There were house sparrows bathing in the dust and barn swallows hawking for insects above our heads. Starlings, with their electric crackle voices, chattered on the wires. The low hum of bees and hoverflies spread out from the flowerbeds, and an occasional wasp, yellow striped and predatory, flashed by. In the distance, the dull roar of waves, still pushed by yesterday’s winds, added a base background to the noises around us.
The farm buildings stand solid and thick walled against the wind. Most of the windows look south and west, away from the cold fingers of the East wind. A small herd of cows adopt a similar alignment; backs to the wind, showing how good design can flow from observation. Classically black and white and wet nosed they stared over the fence, agricultural but domestic. The soil around the gates is poached to muddiness by their heavy, lingering feet. Beyond a neck stretch and tongue length, a line of taller grass grows, proof of the old adage correct. Gulls pass overhead and what seems to be a single cloud hangs over the castle in the distance.
While this is almost Scotland, there is something classically English about the landscape; soft and well tended, managed down the years by the changing hand of agriculture and only fought over in the distant past. The views in all directions have a kind of ephemeral beauty, which close inspection renders ordinary; and that is its charm. The beauty of the mundane and the commonplace, stacked layer upon layer, to form something remarkable and effecting. There are no grand mountains or shockingly deep canyons. The sea is more often muddy brown than blue, and the skies are often clouded. I miss landscapes like this in a way that is almost tangible; the memory of place and the understanding of shape. The feeling of shared history and common struggle. While such feelings and understandings do grow for elsewhere, they grow with geological slowness. For all my efforts, I remain a product of this small island, of these small and delicate landscapes.
The kids seem to notice that I have stopped packing the car. That I am staring up the coast towards Bamburgh. They ask if I am OK, and I am stuck by the impossibility of an answer. Young swallows on the barn roof ask different questions of their own parents. I slide a suitcase into its now familiar position in the back of the car and walk back across the garden and into the house to collect the other bags. I check under beds for things that have been lost, forgotten or left behind. As I walk back to the car I suppose I do the same thing again.
We turn inland, south and west, my natural direction, and drive away from the coast and its terns and puffins. The ups and downs, lefts and rights of the road require a close eye and a light right foot. Past farm gates with more dust cleaned sparrows, under flocks of rooks and jackdaws, through a strange mist of flies that pitter pat to their deaths on the windscreen we head towards Rothbury, morning tea and walk by the river. I hope for Dippers, but, appropriately enough, I don’t see them. A few trout dimple the surface, but scatter as we skip stones over the water.
The river is called The Coquet, and once, not that long ago, it was England’s cleanest river. These days the river has lost this crown as agricultural chemicals have leaked sideways from the fields into the water; but the water still sparkles, and the disturbed trout are soon safe and sound, holding in the buffered current caused by the bridge footings, darting into the swifter water to take their own morning meal. Many years ago I found Lamprey in this river, strange jawless, eel-like, fish that writhed in the bottom of a net aimed at stoneflies and mayflies. Primitive and old; a compelling link to a younger, cleaner world; the gill slits behind their head opening and closing as dark holes in the suffocating air.
I was younger when I saw them, standing on the edge of a change that I did not know was coming. Standing on the edge of a plunge into waters deep and cold, the ripples from which would wash back and forth for the best part of ten years.
The ripples have subsided. I wonder if the lampreys are still there.
We walked into town, confident I knew where I was going, and became lost almost at once. Buildings, which should have been on the left, were on the right and the river was behind me when it should have been in front. Half remembered memories, pulled from long ago, were less use than the simple experience of the new. We walked in circles through the town, below solid buildings, set with small windows and heavyset roofs, built from cut stone that still held the marks of hammer and iron.
Maybe it’s the use of local stone that does this, or maybe its that the town has yet to be subjected to a planner’s enthusiasm for change, but it felt practical, lacking in architectural excess, and wonderfully rooted in the landscape. The roads and laneways met at odd angles, pavements mysteriously disappeared from one side of the street only to reappear on the other and shops and houses were scattered almost at random. The town was small, unpredictable and old, much like the landscape around it. Eventually we collided with an ice cream, which on such days is a fine substitute for morning tea, and our bearings fixed we headed back to the car.
