Many people will remember UK prime Minister Mrs Margaret (Don’t mess with me, pal) Thatcher. One of her favourite ways of explaining things to people – in that “I seem to be speaking to a mere child” voice she had was to start with “And you know, many people ask me….” and then go on to explain as clearly as possible whatever it was she wanted to say. Nobody had ever asked her , obviously, she just..er… anyway…
Many people ask me if navigating without a map nor a compass nor a GPS ner nowt reminds me, in some tribal-inherited-memory kid of way of my Mesolithic ancestors and how they used to find their way about.
Even though I can accept that there’s probably more than a mere smidgeon of ancestors with Northern roots even older than the Brigantes who considered what a jolly jape it would be to defy the Roman Empire and shout rude words in proto-Welsh from the top of Ingleborough (given that my great granny was Spanish, though…); the answer is “No”.
I went on a little tour of an archaeological site very recently and the question came up as to how Bollihope Moor, in Carboniferous Weardale could have so much flint – a rock which doesn’t occur in the Pennines, but who’s nearest supply is in the chalk of East Yorkshire – a good hundred and twenty or so Celtic miles to the South, given that this was long before the A1 was turned into a dual carriageway and yer Mesolithics probably had to walk too.
Was there a chap with a bag of flints who turned up every third Wednesday of the seventh moon after the winter solstice, saying, gizza piece of hot wild pig and ramson and you can have a couple of flints?
Or was it that the people up on Bollihope Moor had passed through East Yorks on their way home from their annual holidays in Skegness and gathered a load of lumps of flint on their way?
Or did they just swap stuff with other groups? Or maybe it could have been a dowry, or a religious duty to distribute the stuff – or anything – who can know?
The answer seemed to be, evidenced from other nomadic groups currently wandering around other places, and some local evidence, was that these peeps had a kind of circuit. They went to places at certain times of year to take advantage of certain resources available at those places and at those times. So they would know when and where the deer would be in the valley bottoms and they would know where and when the salmon ran upstream. They repeated the same journey, in other words – year after year, generation after generation. So they had mental maps. They remembered where stuff was and if they needed something else, they could ask.
How you find your way down the Pennines is by remembering where stuff is – hills, dales, fences, public bars, spar shops… and remembering what they look like and, roughly, how it all links together.
If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you know, almost by instinct, that the sun is never ever in the North. It gets close in the mornings and evenings in summer, but it never goes North. If you follow the sun, you will always go Southish.
Forget the rubbish about moss growing on the North side of trees (few trees on the moors) or that cows always point East at night so that they can read their papers without being dazzled by the setting sun – no – its where the sun is.
I did get drawn towards things – mainly cairns, stones, the sound of a waterfall and estate roads which would provide easier walking than the soggy Pennine Tussocks. I could hear the artillery at Warcop for the first two days. And from the top of Shunner Fell, I could clearly see Ingleborough, with it’s very distinctive flat, tilted top. Ingleborough dominates the central pennines and can be seen from a wide area. Its no wonder those naughty Brigantes had a fort on it. You can imagine the ramparts being visible from dozens of miles away and the threat or promise of fast moving pony-mounted irregulars appearing suddenly out of the wild Dales ashwoods must have concentrated the minds of Roman patrol commanders. I would have thought.
So, there’s no real mystery to this, in fact it’s very simple – even in places I’d never visited before. From those places, I could recognise the direction and I could recognise nearby features – Shacklesborough, for instance is a small flat-topped gritstone outcrop sitting in a flat tussocky desert. You find your way in the same manner as you negotiate the Huddersfield ring road. You just have to remember what comes up next and what it looks like. Have you just passed the Polytechnic (apols – University) – and which lane should I be in for the turn of to Halifax? This wouldn’t be easy in an area you didn’t already know quite well as anybody who has driven through a strange city might know.
And, just like the navigation of the Huddersfield ring road, you stick to things you can follow. In other words, you handrail things – fences, footpaths, streams – and if you wander away from one of those lines, you keep it in view, or choose another, even at a distance. You don’t leave the ring road.