Friar’s Crag, or the first thing we did
Unexpectedly, it wasn’t raining; at the end of the week, an old man in The Dog and Gun complained about the weather and the barman had to explain that without it the place would be a desert. The crag is along a level path, through some pine wood land, not far outside the centre. The town was having its annual international jazz festival that weekend, so we walked past the theatre on the way, and the ad hoc tent erected over the road; all very trad – I’d have been the youngest person there by some stretch if I’d have been attending¹. Past the boatyard and the piers the path goes from tarmac to track and ends at a bench. There, the water was still, devoid of boats, reflecting a sky criss-crossed with vapour trails and half formed clouds. Either side of us, stretching down the valley, were fingers of rock and beyond them, at the apex, the highest mountains in England, which we weren’t even imagining we were going to climb (and didn’t).
Castlerigg, or the second thing we did
When I was a child, or perhaps a little older, I remember going to Castlerigg; there are a number of things that stuck in my head. Prosaically, I remember my Dad trying to free a sheep from a fence where it had managed to get its head stuck in a wire square. As we approached, in my case tentatively (back when I was inherently untrusting of nature), the sheep thrashed about on the low cut grass, more terrified of my Dad than being stuck, its hooves scrabbling for purchase on a surface it had itself nibbled to almost nothing. In the end, the panic and the constant horrified twisting enabled the sheep to free itself, and it ran off. More importantly, Castlerigg is held in my memory because of its location, flanked in every direction by mountains. The circle is thought to be 5000 years old, so older than the Henge, but its use is assumed at best; some sort of astral clock (it’s still used by druids in celestial celebrations at solstices), a site of worship? English Heritage is still yet to publish their findings on the place. It was rediscovered in the early 18th century by William Stukeley who made a far reaching survey of Neolithic sites in Great Britain, this particular case being missed by Aubrey and Camden years earlier. If you stand in its centre and turn slowly you can see peaks rising on all sides, as if they are pointing towards the site, or directly at you. I remember the first time I visited I felt like something should happen when I touched the stones, or that I shouldn’t sit on them because they were more than just stones. This time, when I touched the stones, aside from thinking about why they were there and how they had been transported in the first place, I thought about my childhood concerns, about the power of the stones.
As we left to walk back to the town, an Indian family arrived in two BMWs. They proceeded to shout at each other, to the annoyance of the other groups at the circle, and take pictures of themselves striking odd poses in their inappropriate outfits (fur coats, both men and women). This is presumably the converse of how Spanish resort owners feel when idiotic Brits turn up yelling and asking for egg and chips. I think the indignation I felt was in fact more to do with the hours walk to the circle, and how this was at odds with their driving to it; physical exhaustion bested by technology.
Castle Crag, or the third thing we did
Castle Crag is strange, and not very high though the final climb is steep and over poor terrain (effectively a slate slag heap from the old quarry). We’d set off from Grange, cut through Hollows Farm, and detoured to Dalt Quarry to see the reflecting pool and the unusual colours in the carved-out stone. The ascent took us briefly along the Derwent, up and out through the trees on to a boulder-strewn mountainside replete with caved in crofters cottage or similar. We’d seen some kids clamber up a grassy hill to reach the base of the Crag, but they’d done it on their hands and knees and were clearly more agile, so we took the path up past the powdered down shale and on to the slate heap. Half way up the zigzag to the top, I turned to trace the path we had followed, and saw a red squirrel bolt along the floor and up in to a tree.
At the top, before the last little climb to the summit, the old quarry workings are surrounded by miniature monoliths. You get the feeling you are intruding on someone else’s space, even though the place has been disused for a number of years (unless you count Millican Dalton who lived in the cave on the eastern side of the crag). The crag is quiet, unnerving. I read somewhere that the standing stones are cleared away semi-regularly by the NT who own the land (and 25% of TLD in general), but someone returns to re-erect them. At the very top, a more formalised war memorial is fixed to the cairn, which gives representation to the standing stones lower down; it feels somewhat like walking through an ancient graveyard and in low cloud I imagine it is much stranger. The view back along the valley to the lake is impressive, as is the feeling of the mountains looming either side of you. We ate something, drank something, and I put a stone on the cairn, but didn’t climb it as it felt odd to scale a war memorial.
We descended the way we had arrived, but crossed the fellside to head down towards the villages that, from the top of the Crag, seemed haphazardly scattered on the valley floor. After talking to a rambling club who had mistaken us for professional fellwalkers (I’m fat ergo not a regular), we made our way in to Seatoller looking for The Yew Tree, the only place that wasn’t someone’s house, and a drink of some variety. Parked outside were the same family from Castlerigg. They asked me for directions to the mine at the top of the pass. I intimated towards the sign they had parked in front of. It said ‘Honister Pass and Mine 1.5 miles’. Later, waiting for a bus, a cuckoo called from a tree nearby. I’ve never heard a cuckoo before.
Honister, or the fourth thing we did
We’d climbed in to the cloud to get to the mine, past Seatoller again. The rain was thin, the sort that gets everywhere, like a film of water coating anything it comes in to contact with. The water streamed off the fellside higher up at Fleetwith Pike, cascading down one side to eventually become the Cocker and the other to join Sour Milk Gill lower down and form the Derwent. Having already seen the drop down to Buttermere in better weather, the effect of cloud wrapped about the mountain was to heighten the drop – even though it was obscured in rain, it was there, made more treacherous by remaining hidden. The drive up from the workshops to the mine itself didn’t help; six of us in a knackered Land Rover, rocks tumbling to the right and down a thousand feet to the valley below. We traced the cart tracks in to the main cavern, dominated by a giant slab of slate, hooks and chains hanging from its surface. We were told not to think of The Descent.
