Book review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Along with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula suffers, as a story, from having become proverbial. Everyone has heard of Dracula. Everyone knows that he’s a vampire, just as everyone reading Stevenson’s book knows Dr Jekyll’s secret all along. It’s impossible for us to unknow these aspects of the story but, when rereading both books over the last year, I tried to at least imagine what it would have been like for the first readers who didn’t know what was going to happen. Doing that helped me to realise what incredible feats of storytelling both books were. Admittedly, Robert Louis Stevenson is a better writer than Bram Stoker, but Stoker’s use of letters, diaries, even early audio recordings, is quite brilliant, pulling the reader into the various points of view and locking us there for the duration of each chapter.

While the book suffers a little from the usual Victorian tendency to verbosity (a failing Stevenson does not share), the narrative drive is unrelenting and the story drills down into all sorts of nightmares and archetypes: sometimes, a writer can be a vehicle for a story. Sometimes, it can assume a life and purpose of its own, pushing the writer beyond anything he would normally be capable of. That was the case with Dracula.

Although the entry of Dracula into popular culture means that we can never be surprised by the book in the same its first readers were, nevertheless his embrace by the wider culture is an unmistakeable sign of the power of the story that Stoker found himself writing.

Book review: Fight to the Finish by Allan Mallinson

Fight to the Finish by Allan Mallinson

The subtitle states that this is a history of the First World War month by month and that’s exactly what Mallinson does. The book derives from a monthly series of features Mallinson wrote for The Spectator magazine, starting on the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, that followed the war through each month of the following four years.

This strictly calendrical approach is mainly a strength, almost allowing one to follow how the war would have unfolded to people at the time but with better access to what was going on, but on the odd occasion it forces him to squeeze a huge amount of events into a single chapter. Overall, though, it’s a structure that works very well. In particular, it allows Mallinson to show how this was truly a World War, and not one limited to the trench warfare of the Western front. Using this focus, he expands the view to take in the Eastern Front, the carnage of the mountain war between Italy and Austria/Hungary, the war in the Middle East and the Dardanelles – everywhere.

It’s also useful as a partial corrective to the old saw of lions led by donkeys. The generals of the First World War were not as clueless as portrayed in Blackadder although, in a telling insight, Mallinson gets to the crux of their key failure in understanding the war on the Western Front: it was siege warfare, with the walls of the castle stretching from the mountains to the sea. Some of the commanders realised this but it took a long time for their understanding to penetrate through to the higher ranks. But, once said, it becomes so obvious!

Highly recommended.

Book review: The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

Dear Reader, I was about to begin my own review of The Dying Earth when I thought I would just have a quick look at its Good Reads page to refresh my memory of the story. Normally, I don’t look at other reviews until I have written my own, but I glanced at the top one, started reading, and continued, enthralled and amazed. Having read Bill Kerwin’s take on the book, I’ve decided I’ve got nothing to add to it and, indeed, it’s far better than anything I would have written. So my review will be a link to his review, with the note that what makes that review so exceptional is that he made me see the book in a completely different light and, as a result, want to reread it illuminated by that light.

So, without further ado, an extract of Bill Kerwin’s magnificent review of The Dying Earth:

So I read The Dying Earth again, as if it were a Punch and Judy show mounted with magnificent sets. Puppet wizards and puppet women now moved through a muted landscape, in a world of distilled evil dominated by a decadent sun. Sometimes they seem like mischievous children, sometimes like degenerate dwarfs, but at other times they seem like creatures of some new myth, a promise of stories to come beyond this dying world.

You can read the rest of the review here and I highly recommend that you do.

Book review: The Anvil of Ice by Michael Scott Rohan

The Anvil of Ice by Michael Scott Rohan

Hm. Let this be a lesson in book reviewing to you, E. Write your review before you forget what happened in the book.

Dear Reader, I must confess that this will not rank as one of my best reviews as, for the life of me, I cannot remember anything much about this story. About all I do remember is that I enjoyed it when reading it and had it down as a four-star book (I have very much enjoyed other books by Michael Scott Rohan). Does this mean that, in order to remember a book, I have to review it within the time span in which its memory lives on? Or does it mean that the book simply was insufficiently memorable to impress itself upon my memory? Might it be a function of aging, where once stories made indelible impressions upon a youtful and malleable mind, now they have to chisel their way in among half a lifetime of memories?

