The remote and windswept moorland landscape that surrounds our parish of Stainmore looks and feels timeless. The long flank of hillside running from the summit of Nine Standards Rigg towards the head of our valley is covered with heather and hardy grassland, grazed by a few sheep and managed for grouse shooting. The River Belah below it runs north towards the River Eden and thence to the Solway Firth and the Irish Sea. But just a few steps beyond its source you are at the watershed and then all water ultimately flows east to the North Sea. The terrain on these tops is rough and boggy, so it is difficult to imagine our prehistoric ancestors wanting to spend much time here.
But there’s good evidence that the landscape was very different a few thousand years ago. The peat on these hills has built up over centuries, obscuring in layer upon layer of decaying plant material what once lay beneath, seemingly for ever. However even on the steeper hillsides which you would expect to drain, whole areas of peat become waterlogged, gathering weight and becoming increasingly unstable. Once in a while it all gives way and areas of an acre or more of sodden peat a metre or more deep suddenly slip away, in a huge black avalanche.
One such peat bog avalanche happened a few years ago on the hill slopes opposite us. The actual event occurred during the night so we missed what must have been an awe inspiring spectacle. The following day we walked up the valley to find a scene of true devastation along the river banks. The tsunami of blackened earth and water must have been at least a metre above normal river level. It had taken out fences and walls and shifted massive boulders along the stream bed. A swath of peaty earth was painted on the ground five metres or more either side of the river. Amongst the debris we found dead fish, flung from their home onto dry ground.
The collapse of waterlogged peat leaves a massive scar, stripped back to more solid earth. Here the remains of long lost woodland are revealed, preserved in the oxygen-less peat bog. Our neighbour Tim climbed up a few days after this particular avalanche and brought back a piece of wood that was perhaps two or three thousand years old.
Whether it was climate change or human activity that brought about the collapse of woodland in our uplands at that time is open to debate. But it does seem that at one time our moorland could have been a much more pleasant place to live and to hunt, and possibly even to practice a simple form of agriculture – indeed the clearing of forest and overuse of land could have done much to precipitate its decline.
A tiny glimpse of this ancient woodland can still be found in the gorge just below our house. Here the Belah has cut a deep ravine through the strata of limestone and sandstone and the steep slopes are covered with naturally growing native trees of every kind, including ash, rowan and oak. By virtue of being almost completely inaccessible this ravine woodland has escaped the attentions of humankind for centuries. The area has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest; the citation points out that, where once this type of woodland covered much of Cumbria, today only 3% or less survives.
Hard evidence for occupation in prehistoric times is almost non-existent in the parish of Stainmore, although there is one cup and ring mark carved into a rock on a nearby farm overlooking the Eden Valley. Cup and ring marks are enigmatic forms of prehistoric art, perhaps used to designate the ritual purpose of a site. We’ll never know for sure, but it does mean that some ancient people did more than just pass through.
The Eden Valley as a whole was certainly occupied in Neolithic times, by people who had enough spare time and energy to create stone circles. The sites for three are almost, but not quite, visible from Stainmore – Long Meg near Penrith at the northern end of the Eden Valley, a circle at Orton at the south-western end, and the spectacular Castlerigg stone circle at the foot of Blencathra, the Lake District fell which dominates our northern skyline. These monuments suggest that the Eden Valley once hosted a thriving agricultural community, with the possibility that seasonal habitation or at the very least regular hunting took place in surrounding uplands such as ours.
So our upland area could have been criss-crossed with woodland paths all those years ago, a charming thought in many ways and, across most of the parish, a striking contrast to the way it is now. Under a number of land stewardship schemes efforts are being made to grow new woodlands, especially along the river valleys. All the way up the Belah beck, and in particular immediately opposite the existing ancient ravine woodland, hundreds of trees have been planted, staked and protected by plastic tubes.
So it’s possible that, one day, the area will return in a limited way to its ancient form. It’s noticable, however, that many of these saplings struggle to take root, a reminder that it’s a lot easier to destroy an ancient woodland than it is to recreate it.