Gaze on a landscape, breathe it in and inhale its wholeness. Hear its words; read its story. Eyes can move from the coarse resolution of the entire landscape down to the fine tuning of an individual field, gully or turn in a path. I am on the summit of Hartside Pass, almost 600 metres up into the intoxicating upland air. Before me a landscape, beautiful yet contrived; behind, the bleaker lands of the northern Pennines also bearing scars of human influence. This location is the favoured destination of motor cyclists who prefer to gaze on landscapes of mean machines – Harleys, Yamahas, Suzukis– and where talk is of speed, acceleration and implicit aggression. I prefer to speak to the land. Here is to gaze on what Rob Cowen has called “the deep past and the far future”. Here I can discern what was and what might be in the landscape.
From this vantage point, the horizon is marked by the Lakeland fells, testaments to an era when the earth trembled. This was a time when, with much rifting and writhing, the earth’s crust was crumpled and crenulated to form the hills of today. Casting my eyes to the middle distance I gaze on parts of the Eden valley. Here are fields and woodlands, fragments of what once was. Here are delineations and divisions almost certainly a fraction of what they once were. Hedgerows replete with hawthorns for nesting, damp recesses for Jack-by-the hedge were removed to make for larger, more efficient economies (or so we were led to believe). There is a beauty in this landscape, but in our dialogue it is talking to me of lost habitats, neglected niches and diminished diversity. I can linger for only a short while, yet in that time I neither see nor hear a single bird. Now I must head to Garrigill.
My companions to the north are the blanket peats of Benty, Meethaw and Scarberry hills. Coarse, bleached cotton grasses soon to boast fluffy, cotton-ball flower heads intermingle with vulgar heathers and secretive Sphagnum mosses. Later in the year bilberry will flaunt its fruits. Occasionally, the blanket is torn and I catch sight of the beautiful black peats furtively secreting sagas of ecologies gone-by. Ornate pollen grains, faceless macro-fossils and smooth spherules of burnt carbon can all tell tales of land-use change through the centuries. To the south, lands drain into Black and Rowgill Burns. Here the landscape wears a very different face. This is a landscape of mosaics, the practice of moor burn writ large. This is “prime grouse shooting moor”: birds dare not linger here on the Glorious 12th. As I enter Garrigill my doused spirits are boosted: birds are abounding here! House martins chatter around the lane, perhaps sharing reviews of village nesting sites: here is rampant fecundity. I catch sight of a swift scything across the skies. Soon I realise there are more. I can’t look for long – I’m driving! In minutes I arrive at my cousin’s home to be greeted with tea and cakes (always delicious!). Flitting between the lounge (where bird feeders are in sight) and the kitchen I am given updates on the recent birding activity: which birds are nesting where, what has been seen recently and what has been the impact of some tree felling in the adjacent churchyard. My cousin and I are soul-mates and our souls are sharing news of the natural world.
It is now 04:30 and I am wide awake. This is not unusual for me, nor is my getting out of bed to head for the window. I gaze out on a lingering gibbous moon soon to cede to the ever-advancing dawn. For now it is an opalescent orb presiding as a sentinel over a sleeping world. These are the secret hours when all seems quiet and clandestine. Movements are slow and steady, predator and prey skulking to eclipse the other. In a few short minutes the sun will rise, so with the strengthening light I can see more. The mist over distant Cross Fell is splintering into wisps that will succumb to the growing warmth. The break of slope opposite me is marked by an array of buttercups, a ranunculaceous display of yellow, amber and gold. Momentarily I think I sense movement, but perhaps it’s the day-spring light playing tricks. Rabbits begin to mooch, but then there is a different movement. A curlew has awakened, its decurved bill prospecting the soft soils for earthworms, insects and larvae. It appears to be alone: is there a mate nesting somewhere awaiting the bounties of its partner’s probings? More light and a scuffle. A Carrion crow and lapwing are tussling in the sky. This is not a head-on, battle to the death, more a ‘keep off my land’ warning. The ungrazed fields and wet grassland nearby provide the low cover the Lapwing needs for nesting, but can leave it vulnerable to marauding corvids. Lower down the field one rabbit is motionless. I fear it is dead. Suddenly, those fears are assuaged. The violet head and red face-sides of a male pheasant appear and, as the bird wanders languidly across the field, the ‘dead’ rabbit scampers off. Day is now with us and my increased acuity enables me to look to distant fields to an unexpected sight. Roosting on the fields are many Black-headed gulls. With no large bodies of water nearby I puzzle over their wanderings. Cow Green reservoir is 15 km away. Would they travel from there to spend their days in a field in a Pennine village? Perhaps these were failed breeders, gathering to share their disappointment, a collegiate commiseration of sterility.
The final gazing experience of my stay was along the banks of the emergent South Tyne River. Storm Desmond had wrought its wrath here and all had changed. The river no longer flowed along the meandering curve of its north-east bank preferring now the ease of a straight channel. Perhaps it was in a hurry to join its cousins to become the great River Tyne as the waters neared Newcastle. The abandoned channel, now bereft of water, revealed the energies of past storms with pebbles and boulders evidence of upstream geologies. As I approached the river a noisy and excitable cacophony of sound erupted: the oystercatchers were nesting nearby. My cousin always reports their arrival, but this was my first experience of their piping gatherings. No-one would dare interfere with their nursery.
My bird watching always provides opportunities to watch and gaze, whether on birds, landscapes or habitats. My north Pennine wanderings this time were not abundant in diversity, but were rich in sights that touched my soul. I had reflected on the deep past and the far future and was the wiser for it.