Sunday, 13 March 2011

Spring In Town

At a street corner sat, and played with a wind, Winter disconsolate.
Still tingled the fingers of the passers-by and still their breath was visible, and still they huddled their chins into their coats when turning a corner they met with a new wind, still windows lighted sent out into the street the thought of romantic comfort by evening fires; these things still were, yet the throne of Winter tottered, and every breeze brought tidings of further fortresses lost on lakes or boreal hill-slopes. And not any longer as a king did Winter appear in those streets, as when the city was decked with gleaming white to greet him as a conqueror and he rode in with his glittering icicles and haughty retinue of prancing winds, but he sat there with a little wind at the corner of the street like some old blind beggar with his hungry dog. And as to some old blind beggar Death approaches, and the alert ears of the sightless man prophetically hear his far-off footfall, so there came suddenly to Winter's ears the sound, from some neighbouring garden, of Spring approaching as she walked on daisies. And Spring approaching looked at huddled inglorious Winter.
"Begone," said Spring.
"There is nothing for you to do here," said Winter to her. Nevertheless he drew about him his grey and battered cloak and rose and called to his little bitter wind and up a side street that led northward strode away.
Pieces of paper and tall clouds of dust went with him as far as the city's outer gate. He turned then and called to Spring: "You can do nothing in this city," he said; then he marched homeward over plains and sea and heard his old winds howling as he marched. The ice broke up behind him and foundered like navies. To left and to right of him flew the flocks of the sea-birds, and far before him the geese's triumphant cry went like a clarion. Greater and greater grew his stature as he went northwards and ever more kingly his mien. Now he took baronies at a stride and now counties and came again to the snow-white frozen lands where the wolves came out to meet him and, draping himself anew with old grey clouds, strode through the gates of his invincible home, two old ice barriers swinging on pillars of ice that had never known the sun.
So the town was left to Spring. And she peered about to see what she could do with it. Presently she saw a dejected dog coming prowling down the road, so she sang to him and he gambolled. I saw him next day strutting by with something of an air. Where there were trees she went to them and whispered, and they sang the arboreal song that only trees can hear, and the green buds came peeping out as stars while yet it is twilight, secretly one by one. She went to gardens and awaked from dreaming the warm maternal earth. In little patches bare and desolate she called up like a flame the golden crocus, or its purple brother like an emperor's ghost. She gladdened the graceless backs of untidy houses, here with a weed, there with a little grass. She said to the air, "Be joyous."
Children began to know that daisies blew in unfrequented corners. Buttonholes began to appear in the coats of the young men. The work of Spring was accomplished.
Lord Dunsany
Photograph: derelict townhouse, Picadilly, London

