I DRIVE the rattly van to the top of Barningham Moor and it gets stuck in slithery grass while I’m trying to park. I stall the engine and can’t start it again because the starter motor jams. Mist rolls in and thin rain begins to fall. There is no reception on my mobile phone. Eventually, after lots of click-clicking from the solenoid, the engine coughs into life and the van snakes inelegantly onto the road. I park it in mud but on a downward slope just to be safe. I pull on my boots, but it’s a slow process because I strained a muscle in my back a fortnight ago and it’s still painful. Sheep painted in fluorescent colours watch me from behind a wall. The day has a very deep, dark and melancholy feel about it. I decide I’ve unwittingly strayed into a Leonard Cohen song or perhaps an upbeat episode of Emmerdale . . .
The unnerving rattle of machine-guns drifts across the moor, accompanied by the pop-pop of small arms fire and some dramatic bangs. That’s the army training for mission creep. Forgive my cynicism, but eleven years ago I marched through London with a million people in an attempt to prevent an illegal war. It was the biggest expression of raw democracy ever witnessed in this country and it was totally ignored. Now we’re dropping bombs again – but very quietly because it’s hardly ever on the news. Let me tell you about fluorescent sheep.
There was a time when sheep were marked with a bright red substance known as reddle – or raddle or ruddle, depending on where you lived. This was mud that possessed a high haematite content and farmers daubed it on their animals to identify their flocks on the open fell (NOTE: and there are other more intimate reasons, apparently. Please see comments below).
Then coloured sheep dyes became available at about the same time L’Oréal founder Eugène Schueller was doing exactly the same thing for women – while openly supporting violent fascist organisations in France, may I add. But all that’s history. Now the coloured sheep dyes are fluorescent. The sheep adore them. I saw one doing a Vivienne Westwood impersonation. It was the brightest point of the day.
The army has, very inconsiderately, spoilt my plan. It had been my intention to take a walk over Feldom Ranges and search for Bronze Age rock art on Gayles Moor. But not wishing to get shot I trudge in the opposite direction, taking a path west from Byers Hill Farm across Barningham Moor towards Hope Moor and The Stang.
If you’re not familiar with these names, they can all be found on the hilly but boggy ground to the south of the A66 trans-Pennine road on the border of County Durham and North Yorkshire. The whole area is peppered with antiquities dating from the late-Neolithic to Roman periods. Neolithic and Bronze Age cup and ring carvings and decorated rock panels abound. Mind, they take some finding, but that’s half the attraction.
Leonard Cohen. I’ve never been a fan. I once walked into a record shop in Barrow with my mate, Trevor, who went up to the counter and said to the woman: “Excuse me, can I listen to Leonard Cohen’s latest LP on the understanding I have no intention of buying it?” When the woman said “no” he was absolutely outraged. He stormed out of the shop and didn’t utter another word all day. I’ve always taken this to be an indication of the effect Leonard Cohen’s music has on the disposition. I’m willing to concede that this might be an error of judgement on my part if anyone holds any forthright views to the contrary.
I trudge along boggy paths to Osmaril Gill where there is a particularly splendid example of a cup and ring carving – a chiselled hollow in a slab surrounded by four concentric rings. I also spy lots of boulders with cups – either natural or carved – in their upper surfaces.
Osmaril Gill is surrounded by natural springs. Water disappears down sink-holes on the crown of the moor and re-emerges in the vicinity of the gill. At the head of the gill, at the very point where it opens onto the moor, stands How Tallon stone circle. This has been a place of some significance in prehistoric times.
Another part of my plan is to follow moorland tracks south to Kexwith Farm and the exquisitely-named Schoolmaster Pasture – which I haven’t visited for several years – but my back’s hurting and the weather is depressingly dismal. So instead I head back to the van with the intention of going home and playing some Leonard Cohen videos on YouTube to brighten up the day. I might even watch Emmerdale.
FOR the past couple of weeks I’ve been hobbling around the footpaths surrounding the village where I live, full of ibuprofen and little nameless pills my wife gives me. I always take my camera on these occasions, working on the principal that if I don’t then I’ll see something that would have been worth photographing. Here’s a few snaps with explanatory captions.