I don’t know. However, given my previous regard for Rohan’s work, I suspect the fault lies more with me than with him. It’s the first of three and, if I can, I will try the second in the trilogy to see if it sparks some memories – and update my review accordingly.

Book review: Where Blood Runs Cold by Giles Kristian

Where Blood Runs Cold by Giles Kristian

Brrrrrrr… I’m still shivering, two days after finishing the story.

For those of us lucky enough to live in a country where the coldest it normally gets is a day or two of snow before everything turns wet again, there is, I think, a fascination for places where it gets really cold, where winter is king. This story more than feeds that fascination: it positively avalanches it.

The basic storyline is straightforward: a father and daughter, on a skiing trip through Arctic Norway (why would anyone go on a skiing trip through Arctic Norway?) witness a double murder and are pursued by the killers. The father, Erik, succeeds in killing some of the pursuers but one of the hunters proves impossible to kill, relentlessly chasing them into the Arctic night.

It’s the cold that fills the story: the unbelievable, finger-numbing, heart clutching cold, leeching life and feeling and movement out of everything until all that remains are the tiny figures of Erik and Sofia skiing across, and through, a world of white.

The relentless killer, pursuing them through the white world, is something of a thriller trope but within this context he becomes something else: a metaphor and an embodiment of the killing cold, of winter as implacable death. Amid our concerns for global warming it’s worth remembering that the cold kills many many many more people than warmth: we came out of Africa and survive in the realms of frost only by employing all the ingenuity and toughness of which we are capable.

At one level a simple chase thriller, at another it’s an examination of human endurance in the face of implacable danger (I particularly enjoyed the unexpected appearance of a figure from Norse mythology because such endurance demands support from somewhere beyond the human).

A book that will leave you trembling, from tension and cold.

Walking with an Archaeologist

Archaeologist Paul Gething looking out to the Farne Islands from Bamburgh

“Medieval tile. Medieval pottery. Another piece of pottery. More tile. Animal bone.” Paul Gething, archaeologist, picked through his finds.

I had, literally, been walking on history, oblivious to its presence beneath my boots.

We were standing on a path down from the great crag of rock upon which Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland squats. Paul had just told me that most people are oblivious to what lies beneath their feet and I had challenged him to prove it. Within ten yards he’d found these remains.

Looking up at Bamburgh Castle

Paul Gething is co-director of the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP), a multi-disciplinary archaeological dig investigating the history in and around Bamburgh. We’re brothers-in-law (married to sisters) and have known each other for years, but this was the first time I’d asked him to explain how he sees the world through the eyes of his discipline. I looked at his finds. To my eyes, they still looked like old stones.

“People have been here since Neolithic times, so it’s not hard to find things,” said Paul. “People drop litter now, and they threw away their rubbish then; we’ve not fundamentally changed over the centuries.”

In Northumberland, this continuity is visceral, tangible. The ramparts of Bamburgh Castle loomed above us. The fortress, capital of the lost kingdom of Northumbria, sits on top of a great outcrop of basalt, a part of the Great Whin Sill rock formation that stretches from the North Pennines to Northumberland. Out to sea, the Farne Islands, where St Cuthbert withdrew from the world and befriended the local eider ducks, are made of the same hard rock. The islands glittered darkly against an unexpectedly blue sky, while a few miles to the north, Holy Island (Lindisfarne) had, until the tide turned, rejoined the mainland.

Looking out from Bamburgh Castle towards Lindisfarne

Paul looked out to sea. “Ten thousand years ago, that was land. I think hunters camped here, watching the herds trailing past on their way to their feeding grounds.”       

Paul Gething and Graeme Young, directors of the Bamburgh Research Project

We’d started the day by inspecting the trenches the BRP has dug in the grounds of the castle. Teams of archaeologists on hands and knees were carefully scraping away the earth with trowels, noting and tagging every find. For the really delicate work, they employed toothbrushes. The archaeologists here come in all ages, from pensioners to schoolchildren, for one of the key objectives of the Bamburgh Research Project is to make archaeology accessible: anyone, from members of the public to Indiana Jones, can dig after being taught the necessary skills. The site is open in the summer and people can sign up for anywhere between one day and two weeks.