Monday, 7 March 2011

High Cup Nick

For many years High Cup Nick called to me. I have studied it on the map and driven by its vast open mouth, looking up into the rolling clouds that cap its top. I have planned expeditions that have never happened, over night wild camps on the slopes above the trough, long walks down the steep gills that fall into the vale of Eden and then steeper climbs back to the summits but all in vain. But I had never set aside the time to visit the place. The call of this wild and remote place seemed as far away and faint as the moon but like all things it is there for the taking, and if we stop thinking about it and start doing it we get a little closer.
On a grey and ordinary March morning I set off to finally see this place. A long drive to the trail head on the banks of Cow Green reservoir, a few minutes to boot up and check equipment and I was off, striding along the rough tarmac road that leads down to the dam wall that holds back the might of Condatis’ Tees, across the dam and onto the Pennine Way heading west. I have sometimes pondered what it would be like to do one of these long distance walks and today I realised that this is definitely, positively not for me. I have no problem walking long distances, no problem wild camping or doing the day after day after day slog that comes with the challenges – what I dislike, maybe even despise, is the pedestrian nature of these walks.
Other than physical stamina and mental dullness I can see little else that is needed to complete these trails. The Pennine Way is as wide and well marked as a suburban street. At every mile there seems to be a sign post showing the way, a helpful information board provided by some do-gooding organisation and in places where the ground may be a little muddy for gentlefolk they have even provided duck-boards, huge stone slabs and footbridges to get those who lack the initiative across the becks and gills. What is the point of venturing into “Englands Last Wilderness” if it is impossible to lose ones way? I appreciate the arguments about erosion and the impact of thousands of boots on delicate ecosystems but I really do not want to be herded along sanitised corridors in the landscape like so many day-trippers on a bus to Blackpool.
Not only is the walk to High Cup Nick insultingly well marked it is also insultingly boring. Mile after mile of dull heathery hills rising with that rounded convex slope of the North Pennines, a shifting mirage that places the summit always beyond the next ridge. Here you find yourself among some of the highest hills in England – Mickle Fell, Meldon Hill, Dun Fell, Cross Fell but the path winds sheepishly around their lower flanks, across miles of soggy featureless upland plain on which the only point of interest is the soft chuckle of startled grouse and calling lapwings and curlews.
I reached High Cup Nick in a poor humour. The walk had been tiresome and dull, the weather was neither warm and sunny or cold and cloudy – both of which I would have welcomed for their own reasons – but just the sullen dull grey of very early spring. Too early for the flowers of the famous Teesdale Assemblage, too late for the snows that linger long in this sub-arctic microclimate. Even so, when one stands at the head of the vast glacial trough of High Cup Gill and beholds the majesty of the place all the bullshit and interference that has clung to you like the scum of the modern world blows away, leaving you cleansed and quiet. I sat for a long time, a lone tiny figure in this enormous landscape, looking out into the sky. Sat like a falcon on a crag, ready to launch into the shifting clouds, suspended in a world of sky and rock, of greys and black, lost in the soft fall of water and cold whine of wind. But I knew when I had stayed too long. The chill bit and worried any area of exposed skin, hands began to tingle then scream in the coldness, tuning to the pink of boiled lobsters. Taking photographs was difficult, fingers began to stiffen and lose their dexterity, the pain increased until ones whole consciousness was reduced to the need to put on gloves. If there is a Genius Loci of this wild and viscous place it is not to be taken lightly.

Maize Beck: I

I did not have the heart to return by the same route. I had not walked so far just to turn around and go through the same dullness so I consulted my map and looked for an alternative. I had considered walking up the southern slope of Meldon Hill to its rounded summit, 767 metres above sea level and on the walk in the perfectly flat surface of Cow Green reservoir had reflected the hill like a mirror, making it seem nearer and attainable but now I wanted something more interesting than an endless climb to the top of an unremarkable hill. The clouds were starting to roll in like massive white curtains pulled across a stage. On the walk to High Cup Nick I had crossed Maize Beck, a small upland stream flowing roughly north-east to join the Tees and decided that this was where my route lay. I would reject the paths, do away with the duckboards and follow this small mountain river where it lead me.
Maize Beck rises in the huge blanket bogs of Dufton Fell. Water falling in this catchment gathers in the thick peaty soil, thatched with sphagnum moss and tussocks of grass before making its slow way into ditch and sike, runnel and gill. Even it its upper reaches the beck is wide and rocky, alternating between stony rapids and deep dark pools where the water moves slowly, swirling in dark depths that call for wild swimming on warm days. Today is not that day, the wind is rattling the dry heather, the sky is threatening rain and this high in the hills small becks can flash flood, sweeping down turfs and stone in their force. I decide to keep my clothes firmly on my back.
The geology of these hills is varied. There is shiny black limestone, washed smooth and dimpled by millennia of water, vast igneous intrusions of whin sill form cliffs and pinnacles while sedimentary layers lie in slabby formations. The beck cuts down through this landscape, a cold serpent of water, a living presence in a place that can evoke a sense of emptiness and stillness. There is a modern footbridge across the beck and this is where I begin my journey. The map shows a footpath running along the southern edge of the beck – in reality this is a faint and elusive trail that winds between the heather and the stones, sometimes lost from view. This is the kind of place I love, a place where it is not certain where the path lies and where ones skill and strength are tested. Leave the Pennine Way to the ramblers and their Skye Terriers, this is where I want to be.

