a dignity to his everyday bearing, but above all he lived in a world where the creator and sustainer of the Universe, and its despoiler, were in a life-long struggle for his soul. He mattered, and what’s more, even if the king or the bishop ignored him, God and the devil didn’t.
That belief has leached away, and I do wonder how much this flattening out has been caused by the dulling of our night-time skies. When you stand beneath a black dome, splattered with stars beyond number and suggesting even in its darkest reaches depths beyond depths beyond depths, there is both a fearful fall into insignificance and a breathtaking plunge into awe. Even if the world has become flat, still the stars shine.
But now we live in a flat world, and the stars have gone out. No wonder we’re bored.
Mountain, sea, forest, desert. Each has its devotees, people who repair to them again and again, forsaking all other temptations. For some it’s the wish to test themselves, for others it’s exploration and the lure of the unknown over the brow of the next hill. For some it’s strictly business, for others it is simple pleasure. For me, it’s mountain, hill and moor, for you it could be something else. But why should this be the case? Why is that these places call us – for it is a call and, notoriously and tragically, a siren call for some.
Anyone who has knocked around with climbers for a while will have a similar story. This is mine. I met Yossi Brain at university and he took me climbing a few times. But what for me was a passing interest became for him the key question of his life. So when he survived a 3,000 metre fall off Mont Blanc he had to decide what was more important – climbing or the journalistic career he had set out upon. The mountains won. Yossi gave up his job, moved to South America and became a mountain guide in the Andes, only to perish a few years later in a stupid little avalanche. His climbing partner on Mont Blanc, who also survived the fall that should have killed them both, predeceased him. In Mike Clarke’s case, an overhanging cornice broke off, fell and snapped his neck. Neither man made it to thirty.
What was it that called them out of the normal and the everyday, through the barriers of exhaustion and discomfort that must needs be endured to climb these sorts of peaks, and took them to their early deaths? According to Aristotle, men desire what is good, at least in their eyes, so where is the good in a pile of rock that is as insensible of your ascent as it is of your death?
Perhaps I can sketch out an answer by first tracing the growth of my own passion, one less lethal than that of my friend, but just as unlikely when I think about it. For as long as I can remember, the woods and rivers, moors and hills of England have been my passion. Yet I grew up, and still live, in a city, as do the vast majority of the population. However, my imagination was primed by childhood reading – The Wind in the Willows, Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine adventures (set in real countryside you can visit the author promised in the foreword to each book) and The Lord of the Rings. Each of these provided a vision of an England unknown and, at least in the case of The Lord of the Rings, unknowable, yet the landscapes they described seemed somehow more real than my world of brick and road and car.
Little did my eight-year-old self know that it was setting off down a well-travelled road. ‘It was in fairy-stories that I first divined… the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine,’ wrote Tolkien and though the tales I read were different, they suffused my imagined England with a secret fire.
We do not see the world with virgin eyes, but rather through a lens that has been ground in the ideas and stories and experiences of generations of our forefathers. Only Adam ever saw the world fresh, and he promptly gave names to everything and changed them forever. But the stories we tell are not static. Mountains were once avoided. They were the haunt of demons and dragons, storm and sudden, unexpected danger. They might provide a temporary refuge for the hunted, and a home for the hunter and the shepherd, but they were generally seen as benighted places. Then, as Romanticism took hold, the mountains became places first of inspiration and then of aspiration. The age of the mountain climber had begun, and it soon produced its heroes and its martyrs.
In the early accounts of mountaineering expeditions there is much talk of conquering and exploring, a language in line with the imperial ethos of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Coming more up to date, the themes tend towards the personal: testing your limits and overcoming them, ideas more appropriate for our narcissistic times. In all this we see our shifting cultural mores reflected and refracted in the heights. A number of writers, notably Robert Macfarlane (Mountains of the Mind) and Simon Schama (Landscape and Memory), have written about how we construct our view of the natural world and their books are eminently worth reading. But they don’t ask, let alone attempt to answer, why we should fall in love with a particular landscape. It was the desert for Wilfred Thesiger and Edward Abbey, the woods for Henry David Thoreau, the sea for Herman Melville and the cold of the far north for Jack London. Simply reeling them off gives part of the answer: many of these men responded to what was there. Melville was a sailor, Thoreau lived in thickly wooded New England and a young Jack London set off to the Klondike Gold Rush – what else were they going to write about?
