Walls

Yes, you may well wonder where I am going with this blogpost ….

I confess to having become fascinated by walls since we moved up to the north-east of England …

It’s all down to building materials, of course.  When we lived in Mid-Devon, there was very little of the local sandstone, and what there was available was used for important and expensive buildings like the little St Lawrence Chapel which we looked after for Crediton parish church.Our own house (round the corner) and Victorian had nice brick garden walls in the garden itself …But once you ventured down the track behind the houses that the coal delivery man would have used, you were back to the older cheaper local stuff – cob. Cob is made up of anything to hand – mostly dung, mud and straw. It’s very vulnerable to the elements.  To protect the wall, it was preferably built on a small stone base, and roofed with slates  – both of which you can see in this picture. What you can also see in the picture is the render – that’s the modern casual way to repair a cob wall …I might once have been inclined to say there is no finer sight than a good cob wall (as you can see here on the shed wall at our B&B in Woolfardisworthy last damp summer) …Until I came to live in Northumberland where there is stone! Beautiful stone! Our own cottage (a converted steading) shows this particularly to perfection in the light of the rising sun a couple of days ago.  This is sandstone, abundantly and gloriously available here …And everywhere there are fine stone walls (sometimes with the odd little whimsical brick) …Which we took for granted until we saw where a local farmer had driven casually through a stone wall so as to deposit the manure from the barn in an inaccessible field …Elsewhere we saw how a collapsed wall had been – well, err, left collapsed …

Time takes me in mouthfuls; the teeth of the frost bit into my body here; here my mortar crumbles; the wind rubs salt into every wound  (says the poet, Kevin Crossley-Holland.) Yes, that’s just exactly what happens to the walls near the sea round here …Eventually the stones were cleared away leaving the bank alarmingly vulnerable …Walking up to Edin’s Hall Broch in the nearby Scottish Borders, we noted the irony of collapsed walls left to deteriorate and be replaced by barbed wire fencing … While the much more ancient stone walls of Edin’s Hall Broch itself were still standing well …Once we started looking at walls with these eyes, we saw a great deal that was both impressive and beautiful – and quite a lot that was sad. You cannot but be struck by the beauty of the wallflowers growing in the walls on Lindisfarne …Nor the mossy walls we found when on holiday near Lochgoilhead.  I am overgrown with insidious ivy …And – oh my goodness – how I love to see the willowherb growing in the walls along the East-Coast railway line …But these are the beginnings of damage. A young shoot breaking through the wall …Puts down strong roots …Without doubt a broken wall is an evocative sight, adding strongly to this picture of desolation and damp and mist in Scotland.  I am a desolate wall, accumulator of lichen …But a broken wall isn’t just picturesque – it can be downright dangerous. This is the wall separating the East-Coast Railway line from our local footpath – now, just think of the speed those trains travel! Why a hop, skip and a jump and I’d be over. I am unrepaired; men neglect me at their own risk …I was intrigued to see the anatomy of a good wall laid so clearly bare when walking on Lindisfarne recently …You can be sure that this hole (also on Holy Island) will be repaired properly. (I have to admit to being fascinated by this hole – what on earth caused it?  It’s very rare for a well-built wall to collapse like this.  I can only think a car drove into it.)Once – just once – we happened upon somebody repairing a wall (up near St Abbs).  This man deserves every accolade because it was a miserable day to be out working … After all, there is so much in a good wall to admire – and intrigue.  Can you see the faint line of stones in the centre of the wall sloping down to the left?  I can’t explain this …Sometimes falling render reveals old secrets, little unsuspected doorways …And even unconcealed doors in walls have a special lure …This door is set in the wall which surrounds the local Paxton estate …And walls of that size are in themselves a source of wonder – all that labour! We had to stop and admire the colour of the worn sandstone …At one point there must have been a rather fine entrance here. Just look at that worked stone at the top of the wall on the left!Repairs vary – the best are surprisingly successful (aesthetically as well practically). Just like this large brick patch   …Even painted walls have their beauty too. Every lump and bump is enhanced …And what a wall can do for a garden! This is Priorwood, in Melrose. These gardens nestle under the more famous Abbey, and my photo on a dull day doesn’t really do justice to them. But they are wonderful – and this large backdrop of a wall frames them perfectly  …Then I found myself in London, walking round Walthamstow, with walls on my mind. Oh, the variety of these little walls! All the houses have similar mouldings, porticos and bay windows – but the front walls!Just look at the creativity here!And here!So much personality expressed in just a little suburban wall!You’d think I’d have had my fill by now, but an unexpected birthday present last year opened my eyes to yet another aspect of walls – political walls … This is a fascinating book – I had no idea that so many countries had built – and were building – walls.  My business is to divide things, my duty to protect. It’s shocking – but I’m not going to dwell on it right now …I’m coming back to where I started – our home, and the walls around us. Because right there – on the boundary between our gardens and the next door farm – are some fascinating remnants of when this farm was a grander affair – coping stones.  There are only a few odd ones left now, and when these buildings were converted, they were shoved higgledy-piggledy amid whatever stone the builders could find.  Not very elegant, but a powerful reminder of what labour used to be.  These coping stones are rounded and would have been worked with the simplest of tools. Makes you think …My business is to divide things: the green ribbons Of grass from the streams of macadam …

All quotes from Kevin Crossley-Holland’s poem, The Wall.