Maize Beck: II

But even in these wild and remote places you are reminded of the outside world. The Army has a firing range at Warcop on the southern side of the hills and the Ministry of Defence has annexed hundreds of square acres of moorland for its own use, planting their ugly signs in this wilderness, telling people to Keep Out. Let the army mind its own business and I will mind mine.
There is evidence all along the beck bed of the special microclimate of this place. Ice forms where spray from the small falls has frozen on the cold stone slabs that face away from the sun. Icicles grow where water drips from exposed faces in the peat, making beautiful and delicate shapes against the dark, muddy background. Walking in these places you can hear the popping suction of air squeezed up from the bog or the hard crunch of frozen ice just beneath the surface. There is a feeling of cold in the land, that on these tundran hills the last ice age was yesterday and may come back again tonight.

Maize Beck: III

The beck reaches its most southerly point at the confluence with the Swarth Beck, which drains the northern slopes of Arnside Rake. Confluences are special places, places of joinings and powers merged. These waters are hallowed to Condatis, the god of the confluences, a God known only to the northern Brigantia people who lived in the valleys between the Greta and the Tyne. At this southern point of the beck there are a series of wide rapids and beautiful water falls, water rippling and singing as it drops over the plucked, bare rocks. This is a place to sit and linger. A place to be, even on a day as cold and grey as today, with the snows not yet melted on the tops of the hills and the wind sniffing round gaps in clothing like a hunting dog.

Maize Beck: IV

Upland rivers have a life a vibrancy that fills me with joy. They are young and reckless, capable of acts of destruction and acts that create the most beautiful places. In these hidden valleys where few people visit there are pools of water that are known only to the dipper and the otter. A dipper has been my companion for the last mile, flying back and forth, its white throat flashing in the grey of the day, a small black bullet skimming the surface of the beck. The water runs quickly now, anxious to get to the bottom of the valley. From its source in the bogs to the west to its confluence with the Tees the Maize Beck drops over 200 metres in something a little over 10 kilometres, not a particularly steep drop but one that keeps the water running fresh and fast.
Now the beck seems to be a series of small falls, one following the other as the water flows between square boulders, around rocks and slabs that have taken a strange orange-brown colour, as if stained by the peaty waters. Here it is possible to cross backwards and forwards from one side to the other at will. The rocks are smooth and flat, wide surfaces that make perfect steps. The water flows beneath me as I walk from side to side, feeling the pull of the landscapes, flowing with the water downwards towards the valley bottom.

Maize Beck: V

I am suddenly arrested dead in my tracks. There, on a large flat slab of brown rock protruding from the water is a fresh otter spraint. There are three pieces of scat, all deposited on the higher edge of the slab. I have seen similar depositions of otter scat in other places – sometimes on large flat rocks by the river side, sometimes on tussocks of moss. It is classic territory marking behaviour – leaving a spoor in a place that will warn those who need to be warned and entice those who should be enticed.
Of the three individual spraints the central deposit is the largest, showing that curled and twisted morphology characteristic of mustelids. There is wide seasonal variance in scat morphology amongst otters and these pieces range from 2cm to 5cm in size, with a very soft mucousy texture. This would suggest that the animal who marked this place is currently subsisting on a very meagre diet of slugs, earth worms and possibly frogs, if they have yet woken from their winter hibernation in these cold hills. The external colour of the spraints was a rich dark brown but when broken showed a greener colour, there were no fishbones or any solid particles in the spraint. The spraint gave off a sweet musky smell, not unpleasant. It is because of this smell, blown down the valley by the near constant winds, that the otter chose this rock.
Interestingly the otter had deposited the spraint over a grouse dropping, showing that this particular rock – perhaps owing to its flat tabular form and prominent position in the river affording a clear view down the valley – is favoured by more than one species as a marker point. I have found other communal latrine sites where different species have marked the same places – specifically roe deer and hares during snow coverage, but this is the first time I have found otter using a communal site with other species.

