Alone on the Marches

I recently came to the end of five weeks walking in Cumbria and the Borders. It was a thirty nine mile day, and twelve of those fourteen hours were spent in almost empty space. In a car I can be transported at a mile a minute from centre to centre – from one room with people, a timetable and a purpose, to another twenty miles away: from the George in Penrith to Appleby Grammar, from the munitions depot at Longtown to the Local Links centre in Wigton. But walking makes each yard of ground equal, draws you into the space between centres – which is now often unpeopled.

It once seemed as though industrialisation would replace the countryside, littering it with brick walls, concrete paths and people. In the 1930s George Orwell gazed horrified at the rotting detritus, the scars, and the smoke spreading across the North. But walking reveals that the last two hundred years has not filled but emptied much of the land. So, on this journey, my walking companions – farmers, and officers from Natural England and the Environment Agency; archaeologists, nuclear activists and painters; school-teachers and doctors; climbers and pensioners – joined me at villages. Between the villages I saw almost no-one. Walking alone, I could note the swathes of Yorkshire fog and cock’s foot grass, or the thick cropped form of an oak stubbornly wedged on an abandoned dyke. I could wonder whether this now marshy field had once been drained by the Romans, or by the monks of Abbeytown, by Mr.Curwen the Georgian improver, or by post-war subsidies; and question why the ragwort was flourishing  or why the bracken was turning early.  But there was rarely anyone to answer.

It would have been different not so long ago. The tranquil, silent country by Hayeswater or above Glenridding, by Caldbeck or opposite Threlkeld, was filled once with miners and quarry-men. When my father began in the forestry commission, a hundred men, with axes and saws, did the work now performed by two harvesting and forwarding machines. The village of Bampton was packed with cobblers and carpenters, weavers and small shopkeepers. There were six farms for each farm that survives today, and each small farm once employed four people. In Swindale there were enough houses for a church, where there are now only two families, and the faint outlines of ruined cottages. The tracks between valleys, now deep in heather, would once have been pounded by people carrying, visiting, running errands. And you would have seen and been greeted by dozens working in the fields and along the fellside.

It is still like that in Asia. A remote boulder, at four thousand feet, will act as a throne for a shepherd watching a dozen goats grazing the bare and flinty soil. Each orchard in Iran contains a man on a carpet with a battered metal tea pot. Men in peaked hats and tight cotton trousers sprint past you on narrow tracks in Nepal. Tea-houses are built on stilts for walking villagers, five days from the nearest road.  Country people do not move much but they can reel off the qualities of streams, the positions of trees, the names of men twenty miles away. In winter you watch farmers steering the oxen and the heavy plough through the mud, and in the autumn see the animals circling slowly around the stone threshing floor, and the golden cloud of grain flung into the air from winnowing trays.

But in Cumbria now, even in August, many of the great national trails are unused – it sometimes felt as though the millions of pounds of trails, and signs, and stiles were used by no-one except me. All the arcs of the ridgelines, the ash branches – alive in the wind – the flocks and the herds were unseen by human eyes. It is no longer worth someone sitting all day to guard a hundred sheep. More money can be made from selling a farmhouse as a rural mansion than from agriculture. Government policy and subsidies and schemes have paid farmers to stock less, use less ground, turn more and more over to wind-turbines, or to nature.

We have achieved miracles in undoing the damage of industrialisation: the meadows have re-emerged over landfill sites and open-cast mines; and there is mile after mile of new rowan, and birch, oak and ash, by highways, on old rail tracks, and along the sides of deep gills. But we must now push back towards people. It is the people, and the lambs they keep, and the barns they build and use, and the fields they manage, which make Cumbria something more than long hills of empty heather, or a pale pink patch of sphagnum moss on re-flooded peat.  It is cheaper now for many families to fly to Spain than to visit us. But what will continue to bring them here is not the weather, nor the food, nor even the wildlife, but a landscape which is British and Cumbrian: because it is human. Visitors draw their delight and energy from farmers and a working landscape and locals, like visitors, flourish from these human encounters. We delight in a land where centuries of effort, of stories, of habitation can be traced in, and continue to be worked into, the limestone ridges and the free-draining soil. The alternative to industrial pollution and human damage should not be – cannot be –  for our joy, or our economic future, simply a ‘natural’ wilderness.


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