This time we approach from the west, the Shropshire border with Wales below and behind us. The path from The Bog climbs up through sheep pasture hedged with gorse. The gold is dazzling. In sun-sheltered hollows, out of the wind, the flower-mass gives off coconutty scents. The grassland too is flushed with gold – a mass of buttercups.
After a steepish climb, the path sets off more evenly along the foot of the Stiperstones ridgeway, the quartzite tors of Cranberry Rocks and Manstone Rock standing proud on the skyline. We are making for the Devil’s Chair (header photo), but it is still invisible at this point along the path.
The tors’ rubble spill (stone runs) makes them look more like man-made spoil heaps than natural phenomena. And of course this was an industrial landscape across nearly two millennia: from Roman times to the early 20th century. Although back then the activity was mostly hidden from sight in the deep mine shafts and caverns dug for the extraction of valuable lead ore.
The tors, though, are their own work, their response to environmental pressures – the fractured tumble created by the freeze-thaw cycles of the last glaciation when the Welsh ice sheet nudged up against the hillside, but did not cover it. In fact, as we follow the path, we must be walking over terrain where the ice would have lain feet deep, the far edge below the tors ebbing in surface melt-water in summer, resuming the deep-freeze lock-down in winter.
It’s surely not too hard to imagine?
For as we walk here under the sun, the bright gorse and lush new bilberry bushes, bleating of lambs, distant mew of a buzzard, I note that even now in late May, the wind still has a piercingly icy edge.
It reminds me, too, that for some reason most of us have decided, on the basis of nothing in particular, that the planet has somehow done with ice ages; that they must be a thing of the past. Yet the last ice sheets only retreated 10,000 years ago; we are presently in an interglacial, the Holocene.
Within interglacial periods there are phases of warming and cooling. E.g. It is generally accepted that around 6,000 years ago that the northern hemisphere was much warmer (Holocene thermal maximum) than it is today (NOAA National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration US). There is likewise evidence from analysis of pollen and other prehistoric deposits in peat bogs across Europe of periods of dramatic climatic decline e.g. the Late Bronze Age Britain (from around 3,000 years ago) when it became much wetter and cooler. Yet by the time the Romans had taken over the land, there was another warm phase. And again in the Medieval period, this before the general descent into the Little Ice Age of 14th-19th centuries for which there are also historical accounts. (I mentioned the London Frost Fairs of the Little Ice Age in a recent post on chaotic weather.)
The cycle of ice ages and climatic variation within interglacial phases is apparently dependent on shifts in the inclination of the earth on its axis, plus associated so-called ‘wobbles’, together with variations in the sun’s energy output. In other words, there can be no doubting that here we have in play planetary cycles that are stratospherically beyond humanity’s capacity to control. Anyway, it’s making me think that hanging on to the woolly jumpers and thermal underwear might not be a bad idea.
And talking of woolly jumpers, as the Devil’s Chair comes into view I find myself the subject of ovine scrutiny…
And now for the Devil’s Chair, long the subject of Shropshire myth and witchery:
And the view from this spot, back towards Cordon Hill, the border and Wales. Remember that ice sheet. This was the land that it covered. At the glacial maximum around 22,000 years ago the ice was estimated to be up to half a kilometre deep. Sheffield University has produced some interactive maps.
The dark tussocks are heather which will bloom in late summer. The bright green bushes are bilberries, locally called win- or wimberries – our native version of blueberries, ready to pick around August time, but presently flowering. The little rosy bells are hard to see, but the bees are finding them:
As we retrace our steps to The Bog where we’ve left the car, I’m stopped in my tracks by the sight of a mountain ash tree seedling. There it is, growing so strongly atop a weathered gate post. It makes me smile. It seems like a sign: the earth, the real world, has much to teach us when we choose to pay attention.