Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Up north

As I may have indicated, I was in Yorkshire and Derbyshire for a few days.

Socially the north is a different country from London -- but so are, for instance, the west of England and East Anglia; that’s because of the far greater cultural diversity of London. Socially the north isn’t a different country from all of the south.

Geographically, though, the north definitely is a different country from the south, no doubt about it -- in climate, landscape and vegetation. Within the north, the towns in the Pennine Hills are very different from York or Scarborough, but both are definitely unlike the south.

Even with global warming, winter still starts earlier and ends later up there, by a month at each end, I reckon. Overall it’s colder. In the south, there are many corners that are regularly sun-baked: flowers bloom amid prolific vegetation that’s similar to that found much further south, in central France, say. Vines grow; wine is made. The trees are the classic English woodland varieties: oak and beech, with less traditional horse chestnut. Moss grows on trees and walls; there are lizards. Think Forest of Arden. Rivers are broad and slow-moving.

The whole of the north was in the Roman highland zone. In the western, Pennine parts, rivers rush down hillsides; they powered the mills of the industrial revolution. The trees are ash, elder, sycamore -- the latter an arboreal weed, with soot and no moss or lichen on its trunk. Where vegetation is prolific in the north it’s rank, coarse and damp. The bottoms of wooden fences rot and carry orange mould; the lowest layers of those long forbidding stone walls -- hand built but too regular, as if machine-made -- erected in the 19th and early 20th century around parks, reservoirs and lunatic asylums are permanently damp; any moss they carry is the sort you get around the outfalls of sewage pipes. Women huddle year-round in winter anoraks as they thrust their pushchairs into the gale. Sparrows and starlings, magpies, rooks, lapwings and gulls were the birds I knew as a kid in Bradford.

While ironing a few days ago I watched the breakfast programme on BBC. A smart 10-year-old had won a competition to design a new cover for Wind in the Willows: the sun shone on a lazy river on which Ratty and Mole drifted idly in their boat; ducks pottered. The winner was Harry Jones, age 12.

My old copy has these pics:

If there had been houses, they would have been cottages with hollyhocks in the garden and roses round the door. White paths would have led through the turf over small, pleasantly rising hills.

The other main source of my images of a mythical southern landscape was the Rupert annuals.

In Bradford I knew these landscapes from children’s story books and believed, I suppose, that they belonged in storybook worlds along with knights and witches. It was only on my first trip to the south at 15, hitching overnight with Stanny from Wakefield Road in a British Road Services lorry (speed limit 20mph) that dawn broke over a scene that was exactly taken from the books: this world was real, in Stratford-upon-Avon at 6 o’clock on an April morning. We’d got into the cab at 8 o’clock on a winter evening and descended from it in spring. Apple and cherry were in blossom; swans drifted under willows in a haze of budding leaf.

But in the Peak District I reminded myself how much I can still be affected by a cluster of stone farm buildings grouped in a dip on a hillside, and by the pattern of the blackened stone walls dropped like a wide-gauge net over the bare forms of hills and valleys, with sheep and single barns and small copses dotted between them. By 18th century enclosers, I assume. Will bring back photos next time I'm there when it’s not raining.

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