Category Archives: Historical fiction

Making things

It seems a very long while since I wrote a blog article – this extraordinarily varied job I now have has kept me busy with all kinds of practical things and left me with little time or head-space to blog. But here after a gap are some thoughts triggered by a recent task.

To cut a long story short, we had to build a cupboard, from scratch with struts and planks rather than an Ikea-style assembly kit. The cupboard was intended to replace a room full of racking and shelves which used to hold a collection of necessary linen and such like, plus a whole lot of dumped bits and pieces which were no longer needed and had to find a new home. (The old linen store room was being reworked for a different purpose, but that’s another story).

An early stage - sides but no doors, and nothing has been painted
An early stage – sides but no doors, and nothing has been painted

Now it struck me, as we worked away with timber purchased online and delivered direct to the house, using power tools of various kinds and (eventually) hefty tins of paint – which again we had not needed to go out and collect – that we are living in a fairly unique period for this kind of work. Back in the Bronze age, say three of four thousand years ago, things would have been very different. The same is true of classical, mediaeval, renaissance, and pretty much all other times right through to very recently. I wonder how many stories presuppose that the heroes of the story are able to simply turn their hands to whatever happens to be the next task on the list, regardless of the practical problems? I know I’ve read some like that.

For a start, I would probably not have been in a position to freely decide that the work needed doing. If I’d wanted timber, I would probably have had to fell and shape it myself, or negotiate with others to do this for me. All the woodworking would need to be done by hand, and even for a simple cupboard that takes a fair level of skill and practice. I wouldn’t have had easy access to several kinds of paint (primer/undercoat and topcoat, at minimum).

Midway - doors now fitted
Midway – doors now fitted

In short, a task which took two of us a couple of days to finish (plus waiting time in between paint coats) would have been a seriously long proposition, and one which would have had a much more debatable outcome.

That’s looking back. But if you look forward, to the prospect of making a cupboard in low or zero gravity, a whole set of different problems presents itself. Let’s suppose that I would have either procured some wood, or else used a three-d printer to turn out something similar enough that I could make it. Then I’d have to manoeuvre it into position. In low gravity, mass and weight mean different things – I would have the muscular strength to shift much larger weights than here on Earth, but their mass, and so their inertia, would be exactly the same, so getting the planks to stop moving might be an issue. Most of my Earth-based tools would not work, since most of them rely heavily on friction to have an effect. A saw works by relying on the fact that you can fix both the wood and yourself in place sufficiently well that the teeth cut through the wood fibres. Shift into micro-gravity, and what tends to happen is that you just can’t get enough opposing force at the blade edge to get anywhere.

An astronaut working on the Hubble Space Telescope – note the cordless drill strapped to his belt (NASA)

Similarly for our dinky electric screwdriver. On Earth it’s great – you hold it steady, the screws turn round and work their way through the layers of wood. In microgravity, it’s hard to avoid you turning the opposite way to the screw. My layers of paint wouldn’t have a tendency to drip downwards – which would be very handy- but they’d also tend to disperse into little globules which would then go into all kinds of places you didn’t expect or want. The various space agencies have had to develop very specific – and very expensive – versions of everyday tools just so they can work in low Earth orbit reasonably well. Even so, tasks take much longer – in 2017 some 12 old batteries on the ISS were replaced with 6 new ones. The task took took separate spacewalks, the first of which lasted over 6 hours. Changing those 12 batteries took nearly as long as we took to build the whole cupboard. Fixing and making things in microgravity is hard work, and slow work.


3D-printed items using fake moon dust, or regolith (ESA)

Now, I’m quite convinced that as and when people will want to build a linen cupboard in low Earth orbit, or on the moon, or on an asteroid somewhere, they will be inventive enough to craft different kinds of tools which don’t make the same assumptions about gravity strength and direction that our current generation does. Maybe in a few decades I would simply download the cupboard template and print myself one, in whatever dimensions and colour scheme seemed good to me. Last year there was an interesting article explaining how ESA are testing the use of moon dust as the raw material for printers (at this stage it’s not actually dust from the moon, owing to a shortage of that, but the regolith they used has broadly the same properties). So you don’t send a bunch of tools and construction materials over to the mon, or Ceres, or Charon, or wherever – you send a printer with some pre-programmed templates, and you gather dust from your local environment.

For us, stuck with our 2019 toolset, there was a happy ending – the cupboard got finished quickly, and we can now move on to renovating the previous linen storeroom. And that would scarcely have been possible even fifty years ago, let alone all the previous years of mankind’s time here on Earth.

