Thursday 2 April 2015

Magical Moorlands

I read this on my Kindle, so there's no cover to
admire, but I could resist including this picture
of the 'real' book.
I don’t ever remember learning about moors when I did ‘A’ level geography at school. Glaciation, yes. Vulcanicity, yes. Limestone scenery, yes. But moors, no. Like Hartley’s past, they are a foreign country, and the little knowledge I do have has been acquired through novels – all the usual suspects, like The Secret Garden, Jamaica Inn, Wuthering Heights and Hound of the Baskervilles. I wrote about them back in 2012, prompted by a walk round Warwickshire Moor, one of our local ‘wildspots’ here in Tamworth.

Actually, the name is a misnomer on two counts. Firstly, because we’re in Staffordshire, although half the town (including this patch of land) was once in Warwickshire. Secondly, the terrain doesn’t fit with my notion of a moor at all, and now, thanks to William Atkins’ The Moor: Lives Landscape Literature, I know it’s not. The north of the county has its moorland area (which merits only the briefest of mentions from Atkins), but here in the south we’re not nearly high enough to qualify for the term. Like ‘The Moors’ of Atkins’ childhood, in Bishop’s Waltham, our Moor may be a remnant of a much larger wild area, but it is not, and never has been a proper moor. 
A pool hidden among the dead reeds, rushes and grasses at Warwickshire
Moor  looked a little bleak when I took this earlier in the year, even
though it was a sunny  day - but it's not really a moor.
Anyway, the so-called moors of his childhood gave Atkins a lifelong passion for moorlands, and in this book he travels through some of England’s most inhospitable and inaccessible places. He journeys from Bodmin, through Exmoor and Dartmoor, northwards to Saddleworth, the Calder Valley, the area around Haworth, the North York Moors, Alston, and on into Northumbria. 

Along the way he meets the people who live, work and play in these isolated areas: solders, gamekeepers, landowners, conservationists, birdwatchers, poets, farmers, prisoners, vicars, walkers and a host of others. He recounts tales of characters from the past – murderers and their victims, preachers, teachers, librarians, topographers, naturalists, historians, scholars, monks, miners, men of vision convinced that with the right techniques land could be brought into productive and profitable use, and men who tried (and failed) to scratch a living from the poor moorland soils. 

And, of course, Atkins pays tribute to moorland writers. He seeks out places that inspired poets like Ted Hughes and WH Auden, and novelists like the Brontes, Henry Williamson, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle, and researches local legends that might have influenced them. 

I was surprised to see how many of the people he writes about are ‘loners’, and there’s a thread running through the book, showing how the isolated moors (once regarded as barren waste lands) have always attracted people seeking solitude, and provided shelter for eccentrics, outcasts and fugitives. Some were pioneers who thought they could carve a fresh future for themselves. Others, perhaps more akin to the early Christian hermits who dwelt in deserts or on rocky crags in the ocean, wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of the world for a place where man can contemplate (or confront) his own nature and his place in the universe.

Dartmoor, in Devon, showing a view up the River Meavy towards
Sharpitor and  Leather Tordd. (Courtesy of Wikipedia).
Alongside the anecdotes about people there’s a quirky collection of facts about the geology and history of moorlands, with stories about buildings, communities, and social customs, and traditions like Beating the Bounds. Take Dartmoor Prison: everyone knows it originally held French prisoners of war in the early 19th century. But some 20 years before that jail founder Thomas Tyrwhitt tried to establish a settlement there, only no-one wanted to settle in such a cold, wet, isolated spot where nothing would grow! However in 1805, realising that jails and prison hulks were jam-packed with POWs, he saw a chance to make good his losses by building a jail… And the rest, as they say, is history. 

But the book’s real strength – and what makes it so special – lies is the way Atkins uses sight, sound, smell, touch, and even taste to describe the landscapes he passes through. Writing about Bodmin Moor, for example, he tells us: 

The wind up here was an assault: in the bracken it sang rich and loud, in the grass it was a piping; between the boulders a hollow roar; it was a thousand voices and one, and each buffet hooted across my ears like a blast across the mouth of a bottle. 