But for Abbey it was love and there lies the mystery. Yes, this love was in part a product of his reading and his culture, and shaped by it, but the peculiarity of this sort of affair is that it survives the encounter with brutal reality, and in fact is strengthened by it. Through stories and films it’s relatively easy to get a view of mountains or seas or deserts as romantic places of untrammelled freedom, but the experience of the places themselves is different. Days of exhaustion and cold, seasickness, the flattening heat, all of these should serve to correct the romantic ideal. And, for many, they do. A long traverse of an all too exposed sea cliff with Yossi was enough to put me off climbing. Nothing is better calculated to give the lie to the post-modern fantasy of a constructed reality than a mountain. Try deconstructing your way down that, Derrida.
Perhaps a clue as to why different people are attracted to different landscapes lies in the different methods of approaching those places. Mountaineers and climbers go into lonely places, but they do so in groups or pairs. There is a little remarked aspect of community to climbers, as well as the more familiar personal testing against limits of endurance. And extreme experiences undergone together make for the sort of bond not found elsewhere. So part of the answer as to why climbers are drawn to the mountains may lie here, in the shared encounter with the wild and the high.
Compare this to sailors. A sailor may be alone or with a crew, but the most vital part of his voyage is the boat. This is seen most clearly with solo sailors, when a deep and intimate union is created between man and vessel. Sailing becomes as rhythmical as the ocean’s waves, and this rhythm once found can be hard to let go, most famously in the case of Bernard Moitessier, a contestant in the first round the world, solo, non-stop yacht race. Rather than finish the race, he kept on going, sailing in the end almost twice around the world.
Although these attempts to find a cultural or social key to people’s response to the natural world are illuminating, I still get the impression that they miss something. Beyond everything else, there is a vision. And, yes, I know visions are mediated through culture and environment, but there is still something lurking at the heart of our experience of the natural world and producing our response to it that seems to transcend cultures and times as much as it exemplifies them. For, more than anything else, it’s the sense that we’re encountering something real that drives us up mountains and onto moors and over waves of water and sand. And I would like to suggest that at the heart of this is the sacramental or symbolic nature of these landscapes. Now, hold your horses at the back there. This is not necessarily a religious view, for we need to understand what is meant by the sacramental and the symbolic in this view.
A sign is not a symbol. A sign points at whatever it is signifying, but it partakes in nothing of the thing signified – road signs are good examples of this. But a symbol both points beyond itself and, simultaneously, makes present in a real way that towards which it points. So a wolf both symbolises the wild and makes the wild present. But, hang on, the wolf itself isn’t interested in human concepts of the wild – it has no idea that it now howls out of any number of T-shirts, usually next to a wise old Red Indian shaman – so aren’t we just plastering our human ideas over something to which they do not apply? That would be the usual argument nowadays, an argument strongly if unconsciously rooted in the default position of relativistic thinking that our culture assumes, but I think it is wrong. Let’s take an example from an area in which there is little dispute that human concepts are an accurate reflection of what’s out there in the real world: mathematics. There are three beans on a table. The beans both point beyond themselves to the mathematical concept of threeness and also bring that number to the table. The beans are obviously insensible of their numeric properties, yet they have them. Similarly, the wolf is unaware that it is wild, but it is.
Our cultural tendency to assign a reality to numerical values that we do not give to qualitative ideas goes back to the French philosopher, Descartes, who famously declared that he thought, therefore he was. He less famously, but more influentially, went on to argue that only numbers were real, being measurable, whereas the qualities by which we actually experience the world – things like colour, touch, taste – were purely subjective and thus, by implication, unreal. And so we come, by long and tortured philosophical byways, to a culture that is unsure of the reality of anything.