The finished article...
The finished article…

Some thoughts on poetry

Neolithic bone flute, China (Wiki)

I thought it was long overdue time that I wrote something on poetry – my historical fiction books lean heavily on poetry, and my various science fiction and fantasy books are regularly built around music and singing – something I reckon will forever be a part of human experience, wherever we end up living. Music has transformed itself many times over since our prehistoric forebears first accompanied their own voices on wind, string or percussion instruments. We have listened to and participated in music played solo or in groups, small and large.

The Muses (greekmythology.com)

But today I am writing about poetry, not music, though the two are very closely related – probably the topic of another blog sometime. Six of the nine Greek muses were explicitly involved with music and poetry, and the focus of the other three was on pursuits which depended heavily on them. In the myths, the muses were not just engaged in fun and celebration – they also turn up to defend their reputation and avenge themselves on mortals who presume to challenge their primacy.

When most people in the modern world think of poetry, we typically imagine lines of regular beats with some sort of rhyme scheme – either adjacent lines rhyming in an AA-BB pattern, or alternating lines sounding like AB-AB, or the looser version AB-CB. For example, the American anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, uses ABAB for the first four lines of each stanza, and AA-BB for the last four. At the casual end of the scale, Mary had a Little Lamb uses AB-CB. We all know that “real” poetry does not always adhere to these basic patterns, but if asked to come up with a rhyme on the spur of the moment, these basic schemes will probably come to mind.

Musicians from ancient Egypt (British Museum – Wiki)

Most of the earliest poetry that we have, however, is not built around rhyme, nor indeed around a regular pulse or metre. Instead, early poetry from Mesopotamia and Egypt, followed later all around the ancient near east and so also appearing in the Hebrew Bible, was built around the idea of parallelism. (Ages ago I wrote a post about how this pattern also turns up in the much more recent Finnish epic Kalevala) Pairs of lines expressed the same idea in different ways, without special regard for the exact number of syllables or metrical beats, or any rhyming pattern. Something like the start of the Ugaritic epic poem of king Keret:

The clan of Keret died out;
the house of the king was destroyed

Now the advantage of parallelism, from the point of view of other people trying to understand it, is that it is comparatively easy to translate. There will almost certainly be subtleties of the language, word plays and the like, which don’t translate, but the basics certainly do. But poets rapidly wanted to make their work richer and more complex. So variations of parallelism arose – words omitted or added in the basic couplets, changes of word order to invert the second line, triplet forms extending the basic pairs, and so on. The parallelism of words was enhanced by using alliteration of consonants to reinforce the connecting sounds.

Reproduction of an ancient Irish horn from Armagh (
http://www.ancientmusicireland.com)

So the stage was set for end-rhyme to make its appearance in poetry – the pattern that we are most used to today. You can look at end-rhyme as just another form of parallelism – but instead of the line endings being signalled by words with parallel meaning, something opposite is happening. The correspondence of rhyming words at the line ends makes us put them in parallel, and so establishes links between words which otherwise would remain separate in our minds. The more appropriately creative the rhyme, the more striking becomes the connection between words in our minds. William Blake’s Tyger has the following lines, provoking us to make connections between spears and tears

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears

And again, poets play with our expectations of rhyme in order to jolt us into a different interpretation. Sometimes called a “censored rhyme”, it is often used to suggest politically subversive or sexually risque themes – the actual words themselves are typically innocent, but the expectation aroused in the listener is not. My favourite example is Sweet Violets… almost every line sets the listener up to expect a particular rhyming word, and then diverges away…

There once was a farmer who took a young miss
In back of the barn where he gave her a lecture
On horses and chickens and eggs
And told her that she had such beautiful manners

That suited a girl of her charms
A girl that he wanted to take in his
Washing and ironing and then if she did
They could get married and raise lots of

Sweet violets
Sweeter than all the roses…

An authorised version of these songs (cover image – Caedmon Songs – see https://www.discogs.com/release/1039597)

This all has a lot to do with writing. Some authors want to include real poems in their books, as opposed to saying something along the lines of “then they sang a song”. So then you have to decide how your poem is to be structured in a formal sense, and whether you want that to mirror the conventions of the time of the setting. So a book set in the ancient near east – if it is to be authentic to its era – would not use rhyming couplets, but parallel ones. A story set in Anglo-Saxon times would use the conventions of Germanic poetry, built heavily around word alliteration and stock verbal images with little if any rhyme. A fantasy or science fiction book is free to build up its own conventions as to how poetry in that world is created – but would be enriched by making those fictional conventions fully integrated into the wider world-building . It’s a habit of thought that Tolkien was a master at – he had the advantage of being able to draw on a wide variety of early conventions of song and poetry, and he deployed these conventions so carefully that you can tell almost at first read of one of his poems, which of the various peoples of Middle Earth are in focus (see the Open Culture web site for some readings)

