Thursday, 25 August 2011

A border raid to Lindisfarne

Returning to the Whin Sill briefly, here is a photograph taken last weekend of Lindisfarne Castle, built on an isolated tooth of whinstone on Holy Island. Beblowe Crag, as this fang is known, is like nothing else on the generally low lying grassy island, accessible by a tidal causeway from the mainland. It is an instantly recognisable landmark for miles along the Northumberland coast.

The castle was first built in Tudor times, a fort to garrison English soldiers for defence against border raiders from Scotland. 'Marauding' I believe is the preferred term in this part of the country. It seems impossible for heritage bodies to mention the Scots without portraying them as marauding, rather overlooking that these were times of hostilities on both sides of a fluid border. Defending the island's haven was a headache Henry VIII had largely created for himself when he dissolved Lindisfarne Priory in 1537 during his vindictive and indiscriminate purge of the nation's monasteries, thereby bringing to an end nine hundred years of monastic life on the island.

The fort has seen some colourful occupants down the centuries, none more so than Captain Rugg. Renowned for his ebullient hospitality and monstrous bottle-nose (the two may be linked of course), the Captain composed rhyming ditties to Charles I, signing himself 'The Great Commander of the Cormorants, the Geese and Ganders of these Hallowed Lands.' For Holy Island has always been a place renowned for its wild birds, ever since the days of St Cuthbert who befriended its wildfowl.

As relations between the English and the Scots improved the castle's military importance declined although it continued to house modest numbers of troops right until the 1890s. By then in severe disrepair, it was occupied briefly by coastguards before being abandoned altogether. And this was how Edward Hudson found it while holidaying in 1901.

A year later Hudson, who was later to become editor of Country Life, had acquired it and at once hatched a plan to turn the castle into a summer house. He excitedly summoned his gifted friend, the already established architect Edwin Lutyens, and between them they contrived to convert the vaulted dormitories, corridors and batteries into an Edwardian holiday home.

The result is a virtuoso design of twisting staircases, galleries and niches, filled with decorative artefacts and furniture, some designed by Lutyens himself, and feeling as if it had been carved out of the rock rather than built upon it. Lutyens style has been described as 'Romance without Period' and it is certainly hard to pin down, combining Norman arches and herring bone brick floors in a design that looks at once modern and medieval. Later, Lutyens invited his former patron Gertrude Jekyll to design a walled garden, quite an achievement in this wind-scoured, salt-bleached landscape.

Ever since St Cuthbert's mortal remains failed to decompose Lindisfarne has been a destination of pilgrimage and on the day I chose to visit I was far from alone. However, this day the crowds had not come to see his shrine or the renowned illuminated gospels. They had come to see those who harrassed his peaceful Christian retreat. English Heritage, in whose care the remains of the Lindisfarne Priory are entrusted, were staging a re-enactment of Viking raiders from the seventh century. Vikings, it seems, have rarely been more popular and the car parks were brim full of spectators up for a spot of rape and pillage.

I arrived at lunchtime when the Vikings were taking a break from raiding to have a smoke and a Mr Whippy while catching up with their mates in Scandinavia on their mobiles phones. Call me grumpy, but historical re-enactments of this type have a tendency to arouse my latent misanthropy. I don't usually have difficulty suspending my disbelief but there always seems something so... so what? ahistorical, I suppose, about such dramas. I simply cannot forget that underneath their sackcloth and chainmail these characters are wearing wristwatches and nail varnish and M&S underwear. I acknowledge this is a failing on my part and I was clearly in the minority.