The natural landscapes represent the antithesis to this. They are really real, and perhaps never more so than when they destroy our carefully constructed imaginings amid a welter of storm and heat and wind. Somewhere deep inside we know the difference between the airy imaginings of our mind and the deep reality of things, and mountains and sea, forest and desert bring us more closely into contact with this deep reality than anything else in our world today. As such, it becomes possible to see why people will pursue this vision to the gates of death.
St Augustine once said that there is a God-sized hole in man, and we cannot rest content until that hole is filled. Even a card-carrying atheist could accept that Augustine is on to something here, for it seems to me that we have a thirst for something more, something beyond the walls of our increasingly constricted and trammelled world, and the land and the sea, in all their various moods and modes, give us that something more, for they truly do make present what they point towards. What Yossi saw on the mountain tops was really there, and although it cost him his life, the vision was not a phantasm but something real. He died, but not for a lie.
The dreams and visions that take us out of our everyday homes and lives and into the wild places are the place where our cultural and personal histories encounter a wider reality that stretches beyond any limits known to us. A mountain is not just a hunk of rock and the sea is more than a lot of water, and these perceptions we have of them are true. We should not be embarrassed of them.
This article first appeared in The Great Outdoors magazine. I like it and, to save it from complete obscurity, here it is for my handful of faithful blog readers. I hope you enjoy it! I’ve included some of the photos I took for the article, but my camera failed for the first walk, to the Thames marshes near Fobbing, so I’ve included a couple of Wikipedia images in its place. As a writer who takes photos for articles, my only advice is to get there early to catch the dawn light and, possible in this digital age, take hundreds of shots. Some of them will turn out all right!
In search of England’s lost wildernesses
Confession time. I love mountains, the wild high places this magazine is dedicated to, but it’s the flatlands – marshes, fens, plains, steppes – that fascinate me, exerting a sort of appalled, rubbernecking attraction. There’s something about the way I can walk for hours and then stop and look around and realise that I haven’t got anywhere; how the sun pins the walker to the ground like a sadistic lepidopterist; the way the world itself seems to roll beneath your feet as if each stride is turning the globe.
I would have chalked this all up to personal peculiarity if it had not been for a series of discoveries while writing and researching my books. It turns out that, for almost all our history, the true wildernesses of England, the places people whispered of in fire-lit tales as the refuge of monsters and the haunt of bandits, were not mountains and moors, but marshes and meres. When Alfred the Great fled Guthrum’s surprise attack on Twelfth Night, he made his way through the winter landscape to the ‘fen-fastnesses’ of Athelney, the Isle of Princes, an island surrounded by the shifting waterways of the Somerset Levels. After William the Bastard had cut down Harold at Hastings and harrowed the north, the last defiance against the Normans came out of Fenland. Smugglers and bandits, radicals and revolutionaries have all emerged from or taken refuge in England’s shifting, uncertain wildernesses, disappearing into legend among the rushes and reeds. Today, those seeking escape from civilisation and its discontents head north and west, to where the geology of Britain has largely confined our hills and mountains. But, once, wildness was wet, not high.
So, I set out to explore what remains of England’s lost wildernesses. But, first, I had to find them.
I’m a Londoner: child of immigrants, born and raised in the Great Wen. The city is a creation of the river, the ‘strong brown god … unhonoured, unpropitiated … but waiting, watching, and waiting’, and the Thames marshes were the first lost wilderness I went in search of. The Romans built their bridge at the first bridgeable point of the Thames, joining the gravel pile of Ludgate Hill to the salt marshings of Southwark. Downriver, the river carved brown channels through a flood landscape, until generations of hydro engineers forced it, sullenly, into channels. The gateway to Empire, the Thames became the busiest, richest thoroughfare on earth, a honeypot of sail and steam, with settlements perched upon high, dry ground, all the way to the sea.
