It’s been so nice to have a real summer this year. Big chunks of blue sky, sunshine and even some heat to some of the days – a rare thing on Stainmore. Summers like this don’t happen too often, so I’ve made a point of getting out and taking advantage of it when I can.
A couple of weeks ago my Sunday afternoon walk took me up to Slate Quarry Moss. Anywhere with the word ‘Moss’ or ‘Bog’ is usually out of bounds on Stainmore and a real cert to getting wet feet. Knees and waist too most of the time. However, with this dry spell I thought it worth a punt. At least it would be quiet – no one goes walking on Stainmore! The Slate Quarry on Slate Quarry Moss isn’t really a slate quarry. There’s no slate up here. It’s a little sandstone seam that yielded nice clean flat flags that were used on all the buildings on this bleak moor – ordinary slates just blow away. How they ever managed to cart them away across the bog by horse and cart I have no idea! Still, it was good to see where bits of my house came from. The walk back took me further across the bog towards Iron Bland – a hill so entrenched in bog that few have ever managed, or bothered to get to it. It’s pretty bleak and featureless up there.
Yet, running across this vast nothingness was the Cumbria / County Durham border. Miles upon miles of unbroken post and wire fence in a dead straight line. There’s no mucking about. This is a real border. Like your back garden fence. You’re in no doubt that it’s the marking of a territory. As if that wasn’t enough, set every furlong (about 200 metres) there was a numbered stone marker. This is a very old border. Back in 1972 it was the Westmorland / Yorkshire border, but over the centuries, the names may have changed, but the border hasn’t.
Just down the road in the wonderful Bowes Museum, there’s currently an exhibition about the local astronomer and cartographer – Jeremiah Dixon. Just a bloke from the village up the road, but he became the Dixon in the Mason-Dixon line. A border between Pensylvania and Maryland in the US, his task was to plot a perfect line along the 39°43′ N lattitude for 5° longitude – or 244 miles, west from the Delaware River.
Like the Durham / Cumbria border, the line was marked with border stones known as ‘Crown Stones’ – each one shipped from England. Most of those stones survive today. Dixon and his team plotted 233 miles of the dead straight line before they hit land owned by the Lenape tribes and refused to cross. The line was completed by another team some years later.
The Mason-Dixon line wasn’t determined by natural boundaries, geology or even culture, but was just a nominal line on a map decided by two ‘landowners’. That the line is purely artificial adds a certain poignancy to its historical significance in later years – a defining point in the abolishment of slavery. It also gives us the term ‘Dixieland’, which is great for a bloke from the small village of Cockfield.
Borders are funny things. They’re really little more than lines on a map yet they’re a reminder of how rigourously people define and protect their property. The implications can be far wider reaching. Cultures, laws, communications, finance and transport are all bound by these simple lines on a map.
Here’s a part of a piece I did back in 2006 all along the eastern Cumbria borders.
It was a piece I did for the annual FRED festival (I’ll do a blog about that someday – promise!). In 2008 an artists collective in Carlisle wondered if the city would be culturally better off if it were the other side of the Scottish border (a mere 7 miles away) and placed a (rather provocative) border sign some seven miles south of the city on the M6.
Unfortunately on that occasion the debate rarely elevated above tabloid racism in the local media and the sign was eventually destroyed – the supportive farmer whose land it was on was appalled that it had been cut down, exclaiming she was a “victim of knife crime!”
In a few weeks time I’m doing a project in Sweden that looks at the way forests are defined. On a map they have a definite line, but in reality the edge is often so blurred it’s hard to see how that line could have been drawn in the first place. Forests are unruly creatures – they are constantly trying to assimilate everything they come across and refuse to be tamed for any period of time. The project will in particular look at how communities which appear to be delineated from the forest actually exist as part of it. How forests create symbiotic relationships with anything they encounter.
Borders may be lines on maps, but imagination and innovation start when you colour over the lines.