Yay! it’s raining. At last. With daily reports of flash-flooding and thunderstorms from the rest of the UK and the Glastonbury Festival declared the muddiest for years, the most our Teesdale weather could muster has been the occasional half-hearted drizzly shower. While I’m not complaining about the weeks of sunshine, heat and beautiful walking weather, now the rain has arrived it brings with it that distinct summer aroma of wet grass, and a burst of life from the ground. The air is suddenly alive.
Some things are better in the rain. The River Tees is really low at the moment. The waterfalls of Upper Teesdale are little more than a trickle at the moment. Here’s Summerhill Force dribbling over Gibson’s Cave last week.
Compare that to the day after Storm Desmond visited on the 5th December last year.
OK. So this is a bit of an extreme example. But extreme things do happen.
It’s 200 years ago this year that we had a ‘Summer that never was’. A year when the world was 0.7 degrees colder than normal, harvests failed and populations starved.
In April 1815, in Indonesia – 8,000 miles away – the sleeping giant volcano Mt Tambora erupted. The explosion was so large it was heard over 2,000 miles away in Sumatra. The volcanic dust cloud enveloped most of the planet causing severe climatic events throughout 1816 and affecting weather patterns for years after. In North America, hard frosts were recorded right through July and the Eastern seaboard experienced a perpetual fog that lasted through the summer of 2016. In Northern Europe, the long winter extended into a very wet summer causing crops to fail. Throughout Europe food became scarce and there were violent uprisings outside government buildings in several countries. In Ireland, the failure of crops marked the start of the ‘Potato Famine’ and over the next 3 years over 100,000 people died.
Freak events that shaped our world 200 years on.
On the shores of Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley and her friends were on holiday for the summer. So bad was the weather, they were forced to stay indoors for weeks on end. To pass the time they challenged each other to tell stories. Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein – or The Modern Prometheus’ and Byron wrote ‘Darkness’ on a day when the birds went to sleep at midday. (If ever there was a historical example of first-world problems, this has to be it. While the rest of the Northern Hemisphere died from starvation, a bunch of privilaged English writers redefined gothic literature because t was a bit damp outside.)
In July 1816, JW Turner visited Teesdale on a long, extended painting tour of the North of England. He stayed at Barnard Castle and Middleton-in-Teesdale on a particularly wet week as he ventured right up the dale. By the time he reached Cauldron Snout it was really throwing it down. However, he did manage to see the falls of the River Tees at their best – full and lively.
It was the subdued light from the volcanic ash cloud that summer, along with the incessant rain which gives Turner’s painting from that trip of 1816 the substance and atmosphere that Ruskin claimed was Turner’s most effective work ever.
I’ve lived in Teesdale now for two years. Two years this very week. I love living here. I love having the river just yards away from from my house – so close on still nights I can hear it falling over Low Force from my bedroom. I’ve spent so many days down there and walking up the river towards High Force and the fields, woods and fells on either side. However, I don’t really know Teesdale, let alone the wider County Durham.
A couple of weeks ago I made a conscious effort to get to know where I now live. It was another warm and dry afternoon, and a rare weekend off from working so I thought I’d make a start to discover Teesdale properly. Having poured over books and walking guides and maps, and old OS maps and Gogle Earth, I decided to start where Turner started – at Greta Bridge on the Durham / Yorkshire border.
I knew about the temperamental River Greta from a previous project further up its course, but I’d never been down towards where it joins the River Tees. Greta Bridge was a popular spot in Turner’s day. the old road over the Pennines via Stainmore started here at the significant coaching inn of the Morrit Arms. In Turners day there were still remnants of the Roman fort there. Clearly a strategic point where the route from East to West ascends up and over the wilderness. Crossing the Greta is crossing to another world.
Greta Bridge and nearby Rokeby Park became important sources of inspiration for a generation of writers and painters. Besides Walter Scott who immortalised the area in his own seminal work, the place was a key destination for the Wordsworths, Dickens, Coleridge and most of the Bloomsbury set.
The landscape here is wider. It’s greener and rolling and fertile and hospitable. And distinctly arable. A very different kind of greener.
A short walk up the Greta brings you to the ruin of St Mary’s church in Brignall. Nestling in the bottom of the valley. There’s not much left of it now. The new church was built further up the hill in the second half of the 19th Century and reused much of the stone from from the old church.
Turner’s view of the church reveals much about attitudes to landscape in the early 19th century. It’s actually a remnant of the trend of 18th century landscape attitudes – where hills were so dramatic as to be scary: “it was almost the whole duty of all hill scenery to inspire alarm, and every painter who wished to give a good impression of any particular place always painted it as if it were twice its real size” to quote one of Turner’s picture editors.
It’s also a view point that doesn’t actually exist, again to increase the visual impact. The large tree in the foreground is one sketched in Rokeby Park. Topographic accuracy wasn’t important in the appreciation of landscape in 1816. What mattered most was conveying the essence of place. These were places most people would never see in real life so were designed to excite the imagination of the viewers. Of a place that is of somewhere else. The early tourists came to gawp and the awe and wonder of the place and the people that went before, conjuring up stories to populate somewhere new and unknown.
Things have changed so much in the intervening two centuries that it’s hard for us to begin to understand how people viewed the landscape of Teesdale. So much changed with the invention of photography that we can only know what somewhere really looks like. The visual and emotional impacts are much more subdued and taken for granted.
The woods around the old church at Brignall actually look like this:
They smelled so good, I went home and had them on my pizza.