And a little further on he says you’ll exhaust yourself trying to name the colours: 

Beyond the white-grey of the moss-spotted clitter, the moor sank through chartreuse slopes, down to the emerald intake of Penhale Farm, to a motley lowland of pale lime dashed with tawny and dun and fawn, and then the intricate tapestry of purple moor-grass, cotton-grass, mat-grass, heather, moss and lichens; chamois, bronze, taupe, walnut – a hennaed, mouldering, rusting vastness shot with saffron, carmine and topaz, with swathes of reflectivity that shimmered like raffia in the low sun. 

Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Imagine those colours as embroidery threads, or a crocheted blanket, or scraps of tweed fabric waiting to be stitched into a quilt…  

And his explanations of moorland geology have an economy of language that is almost poetic, with the data compressed into very few words, just as mud and plants were compressed into layers of rock – and is certainly easier to read and understand than any textbook. Here, talking about coalmining on Alston Moor, he says: 

Roll back the grass and peat, and the hillsides would show their striped profiles: shale/sandstone/limestone/coal – each laid down as successive oceans filled and lingered and drained mud and sand becoming shale and sandstone, vegetation becoming coal, the bones of sea creatures tamping into limestone. 

Burrator Reservoir, on Dartmoor, was created to provide water for
Plymouth, and woods were planted around it to stabilise the land.
It looks as if it's been there for ever, and is a brilliant example of
the way men have changed a moorland landscape.
Atkins is as much obsessed by words as he is with the moors themselves, and I was fascinated to discover that there’s a whole language connected with every aspect of this particular landscape. It seems there is precisely the right word to describe every dip and hollow, every rise and slope, every bit of rock, from near microscopic particles to gigantic boulders. There are words for weather conditions, different types of water, soils and vegetation. English is a wonderful language, with a wealth of words to describe people, objects, places, emotions, situations, but just imagine the richness of having so many words devoted to one type of landscape, enabling you to say exactly what you mean.  

It turns out that the moor of Atkins’ childhood is really a fen, and the adjoining wood is actually a swamped wood, known as a carr. And, in case you wonder, a fen and a moor are both boggy and peaty, but a fen’s wetness comes from underground springs, while a moor’s wetness is mainly from rain. “Fenland is saturated from below, moorland from above,” he explains. Fens, like marshes, are usually low-lying, while true moorland can be found only at high altitudes, where there is heavy rainfall. 

Sometimes it’s difficult to grasp the nuances of the terminology: flaughts, for example, are sods of turf, while peats are obtained from a peat hole, but I’m not sure I understand the difference. 

Then there is growan, which is a fine quartz grit - ‘granite’s midway state of degradation from solid stone to powdery kaolin’.  Who knew there was a word to describe such a transformation (I didn’t even know kaolin clay comes from granite)! And what about clitter, the expanse of boulders that rings the summit of every tor. And there are deep griffs, and isolated hags, and cloughs, and curricks… And I particularly like his account of a névé:

The snow remained along the sunken paths and along cloughs and brooks and the footings of walls; it’s surface inch had frozen and refrozen and hardened to a brittle shell. There was a word for this sort of partially melted and refrozen snow – névé, from the Swiss French for glacier

This, apparently, is a grouse, a game bird bred to be shot.
(Pic courtesy of Tom Marshall on the RSPB website)
I must admit that until reading this book I hadn’t realised how much of the moorland landscape has been shaped not just by nature, but by man. Mining, quarrying, farming, military activities, drainage schemes and reservoirs have all left their mark. And grouse moors, apparently, are almost entirely man-made, with the birds and the heather they eat creating what is effectively a monoculture – in the past other species were wiped out to safeguard the grouse. These days, according to Atkins, the land is better managed, and many predators are protected. 

But here, and elsewhere, he considers the difficulty of trying to preserve the environment whilst meeting the conflicting demands of those who use the moors – a tricky task, since the various user groups often have divergent views and interests.

