Apparently I have ancestors who lived in the north east, which may explain my predilection for walking in the area. Linda and I quietly finished the last section of the 77 mile Weardale Way on Saturday. The long distance footpath follows the course of the Wear from its birthplace at Killhope in the County Durham Pennines all the way to the sea at Roker, just outside Sunderland. We have have walked sections of the route on spare days over the last year and absorbed the history celebrated along the river bank from source to sea.
The final section was no different with sculpture and inscribed walls and pavements telling the glory days story of Sunderland’s industrial heritage. We were distracted in no small part by the tale of Sarah Seed whose family worked the coal seams in the 20th century.
Between 1930 and 1960 Sarah only slept in her bed at weekends.
Her husband and two eldest boys took turns to work the Ryhope Little seam, sitting at 335m below ground level. There were three shifts; 10pm, 4am and 10am. Only one of the men could work at the face at the time so Sarah had to ensure she provided food and hot water for the leaving and returning men evening, night and day. She also needed to feed and water the children morning, noon and night, around their school hours.
During the week, Sarah caught what sleep she could in her chair by the fire.
Her days seemed so incredibly far removed from ours as we wandered leisurely over the history under our feet and pondered the boats in the harbour and marina. The majority were working vessels. The riverbank still speaks of a community labouring to survive and thrive, with industrial, university and commercial estates sitting camouflaged behind tree lined cycleways on the waterfront. Even in lockdown there was a palpable energy to the city. The lives of Sarah and her family live on here, more so above ground but still on a 24/7 regime.
Amanda and I too quietly collected five more Wainwright summits on Sunday. Based at the Kirkstone Pass Inn we took an hour to nip up Red Screes in warm sunshine and then got our ridge walking legs into gear as we explored Middle Dodd, Little Hart Crag and High Hartsop Dodd.
We gandered and gasped at the views in all directions; Brotherswater, Ullswater, Windermere and Coniston Water creeping in and out of focus as we climbed towards our final top of the day: Dove Crag. Here we met the Fairfield array of fells and talked through too those hills further away, a familiar line up silhouetted gunmetal grey under browsing clouds. All the paths we walked on are distinct historical grooves, our feet the turntable needle playing the Lake District soundtrack of geological, economic and tourist influence. Drovers tracks, coffin routes and miners commutes crisscross the hills and valleys, carved into our 21st century map album covers by Wainwright followers.
We came off the fells down Dovedale and very nearly didn’t bother returning to the cars. The valley, lit by the late afternoon sunshine, was in glorious form. Dove Crag provides an imposing guard at the head, softened by the streams scarfing its base and collecting into Dovedale Beck. After recent rain, the water was in full voice, rushing white downhill under verdant green young brackenclad fellsides. Casual woodland decorated the lower slopes rising steeply to the hllls we had just left. A captivating spot, we dreamed of wild camping, Narnia, Hobbits and heaven’s New Jerusalem and refused to be hurried into the fast world of traffic coping with the A592 bends.
It too, under its beauty, holds the whispers of lives labouring in the lead mines of Hartsop Hall. Between the 17th century and 1942 Dovedale would have been a hive of noisy industry. Today Sykes Farm, at the bottom of the valley, took on a little of that mantle with a full campsite and a busy bar and shop.
Man’s industry continues to play its part in shaping the natural world and I have marvelled at how, over the centuries, Weardale and the Lakes still repay our scarring activities with a natural healing response. Eyebright, heath bedstraw, foxgloves and harebells littered our walk, buzzards and meadow pipits called us onwards over cloud washed fells and into sundappled woodland.
After 20 miles on various paths this weekend I am indebted to the Sarahs and miners of this land whose industry has made us the nation we are and underpinned the lives we now lead. I am also more than grateful to an environment that doesn’t just continually mop up our mess but beautifies it in the process.
Sarah may have preceded me by seventy years, but like her this weekend, I’m looking forward to sleeping in my bed.