SOMETIMES when you walk through wild and lonely countryside you experience a creeping realisation that things haven’t always been the way they seem. The heathery moors to the west of Reeth, in the northern Pennines, are empty places except for a scattering of 19th Century lead mining remains and a few structures and tracks associated with grouse shooting. But a walk from Whaw to Tan Hill across Arkengarthdale Moor reveals some interesting features and points towards a darker past . . .
Today, men are burning heather on Arkengarthdale Moor. It’s a traditional practice – called swaling in some parts of the country. Patches of mature heather are burnt off to encourage nutritious green shoots for grouse to devour. This is how the moors are managed. It’s always been like this. Hasn’t it?
A young man on a quad bike overtakes me on the track that climbs towards Great Punchard Gill from the village of Whaw. He’s transporting gear to help with the burning. It’s a time-honoured scene: streams of grey smoke rising into a flawless blue sky from rolling moors. Gamekeepers controlling the flames. Grouse clucking and cackling in the undergrowth. The occasional clatter of wings.
The uplands of rural England are the haunt of the rich as well as the grouse; they are the playgrounds of aristocracy and those fortunate enough to be wealthy beyond reason. Perhaps we should be thankful that these dedicated souls excluded the masses until very recent times and devote their energy to keeping the moors in pristine condition. I can sort of appreciate why they didn’t want us ordinary folk up there with our Tupperware sandwich boxes and dubious table habits.
On this beautiful February morning I have a flexible plan to walk across desolate countryside to the Tan Hill Inn – Britain’s highest public house. A right of way wiggles across the moors for just under seven miles (11km) to the pub doorstep. Nowadays, rights of way in landscapes such as these have lost a degree of their former significance because the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 has opened England to the English. But they remain essential as navigational aids and historical timelines.
I’m calling it a “flexible” plan because, according to my map, there is nothing up there except elevated bogs and featureless moorland, and I reserve the option to veer north at any given point to seek the variety offered by the old turnpike road.
But in a way it’s an adventure. It is country where my feet have never walked. And it has the added advantage of having a pub as its destination, even though the strongest drink I intend to purchase is tea.
So I follow the young man on his quad bike across empty acres of frozen ground, leaving the lead-mining areas of Surrender, Old Gang and Friarfold behind as I climb this steady track into Great Punchard Gill.
My first interesting discovery in this land of grouse is a fine brace of lime kilns. And higher up Great Punchard Gill I stumble upon the remains of a colliery. So in distant times this was quite a busy place, with limestone quarrying and coalmining taking over from where the lead mining finishes. There was life before grouse, it seems. People laboured in this area before the genteel art of shooting became fashionable.
I head into the west along a decent path, passing long-abandoned colliery shafts, some of which have collapsed in on themselves while others are protected by metal grilles. These impoverished moorland pits produced low-grade coal from mediaeval times until the late 19th Century – but they did not provide the main domestic and industrial fuel supplies for the locality. The dominant source of energy was won from the watery bogs beneath my feet – from the sods themselves.
The lead-smelting mills at Surrender and Gunnerside relied on peat to fuel their furnaces, and the ruins of their vast peat stores can still be seen standing like barracks buildings on the hillsides. Local people possessed turbary rights, which allowed them to dig peat for domestic fires and to roof their cottages.
This practice was not confined to the Pennine dales. Before the advent of the railways brought cheap, high-quality coal to the remote valleys of England and Wales, digging peat was a way of life for a large percentage of the population.
Place-name elements such as “turf”, “moss” and “bottom” are associated with the activity of peat-cutting. Up here, in the immediate vicinity of Arkengarthdale Moor, are many examples: Surrender Moss, Whetshaw Bottom, Turf Moor, Wham Bottom, Moulds Bottom, Flincher Bottom Moss (two for the price of one there), Little Punchard Gill Head Moss, Blakethwaite Moss and Mill Bottom. (See footnotes)
So the industrial revolution did the land-owning classes several big favours. Not only did they benefit financially from the ownership of mineral rights and the exploitation of the riches beneath their estates, their moorlands were cleared of tiresome peasants as peat fell out of fashion. This state of affairs coincided with the advent of grouse-shooting as an exclusive activity. The rich couldn’t lose. But they never do.
Incidentally, turbary rights were never abolished; they became obsolete and so failed to be included when much of our common land was formally registered in 1965. Some areas retained their rights, one being Eskdale in Cumbria. Anyone wild camping on the Great Moss (there’s one of those telltale peat-cutting words again) beneath the Scafell range might have an argument for digging peat to cook their dinner if they are bolshie enough.
Back to the walk. I follow the footpath across West Moor and skirt along Annaside Edge towards great Scollit Hill, but despite the clear skies and extensive views – and the fact that a temperature inversion is forming a spectacular bank of low cloud in the west – my thoughts refuse to be drawn from the enthralling history of these parts and the pertinent fact that an important section appears to be missing.
How did we – the lead-mining, coal-digging, wood-gathering, gorse-slashing, bracken-mowing, peat-cutting lowly folk – suddenly find ourselves in the position of being banned from our own hills? We didn’t consciously surrender our rights. We didn’t swap the privilege for the obvious advantages of an HSBC bank account in Switzerland complete with shell company in Lichtenstein. Yet somewhere along the twisting timeline of history the forces of low morality occupied the high ground and the rest of us were relegated from worker-cottager status to trespasser status.
Thankfully, the 2000 Act wrested our uplands from the grip of recalcitrant landowners and plonked them in the 21st Century in one swoop. But was it enough? Did that landmark legislation fall short of a greater good? I’m still smarting from being thrown off nearby Hoove by a landowner and his gun-toting gamekeepers in 1982. And I rather fancy having my turbary rights back.
I reach William Gill, which sounds like a man’s name but is actually a boggy moorland defile. At the head of the gill is another of these small moorland pits – William Gill Colliery. Again, this is empty, featureless countryside – but go back just over a century and it was an industrial environment with head-frames, wagonways, horse gins, and grimy people trampling all over the place.
The footpath between William Gill and Tan Hill is indistinct. This sudden decrease in footpath quality coincides with my immersion in the fog bank welling up from Cumbria. The empty moorland becomes a very blank and bewildering canvass. Playing safe, I set a compass bearing for the only feature within miles – the Tan Hill Inn – and in less than half an hour I’m standing before a roaring coal fire. Peat would have been more appropriate, but trespassers can’t be choosers.
Here’s some worthwhile information: a pot of Tan Hill tea costs £2.40. There’s sufficient for three large mugs, so that’s about a pint-and-a-half of good-quality tea. I’d provide a metric equivalent but there are some things that should never be measured in litres and one of them is tea.
My route back to the van is the 1770 turnpike road from Tan Hill to Reeth. Basically, it’s a pleasant downhill plod along tarmac as the sun sinks behind my shoulder and the shadows of late afternoon lengthen. In the bleakest of countryside I pass through an area called “Adjustment Ground or The Disputes”.
I haven’t a clue where these strange names originate. But again they illustrate, to me at least, that when you gaze beyond the popular milestones that represent our past – Hastings, Magna Carta, the Tudors, Victoria – the finer details, and the labours and passions of ordinary people, can be found written in the landscape. And that’s proper history.