The C-Word – Where is Culture?

A man with fell in distance, Glaramara.

A guest blog from Norman Hadley – written in the open landscape of the fells

The c-word is tricky, because “culture” can denote anything from opera to gang-life. Or yoghurt, for all that. And who wants the job of applying labels like “high” and “low” to any of it?

Is Lake District culture found among jocund daffodils on a lakeside or the veg beds in Mr McGregor’s garden? Yes, yes and all points in between. Uncrinkle the map and it soon becomes clear the map is culture Every place-name tells a story – of who came before us and what it took to hack out a life from these hard hills.

Above the intake wall, the map is written in the language of shepherds and quarrymen. Names split from the tongue like sheets of slate. They tell where the best grazing is found, where a lamb became cragfast, where the richest ores were won or the best route to carry contraband whisky away from the exciseman’s censorious gaze. 

There are so many examples across Lakeland as to overwhelm, so pick just one fell and examine all the features on its slopes. Glaramara stands at the head of Borrowdale, throwing its protecting arm around the hanging valley of Combe Gill. The fell itself is a lovely word of Norse origin, meaning “Hill with the mountain hut by a chasm”. But you can see the older legacy of Brythonic in the Combe itself – related to the Welsh “Cwm” and Devon “Coombe” for a valley. By contrast, Langstrath beneath reveals Caledonian roots.

There is a subsidiary fell, prosaically marked Rosthwaite Fell, but also rejoicing in the whimsical alternative, Bessyboot, with its knobbly knuckles of Broad Haystack and Hanging Haystack. The slopes above Langstrath drain via Sobby Gill and Ribby Gills to Woof Stones and Alisongrass Hoghouse. The twisting ridge hides the secret camps of High House Tarn and Tarn-at-Leaves.

This route is a picaresque tour of all the fell features named on the 1:25000 map, regardless of linguistic merit. It includes the simple descriptors because these, too, are Lakeland culture. Although it visits the summit, the zigzagging path is a counter to the culture of the summit as the be-all-and-end-all of fell walking.

Take your time and let these names percolate through your mind like spring-water through moss. By turns they are practical, romantic, playful, eccentric and blunt, giving a tantalising glimpse into history. And remember to thank the cartographers of the Ordnance Survey who captured this folk-memory, making the map so much more than just a guide for getting from A to B.

Norman is a fell runner, with many miles under his feet, and a poet (and has shared a couple of poems that will be featuring in the gallery when this goes live, mid August).

Glaramara, on a sunny day!

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