Paul Gething and Graeme Young, directors of the BRP, in a pointing contest in a trench in the castle

Leaving the archaeologists in the trenches, we set off along a section of the St Oswald’s Way long distance path. It seemed to me that Bamburgh Castle, once the capital of the kingdom of Northumbria, was an obvious place to do archaeology, but Paul bet me that archaeology could illuminate any walk.

“Before setting out, look at the map. The names are clues to the past. For instance, -burgh is the Anglo-Saxon word for ‘fort’, and -by is Old Norse for a village, so that tells you who settled there and named the features of the landscape. Then look at aerial photographs, or satellite images – Google makes this easy – since things often show up more clearly from above.”

This was once a burial ground

Heading down into the marram grass covered dunes, Paul told me how an old Ordnance Survey map had given them a vital clue when the BRP first started digging here. There were written references to a burial ground in the vicinity of Bamburgh Castle, but they had no idea where to search for it. But then they looked at the very first Ordnance Survey map of the area and there, to the south, were the neatly printed words ‘Danish burial ground’. We made our way through a small wood (“Just regrowth, only a couple of hundred years old”), the air thick with the buzzing of heat-drugged insects, until we came to the burial ground. Paul said they’d found over 100 skeletons here, dating from the seventh and eighth centuries. The remains indicated the people buried here were from the nobility – “They were all well fed” – and some had come from as far away as Western Scotland and Norway, only to meet their end in the service of the kings of Northumbria.

Heading inland, Paul stopped at a pasture. The cows looked up placidly before returning to cropping the grass.

Ridge and furrow patterns in a field. Photo Matt Neale

“Ridge and furrow,” Paul said, indicating the undulations that ran across the field. “Or rig and frig in archaeological slang. Medieval, judging by the distance between the ridges. Roman fields have narrower gaps.”

Parallel lines, like the ripples that form on beaches as the tide goes out, marked the field in straight lines. In medieval times common land was ploughed or dug in long parallel strips. The soil from the furrow was piled on to the ridge, creating two different microclimates for crops. In a dry season, the seeds down in the water-collecting furrow would be assured enough moisture for growth, but if the year was wet, the crops in the freely-draining ridge would flourish. Thus medieval peasants hedged their bets and their labour to ensure a crop. Where the field has been turned over to pasture rather than cross ploughed, the centuries-old pattern of cultivation can still be clearly visible.

“The rule of thumb is the wider the gap, the nearer it is to our own time. Roman fields have a three-metre gap between the ridges, medieval ones from five to eight metres.”

Paul was winning the argument before we’d gone a mile. I asked him if there were any other archaeological landscape features that an amateur could spot and he pointed to a roughly circular patch of nettles sitting alone in the corner of a nearby field. Nettles love phosphorus, and the excrement of cattle and sheep is rich in the element. These solitary patches usually marked the site of a medieval sheep or cow pen. Although the enclosure had disappeared, the plants lived on on the bounty left by the long-dead animals.

“My family are always moaning that whenever we go anywhere, I’m always saying that that’s rig and frig, or there must have been Roman villa in the vicinity, but I can’t help it. It’s just part of the way I automatically process a landscape. For instance, near where I live in York, a Second World War airfield is reverting to scrub. It’s an archaeological test bed. There’s rig and frig fields, crab apples that aren’t native to Britain – my guess is that pilots flew over from America, ate the apple they’d bought there and then threw away the core – and miles of underground tunnels that I’ll bet future archaeologists will take to be sewers, but are actually communication ducts.”

The Bradford Kaims dig

A couple of miles inland, with the Cheviots looming in the distance, we arrived at another BRP dig. This one cut through the grass, topsoil and subsoil to reveal the limits of a prehistoric lake. One of the archaeologists there told me that in Mesolithic times, that is between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, where we were standing was a large figure-eight-shaped lake, and we were standing at the pinch point of the lake. It was the obvious place for a settlement, but our distant ancestors were proving elusive. The archaeologists had only uncovered the remains of a millennia-old ditch so far.

Walking back to the castle, Paul showed me an arrowhead he’d found at the edge of a field. It was an exquisitely worked, barbed and tanged late Neolithic flint. But what could this solitary find tell us?

