January 1st, 2020
“The first day of January: a new year, a new decade, and here we are beneath a sky that’s a drift of racing clouds, wind blowing at us from the Scafell massif. Despite the cold and nagging wind, I’m sweating: we’ve been walking steadily uphill for just over an hour. There is only the wind for noise, and the echoes of falling of water in rocky gullies all around us. We’ve just passed Sty Head Tarn and stand at the pass, mesmerized by the play of clouds across the fells.
“Around Ill Crag thin and boisterous clouds race across the black face of the fell. There’s an illusion that the fell is making shadows of itself against the sky, repeating its form in ever deeper shades of black. In reality, there are several rocky gullies and spurs ranked one behind the other, stretching towards the hulk of Scafell, which is completely hidden. The clouds seem so soft, a fine drape over land, but I know if I were up there I would be bracing myself against the wind, and shivering. Looking in the other direction, down valley to the tarn, a pale sunlight picks out pale greens and a soft slate grey in the water and the stones around it. We consider the scene and imagine birches, hawthorns and hollies around the tarn, a grove of trees hosting families of birds, playing the sound of wind in branches. It could be so.”
It has become a habit of ours to start each new year with a walk, to get out and feel the inevitable wind and wetness of winter. This year our walks come with the purpose of retrieving the temperature sensors we placed in the land a year ago. Each ‘Tiny Tag’ monitor has been making readings every twenty minutes since noon on the January 1st 2019. There are five monitors in total, one at the Under Helm Sycamore, which marks our central point, and the other four placed directly north, east, south and west of the tree. Sprinkling Tarn was the chosen site for Tiny Tag West: we left the little yellow box tucked under a rock and returned with a little trepidation … would it still be there?
“We walk into wind: and with each fresh, cold breath it is as if we’re breathing in the outbreath of the mountain. The constant movement of air and mist and cloud is the life of this high place and even though the light is muted it’s vibrant and vital. Where winter’s slowed growth subdues, the weather and the wind revitalise.
“We’ve arrived at Sprinkling Tarn. The water is a black sheen; and the colour of the land reminds me of a sheep’s eye, the yellow-brown grass like an iris, the black tarn like the pupil. I stand still, in a windless moment, and watch a thick band of pewter-grey cloud unfurling from the higher land, like a tongue, speaking only of wind and ravens. It’s eerie and beautiful all at once.”
We’re relieved to find the TinyTag monitor – almost where we left it. Strangely, it has moved from beneath the rock and sits in plain sight. Whoever found it (given that it was a person and not an animal) we’re thankful that they did not remove it. Rob lifts the monitor to his eye, and sees that the green light is still flashing. The little box is still collecting data. Phew.
We walk back down to our starting point in Seathwaite, marvelling at the rolling clouds, the deep gullies and the falling stream that accompanies us all the way. We even brave the waters, jumping – no, inching ourselves – into a clear cold pool beneath a waterfall. It’s so cold we feel as if someone has stabbed knives into our feet, and transformed our legs to iron, but we’re so quickly in and out that the sensation soon passes and is replaced with a warm, happy glow that rounds the day off nicely.
We return with a working monitor and hearts uplifted from being outside, from the feel of water and the witnessing of shifting clouds. But temperature has been on my mind all the time: the data we have collected will show information from very specific areas but sits in the context of what’s been happening nationally. 2019 has been a year of record breaking high temperatures both in the UK and elsewhere, concluding what the Met Office calls a ‘record breaking decade’.
“It’s a sullen grey day, a ‘nothing’ kind of day that feels like winter’s holding pattern, a pause between rains. There’s the lightest of breezes and the clouds are low, ready to release water. You can tell the weather’s on the change: gusts of wind trouble the trees and send them into a sushing song, then there is silence.”