So I took my misanthropy for a walk around the island and fortunately for me these Vikings seemed content not to stray too far from the facilities. Holy Island's justly lauded beaches, sand dunes and grassy meadows were left largely uncolonised. Among the tall wind-riffled grasses and the comical cooing of eiders it was not difficult to see why this beautiful island was favoured for a monastery. The word 'Farne' derives from the Celtic for a place of retreat. I would not have been at all surprised that afternoon to have come across St Cuthbert himself, crouching among his beloved birds. You see, my imagination is quite intact.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

A floral lexicon

'I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine.
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:'

from A Midsummer Night's Dream : Act 2, Scene 1   William Shakespeare

A few months ago I read Olivia Laing's first book To the River in which she describes her walk the length of the river Ouse in Sussex one scorching midsummer week in 2009. It is an enjoyable debut and one that is hard not to describe in riverine metaphors as it leisurely meanders through Laing's varied literary interests, mirroring her earthly journey. Chief among these is Virginia Woolf who drowned herself in the Ouse in 1941 and whose ghost stalks the author's footsteps over the course of the 42 miles from source to sea.

Common Knapweed
The Sussex Ouse is not one of Britain's great watercourses. Gentle and sluggish for the most part it has known moments of violence, Woolf's suicide aside, and has witnessed some turbulent history including devastating floods. The river's name is deliciously onomatopoeic, summoning images of brackish estuarine mud, and Laing speculates on its origin. Ouse is a common name for rivers in England and most likely derives from the celtic usa which simply means water. Its similarity to other river names - the Ure, Aire, Wear, Wyre, Usk, Esk, Isis, Erewash etc - suggests a common ancestor. But there are other theories, foremost among them that the name may derive from La Rivière de Lewes as the major town through which the river flows.

Lady's Bedstraw
However, I digress before I have even started. My chief reason for mentioning Olivia Laing's book is that some of its most bewitching passages recount the wild flowers she encounters as she walks. Laing is knowledgeable about floral botany and she identifies each species with enviable facility, reciting their names with a reverential slowness that falls in with the pace of her footsteps. Riverbanks are rewarding places for flower hunters, offering rich habitat and abundant variety. There are successions that change with soil and shade and season, so a walk among meadows and hedgerows is never the same twice.

In a twenty-first century, urban Britain there is something mysterious and occult about flower names. Like the rivers whose margins they populate they have arcane and ancient origins mostly lost to us. They are words only half-remembered, harking back to a time of monastic herbalists and alchemists, pregnant with lore and liturgical significance. Aconite, agrimony, asphodel... they should be in every serious Scrabble player's arsenal! Shakespeare's fairies knew them all, as quoted above, where Oberon describes in floral terms to the mischievous Puck the place where he might find his Titania sleeping, in order to teach her a lesson about love. Equally, Macbeth's hags might have tossed them into their bubbling cauldron, cooking up a dark magic.

Common Comfrey
Betony, bedstraw, burnet... discovering flowers forces us to slow down, to cease from marching on, to take notice of the smallest detail. Perhaps one day I might stumble upon Titania who there sleeps 'sometime of the night. Lull'd in these flowers with dances and delight;' Apparently there are more than 140 different plants and flowers referenced in Shakespeare's plays and poems. Some literary historians have cited the wide botanical familiarity in his language as evidence that the Bard did not work alone, that he engaged specialist researchers. I prefer a simpler explanation. He grew up a country lad who wrote at a time when the names of wild flowers were still part of the vernacular, within the vocabulary of common folk. He employs flowers both literally and emblematically and he expects his audiences to be familiar with them and to understand their symbolic significance. 'There's rosemary, that's for remembrance' Ophelia says, and Elizabethan or Jacobean playgoers would at once have heard this as premonitory, for rosemary was thrown onto coffins by graveside mourners.

Devil's-Bit Scabious
Celandine, centaury, comfrey... I lack Olivia Laing's broad knowledge to always identify on the spot what I see. But with the aid of my camera and a bundle of guidebooks I can afterwards hope to put names to most of what I find. It's a pity but to some extent digital photography has supplanted the need for the field notebook and the art of meticulous observation in situ. As I look at the photographs later, from the comfort or confines of an armchair, I am back there walking the riverside path, drinking the aroma of damp earth, hearing the electric crackle of dragonflies, halting every few steps to examine yet another of nature's inexhaustible designs for seducing pollinators. These are a few of my pictures taken on recent river path walks.

