Dykes, Drongs, Sarns, Snickets

David Craig

  • The English Lakes: A History by Ian Thompson
    Bloomsbury, 343 pp, £16.99, March 2012, ISBN 978 1 4088 0958 7
  • The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane
    Hamish Hamilton, 432 pp, £20.00, June 2012, ISBN 978 0 241 14381 0

Both these books, in very different ways, are founded on what we experience when we frequent wild country – sometimes virgin, more often partially domesticated. We leave our prints on it, our tracks, and used by generations these become a track, a trail, a trod, a path, a highway. Ever since my memory began I have followed such tracks with foot and eye: the stony, grassy drove roads along which herds and flocks travelled from Aberdeenshire to southern trysts and marts; the white blaze where scree pours down a mountainside from a gap in a solid crag; the slowly vanishing wake left by a liner among the flying fish of the Arabian Sea. These books are preoccupied with the highly conscious enjoyment of wild country, although both writers know that the aesthetic savouring of the land – the ‘landscape’ – must overlap with more workmanlike uses of it.

Ian Thompson’s history of the Lake District is grounded almost exclusively in the aesthetic. ‘Since the Lake District is an imaginative construction,’ he argues, ‘it has no real boundaries, physical or historical.’ So he is thinking of it as a region described by guidebook writers, poets and painters, not as a piece of land solidified out of the Earth’s explosive depths, clothed in plants and carved by ice and flood, colonised by cattle and sheep-farmers, iron smelters, charcoal burners and fishermen, and then by artists, railwaymen, hoteliers and rich men from Lancashire. In his introduction Thompson is ready to admit that ‘the Lake District which tourists flock to see is a human construction … both social history and the story of an imaginative idea.’ By Chapter 1, however, he seems to have settled for discussing the mediated view and we submit to the familiar cavalcade: Thomas West brings out his Guide (1778), which advises on the correct ‘stations’ from which to view this or that Picturesque vista. Wordsworth writes his Guide to the Lakes (1835), which idealises the hill farmer as the type of the sturdy Englishman, neither drudge nor parasite. Ruskin is drawn by what he sees as the acme of terrestrial beauty and ensconces himself above Coniston Water as a grumpy sage. With Canon Rawnsley of Wray near Windermere, and following Wordsworth’s lead, he resists the extension of the railway to Ambleside, because he loathes the thought of the common people ‘seeing Helvellyn while they are drunk’. Beatrix Potter writes and illustrates sharp-eyed stories set round Hawkshead, Sawrey and the dale of Newlands, settles there finally and specialises in native breeds of sheep. Arthur Ransome writes stories set in Coniston (and elsewhere) and inspires me and many thousands of other children with tales about families learning to camp and sail and climb and skate and smelt copper.

Such for Thompson are the prime markers in the history of the Lake District. The social world in which these famous witnesses lived, from which they drew material and impetus, creeps in on the margins of the printed (and painted) page and remains incidental and rather scanty. The mineral-working which was as much part of the Cumbrian economy as sheep-farming is touched on – but there is little about the iron-smelting which left clinker in the ground that we can still find at Cunsey Forge near Windermere and Witherslack south-west of Kendal. The damming of Leathes and Wythburn Waters to form one lake, Thirlmere, so that water could be piped ninety miles to Manchester – in the teeth of fulminations from Canon Rawnsley, Ruskin and Carlyle – is told in detail but from a managerial or public-speaker viewpoint. There is little about the workers who developed a whole culture of school and chapel while they were damming and tunnelling; they had been expected to behave like ruffians and were as decent any Cumbrian smallholder.

The nearer Thompson comes to the present, the more he is in danger of skimping on or omitting material. The artistic output of two generations of Heaton Coopers is dealt with, Alfred (d.1929) and the much reproduced William (d.1995). There is no mention of Julian, whose very large paintings of reft and ice-armoured mountain faces are masterly images of the Earth’s crust. On climbing, which Ruskin girned at for treating the hills ‘as soaped poles in a bear garden’, Thompson’s chapter tails off eighty or ninety years ago and so there’s no discussion of the miners, quarrymen and builders from Elterwater and Workington, Barrow, Bradford and Manchester, who pioneered the routes up vertical or overhanging rock that have enthralled many of us.

