This is an excerpt from Boundary Songs: Notes from the edge of the Lake District National Park, a walk taken in late 2017 which revealed the hidden past of this landscape. The accompanying film was made by the author, using music by Richard Skelton. The book will be published on 15th September 2020 by Chroma Editions.
An eerie silence engulfed the empty car park; the only other sign of life came from a handful of sheep munching away on the moorland arcing south outside the site. Alongside the perimeter fence a public bridleway was sandwiched between the tilting sickness offered by the Pendolino trains and the free-flowing sparkling movement on the M6. Over on the other side, the A6 roller coaster rattled gently into retirement. Shap granite, one of the finest and most distinctive rock types in Cumbria, is known for its coarse texture and large pink crystals, the main features are the megacrysts (a large well-formed crystal set in a fine groundmass), and its separation into darker and lighter variations.
Blue Quarry sits on the Dent Subgroup, underlain by lavas and tuffs (volcanic ash) of the Borrowdale Volcanic Group. Whilst the Shap granite outcrop is a small intrusion and broad metasomatic aureole (metamorphic changes caused by chemically active fluids penetrating and migrating through rock) beginning at the junction between the Borrowdale Volcanic Group and the Windermere Group to the south. The rock of ages became widely used across the UK as a building stone, particularly with the advent of railways in Victorian times when the Albert Memorial, St Pancras Station and Piccadilly Circus were all constructed out of it. From Eros to graveyards, polished Shap granite headstones and monuments started to appear frequently in Victorian and Edwardian graveyards as well.
Intriguingly, a quick look at the OS app informed me that the boundary ran directly through the centre of Blue Quarry, before following the southern route of the A6 over Shap Fell and beyond. My own route passed underneath the ranks of a formidable bank of pylons stretching their fingers out across the Pennines into ethereal bounds. With a new sense of renewal I strode away from a future hewn out of ancient rock, heading for the starry spheres of a somnium continuum, where memory stripped a kaleidoscopic dreamscape, and one note soothed souls banished to off-world colonies. Out here a familiar choice presented itself – north or south over the 1,350 foot summit to the other side.
Exiting the quarry, I continued on the straight track of original coaching highway past a small coppice resonating with birdsong. The open moorland habitat encompassed a complex mosaic of blanket bog and dry heath. Pink bell-shaped Erica tetralix flowers (cross-leaved heath), enrobed the upland, intermingled with dense mats of compact bog moss displaying an autumnal mix of yellow, orange and brown. A shimmer of pink heather, the bushy Calluna vulgaris dwarf shrub was also dominant, along with tussocks of purple moor grass, Molinia caerulea. Crossing a threshold I came to a sheep-holding pen constructed out of corrugated iron protected by metal barriers. Sprayed in gold on a set of wooden doors locked with rusted bolts, a warning, “Keep Out”, accompanied by a couple of question marks to add a sense of bewilderment. In the eerie tomb-like ambience, I half expected something to start rising out of the ground, just like at the end of Carrie when a hand comes out of the grave.
The events section of the modern day Shap Wells Hotel website looked like a roll call from Phoenix Nights. Showcasing a series of Irish Country Music gigs, disco nights, various tribute acts with Showmadymady, Badness and the pseudo Scandinavian fiends – Swede Dreamz. The hotel originally opened in the early nineteenth century when it quickly gained notoriety for the remedial properties of the waters pulled out from the well in the grounds of the current building. It was closed in 1939 and opened as a prisoner-of-war camp in 1941, during the Second World War, after the Government requisitioned the premises for officers, NCOs and petty officers, mostly from German U-boats. It didn’t reopen for hotel business again until 1947. Incredibly, after the war, some of the imprisoned German officers brought their families over to stay in the same bedrooms they had occupied whilst incarcerated there.