To close, here’s a video of ancient Irish music, found at http://www.ancientmusicireland.com. A wealth of information and live demonstrations, with (to my ears) odd resonances in the music of Bladerunner

Living on Someone else’s land

The finished item…

Many of you know that last week I was heavily involved in getting some refurbishment work done to a bar in Grasmere, Cumbria. It really did get finished on time, albeit needing a couple of long days and late nights. But I’m not going to blog about that. Nor – though I did consider it – an I going to blog about how pretty much every project pushes the envelope on its expected finishing time (even Gandalf apparently suffered from this, judging by his complaint in the film version of Lord of the Rings, “Three hundred lives of men I have walked this earth and now I have no time”).

One of the jackdaws…

Instead, I’m going to talk about something that occupied my mind during several journeys from the bar back to our storage area in some former barns late at night. It is pretty dark in that part of Grasmere, and I didn’t bother with a torch or anything until I was actually poking around trying to find some small-but-essential gizmo to take back. And as I walked down the cul de sac which is Lake View Drive, across the lawn, and down the rough track to the barns, with empty fields on one side going down to the lake, the night was alive with all kinds of animal and bird noises. Of course we have herons and jackdaws as regular visitors – uninvited, but normally welcome – along with a bunch of regular garden birds. Buzzards drift overhead every so often. At this time of year the lake shore is full of geese, swelling the regular swan and duck population. And so on. These are all familiar.

Three badgers playing…

But as well as these, there are the nocturnal creatures that we share the land with, but don’t interact with very much. I’ve mentioned the badgers before, and right now we often get what look to me to be a group of juveniles playing – this night-camera picture shows them beside one of the apple trees, complete with protective fence. A few minutes later they all headed off in a group towards the barns. Maybe they wanted to sample the batch of lager we had just started off?

Why protect the apple trees? Well, that has to do with another of our nocturnal visitors – a small herd of deer. These are very much less welcome. On the night camera I have seen up to half a dozen at a time, led by a rather splendid looking stag. They have been steadily decimating a row of laurel bushes, which we don’t mind so much as they will bounce back, but also various bulbs and small plants which we want for the spring. According to local rumour, several of the local farmers are suffering rather more serious commercial loss from this little bunch.

One of the deer…

Anyway, all this set me thinking that we are only one of the occupants of this piece of the British landscape, and that deer, badgers, rabbits, herons and whatnot have in all likelihood been wandering around the area much longer than we humans have. And this has been true for most of human history. As we spread out, ages ago, from Africa and the Near East, we were perpetually coming into contact with the existing occupants of land which, to us, was unknown. We met predators and prey, and reacted accordingly. We met other hominids – Neanderthals , Denisovans, and others. Sometimes we settled peacefully and mated with them, other times we met in war. But until very recently, we knew that the land we moved across and settled in was not really our own – we were simply a recent arrival, joining others who had lived there for many years already. A lot of that sense of shared occupancy seems to me to have evaporated. We frequently assume these days that we are the sole – or at least the single most important – residents in any particular patch of the planet. That’s a big subject, and one for another day.

Turning now to writing, most novels set in the past should have this as part of the background. Different cultures at different times might express that idea differently – birds and beasts , angels and demons, selkies and spirits – but it should always be there. And it’s kind of regular stock in trade for fantasy literature.

Mars (NASA/JPL)

But, as usually happens, this propelled my thoughts forward into science fiction. How can this sense of shared living be captured in that medium? As and when we move out from this planet into the other worlds of the solar system, and potentially beyond, will we recover that sense of having to share the environment with others? This might, of course, be in the most overt and incontrovertible way – an unequivocal meeting with intelligent aliens. But it might also be something much less obvious, such as microbes living in the sub-surface oceans of some of the larger moons circling the outer planets – Titan, Europa and Enceladus for sure, Ganymede and Callisto possibly. Or maybe forms of bacterial life in underground salty lakes on Mars. Or some manifestation of life that as yet we don’t know how to recognise.

How will it be, I wonder, to recover an everyday sense that we are shared occupants of the universe, not solitary ones?