In dull light, we walked to treefold:centre in Grizedale to recover TinyTag South from among the stumps of felled conifers. It’s a happy coincidence that the treefold, which we placed in Grizedale Forest back in 2017, is almost exactly due south of the Under Helm Sycamore. So our walk to retrieve the monitor took us over very familiar ground. As usual, we found ourselves easily diverted by the complex cushions of moss and the lichen that clings to the trees. The damp climate here is in their favour.
“A wren adds its shrill notes to the come-and-go noise of wind and I am sitting in the shelter of the treefold, enjoying a moment of calm. It doesn’t last – hee come the first drops of rain, and the wind is becoming insistent. We’ll walk back down to the valley and the embrace of trees, with TinyTag South safely tucked into our bag.”
The day started cold and more windy than we’d anticipated for our walk to retrieve TinyTag north. The line that runs due north from the Under Helm Sycamore passes across the flanks of Bannerdale Crags, just above the ruins of a once-busy lead mine above the Glenderamackin River. Back in January 2019 we walked directly to the crags, but this year we wanted to take in the summit of Blencathra and then walk down the backside of the fell.
“Heading up the slopes of Scales Fell I’m pulling cold air in with deep breaths that hurt my lungs – it’s a steep and unforgiving uphill trudge, and requires a lot of effort. I put my head down and just get on with it. I don’t enjoy the angle of the walk, but the effort is always worthwhile. At 650 metres we’ve reached the top of Scale Fell. The sun is out, and the wind is light. We face Blencathra with its rocky sides spread like a skirt, and patches of snow clinging to its north wall. It is so striking, it could be a painting. Looking towards Derwent Water, the distance fades into a hazy spread of mountains and valleys ranked together. In the other direction the sheer rock face of Sharp Edge is glowing a strange, subtle green; it’s sharp as a fin, a harsh slice of land in the midst of fells that roll eastward, yellow and bare.
“On the summit everyone is in high spirits. People have arrived from Halls Fell, from Scale Fell, and from Sharp Edge, and it’s all smiles. The light is phenomenal, picking out the ridge of the mountain’s wide saddle-back top cresting a sea of hills. The feeling of being ‘on top’ is making everyone smile and we all greet each other with grins and superlatives. One man – who asks me to take a picture of him – is rushing back down again to meet his friend who got vertigo and had to turn back from the ascent of Sharp Edge. That is not a ridge to take lightly.”
“The back side of Blencathra is battered by a fierce wind roaring in from the north. It’s a challenge to brace myself against it and I have to keep going to stay warm. The scene is breathtaking: a tarn’s waves solidified in ice, thick banks of snow edging the ridge, and the stones on ‘blue screes’ dusted with hoar frost. Looking back to Blencathra summit and then to Sharp edge shows the real drama that this hill holds – steep drops, harsh rocks, and a capricious wind that can kick you off your feet.”
“It took us a while to find the rock where we’d placed Tiny Tag North. We hadn’t bargained for the fact that all rocks look pretty similar and chastised ourselves for not inspecting photographs from last year before setting out. But we did, eventually, find it and – another sigh of relief – it’s still flashing green. A year ago when we came off the hill in purple evening light, we had the whole project ahead of us, all the canvases, twelve camps, and a long stretch of learning. Now we’re looking back, gathering in the data of temperature, and the data of the heart. There’s a lightness in my steps – perhaps because my bag isn’t heavy, but also because this task is relatively easy, stress free, and I can throw myself wholeheartedly into the pleasure of walking and watching the light and the clouds change across the land.“
We made it up and off Blencathra and back to our parked car in roughly five hours, then drove south to Grasmere to walk to the flanks of Helm Crag and collect the central TinyTag that we’d placed among the branches of the Under Helm Sycamore. On this short walk, the rain set in, smothering the valley in the kind of drizzle that wets you from every side and makes the screes particularly difficult to cross – this is not a route we’d recommend anyone to take. The Sycamore is best seen from the path below!