The marshes of the Thames
By the village of Fobbing, near the candy-coloured delights of Canvey Island, the land steeps down to a flat, ridged plain, scored with creeks and channels; a five-thousand-acre remnant of the great Thames marshes that walked along the river to the sea. Arriving at dawn just after the longest day of the year, I was greeted with a sight that was slightly less apocalyptic than I’d hoped for. Yes, the sun in its rising stained the river a pleasing shade of crimson, but where were the columns of fire? Last time I’d been this way, the oil refineries by the river were sending up great gouts of flame from ranks of flare stacks, as if greeting the sun in kind. But today, the refineries were cold, lifeless. I learned later that they had gone into receivership; the last shut down in 2013 – apparently even oil mega corporations can go belly up.
Fifteen minutes later I was thoroughly lost. This, I decided, staring at a hugely unhelpful OS map, was ridiculous. I was only just outside the M25, smack in the middle of the most densely populated area of the most densely populated country in Europe (England having overtaken the Low Countries), and I was lost. But lost I was, and as morning mist rose up to cover my legs, and drown any appreciable landmarks in shifting grey, I caught a first, halting sense of the shifting, subtle nature of these places, which are neither land nor water, but phase from one state to the other; as shapes swirled thickly in the mist, I began to catch some of the fear that stalks the accounts of fens and marshes in English tales and legends. But then the shapes resolved into cattle, as surprised to see me as I was to see them, and the rising sun began to burn off the mist.
After so long walking on level ground, the climb back up to Fobbing proved surprisingly difficult for muscles trained into the horizontal. In the village, outside the White Lion pub, I saw a sign commemorating the villagers who had risen in revolt against the imposition of a swingeing poll tax – but this revolt took place in the 1380s, not the 1980s. The people of Fobbing lit the match that set off the Peasants’ Revolt; John Ball, the hedge priest whose sermons (‘when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’) on the injustices of the feudal system provided the spiritual justification for the revolt lived in Norfolk and Essex before moving to Kent; John Wrawe raised the men of Essex and stirred revolution in Cambridgeshire.
As I walked the flatlands and marshlands of England, I found myself also following a trail of religious and political radicalism – it almost seemed that the flatter the landscape the more revolutionary the ideas it spawned.
The island of the marshes
There are few areas flatter than Lincolnshire. This was once the marsh kingdom of Lindsey, one of the small realms that grew up in the post-Roman splintering of Britain, a domain created by its geography for the great fenlands of Cambridgeshire formed its southern limit, and the Humber estuary its northern edge, while the rivers Witham and Trent all but cut it off from the country to the west. Lindsey, ‘the island of Lincoln’, has the cathedral as its peak, but other islands rose from the surrounding seas of marsh and reed, notably the Isle of Axholme. That was where I went next in my search for England’s lost wildernesses.
Trent, the name of one of the two great rivers that drain into the Humber Estuary, comes from the Brythonic word ‘Trisanton’, which means ‘trespasser’. A better description for the river could scarce be found, for it is a wilful, unpredictable water, forever flooding the flatlands around its mouth. The Isle of Axholme was an isolated area of raised ground above the surrounding marshland, and the site of the first great battle over the use and reclamation of fenland. In 1626, King Charles I sold Hatfield Chase, a huge area of peat bog just west of the Isle of Axholme, to a Dutch drainage engineer named Cornelius Vermuyden, who would get to keep for himself one third of the drained land. Only, the king had no authority to sign over the rights of common grazing, which local people depended upon. For where outsiders looked upon Hatfield Chase and saw it as ‘evil in winter, grievous in summer and never good’, the people who made their living around and upon the marshlands understood them well, exploiting them for lush pasture in high summer when other fields were bare, fishing and fowling, harvesting hemp for sails and rope, and cutting peat. But the marshmen were viewed with no less suspicion than their land: ‘Fenmen, disgusting representations of ignorance and indecency!’ They may not have been educated, but the people of Axholme could work out what the drainage ditches Vermuyden was digging through Hatfield Chase meant and they ‘came unto the workmen and beat and terrified them, threatening to kill them, if they would not leave their work’. The Battle for the Bogs had begun.
