Field notes from Wolf Cleugh, abandoned farm cottage, Northumberland
I am here now.
From this vantage point, crouched in a stunted eyrie of blackened heather, I can see it, out there, wrapped in the hills.
I am here.
I have walked for miles, setting out at the ice-shiver of dawn, the early light carving its way outwards, downwards into ashen, cavernous skies.
Sitting out there in the spectral mist it hangs, barren, skeletal , like some stricken beast of the moors. Its roof collapsed like a shattered ribcage, exploding its innards into the surrounding land. Its windows are rotting voids – eyeless, gaping apertures set into a carcass of mossy stone.
Wolf Cleugh: from Cleugh / Cleuch [noun, Scottish] — A steep valley or ravine.
The name itself is powerfully evocative — Valley of the Wolf.
Did wolves once make this their home ?
A name attaches itself to a place like a dropped feather.
High, and strung out before the valley’s incline, there cuts a deep ravine, and into the choke of its gulley, the land blossoms, opens out – I sense my journey has neared its natural end. It is late afternoon now, the light has diminished, faded to a grey wash on the low horizon.
I arrive at Wolf Cleugh, having wandered for several weary miles, across a pitted, once industrial landscape, passing vacant millpools, reservoirs, engine sheds, and embankments, the terrain now severed by biting winds, and the morning mist gently drifting inland, then sent away dreaming in lightfolded increments.
Out here on this expanse of moor, a vast sea of heather commands the eye for miles around, and here and there, as if in pointillist relief – their forms like tiny lights, I spy colonies of Birds-Eye Primroses, the intense blue of Spring Gentian, then Teesdale Violet, Ragged Robin, Yellow Rattle, all wilderness survivors, all fugitives from the intensive farming that virtually crushed out the wildflower landscapes and forced them into refuge out in this wilderness.
All around is silent.
There is a sense of absence all about.
Not only the wildflowers and the battered scarps, but the abandoned farm cottages themselves seem to ache with pathos, windows into a past littered with loss. I approach the cottages as if they are in some way sacred, as if they hold secrets yet to be revealed.
There are dreams in these rain-worn stones.
As I stand just inside a broken doorway, the walls leak back the cold of the night, I can feel it pinching my skin. I start to explore, looking first from the outside into vacant windows, trying to dowse for energy, revenants, every sense now attuned in search of lost voices. A solitary owl (is it an owl? ) sits in the murk amidst the crumbling rafters, its amber eyes lucent, ablaze with a visionary light. It materialises in my eyeline, as if it has miraculously slipped through from another world. Its faint arrival catches me unaware.
And then it is gone.
The distorted, disarticulated geometry of this place now seems to be constructed to no known paradigm, a strange vernacular form, its old purpose now long silent, erased — lost over the years. A shadow-violence of neglect, a gradual dissolution, making an offering of itself — a return to the earth, a slow sinking back into the cold indifference of the moor.
I strain my ears to listen for something beyond the threshold of stone-silence – but the old prayers which once haunted this place remain unsaid, the hymns unsung, the words left unspoken – I hear nothing but the sounds of my own making.
I am inside now — a world within a world, an interstitial wasteland webbed with dust. The ageing cottage rooms now coated with a fine scale of soot and mould, dead insects and anonymous bones, their forms preserved in a frozen rictus of decay. Weeds sprout from mortarless brick, silently reclaiming what once they owned. A gentle breeze, a soft wave of chilled air blows through, and dark filaments of nameless debris sway in the current. A webbed fly pendulum oscillates to and fro, marking time, tracking the years, looking upwards at a lamp cracked blind with age.
It is difficult to visualise the home that was once here, a place formerly lived in. It now sits senescent, dissociate, its familial stories all but gone.
This fractured home remains an enigma. I search the debris for clues as to its utility, a shard, a vestige, something to hold in my imagination. A shattered hearth, the remains of a bed, fragments of broken furniture, a silent litany of remnants are all that remain to tell its story.
Who lived here? How did they spend their years? Are there any survivors, descendants of this family? These questions for me, remain unanswered, held somewhere only as occluded memories.
We think of memory perhaps only in melancholic terms of absence or removal, a partitioning from the everyday, a nebulous projection – a slowly degrading film reel, endlessly replayed. But another, contiguous connotation for memory exists in the form of marks and imperfections, scars and detritus – the existential, prosaic traces of human occupation that coalesce and cohere in the visible moment, there, at the threshold of perception – they creep up on us, materialise when we least expect it, in the soot and dust, in the material disjecta, in the soft threads of light twisting and strobing through the mists and motes, the gentle treading of paths through trails of natural litter, the delicious scent of moisture on the skin – that faint flicker of birdsong – all of these fleeting memory sensations merge, accrete, and a sense-impression of the place starts to materialise.
Like Wolf Cleugh, the names of the nearby hills and their farms – Hanging Wells, Broken Moss, ColdBerry, Pikestone, Stonygill wind like rivers through myth and onto the maps, they summon the starkness of this cleft in the hills, whose slopes were once scattered all about with similar farmsteads. And under them bulge the revenants of the old lead mining heaps with nearby cottages like those at Wolf Cleugh, once occupied by the miners and their kin.
