(My entry in a Yorkshire Dales-themed writing contest. It didn't win, nor did it deserve to)
By Mark Sadler
A couple of Fridays ago I reluctantly attended something called a 'Managerial Strategy Seminar,' in York. This turned out to be a series of interminable workshops whose stated purpose was to transform us all into "more integrated business leaders." The last of these motivational talks didn't wind-up until early evening. In the aftermath, the prospect of a long drive back to Southend, through rush hour traffic, felt suddenly unappealing. I decided on a whim that I would extend my stay over the weekend and delay the journey home until Sunday.
The following morning, after breakfast, I joined the end of a small queue by the reception desk. As I waited to settle my bill, my gaze was drawn along the corridor, through the wide-open double doors of the conference hall, where I had spent most of the previous day. Inside I caught occasional glimpses of hotel staff preparing the room for a wedding recpetion.
After I had checked out, I drove 50 or so miles further north to the village of Carlton, which lies on the Eastern fringes of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. My friend and former next-door neighbour, Richard Blackholly, moved there from Leigh-on-Sea 15 years ago. Though we have remained in regular contact, the considerable distance between us means that we seldom see one another in the flesh.
I arrived in Carlton at around midday and found Richard installed in the pub, at a table by the fire. Over lunch he advised me that, even though the day was somewhat chilly and the sky ominously overcast, past traditions must still be observed: It would be greatly remiss of us if we didn't walk to Pen Hill and each place a stone on top of the tumbledown cairn that squats on the summit, in a perpetual state of near collapse.
Richard is a living, breathing archive of local gossip, both contemporary and historical. This, coupled with his broad knowledge of natural history, make him an excellent companion on home soil. I readily yielded to his suggestion.
We followed the road out of Carlton. After about half a mile we turned left and walked uphill through the tiny linear village of Melmerby. By the time we reached the iron barred cattle grid that separates the village from the moor it was raining steadily. Rivulets of brown water were flowing rapidly along both sides of the road, where the tarmac meets with the verges. Once we had filed though the kissing gate, and no longer sheltered by the buildings we were immediately exposed to the full force of the wind. The orange cagoule that I had borrowed from Richard, which was several sizes too large for me, began to inflate and billow outwards. I fumbled with the drawstrings at the bottom in an attempt to make it fit more snugly. By now the cords were wet and I found that I couldn't unfasten the knot I had previously tied.
The moor was bisected by a thin ribbon of road whose undulating course sympathetically mirrored the contours of the landscape, right down to the tiniest bump. We soon parted company from it and began traipsing through wet heather that was over two feet deep in places and very quickly soaked the legs of my jeans almost to the knee. The springy branches bending under the soles of my boots provided an uneven surface upon which to walk. While Richard strode on confidently ahead, sporting a brazen air of familiarity with his surroundings, I lurched along behind with the elephantine grace of a man who is attempting to gain a steady footing on a trampoline. In the back of my mind there lingered a nagging suspicion; that it was only my continuous unbalanced momentum that was keeping me upright and I would need to locate solid ground before I could bring myself to a safe halt.
The landscape was threaded with narrow streams of peat-stained water that were hidden from sight beneath the scrub. These flowed downhill through natural fissures in the turf and eventually converged into a broader channel. This, in turn, passed through a purification station, the size of a small shed, that provided Melmerby with clean drinking water. Occasionally, while in the vicinity of one these hidden streams, my foot would breach the tangle of heather and make contact with the saturated ground underneath. Instead of sinking into mud, the sole of my boot would press down on a dense, sponge-like matting of grass and moss, releasing some of the trapped water in the form of a small cloudy puddle that would disappear the moment I raised my leg.
"I'm having trouble working out where the ground starts," I called out breathlessly. "Every footstep's an adventure."
As if on cue there was a small sudden commotion a few feet to the left of me. I heard the snap of wings as a pair of grouse erupted from the heath and took off at low altitude before dropping back down out of sight.
Richard's reply was snatched by crosswind as the words left his mouth and carried off across the moor. I remembered something that he told me the last time we had come here: It was a kind of ghost story, based on local folklore, that the wind conspires with the moors to steal the language of men. In the 1940s a widower from Melmerby called Robert Finsdale claimed that Pen Hill had spoken to him in his dead wife's voice, using fragments of sentences that the gusts of wind had taken from her during her life. While he was able to derive some comfort from what it told him, he remained terrified by the manner in which these messages from beyond the grave were delivered. Finally he could no longer bear to hear it anymore. After that he became something of a recluse and stuffed his ears with cotton wool when necessity required him to leave his home.
