In Rookhope I was first aware
Of Self and Not-Self, Death and Dread:
There I dropped pebbles, listened, heard
The reservoir of darkness stirred.
– W. H Auden, New Year Letter, 1940
that bleakest moor
the cold stare of a ewe
with wide-set eyes
It is as if we never left; that in some inconceivable alternative reality, we elected to ride out of the valley via Bolt’s Law. Still we try, with dreamers’ legs. And when the wheels slip back, we push with dreamers’ arms. This, the dead-weight the packhorse knew as it hobbled across the fells with lead-ore bound for Gateshead. The old trains knew it too, as they cursed and hissed like Sisyphus, unable to climb the incline under their own steam and dependent upon a standing engine to haul them to the summit.
Hartside Moor to Rookhope, and all that lies between, mere names on the map until I feel them in my lungs. Garrigill, Nenthead, Allenheads. At least there is hope in our destination. Like a beautiful, titian-haired widow, no less becoming because she weeps, this late summer moor of brindled grasses beneath a stark, blue sky. We long for it to end, yet never. Gone, the curlews of spring, only the occasional grouse sputtering like a clock wound too far, and once, when we stop to catch our breath, a lone kestrel riding the cool, clean air.
windhover . . .
a corroded cage poised
above the shaft
In all four directions, the bones of ancient settlements and the shadows of those to whom lead, iron and fluorspar, meant everything. We are crossing the bristling hide of a great recumbent beast, whose heart, beating long before the Romans stopped to listen, was finally staked some thirty years ago. Red Vein, Green Cleugh Vein, Grove Rake Vein, all drained. Hours pass but not one single other human on foot, or bicycle. Cars become fewer and farther between. On cresting a hill, the tandem coasts a while, but never far enough. Wind scuffing in my ears, panniers rattling, stones muttering beneath the tyres.
1809: the Rookhope Smelters strike, blaming their low productivity on the poor quality ore. The Chief Agent says it all comes down to a lack of skill. They transport a quantity of ore to Dukesfield Mill, but the smelters there don’t fare any better. The men of Rookhope are awarded a pay rise.
Shadows are lengthening and it’s hard to imagine we’ll reach the village before nightfall. Increasingly, I find myself looking back half-expecting to find a dark-feathered thing has alighted on my shoulder, but it’s only the sun on our tail. And the hills
, like the days, when you think you’ve seen your last, still they come.
John Parker: 11 Oct 1887, aged 29, smelter. While engaged cleaning out a long flue at a smelt mill, a rush of water was sent in from the top which washed him down to the bottom, causing his death.
north of the Burn
a bridge to nowhere
Behind us, distant Cumbria is a firestone. Could this be the final descent? Cold now. White-knuckled as we speed headlong into a sepia twilight broken only by charcoal etchings, the mangled ruins of past lives and semblances of living. Wings above our heads where, after the railway fell into decline, the aerial ropeway bore the ore away to Eastgate.
the sun sets
and it rises . . .
dead man’s boots
Note: Rookhope: “Valley of the Rooks”, situated in upper Weardale in the heart of the North Pennines, England.