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Northumbrian Rock Art

Northumberland is full of secrets!  We’d lived here awhile before somebody mentioned the rock art to us.  Apparently, there were some rock carvings, just off the road to Lowick, not far away from us.  We didn’t think very much of it, and then one day we sort of happened upon the spot.  There’s no sign on the road that something momentous is just off it – only evidence of a track, the indentations in the undergrowth left by people walking off the road, into the little wood.entrance to Roughting Linn gladeFollow the track then, and there you are, in the grove – a lump of sandstone, with heather. moss and foxgloves growing on the mound and about.  This is Roughting Linn.Roughting Linn stonesLook carefully, through the lichen, and you will see the carvings.Roughting Linn rock carvingsThese photos above were all taken when we revisited the site last week.  And they do not do justice to the carvings – a summery day is not the time to look for rock art!  You need the shadows of evening or autumn.

Our first visit was in October 2011 and the photographs we took then show the carvings much more clearly.Roughting Linn carvingsRoughting Linn carvings 2They are extraordinarily mysterious and fascinating.  What are they and why?  Who did them?  How were they made?  When were they made?

Lots of questions and there are no answers.

What puzzled me most about the Roughting Linn carvings after our first visit was why somebody had felt so strongly about this particular place that they had wanted to enhance the stone with these carvings.

Of course, we see the site quite differently from how our ancestors did.  These rhododendron bushes – modern imports – are a clear reminder that localities change.  The greenness adds to the mystery of the place for us, but the Ordnance Survey map shows there was a small hill fort here – something you’re quite unaware of now because of the trees and shrubs.undergrowth around Roughting LinnIt’s the small waterfall nearby that is thought to hold the answer as to why our ancestors wanted to record their art on this stone – a strange, mysterious and magical place.

Again, you step just off the track into a green world as the path steps down steeply to the stream.path to waterfallWet, muddy and very slippery – we both ended up on our bottoms several times as we went down.uprooted treeNot as old as the rock art perhaps, but people have wanted to record their presence here for many years.graffittied treeA small cave just off the path adds to the feeling of mystery here.small cave near waterfallFirst glimpse of the waterfall.First glimpse of waterfallYou cannot but approach with the feeling that you are in a special place.  Archaeologists and theologians speak of the liminal: where places are “thin”, where the “other” is more present than elsewhere.  Roughting Linn waterfallThe twisted corpse of a tree – it is as though the very trees are watching guardians of this place.twisted corpse of a treeBack to where we had parked the car nearby, and we found this on the wall.  An offering to the gods of the place?sheep's head watching usStan Beckensall was the man responsible for the serious recording of these rock art carvings.  A local teacher, he became fascinated with them, and has pushed for their appreciation and conservation over many years.  The Northumbrian Rock Art website, set up under the aegis of Newcastle University with an AHRC grant, consolidated his hard work.  You can read therein his assessment of the Roughting Linn rock art.

Roughting Linn is perhaps the best known and most easily accessed of the local rock art sites.  But we were lucky enough to enjoy a walk with Ron Shaw up Chatton Hill recently to find more rock art.  Ron is most knowledgeable about this area, having devised the St Cuthbert’s Way path when working as a tourism officer in Wooler.

We set out on a gentle trek up Chatton Hill through beautiful grasslands.  It is credit to the farmer that this site is accessible and well-managed (as recorded in this BBC article).Ron and Stephen climbing Chatton hillLooking back over the gentle incline to where we had parked the car (the small white speck on the road).Looking back to parked carWe’ve got a worried sheepy audience – you can sense them wondering why these people are in their fields and heading their way?sheep watching us warilyAah – we’re after the rock art on the brow of the hill.  It takes a while to find it – there’s plenty of sandstone slabs about, and it could be any one of them.   Sadly, it’s not unusual to find examples of modern graffiti.modern graffiti on Chatton HillBut find it we do, and here is my photograph of the find with the magnificence of Northumbrian skies and the Cheviots in the distance.Chatton hill rock carvingsThere’s time for photography and the recording of the triumph of finding the specific stone.Ron and Stephen taking photographsHowever, we encountered the same problems we’d had at Roughting Linn: the light of a summer’s day (even if overcast) is not conducive to good rock art photographs.  So Shirley, Ron’s wife, has most generously allowed me to reproduce her photos of the same site, (both taken in the early spring, but on different years – you can see the snow of the Cheviots in the lower photo).  These are great photos that do full justice to the site, and allow you to capture the sense of awe our ancestors may have felt on top of a glorious Northumberland hill.Chatton Park Hill 05Chatton Park Hill 08We continued Ron watching Stephen aheadWe’re now looking for Ketley Crag which Ron tells us is somewhere on this hillside, but since he was last there the bracken has completely taken over.  We spent quite a while ploughing  through the bracken from sandstone slab to sandstone slab, but no luck.  The Ketley Crag is not for viewing on this trip!View over bracken to the CheviotsLuckily, Shirley is able to help out again, and here are her photos of the Ketley Crag rock art, taken in the very early spring.Kettley Crag rock shelter 03Kettley Crag rock shelter 01It’s quite different from both the other rock art examples I’ve explored in this blog, sitting as it does under a protruding rock, on the side of a hill.  Undoubtedly a beautiful place, but liminal, awe….no, neither of those descriptions seem to match this spot.  But then, I haven’t actually seen it in person – perhaps if I did, I would “get it”.  Definitely a trip for another day – probably in the autumn when the bracken has died back and the light is softer.  For now I’ve got to settle for these fine photos and what the Northumberland Rock Art database has to say on Ketley Crag.Kettley Crag outlook westThese places leave you silent.  The mystery, the wondering, together with the magnificence of the Northumbrian landscape – what did these artists want to tell us?

(Many thanks to Shirley and Ron Shaw for the use of their photographs and a wonderful guided walk.)