We had been walking for about a quarter of an hour when we came to a halt on a patch of ashen ground where there had been a controlled burn. What remained of the heather had been reduced to grey twisted branches; the skeletal remains of a fire, inclinded in the direction of the prevailing wind at the time of the blaze.
Richard picked up a piece of broken twig and offered it to me.
"Feel this. It looks like wood but it's actually a type of stone."
I took the fragment from him. It had a coarse stony texture and a honeycombed interior where it had been broken off. I tried and failed to snap it between my fingers. It was hard like metal, yet surprisingly lightweight.
"It's called Horeb Stone Weed. People erroneously describe it as heather. In fact it's a species of dry coral, native to the mountainous regions of Northern Africa. This is the only place where it grows in the UK."
"Why here and nowhere else?"
"Well, opinions on this matter vary. There's been the usual tortoise and hare race between science and religion. Plant biologists are still grubbing around in the dirt, searching for explanatory causes and factors. The church has had their account on the books for centuries: If you ask the Pope he'll tell you that it was brought to England in 1657 by Saint Ramona. She was a young nun who lived in the town of Vilmergen, in what was then the Swiss Confederacy. During the civil war of 1656 she was entrusted with a miraculously glowing ember that was said to have been part of the burning bush, from the book of Exodus. She left her convent and traveled across the alps into France. She kept the spark cupped between her hands, which she loosely clasped together as if in permanent prayer. She found that by blowing on it through the small gap between her palms, it would glow brighter and nurture her, so that she never needed food or sleep.
"When she reached the French coast, she secured passage of a ship bound for England. Finally she ended up here, on Melmerby moor, where she heard a voice telling her to kneel and relinquish her burden. She unclasped her hands and the spark flew out and set fire to the ground around her. Then the heavens opened and the rain turned the flames to stone which blossomed with purple flowers.
"And until scientists can come up with something a bit more rigorous, that is the best explanation we have as to why Horeb Stone Weed grows here and nowhere else in the Britain."
"It's a good story. There's something rather Blakean about it."
"One of the plant's interesting properties is that, after it's burned it becomes very rigid. But then, if you expose it to high temperatures, it becomes malleable and you can sculpt it like you would molten metal. On your travels in this part of the world have you ever come across any poor man's heraldry?"
"I don't think so."
"They're like unofficial coats of arms. You see a lot of them on old farm buildings. Family crests with an agricultural theme - lots of sparring cockerels and crossed scythes."
"Okay, I know what you mean now."
"Well all of that's done with Horeb Stone Weed. It's very easy to work with. You don't need any masonry skills. You can lay out your design like a collage. I've got a very good book of photographs back at the house, which I will show to you. Actually, up until a few months ago, the best example of it was at the Malton Dairy just outside Masham. Unfortunately it burned down on Christmas Eve."
"Yeah, I drove past it on the way up. It's a terrible mess."
"You wouldn't have been able to see the farmhouse from the road because the sheds are in the way. I call it a farmhouse. It was more like a small manor. Originally there was a coat of arms made from Horeb Stone above the front door - a pair of rampant dairy cows rearing up on either side of a haystack. After the First World War the son of the owner began expanding it into a frieze depicting scenes from farm life. By the time he was done it covered the entire front of the building.
"Anyway it's all gone now. The house burned right down to the foundations. They had fire crews from three counties there trying to put it out. I was speaking to one of the firemen not so long ago. He told me that as the building heated up, the figures on the wall began to move and it was like watching a painting slowly stirring into life. He said that the movement was so disconcerting everybody stopped what they were doing and took a step backwards. For a few seconds it seemed like all those cows and sheep and farmhands were going to advance through the flames. Then the heat got too much and they began to detach from the building and fall apart."
After Richard had finished his story we both fell into a silent contemplation of our surroundings; buffeted by an incessant wind that was trying to steal our private innermost thoughts and use them to give voice to the dead. The rain streamed in tributaries down the lines and shallow gullies in our faces. It was as if we had stood still for so long we had been accepted and become one with the surrounding landscape. I had awoken that morning with a fresh, crescent-shaped wound on my left leg, where I must have scratched myself during the night. I often do it when I am under stress. For the first time that day I became aware of how sore it felt against the damp fabric of my jeans.
After what seemed like an age we resumed our laboured journey through the scrub, towards our destination. Later we stood on the summit of Pen Hill and looked down on where we had walked. The immense, aubergine-coloured mats of Horeb Stone Weed resembled dark continental landmasses, adrift in a sea of green.