Maize Beck: VI

I sat on the river bank and pondered this find. Tracking is about understanding animal behaviour, not just about locating track and sign, and to understand the significance of this spraint one needs to understand the landscape. Here was a small and stony beck in the highest hills of the Pennines. Winters up here are cold and hungry times, certainly no place for a large mammal like otters. It seems more likely that this is a sign of a spring migration. Signalled by warmer days and increasing daylight a dog otter has travelled upstream looking for a new territory – beyond the hay meadows, beyond the tree line into a place where few others will go. I have no idea what quantity of fish Maize Beck holds – certainly the massive waterfall at High Force, down in middle Teesdale, forms a barrier to migratory species but above that there are grayling and small brown trout in the river. The Maize Beck with its alternate stretches of deep pools and rocky shallows is an unspoilt habitat but fish would first need to navigate the extensive obstacles of Maize Force. Even so, the presence of otters so far up the beck suggests that there is sufficient prey in the river to support a breeding population, even if these resourceful animals do supplement their diet with everything from slugs to the eggs and young of ground nesting birds.

Maize Beck: VII

The spraint documented and the location assessed I carried on down the valley. The beck falls in step after step, fed by small runnels and sikes that flow down the hill sides. Tracking otters across this substrate is impossible, I look for soft muddy pools where a print may be found but there is nothing. I concentrate on the grassy band and at a place where the bank rose high above the rocky flow I found more otter spraint – this time left in four small deposits along a 10 metre length of bank. Each spraint was between 3cm and 5cm in length and were of the same semi-solid mucousy texture that had been deposited several kilometres upstream on the slab. It seems that the animal was taking no chances in marking its area clearly and thoroughly.
I have found similar otter deposition sites in woodland areas, it would appear that dog otters move through the landscape using both the river and the bank, depositing spraint on high points above the water to allow the scent to move down the valley, signalling presence and ownership. This is a satisfying find, telling me that my reading of the landscape was correct, affirming things that I only suspected to be true.

Maize Beck: VIII

It was now late in the afternoon and the light was starting to fail. I was a long way outside of mobile phone coverage and still had any miles to go before I could regain my car parked at the reservoir. I picked up the pace, no longer examining every rock and tuft of grass for track and sign and set myself the target of covering ground quickly. This was easier said than done, there are no paths in this place and I was left hopping from rock to rock, conscious that this was neither the time nor the place to fall and get injured. I passed the relics of the forgotten industries of the North Pennines– shakes holes where subterranean galleries and shafts have subside, spoil heaps from century old lead mines now grown grassy and smooth, isolated piles of stones shaped into curricks, marker stones, and the remains of walls now broken down and mossy. Still the beck flowed on, gurgling and calling, running over deep still stretches in slow motion, pulling with it the white lines of foam made by small step falls and rapids.

Maize Beck: IX

The valley was broader now. No longer the quick run of water between interlocking spurs of hills, the beck flows strong and broad over rocky beds. Rounding a corner in the land I came to the falls at Maize Beck Force. The word “Force” is used in Northern England and comes from the Old Norse “Foss”, which describes a fall of water. Here the falls are wide and strong, channelling water over flat slabs of hard whin sill and down strong flumes of white foaming spray. There are river rounded cobbles and angular, squared blocks. Wide flat pastures of rock. The sound of the falls fills the air but it is a peaceful sounds that allows the outside world to soak through, unlike the overpowering roar that comes from higher falls.
I explore the rocks, flat and inviting, purpose made for climbing and gripping. To fall in here and crack bones would be a poor end to the day and I am careful not to push either my own limits or the hospitality of the place. In the cool of the late afternoon I sit on a flat rock beneath the lower fall and drink the last of my water. The first midges of the year dance above the water in a shifting, changing orb. It has been a long and exciting day. A day of contrasts, the dull monotony of the featureless Pennine Way contrasted with the exciting variety of the Maize Beck. A day of biting cold at the cusp of High Cup Nick and soft warmth as nameless hollows of the hills caught the fleeting sun. I have never been happier to have abandoned the path and looked for my own way.