Digging at Bradford Kaims

“I’m firmly convinced that the key skill archaeologists have to learn is how not to focus on what is in front of them. Five thousand years ago, skilled artisan could produce half a dozen arrowheads like this every hour. They were as disposable as Bic razors. The shafts, on the other hand, were a different matter. Finding and preparing a truly straight length of wood was difficult. Once that was done, the shaft had to be fletched too. For Neolithic man, the valuable part of an arrow was not the arrowhead but the shaft. What would happen, though, if an animal wasn’t killed outright but fled, taking your valuable arrow with it? So they made their arrows in such a way that the arrowhead would break off easily, leaving the shaft to be retrieved.”

Looking at the killing instrument, I was transported back in time to a world of woods and marshes, and a hunter drawing his bow on a deer and loosing his arrow. The beast, startled, leapt away, the arrow protruding from its haunch. The shaft broke off as the deer careered through the trees and the pursuing hunter spotted the bright feathers of its fletch lying in the moss. The deer escaped, only to die a few days later when the wound became infected. Scavengers cleared the remains, but the indigestible flint of the arrowhead fell to the earth, and was covered over, only to be uncovered centuries later when a sweating medieval peasant piled the spoil from the furrow on to the adjacent ridge. There it remained, alternately exposed and hidden, until a passing archaeologist saw it glittering on the ground and grasped its significance.

Paul had won the bet.

The Weird of Alderley

Alderley Edge rising over the village of Alderley

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’.

The view from Beeston Castle

To get an idea of the geography of the area there is no better vantage point than Beeston Castle, 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.

However, you might be forgiven for wondering what on earth I’m on about should you arrive by train at Alderley Edge and walk down the main, appropriately named and directed, London Road. For a small town, the high street is densely packed with wine bars, boutiques and slightly predatory looking, if immaculately turned out, women. If the weather was 10 degrees warmer you could be in Marbella.

This is where Alderley Edge, a place of legend, runs full tilt into our modern myth of fame. The town is just a few miles south of Manchester, convenient for the airport and Manchester United Football Club. The Beckhams lived here, as did Cristiano Ronaldo. Property prices are even higher than you’d think, the new-build mansions more ghastly than you could imagine.

A typically understated house in Alderley Edge

The town is small, and taking the B5087 Macclesfield Road, you’ll soon start winding upwards, past some eye-wateringly large and imposing houses. Continue on, and after a while the houses are left behind, and woods and fields appear. You’re now up on the Edge. But it would be perfectly possible to continue on to Macclesfield without ever knowing it. (In fact, a friend of mine did once come in search of the Edge and failed to find it, despite asking the way in the town. It’s likely that the WAGs of whom he inquired the Edge’s whereabouts ­– he was young and testosterone fuelled at the time – did not count hill walking among their main pursuits.)

Looking down from Alderley Edge to the village

Instead, stop at the first lay by and take the sign-posted path heading north east, with an open field to your right. At the end of the field, head straight on, go down some steps and then turn left, following the path past some rock outcrops until you come to the Wizard’s Well. At this point, readers of ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ will be entitled to laugh out loud in delighted recognition. For there it is, exactly as described in the book:

The carved face of the Wizard above the well

a stone trough  into which water was dripping from an overhanging cliff, and high in the rock was carved the face of a bearded man, and underneath was engraved:

Drink of this/And take thy fill/For the water falls/By the wizards will

The legend of Alderley Edge, which was first documented in 1753 although it’s likely much older, tells of a farmer from Mobberley making his way over the Edge to sell his milk-white mare at Macclesfield market. An old man asks to buy the horse, but the farmer refuses, thinking to get a better price at the market. But the old man tells him no one will buy the horse, although all will admire it, and he will be waiting for the farmer when he returns that evening.

And so he is, and he leads the farmer along the Edge until he comes to a large rock, which he touches with his staff. At his touch, the rock parts, revealing Iron Gates, and a by now thoroughly frightened farmer and steed are taken deep into the earth and brought to a chamber where lie many knights, sleeping. And beside all save one is a milk-white mare. The wizard takes the farmer into a cave filled with treasure and tells him to take what he will as payment for his horse, for these knights lie sleeping until the wizard wakes them to do battle for England’s deliverance. The farmer leaves, a chastened but richer man, and the Iron Gates clang shut behind him.

