Incongruous Lives and Unexpected Voices

It is the Parliamentary recess, and I have been walking through Cumbria and the Borders. On the second day I climbed over Helvellyn and Great Dodd, and slept in cloud on the summit of Blencathra. Day six was along the sand from Maryport to Silloth. Day nine was over lowland raised mires from Wigton to Bowness. Fording the Solway, the waist-deep water was silver. In the country between Longtown and Bewcastle, the rain-gorged rivers were chocolate with clay, or peat-black. Days fifteen and sixteen were spent in the two hundred thousand acre spruce forest of Kershope and Kielder.

There seems to be more time for conversations when walking, and for encounters which would be unlikely in a car or a chair. On a single day’s walk through Wigton, for example, I had breakfast with community workers, coffee with apprentice engineers in the factory canteen, dropped into the youth club, looked at a new park, lunched with the manager of the auction mart, called on a town councillor and the Rector at the church, walked around two housing estates with the community policing team, had supper in the kebab shop, and finally slept on a sofa belonging to a mother on the Greenacres housing estate.

I was more conscious of landscape and boundaries than I have ever been – and not only the Scottish Border. Connections stretched tightly across the county: the farmer who gave me coffee by Dearham was the brother-in-law of the farmer who gave me coffee at Plumpton. I saw Emerald the Limousin cow at John Elliot’s farm, having seen her earlier, seventy-three miles away, at Matt Ridley’s. But there were also deep divisions: the explosion of hedges, nettle and meadow-sweet which marked the transition from the limestone fells to the sandstone plain; the change between the two related Saxon churches of Bridekirk and Dearham, each with their ancient Norse crosses, where the life expectancy fell by a decade in a mile. At Kirkbride the soil was peat dark, the drainage ditches choked. Bowness Common was thick with sphagnum and bog asphodel. In the Bailey valley, boots sunk in heavy clay and, despite the new draining and planting, the soil was poached by the cattle, and the blue water oozed over a dozen, two hundred acre, owner-occupied farms. Across the Kershope Burn the farmers are tenanted at two thousand acres, and the countryside was empty of homesteads: the legacy of Border clearances. Each half-day brought a different geology, or altitude, or rainfall, or landholding pattern – different problems with different soils.

I was very conscious of history. In the nineteenth century scholars recorded not simply the still visible remains of the Vikings but also oral traditions in every valley: the ballads about the Captain of Bewcastle, and stories about the King of Patterdale. Each hill had its story. No longer. The ‘characters’ remembered in Longtown’s Graham Arms were men who died in the nineteen eighties. I spent the day with a farmer whose family has been – we looked at the parish records – on almost every farm in that upper valley, over the four hundred years since his reiving ancestors flowed South; but his grandparents had no legends. The man who could name sixty plants in the hedgerow had moved from Leicestershire. It was not in the traditional villages but in the new housing estates of Wigton that community and continuity seemed most deeply established (my host knew the inhabitants of a hundred houses, and could name all their children, and aunts).

Within this landscape, these boundaries, and this history, were a thousand professions and experiences. I forded the Solway with a publican, who was also a haaf-netter, fishing in that twelve hundred year old Norse tradition. I climbed Helvellyn with a man who was a potter, a solar panel installer, a beer festival organiser, and a web designer. The Silloth harbour-master who walked with me from Allonby had trained in Dubai, and introduced me to the Captain in harbour, who was from Kalinigrad. The sixth generation miller was now the manager responsible for Carr’s brand new machinery spouting the purest flour through ever-juddering steel tubes. Eric Weir was knowledgeable not just about his Swaledale flock, but also about the history of lead mining in the Howtown hills. Barry Todhunter the huntsman of the Blencathra had a name which suggested ancient tradition, but he spoke of riding the American railways from Chicago to Oregon.

There is nothing straightforward or orderly about such conversations: the eccentricity, the learning, the charm – and sometimes bluntness – of a hundred meetings on footpaths. Ours is a land of frontiers, and encounters – the ancient marches of England Scotland. Such stories and lives could exist nowhere except in Cumbria and on the Scottish border, nor could they have flowered in just this way, even here, a decade ago. Twenty three days into the walk with another twelve to go, it feels as though the energy of our place springs from neither history nor landscape, but from incongruous lives, and unexpected voices.

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