In the car park I noticed a sign that warned of sudden flooding in heavy rain – which is hardly a once in a lifetime event here. I wondered if my thoughts of rootedness and connection were an illusion. Above the river were clouds but no rain. The Coquet was still safe within its banks as we drove away.
To the south lay the old industrial cites of Newcastle and Sunderland, and further south still Middlesbrough. Towns sat astride the rivers that flow from the central high ground of England, east to the North Sea; the Tyne, the Wear, the Tees. As a kid these were distant places, essentially unknown, apart from their appearance in football results and legends of coal, iron and steel. When I was 19 I left home to study, and spent three years on the Wear, before moving to the Tyne. But the landscape though which we new drove almost eluded me. It was only through the company of others, other with cars, that I began to find this wonderful, strangely empty landscape. It was good to be back.
On the east coast the valley of the Tyne pushes west up into the higher central ground of England. On the west coast, the Solway estuary with its feeding rivers pushes back east. The two rivers form a neck that separates the body of England from the head of Scotland. In the winter, geese from the frozen east and north fly up one valley and down another, heading west, seeking the warmth of the Atlantic coast, with its muddy estuaries and its Gulf Stream moderated climate.
Such a journey, up one side and down the other, must have been common for more than geese. And maybe the beaten track of commerce marked the way for the wall that followed. In about AD 220 Hadrian decreed that a wall would be built along this path, and in places – about 1800 years later – it’s still there. The grey stone of Northumbria was taken and shaped to form a wall between the known of the Roman Empire and the unknown, or at least poorly controlled, lands to the North. Myth and school history has it that the wall was built to keep the Scots out, but it’s just as likely it was built to regulate trade and collect taxes. I can’t help but wonder if it was also built in response to concerns about ‘northerners coming down here and taking our jobs’. Hadrian probably promised to ‘Stop the Picts’ and who knows, he may have.
Hadrian’s Wall runs through wonderfully open farm and moorlands, punctuated by regular tourist information signs about the wall and its history. It’s a land close quartered by Short-Eared Owls and of cool winds that, even in summer, encourage you to turn your back, as well as your collar. It’s a place that expands to the call of the Curlew, soft and sad, where grass is king and the slow march of woodland is held back by the teeth of sheep. It’s in places like this that the well-worn nature of England comes to the fore. While we can no longer call anywhere a wilderness, England is more garden than Garden of Eden. It’s probably not an exaggeration to think of each square foot of land , of each handful of soil, as offering a source of history and understanding.
A single rook called from the trees in the car park; unusual in its isolation, maybe the rest of its building, parliament, clamour or storytelling were elsewhere. The collective nouns speak of conversation, or things passed down the line (along the wall?), of things that should be long lasting and important. There are times when I think a Parliament of these dark, intelligent birds would serve us all better than the ones we elect.
Housesteads is, according to the well-placed boards, the most complete Roman fort in England. Viewed from above through the surrogate of Google Earth you can see its straight walls and its crisp, geometric plan. The outer boundary wall turns at well-rounded right angles and the wall itself flows east and west away from the fort. This is a wonderful contrast. The fort itself, tightly planned, possibly even built from off the shelf plans, so different to the plastic flow of the Hadrian’s wall, which buckles and turns in tune with the fall and rise of the land.
Standing on the boarder wall of Housesteads you can see the Hadrian’s wall walking off in both directions along the Whin Sill, a strip of hard igneous rock the runs east to west and is last seen as the islands of the Inner Farnes, with their puffins and singing seals.