The Edge in winter (I dropped my camera in the snow after taking this one photo).

Being near urban centres, timing is important when visiting Alderley Edge. Arrive on a bank holiday Monday and it can seem about as mysterious as Blackpool beach. But come in autumn twilight, when the wind is blowing the trees ragged or, as I did on my last visit, with snow beginning to fall and the world looking as unfamiliar as only the first winter snow can make it, you too will wonder what is real and what is imaginary. Holes, deep and unexpected, open in the rock, and hollows, man made but tree grown, lie in wait.

For the Edge is worked rock, made of sandstone that was laid down some 240 million years ago when even dinosaurs were still young, and it’s been mined since the Bronze Age. Those strange hollows are quarries and they pockmark the Edge, their number a testament to the intensity with which it was worked. Tunnels, some leading down deep into the ground, others simply test mines that failed to find what they sought, make silent ‘o’s in the rock. And though you know you shouldn’t go in, each and every one exhales temptation.

‘Enter. Explore. Delve deep and you will find the secret roots of hill and tree and rock,’ they seem to say. But the temptation must be resisted. It can be hard, though, for everything about the place suggests a secret land. Tree roots reach like fingers over the exposed rocks, their nails digging deep into the cracks. Unexpected vistas to the Pennines open suddenly and then, just as suddenly, close. This is a strange country, where it is easy to feel that the veils between this world and another are thin.

But what is this other world? In ‘The Weirdstone’ and ‘The Moon of Gomrath’ it is a place of high magic and old magic, of dwarves and elves, the wild hunt and the sudden, shocking onrush of fimbulwinter. But Garner is tapping into much older traditions here, for the idea of the gate which opens into an Otherworld that is both coterminous and distant from our own is an old one, with deep roots in the cultures and imaginings of the inhabitants of these islands, be they Celt, Scot, Saxon or Norman.

Beowulf dived into the lake to confront and kill Grendel’s mother; Arthur – the once and future king – sleeps in Avalon; Bran sails over a sea that is a flower-speckled plain; True Thomas lives for seven years beneath the three peaks of the Eildon Hills when he goes with the fairy queen upon ‘that bonny road,/Which winds about the fernie brae,/ That is the road to fair Elfland,/ Whe[re] you and I this night maun gae.’

Here there is wildness, lurking barely beneath the skin of modern life, but it is a wilderness of a different order. It’s the inchoate stuff of legend and myth, where spirit and matter, history and death meet and plunge strange roots into land and heart. It’s the wild heart of these islands, transmitted and transfixed in particular areas and as such illustrates how our wilderness is different from that of a country like America, where the dominant experience of wilderness is of a place apart from humanity and into which we venture as visitors. Here, wildness lies at the intersection of land, culture, myth and memory, in the place where worlds meet.

The Edge is a perfect example of such a liminal place. It’s not particularly large, and you could explore most of it in a day, and yet I suspect that even a lifetime of daily walks would not reveal all its secrets nor uncover all its moods. The Edge was a bare, windswept ridge until the mid-18th century, when local landowners planted it with Scotch pine. Since then, oak and beech have colonised the Ridge, their roots often making use of the cracks in the rock strata exposed by quarries to anchor the trees against winter storms.

The quarries and mines are perhaps the most striking feature of the Edge. Although they are obviously the work of men, they add considerably to the otherworldly atmosphere of the place. Bronze Age man first mined here, digging for copper and lead, and the Romans followed. However, there’s little evidence for any further activity between the Romans and 1690. For the next two hundred years, the Edge was extensively mined and quarried, and though there was little real activity after World War I, the mines became something of a tourist attraction. However, several unwary visitors were hurt or killed, and the mines became notorious. Some were sealed, and tourists warned not to venture under ground. The sandstone has also been eroded in many places by visitors, so it is best to keep to the paths.

