The Moor by William Atkins

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Reviewed by Christine Harding

The moors of his childhood gave William Atkins a lifelong passion for moorlands, and in this book he travels through some of England’s most inhospitable and inaccessible places. He journeys from Bodmin, through Exmoor and Dartmoor, northwards to Saddleworth, the Calder Valley, the area around Haworth, the North York Moors, Alston, and on into Northumbria.

Along the way he meets the people who live, work and play in these isolated areas: solders, gamekeepers, landowners, conservationists, birdwatchers, poets, farmers, prisoners, vicars, walkers and a host of others. He recounts tales of characters from the past – murderers and their victims, preachers, teachers, librarians, topographers, naturalists, historians, scholars, monks, miners, men of vision convinced that with the right techniques land could be brought into productive and profitable use, and men who tried (and failed) to scratch a living from the poor moorland soils.

And, of course, Atkins pays tribute to moorland writers. He seeks out places that inspired poets like Ted Hughes and WH Auden, and novelists like the Brontes, Henry Williamson, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle, and researches local legends that might have influenced them.

I was surprised to see how many of the people he writes about are ‘loners’, and there’s a thread running through the book, showing how the isolated moors (once regarded as barren waste lands) have always attracted people seeking solitude, and provided shelter for eccentrics, outcasts and fugitives. Some were pioneers who thought they could carve a fresh future for themselves. Others, perhaps more akin to the early Christian hermits who dwelt in deserts or on rocky crags in the ocean, wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of the world for a place where man can contemplate (or confront) his own nature and his place in the universe.

Alongside the anecdotes about people there’s a quirky collection of facts about the geology and history of moorlands, with stories about buildings, communities, and social customs, and traditions like Beating the Bounds. Take Dartmoor Prison: everyone knows it originally held French prisoners of war in the early 19th century. But some 20 years before that jail founder Thomas Tyrwhitt tried to establish a settlement there, only no-one wanted to settle in such a cold, wet, isolated spot where nothing would grow! However in 1805, realising that jails and prison hulks were jam-packed with POWs, he saw a chance to make good his losses by building a jail… And the rest, as they say, is history.

But the book’s real strength – and what makes it so special – lies is the way Atkins uses sight, sound, smell, touch, and even taste to describe the landscapes he passes through. Writing about Bodmin Moor, for example, he tells us:

The wind up here was an assault: in the bracken it sang rich and loud, in the grass it was a piping; between the boulders a hollow roar; it was a thousand voices and one, and each buffet hooted across my ears like a blast across the mouth of a bottle.

And a little further on he says you’ll exhaust yourself trying to name the colours:

Beyond the white-grey of the moss-spotted clitter, the moor sank through chartreuse slopes, down to the emerald intake of Penhale Farm, to a motley lowland of pale lime dashed with tawny and dun and fawn, and then the intricate tapestry of purple moor-grass, cotton-grass, mat-grass, heather, moss and lichens; chamois, bronze, taupe, walnut – a hennaed, mouldering, rusting vastness shot with saffron, carmine and topaz, with swathes of reflectivity that shimmered like raffia in the low sun.

Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Imagine those colours as embroidery threads, or a crocheted blanket, or scraps of tweed fabric waiting to be stitched into a quilt…

And his explanations of moorland geology have an economy of language that is almost poetic, with the data compressed into very few words, just as mud and plants were compressed into layers of rock – and is certainly easier to read and understand than any textbook. Here, talking about coalmining on Alston Moor, he says:

Roll back the grass and peat, and the hillsides would show their striped profiles: shale/sandstone/limestone/coal – each laid down as successive oceans filled and lingered and drained mud and sand becoming shale and sandstone, vegetation becoming coal, the bones of sea creatures tamping into limestone.

Atkins is as much obsessed by words as he is with the moors themselves, and I was fascinated to discover that there’s a whole language connected with every aspect of this particular landscape. It seems there is precisely the right word to describe every dip and hollow, every rise and slope, every bit of rock, from near microscopic particles to gigantic boulders. There are words for weather conditions, different types of water, soils and vegetation. English is a wonderful language, with a wealth of words to describe people, objects, places, emotions, situations, but just imagine the richness of having so many words devoted to one type of landscape, enabling you to say exactly what you mean.

Sometimes it’s difficult to grasp the nuances of the terminology: flaughts, for example, are sods of turf, while peats are obtained from a peat hole. Then there is growan, which is a fine quartz grit – ‘granite’s midway state of degradation from solid stone to powdery kaolin’.  Who knew there was a word to describe such a transformation (I didn’t even know kaolin clay comes from granite)! And what about clitter, the expanse of boulders that rings the summit of every tor. And there are deep griffs, and isolated hags, and cloughs, and curricks… And I particularly like his account of a névé:

The snow remained along the sunken paths and along cloughs and brooks and the footings of walls; its surface inch had frozen and refrozen and hardened to a brittle shell. There was a word for this sort of partially melted and refrozen snow – névé, from the Swiss French for glacier.

I must admit that until reading this book I hadn’t realised how much of the moorland landscape has been shaped not just by nature, but by man. Mining, quarrying, farming, military activities, drainage schemes and reservoirs have all left their mark. And grouse moors, apparently, are almost entirely man-made, with the birds and the heather they eat creating what is effectively a monoculture – in the past other species were wiped out to safeguard the grouse. These days, according to Atkins, the land is better managed, and many predators are protected. But here, and elsewhere, he considers the difficulty of trying to preserve the environment whilst meeting the conflicting demands of those who use the moors – a tricky task, since the various user groups often have divergent views and interests.

Highly recommended!

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William Atkins, The Moor: A Journey into the English Wilderness (Faber & Faber: London, 2015). 978-0571290055, 400pp., paperback.

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1 comment

  1. A beautifully written review, thank you! I am putting this book on my wish-list.

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