Another Alexa skill – Grasmere Brewery

Grasmere Brewery Alexa Icon
Grasmere Brewery Alexa Icon

Another of my Alexa skills has gone live – Grasmere Brewery, to be found at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07L8WK3Y9/ – UK only at present but rest of world to follow in a few days. Here’s the skill description…
“In this skill you can find out about Grasmere Brewery – where we are, and the range of beers we make, together with a selection of fun and interesting facts. We don’t sell our beers through Alexa, but you can find out how to buy them here. As with all alcohol products, we urge you to enjoy our beers responsibly.”

***Stop Press***

To my surprise, the skill has already gone live at other international Alexa market places – US, CA, AU, NZ, IN – as well as UK. I thought it would take a bit longer than this!

For example the US link is https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07L8WK3Y9/

Weather – here on Earth

"Alexa, open Cumbria Weather"
“Alexa, open Cumbria Weather”

I thought I’d blog about weather today, firstly because it often matters when writing about the past, and secondly as a kind of shameless advert for my most recent Alexa skill. Let’s get that out of the way first – it’s called Cumbrian Weather, and it requests a short-range forecast from the Mountain Weather Information Service. Why not just use the built-in weather service on Alexa? Well, MWIS focus on weather insofar as it impacts outdoor pursuits such as walking, cycling, rock-climbing and so on. So the forecast includes essential things like whether the peaks are covered in cloud, what the temperature is at 750m, what height you reach freezing point as you climb up, and the like. All of which interest me, so I have accessed this data-feed and present it through Alexa. Like all my Alexa skills to date, it is entirely free to enable and use.

Rough weather on Bryher, Isles of Scilly
Rough weather on Bryher, Isles of Scilly

Which brings me nicely to the impact of weather on historical fiction. You get macro-level events that shape the whole story, such as drought, floods, a long winter, and so on. These are often used to set the scene, or the tone, for a book. Storms at sea are a staple of maritime fiction, and are a handy device for placing characters in unforeseen circumstances.

But in daily life as well as fiction, it’s also the smaller scale events that can derail the best intentions. And the nature of these events varies hugely with location. In London, where I am writing this, then the impact is often seen on transport – the famous autumnal “leaves on the track” problem which no doubt will be affecting commuters before long. A century or so ago, pollution and fog could easily combine to produce an unpleasant, unhealthy, and all-but-impenetrable smog.

Puma Mountain rescue helicopter practicing in low cloud near Fairfield
Puma Mountain rescue helicopter practicing in low cloud near Fairfield

Up in Cumbria, a night’s rain in the wrong place can end with localised floods. Storm Desmond, back in the winter of 2015, left major roads unusable, and washed away several bridges, quite apart from the impact on houses and shops. That aside, you can have a run of several days when even low peaks and ridges are invisible because of low cloud, frustrating work and movement between valleys. The various mountain rescue teams are regularly called out to succour people who have been caught by surprise up a height, and are completely unprepared for a weather change.

These more rapid, more local shifts and switches are every bit as important to fictional characters, as their real life equivalents are to us. Naturally, the particular kinds of weather change that matter to people vary from place to place – one location may have low cloud and mist, another one sudden blizzards, and a third sandstorms. It’s as well to find out what your characters might have to contend with!

Next week I’ll be having a quick look at weather on other planets. Not yet an everyday topic for most of us, but potentially it will be in a few years.

Meanwhile, here’s another quick reminder of Cumbrian Weather… available now in the UK Alexa store, and to appear soon in other stores world-wide.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

A first extract from Quarry

I’ve made occasional comments about a prehistoric novel I am planning, set in what we now call Cumbria, and tentatively called Quarry at this stage, Well, I had thought that this was only at a very early planning stage, and that I wouldn’t start actually writing anything until The Liminal Zone was done and dusted – and possibly The Authentication Key (=Far from the Spaceports vol 3) as well. (For any readers waiting for those two books, fear not… they are definitely in progress…)

But as things turned out, Quarry has been nagging at me until I put something down, so here is an extract. It is probably from very near the start, if not the actual opening. Bonus points to anyone who can not only identify the high ground mentioned, but also the tarn… (tree cover in the period in question was much more extensive than now)

==============

Quarry image
Quarry image

Bran woke, all at once as the unfamiliar sun kissed his eyes. He had bedded down the previous evening at the edge of a stand of short trees, all bursting into greenleaf. A broad swathe of grass ran down to a round pool.

The clouds had lowered as he reached the mere, and he had read that as a sign to stop. Not that the sign meant much, as cloud and springtime mist had walked beside him from the moment, two days ago, when he had started to climb up from the broad valley into the hills. The stones of a gathering circle, straddling the place where five ways crossed, had swum out of fog as he neared them, and he had turned half-left and stumbled along the ancient ridge track, anxiously placing his feet where so many others had walked, until the next cairn appeared. And the next, and the next, until he was weary of half-seen forms, and chilled by the wind and the droplets of water that clung to wool and leather, hair and skin.

The mist had stayed with him through all of that day and the next, veiling the peaks and ridges on either side. When he finally stood in the travellers’ place at Pen-y-lugh, the long lake it stood on was shrouded, the east and west shores soon fading to shapeless bands of darker grey. The townspeople, seeing the set of tools at his belt, and the tattoo of the stone-workers clan, had directed him up a gentle track. He had left the settlement again, and worked an easy way around the side of a crumpled hill.

Now there was morning sun, and a still air that left not a ripple on the circle of water in front of him. His shadow fell across it as he stood, and the trees opposite – oak and birch, hazel and holly – stood upright on the heels of their own reflections. He looked down at their length stretched out in the water, and saw below all of them an arc of grey rock, speckled with white.

He looked up again, eyes tracing the trunks and the leaves, until he was looking at the real spur instead of the reflected one. It was his first sight of the place where he would work. From here, it was a two-headed beast. A long curved ridgeback ended in those proud upraised horns. Perhaps it had once settled from the skies onto the valley wall, its fiery ardour slowly solidifying into crag and rock. Or perhaps it had welled up from the world below, forming these shapes as it contended with the outward air. Now it was cold and hard, and the snow of winter still streaked its spine and flanks.

He leaned back against the rowan tree which had sheltered him last night, and gazed, filling himself with that first sight. Somewhere below those outcrops, he supposed, his dwelling-place was waiting, though it was hidden from him by all the forest between. But his task, day after day, would be to clamber up between the beast’s paws, to find and follow its congealed veins as they wound their precious way back into the stone body. There he would tease out the best of the unformed teardrops of rock, and shape them into gifts. Gifts for war or gifts for love: each one would be a thing of beauty drawn out from the mountain.

A squirrel chattered nearby, and a family of wagtails began to dabble along the water’s edge. It was time to go; it was time to finish his journey to the quarry.

==============

High Street, ancient trackways, and Romans

Ullswater, looking roughly south-west towards Helvellyn
Ullswater, looking roughly south-west towards Helvellyn

As well as Boot and the Hardknott Pass, which I’ve been talking about the last couple of weeks, I spent a fair amount of time around Ullswater while in Cumbria. It’s the second longest of the lakes (after Windermere) and has often been claimed to be the most aesthetically pleasing. For example, Wainwright called it, “that loveliest of lakes, curving gracefully into the far distance“. Be that as it may, it certainly has a wealth of natural beauty and historical interest. But the fact that at many points around its shores, the hills encroach very steeply, means that it is only thinly settled, and parts of it are quite difficult to approach except on foot or by using one of the several launches that go to and fro.

Helvellyn against the skyline
Helvellyn against the skyline

The particular part I want to focus on runs down the eastern side of the lake. It is another part of the Cumbrian network of ancient trackways – later adopted by the Romans for their own purposes. This one is now called High Street, running by the hill of that name a little further south, and ultimately connects to Ambleside… and hence Hardknott, Boot, and the coast.

The Cockpit, looking roughly south
The Cockpit, looking roughly south

My starting point, after some gentle approach climbing up from the lake, was at an ancient stone circle called The Cockpit. Nobody knows the original name, or indeed the original purpose. It probably dates from the Bronze Age, could be up to about 5000 years old and is one component of a large collection of ancient sites on Moor Divock. Whenever and whyever it was built, it lay then as now on a crossroads. A roughly north-south route from Penrith to Ambleside crosses a roughly east-west route coming across from Castlerigg (near Keswick) to the Eden Valley and Shap. The much later Romans would be making similar journeys, though they were more interested in their settlement near Cockermouth than in looking at the Castlerigg stone circle. And nowadays casual explorers like me go there.

Milepost marker
Milepost marker

So from The Cockpit you head south – like Burnmoor near Boot, the current terrain is wild and slightly boggy, but back in the days of prehistoric occupation it was rather more pleasant. There’s a long steady climb up towards Loadpot Hill, but well before you get there you can see many of lakeland’s most dramatic peaks in the distance – Blencathra, Skiddaw, the whole length of the Helvellyn ridge, and then Fairfield and others heading south. You also regularly see other signs of human occupation, from other prehistoric arrangements of stones through Roman mileposts, to a very few much more recent (and ruined) dwellings. The track itself stretches out in front of you, and there’s a real sense of walking in the footsteps of a whole throng of ancestors. You really could walk on through the Kirkstone Pass and down to the shores of Windermere, provided you were equipped for the journey.