It continued for the best part of the next three centuries, the rich and powerful gradually nibbling away at the marshland and taking it under their control, until the original 880 square miles of marsh in the Humberhead Levels was reduced to the peat bogs of Thorne Waste and Hatfield Moor, which Fisons continued to strip mine. It was only in 2002 that the remaining peat bogs were saved.
Arriving at dawn, and pausing to take photos, a cloud of insects descended and I was immediately reminded that the first, and greatest, defender of the marsh was the mosquito and the diseases it carried. Ague – malaria – the sweating sickness of marsh and fen had done much to create the miasma of fear that surrounded England’s wildernesses – for after all, a true wilderness must have the potential to kill the visitor.
‘Beware of adders.’ The signs, helpfully posted at intervals, showed there were other possibly lethal inhabitants of the Moor. Sadly, any snake sunning itself in the early morning light heard me long before I saw it, and slid quietly away, but the birds were not nearly so bashful, serenading me throughout in the most full-throated manner I’ve heard outside a rainforest. The patchwork of ponds, bogs, lakes, woods, scrub and stripped clear peat make for as varied a series of habitats as can be found in Britain today.
It was a dislocating place, caught between different places and times, and I, more suspended than most, was held in remembrance of King Edwin of Northumbria, High King of Britain, who fought his final battle here, amid the meres. Thinking of the men slain thirteen hundred years before, I emerged on to the stripped slabs of the Moor, where the industrial scrapers of Fisons and others pared the peat from the land, leaving a landscape that’s as near to the Western Front as anything I’ve seen. Walking out into the wastes, water lying in sheet silver either side of the ridges, I was in as lonely a place as there is in England.
Perhaps the inmates of HMP Lindholme, the double wire, razor-topped fences of which run alongside the western edge of Hatfield Moor, take some solace in the grey green banks of alder and willow that wave beyond the prison’s confines. Walking the perimeter fence is a chastening experience, the metallic clangs from the prison works interpsersing with the occasional siren. But a turn into a glimpsed opening, and I was bathed in green, leaf-filtered light, the skeletal finger of a bog-drowned tree pointing from water to sky. Leaving the moor – in Old English, the word derives from ‘morass’, again showing how our wilderness derives from the wet – I returned to the Isle of Axholme and found that here too, the flatlands had produced a radical re-evaluation of society; for Epworth, a village of the Isle, was the birthplace and early home to John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism. Again, the flatlands were the cradle of radicalism. What would the Fens, greatest of them all, produce?
The Great Level
Driven from Hatfield Chase, bankrupted and imprisoned, Cornelius Vermuyden bounced back. The Fens were the great prize for the land reclaimers, and Vermuyden, with his Dutch expertise, was their chosen champion. But the locals fought back, destroying sluices and breaking dams. Insurrection was in the air, and the commoners found a champion in a local farmer, a ‘Mr Cromwll of Ely’. This farmer ensured that their complaints against the commandeering of the commons was included in the Grand Remonstrance presented to King Charles I in 1641.
But in a betrayal that seems as great as the remonstrance, once the king was beheaded and the farmer had become Lord Protector, Cromwell instigated the draining of the Great Level, engaging the men of his own New Model Army to guard the work parties. Battle continued through the next two centuries, but it was a one-way process. Charles Kingsley, writing in the 19th century, remembered how ‘dark-green alders, and pale-green reeds, stretched for miles round the broad lagoon … high overhead hung, motionless, hawk beyond hawk, buzzard beyond buzzard, kite beyond kite, as far as eye could see … They are all gone now.’
The largest of all England’s wildernesses, the Great Level, which brought down a king and defied a conqueror, was finally bisected and dissected, its life-giving waters drained, in the 19th and 20th centuries. ‘Ah, well, at least … children will live and not die. For it was a hard place to live in, the old Fen.’
