At last the weather decided to play ball with me and it’s a fabulous day up here perched atop Nine Standards Rigg. The rigg itself is named after the nine huge cairns straddling this ridge overlooking, well pretty much overlooking the entire Eden Valley, the Eastern Lake District Fells and on a clearer day, the Solway Firth and Scotland. Behind me, a few yards away is the North Yorkshire border and to my right County Durham and beyond. It’s no wonder then that centuries ago people decided it would be good to mark this point.
One of the reasons for coming up here today was to see if I could see my house from the top. This may sound a silly thing, but the Nine Standards are such a feature on the skyline around Kirkby Stephen and always wondered why I couldn’t see them from my studio. The cairns are over 20ft high (some are at least) and one theory of their origin is that they were built to scare off invading vikings / scots / romans ( take your pick, they all came ) by appearing as giant soldiers keeping guard.
The other nice bit about the Standards is their movement. They are of unknown origin and date, but what is clear from the site, and stories, is that there has always been nine of them. If one falls down another is built from its remains next to it. So over time they have moved back and forth across the ridge.
I like this.
A few years ago some of the cairns were in a realy bad state and in real danger of collapse. There was a great deal of local debate as to whether, and how they should be restored. In the end, a small team of champion dry stone wallers did an amazing job of rebuilding four of them and securing the others. Today is the first time I’ve seen them in their new glory.
As I reached the top I had a great chat with a couple from Darlington about the stones. Being on Wainwright’s Coast to Coast walk, there’s a lot of traffic up here. The land erosion by millions of booted footsteps is really taking its toll in places. With no more than a mention on the OS map, these walkers – and probably loads more – presumed they were a work of art by some land artist. It’s no wonder they look a bit like an Andy Goldsworthy at the moment. They were rebuilt by some of the same wallers who work with Goldsworthy on his pieces. In fact, the Nine Standards are responsible for much of his work. As a young artist straight out of art school, Goldsworthy worked as a gardener at a local estate. You can just about see their sillhouettes from the house he worked at, and would regularly walk up to them. As part of his sheepfolds project across Cumbria, Goldsworthy paid tribute to his roots with a proposed nine pin-cones within view of the rigg. Sadly only four were finished.
Today is a beautiful day – clear blue skies and hardly a breeze, even on the top. Definitely spring.
So vey different from when I last came up here 10 years ago. To the very day.
I remember it well. It was freezing cold. there was a thick hoar-frost on the north faces of the cairns, and on the way back down to town it started to snow.
I remember it well. 1st March 2001.
The very next day everything changed.
On 2nd March 2001, the number of confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease in Cumbria was rising fast and as a precautionary measure to stop the spread, MAFF (now DEFRA) closed the countryside. All footpaths across land where animals were farmed were closed to the public. Thousands – hundreds of thousands, of cows, sheep and more besides would be culled across the region over the next year or so in an effort to stop the spread of the disease. My next door neighbour, who was in his eighties had his entire stock killed for precautionary measures one morning. He was a broken man. Generations of stock breeding wiped out in an hour or two. Too old to start again from scratch he more or less gave up on everything. He didn’t know what else to do with himself. He thought about retraining with computers, but as he struggled to come to terms with phones without cords, it really wasn’t likely. He died within a couple of years.
On the 2nd March 2001, I remember driving towards Penrith and seeing a dotted line of black smoke billows reaching from the direction of Carlisle, spreading down a line which seemed to follow the A6 towards Shap. Thick black smoke. Really black. These were the unforgettable pyres burning the carcasses of culled stock. Piles of old tyres kept the temperature of the fire high enough to incinerate everything. Walking through the streets of Penrith the air was thick with the smell of burnt rubber and meat.
At one stage, at the gallery I ran, we contemplated an installation about the culling. We toyed with one idea of representing every animal culled with a sheet of toilet paper. Until we realised we didn’t have enough room in the gallery for that many rolls.
It was a dark time. Not just for farmers. It affected every single person in our sheep-farming town. Once I had a chat with friends to see who was the remostest from farming to have their work affected. The water bailff on the River Eden lost his job as there was no access to the river banks, therfore no fishing and no fising permits. Every B&B and hotel in Kirkby Stephen, bar one, is now under different ownership than before foot and mouth. In a town which survives on walking-based tourism and sheep farming, everything was decimated. I lost a lot of the work I had lined up too with everything around me out of bounds.
It was just before my photography went digital, so everything was still on film. With work cut, I had to ration my film use – I was so broke – so sadly I didn’t really document what was going on. I wish I had now. I wish I had photographed the ‘dip and go’ pads outside every shop which not only disinfected your boots but slowly dissolved them. I wish I had photographed the check-points on every road outside every village where your car tyres and chassis was sprayed by people in space-age bio suits. I wish I had photographed the endless lines of brand new red wagons with sealed roofs on the tippers carting away hundreds of carcasses to disposal sites, once they decided that the pyres were just too awful. Busses for the rotting. I wish too I had photographed the Yorkshire Dales, empty of all animals, and the brightness of the buttercups that took over the landscape – becoming a vibrant yellow instead of the usual lush greens.
For 18 months, the nine standards looked over the town – lonely and unvisited. Kirkby Stephen had the last recorded case of Foot and Mouth in Cumbria and consequently the countryside round the town was the last to re-open to the public.
A great deal of money was invested into rural areas following the outbreak. Regeneration money to get everything back on its feet. 2003 – 2006 was a boom time for rural England. Much went on. Much new stuff started. Tourism took a real boost.
That money is long gone now. Some stuff remains, which is good. Farming has changed – for the better in many respects. DEFRA have completely re-written the procedure for handling any future outbreak of foot and mouth, so that agriculture won’t be as badly affected. That’s good news for farmers if it works. However, the reliance on tourism as the new saviour of upland communities is a fragile one. The fact remains that access restrictions to the countryside would still happen, just as before. My, and many many others besides, fear that should it all happen again, despite all the well intentioned regeneration programmes, we’ll be no better off next time round.
Ten years on, the world has changed. It’s changing lots it seems at the moment. Through all this, the Nine Standards will remain, looking over the valley (and my house too). Maybe moving a bit as the centuries pass, but it’s good to keep moving.
Best get down the hill before sunset.