(Former) Roman altar, old St Martin's church
(Former) Roman altar, old St Martin’s church

I didn’t do that, but turned off the ridge into Martindale, where one last historical treat awaits. The current old church of St Martin’s dates from Elizabethan times, but a church has been there since the Middle Ages. The font – which has been used there for some 500 years – was originally a Roman altar, retrieved by some enterprising villagers from somewhere along High Street. In the graveyard is an ancient yew, which some believe is among the oldest living trees in England and could be up to 1300 years old. That would probably predate the first appearance of Christianity here, and would mean that, like the Roman altar, it had once been involved in very different expressions of spirituality.

All in all a great walk, and one to revisit at some stage. And, of course, all good raw material to stir into the (pre)historical novel Quarry which is slowly coming together in my mind.

The ancient ways...
The ancient ways…

...and the ravens overhead
…and the ravens overhead

Hardknott Pass and the Roman fort of Mediobogdum

The road up to the Hardknott Pass, from the west
The road up to the Hardknott Pass, from the west

Last week I talked about my trip across to Boot and thence up onto Burnmoor to enjoy the prehistoric monuments there. Readers will remember that I had got there over the Hardknott Pass. But the pass itself enjoys another ancient ruin – the much more recent Roman fort of Mediobogdum. It is surprisingly well preserved – presumably because it is far enough away from any of the nearby farms that the stones were not robbed too extensively for building projects.

Galava (?) Roman Fort, Ambleside
Galava (?) Roman Fort, Ambleside

It’s one of those forts which makes you curious about the Roman predilection for building forts at regular intervals. At least, I presume that this is the reason for building just here. The next fort along is down at Ambleside, at the top end of Windermere – we suspect that this is either Galava or Clanoventa as mentioned by Antonine, and the local publicity strongly favours the first of these. That fort – which is also worth a visit – has been nicely reconstructed so you can easily imagine the life of the garrison, with easy access along northern, north-eastern, and southern land routes, and a decent-sized port to access the lake. But from Ambleside you can also head  more-or-less due west, towards the distant sea. To get there you have to cross ridges containing some of the highest Lakeland peaks, and the Romans – like modern road-builders – chose to go over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes.

(As an aside, just to finish the chain of forts and roads, you can head roughly north-west from Ambleside to get over the High Street route (which was an ancient track long before the Romans borrowed it) up to near Penrith and thence on to Hadrian’s Wall. I’ll be saying more about High Street in another post soon. From Penrith you could also go along what is now the A66 west towards Troutbeck, or east towards Appleby-in-Westmorland. Or southwards towards Kendal, Kirkby Lonsdale and Lancaster.)

Hardknott Fort, looking towards the Irish Sea and Isle of Man
Hardknott Fort, looking towards the Irish Sea and Isle of Man

But then we get to the business of regular intervals, The Romans could have marched on a few miles further down into the valley before building their next fort – say down to the village of Boot, which is comparatively sheltered and protected. But no – the fort was built high up in the pass. In summer it is a spectacular place, with views all the way down Eskdale to the Irish Sea and over to the Isle of Man. The road ended at the sea, at Itunocelum. Now, on a fine day, it would be a great place to be posted. But even in summer, you get a lot of days with low cloud pressing a long way down the pass, or wet trade winds bringing drizzle or worse up from the sea. My guess is that even in summer, you get the great views at most one day in three.

Hardknott Fort
Hardknott Fort

And then there’s the winter days, when a soldier in the garrison would expect lots of gloom, cold and darkness! If you had come up here from southern Italy, you might well be wondering where on Earth you had come to! It’s not even as though there were large numbers of hostile natives to keep at bay – it would have made more sense to site the fort somewhere else.

But here is Mediobogdum. On a clear day it is genuinely spectacular, and also gives a peculiar insight into Roman military thinking.

Hardknott Pass
Hardknott Pass

Prehistory between Eskdale and Wastwater

Burnmoor Tarn, with Scafell and Great Gable behind
Burnmoor Tarn, with Scafell and Great Gable behind

A few days ago I finally achieved a long-standing goal of walking north from Boot (in Eskdale, Cumbria) up towards Wastwater. Boot is quite remote, to say the least. The shortest route from Grasmere, by a considerable margin, is over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes, but these are difficult in a lot of weather conditions, so some folk take the longer route around southern Cumbria via Ulverston and Broughton-in-Furness. Happily the weather smiled on my journey, so the passes needed only ordinary care – and I’ll be writing a bit more about Hardknott on another occasion. Wastwater has a reputation of being the most remote lake in all of Lakeland, but since it has a fairly direct route up onto Scafell or Scafell Pike (depending which track you choose at the start, down in the valley) it still attracts a decent number of people.

