IT’S midday and a storm warning has been issued by the Met Office. I’ve just set off across the northern spur of Reeth High Moor and can expect gale-force winds and up to 40mm of rain. The valley fields are already flooded, the rivers swollen. High-sided vehicles have been banned from certain roads and bridges. So it’s a normal January day and I’m hungry for adventure . . .
Speaking of hunger – I’ve been thinking about it a great deal lately. Not just your normal type of hunger, where people queue at the local Osborne-era food bank for a tin of peas and a Pot Noodle, but the other varieties as well – lust, avarice, that sort of stuff. It’s strange where your mind wanders when you’re plodding up a moorland track with rain pelting against the back of your hood in the wilds above Akengarthdale.
I read a book once called Hunger, by 19th Century Norwegian author Knut Hamsun. It was about a down-at-heel writer who, desperate to get his work published in the Oslo newspapers, almost starved to death through lack of income. Apparently it was autobiographical. A bloke can learn a lot from literature like that.
Then there’s Monaghan poet Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger. I used to live two doors down from a retired teacher who got sozzled on sherry every night and could speak fluent Russian. Her passion was poetry.
I’d heard Van Morrison singing Patrick Kavanagh’s poem Raglan Road, so I asked if she had any books of Kavanagh’s poetry. We spent a pleasant couple of hours reading The Great Hunger and drinking sherry. It’s not about the Irish famine, she said. It’s about lust and unrequited love. Christ. I missed that. Don’t pour me another one.
Watch him, watch him, that man on a hill whose spirit
Is a wet sack flapping about the knees of time.
He lives that his little fields may stay fertile when his own body
Is spread in the bottom of a ditch under two coulters crossed in Christ’s Name.
It’s 1pm and the wind’s getting up. Another wave of rain rolls towards me from Swaledale and wipes out the scenery. I’ve left the car at the Water Splash, the picturesque ford that Christopher Timothy drives his old car through in every episode of All Creatures Great and Small. I don’t know why I mentioned that because I couldn’t stand the programme. Far too bright and jolly for my liking.
I’m heading for the Hungry Hushes. See, there’s a theme developing here. I’ve mentioned hushes before. They are the deep and ugly remnants of 19th Century lead mining, where a very destructive method of hydraulic extraction was used.
Basically, the mining companies built reservoirs near the tops of the hills and discharged huge volumes of water along the course of the mineral veins, swilling away vegetation, peat, boulder clay and fractured rock to get at galena – the ore of lead. The uncovered veins were then hacked and dug by miners while the reservoirs filled up again.
Then more water was released, more of England’s uplands were washed away, and a few rich people got richer while lots of poor people toiled in all sorts of weather and survived on poverty wages.
If you detect an air of cynicism in this post it’s because I’m exploiting a rich vein of the stuff. Before I set out I watched George Osborne deliver a speech on the economy. He said that in order to maintain the financial recovery and cut the deficit, the unemployed and the homeless and the disabled people on benefits will have to surrender a bit more of their money to fund tax cuts for the rather-comfortably-orf-thank-you-very-much.
I was waiting for someone in the audience of blue-collar workers (do we still use that expression?) to shout: “What effing planet are you on, you slack-gobbed effing Tory toff?” But nobody did. They even clapped when he finished. So I’m thinking it must be me who’s on the other planet.
Local tradition maintains that the mining company couldn’t find the course of the vein. So when the first hush had carved out its destructive path, the water was diverted and a second discharge hurtled down a different course, washing all before it – turf, heather, sub-soil, alluvial deposits, boulders, sheep, grouse and beaters – to the valley below. When the second hush failed, the water was diverted again. And so on.
What remains today is a disfigured landscape known as the Hungry Hushes. Hunger works on several levels here. The hushes were barren, their destructive forces never sated; barren ground thrusts miners deeper into poverty; poor returns on capital investment means the shareholders lose and some are driven towards tragic circumstances. Fortunately, because it’s very cold and raining hard today, there’s little lust and unrequited love. And certainly no sherry.
At this point I was going to launch into a frenzied attack on fracking being the modern equivalent of hushing, but I can’t be arsed. I’m too busy wringing out my gloves and wondering why waterproofs work splendidly for the first few dousings then break down completely when you’re just getting used to them and think you’ve made a wise investment.
So having clambered down through the Hungry Hushes, I ascend once more to the crown of the moor through the spectacular ravine of the Stodart Hush (pictures above) – which unlike its neighbours must have been quite productive because it has a name and is deep and impressive.
On the top of the moor the rain is hammering down as hard as ever. The Met Office was right again. The next storm has arrived. The wind is so ferocious that when taking pictures I am forced to go down on my knees to keep the camera steady. It’s bloody cold and wet and windy. But men worked up here in this. That puts things into perspective.
So that’s the Hungry Hushes, a few desolate, mostly forgotten and now quite natural-looking grooves in the fellside above Arkengarthdale. I’ve enjoyed my walk today, in a sort of gloomy and slightly pessimistic way. I’ll blame George Osborne for that. But he’d probably blame the last Labour government, so why bother?
Right, that’s me done. Time I was back on my planet.