Just because you know a place it doesn’t mean it will ever feel the same twice. Today our walk takes me back in time, to memories of sitting in a cottage windowsill and watching snow fall, memories of daring dips in a chilled lake, memories of late night card games, days in front of the fire, walks into Martindale, warm, simple dinners shared with friends.
I used to come and stay in a cottage in Sandwick back in the 1990s, both for pleasure and for work – and it was during a long stay, while I was researching for the Rough Guide to England, that I decided to move from Manchester to the Lake District. I remember the moment, and the clarity of the decision, vividly. Today, I’m transported back in time, as the place is much the same: the enormous sycamore towering above the path, the beck flowing to the lake, and the same stand of larches whose canopies shaded that winter sky more than twenty years ago.
As we follow the lakeside path below Hallin Fell, I’m walking in and out of memories, my footfall spanning two centuries. It’s a bit of a challenge to bring my attention back to the moment but walking with the sun on my back, and the sound of the lake’s water lapping, pulls me out of my thoughts. It’s still February but we’re warm, very warm, and the early spring warmth has brought out blossoms. Their scent travels on the air and I press my nose up against the delicate flowers, their five white petals radiating from hair-thin stamens carrying yellow pollen, marvelling at the way such a small thing can fill so much air with the essence of itself.
The path enters into the woods, and the light is a joy, picking out moss and the bare branches of trees. Most of the trees are oak, with birches beginning to colonise some of the open areas of the woodland, and hazels dotted around – their catkins are a soft, lime green. There is one promontory that’s covered in Scots Pines – I remember it well, from all those years ago, just beyond a stand of old beech trees. Rob and I linger here, drawn by the light in the red bark of the trees. I lean against one of the pines, sun in my face, sun on its bark, and in the warm air between us there’s a connection, the smell of pine and sun and skin and birdsong. I breathe it in.
We leave the woods to walk up to the summit of Hallin Fell and it’s so warm I have to take my top off. This is the heat of a mild April, and it feels very strange to feel it in February. Once on the top, though, the wind picks up and throws its chilly self at us. This is a small-ish fell but a rewarding one for views, looking as it does over Ullswater to Gowbarrow and the Mells, north to the flatter lands around Penrith, and across to the High Street. Southwards, the land is spread in a series of valleys, peaks and tongues: a classic glacial scene, overlaid with a patchwork of stone walls and a scattering of old slate-rooved buildings.
It’s a scene that’s quintessentially ‘Lakeland’, and may still look the same in a hundred years, but the way the land is managed has changed. Originally almost all of the dwellings here would have had small parcels of land and some livestock connected to them; today there are many fewer working farms, each one using a much larger portion of land. Land use will continue to change, and at the moment things are at a height of unpredictability with Brexit imminent and government plans to overhaul the system of agri-environment schemes – these provide funds for farmers in recognition of their provision of ‘public goods’ which include enriching habitats and biodiversity, carbon storage and water quality (you can find out more about that here, bearing in mind that policy and ideas are in a state of flux, so this link may become outdated!).
No-one is certain just how things will work out, whether hill farming in its current state will be economically viable going forward, and, if it isn’t, what changes will be needed to ensure the uplands continue as a living, working landscape in which environmental condition improves. We’ll be discussing hill farming in more depth in August, by which time government policies may be clearer – even if they’re not, we’re looking forward to talking to farmers we already know, and others we’ve yet to meet, and learning more about progressive thinking about farming in the hills.