“This solid tree holds fast against the seasons and now has buds, ready for spring. This single often overlooked sycamore unknowingly sits in the centre of a wide circle, with time and space, and our thoughts and intentions, radiating from its trunk, along with all the unknowns that lie ahead of us. Today we see no peregrines / rain has come in from the north, drawing the curtain of dusk with it.“
January 4th… Tiny Tag East collection
“Sullen day. Cloud heavy over the valley, and a steady drizzle. I am not seeing the valley with first time eyes, it has a familiarity as I’ve been here before, and I am stopping less, instead finding my way into the rhythm of walking and trying to filter out the thoughts in my head: yesterday’s killing of the Iranian military leader and the media’s talk of the threat of a gulf War Three. The news weighs heavy while I stand here with the sound of falling water all around me in a windless place of drizzle and waterfalls, the colour of winter: wet stone and limp grass. At my feet, feathers of a pigeon remain from the kill of a sparrow hawk or peregrine. Around me, mountains spew rocks into the grassy slopes.
“The land feels subdued, somehow bearing the weigh of water that falls as weightless rain. I strain up the wide track, walk around the old quarries, marvel again at the walls bedded into soil, the waterfall wearing away rock, the gaping holes slowly gathering mosses and grass, and the thousands of new trees planted in the protection of plastic tubes, a potential new forest here in this bleak place.
“At Wren Gill I find the TinyTag tucked behind moss, gathering its own mud coating. Clouds engulf us: the air is a wrap of rain. Voles scurry from hole to hole in the long bent grass and the day is the sound of water’s flow. We have the fifth and final tiny tag and its green light is still flashing.
We have recorded temperatures in very precise locations. On the other side of the world, in Australia, temperatures are averaging above 40 degrees celsius, and millions of acres of land are on fire; the catastrophic fires have been raging since September, fanned by hot winds and burning vast swathes of land that has been dried out by years of drought. All eyes are on this unfolding tragedy – but this is one of many fires that have raged in 2019, including fires in California and the Amazon basin. Fires in the arctic regions were also more extensive and prolonged than usual, releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases from the soil and permafrost beneath the trees. General warming across the globe is creating drier conditions, which increase the intensity and spread of fires; the fires, in turn, contribute to further warming through the release of greenhouse gases.
It’s a frightening situation, and reports of the impact of high temperatures can be found anywhere in the world. In August, a funeral was held for Iceland’s first lost glacier. The Tasman Sea has warmed so much entire ecosystems are changing. In December, Moscow recorded its highest temperature since 1886, and in the absence of expected winter conditions resorted to creating fake snow for a New Year’s display. While we were walking in Grizedale on January the 2nd, Norway reported its highest ever January temperature: a reading of 19 degrees celsius, which is 25 degrees higher than the recorded average for this time of year.
Here in the UK, according to the Met Office, 2019 has seen four new records, including the new highest winter and summer temperatures. We were camping for the first hot spell on February 26th, and were surprised to be standing bare-foot and in T-shirts in the morning sun high up by Angle Tarn. The highest UK temperature that day was 21.2 degrees C in London (Kew Gardens). The new summer record for heat was set on July 25th, when the temperature reached 38.7 degrees in Cambridge. And, pending verification, the highest December temperature ever recorded has recently occurred: 18.7 degrees on December 28th.
Each TinyTag has made 26,280 readings: the five of them together offer 131,400 readings. This is just some of the data we’ve collected over the past year. We’ve made camp twelve times (and recorded temperatures at each site); we’ve erected the canvas twelve times; we’ve spoken to people about soil, water, culture, trees, forestry, wellbeing, tourism, climate and more; and we have nearly 130 submissions to the Data of the Heart survey. We’ll be taking advice from the Ensemble team specialists and from Esri maps as we make sense of what we’ve gathered. The next step is to let our imaginations play as we plan ways to make the data both visually appealing and meaningful when we share it in the exhibition and the book. There will be a fair amount of head scratching, and we’re looking forward to it.