Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The Allenheads Geo Trail: British Stoats, Canadian Geese and American Squirrels

I am now in Allenheads, Northumberland, the highest village in England, perched up towards the Scottish border. It is in the North Pennines which is, among other things, a European Geopark, that's to say an area with a particularly interesting geological landscape. There is a geotrail that introduces visitors to the area, and it is available as a free brochure and also viewable online. The village is home to Allenheads Contemporary Arts, where I am currently staying, and I've just started to develop a new project with them which will take place next year.

The centre of the village is quite definitely the pub and it from here that the trail departs. From my brochure I learnt that a stone's throw away from the pub is the washing floor where lead ore was once processed, when the village was the centre of a thriving network of lead mines. This is now a forlorn space with the village's centre of gravity pulled 100 meters over to the Allenheads Inn, as the village's economy has shifted away from industry and nominally towards tourism. 

I had already taken some walks around the area but I would not have noticed that there was a path that lay ahead of me if I were not on this trail. The brochure was useful then, as it revealed more ways in and out of the village than I was previously aware of. This is all good information to have as I'll be making a performance here next year and these entrances and exits are likely to figure highly. The village can be imagined as a stage equipped not only with windows and doors, but also with trap doors, curtains that may be parted and wires that pull the actors high into the skies, otherwise known as the helicopter that deposits VIPs here for the the grouse shoot. 

There were a great many abandoned buildings that I came across, which together, said much about the fate of the countryside here. Depopulation has occurred on a large scale and the area has not yet become desirable enough for these more remote buildings to become in any way desirable. With some of them it feels like a matter of time before someone puts them right again and turns them to good purpose but with others, lost far out in the fields where no roads pass close by, they look set to tumble into the ground.

I came across this little fellow popping up from behind a rock. Is it a stoat or a weasel?

The path became broken and indistinct, the ground damp and muddy underfoot. I thought I had lost my way but it was simply a matter of the directions being sparse and the path rarely used. It is always a dilemma when describing routes to know how much information to give. A little bit of difficulty can be a pleasure, as uncertainty is rewarded with the joy of finding the correct path. Too much information denies this and can turn the experience into being all about the directions and not the landscape. The problem is, we are all a little different in how much we prefer difficulty over ease, and how well we can follow directions. Apart from this one stretch, the rest of the route was pretty simple and the level of information was about right for me.

Then the animals got bigger. Not getting out into the countryside so often these days, I was unsure how friendly the cows and bullocks were likely to be. I inched my way forwards and he turned out to be largely indifferent to my presence, much to my relief. I quickly made my way over the style only to enter another field of bullocks who were similarly absorbed in their grass. 

This stone building turned out not to be as empty as it appeared to be on the outside. As I passed, a family of sheep came out to see who the visitor was. It seems these structures have tenants after all. 

Flying above me were birds that I can only guess were Canada geese, though if you have a better shot, do leave a comment. Actually, when it comes to shots, when I returned to the Allenheads Inn at the end of the walk, I met some of the men working on the grouse shoot who had just finished work. They told me about a Canadian marksman who had recently visited, whose shot was so bad, it was embarrassing. As the shoot is now extremely expensive, it has become a rich man's game, and not all rich men (and it mostly is men) have the time to balance making their money with practicing their shooting.

I stopped at number 10 on my map looking for the great limestone and found instead a sheep exploring the water's edge. The walk was, in fact, full of moments like this that didn't fit in with the brochure, but were nonetheless enjoyable as moments in themselves and which gave the tour is true flavour. This geotrail is one that gives you time to think in a quiet place where you will probably not see a single person.

The geotrail also highlights a number of chapels that the miners, many of them devout Methodists, used to use for worship. What puzzled me about this one, which is now a private home, is that it was built in 1900, after the mines had all closed. Poor timing. 

Wherever I walked water flowed or was gathered in bogs, streams, rivers and reservoirs.  Allenheads is water rich. I read in my geotrail leaflet that the area was close to the equator, some 300 million years ago, when "limy ooze, sand and mud in tropical seas and deltas hardened into the limestone, sandstone and shale." Allenheads today felt far from tropical, the nighttime temperature dropped to 6°C, and that is mid-August. It was however exciting to imagine the land constantly moving and changing, that the identity of the landscape itself is very much in flux.

As I made my way around this route I had, running in my mind, the memory of an amusing video I had seen earlier in the day. This video, The Life and Peculiar Times of Allen Heads, tells a cock and bull story about a mole catcher who lives in the area and is a fugitive from the police. It features still shots of a great many sites around the village, pulling them into its loopy narrative, which hovered or should I say burrowed, its way around this geotrail. When the credits rolled at the end I was not in the least surprised to see Allenheads Contemporary Arts played an instrumental role in its creation. This is not an average village lost in the countryside.

There was not much information contained in the brochure so, while it was themed around geology, I cannot say I learnt a great deal. The limited space for words is one side to this but it is also true that when walking one has a limited appetite for stopping and reading. A guide would be the most informative way to learn about the land but I did also start considering how more information could presented through other means without, for example, the walker getting sucked into their phone. Audio would probably be the best way to deliver information, but a continuous audio tour would be too long and inflexible, and the map and audio entry system is not perfect either, as it can be a distraction from the walk. I suspect that at some point in the not too distant future GPS cued audio will become widespread, but until then we'll just soldier on with these other formats. 

Returning into the village I spotted this poster warning of the dangers of grey squirrels. The  immigrant squirrel issue is very current here and considerable efforts are made by the likes of the Red Squirrel Survival Trust to preserve them by controlling the numbers of greys, i.e. killing them. The American squirrels arrived in 1876 and their subsequent vilification by no less than Prince Charles is interesting to observe in what it says about attitudes to nature. Specifically, it makes me ask if there is an idea of a golden age when the flora and fauna of the British Isles can be defined as native with everything arriving afterwards deemed foreign. If so, when would that point in time be? After tomatoes and potatoes arrived from America but before the grey squirrels came? If the point hinges more upon some species being desirable, or cute, while others are deemed 'invasive', like the infamous Japanese knotweed, what we are usually talking about is fighting an un-winnable battle against plants and animals that rather enjoy the conditions on this island. While I am not saying we should make no efforts to manage the land, I think we often overestimate our power to control nature. 

And that makes me wonder, how do things look if we view ourselves as an invasive species? If this video, showing the migration of man out of Africa, were accompanied not by a new-age corporate jingle, but instead by war cries and martial music it might suggest this  negative narrative quite convincingly. From an ecological point of view, it is probably fair to say we are a good deal more destructive that any squirrels or weeds. If we were able to be a bit more effective at controlling the harm we do to the rest of the globe that would be a fine thing, but then again, we are nature, neither the managers of it nor even, it seems, of ourselves.

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