This seemingly barren landscape at first appears featureless, benign, yet beneath it lie dark muscles of spoil, veined and lumpy like withered flesh – these were once hives of industrial activity, the engines of human endeavour, disgorging deadly lead vapours brought miles along flue tunnels, across slopes and shoulders, and spilling out onto still undiscovered ribboned trackways.
This now quiescent valley once rang with the raging, dissonant clatter and fume of mining, the dirty business of the London Lead Company, run since the mid-18th century by Quakers. The miners were rough, poorly educated former agricultural folk, but their employers demanded strict temperance, and aimed to put their workers in the way of salvation as well as employment. Yet their lives were still unspeakably tough. Life expectancy here was short. The majority of miners died young, mostly from diseases of the lungs, pneumonia, silicosis, phthisis. Others were severely injured from falling rock or pit collapses, gas outfall, flooding. These packmen, washers, and labourers were dependent on payment under what was known as the “bargain system”, based on productivity, a financial return for volume which would often result in crippling financial, as well as physical burden.
At nearby Rookhope, the village hosted hundreds of miners who during the week lived in unsanitary, overcrowded ‘lodging shops’, working long, arduous hours, and then, when the work was done, they tramped across the barren moors to their homes for the weekend.
I see the owl once more, flying off into the distance, and yet again, I only capture an ephemeral glimpse as it takes flight, out into the sky’s opaque. Perhaps this owl acts as psychopomp, subtly ushering lost souls to the land of the dead?.. my guide to the Otherworld..? And as it ascends, its cry carries across the valley like a lament.
Walking south-west across the moors, I pass by the old pumping chimney at Sike Head, and Jeffrey’s Chimney, with its shattered top, which each year some unfortunate soul, usually a child, had to clamber into to scrape away the ‘fume’ – a condensed lead vapour which was then sent to Newcastle for re-smelting.
My initial reading of Wolf Cleugh was wrong. From a distance, I had assumed it to be the home of a family of lead miners, but as I approached it, I could see the remnants of a collapsed barn, and the crumbling outline of a byre, or sheepfold, something that housed livestock. Whoever had lived here had given their lives to the land and hard toil, much like the miners.
As the years went by, the effects of the Enclosures Act began to slowly reverberate through these tiny farming communities. Commodity prices began to rise, government policy changed and took hold, and the younger generations of agricultural folk no longer wished to spend their lives in pitiful isolation, out here on this stricken moor. Slowly, the farmsteads fell into decline, and then abandonment, and finally dereliction and decay, and eventually the collapse of whole communities, a sombre story of loss.
Further exploration north of Stanhope reveals a landscape knotted with old scar tissue, spoil heaps now overgrown, gaunt mine buildings with rusting tin roofs dominate the eye, and old tramway beds snake away over beds of heather and sedge. The moor and the valley now lie quietly where only the dams, chimneys and deep shafts that litter the heather bear testament to those brutal, unforgiving times. What was once a mining trackway now meanders through the valleys as a footpath for wanderers, The Waskerley Way.
I feel strangely safe here, veiled in the mist at Wolf Cleugh, secure in this ruin, this derelict sanctum. I run my fingers along its dank walls, as if feeling for a pulse, a vibration of something long past, a memory, salvaged from the dancing shadows of these now mute stones In the half-light it gently creaks, like something once sentient, now lifeless, inert.
Echoes, shadows – memory as mist.
Back at Stanhope, the capital of Weardale there is a churchyard niche that houses the fossilised stump of ancient Sigillaria, a fern-like tree, estimated to be around 250 million years old, it’s dormant, veinous roots still reaching out to feel for some ancient swamp bed.
Inside the church, there remains a partially effaced ancient pagan altar, discovered by a shepherd in the wilderness of Scargill Moor, dedicated to Silvanus, a Roman tutelary deity of the woods, the moors and the animals. He is described as a god, who watched over the fields and husbandmen, protecting in particular the boundaries of the fields. He was said to preside over the woodland realm, and was sent to ward off wolves.
Perhaps there is a remote connection here, to the wolves that once roamed this valley?
This vestigial artefact, a pagan relic, was more than likely overwritten, superimposed, repurposed by the Romans from something far more ancient and indigenous to this once feral landscape – a thing eerily reminiscent of a time when primeval moorland was still virgin forest, and ancient men worshipped wilder gods.
Standing here, out in the mist at Wolf Cleugh, the stories that comprise this place start to unravel, a vast living archive now lies exposed, out here in the scars of the land.
Eventually this building will crumble and fall, or perhaps a slow dismantling, as the outfall and spolia are used and re-used, seeding another place, another structure. The beginnings of a new life, a fresh narrative, waiting to unfold.
Bran Graeme Nairne is the alternym of artist and writer, Baz Nichols. Newly relocated to rural Aberdeenshire, he specialises in creative works informed by landscapes lost, abandoned, forgotten and mythic, and is the founder Editor and Creative Director of Echtrai Journal which is published bi-annually. A new edition of the journal is due out for Winter, 2021 — find out more at placefieldnotes.wordpress.com .
Hear an interview with Baz Nichols on BBC Sounds.
Photography by Peter Giroux. Follow his work on instagram.