Olivia Laing's admiration for tenacious weeds is especially palpable, describing with glee how quickly they re-colonise land laid waste by human vanity or destructiveness. In weeds we find true eternity. 'The rosebay willowherb swells up through the ruins of law courts and cathedrals, the dandelion marches across battlefields and infiltrates the gardens of mansions... these weeds have come and will come again, time immemorial, time without end. It is as well to remember this, for humans believe against all evidence in stasis...' This is wonderful, persuasive writing and I hope to be able to tell her so, for tomorrow I will meet Olivia Laing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Above all I want tell her how much I enjoyed meandering with her along the banks of her chosen river and to thank her for helping me to slow down and expand my floral lexicon.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Walking the Whin Sill

We learned about The Whin Sill in school geography lessons, when we were coming to terms with the mind-boggling notion of fluid rock. Back then it bore the epithet 'Great' and for us Londoners it was a reinforcement of everything we were taught to believe about the north of England; a gritty, faraway wildnerness that spawned gritty, uncompromising peoples. These days I travel south to get to that not-so-faraway country. The wilderness has become familiar, although no less awe-inspiring. And the people? Well I guess they are the melting pot of humanity I have come to expect wherever I go, uncompromising only in their refusal to be stereotyped.

Irresistible force meets immovable object. The Tees finds a
weak point in the Sill at Cauldron Snout
Wherever it breaks the surface The Whin Sill makes for exciting scenery. My geography teacher was accurate in introducing us to it as one of the dominant and defining features of the landscape of northern England. From the Farne Islands in the east to the sudden Pennine escarpment in the west, it crops up in many of the region's most celebrated natural wonders. The river Tees hurtles over its ledges in a series of thunderous cataracts at High Force, Low Force and Cauldron Snout. It forms vertical, castellated cliffs at Holwick Scar and Falcon Clints and provides the setting for a geography master's dream, the near perfect glaciated valley of High Cup Nick. It delighted the Romans too; they built their famous wall along its ramparts at Hotbanks and Cuddy's Crags.

Made of a tough, dark igneous rock called dolerite, The Whin Sill was intruded into the horizontal strata of the surrounding bedrock some 295 million years ago, during a period of tectonic stretching. Wherever there was a gap the 1000 degree magma poured in like hot wax, bubbling up through a vent from unimaginable depths. Because it was not laid down on the surface in sediments but forced entry later, the Sill is not uniform, as generations of quarrymen and drillers have discovered. In some places it is hardly there at all, in others it may extend to a thickness of sixty or seventy metres.

Textbook dream. The Whin Sill forms a perfect band around
the glaciated High Cup Nick
It was quarrymen, in fact, who in the nineteenth century gave the Whin Sill its name. Whinstone is a local term for the rock which makes first rate road stone but which is generally thought too hard to fashion into blocks for house building. They called it a sill because it lies horizontally. It was therefore the original sill, before the term was coined for more general use by geologists. The typical columnar forms of the whinstone crags are a consequence of the magma cooling and fracturing along the vertical plane. Whinstone quarries are very much in evidence in this part of the country although many of them, like the mineral mines, are now thoroughly worked out. It is stll referred to as the 'Great' Whin Sill in some places, to distinguish it from the lesser 'Little Whin Sill' to be found outcropping in parts of Weardale.

The Whin Sill exposed: fracture columns of dolerite at
Holwick Scar, Teesdale
It's hard to be blind to the geology in this part of the land and, with an accustomed eye, it is possible to discern some remarkable shifts in the curves of the landscape, the pH of the soil and the flora over the length of a leisurely walk. One could hardly expect an event as cataclysmic as that creating the Whin Sill to leave the surrounding country rock unaffected. Above Cauldron Snout, superheating of the overlying limestone has altered its crystalline structure to produce an alkaline granular rock known rather wonderfully as 'sugar limestone'. I don't recall learning about that in Surrey school geography classes. Perhaps it didn't quite resonate with the craggy northern image my teachers were so keen to depict. Anyway, sugar limestone is home to some uncommon alpine plants like the beautiful blue Spring Gentian. Sadly there were none to be found on my last visit to the Cow Green Reservoir, which sounds like the perfect reason for going back.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

What's your poison?

