I caught no trout today
But saw two swifts
Flickering above the lake,
Intertwining courtly circles
From 'Two Swifts at Standlake' by Tom Rawling (1916-1996) – transcribed from a recording of the poem, so the layout may not be as Rawling wrote it
. . . who would not spare
Those mighty forests, once the bison's screen,
Where stalked the huge deer to his shaggy lair,
Through paths and alleys roofed with sombre green,
Thousands of years before the silent air
Was pierced by whizzing shaft of hunter keen!
From 'To the River Duddon' by William Wordsworth
Not where the green grass hides
His kindred before him;
Not where his native trees
Droop to deplore him;
But in the stranger's land
Must we bestow him.
Leave there his sword and shield,
That all may know him.
From 'Honister Crag, Cumberland' by Letitia Elizabeth Landon
It is early December, and I am on my way into Cumbria when I am overtaken by a storm. It is only six in the evening, dark as pitch, and the rain sweeps across the windshield in thick foaming sheets as though I am in a carwash in Hades. The wild weather makes driving treacherous, and I reflect on the personal rewilding that I seem to be undergoing. I embarked on this journey to see ecological restoration and rewilding of landscapes in Britain and Europe, but I begin to understand that a significant journey of discovery without requires a concurrent and commensurate journey of discovery within. I would usually avoid driving in such dangerous conditions, but here I am negotiating my way along dark tree-tunnelled lanes quite unperturbed. Yet Google Maps is with me; it is the rod and the staff which comfort me, and it guides me through the flooding Cumbrian valleys as the tempest called Desmond roils around me. It is hard to think oneself wild, even in the dark and stormy night, when we are all so connected to and dependent upon the latest technology. But driving along unknown lanes in the dark and through a raging storm and loving it must mean I am recapturing some of my wilder side.
About twenty miles from Ravensglass, where I have hired a cottage, my Google rod and staff abandon me when my phone loses all mobile signal. I immediately take what must surely be a wrong turn. The narrow lane soon becomes a slippery single track skirting what seem to be sheer cliffs. Rain sluices across the shining remnants of tarmac, blotting out the future and limiting vision to a few feet. The wind howls and roars with the fury of a typhoon. For over an hour I expect the Landrover at any moment to be blown over the cliffs and hurled into whatever abyss lies unseen below. It isn't, and I survive to make my way onto level ground, where I pull off the track to find my bearings and to check the instructions to reach the farm cottage I have rented for the week. I find only a phone number and the postcode where the cottage is to be found. They are both useless to me – the phone signal remains quite dead. I spend another hour trying to find the farm by logic and via analog. When at last I do locate the cottage, I am greeted by the pungent and overpowering stink of fermenting silage, and a strange crackling hum in the darkness which mixes with the hiss and howl of the driving rain. I sleep deeply until morning, woken eventually by the frantic barking of a chained border-collie in the courtyard – visible through the kitchen window and a lull in the falling rain. To the front of the cottage, the view of huge steel pylons hoisting heavy cables across the landscape explains the eerie thrumming I'd heard on arrival. The thick lines buzz and fizz with ferried electric current, and I know that this cottage isn't situated in wildness.
I think back to MRI appointments I have had, and how on each occasion the radiologists would scuttle from the room before switching on the scan, in the very human desire to preserve and prolong health and life. And I wonder about our electromagnetic selves, and whether living within earshot of the crackle and hiss of such immense power-lines can do anyone – or any chained dog – any good at all. I think of the storm the previous night, and how the electricity lines hissed their presence into my consciousness, and I wonder whether the border-collie barks during the night at the electric hiss it must hear so much more intensely than I. I reflect on the electric workings and misfirings of my own brain, of all brains, and I wonder if anyone has ever recorded the sound of synapses firing, and if they have, whether it has some of the sibilance of the Ravensglass air.
