TIME is perplexing stuff. I’m sitting in my car at the side of a Roman road, waiting for my wife to reappear from the house of a clock-mender. Hanging above his hedge is a white sign shaped like a clock on which is written “Roman Road Clocks”. Lorries rumble by to Catterick, a place older than recorded history and enshrined in the war poetry of the Celts. Once the braying of mules, the chafing of shields and the marching of foreign feet were the dominant sounds. Now it’s traffic.
Did the Romans have clocks? I don’t know. Did they have 24 hours in a day and 60 minutes to the hour, or did they mess around with them like they did the months? Perhaps the clock-mender knows. I should have told my wife to ask. She’s been in there fifteen minutes but it feels like an hour. Time – it’s elastic.
Soon we’re motoring along another Roman road, the one that straddles the Pennines between Scotch Corner and Brough. My wife’s left her father’s clock (with its Westminster chimes and broken spring) with the clock-mender who, apparently, hates his job and is tick-tocking off the days to retirement. Funny that. You sort of have this impression that clock-menders are wizened old men cloaked in an air of patience as visible as pipe smoke. This one’s a bit restless, apparently. But he knows his stuff.
Today we’re heading for the Bronze Age. It’s not on any maps but I’ve a good idea where it is. You drive through the Roman period and the Iron Age and turn off as you’re approaching Late Neolithic. Then you look for one of those brown heritage signs south of the A66 above Scargill that points right to it. It’s all very straightforward.
In the dark depths of The Stang forest we pull up in a clearing where two elderly ladies are sitting on collapsible chairs. They have powerful binoculars on tripods, pointing up at the sky. Heaven knows what they are looking at. Perhaps that’s it – heaven. Maybe as we get older we begin to take more notice of it.
The Stang forest wasn’t here 4,000 years ago, when Bronze Age man roamed the hillsides. There may have been a forest of native trees, but it wasn’t this dark and brooding blanket of alien conifers with prickly branches and tangy resin. And the track that takes us east towards Barningham Moor, shovelled from the earth by a post-war bulldozer – no sandled feet ever padded its surface hunting deer or herding sheep.
But they’re in there behind the tree trunks, hovering in the shadows and watching us with their patient eyes, those Bronze Age people. I can feel them. And, occasionally, I hear one sniff or cough. It’s easy to mistake these sounds for the noises of birds and forest animals. But it’s THEM – or their spirits at least – crouching in ditches and banks of pine needles, wrapped in woolly cloaks the colour of peat. And as we pass, alerted to their presence but not bold enough to seek them out, they smile and wink at each other. Don’t ask me how I know this. It’s just one of those things. A gift, probably.
I’ve lived within a couple of spear-throws of Barningham Moor for 16 years but have only recently been alerted to the Bronze Age remains scattered about its emptiness. I published an article on Long Meg, the stone circle near Penrith, a couple of months ago, and in response David Forster, of Bluestone Images, alerted me to the Bronze Age carvings above the A66. So here we are, late one blustery afternoon in the back end, my wife and I clumping along tracks and over springy turf in search of them.
Time isn’t an easy concept to get your head round. It tends to fog perspectives. There are stones up here – lots of them – that were decorated by sculptors during the Bronze Age, and the art has survived in the form of cup and ring carvings. The fact that we have pigeon-holed these people into a category known for the alloy that came to prominence during their era immediately lumps them into a mass as dense and cold as bronze itself.
But they were anything but a dense, cold mass – they were people, like ourselves, with a structured and far-reaching society. And it was a society that was knowledgeable, ambitious, creative, inventive, adventurous, passionate, sophisticated and artistic. If it hadn’t been all these things and more, we’d still be in the Bronze Age. We would not have progressed.
Climbing the grassy ridge of Eel Hill, just west of a summit called How Callon, we discover a boulder with a cup carved in its corner and a groove chiselled to the rim. The cup is brimming with rainwater. Further along the ridge is another rock. This too has a cup brimming with water and several rings – and rings within rings – carved on its surface. Their relevance has been lost in that thing called time.
Some people believe the carvings had a religious significance; others that they were maps or waymarkers, or that they were associated with the dead, or with freshwater springs. I haven’t got a theory on the subject yet, though I’m working on one. I rather like the idea that they were for playing marbles, or a precursor of bar billiards.
But then the sun balances on the Pennines and begins to sink behind the ridge. We’ve left it too late. Above us on the moor there is a stone circle, apparently. While below us, on a wild fellside that slopes down towards the River Greta, more stones lie in the turf – the most artistically-carved being discovered as recently as 2006. But they’ll have to wait for another day. Soon the afternoon will have faded into dusk.
Time, despite its abundance, has just run out.
I’m going back soon in search of more stones. I can feel the stirrings of an obsession. Meanwhile, anyone interested in Bronze Age cup and ring carvings who would like to learn more should visit these sites: