WANDERING through hay meadows. See twisted hawthorn trunks and rusted metal gates hanging from stone stoops; fields swooping down towards an estuary and distant Lakeland fells. Smell hay and damp fields after rain, the rich aroma of cattle and clover. I haven’t been up here for years. It’s good to walk and revisit places you knew as a child . . .
These strip-fields date back to Mediaeval times and are one of the few remaining examples of mediaeval agriculture in Cumbria. Fields like these were known as “town fields” and were worked on a community basis in the days before enclosure and the appropriation of land by the socially advantaged. In this corner of the world they were also known as “dales” – and that’s what I’ve known these fields as since childhood. The Dales.
The township they served in this instance was the village of Ireleth, the mediaeval kernel to which the 19th Century Askam-in-Furness is tied by the umbilical A595. “Ireleth” means Hill of the Irish. It was founded by Norse-Irish asylum seekers fleeing from unrest in Ireland during the 10th Century. (Click pictures for high-res images)
So we’re talking pretty ancient stuff here. We’re talking Norwegians mixed with Celts, settling on a hillside with a few Angles scattered about, in a land ruled by Welsh-speaking Britons to the north in Carlisle and Strathclyde. Add to that a sprinkling of Danes drifting in from the Dalelaw and you’ve got the foundations of England and the true English – at this point unblemished by a land-grabbing Norman aristocracy. Very diverse, very multi-cultural – ethnic minorities integrating and merging cultural identities and scraps of language to produce we fine, upstanding, charitable chaps who are famed the world over for welcoming the needy with open arms.
We’re heading for the woods, my granddaughter and me. The strip-fields are a bit of a diversion. It’s the woods we’ve come to see, really. But she’s not so sure she wants to go into the trees because some irresponsible adult has told her that wolves still roam this part of England. Actually, it might have been me.
It’s a grandparent’s duty to scare grandchildren with stories about wild animals – because they need to be kept on the straight and narrow for their own safety, and wild animals is the level they respond to. Just like it’s a parent’s duty to inflict maximum embarrassment on a child when he or she reaches adolescence – because embarrassment is one of the few things that has an effect when they’re mouthing off in the company of friends. Works every time. (“Dad, please don’t wear that rasta hat you bought in Ireland. No. Pleeeeeease . . . )
We walk for half an hour along overgrown lanes and across the Dales, then through a meadow where crusty cow-pats lurk in tufts of dark grass, arriving in the midday heat at the edge of the wood. As kids, we used to call it Bird’s Wood, because the farmer who owned it was called Harry Bird and we were all terrified of him. Its official name is Askam Wood.
“See this beck, this is where we used to catch fish,” I tell her, and her eyes open wide. “See this tree, this is where we used to have a camp. See this big stone, this is where the wolves gather at night when the moon is high and the owls are hooting. Hawooooooo . . . Don’t cry. The goblins will hear you.”
Some of the trees I used to climb haven’t changed in more than forty years. I still recognise the branches. Others, that have been coppiced at one time – probably before the 1960s – have matured into multi-trunked giants. Coppicing was popular in this part of Cumbria. A host of industries depended on woodlands – charcoal burning; bobbin production for the Lancashire mills; swill making; gunpowder manufacture. All gone.
We walk for hours. At least it seems like hours. Through meadows full of bullocks and fields of mown hay. It’s all very Dennis Potter. Glad I’m wearing my short pants and tank-top.
Re-crossing the Dales the granddaughter complains of fatigue and begs to be carried. Not even the threat of wolves will keep her moving. So I lift her up and place her on my shoulders. And it’s at this point I discover her little red wellies are caked in wet cow muck. It’s all over my shirt and hands.
Never mind the scents of hay and clover, or the aromatic drafts beneath woods of oak and hawthorn. There is nothing quite like the whiff of cow muck on warm skin that captures childhood so completely.