One of the joys of a book like this is the moment of recognition, when a scene matches a memory from your own past, or you come across a place you’ve been to. Parts of Dartmoor I know, and I’ve visited Princetown, where the prison is, and Buckfast Abbey, so I loved that chapter. And Atkins’ description of the long vanished ‘Golf Balls’ at the Fylingdale early warning station brought to mind a holiday in the area many years ago, when the strange structures loomed eerily out of the mist as I drove across the North York Moors.

But it was his account of peat cutting which resonated most strongly, and that description of the colours on Bodmin Moor, reminding me of childhood holidays up in the hills of Donegal, where my grandparents lived. It may not have been a moorland, but the landscape was very similar, and I can remember going to places where peat was cut, for fuel for fires. I think the cut blocks were just referred as turfs, or turves - definitely not flaughts or peats!  The land was very wet, and there were seas of purple heather blowing in the wind, and great cushions of moss, in bright greens and ruby reds, and something we called bog cotton, though that may not have been its proper name. And the white quartz stones in the streams that rushed down from the higher slopes were all stained rusty brown from the peat. 



  1. Sounds like a fascinating book!

    1. I really enjoyed it Harriet - especially the bits about moorland words!

  2. Would you be interested in a rejigged version being included in Shiny New Books? Email me at drharrietd [at] gmail [dot] com if you like.

  3. You make this sound wonderful. I'm a seaside girl at heart, but being Cornish I love moorland too. The man of the house spent some of his childhood on Dartmoor, because his father was a prison officer at, and you have me thinking he would love this too and it would make a lovely birthday gift ..,.

    1. You're lucky Jane, because you've got the best of both worlds, seaside and moors. The details about the early days of the prison are amazing. The conditions were unimaginably horrendous - if you read it in a novel you'd think it was exaggerated.

  4. I loved this review, thank-you. It won't do Mr Atkins much good, but I've ordered it from the library. To tell you the truth I read a lot of 'nature' books recommended by bloggers and far too many of them are mostly about the author not the landscape and far too many of the authors are over-privileged people who are free to go where they like when they like. Don't I sound mean and nasty? Anyway I can tell 'The Moor' is not one of those and I'm really looking forward to reading it, although not being one of the above over-privileged, and living in Rutland, I shan't be visiting a moor any time soon.

    1. Thank you Noney - I do hope you enjoy it. He didn't come across as being over privileged, and this wasn't like one of those nature/travel TV programmes performed by celebrities, with an accompanying expensive, picture-heavy coffee-table book. I thought Atkins' passion for moorland landscapes shines through very clearly. After the introduction where, he writes about 'the moorlands' of his childhood, and how that influenced him, the book really is about the areas he passes through, and the people he meets, with snippets of history, geology, folklore and goodness knows what else thrown in. There's probably more of me in my review than there is him in his book, if that makes sense!

  5. Am so glad I've stumbled across another blogger who has read this book! We live in the lee of the Kinder plateau and spend almost every weekend up on the moor climbing and walking (with the obligatory trip to the pub afterwards of course) so moorland is a landscape I feel passionately about and think can be breathtakingly beautiful. I ended up disappointed that Atkins devoted so much of his time to the other places and largely skipped over my neck of the woods which is so vast (apart from the obligatory Saddlworth mention of course)....I thought that familiarity with the places he visited was key to getting the fullest out of the book so admire you for still getting full enjoyment out of it. Although I've visited a few of the moors he ambles through the descriptions became a little repetitive after a while.....though I suppose that's the nature of the landscape!
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts :) It'll definitely be one I give another go in future.

    1. Sorry for the belated response to your comment. Living in the Midlands, I was disappointed that he more or less ignored the Staffordshire and Derbyshire moorlands. I do wonder if people who live in moorland areas don't need to read about them, because they can enjoy the real thing.

  6. This sounds fascinating! I would love to go to England and walk the moors, which I know only from literature. Wuthering Heights is my favorite (or one of) book!

    1. Another late response from me! Kat, I think our view of landscapes is often shaped by literature - that's all we have to go on if it's somewhere we've never visited.