Heather-Heathland

Small copper Sept 21

Why upon this blasted heath you stop our way with such prophetic greeting? – William Shakespeare

Heather: the plant of spaciousness. Lonely moors, winding roads and harsh weather bind to it. It crept into our place names (Heathfield, Hothfield) and leapt into our ancestors’ lives, serving as brooms, bedding or roofing thatch. It is oddly ambiguous to us: considered good luck in Scotland, at least in its rare white morph, and a reminder of bloodstains in Germany. 

It needs us – like Eurasian grasslands, it is a habitat made by people interacting with the land over thousands of years, and the collapse of traditional industries like turf cutting imperilled it to invasions of birch. But it also needs us not to build upon it, overstock sheep, or set fire to it with BBQs. Conservation of heathland is basically replicating what the ancients inadvertently did to it while scratching a living.

Heather is not everywhere, but in parts of the North, you could be forgiven for wondering if it is.

Northumberland Sept 21

Northumberland National Park – northern moor, wild and free. Or not; sadly, that’s another thread in heather’s paradox. These beautiful hillsides are an industrial-scale red grouse production factory, the source of so much friction between conservationists, gamekeepers and rewilding advocates. 

I’m more familiar with southern heath. Its fragmented lowland remnants look unforgiving, but are abuzz with tough, magical wildlife. Surrey and Dorset have smooth snakes and sand lizards; the East Anglian Brecks have their stone curlews and military orchids. And there’s a bit of it on the north Norfolk coast, too, in the unusual condition – for East Anglia – of being on a hill.

Beeston Regis2 Sept 21

But when is a hill not a hill? The chalk dome that became the North Downs was made the conventional way; it was forced upwards by the same collision of the Eurasian and African plates that raised the Alps. But the ridge under this north Norfolk heathland – here dominated by bracken – is a present from the Pleistocene ice. It’s old glacial moraine, stacked up to hundreds of feet. 

Beeston Regis1 Sept 21

Poor, sandy soils: rich for heather and gorse, its frequent companion. Of course, if they really were rich in an agricultural sense, they would be far poorer in heathland wildlife.

Let’s just call heather the topsy-turvy type.

 

 

Roots of the Mountain

Huge areas of England are hollow. Hard to believe, looking across mountains capped with snow and heather, lined with dry walls and wandered by idling sheep. But there is so much more beneath.

York Dales3 Mar 19

Britain is, for its size, the most geologically diverse area in the world. We have collapsed volcanoes, cliffs that crumble amongst dinosaur bones, and chalky hills that support an incredible diversity of flowers. Beneath it all, a new and exotic landscape awaits.

Blue John Cave1 Mar 19

The Pennines are England’s backbone, running from Derbyshire up to the Tyne Gap. But like real bones, they are not solid. Water has scarred them, carved them, painted them with ghosts of lost rivers on the ceilings of caves.

Creswell River in the roof2

Derbyshire has a sparkle about the edges. It is almost the only place in the world where Blue John – a type of fluorite – occurs. Some is still mined and turned into jewellery, but other specimens are left in the rock for visitors to ponder.

Blue John2 Mar 19

It is old, very old. It was here when the abbeys of Yorkshire were full of human life.

Abbey2 Mar 19

It will remain here as water whittles the hills afresh.

Asgarth Mar 19

A quiet witness, like the snow that is transient in the Dales.

Dales1 Mar 19