This is not the Wasteland by Caroline Beck

 

Outside my back door two men are yelling at each other in the first moments of the breaking day.  Their voices rise and fall, the wind whipping the meaning of the words away, but the tone is unmistakable.  I go out, still in my dressing gown, and scan the fields of the worked-out landfill site opposite the house for the barn owl, who I know is out there quartering the land between the drystone walls.  Suddenly I see her, low over the rough grass and the sight of the silent owl mixed with this unholy racket of raucous male voices fills me with happiness.

 

It’s Billy, my neighbour, shouting out of his van window to another neighbour who lives further up the hill – Miles, the caretaker of the village primary school where he is about to start work. The exhaust fumes of Billy’s van plume out into the freezing dark, and I can hear them laughing now, Miles leaning in through the window, his body muffled up against the cold.  One of the local farmers roars to a stop on his quad bike and joins in, so now there are three men shouting and teasing each other blocking the road with their good-natured mayhem, and I stand unseen in my garden in the dark, smiling to myself.  This is the familiar Weardale dawn chorus; after two years of unbearably silent lockdowns, their noise is as sweet to me as birdsong.

 

People in Weardale always talk as if shouting over a windy field, because often they are.  After more than twenty years of living here, I suspect I do it too.  Farmers whistle, halloo and sometimes almost yodel to their animals when they are being fed or rounded up, even when they are on their ‘phones.  I have often seen shepherds with low-to-the-ground collies snaking around the flock, bellowing instructions and helicoptering their arms whilst crunching a mobile phone between shoulder and ear.  It is as though they are anxious that their words will be extinguished by the wind that never stops blowing.

 

Weardale is a place that most people have never heard of, and few visit.  It runs west of the cathedral city of Durham, has one road in and one road out and spools up the flank of the Pennines and down into Cumbria.  It lacks the picturesque grandeur of the Yorkshire Dales that lie south of here and although tourism marketers, aware of our lack of visitors, like to call it England’s Last Wilderness as if it is some sort of pristine landscape, it bears all the desecrating human marks of lead mining, limestone quarrying, hill farming and grouse moor ‘management’.  It is bleak and unyielding but to the many ‘outcomers’ who live here – and I am one of them – it is home, a place to which we feel hefted.  If you travel over the upland roads, where the only other soul is a revenant sheep licking salt from the tarmac, it is tempting to believe that no-one lives here, that nothing happens.  You would be quite wrong.  The dale is full of dreamers, dry-stone wallers, artists, writers, potters, stargazers and poets all quietly soaking up its rich raw elements.  An England that is not England but is uniquely itself. When I moved here in the dying days of 1999, the landlady of the village pub warned me that the locals would have my life story out of me within the week.  Instead, this place and the people who live here have become my life’s story.

 

The poet W.H. Auden loved this dale; even when he emigrated to America in 1939, he had an Ordnance Survey map of it pinned on his wall.  He visited in 1922, aged twelve, with his father who was a mining engineer.  His first poem, The Watershed written when he was only nineteen is about this initial startlingly vivid impression of the fag-end of lead mining which had riven these hills for centuries.  He writes of a story, almost mythic but still told, of when a lead miner died underground, but because the roads of the dale were blocked with snow, his workmates carried his coffin underground for miles back to his widow.

 

‘…one died

During a storm, the fells impassable,

Not at his village, but in wooden shape

Through long abandoned levels nosed bis way

And in his final valley went to ground.’

 

But Auden did not confuse the wildness that lies at the heart of this land with a blank wasteland.  He loved the dale for its austere and elemental beauty but also associated the labyrinth of unexplored passageways and surging underground limestone streams with a transformative subconscious life and restless creativity where anything might happen.  I have been down some of these worked out mines, with names like Killhope, Lady’s Rake and Smallcleugh and I can testify that it is another world, one full of a strange energy and wonder.  One Christmas Eve when it was snowing, a friend and I slipped down one of these mineworkings through flooded passageways and into a vast cave called The Ballroom, which glittered an unearthly blue from seams of lead and zinc.  We ate mince pies and sung carols, and then my mischievous friend, a lifelong caver, said we should turn off our head torches to experience the real darkness.  What I had thought of as silence in the cheerful light became filled with a sudden insistent noise in the impenetrable dark.  The erratic drip, drip, drip of water finding its way down through the crevices in the limestone, coalesced alarmingly quickly into an unsettling rhythm.  My ears tried to make sense of what my eyes could not, and within seconds the drips became the hammer taps of a thousand miners working the seam.

 

Often a certain type of traveller alights upon the Weardale moors, usually white, male and urban, searching for an echo of an already formed idea of wilderness.  Later in the pub amongst farmers, builders, plumbers and agricultural engineers he will try to catch the eye of some of them for approval, to be acknowledged that he is in on the secret, but they have seen these wasteland tourists before.  They will not give him the satisfaction of meeting his eye, because they know what they see, and it is not what he sees.  Thinking of the upland moors as a wasteland helps no-one, especially not the people who call this home, and if the place is regarded as abandoned by industry, by people and by life, who will protect it?   For centuries the moors have been exploited by wealthy people with guns who shoot grouse for fun, arriving by helicopter and in expensive high-performance cars with blacked-out windows cars one day and leaving the next, paying the local beaters in cash, sometimes thrown at their feet so they have to bend low to pick it up.  It has been in their interest to keep the true potential of these moors contested and buried for centuries because this treeless upland,  featureless to some but highly lucrative to a handful of already rich absent landlords, could benefit all of us.  Peatlands that are well managed and not routinely subject to heather-burning for rearing grouse, are a carbon sink, capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking it up in the soil for centuries.  Look up the Northern Pennines on Google Maps and gaze at the seemingly featureless muddy-coloured bones that make up the spine of England.  This unregarded wilderness may hold one of the natural solutions to the climate emergency which threatens us all.  Not a wilderness of the past, but a wild new future.

 

On the way home from my evening walk on the March evening when the clocks go forward into Spring, I passed one of many deserted farmhouses that litter the high pastures, tumbled down and shattered, some of them still with familiar objects inside such as ruined furniture, and in one case a piano, its yellowing keys like rotting teeth.  There’s no denying that it is a lonely place, but being lonely is not the same as being alone.  As dusk fell, suddenly I heard the noise of a flock of roosting birds in an ash tree in the overgrown garden, all chirruping excitedly as birds often will just before the light goes completely.  The ash tree has been left over decades to go its own way so it branched magnificently in all directions.  I recognised the high-pitched electric calls of a flock of long-tailed tits and from the intensity of the pitch I thought there must have been as many as forty, but try as I might I could only see one or two fluttering in the leafless branches.  It was if the high tree was singing, gathering up some unheard music from the world and then transmitting it back through its branches and into the purple sky.  I stood next to the tree transfixed and the more I listened the more the sounds of the roosting birds became the frequency of human speech.  The babble of excited chatter thrown back high into the air like a howl of protest, thousands of voices raised up to the wind that would carry them away.  This is no wasteland to be overlooked and unheard, but instead a dale that defiantly demands its place in the world.

 

 

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Caroline Beck is a former BBC Northern correspondent for Radio 4 and has lived in Weardale for over two decades, where she is now a flower farmer. Follow Verde Flower Co on Instagram here.

Photograph by the author.

 

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