'Who are you?' said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, 'I - I hardly know, Sir, just at present - at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.'
'What do you mean by that?' said the Caterpillar, sternly. 'Explain yourself!'

If we were to choose one mushroom to stand for all mushrooms would it not surely be this? The Fly Agaric. The archetype 'toadstool' with its blood red cap flecked with white and its snowy gills has gone beyond being a mere living organism. It is a totem, a potent emblem branded into our consciousness from infancy through countless tales of folklore and fairies. From the brothers Grimm to Angela Carter, wherever there are wolves and woodcutters and wicked stepmothers it's a fair bet the Fly Agaric will be painted somewhere into the backcloth.

This mushroom - arguably more than any other living thing except perhaps the wolf - has come to symbolise our deeply held fears and suspicions about the malevolence of the forest. Red, as Snow White should have known before accepting the proffered apple, signifies danger. The bloody cap of the Fly Agaric, which seems to glow with its own light even in the forest penumbra, positively shrieks 'poison' at us. The skull-and-crossbones warning symbols in nearly all modern fungi guidebooks attest to its toxicity. But it hasn't always been that way.

There's no doubting that the Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria, is cousin to some very dangerous mushrooms indeed. The large genus includes some notorious serial killers; the unambiguously named Death Cap, Amanita phalloides, and the beautiful ghostly white, and altogether more poetically named Destroying Angel, Amanita virosa. Between them these species account for the great majority of mushroom fatalities in Europe. The aforementioned guidebooks like to dwell on the gruesome symptoms, the delayed onset of which means their cocktail of toxins has already set about turning vital organs to soup before we know we need help.

By comparison, the Fly Agaric rarely kills us, although it may make us very ill especially if eaten raw. The principal active ingredient is muscimol, a simple little molecule but then so is ethanol (ethyl alcohol). Where the latter makes us behave like idiots, muscimol enables us to fly, to shape shift and, perhaps most intriguing of all, to see God. Not a drug for me, I should stress, but for those with more courage and less prejudicial cultural baggage than me, who are prepared to put up with the sweats and palpitations, it is an enticing way to meet our maker. Its use in shamanic rites in Siberia and Lapland has long been documented. It is hard to believe its psychoactive properties haven't been ritually exploited more widely.

When Alice encounters the hookah-smoking caterpillar who befuddles her with existential questioning, it is perched on a mushroom. John Tenniel's illustration isn't obviously a Fly Agaric but Lewis Carroll's text makes it plain he has an hallucinogenic fungus in mind. As a parting shot the disdainful caterpillar (the perfect shape shifter of course) advises Alice that eating one side of the mushroom will make her grow larger, the other side smaller. Dimensional mind-bending is apparently a commonly recorded experience of those who have indulged.

Fly Agarics are widespread in temperate mixed woodland across the northerm hemisphere. In the right conditions they can be locally common, as I encountered walking in Hamsterley Forest, County Durham, last week. There had been days of rain and mushrooms of all shapes and sizes had truly inherited the earth. The fruiting bodies of the Fly Agaric begin life above ground as tight buds enclosed in a white veil. When the veil ruptures fragments remain on the cap giving its typical warty appearance, but they may wash off in heavy rain. As the cap opens the gills separate from the stem leaving a white ring, or annulus, but again this is not always present.  Old specimens become flat and paler in colour, often full of holes where they have been eaten by insects, molluscs and even small rodents.

The toxic effects of this beautiful mushroom are potent and unpredictable and it is surely right that we teach our children to admire them without touching. It is a pity though that our caution fosters a more general, less focused, fear and ignorance about what is sprouting on the forest floor. Growing within a few feet of these Agarics I found some delicious ceps, Boletus edulis, left unharvested by the side of a well walked path. It is a peculiarly British prejudice I am learning to overcome with the help and knowledge of my continental friends who are avid mushroom hunters. Lewis Carroll's Alice, also a peculiarly British creation, seems to have had no such hang-ups, and lived to have many another adventure.