Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The North Pennines

Last week I got the rare chance to head up into the North Pennines as I had to go to Westgate to look at a dig my university has been involved with. I’m not naturally drawn to moorland landscapes. I have a fairly low tolerance for Gore-tex and Kendal Mint Cake and normally prefer my countryside on the more pastoral side. It may be heresy, but I must admit I can take or leave the Lake District or Snowdonia. However, I do have a soft spot for that stretch of the Pennine ridge between Stainmore and Hadrian’s Wall. Unlike the Yorkshire Dales to the south it has managed to avoid the excessive tidying up and gentrification which has turned some parts into a lumpier version of the Cotswolds.

My drive took me up to Weardale with a diversion to Rookhope then up over to Alston and down Teesdale. The weather was beautiful, the hay meadows were in full flower and the dales were saturated with birdsong. Bizarrely, this is an area where oyster-catchers and curlews nest in the summer- close your eyes and you could be by an estuary rather than in some of the highest moors in England. This was also a landscape loved by WH Auden:

From scars where kestrels hover
The leader looking over
Into the happy valley,
Orchard and curving river,
May turn away to see
The slow fastidious line
That disciplines the fell
Hear curlew’s creaking call
From angles unforeseen...

(Missing, 1929)

Many of Auden’s poems keyed into the thing that keeps me coming back to the North Pennines; it is a post-industrial landscape.

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing-floors,
Snatches of tramline running to a wood,
An industry already comatose,
Yet sparsely living...


From the Roman period until the early-20th century this was an area dominated by lead mining. In the 19th century, the mines of the London Lead Company and the Blackett-Beaumont Company produced more lead than anywhere else in the world. This industry had a direct impact on the land in terms of the scars of mining and the construction of pithead and processing facilities. It also brought people into the Dales and created a distinct human landscape – non-conformity was strong and the lead companies had a strong ethic of public benefaction and investment in supporting their workforce. Methodist chapels multiplied and many areas of miners housing ('mine shops') still survive. At exactly the same time, further east, the great north-east coal field was also reaching is zenith; through much of the 1800s County Durham was dominated by these two great extractive industries. The lead mining declined in the earlier 20th century whilst in the County Durham the coal industry did not collapse until the 1960s and finally dying in the 1990s. However, today, virtually nothing survives of the collieries– if you did not know it, it would be hard to tell that you were in the heart of a once-thriving coalfield. The pitheads are long dismantled and many mines are built over (my last two jobs in Durham have seen me working in offices on the sites of former coal mines). Even the spoil-heaps that once dominated much of east Durham have been sculpted and shifted out of existence. This is in contrast to the lead mining area. Here land is cheap and there is little pressure for development- the mine buildings stand derelict as in places do the miner’s houses. The scars caused by hushing and processing have never been erased. It’s a landscape where the evidence for the industry is still apparent. The mines always operated alongside farming and the moors were owned by the great estates and used for game shooting. The moors are still home to sheep and grouse, but the miners are long gone.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The Great God Pan

Most people think of Wind in the Willows (1908) as a rather jolly and ever-so English story of meadows, moles and mucking about in boats. However, within it is a haunting, mystical passage, which see the animals hearing mysterious piping and then encountering the god Pan:
"he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward"

Interestingly, I've come across a number of other depictions of Pan in late 19th and early 20th century English literature. Probably the best known is Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan (1890), a book which was a great influence on writers such as HP Lovecraft. Its depiction of Pan is a diabolic one and a world away from the awe-inspiring yet ultimately benign Pan in Wind of the Willows. More recently, I've come across another appearance of Pan. This is in a short story by EF Benson (of Mapp and Lucia fame) entitled 'The Man Who Went Too Far' (written I think in the 1920s). In it, Frank Halton, a young artist retreats to he New Forest and opens his soul to Nature. At first, this results in him regaining a youthful vigour as he begins to hear the 'strange, unending melody' of Pan's pipes. He anticipates 'a final revelation..a complete and blinding stroke, which will throw open... once and for all, the full knowledge, the full realisation and comprehension that I am one...with life'. Inevitably, no good can come of this, and he is found by a friend with his face fixed in terror and marks on his chest 'as if caused by the hoofs of some monstrous goat that had leaped and stamped on him'. I am intrigued by the localisation of Pan in particularly English landscapes. Although he comes across differently in each case, there is a strong sense of both attraction and terror inherent in him and his links to untamed nature. Intriguingly, there is also a passing reference in Puck of Pook's Hill by the Roman soldier Parnesius to a 'the little altar I built to the Sylvan Pan by the pine-forest beyond the brook?' - pleasingly, Wind in the Willows also harks back to a Roman past with Badger's description of an ancient city that preceded the Wild Wood: 'People come—they stay for a while, they flourish, they build—and they go. It is their way. But we remain.' - it looks like Pan may have remained too.