Any survey of a complex history will always be found to default on this or that detail. Maybe Thompson did not set out to write a comprehensive study in the manner of W.G. Collingwood’s The Lake Counties, first published in 1902, or the more recent The Lake District (1970) by Roy Millward and Adrian Robinson, a book that is perfect of its kind. But what I am asking for is a sense of first-hand experience, which is desirable especially when the subject is our experience as physical beings contriving to live in a physical world. Thompson is a devoted walker who has frequented the Lake District for most of his life. All the more unfortunate that he doesn’t enable the reader to appreciate what is involved when someone rescues a cragfast sheep from a ledge or mends a breach in a drystone dyke. There is too little of this sort of experience in a narrative which dutifully supplies standard biographical data – Arthur Ransome played chess with Lenin, or Beatrix Potter’s first fiancé died of leukaemia – and defaults on historical cruxes: the cash economy first emerged in the district when people who lived on the Helm, a hill near Kendal, were paid for produce by the Romans; when Haweswater was dammed in 1941 for the benefit of Manchester, the people evicted were resettled in a ‘model’ village along with their forebears’ gravestones.

By contrast Robert Macfarlane’s accounts are nothing if not first-hand. He is a literary scholar who has spent many hundreds of hours walking in England and the Scottish Highlands, in Spain, Palestine and Tibet. His aim here is to describe some of his most memorable explorations by way of ‘pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets’, to say nothing of ‘holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways’. There is a long tradition here: walkers might be wayfarers for whom travel is work (drovers, wranglers, messengers, shepherds), or those honour-bound to reach a goal (pilgrims, crusaders), or those who walk for the sake of the experience. Wordsworth and Coleridge did this, and so did George Borrow, who captivated Victorian readers with his tales of Spain and Wales. In our own time, Patrick Leigh Fermor walked from the Hook of Holland to the Balkans in the 1930s and Rory Stewart (and dog) walked through Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Macfarlane is a member of this group of walkers, with the extra strand that he knows he is going to write about his journeys. It’s at this point that a precarious balance must be kept. As the person walks (or sails, or climbs, or swims like Roger Deakin in the delightfully graphic and immediate Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey through Britain), mental notes will inevitably be scribbling themselves; the telling will be flawed if the impulse of the journey is merely to fulfil a book contract. Macfarlane’s best passages are finely achieved. His chapter about walking through the shallow sea off Norfolk richly evokes the silt between the toes, the disorienting sense of being without bearings on a great plain of shimmer and ripple. It also ends with a characteristic sudden sprouting into an idea that hugely expands the moment:

It is likely that, thousands of years in the future, when the temperature cycles have turned again and the world’s water is once more locked up in ice, Doggerland will be re-exposed; filled this time with the wreckage of an Anthropocene culture – a vast junkyard of beached derricks and stranded sea-forts, botched pipes and wiring, the concrete caltrops of anti-tank defences, fleets of grounded and upended boats, and the spoilheaps of former houses.

Macfarlane walks among the wreckage of a culture when he explores Ramallah on the West Bank along with Raja Shehadeh, author of the remarkable Palestine Walks. Shehadeh is fond of going on sarha, wandering (sarha is an Arabic word meaning ‘to roam freely’). Since the Six-Day War in 1967, however, it has been dangerous to carry a camera, map or compass since the reasons for having them might be misconstrued by the Israelis. At night the two men observe the lights of the new Israeli settlements ‘with the well-lit roads leading up to them’; and Shehadeh points to a valley where he was almost shot by Palestinian militia members ‘practising their aim, choosing live targets’. This chapter, ‘Limestone’, makes the earlier and later ones seem almost desultory. It isn’t any less concerned with the land and the old ways across it, but here that terrain is also a place of living history. The two men are joined by a German geologist who has spent years studying the flow rates of springs in Wadi Zarqa. They walk up a gully and Macfarlane notes that ‘the stones of the wadi had been rinsed, turned and graded … so it was like walking a cobbled street.’ He picks up a lump of chert that ‘resembled a white eyeball wrapped in layers of brown linen’ and the geologist tells him that chert is the young Palestinians’ favourite throwing stone: ‘During the first intifada the young ones who took on the Israeli military with chert became known as the “children of the stones”.’

