Sunday, June 23, 2013

Hatteringill



A pile of stones, that's all. The moss-furred stumps of walls, studded with slates collapsed slantwise, like skeleton teeth. A single hawthorn grows from the centre of the ruin; compact, hunched, lightly dusted with the creamy down of may blossom. It is far higher than any of the walls.
I can make out two or three rooms, a byre at the northern end, beside the spring which barely flows now, choked with ferns and sedge, thick with sediment. I can imagine the front doorway in the centre, flanked by protruding wings of two rooms which would have provided some shelter from northern winter winds. I picture it left open on summer afternoons such as this one, flies heavy in the limpid air, white butterflies drifting from the hawthorn flowers like a piece of blossom set free.
Today, wheatears are busy amongst the walls, gorging on the flies which have emerged into this rare summer warmth. They perch on capstones and fenceposts to sing, before darting lower to feed. Their song combines a dull chack with a high, fluted huweet; a strange mixture of two notes at once; one high, one low. It is a reminder of the fairness and foreboding which summer days like this hold: the languid warmth of high summer, the gathering darkness of rain clouds as they mass on the horizon like a memory we tried to forget. The peach-coloured breasts of the birds are too subtle for this day of blazing sun, the butter-yellow richness of the flowers, the abundant white of the blossom.
We approached today downhill, through grassy meadows dotted with bedstraw and tormentil, through seas of cotton grass whose span of flowering is as brief as a sunny day in Cumbria. My son is enchanted by this sudden blossoming of the hills, taking photographs of all he can see, turning his inquisitive gaze onto the grasses, the tiny flowers, the wheatears on the fence. I watch him move around the field as though this is a land to which he was born, which in a way is true; he has walked amongst these hills since the time when I carried him between brief spells of tottering between his parents' hands. He is shedding the awkwardness of adolescence, developing a grace and beauty in movement, an attentiveness to the world which I have worked so hard to learn. I blink, and time passes; my summers now seem as they must do to one of these butterflies: too brief, too bright, too short to visit every tree in blossom.


The ruins stand at the end of a dirt track, reached from an unmade road, on the eastern flank of an unremarkable hill. The land around is still grazed, but the hills are rarely walked; the footpaths grow blurred with disuse. I have no idea when this farm was abandoned. It may have been simply a summer steading, left closed between October and April whilst the cattle were gathered in the valley head below. It occupies a shallow shelf of land below the slopes of the fell, sheltered from the westerly winds, with a view across the mosaic of fields in the valley. A perfect site.
In 1985, there were 6,500 farms in Cumbria. Now there are less than 4,800. In those thirty years, the number of small farms – those under twenty hectares – has declined by almost a quarter. I feel their absence everywhere on these low hills, which are grazed now from distant farms; it is so rare to see anyone working these pastures any more, save for the brief dust-plumed passage of a Land Rover, the scuffle of collie dogs and sheep skittering wildly in the trailer. At times I think the land is pared to the bone: worked for a meagre living by families whose offspring would rather forget the farm and move to the town; farm buildings sold for conversion as houses and holiday cottages; land parcelled and sold to the few families who are still in the business. The ruins of old shielings like this one feel like a gateway to a forgotten world.

We turn to go as the clouds thicken to the south-west, silently pillowing into slate-coloured thunderheads. I leave with an image of Hatteringill as it might have looked a hundred years ago, busy with the work of a summer day in the hills: the smell of the wood fire, the sound of bannocks crisping on the griddle, the drip-drip of curds draining in a bucket by the spring. I picture the view from the open doorway of the bigger hills to the east, the colours they turn at the end of a sunny day, from rich copper-red, through rose pink to violet until finally, with a brief flare of light, they pale into the deep indigo of the short night.


7 comments:

  1. lovely post as always...I have just been to Northumberland and taken similar photos of cotton grass, love the way it moves in the wind x

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  2. Marvellous post, truly a 'gateway to a forgotten world' you are so right, this passing needs marking and I love the palette of colours that you note too!
    Matt.

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    1. Thanks very much, Matt. I do love these kinds of abandoned places, the stories that seem to reside in the stones.
      best wishes

      Ian

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  3. Beautiful, poignant post, Ian. What really draws me in is the juxtaposition of the fading ruins with your son's blossoming in the hills. Amidst all of the changes, so much rich possibility. A joy to read of his attentive ease.

    Best wishes,
    Julian

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    1. Thanks, Julian. There is a beautiful elegiac feel to these scattered ruins in the hills. I am blatantly nostalgic for a way of life that no longer exists, driven out by cultural shifts and the cruel economics of modern agriculture. I have written more on this topic, whcih I hope will be appearing elsewhere later this year.

      I enjoyed your recent piece on the London Stone also!

      Ian

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  4. A beautiful and elegaic post Ian, full of poetic imagery. Conjured up a similar sense of feeling to Sorley MacLean's 'Hallaig'. Yet despite that ending of a human cycle of working the land here, there is still the sense of a sustaining landscape - the world of the wheatears, the flowering cotton grass and the awakening attentiveness to the world of your son. Marvellous.

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    1. Thanks, FifePsy. I'm late in responding as I'm just back from a week basking on the Costa de Galloway - in weather like this, western Scotland is at its absolute finest. I'm delighted you mentioned Sorley MacLean, as his name always stirs a kind of island-dreaming in me. Hallaig is indeed a beauty of a poem, the kind to which I can only aspire


      best wishes

      Ian

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