No Man’s Land

The concept of No Man’s Land seems strange in relation to country walking. Surely it’s a military term, the terrain between two opposing armies, such as on the Western Front in the Great War?

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Appleby Fair Hill (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Seventy-five years ago, my father was stationed near Battle Abbey in Sussex, waiting to participate in the Normandy Landings. The last minute briefings would have been taking a long hard look at the military concept of No Man’s Land. Interesting, I always think, that he was at a place so associated with the Norman Conquest in 1066, when he was about to go the other way and invade Normandy.

Our Land (c) John Bainbridge 2010

But in fact No Man’s Land has its origins a long way from military battlefields. No Man’s Land was literally that – those odd patches of land scattered around the edges of highways and heathlands that either had no owner, or had an ownership that didn’t realise they were included in a domain or places were two parishes met and no one could define the exact boundary.

It’s an old term – there are references in Domesday Book to land lying just outside the city walls of London. The term No Man’s land – historically nonesmanneslond, which the Oxford English Dictionary dates to 1320.

Sometimes, the term was applied to land subject to a legal dispute. George Borrow, in his wonderful book Lavengro, relates how he camps in Mumper’s Dingle, a deep valley embroiled in litigation.

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On the Flashing Lane (c) John Bainbridge 2019

When I was a boy, we often visited a family of Gypsies who used such a stretch of land on the rural edge of the industrial Black Country. They were relatively safe, for the authorities couldn’t prove that anyone owned their site.

No Man’s Land offered the opportunity to camp and reside – at least temporarily – in the countryside when the barriers were being put up during the dreadful times of the Enclosure Acts, when the majority were being robbed of their rights to the land. A situation that has not changed to this day, when 1% of our population own 50% of the lands in England.

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Vardo (travelling wagon) in Appleby (c) John Bainbridge 2019

There’s also the thought that the No Man’s Lands of old represented in-between places, the stretches of land between the jealously-guarded private properties and the public highway, one of the few places you could safely access at a time of man-traps and spring guns. Places that were somehow in between what is lawful and what is not lawful. Another reason why the very idea was hated by the Establishment.

Ramblers and country walkers often found themselves in the forefront to reclaim some rights to the captured landscape. The iconic Kinder Scout Mass Trespass in 1932, which saw ramblers sent to jail by a loaded jury and a biased judge, shows how one has to fight hard to access our own land.

Those bits of No Man’s Land that survive are a hugely important part of our social history – they deserve preservation orders so that they might stay wild and free.

Up in Cumbria next week is the New Fair at Appleby (once the county town of Westmorland), the most important date in the Gypsy Calendar, attracting Romany travellers from all over Britain and beyond, who come to trade in horses and race horse-drawn sulkies in the “flashing lane” above the town to prove their worth. As you watch the horses being washed in the River Eden, you are seeing a little bit of an older England brought vividly to life.

This coming week, if you are travelling around the North Pennines, around places like Barnard Castle and Kirkby Lonsdale, you can see the Gypsy wagons and tents drawn up on the roadsides leading to the fair. Some of these atchin-tans or campsites have been used for generations. Some are bits of No Man’s Land still in use.

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Jubilee Ford, Appleby (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Sadly, with road widening, some of these important parts of our history are being swept away. The grubbing out of hedgerows, building developments and mercenary raids on open spaces are taking away a lot more. And there is – certainly in England – a presumption against people using our bits of No Man’s Land for traditional purposes.

Which is a pity, I think…

The Appleby New Fair starts next Thursday, though Friday and Saturday are the best days. The horse are washed in the town itself, but the fair and the flashing lane are up on the hillside on the far side of the A66. If you want to go and have a look at the fair, do get there early, as traffic can be very bad and parking places are taken up very quickly. You can always get there by train on the Settle to Carlisle Line.


The Hoff Beck Walk

I was pleased to see that the Eden Rivers Trust has created a formal walk – the Hoff Beck Walk – along the lovely little river of that name close to Appleby in Westmorland. The new trail follows the Hoff Beck from Colby to the picturesque Rutter Falls, passing through peaceful and uncrowded countryside.

Rutter Falls (C) John Bainbridge 2019

I’ve walked the Hoff Beck many times over the years, starting from Appleby. It really is a grand stretch of river and you rarely see any other walkers. While I’ve walked the length of the new trail, I usually complete a circuit via the village of Ormside, returning along the River Eden.

The Eden Rivers Trust has placed informative noticeboards at several points along the walk, giving details of local history and riparian wildlife – the Hoff Beck is particularly good if you want to watch herons. I saw a kingfisher once near Bandley Bridge, and there are otters too – though you have to be lucky to see one. If you want a better chance do the walk just after dawn or in the late evening.