Looking toward the Irish Sea from Burnmoor
Looking toward the Irish Sea from Burnmoor

The attraction for me was the chance to see some of the prehistoric sites just north of Boot. Today the region is a rather damp and unprepossessing tract of moorland, but back in the Neolithic and Bronze ages, it supported a reasonable population who (presumably) found it a pleasant spot to live. Times change. Back then, the sea level in the north-west of England was probably somewhere between 10 and 30m above where it is now. The change is principally because the land has risen rather than the sea level falling. As the weight of ice fell away from the land after the close of the last ice age, say about ten thousand years ago in round numbers, the land bounced back (the technical term being “isostatic rebound“). If you take a map of present-day Cumbria and shade in another 20 metres worth of sea, you find that places like Boot were not so far away from the coast.

Not only that, but the vegetation was quite different. Much larger tracts of land were wooded. It is not yet clear whether the trees formed continuous forest, or were scattered in coppices, clustered around the various tarns and streams. Whichever of these is the case, the landscape back then would look very different from what we see today. This change is partly climatic and partly to do with land clearance – the (fairly recent) adoption of sheep farming in the hills has had the side-effect of considerably reducing the tree cover. Some places have kept a decent amount of woodland, but others have almost completely lost it.

Rocky outcrop above Boot ("the altar")
Rocky outcrop above Boot (“the altar”)

As you climb up from Boot, passing some comparatively recent peat-cutters’ houses, you come up onto the moorland plateau. To your left is a belt of lowland, leading to the Irish Sea. Ahead, if you have picked the correct track up onto Burnmoor, is a large rocky outcrop. It overlooks not just one or two stone circles, but no less than five! The first – Brat’s Hill – is the largest, comprising 42 stones in a 30 metre ring, and containing 5 burial cairns in the interior. Following this are two pairs of two smaller circles – White Moss are closer, and Low Longrigg further away.

Brat's Hill circle, with Great Gable in the distance, and the slope of Scafell to the right
Brat’s Hill circle, with Great Gable in the distance, and the slope of Scafell to the right

Why five circles so close? Did they serve different purposes? Did some fall into disuse and needed to be replaced? Did they belong to different clans or religious groups? Or take turns of importance according to some rota? Were the smaller ones practice rings for children or novices? We just don’t know. Most people assume that the outcrop was used as an integral part of the whole – perhaps to summon people to the place, or address them once there. Was it used for group exhortation, religious ritual, treaty negotiation, or social debate? Whatever the original use, it is often now just called “the altar”. Today, as well as the sea off to one side, the great peaks of Scafell and Great Gable overlook the plateau. It is a magnificent place. Perhaps the stone circles were originally in woodland glades – in which case some of the distant views would not be visible. But my personal suspicion is that the trees stopped well short of this area, and that the long views of mountain and sea were an important part of the experience.

Maiden Castle
Maiden Castle

Further on – once you have torn yourself away from the rings and skirted the fringe of Boat How – you get to Burnmoor Tarn, nestling in a hollow of the surrounding ridges and overlooked by Scafell. On the northern side the path goes over a saddle and down into Wastwater. And up in the saddle there is a more substantial ring of stones, called Maiden Castle (as so many of these places are). The stones are about 7m across, and are positioned on a slightly larger dry area, raised a little above the damp moorland. It is almost certainly a burial cairn, and you have to wonder who wanted to be buried here, overlooked not just by Scafell and the Gable, but also several other more northerly peaks which have by now become visible.

From here, I turned back to Boot, but you could go on exploring this plateau for a considerable time. But whether you stay a long or short time, the area leaves more questions than answers in your mind. What were these circles used for? Politics, religion, or just fun? One day, I intend exploring these questions in fiction, with an as-yet-untitled story centred on the stone axe “factory” in Langdale… I now have a working title – Quarry – but not much storyline yet…

 

 

There’s a good story here, I think…

The last few days have been vastly busy for me with outside jobs, and I am way behind on blog matters! But I did come across some recent research about the movements of stars which fascinated me, and which has prompted this post. It also has the seeds of what could be a fine prehistoric story, which one day might get written.

