Fell. Mire. Heath. Moor.

Fell. Mire. Heath. Moor. Each generation has found its own particular upland landscape. On my walk last week, the rain did not stop. I slowed to two miles an hour and stared at the wet ground. The colours were more muted, and more extreme than I had remembered – the cherry-brown grass, and the yellow-brown moss, blazed like scarlet and chrome. The rain-drops clustered in their thousands on every knot and tip of heather. The orbs of glittering light pulled slowly away from their dark centres, so that each drop stretched into a crown and a pendant, like an acorn on its stalk.

I noticed the dense fields of pellets, which marked the nest of the mother grouse, and another brown paste from the grouse, which I did not understand. A hundred yards further on, all the hawk had left was two black feathered wings, joined by a fragile skeleton. When I picked it up, I felt a sudden nip on my fingers, from the beak in the bare skull, swinging in on its long spine. I spotted a spider on a rain flecked web. I saw the geese turning back from the low cloud, and the ridge line, that blocked their flight to Africa. An hour later what remained of the baby hare suggested that it had just been on the point of growing its white winter-coat. I missed, and misunderstood, a lot. I glimpsed a fern in passing, and regretted I had not stopped because I did not see another in the next six miles. What seemed to be a hind was only a thick tuft of yellowing grass. What seemed twigs, were antlers. The stag rose from the hollow, only sixty yards away; it paused, sluggish after the rut, then staring straight at me shook the brilliant pearls of rain slowly from its black ruff.

But the moorland was not as ‘untouched’ as it seemed. You could see traces of human effort everywhere. Farmers had burned back the scrub, and grazed cattle and sheep on this land, two thousand years ago: the patches of untidy grass, and neat lawn were now hidden in heather, but their stones remained. Dorothy Wordsworth noted the process in 1805: “We were passing, without notice, a heap of scattered stones round which was a belt of green grass – green, and as it seemed rich, where all else was either poor heather and coarse grass, or unprofitable rushes and spongy moss…the heap of stones had been a hut where a family was then living, who had their winter habitation in the valley.” A slate, marked with paint, showed that the heather bank had been a stand for shooting grouse. A track had been a drove road, and the ruined building, a thousand feet below, had been built by a medieval bishop as a shelter for travellers. You could see the straight lines that marked the patch in the field, where the house had cut its peat.

But our predecessors found other things in this same landscape. A thousand years ago such moorland was, for the Beowulf writer, a place for a demon. It was the lonely “fastness…by misty crags…windy headlands, fenways fearful” in which the monster Grendel lived. Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare’s King Lear found the heath a landscape, in which to go mad. Charlotte Bronte made it a place for Heathcliff’s despotism. Dr. Johnson found it offensively unproductive: the “eye is astonished and repelled by this wide extent of hopeless sterility…matter incapable of form or usefulness…quickened only with one sullen power of useless vegetation.” And Walter Scott found it morally impressive: “I like the very nakedness of the land; it has something bold, and stern, and solitary about it.” Today, people in fleeces with the acronyms of different agencies can look at the same moorland and see in it, not predators, nor mania, power, sterility, nor virtue, but instead an engine for carbon capture, or ‘bio-diversity’, or flood control.

For me, last week, the fell seemed improbably alien. It resembled a tropical swamp seen from far above – the peat-puddles, lagoons; the heather, a mangrove swamp; the patches of pale dying grass, a great savannah. The peat-hags on the facing slopes had the silhouettes of pot-bellied Mesopotamian Gods. Nearer, it was a living reef. The lichens and ferns were coral, and the pink-brown moss a jelly-fish. I pulled a piece of blackened wood from a bog. It was, it seemed, a piece of Scots pine, preserved in the damp soil, from a time – perhaps two thousand years ago – when this had all been forest. It had acquired the shape of a fish.

Thus each generation finds in this wet upland a different landscape. How will our descendants see it? What aspects of the future will repel them and involve them in this moorland? Certainly, their archaeologists and historians will uncover ever more about the ghosts of farmers who were driven from the empty slopes; their scientists will describe, over trillions of pages, every moss, and lichen, grass, and fungus; they will destroy and protect new sections of the heath, and they will discover fresh interests and obsessions, which have nothing to do with the British landscape. Yet our great grandchildren – modern, intimidated, disappointed, and exhilarated – will, we hope, still enter the wet treeless upland ground, thread a path through the heather, and conjure their own Grendels on the fellside.

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