The other day, we walked out from Appleby, taking the attractive bridleway through Rachel’s Wood to Bandley Bridge. You can stroll downstream to Colby and back from here if you wish to. Although the footbridge at Bandley is relatively modern, the crossing place is ancient. The first record of a crossing here dates back to 1292, where it is described at Bangelmibrigg.

The crossing here probably dates back a long time before that, to the time when the Vikings settled around Appleby, giving the name to this river, Hoff and Beck are both Norse words in origin.

Following the Hoff Beck upstream, we descended to Cuddling Hole. Now I’ve always puzzled as to the origins of that name, my mind going off in various lascivious directions. I’ve been wrong in those assumptions and I should have known better, for I was well acquainted with a very similar word.

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The Hoff Beck (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Cuddling is a local expression for tickling trout, a way of catching them by hand. I really should have guessed, for guddling is a well-known expression in the Lake District (Arthur Ransome used it in his novel The Picts and the Martyrs – a terrific read which I recommend to you). Interestingly, the word used to be current on Dartmoor, very familiar with an old poacher I used to know there. Arthur Ransome used to fish in the nearby Eden – perhaps he tried the Hoff Beck as well?

A walk across the fields brought us to the hamlet of Hoff, where there’s a pub if you need refreshment. Some lovely ancient barns here. A place lost in time. The next few fields below Low Rutter farm can be muddy after wet weather, but on the frosty day we walked it they were fine.

I’ve done this walk in pelting rain, snow and in last summer’s heatwave and it offers something new each time. In last summer’s drought, the waterfall of Rutter Force had dried up altogether. Now the water was back, making the picturesque falls a delight to see. The building next to the force started out as a corn mill and was latterly a bobbin mill. With its footbridge and ford it must be another ancient crossing place, though I miss the tea shop that used to be there. It marks the official end of the Hoff Beck River Walk.

We walked up to the lane and crossed the fields to the house marked on the map as Porch Cottage, though now called the Donkey’s Nest. From there a quiet lane took us down under the Settle to Carlisle railway line to the peaceful village of Great Ormside.

The church here, standing next to a farmhouse with a Pele Tower, is one of England’s gems, built on a defensive mound that was used by both Saxons and Vikings. I’ve written in praise of it in my walking book Wayfarer’s Dole. As with many Christian buildings it began its existence as a Pagan site, used as a burial ground by the Vikings. Much of what you see today dates to the late 11th-century.

In 1823, the Ormside Bowl, Anglo-Saxon in origin and dating to the 7th or 8th century was found in the churchyard. It’s now in York Museum. In 1898 the body of a Viking warrior, complete with sword, was unearthed in the churchyard. You can see his sword at the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle.

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Great Ormside Church (c) John Bainbridge 2019

Sadly, cracks have appeared in the church tower and expensive repairs are needed. If you can send a donation to help please do.

The parishioners are certainly rallying round with fundraising measures. We bought a delicious jar of home-made marmalade, which was on sale in the church. So if you do visit take some spare cash to support this worthy cause!

Leaving the village, we went under the Settle-Carlisle railway once again, to follow the River Eden back to Appleby. This path starts in woodland high above the river, before descending to its banks, giving more chances to see wildlife. A peaceful stretch of river, now part of the Lady Anne’s Way trail – which follows in the steps of Lady Anne Clifford, the well-known diarist of the 17th century.

After the woodland ends, the path follows the river through water meadows, emerging at Jubilee Ford at Appleby – a popular crossing place for Gypsies during the Appleby Horse Fair week in June.

A grand walk of about eight miles – and it is good that the Eden Rivers Trust has delineated some of it as the Hoff Beck Walk – a Westmorland river that deserves to be better known.

The Stopping Places

Damian Le Bas, The Stopping Places: A Journey through Gypsy Britain (London: Chatto and Windus 2018). ISBN: 978178471037. Hardback, price £14.99. A review by John Bainbridge. The Stopping Places: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain by [Bas, Damian Le]

In this fascinating and well-written book, Damian Le Bas overturns many of the public perceptions about modern Gypsies and their way of life, but carefully references Romany heritage and the old travelling traditions.

The stopping places of the book are the atchin tans, the places where Gypsies and Travellers – and Le Bas is rightly insistent that those are ethnic descriptions and should be capitalised – rested up in the past, and sometimes still do. Inspired by family stories, Le Bas set out to visit some of the best known of these in Britain – with a brief diversion to the Camargue for the Romany pilgrimage celebrating Saint Sara. Le Bas sets out not in a horse-drawn vardo, or even a modern caravan, but in a transit van.

But the journey is not just some Gypsy travelogue, which merely details places visited. It’s an examination of what it means to be Romany in the 21st century. As he journeys between stopping places, the author discovers as much about himself as the stretches of countryside where his forebears often lingered.

