We used to migrate, we northern English. We inhabitants of the Danelaw – the Viking realm that stretched from the Mersey to East Anglia and up into the Lakeland valleys – would emerge from our shielings high in the fells at this time of year, gather our flocks and herd them from the upland pastures to more sheltered ground.
It’s an instinct thing that clicks in when leaves fall and geese fly south. Feet twitch and far places beckon. Homelands call. They’re calling now. Is that rain I feel on my cheek, or salt spray cast up by the dragon prow of a clinker-built wave-cutter? Hmmm. It’s rain.
I don’t really have any sheep – just a few hens – but I can claim to possess a smattering Viking blood. The Vikings ruled northern England for generations, establishing the Danelaw (Danelagh, Dena lagu, Danelagen), where their families settled and integrated like model immigrants. My mother’s mother’s family is called Satterthwaite, which derives from the Old Norse sætr thveit and means “the clearing for the summer pastures” – according to Lake District Place Names, by Robert Gambles.
There was a time when we Satterthwaites would have hoisted stripy sails at this time of year and rowed home across the whale-road singing “Leaves are falling all around, it’s time I was on my way . . .” and other songs from the sagas, bearing plunder back to mead halls in distant fjords. But then we settled in the Danelaw and raised livestock, driving our flocks to the mountains in summer and to the lowlands in winter.
That seasonal urgency still awakens a need to gather wood and light fires. It unsettles the spirit. And as I sit here in front of the flames, listening to the thrum of traffic on the Great North Road, that inherited awareness steals back from the past with the night wind in the hedgerows.
There’s snow in the far north and on the Lakeland fells. Chop sticks. Ptarmigan are turning white. Mend sails. There’ll be ice in the hollows at the next full moon. Pull on the herdwick ganzee and lift the beetroot before mice come in off the fields. Then head for the wild places, the high ridges where ancestors worshipped fierce gods in stinging wind.
It’s time to migrate. You might have noticed your calf muscles twitching involuntarily, or felt a sudden urge to reconnect with something earthy and ancient. Perhaps you’ve caught the scent of woodsmoke from a garden fire that reminded you of childhood – only it wasn’t childhood, it was ingrained prehistory. Or, like me, you heard an unfamiliar though familiar sound, glanced up and marvelled as a skein of geese cut south across an evening sky.
Drink in that smoke then gather wood and light your own fire. Feel the thrill of the changing seasons as a red sun sinks beneath dark clouds and uncertain times approach. Winter mountains are calling. Watch those geese. And migrate. It’s time.