If you do a quick search for “what is the closest star to our sun” then you will get the reply “Alpha Centauri” (or perhaps, more precisely, “Proxima Centauri” – if you ask Alexa she will give you quite a detailed response). This multiple star system is situated just over four light years from us – for comparison, Pluto is under 5 light hours from the sun. But Alpha Centauri is very like our sun in terms of size, energy, and so on, and is easily visible from the right locations, so has appeared several times in stories.

The nearest stars to us (Wikipedia)
The nearest stars to us (Wikipedia)

But what if you then consider the movements of stars over time? All stars near us are involved in a vast circling movement around the galaxy’s centre, but this movement is not regular and orderly in the way that the planets’ movement is around our sun. Stars approach each other and move away, potentially having huge effects on the clusters of planets, comets, etc that accompany them. So what happens if we look forward or backward in time?

So as you can see, Proxima Centauri will get steadily closer to us for the next 30,000 years or so, then lose its role to Ross 248. But none of these stars gets closer to us than about 3 light years, which is comfortably far away and is unlikely to cause any serious issues.

Nearest stars to us changing over time (Wikipedia)
Nearest stars to us changing over time (Wikipedia)

Perhaps you are wondering where the story is in this? We will get there…

Now, these stars are mostly fairly bright, and many of them have been known since antiquity. But in recent years, powerful space-based telescopes like Hubble have discovered that far the most numerous stars in our galaxy are not bright ones like our sun, or super-bright ones like Sirius, but small, dim ones called red or brown dwarfs. These burn extremely slowly, conserving their fuel in a miserly way that means they will hugely outlive our sun. They are invisible to the naked eye even at quite close range (astronomically speaking)… but many of them have planets of their own, and if these planets huddle close enough in, then they could quite easily be habitable. To date, much of our quest for life elsewhere in the universe has looked at stars broadly similar to our own, but maybe we should be looking by preference at these dwarfs?

So… what if we roll back that chart in time to a scale of 70,000 years rather than 20,000, and include the paths of dwarf stars in it (a feat which has only become possible in very recent years). For context, 70,000 years ago anatomically modern humans had already experienced their first large-scale migration out of Africa to other parts of the world, and would soon be doing so a second time. They were sharing the world with Neanderthals and other hominids, and would be for another 30-40,000 years, including various times of interbreeding. They were using stone tools and showing signs of “behavioural modernity” (religious and artistic sensitivity and such like). Slightly earlier, there may have a global crisis involving the Toba supervolcano eruption -some argue that this caused massive population loss, others are not convinced.

70,000 year old tools (http://www.sciencemag.org)
70,000 year old tools (http://www.sciencemag.org)

Whatever the effects of Toba, around 70,000 years ago a binary star system came very close to us – about 3/4 of a light year in fact. It consists of 1 red dwarf with 1 brown dwarf,  both under 100 times the mass of Jupiter. It is called Scholtz’s Star, or WISE J072003.20-084651.2 if you are feeling thoroughly pedantic. Now, 3/4 of a light year is still way outside Pluto’s orbit, but it is inside the region called the Oort Cloud, a loose collection of icy rocks and potential comets that accompany our sun and from time to time journey down into the inner solar system to become visible for a brief time.

Today, Scholtz’s Star can only be viewed in the southern hemisphere, in the constellation Monoceros. It’s about 20 light years away and receding from us. Back then you’d have needed to look in the constellation Gemini (though the shapes would be a bit changed because of stellar movement).

So, would Scholtz’s Star have been visible to our remote ancestors? Well, probably not in its normal state. Even at 3/4 of a light year, it would almost certainly be too dim to be seen with the naked eye. But many red dwarfs are what are called flare stars – their brightness flares up to many times the usual intensity on an irregular basis. And if a flare event happened while it was near to us, then it would have been vivid to our ancestors. Back then, the best time for viewing would have been in the autumn of the northern hemisphere, from the tropics northwards. So my remote European forebears might have stood and wondered at this – although the Europe of 70,000 years ago looked rather different to today’s map!

And here of course is the story – what would these people have made of such a star? Suppose that it had entered our neighbourhood while in quiescent mode – invisible to their naked eyes just as much as ours – and then flared up while close. A new star would have appeared to them, and I wonder what they would have made of it. I don’t expect they had a great deal of time for abstract philosophy back then, but I’m willing to bet they told stories and sang songs – what part would Scholtz’s Star have played in them?

Artist's impression of Scholtz's Star (Astronomy.com)
Artist’s impression of Scholtz’s Star (Astronomy.com)