Friday, 22 November 2013

The Allenheads Fell Tour

I was visiting Allenheads Contemporary Arts in Northumberland, perched high up in the Northern Pennines, so high in fact that it has skiing in Winter, something I never even knew happened in England. 

With the formal work concluded, a free day still available and a weather forecast that was cloudy but 80% likely to be rain-free, we decided to take a walk up on the fell. It is deceptive terrain as most of the hills, once you get up onto them, are relatively gradual and you don't at first realise how far away the summit is. The ground stubbornly continues to rise as you make your way towards what looks like the top, which is always just that bit further. 

My guide Alan didn't carry a map but knew the fell well enough to be able to lead us, with the occasional consultation of the phone that located us on a sea of green. Our party was Alan and I and his two dogs Sid and Kaiser, pulling on their leads, sniffing, circling and encircling Alan in a tangle of ropes that he would continually be stepping in and out of for the next few hours. The route from Allenheads to Allendale, our destination, was circuitous to say the least. This map showing just one part of our trip gives some idea of just how indirect the fell paths are. Another feature of the landscape is the absence of trees. We walked along a gravel path with knee-deep heather stretching out either side of us and talked. At first about art, ideas, ethics and its relationship to people and place and then slowly we talked more about the land itself, who lived and worked there and how it came to be the way it is.

As we gained altitude our path changed direction and we felt the full force of the winds. It was blowing up a gale, a relentless powerful wind blustering over the land. When walking directly into it I had to lower my centre of gravity, bend over, hold onto my hat and plough a path forward. Every now and again a strong gust would blow up and try to physically lift me off my feet. This was the sort of tense walking where you could not casually swing your arms and legs to a rhythm, rather I had to move forwards through deliberate forceful effort or else I'd have been deposited in the heather. After two hours we came to a shooting butt where I crouched down to take shelter from the wind while Sid made it perfectly clear who he thought the centre of attention is.

In spite of the harsh conditions we didn't turn back even though we were not even half way to Allendale. Somehow we had the idea that rain would be a reason to cut proceedings short but a bit of wind was not going to stop us. One thing that this wind did do was to animate the heather and grass which danced in waves, something Alan was particularly attentive to having made a film on this subject.

We finally took a turning off the gravel and onto a more winding foot path. As there were very few turnings and paths along the entire journey it made no difference which one of us was in front or behind. In this sense it was not a traditional guided tour being led from the front with a rehearsed commentary describing what we were passing, this was a journey across a landscape with conversation which was at times about what we were seeing but more often it connected tangentially and was about something else. By this point however I had been so aggressed by the wind that it blew the words and thoughts clean out of me. 

We passed a number of areas where the heather had been burnt (which incidentally provides the title for the book on ACA Setting the Fell on Fire which I am currently reading) and I was told that one reason that this is done is to stop the heather from growing too high. High heather offers the grouse more effective spaces to hide in. As this fell is a prime grouse and pheasant shooting estate the landscape is very deliberately managed in order to maximise the number of birds that can be shot. I got an explanation on how these shoots operate, how many people are required to beat the ground, load the guns and so on and how important a role this plays in the local economy. What's more, I also learnt about how the village had changed hands from being owned by one man to being broken up and buildings sold off, again altering the possession and usage of the land. I found it quite fascinating to be able to see these connections between economics and landscape, connections which run deeper still as the estate is now owned by a man who made his money on hedge funds in the city and whose clients who come here to shoot include members of the royal family and the international super rich. It was a surprise for me to realise that the fortunes of this rugged and unforgiving land were so intricately connected to those of global finance.

This was just about the only proper signpost I noticed on the entire route and it was in a pretty sorry state, the letters barely readable. This was clearly a terrain that did nothing to encourage random walkers. As we made our way beyond this point the ground changed becoming more waterlogged and gradually started descending from the high fell. 

Towards the end of the walk the sun started breaking through producing the stereotypical God light effect. Landscape photography on a pocket camera rarely begins to do places like this justice; you'll have to fill in the missing gap between being there and looking at it on a screen.  

The film Ice Cold in Alex came to mind on more than one occasion during the walk as our final destination was the pub in Allendale. OK so our hardship was perhaps a little less than theirs: it was windburn not sunburn that aggressed us and our Germans were not Rommel's soldiers in hot pursuit but Sid and Kaiser the two schnauzers we were walking. That aside, the walk was physically demanding and once we passed a certain point the conversation slowed down and a steely determination to reach the pub took over. The reward of beer at the end of a journey is not to be underestimated: even if my head was by this point more or less numbed my body was carrying me forward and was looking forward to sitting down beside a fire and draining a pint.

And then, firmly in autopilot, I rounded the corner and saw Allendale ahead of us. Down into the village and into the large white building in the centre of the picture we descended: The Golden Lion. And yes, the beer most definitely was "worth waiting for". The bus ride back to Allenheads took all of about fifteen minutes compared to the four and a quarter hours over the fell but this was most certainly was not a journey of convenience but rather one that was about experiencing the character of the place. I'm sure on a windless Summer's day it would be stunning and completely different to observe but, tough as it was, I was happy to have seen it on this more animated day when it was not trying to please. The austerity made perfect sense.

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