It’s not quite all gone. Wicken Fen is the oldest site in the care of the National Trust, some 900 acres of fen, part of which has never been drained. The Trust plans to extend this to 10,000 acres, stretching as far as Cambridge, by the end of the century. I set off to walk from Wicken to the Isle of Ely, Cromwell’s home, following the River Great Ouse. Wicken Fen is a bird watchers’ – and song listeners’ – delight; it resounded with liquid chimmers and churrs. The channels that bisect it would have been easy for the shallow-drafted vessels of the Angles, the Saxons and the Vikings to navigate, enabling them to strike inland, far from the sea.
The river ran north, between over-engineered banks, towards the distant, looming tower of Ely Cathedral. I’d been walking for a while before I realised that the Ouse ran at a higher level than the surrounding fields of carrots and cabbages; it flows between raised embankments for now but should the levee break, the flood would be catastrophic; for the peat of the levels, once drained, has shrunk, lowering the ground surface below river level, below sea level. It was with fantasies of flood running through my imagination that I arrived in Ely and plodded upwards to the exquisite cathedral – our medieval forbears knew better than us how to create an architecture that enhanced a landscape. Cromwell’s old house is now, ignominiously, a tourist office and small museum.
Returning, as twilight fell, along an almost enclosed green lane, a hunting barn owl swooping below the branches nearly flew into me and two playing hares ground to an abrupt halt before making off into the fields.
The Fen was dark when I returned. I, as do we all, enjoy the benefits of modern civilisation but listening to the creak of willow I dreamed of flood, and the return of the waters to the Great Level. In Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon epic, the monster Grendel stalks Hrothgar’s hall from his lair in the fens. In England’s national poem, the monster comes from the marsh. I listened, but all I heard was silence.
The writer, George Monbiot, has called for the rewilding of Britain, but he has largely confined this to the hills and jeremiads against sheep, to places far from where we live today. How much more worthwhile would it be to reclaim England’s true lost wildernesses, that mostly lie around and about our centres of population, that we might, once again, have at our doorsteps the great, stinking, shifting levels.
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wilderness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
It’s a desert out there. You might not realise it, after one of the wettest winters on record, but for the trees, growing up through the pavements and tarmac of our cities, it’s a desert. No matter how much it rains, most of the water never gets through to their roots, since it flows off the pavements and tarmac and down the gutters. And the situation has become much, much worse in London over the last ten years with so many front gardens having been tarmaced and turned into car parks.
Now, in this hot, dry weather, our street trees are suffering. Those worst affected are the newly planted trees that haven’t yet had the chance to push their roots down deep, searching for the leaks in water mains that are the main sources of liquid for street trees. So, if you see a tree in your street suffering, wilting and browning in the heat, then water it. Fill up a watering can and give it a drink. Or, on your way home, empty out the rest of your water bottle around its base – do this every day and it’s remarkable what effect you’ll have. We have saved four or five trees on our street this way.
Considering what street trees do for us in the way of providing shade, shelter, filtering pollutants, it’s the least we can do in return.
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.
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.
“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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon epic, the monster Grendel stalks Heorot, Hrothgar’s hall, from his lair in the fens. In the most characteristic tale of England’s past – though set in Denmark it is England’s story – the monster comes from the marsh. The poem itself was likely composed in the kingdom of East Anglia, whose greatest king, Rædwald, was probably interred in the ship mound of Sutton Hoo, and the East Angles knew well the dangers and glamours of marsh and sea.
Think on the map of Britain. There’s probably no outline better known to us today, but it’s a modern creation. Britain, and more specifically England, used to cut a very different profile. The distinction between land and water was not nearly so clear, with vast areas occupying a liminal position between the two, sometimes dry, sometimes wet, according to tide and flood. Great bites into England’s body were made twice a day by the tide, seeping in to the salt marshes and bogs that covered the Fens, pushing the River Thames to half a kilometre wide in the London area, running upstream through Romney Marsh to Bodiam Castle in East Sussex. Names bear witness to this past, with areas, often far inland, being called islands and only habitual use deadening us to the strangeness of the title: the Isle of Thanet at Kent’s south-eastern edge, the Isle of Axholme in Lincolnshire, the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire.