Much of our knowledge of the tunnels comes from a man called John Evans, who lived a hermit life out of a log cabin in Church Quarry, which lies not far behind The Wizard pub on Macclesfield Road. Evans lived there for many years after he suffered a breakdown in 1915, reputedly brought on by the loss of the woman he loved on the Titanic. Knowledgeable about geology and a good climber, he began exploring the caves. Despite his hermit reputation, Evans enjoyed socialising and this led to his strange death. After an evening drinking in a local pub, Evans returned to his hut with two friends to continue the merrymaking. But one of the men, Walter Whitelegg, fell ill and died later that night – from cyanide poisoning it turned out. The inquest called to discover the cause of death summoned Evans as a witness, but when he failed to turn up the police went to Church Quarry only to find Evans dead – of cyanide poisoning too.

Strangely, but rather appropriately, six bars of gold have also been found around the Edge, with most of the finds made in the 1990s. See, I said there’s something truly odd about the place. Maybe, behind the tame façade, the old gods of England are laughing.

Book review: The Longest Week by Nick Page

The Longest Week by Nick Page

Nick Page’s great skill as a writer is taking a vast library of scholarly material and synthesising it into a readable, coherent and fast-paced narrative, normally leavened with a topping of bad jokes and worse puns. In The Longest Week, his account of the last week in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, Page does the former extremely well but mostly leaves out the jokes and puns – it’s not that easy to joke about a man being put to death in possibly the most excruciating fashion devised by the human imagination.

The book is particularly good on bringing out the wider Roman and Jewish context, integrating much of the recent archaeological information about what life was like in first-century Palestine. Page paints vivid pictures of the main political players, Pilate, Temple grandees Annas and Caiaphas, and Herod Antipater, showing how each was shaped by the forces around them but how, interestingly, they could all have played their hands differently had they been less insouciant about sacrificing an insignificant life to their own political interests.

While the book is excellent on the political and historical context, Page’s take on the intersection of the historical and theological contexts in the person of Jesus is quite strongly coloured by a Protestant reading of the history and theology: nothing wrong in itself but alternative readings are given short shrift.

Overall, an enjoyable and generally enlightening primer on the week upon which human history hinges.

Those Blue Remembered Hills of the Land of Lost Content

On top of The Wrekin

I like rocks. Big rocks, little rocks, smooth rocks, rough rocks, I like ’em all. But, as you might have guessed from my sophisticated method of classification, I don’t know much about them. Living in London there isn’t much chance of getting a great deal of hands on knowledge of them, since the city sits atop deep layers of clay laid down some 50 million years when the land was sea (if the Pennines are the country’s spine, that would make Scotland the head and London the arse!). So when I learned that palaeobiologists at Oxford University’s Earth sciences department had discovered some of the earliest life yet found in rocks on the Long Mynd, my decision was made. We headed to Shropshire.

AE Housman called them ‘those blue remembered hills’.

If you read guide books or tourist brochures about the Shropshire Hills, you’ll soon find out about the importance of the area for geologists. It was one of the areas where geology, a largely Victorian and British invention, made its first discoveries. No comparable area in England provides so many different rock formations. If you look at a map of Shropshire you’ll see that the hills form long, parallel ridges, rolling like breakers towards the plains eastwards: the Stiperstones, the Long Mynd, Wenlock Edge. It could almost be a green sea, with the bare backs of the Stiperstones and the Long Mynd still far out from shore, and Wenlock Edge, its tree-covered flank the foam, breaking on the beach. These long hills were formed at different times, with the Long Mynd the oldest, at 560 million years, the Stiperstones a sprightly 480 millions years old and Wenlock Edge a positively youthful 430 million.

Wenlock Edge, a wood crowned wave breaking upon the eastern plains.
The Stiperstones.

The Long Mynd, although a favourite with walkers, has received little attention from palaeobiologists since its age seemed to preclude fossils. But we’ll return to it later as, it turns out, that ain’t necessarily so. Wenlock Edge, on the other hand, was laid down by uncounted corals in a warm tropical sea after the great Cambrian explosion of life, and fossils are supposedly numerous, though I’ve never been that good at finding them. On the other hand, Charles Darwin, a native of Shrewsbury up the road, didn’t find any either, so I’m in good company. Like a receding ripple, Wenlock Edge has its own land shadow in View Edge, a parallel bed of hard limestone tilted upwards by geological forces.