I’d seen the slab before, years earlier, but I didn’t recall this until I’d seen again. I knew I had been to mines in the area, but almost every family holiday involved going in to the ground so it was sometimes hard to tell them apart. I wasn’t curious enough to differentiate by mineral. Having said that, I was trying to remember the name of an iron ore mine I’d been to as a kid, but couldn’t. I recalled the walls being wet, and putting my hand up to them and flipping it over to look at my palm and seeing how the red of the ore had bled on to me, and climbing the cart tunnel out to find everyone else covered head to toe in the same pinkish-red. I had to throw away my socks because the colour wouldn’t come out.
The guide at Honister, a man named Rowland who expressed a lot of frustration on behalf of his ancestors at the way they had been treated by the Egremont family, discussed various aspects of mining as we wandered through the different chambers. As we entered the final giant chamber, a sort of natural amphitheatre, I remembered it was called the Florence Mine. I mentioned this to Rowland. ‘It’s shut now,’ he said. It appears to have turned in to an arts centre. I think that, without realising it, I ended up turning most experiences in to a process of remembrance or comparison to the faulty memories I had of childhood holidays.
Mark Wier had bought Honister and opened it as a tourist attraction and functional slate mine (the only one in the UK, the rest are quarries) 17 years ago. It would have been a few years after this that I visited for the first time. On this more recent occasion the mine was deeper, in that more had been blasted out in preparation for what turned out to be a failed project to make an underground studio for various site-specific film crews – Coronation Street apparently pay handsomely for filming access. Rowland, who was from a Cumbrian mining family that moved to South Africa to mine before World War 1 and the eventual collapse of the Empire changed everything, spoke about Mark in a slightly odd way throughout; we’d seen Mark on a DVD explaining the safety issues of going underground (massively out of date from the look of it) and his various projects were discussed in a revered way at frequent junctures. He was described as a genius, in the sense of what he had achieved bearing in mind he bought a mine having never mined in his life. It was only half way through what was a very informal chat (our group was tiny, so we sort of walked and talked) that we’d understood that Mark was dead. Rowland explained that it had happened last year, and that everyone was still emotionally destroyed by it all, especially the family who were now running the mine without him, but also Rowland himself who had known Mark his entire adult life.
For Rowland, the mine was a remembrance of everything Mark represented and all he wanted to achieve, in the same way that Mark had made the jump of buying the mine because granddad used to work there. Honister is haunted both by the personal associations of the people who now work there, but also by the ghost of industry in the area. Mark’s granddad, in flying over the mine with Mark before he made the then ridiculous decision to buy it (an offer mining giant McAlpine accepted in less than forty five minutes the first time Mark met them to suggest the idea) asked why it was shut – Mark had no idea. This, he suggested on video, was the impetus to make the purchase. Last year, after an evening of blasting underground (which he apparently did himself to save money), Mark failed to return home to Cockermouth. A police search in the early hours of the morning found the wreckage of his helicopter on Honister Crag. He had been killed in the crash. An excerpt from the local paper that was left in the visitor centre, a laminated obituary amongst a few others discussing the via ferrata and zip line routes that were being developed as new visitor attractions, reported that he was posthumously fined £30,000 by the local authority for damaging the crag.
The last thing we did, was the first thing we did
Because of the rain, the field we had walked across earlier in the week, where Zo had pictured some lambs gambolling in front of a disinterested sheep they weren’t directly related to (the natural expression of sheep is ambivalence), was flooded and our pebbled lakeside route back was also underwater. The crag was empty of people, so we stood and looked down the valley to the Jaws. Little was visible. The cloud was low, and dark where the mountains rose up inside the blanket of mist. It was eerie and brooding and magnificent. We walked back along the formalised path, past other pastures where sheep huddled from the rain. In the fading light, above us but beneath the reach of the trees, we spotted four or five bats catching insects in the twilight.
There were, of course, things before and after
We went to an animal park in the middle of nowhere, where I spent perhaps half an hour in total watching birds of prey do very little². They were perched on stands and tethered. A note on the fence surrounding them explained why (essentially, they’d kill other animals in the park), and also detailed the fact that a) keeping them tethered enabled them to live longer than in the wild and b) when the birds were flown, as they were daily, they always returned – if they didn’t want to, they didn’t have to; birds of prey know when they are on to a sweet deal, obviously. Whilst walking around, I watched a caracara tearing up a rabbit (a number of which, rabbits that is, also hid in the bird of prey arena beneath a bush, presumably on the basis that the tethered birds couldn’t reach them and any external threat was scared shitless of massive eagles hanging about). I learnt that in the wild caracaras eats penguins. A kid and his grandma came past, and Zo nudged me in anticipation of the kid spotting what the caracara was doing and asking the awkward life/death question. Needless to say, the kid asked the grandma what the bird was doing. Completely deadpan she said ‘It appears to be eating a dead rabbit.’
¹ We were buying food in the supermarket, and a man with a gigantic beard and multi-coloured trousers asked a shelf stacker for ‘flash candles and schnapps’. The SS was confused, and asked for clarification. The guy repeated himself. The SS wandered off and found the schnapps and said he couldn’t find the candles. The man was unimpressed with the schnapps. He pulled over his nearby friend and complained in what I believe was German. They walked off. The SS started talking to a colleague about the incident, specifically what ‘flash candles’ could be. I’d been standing close by during the whole exchange, looking for beer, and as the SS walked by me he turned and said ‘bloody jazzers’. I am aware that SS is perhaps not the best way of shortening ‘shelf stacker’, considering the people involved in this exchange.
² Regular readers of this blog will have spotted the apparent obsession I have with birds