Perhaps nowhere is the strangeness of this historic landscape more marked than on the Isle of Thanet. Now firmly part of the mainland, the Wantsum Channel, a tidal watercourse fed by the River Stour, separated the isle from Kent. As the most easterly part of Kent, and with the security of the Wantsum Channel, the Isle of Thanet was the perfect stepping stone for invaders, and they employed it, again and again and again. First, the Romans – Julius Caesar used it as a base in his abortive invasions of 55 and 54 BC – then the Anglo-Saxons, with the legendary Hengist and Horsa being given the isle and liking it so much they decided they wanted the rest of the country too – and, finally, the Vikings: the Wantsum Channel provided safe harbour from fierce Channel storms, and the Northmen first experimented with overwintering in a secure base on the isle before using the tactic to conquer most of England. But the Wantsum Channel, once two miles wide, slowly silted up, although Thanet is still clearly shown as an island in maps into the 15th century. But the slow deposition of silt and the indefatigable drainage work of Augustinian monks sealed the island’s fate, and the last ferry sailed across the narrow strait in 1755. The Isle of Thanet was an island in name only and the Wantsum Channel a drainage ditch: an ignoble end for a piece of history.
The Isle of Thanet’s fate encapsulates much of the difficulties faced by England’s wetland wildernesses. They’re mainly on the east, and when boats were more reliable forms of transport than roads, they became highways for traders and raiders. New ideas and technologies spread easily from the Low Countries to the Low Counties, with Dutch engineers imported in the 17th and 18th centuries to lead the push to drain the flatlands. They were still too wild and too dangerous to be allowed to continue, wet worlds where Parliament’s writ held no sway.
Charles Kingsley saw their end:
A certain sadness is pardonable to one who watches the destruction of a grand natural phenomenon, even though its destruction bring blessings to the human race. Reason and conscience tell us, that it is right and good that the Great Fen should have become, instead of a waste and howling wilderness, a garden of the Lord, where
‘All the land in flowery squares,
Beneath a broad and equal-blowing wind,
Smells of the coming summer.’
And yet the fancy may linger, without blame, over the shining meres, the golden reed-beds, the countless water-fowl, the strange and gaudy insects, the wild nature, the mystery, the majesty–for mystery and majesty there were–which haunted the deep fens for many a hundred years.
Mountain, sea, forest, desert. Each has its devotees, people who repair to them again and again, forsaking all other temptations. For some it’s the wish to test themselves, for others it’s exploration and the lure of the unknown over the brow of the next hill. For some it’s strictly business, whereas for others it is simple pleasure. For me, it’s mountain, hill and moor, for you – given that you’re reading The Great Outdoors – it’s likely the same. But why should this be the case? Why is that these places call us – for it is a call and, notoriously and tragically, a siren call for some.
Anyone who has knocked around with climbers for a while will have a similar story. This is mine. I met Yossi at university and he took me climbing a few times. But what for me was a passing interest became for him the key question of his life. So when he survived a 3,000 metre fall off Mont Blanc he had to decide what was more important – climbing or the journalistic career he had set out upon. The mountains won. Yossi gave up his job, moved to South America and became a mountain guide in the Andes, only to perish a few years later in a stupid little avalanche. His climbing partner on Mont Blanc predeceased him. In Mike’s case, an overhanging cornice broke off, fell and snapped his neck. Neither man made it to thirty.
My favourite bird, the Shoebill. One glance from its gimlet, you-looking-at-me-punk eyes is invariably enough to cheer me up. How good it is to know that there are creatures on this planet who really, really, really don’t care a spit for us capering, self important human beings.