The view from Wenlock Edge

Limestone was a vital fertilizer in the days before oil-fired agriculture, and Wenlock Edge was quarried big time. Most of the quarries are closed now and the National Trust is negotiating with the operator of the last big quarry on Wenlock Edge to take over its workings as a museum and visitor centre of the area’s past. But the quarrymen did great service to geologists and palaeontologists, slicing deep into the rock and cutting back through the accumulated layers of the Edge’s earth clock. On any given day you’re still likely to find a fossil hunter bent over a shard of rock, hammer at the ready, hoping to find wonder in his hand. Fossil corals are common, as are the plant-like crinoids, brachiopods (which look similar to mussels but aren’t related) and trilobites. Not that I could make them out, even when a friendly fossil hunter attempted to show us what he was doing.

The steep western flank of the Edge is thickly wooded; a summer walk is shaded but enclosed. Maybe the best time to walk it is in winter or early spring, when you can see Ape Dale spreading out towards Caer Caradoc, Ragleth Hill and the long mountain beyond (in case you’re wondering, the dale was named for its apiaries rather than its simians).

The Major’s Leap

Not far from the final working quarry is the Major’s Leap, a rare clear outlook through the trees. It’s named for Major Smallman, a Royalist who lived in nearby Wilderhope Manor. Pursued by soldiers fighting for the Parliamentary cause, he forced his horse up along Wenlock Edge until, cut off, man and horse leapt into thin air. The beast did not survive, but Major Smallman did, limping off to escape his pursuers.

Yes, we did stay at Wilderhop Manor, but rather a long time ago now.

Wilderhope Manor, his old home, is now a National Trust owned youth hostel and an evocative and reasonably priced place to stay. It fell into dereliction in the 19th and early 20th centuries so was spared the improvements so often foisted on Elizabethan manor houses in that time. There’s a rack above the fireplace in the main hall that was once, in more troubled times, a place to store longbows. This was border country, after all, and ‘it was customary for the English to cut off the ears of every Welshman found east of the dyke, and for the Welsh to hang every Englishman whom they found to the west of it’.

Despite my failure with Wenlockian fossils, I was still excited by the news of the finds on the Long Mynd. For a long time, the mountain was thought to be bare of fossil remains. The only structures to be found were the sinuous ridges of water over sand, just like you see today on a beach as the tide withdraws, and even more evocatively, the marks of a passing rain shower on lost beaches. That’s what it says in guide books and it’s what I’d written in previous features about Shropshire. But it turns out not to be true. Those aren’t rain drops at all, but the remains of tiny creatures, namely Intrites and Beltanelliformis, which were either colony-forming microbes or even very primitive animals.

Carding Mill valley

However, I must admit they still look like rain drops to me. The fossils are quite common on the Long Mynd; Alex Liu, one of the researchers working on them, found fossils of Intrites and Beltanelliformis up and down Carding Mill Valley and along Ashes Hollow, the second valley south of Carding Mill, often simply in bits of shale lying along the path. But he’s a palaeobiologist, and used to looking for dimpled bits of rock. To get a better idea of what to look for, head to the National Trust Visitor Centre in Carding Mill Valley, where an example of this sort of fossil is on display in the café – it’s been relabelled, ‘Meet the ancestors.’

I asked Alex how he knew these marks were really caused by living creatures, since the fossilised impressions appear to show a young earth suffering from a bad attack of chicken pox – exactly how you’d expect muddy ground to look after a heavy shower.

With considerable patience, Alex explained that these couldn’t be rain marks because we now know these rocks were deposited under water; many marks are too small to be rain prints; and they don’t cut or cross each other, but rather grow into and abut the surrounding structures in the way that living creatures like bacteria do today. And, what’s more, identical structures have been found in rocks of the same age in St John’s, Newfoundland, and similar structures are seen in Charnwood Forest, Leicestershire.

560 million years ago, when these rocks were formed, the Atlantic Ocean didn’t exist, and Newfoundland, Shropshire and Leicestershire were close, under-sea neighbours. Alex went on to say that Shropshire was then a long way from its present location, most likely lying just outside the Antarctic Circle at about 60 degrees south.

A young Matthew atop The Wrekin

Huge volcanoes erupted and their outpourings form the hills that lie to the east of the Long Mynd: Caer Caradoc, Ragleth Hill, The Lawley and, further to the north-east, The Wrekin, which is the first hill visitors usually see when driving into Shropshire on the M54 and the one shedding its leaves onto the Severn according to A. E. Housman (‘On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;/His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;/The gale, it plies the saplings double,/And thick on Severn snow the leaves’). The ash and rock worn off these volcanic mountains was washed into seas and estuaries, forming the sediments that settled into the mudstone that today forms the Long Mynd.

