My Cultures Converge in Cumbria

I am in Cumbria experiencing a coming together of my two personal cultures whilst the Tour de France takes place in Britain, passing a few miles from where I am staying with friends when the riders traverse the daunting Buttertubs Pass in Yorkshire.

Waiting for the Tour to start

Waiting for the Tour to start

The locals in Yorkshire and Cumbria have embraced Le Tour warmly, bunting and bicycles painted a bright yellow adorn many houses.   A flock of sheep in fields near Leeds were even sprayed le Tour yellow. I meet people who have camped out in the overnight rain, then risen at 6am and hiked or biked to see the race. My friends’ 75 year old neighbour drove up to the Buttertubs Pass and slept in his car overnight. Talk about positive aging.   Once at the roadside the spectators have about a five hour wait before the racers speed past in seconds.   The BBC reported that over a million people watched on the first day’s route in all, about 10,000 in the hills where we positioned ourselves. It is thrilling and worth the journey and the wait.

The peleton passes

The peleton passes

I am impressed by the Yorkshire police – cheerful, friendly British bobbies who mix happily with the crowd and give out stickers to children. They exemplify all that is best about local policing. Then I am surprised and oddly moved to see French gendarmes patrol the race on motorcycles. This pleases me, to see officers from my home and adopted lands working together. I reflect on all the recent drives to move Europeans further apart, the assent of the UKIP anti-immigration party in the UK, the Swiss anti-immigration vote, the rising popularity of the Front National in France, and my heart is warmed to see instead an image of European integration.

This, for me, is how it should be. The peoples of different countries bringing as much collaboration and harmony as they can to our world.

The scenery is, of course, breath-taking here. Better writers than I have described the awe inspiring beauty of the Cumbrian fells and Yorkshire Dales. They are expansive, and the views change between wild moorland, vast hill ranges, valleys and river dells. I imagine that walking these hills bisected by their light grey dry-stone walls and peppered with stone field houses and black-faced Swaledale sheep is a form of moving meditation. My friends point out the imposing hills around us – Wild Boar Fell, the Howgills, the Pennines.

Their cottage is an inherited property, shared by all the remaining family. Their mother was an artist, their father a history teacher. It is quaint and charmingly full of their mother’s paintings and their father’s archaeological and natural finds – rusty agricultural tools, old glass bottles and interestingly patterned rocks worn smooth by the local rivers. This valley is the basin of the River Eden, and we joke that their abundant flowers around the cottage are the Garden of Eden.

The Lesser Spotted Orchid

The Lesser Spotted Orchid

We take several walks, one through the Smardale Gill Nature Reserve by the cheekily named Scandal Beck in which white clawed crayfish breed. This is a delight as the pathway is bordered by wild orchids and we manage to find the lesser spotted and fragrant orchids amongst the other wild flowers like the poor Melancholy Thistle.

A lime kiln

A lime kiln

Along the path we also see large lime kilns where local limestone rock was melted to extract burnt lime, or quicklime, for the fields and for cement making. You can see smaller versions of these stone kilns on the hillsides where farmers extracted the lime to nurture their fields in centuries past. That walk ends with lunch in a pub that has not sold alcohol for over a hundred years, since the landlord fell and drowned when helping a drunken customer home. We can choose from Victorian Lemonade, Ginger Beer, Dandelion & Burdock, and Orange Jigger as well as the usual soft drinks.

 

The thousand year old Loki stone

The thousand year old Loki stone

The town I stay in, Kirkby Stephen, has an interesting old church from which the town gets its name, Kirk-by meaning the place with a church (kirk). At the entrance to the church grounds is the arched colonnade of the market square, a classic doorway to the church grounds.

The site has been a place of worship for over a thousand years with various civilisations transforming the building over time.

These include Scandinavian invaders who left behind the ancient Loki stone built into the aisle wall. This stone block shows a shackled, horned man thought to be the Norse God, Loki, an early Christian symbol of the Devil. This is only stone of its kind in Britain.

I confess I like the look of Loki and am yet again touched by how art can reach across centuries.

Long Meg

Long Meg

A special day is spent walking to see Long Meg and her Daughters. Meg’s 68 ‘daughters’ are a wide Neolithic stone circle, aligned through Meg with the winter sunset.   Long Meg is a towering 12 foot/3.6 metre monolith standing apart from her daughters, looking on silently and severely.   She is adorned with mystical, undeciphered markings of spirals, cup and ring symbols and, incredibly, her four corners point to the compass points.

The stone circle

The stone circle

This is the third largest stone circle in Britain after Stonehenge and Castlerigg. Legend tells that the stones are ‘countless’ and one can never count them to the same number twice. I smile when official guide books refer to 69 stones including Meg, and other websites say there are 58 or 59. Does the old magic still work, then?  I envision those ancient stone and bronze age people somehow transporting these huge stones to this hillside 4,500 years ago, and ask what countless others, including Wordsworth, have also wondered – how and why did they do so? No one knows for sure but the planetary alignments speak of ritual. I picture them performing their rites here and reflect on mankind’s deepest need to have spiritual relationships.

Modern men are still attracted to the site and we see small, private offerings left under Long Meg, a human connection along a long, long line of time.

I consider how people of this land have formed a close relationship with the earth and its stones since time immemorial. I think of the brockham stone houses in the villages, the winding dry-stone walls, the limestone kilns, the cairns and standing stones on the hill tops, the stone field houses and barns, the collection of rocks in our garden. From Long Meg and her daughters over four thousand years ago to the present day, Cumbrians have been connected to the stone around them. I am left with the word harmony playing again through my mind.

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Speak Thou, whose massy strength and stature scorn / The power of years – pre-eminent, and placed /Apart, to overlook the circle vast.   /  Speak Giant-mother! tell it to the Morn, / While she dispels the cumbrous shades of night;  / Let the Moon hear, emerging from a cloud,  / At whose behest uprose on British ground  / That Sisterhood in hieroglyphic round  / Forth-shadowing, some have deemed the infinite /The inviolable God that tames the proud.       

William Wordsworth 1822

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Silhouettes

 

 

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It’s a bird not a smudge

 

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The Eden

 

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Thwaite village

 

The classic dry-stone wall structure, wide base stones, long through stones for stability, tapering up to sharp points to deter escaping sheep.

The classic dry-stone wall structure, wide base stones, long through stones for stability, tapering up to sharp points to deter escaping sheep.

 

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A field house on the fell

 

 

 

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