The day was far from promising, cool and overcast. A day in a late autumn that was just hanging on before it slipped into winter. I left the car park in Rookhope, walked through the village, then took the cycle track opposite the post office that led uphill to the north.
Fairly steep at first, the track eased in gradient as it rose above the village, and became almost level as it passed through collapsed mine buildings. The loneliness and silence of these once busy workings were enhanced by the myriad rabbit holes that hollowed the surrounding spoil heaps. In spring and early summer, these moorland slopes would be loud with the call of grouse, curlew, lapwing, redshank and golden plover. Now, they merely hissed as the wind blew over the stunted grass.
Looking back, I could just see the dismal glint of the slate rooftops of Rookhope and the far slopes of Weardale. Nearer, a solitary, forlorn horse stood motionless alongside a ramshackle shed, and on the hillside above, the sheer incongruity of a railway carriage, probably also serving as a storage shed, emphasised the utter bleakness of the scene.
Yet in this bleakness, as elsewhere in the one-time orefields of the North Pennines, is a compelling, wild beauty of the kind that can give rise to poetic thoughts. Indeed, this was why I had come here to this lonely northern tributary of Weardale. For I was following in the footsteps of W. H. Auden, who described Rookhope as “the most wonderfully desolate of all the dales.”
In fact, it was on these hills above Rookhope that Auden’s poetic sensibilities were awakened, while he was on a visit here as a 12-year-old boy in 1919.
I followed the cycle track in a long arc to the right, then a footpath across heather to a stile over a wire fence. Beyond this, I joined a second footpath, which ran at right angles to the first. Near a solitary pine tree, I again changed direction, this time following a path that led downhill to a large pond, over which two tall chimneys stood guard.
The pond, Sikehead Dam, is one of many such pools in the North Pennines, which provided water for the mining complexes. Some were used as a source of high pressure water, which was sluiced down the hillsides to wash away lighter rock, leaving valuable lead ore exposed, to be harvested from the resulting hush. These mining hushes remain as deep gashes on the Pennine slopes, relics of a time when pollution was an acceptable by-product of the pursuit of wealth.
As I approached Sikehead, hollows in the ground revealed their mining origins. Just beyond the first chimney was a mineshaft, capped by a thick, steel cover. This was the site of Auden’s youthful epiphany. In ‘New Year Letter‘, a poem published in 1954, in American Vogue, he describes the chimney,
“That smokes no answer any more
But points, a landmark on Bolt’s Law,
The finger of all questions.”
“The finger of all questions”
He crawled to the edge of the mineshaft, then uncapped, and as most youngsters would, tossed stones into it, and listened to them bouncing across the walls and splashing into the water at the bottom, several seconds later. It was a moment he would never forget and an image he was to use more than once in his poetry. He described his existential response,
“In Rookhope I was first aware
Of Self and Not-self, Death and Dread.
There I dropped pebbles, heard
The reservoir of darkness stirred.”
Having been brought up in Birmingham, Auden always felt an affinity for industrial landscapes. In particular, he was drawn towards mines and mining machinery, and as a boy, would read books about the lead and zinc mines of Northumberland and Durham. Indeed, throughout his teenage years, he anticipated that he would become a mining engineer.
As I stood above the shaft, a thin, misty rain began to fall. I crossed the dry shore of the dam to the second chimney, crawled through the entrance at its base and sat on the rubble floor for a short time, still blown by the wind, but screened from the drizzle.
Even this kind of weather would not have dismayed Auden. He felt that he was descended from Vikings, and in a 1947 magazine article, entitled ‘I Like it Cold’, he stated, ‘Crew Junction marks the wildly exciting frontier where the alien south ends, and the north, my world, begins.’
His close friend and fellow writer, Christopher Isherwood, reported that Auden could not understand how anyone could long for sun and blue skies, and that he always preferred high wind, driving rain and the bleak limestone moorland of the North Pennines. During the 1940s, on the wall of his home in America, he had a map of Alston Moor.
After a few minutes, during which I ate a meagre lunch, the rain stopped, so I took a chance, abandoned my refuge, and retraced my steps as far as the pine tree.
Bolt’s Law Summit
I then followed the footpath to the summit of Bolt’s Law, which was the highest point in the vicinity. From there, a broader track led gently downhill for about a mile to join the road that ran north into Blanchland. The sky brightened, and a hazy sun lent a less austere glow to the hills.
I turned left and took the road south toward Rookhope. At various points, I could have followed tracks more directly down the grassy slopes, which would have short-cut the walk back to the village. Instead, I continued to the junction at the bottom.
A few hundred yards from this, stood another relic that had inspired Auden, the Lintzgarth Arch. This was the last remaining of six arches that had once carried a chimney flue from a nearby furnace for more than a mile up the hillside to the west. A similar structure can be found above Allendale, in the next valley.
The purpose of these flues was economic rather than for health. As the hot vapours from the furnaces were led through them, they cooled down and deposited significant quantities of lead and zinc onto the walls. Periodically, teams of workers would crawl through the flues and retrieve these deposits, in conditions perhaps even worse than those endured by the miners.
The final walk into Rookhope took me about twenty minutes, and I arrived just as the heavy rain, which had threatened all day, but just about held off, began to fall in earnest.
Even in Auden’s time, the lead mining industry of the North Pennines, once the largest in England, was already in decline, yet he still found beauty in its dereliction.
Throughout his life, and from distant parts of the world, he returned again and again, both in reality and in his imagination, to the North Pennine orefield, to draw inspiration for poems such as Alston Moor, Allendale, Rookhope and The Old Lead Mine. As he concluded himself, in ‘New Year Letter’,
“Always my boy of wish returns
To those peat-stained deserted burns
That feed the Wear and Tyne and Tees,
And, turning states to strata, sees
How basalt long oppressed broke out
In wild revolt at Cauldron Snout.”