Carding Mill valley

Still feeling a little light headed from the dizzying vistas of time laid out to me, I walked out into Carding Mill Valley and looked up at its steep, heather covered flanks. There was once a mill here that, as the name tells, carded sheep’s wool – the building was later converted rather unsympathetically into flats. But by the late 19th century nearby Church Stretton and its necklace of hills were being marketed to Victorian day trippers as ‘little Switzerland’, complete with requisite spa (although the requisite liquid for taking the waters had to be transported in from Wales). On arriving in Carding Mill Valley some of the visitors would pay the local urchins a penny to race up the valley sides. We set off at a more leisurely pace.

The Long Mynd

My son, Theo, wrapped up against the winter wind, accompanied me up the valley. The Long Mynd is deeply fissured on its eastern flank, the steep valleys (or batches as they’re known locally) draining the rain driven before the prevailing wind. In comparison, the mountain’s western slopes are relatively smooth and, since they are largely free from trees, they are perfect for gliding. Amy Johnson, the famous aviator of the early 20th Century who was the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia, practised above Wild Moor and Pole Bank.

The snow, which had started in a desultory fashion as we began, grew thicker as we climbed up Light Spout Hollow. The world whitened as we went, until it opened out, and out, and out, into a formless, shifting, blowing greylight. We had reached the exposed and undulating whaleback of the long mountain and come into a world transformed. Living in a world of change, our entire perceptual and cognitive apparatus is geared towards providing us with some sort of constancy, but that apparatus fails utterly under the white. Heather becomes a strangely unliving lace, a bleached out coral in a cold and motile sea. Fence pillars are measured out on their verticals by the regular spacing of ice flakes, each one standing apart from its neighbours, each and every one a marvel of involuting intricacy. We walked in a middle space and centre time, abysses of time beneath our feet, worlds within worlds within worlds before our eyes; the snow blowing before the wind.

Theo was beginning to look like a mobile snowman, in need of wipers for his spectacles. We pushed on, towards a distant shadow that resolved into three ponies standing heads down, bottom to the wind. Roughly two dozen wild ponies live on the Long Mynd, descendants of ponies bred for lives in the pits. Zeno himself would have been impressed by their stoicism. 

A pony on Long Mynd

Winding back down into the valley, we passed the icing line. Above, the world was white, dangerously blessed, but below colours returned, a car drove down a clear road and life continued as normal. We walked into the café like creatures of dream, frost flaked ghosts. A woman and boy looked up and for a moment I didn’t recognise my wife and younger son and they didn’t recognise me.


Worlds settle. We’re back.

Book review: Castle Garac by Nicholas Monsarrat

Castle Garac by Nicholas Monsarrat

I found this slim novel in a second-hand bookshop (it’s long out of print) and picked it up because I have read Monsarrat’s superb novel of naval warfare during World War II, The Cruel Sea, and was curious to see what the rest of his work was like.

Well, it’s not nearly as good as The Cruel Sea – but then few books are. It’s interesting how some authors have one great book within them, but no more than that. In Monsarrat’s case, it was because in The Cruel Sea he took his wartime experiences and distilled them with his writing craft, making of them a book that endures. But absent such source material, in a book like Castle Garac, and we are left with authorical craft and pure storytelling, but storytelling of its time. It’s interesting how much the simple craft of telling a story is affected by its time and culture, from the rhythm and pace of the prose, through the choice of words, to the subject matter. As such, popular fiction from long ago (this was first published in 1955) is a rather good way of appreciating cultural changes, for good and ill. Far too many people simply go through books like this and pick out things that offend their modern sensibilities without thinking how the sensibilities of the past would be offended in turn.

The story itself is not whodunnit but rather a what-are-they-planning: mysterious rich couple enlist penniless writer for a scheme that’s clearly crooked but the payoff is in learning just how it is crooked. It’s a swift and easy read. If you should see the book, lying neglected in a second-hand book shop, pick it up and read it. You will make an old book very happy.