‘Elterwater, 12 August 1786’ by Francis Towne
‘Elterwater, 12 August 1786’ by Francis Towne

This chapter shows Macfarlane’s method at its cleanest and most uncluttered; here he does not interrupt himself with speculative detours or literary parallels. Too often, elsewhere, he fiddles with a perception until it turns into a conceit. Pheasants on the Icknield Way – which is said to be one of the oldest roads in Britain, predating the Romans – have ‘copper flank armour and white dog-collars (hoplite vicars)’ and a grebe on a pond is ‘punkishly tufted as Ziggy Stardust’. Starlings have feathers ‘sleekly black as sheaves of photographic negatives’. Each bird, with its own vivid presence, is magicked into a literary stunt. That is perhaps no more than a tic of style. It matters more when a whole episode crumbles into a mélange of allusion, quotation, tag and aside. The chapter entitled ‘Granite’ is based on a walk through the Lairig Ghru, the finest of British mountain passes, from Deeside north to Speyside. You might have thought that the terrain would be allowed to come into its own here: the huge massifs of Braeriach and Ben Macdhui louring above the path, with the promised land of river meadows and white houses glowing in the vee of the col beneath the cloud-wrack. It is not. Instead we are given bits of John McGahern and John Nash, Neil Gunn and Nan Shepherd and Edward Thomas and Adam Nicolson, and the place itself is disappeared: ‘To my mind the Pools [of Dee] possess a near supernatural presence, recalling the dust-free mirrors of Buddhist symbolism or the “well at the world’s end” in Neil Gunn’s novel of the same name.’ I should say that the Pools of Dee are one of the most natural presences imaginable, and even more so the Wells of Dee, 1300 feet above them. Here the river is just a trembling in the translucent shallows of a mini-lochan among grey granite gravel and shingle. It’s almost invisible; it wells; it spreads and brims over; a few yards away it becomes a thread of cascade down the east wall of the Garbh Choire. Shouldn’t attention be focused most fully on such places before Macfarlane darts off sideways, backwards, upwards into his labyrinths of cross-reference?

Without so much book knowledge, The Old Ways would be a stronger work. I can quite see that Eric Ravilious would matter to Macfarlane, because he too was enthralled by the South Downs and often painted them, with their whitish light ‘possessing the combined pearlescence of chalk, grass blades and a proximate sea’. Does this justify the almost four pages spent on Ravilious as a war artist and his disappearance in the North Atlantic? Edward Thomas is even more an alter ego, and a much quoted presence. He was a compulsive walker, as a boy on Wimbledon Common, and then on ‘flint-diggers’ cartways, smugglers’ tracks and hares’ paths’. He lived with his family in Steep in Hampshire at the end of ‘an ancient, deeply worn track, thick with rotted leaves’. Macfarlane has a deep affinity with all this but do we really need nine pages on Thomas’s months in the trenches near Arras, and his death from pneumatic concussion when a shell landed beside him?

The themes of ‘the old ways’ and our inhabiting of the fells and dales and lakelands deserved to come through clear and strong. Oaken stumps of footways through the Somerset Levels surface during droughts. In Wester Ross, cairns of stones at the roadside between Torridon and Diabaig show that this was a corpse road – where the coffin was set down and the bearers enjoyed a breather and a dram – long before the tarmac was rolled through. In Malta and Cappadocia deep grooves in limestone reefs show where people drove their carts between field and farm and temple a thousand years ago. Late last century a bright spark called Rodolph de Salis described roads as ‘the ultimate sculpture’ and suggested a name for the recently completed (and controversial) Newbury bypass: ‘Angel of the South – Britain’s longest drive-through sculpture’. So the new ways overlie the old (not always effacing them); and even the ‘imaginative construction’ of the Lake District continues, in the wondrous forms, unmentioned by Thompson, of the Grizedale Forest sculpture park.