News from Tom Burditt for July 2011

  • East of Eden

    19:24 18 July 2011
    By Tom Burditt

    Our patch of "South and East Cumbria and Morecambe Bay" stretches into some surprising areas, and none more so than Longcrag Farm at North Stainmore, just a couple of miles from the boundary with county Durham.

    It is a place with no visitor access, so as I arrived in my car up the long steep stone track off of a dead end country lane, I felt incredibly privileged as well as (if I'm honest) a little like James Herriott on one of his visits. The farm's setting is truly breath-taking. There is a plunging beck by the side, and behind it the ground rises steadily up to the large 'allotment' - a field surrounded by rugged walls and old fences that is essentially no different to the miles of unchanging blanket bog that stretch out to the horizons on the upland commons beyond.

    To the right the view is blocked by a stone wall of millstone grit, running along the crag itself that gives the farm its name. It is only the flashes of lighter grey sky between the dark rough stones that show that crag and wall aren't one and the same.

    But turn round and look to the south and west and the view is vast. Can there be a bigger view in the whole of England? The wide Eden Valley with ridge after ridge of pennine hills rolling away to the south in a rising limestone sea towards the grittier peaks of Whernside and Pen-y-Ghent. The A66, the little town pockets of Kirkby Stephen and Brough, the old railways, the barns. Westwards the dramatic terraced scarp-line of the North Pennines with its conical peaks and scars, names as terrifying as their appearance. Cross Fell, Cauldron Snout, Wild Boar Scar (not to mention Hell Gill, Black Fell and Hangingstone Scar opposite).

    I am here with some of the members of the National Trust's biological survey team, all the way from headquarters near Swindon, a world away. Gordon is mapping the vegetation, Peter is surveying for invertebrates with his large net, and our own John Hooson is identifying everything he sees.

    Although I am feeling slightly out of my depth alongside all this expertise, even I can appreciate the bird life on display. Impressive doesn't do it justice - for such a small farm the birds are staggering. Spring comes late up here, with snows often lying into May or even June and today in mid-July it is clear that breeding season is still in full swing - chicks unfledged, adults still displaying. Lapwing - I count over 20 - continuously call and peewit overhead. 2 curlews are constantly on the wing. One repeatedly traces the outline of a square over our heads, nervously staking out the territory in which we stand and in which, somewhere, there must surely be chicks. Suddenly it swoops off in a dummy flight, drawing our attention away...Two red grouse, perhaps seeking sanctuary from the surrounding moorland where the shoots are now only a few weeks away, fly massively across our path. Grey partridge scuttle through the rushy corners and along wall bottoms and once I come across a tiny speckled partridge chick, almost perfectly camouflauged.
    John tells me he has seen the daddy of them all: black grouse! but I miss them. I'm too sidetracked by the view, the wheatears flitting busily between the walls, the skylarks overhead, fragmentary snatches of the sounds of drumming snipe which are just as quickly snatched back by the wind.

    Wild though this lovely place may seem, it is certainly no wilderness. Walls have been painstakingly built and loving restored. Livelihoods have been eked out of the boggy, wildflower-rich turf. The current tenant tells me philosophically of having been cut off for 6 weeks last winter, but also of her passionate love of rare-breed horses and of her success at breeding one of the rarest of them all: the Cleveland Bay. Only 11 filly foals in the world last year, but 4 born here. The ones I see are curious but aloof, with both the hardness and softness of the summer hills within them.

    Back near the house is a huge hole; in fact at some 20 metres across and 20 metres deep it would easily contain the house, and its outbuildings too. It is carpetted with northern marsh orchids of a purple colour so rich that your eyes actually struggle to focus on them; they seem to float and shimmer rather than grow.

    There are globeflowers, water avens, devils-bit scabious. As we say our goodbyes, we ask the tenant about the hole. "Oh that", she says. "That fell in one night 20 years ago, made a hell of a racket. It was an old mine that caved in - they're all over these hills. Lead mines, barytes mines".

    Everywhere around us here the wild and the people are mingled. Voices that are snatched away by the wind call the horses home. Or was that just the curlews crying?

News from Tom Burditt

Photo of Tom Burditt

As Lead Ranger for South/East Cumbria and Morecambe Bay, I manage the individual Rangers who look after all the fantastic National Trust coast and countryside around the edges of the Lake District, and beyond into North Lancashire and the Eden Valley. The variety of the places, and of the work, makes coming to work in the morning a real joy and I never quite know where I'll end up. Although my office is in sunny Silverdale, on the edge of the swirling, ever changing muds of Morecambe Bay, I could end up on the sand-dunes of Sandscale Haws (near Barrow), the shores of Windermere at Fell Foot, patrolling the ancient chapel ruins at Heysham near Morecambe, helping with public access on the Sizergh Castle Estate near Kendal, rounding up escaped cows on Arnside Knott, or introducing visitors and great crested newts to each other at Acorn Bank gardens, near Penrith. Or I could be in that Silverdale office, working on a Woodland Management Plan or boundary dispute.

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