Darius Bashara Out of Focus.jpg

County Durham

Philip Rush

On our way to County Durham, we stopped at Dunsop Bridge in Bowland. Dunsop Bridge is a small village with a Catholic Primary School, a Catholic church dedicated to St Hubert, and some charming houses rather scattered over the low hillsides in the fashion of Norse settlements. We were told that the church had been built on the proceeds of a winning bet on the Derby. We walked up the river, which is a tributary of the Ribble, and back. We turned around after we had watched a dipper curtseying from a rock in the way that robins curtsey from fence poles, though perhaps more elaborately, and then performing a low-altitude flying feat along the crest of the river’s waves back towards the bridge and the village named after it. The silver jewels of an autumn dewfall remained on the long grass in the fields, even though it was approaching midday.

​Two hours farther north, Burnhope Seat is at the top of a pathless, featureless bog, with peat-holes and hidden ghylls. Ski-slope equipment has been erected on the hillside. It seems abandoned. Ski equipment out of season always seems abandoned. Nevertheless, on a hillside such as this, not far from the lead-mines which so enchanted Auden as a boy, such installations carry the indelible overtones of derelict mining machinery.​

On the hillside were a few incomplete stone walls, and sheep. I can imagine that is easy to become a connoisseur of sheep droppings. They are far from identical, even on a fell such as this where the grass is meagre. Some are a military khaki, some are the brown of burnt siena and others are as black as the kind of pigment Anish Kapoor must use to create the extraordinary effects achieved by his sculpture. To stare into the blacks of some of these droppings is to stare into the pupil of eternity, a pupil which takes but does not give back. Some droppings are loose, like the eggs of some small and extinct dinosaur whose habitat once this was, while others are conglomerate, and remind me of the soaps I sometimes encounter in the bathrooms of friends and acquaintances whose parsimony leads them to mould the last unhelpful slither of a bar of soap on to the side of a new one, until the whole caboodle is a collage of soaps each of a different vintage. Sometimes many droppings are to be found in one place, and these might be accompanied by coprophilous fungi which on this hillside were pale and etiolated; elsewhere I encountered solitary deposits. It is hard to infer from such evidence the behaviour of ruminants in this part of the world.​

The hillside was steep at the base and flat at the top, so there was no hint at the start of the walk of the summit or of its location. Our guidebook described very precisely a route to be taken from a specific milestone, and a map was appended to the description which showed the milestone unequivocally. Having located the milestone, we were unable to find even a crossing of the fence let alone any suggestion of a route to the summit. Instead we moved farther along the road until we encountered a stile and a sign forbidding dogs. I took a bearing from the large-scale walkers’ OS map we were carrying and we followed that bearing up steep, marshy slopes, across peat sags, and around the worst of the bogs. We learned to avoid or to treat with great caution land which was red with spindly grass, to tread warily if at all on the saturated greens of the sphagnum cushions which looked so inviting, and to warn one another of the existence of ‘shake holes’ which seemed to be bottomless pits of slime. Sometimes we would stand on ground we thought secure and firm only to hear, clear and musical, the sound of running water beneath our feet. Squadrons of red grouse flew away from us, making that peeved call they are known for. A pair of mice caught my eye: in a corner of peat they had constructed a tunnelled den, some tunnels though the black earth, some though the grassy tussocks, and some in the open air. We had seen already a kestrel patrolling. Large obnoxious caterpillars were comatose here and here on the bog-grass. Less frequent than sheep dung were deposits of grouse droppings, which look like cigarette butts or ‘mégots’ from a philosopher’s cigarillo. Les douces mégots.

When we reached the flat morass of the summit and could see stretching off in two directions the long fence which follows the border between Yorkshire and County Durham, the OS trig point which marks the highest point of County Durham was conspicuous. The bog at the summit outdid all those on the approach: we focused on the next step in front of us, manoeuvred around bog-pools and quagmires, and when we looked up we found the obelisk farther away and in an unexpected direction. We were forced to cross the wire fence three times, and to retrace our steps more than once. We reached the top, after at least five-and-twenty minutes of such work, and it was extraordinary: the golden light of sunset; the enormous circle of hills at whose hub we stood; the long views across Teesdale and east towards the sea.

Once in a blue moon
is a perfect companion.

Philip Rush lives in Stroud and runs the Yew Tree Press https://www.yewtreepress.co.uk/ He has spent 2020 coping with the international emergency by trying to visit the highest place in each of the forty traditional English counties, the County Tops. This haibun was written following his climb in County Durham