mountain of slate

Back to Tilberthwaite, on to Coniston Water

Thursday 19 July 2018

A description of our third day out – Wallace

Rachel and I returned to Tilberthwaite on a hot day during the dry spell of July.

Climbing up on the stone steps, I was surprised and disorientated by the large, pointed mound of slate pieces part-way up, the scraps and leftovers. I didn’t remember seeing it there on our first visit. Of course it was there; it is enormous. How could I not have seen it, a mound of broken pieces, an anomalous geometric shape in the curve of the hill.

The grasses are dry. The path leading to the left to the cave is, too, very different, dry and almost incidental, not the darkening alley it was when we first came. We almost pass it.

The cave itself is completely dry. It is more of a carved shelf than a cave, open to the amphitheatre or antechamber at its mouth. There is no sound of dripping water. No water on the ground, no moisture around the stones. There is, though, a different sound, the dry, hollow swirl of wind above the rock edges, a hallowing from a height that doesn’t pass over but circles. Is the sound made by the architecture of this place, or the trees above, trees that seem to be sturdy and surviving in the heat. The sound makes me see this place not as rock, but as a cutting around the sky. To see the place as blue and light, as only the frame for an atmosphere.

The mosses are thick, but have pulled away from the stone, pulling away to protect themselves, to grab any water in the air to survive.

In the cave, Rachel and I pour water over our hands and press them to the dry stone, leaving our transitory marks. Again, I am enchanted by the relief in the stone of the wall at the back of the cave. Ridges and caverns flow, in a small scale, and read like hieroglyphs. If I follow the shapes and lines, it is like time passing, the shapes and furrows of stories and movements and structures of time in which human lives have shape. Ragged, overlapping, cavernous, sharp, the movements of lives within lives. Then I look down to the scattered loose slate and stones on the shelf-floor. This is more like separate human lives scattered in dust, without connection, only fallen together.

We walk up to the next opening, the next theatre. The salts and minerals are dry, their colours and thickness changed, or are they merely more vivid in this light. The shadows against the harsh sunlight is too much for my camera, and shafts of stone bleach out in the photos. Will a drought cause the fissures to widen. What is in motion here?

The ceremonial white flowers we saw last time are still here. Using another piece of rubbish, an IKEA plastic bag, we take the florist’s oasis with us. We’re touching and staring at a place we have some familiarity with, but not like this. It is different in this heat and light. Of course it is. The trees are greener than I would expect. The grass hard and browned. There’s no wind sounds here. There are fewer people. We talk a little, not much. About anthropomorphism. Do the stones care for us? Where does consciousness happen?

Further up to the next theatre, there’s a climbing wall with fixings left in. This is recreational tourist territory. There is a wooden lintel, very near the ground, a black crawl space below. Rachel looks inside. ‘There’s been folks here. Cans.’ From the black inside, wafts of cold, dank, rancid air, like a demon’s breath, blow out in spasms, exhalations of a deep cave shivering cold.

Again, we walk to the edge of the hill and look down to the beck. There is barely any water. I see a weasel scrambling over stones. She disappears. Then appears up near us, with another animal in her jaws.

Everything we make, we make from earth. What else do we have, but breath.

We talk lightly, skirting around ritual, how to come into a place, about oracles, the deep of time and what could be done in or about this place. This sanctuary of stone. But I have trouble setting these ideas out from the ideas pressing on me around mining and extraction and discomforting beauty.

This is a beautiful and numinous place. Human industry has exposed what otherwise would be hidden. The Lakes are riddled with mines of stone, slate, granite, tin, copper. Houses are built from these stones; they shelter us from the rains. The thundering sounds of explosions and hacking steel on stone are gone, as are the dust and the ravaged edges. The mines are marked by tourist boards and car parks. The bucolic romanticism doesn’t assuage. It makes a dissonance, an unsettling need to not fall into the welcoming brush of this tranquillity in green, even as it is overpowering. The selective memory that makes for profitable tourism, and profitable mining, feels like cheating. The return of green life to these stones feels like the luxury of having a nation’s industries developed early, in time for a vegetal regeneration, while the roaring industries are forced elsewhere.

But these particular human upheavals are paltry and superficial compared to the geological movements of ice and stone. All this human effort produces only surface marks, the etchings on hard and eternal faces. Except that, here, those etchings do make a theatre of magnitude on a tiny scale. And except that, the cumulation and weight of human activity now may force the tectonic plates to shift.

We go to Coniston Water. We sit on the shingle, our bare feet in the water. There are young ducklings and an older brood in the swales. Boats anchored. Waters dabbling. Fish, winds and smells of seas coming up from the Bay. Here, we talk, all kinds of things. The magnitude of water.