The wider public have a perception of just what a Gypsy should be. Damian Le Bas doesn’t immediately fill that stereotypical description. He is particularly fair in looks, went to public school, has a first-class degree in theology from Oxford University. He acts, writes poetry and is an artist. It demonstrates a great deal about how misunderstood this one minority group is, that any of the above should seem strange at all. One of the joys of this book is that it banishes so many public perceptions and prejudices.

Le Bas is a most self-effacing author, not the least boastful, often admitting to finding life on the road difficult. He is nervous about spending the nights alone in remote places. He has trouble being accepted by other Gypsies as one of their own. There’s a telling example where he’s ‘faced out’ from the traditional camping ground at the Appleby Horse Fair by an aggressive opponent who questions his very right to be there. He’s looked on with suspicion by some of the Romanies at the Feast of St Sara. But opposition is often removed by Le Bas’s considerable knowledge of Anglo-Romani. Interesting too that, because of that understanding, he finds he can relate easily to the Roma who have settled in Britain in recent years.

His passages on Romanes, and how the language is used today are very relevant to anyone with an interest in the language. George Borrow gets a too-brief mention, but there’s a good account of that great Rai John Sampson’s researches into the pure Romani of the Welsh Gypsies. There’s a useful glossary in the book for beginners, interestingly with some word variations I haven’t encountered before.

The book is beautifully written. Le Bas has the true writer’s gift of being able to summon up the atmosphere of a place in just a few lines, whether the particular atchin tan is in some beautiful location or somewhere hideous or threatening. He has a similar skill in describing the people he encounters. They come alive from the page, often in just a few words.

If you are near Keswick in March, the author will be giving a talk at the theatre there, during the Words on the Water Literary Festival.

A path that goes somewhere

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the importance of walking paths which come to a sudden halt, suggesting that there is always something to see along the way. There is no such thing as a path that goes nowhere. All paths go somewhere, even if you have to come back the way you went.

The River Eden where the Bridleway is interrupted (c) John Bainbridge 2018

But there are other paths, paths that definitely go to a destination, along which you can walk and eventually connect to other paths and make a circular destination.

At first glance, the bridleway running south of Appleby in Westmorland towards the little village of Ormside ends abruptly just short of that place. There is no bridge over the River Eden. You can continue, but you need to wade the river – a deterrent to a lot of walkers, though horse riders might fare better.

But walk it we did, in beautiful May weather. And I’m pleased we did, for it led to a fascinating conversation with a local farmer (and I should state here that all of the farmers we meet in the Eden Valley seem particularly friendly to walkers).

We set off for this morning walk of but a few miles from Appleby, once the county town of Westmorland, though it’s hardly bigger that a village. We crossed the footbridge at Jubilee Ford (where not so long ago we saw an otter) and then took a footpath past Well Bank Wood, a private nature reserve.

Walking in Eden (c) John Bainbridge 2018

Then out on to the bridleway mentioned above, which crosses the Settle to Carlisle railway line and then steers a straight route towards the Eden and Ormside. A very pleasant path too, the hedges lined with Hawthorn in full blossom, contented cows grazing in green meadows. Considering this stretch of countryside is so near the busy A66, it is remarkably peaceful.

In very little time, we reached the River Eden. There is no obvious crossing point to complete the few yards of the journey into Ormside, nor much sign that there ever was.

It was while we were admiring the river scenery with its abundant bird life that we met the farmer inspecting his fields, riding in a conveyance that was half carriage and part tractor,

We asked him if there had ever been a bridge?

He said not in his memory, and he had first come to this farm eighty-six years ago. He could never remember a bridge, though there used to be stepping stones nearby a while ago – these long lost to the flooding Eden.

The Old Rising Sun, now a private house, but once an important part of the Gypsy Horse Fair (c) John Bainbridge 2018

He’d heard a tale that, in Victorian times, a man had begun a local collection to fund a bridge, but that the rascal had decamped taking the collection with him!

The farmer told us that he tended the fields daily, recently accompanied on his rounds by a friendly cock pheasant. He’d gone to school at the primary in Appleby which is now an ironmongers and agricultural machinery store.

He remembered the New Fair, to which the Gypsies come to Appleby each June, in the old days when it was centred more on the Rising Sun Inn on the lane to Dufton, rather than on the Fair Hill where it mostly takes place today.

Our farmer could well remember when the present Fair Hill was still better and notoriously known as Gallows Hill, the place of public execution for those convicted of a host of crimes at the Appleby Assizes. He’d heard older folk speak about the last public execution there.

We didn’t cross the river, but walked back the way we had come, taking with us a few of his many memories of the Eden Valley.