Continuing south over the access track leading down to the hotel, I kept straight ahead for half a mile or so, eventually meeting the A6 again. Another large conifer plantation had come into view on my right below Long Fell, at around the same time as I issued a final lament to voice notes. In the washed-out valley raked by an uncontrollable beast, the wind was all powerful and destructive, scattering joys and sorrows on impulse. On a well-used public bridleway, the steady gradient led toward Packhorse Hill. Entering the ‘safety corridor’ of a rejected and ignored landscape littered with warning signs, patrolled by zones of power sheltering forestry workings. There was even an abandoned fridge next to some frayed cables and a few hefty slabs of grey rock.
I stood next to them for a while, charting a mutant juxtaposition of roads, traffic, trains, quarries, pylons, plantations, fells, streams, becks and, slicing through it all, the national park boundary. In the science of patterns I had found a true in-between place within vaults of unredressed melancholy. Like nature in its black orbit, we were slowly being destroyed and projected into the music. Directly opposite, stood a hunk of intrusive rock now a geological conservation area.
Singing up the boundary, Shap Pink Quarry – a concept in the mind just like Uluru/Ayers Rock, but this was a song scattering a trail of columns and façades throughout the north of England and beyond.
Birkbeck Fells Common – motorcycles and 4×4 vehicles prohibited! A pattern of marked contrast with abandonment and loss, blocks of coniferous forestry, networks of masts and lines of intrusive pylons – simple, open and relatively unbroken. The fells offer a far-reaching and vividly alluring 360-degree panorama of the surrounding upland areas incorporating the Howgills, Orton Fells, central Lake District, North Pennines escarpment and south to Bowland. Hard to access, wild and remote, the decay and renewal on the exposed moorland was highlighted with isolated stone buildings or disintegrating enclosure walls in need of repair. Solitude and tranquillity in the margins emptied of people. Lakes to Dales…In Natural England’s 2009 Boundary review of the Birkbeck Fells and Whinfell Evaluation Area, the main incongruous features were the presence of pylons, the noisy M6 corridor and West Coast Mainline railway…along with the lack of tree cover and its elevation (being similar to or slightly lower than the constant hum of energy and communication).
In the middle of the empty road I watched a puff of purple haze blow over the summit of Shap Fell. A storm seemed poised to hit as I stared out onto a sombre landscape twinned with the cover of Springsteen’s Nebraska. A place where time still flowed as sluggishly as the vans and trucks did in the 1970s. When engines whined and overheated prior to the winds of change that shepherded in the M6. Moving on past an isolated repeater station, housing a creature lodged in ice taken over by The Thing. For some reason it reminded me of the Norwegian base in John Carpenter’s classic. Anytime. Anywhere. Anyone. Especially for those unfortunate enough to be stranded overnight in the dead of winter when the A6 can be snowbound and impassable. With the light starting to ebb it was nearly time to say farewell to the boundary, so I descended off a silhouetted Whatshaw Common, before dropping to the valley floor. Here I saw a fine example of a monkey-puzzle tree at Hause Foot Farm, next to a bridge over Crookdale Beck. Hemmed in on all sides by the imposing Shap Fells, with only one track in and out, strangely I felt more of a keen sense of isolation here than on the bare summit loitering above. But then, right on cue, a red post-office van hurtled towards me on the access road. Entering the lesser known Borrowdale Valley and crossing over a beck of the same name, the steep ramp up to Hollowgate brought me back onto the A6 again. From this vantage point a huge panorama opened up looking southwards towards Kendal into Yorkshire, and out into the white-out of the Irish Sea. By contrast, Ashstead Fell, to my left, had been given a Mohican, with both sides of its conifer plantation shaved off, the boundary remained an area of non-conformity right to the end.
David Banning is a writer based in Lancashire. His previous works include a guidebook An A-Z of Cumbria and the Lake District on Film (Hayloft, 2016) and the prose poem Song of the Road (Voices in a Lane, 2018). He has completed a BA History of Art at Goldsmiths College, University of London and studied Lake District Landscape Studies to postgraduate level at Lancaster University.
Photography by the author, drawing by Iain Sharpe.