It’s impossible when sanding on these fallen stones not to imagine what it must have been like to be stationed here, on the edge of Empire, so far from home. Its hard not to think that the climate, the food, the locals and the lack of comfort so far from the comforts of Rome were probably constant topics of conversations. But such imaginings are probably wrong. The wall now sits in a modern landscape, shaped by the ebbs and flows of economy, technology and history. So what we see is not what they saw. The fact that another wall – The Antonine Wall – sits to the north gives a lie to the edge of Empire myth. Built more of earth than stone, the Antonine wall succumbs to our fondness for the memory of stone, rather than the memory of earth and soil. Stones may linger, but it takes more care to find the stories told by the soil on which we depend.
But sometimes that truth of a story can be founds, especially when it is read by those who specialise in finding things that lie buried. Wooden tablets – about the size of a post card (remember them?) - have been found buried in wastes below wall. Thrown away but preserved by soils soaked in acid and chilled by the same winds than made me flick my collar, the tablets are some of the oldest known writing in England. And just like post cards they are full of chitchat – the lack of decent olive oil, a shortage of socks, birthday party invitations. It would only take a complaint about the lack of a Wi-Fi single to turn them into a Facebook post.
Even though the fort is now nothing but ruins, there is a complexity to the buildings that rams home the idea that the people who built these were no less sophisticated than us. I think it would help the world if we remembered that about all people.
Although we can’t really tell, the trip away from Housteads takes us down hill, into Cumbria and back down towards the sea. And towards a coastline that has been greatly changed by the hand of industry.
If I knew little about the North East of England as a kid, I knew even less about the North West, especially its coastal fringe. Hidden behind the beauty of the Lake District was a hive of industry that went largely unnoticed by most people. Iron, coal and steel were the pillars of its old economy, and the region has not done well in recent years.
The iron industry dominated some parts of the coastline, with blast furnaces producing steel in abundance. But now this industry is gone, leaving behind some strangely empty fields, a small pond containing carp and roach – although on the day we visited nobody was fishing – and a beach of remarkable strangeness.
Harrington Beach is as much a product steel manufacture as it is a product of nature. From the car park by the pond you walk along a footpath by an abandoned railway. The path itself sparkles with broken glass and is studded with a minefield of dog shit. Fragments of metal, old fridges and (somewhat incongruously) an old lobster pot are half hidden, half visible in the long grass. The tunnel under the railway is partially blocked by the exoskeleton of an abandoned tumble dryer. Empty larger tins replace plants as a ground cover. It’s a place to watch where you put your feet.
There were no signs telling you where to go or what to see.
The beach itself looked normal enough, with wave-smoothed rocks and pale cliffs – but looks are deceptive. There was a slightly strange smell in the air; not the classic seaside odour for decayed seaweed, or the faux perfume of ozone. It was not a strong smell, but it was there just at the back of your nose, like an olfactory whisper. The beach smelt of damp rust. It smelt like the back of the garage in winter, where you store half-empty paint cans in the optimistic hope that you may, one day, use their contents to path up the wear on the window frames.
The rocks that cover the beach may not actually really be rocks at all – and the cliffs are certainly not. The whole beach is covered in and made from blast furnace wastes. Dark flows of iron rock seep across the beach and where water pools on them, it turns livid orange. The perfect combination of water, oxygen and salt turn the iron to rust and the water to orange. It’s like a classic classroom experiment poured out over the landscape.
Tens of thousands of tons of white-hot slag was carried in hoppers from the blast furnaces that once lined the coast and dumped into the sea. It may have been out of mind, but I doubt it was out of sight. In places the slag build up in layer upon layer to form white cliffs that look natural enough from a distance, but on close examination contain layers of bricks and foundry wastes; industrial fossil beds between strata of igneous wastes. The whole cliff defines the classifications of nature. In places chunks of iron still sit, whole and unblasted, on the beach surrounded by bricks and mortar set within solid stone. Bolts and nuts show through other surfaces, not driven in by force, but wrapped in a once molten mitten. Such things seem to violate our understanding of solids and liquids.
Such places make you think.
Back at the car I notice a council placard that warms of fines for fly tipping.
Back on the cold hills of Northumberland the archaeology of deep past is polished and buffed as a tourist hot spot. Here on the coast the archaeology of a still living community is largely ignored, as the Irish sea slowly removes it from memory.