Monday, May 23, 2011

Landscape and memory

We are standing on the slopes above the Newlands valley, my sons and I.  It is May, and the days of rain and gales have given way to a brief interlude of sun, although the wind still drives towering cumulus over the top of the fells.  Across the valley, above the farm at Keskadale, the dusty green fuzz of an oak wood drapes the hillside, nestled into the dried-blood colour of the heather.
This woodland is a relic; one of the few surviving patches of truly native oak wood in Cumbria.  It has weathered the middle ages frenzy of deforestation, the enclosure act, the charcoal burners and coppicers. Within that wood is a memory of how the fells might have looked a thousand years ago, the denser oak and ash woods of the valley giving way to scrubbier oaks mixed with birch and hawthorn on the higher slopes.

Below our feet as we turn to follow the miners’ path upwards are other woodland relics.  The bilberries, whose young leaves are edged with the wine-red berry colour, and whose fairy-lantern flowers mimic perfectly the shape of the berries, hold within them the promise of all that they will become later in the summer.  Wood sorrel, smaller and less vivid than its woodland cousins, hangs its leaves in expectation of warmth.  It is not uncommon on these fells to find wood anemone or bluebells, emerging startled and cowering, amongst the grass and sedge. 
We cross the ridge in gusts of May-madness wind, the lake below us stirred by the squalls like a field of wheat.  Below the col, on a shoulder of land overlooking the lake, a sheepfold squats among the bracken, its lichenous walls furred with parsley fern.  We traverse the hillside and hunker into its shelter, listening for ghosts;  the echoes of previous generations of sheep, the footsteps of shepherds who would have used this place once or twice a year for gathering and shearing.  It is a relic of the changing landscape, like the wood anemones, the bilberries, the miners’ paths and the trees which cling to crags and gullies, throwing their blossom to the stiff May winds.

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