I am here to see Wild Ennerdale, in Cumbria's west. Before the arrival of the storm, the drive from Kington to Ravensglass is mostly beautiful and uneventful. During a brief fuel and food stop at a garage with an attached diner just out of the lovely Shropshire Hills, there are two men at the table next to mine who can only be Elvis impersonators. They are dressed, however, quite normally, and as I pick at my all-day breakfast I wonder if perhaps there is some local barber who cuts and dyes all hair in homage to the King. When I look up again the Elvises have left the building.
My first visit to Ennerdale is in pouring rain, but the valley is lovely, and I walk as far up as the youth hostel building, which has to be in one of the most wonderful settings for a youth hostel. I walk across the bridge over the River Liza, and am amazed how clear and clean the water is. It must surely be a result of the hills and hillsides being forested, I think. The rivers and streams I have driven past to reach Ennerdale have been red with clay and mud from the torrential rains of Storm Desmond – but in those places the hills are bare and cropped, the landscape resembles bleak moorland, and the inevitable sheep chew miserably on whatever greenery they find as I amble past. Here in Wild Ennerdale, the sheep have been confined to the lowland flats, and fenced out of the regenerating woodlands of the slopes. Wherever the sheep cannot go, the trees are returning, and some of them are already tall. I remember Wordsworth's lines about the 'mighty forests' that screened the bison and the 'huge deer' – these in Wild Ennerdale are not mighty forests, but they are at least forests, and the trees now include native broadleaf because of the alliance and vision that is 'Wild Ennerdale', and it is delightfully different from the blasted landscape that Dartmoor has become. Wordsworth is not the first poet to call for wildness to be cherished, and revered, and protected from commercial rapacity and human greed, and I know we need more poets who champion wildness – which means, for all intents and purposes in modern England and Britain, reforesting, rewilding, replanting, this time with real forethought, and with the purpose of repairing devastated landscapes.
Ennerdale is not yet very wild, although I know it is wilder in its upper reaches than the areas I have walked, but it does have peace and solitude, and a sense of wildness that is a reminder of what has been lost in so much of England. No, Ennerdale is not wild in the way Daniel Defoe thought in 1698 that Cumbria was wild and ‘most barren and frightful’ – but it is wonderful to walk in, and I am overjoyed to realise that for a few hours I have heard no sound of human activity at all. And I have seen buzzards, and kites, and kestrels, and got close to robins and blackbirds and thrushes, even if we don't yet have wilder fauna than those. At least the sheep are being properly managed here, and kept off the hills. There are Galloway cattle on some of the slopes, to keep bracken down, but they are more selective about the saplings they eat than are sheep, so the native broadleaf trees being inter-planted or that are self-sown in amongst the conifers of old plantations stand a chance of survival. Where even the cattle are fenced out, the recovery and height of the planted native trees is a wonder to behold, and it convinces me even more deeply that the number and impact of browsing animals need to be rethought. Browsers which eat saplings need to be eaten in turn, by the predators that used to kill them or at least frighten them into almost constant movement, so that no patch of saplings was ever irrevocably grazed to oblivion. We need the lynx, I think, as I clamber down from the higher crags, and stroll back to the River Liza.
Landon's poem about the Scottish boy killed in battle, and buried at Honister Crag, makes me glad that there are trees that are able to 'droop to deplore' – broadleaf trees, rather than the blanket conifer plantations that blight so much of England, and I applaud the vision of Wild Ennerdale's partnership between the Forestry Commission, the National Trust and United Water – and of course with the community around Ennerdale. It can only be good for wildness, and for the people and animals and plants that share an ecosystem. There is a sense of freedom and beauty here that is desperately necessary as a counter-balance to landscapes of windfarms, and power-stations, and electric power-lines. There is real power here, in the recovering woodlands where I am away from most of the sights and sounds of man-made objects and activities. The peace, the tranquillity here, even though it is not yet rewilded and restored to what I would like, is still cause for celebration and hope. I have not visited in the season to see the Ennerdale poet Tom Rawling's swifts, but the loveliness of Wild Ennerdale renders special even an encounter with a goldfinch, and I experience many of those.