Praising Limestone

Every year we pack our bags, leave the Millstone Grit behind, and migrate to spend a week on the Limestone just north of here.  Millstone Grit, a coarse grained sandstone, named from its use in water mills, has been integral to most of my adult life.  I live in a small terraced house whose more-than-a-foot thick walls are made from stone hewn from local quarries (delphs).  The prevailing westerlies have coated this naturally pale sand-coloured stone with pollutants from Lancashire’s industries, rendering many of the town’s houses, and the dry stone walls that chequer the hillsides above it, dark grey*.  Not surprisingly millstone grit has been woven into the region’s sense of identity.  It is said to ‘give a tough gritty character to the landscape and buildings’.  Surely its the dark patina of industrial revolution grime, and the protestant/capitalist ethic, rather than the stone itself, that’s to blame for this?  Anyway, I just wanted to say that I have very warm feelings towards Millstone Grit.  Its outcrops on the hillsides hereabouts include some of the most ‘magical’ places I know.  So I hope our local bedrock won’t be offended by the following short paean to its carboniferous sibling, limestone.

The poetry of W.H.Auden has largely passed me by, but one of his best known poems ‘In Praise of Limestone’, though written in Italy, reflects a lifelong fondness for his personal ‘sacred landscape’, the Karst topography of Yorkshire.  Unlike Millstone Grit, warm, dry, pale, porous, water soluble Limestone is composed of compressed skeletal fragments of myriads of tropical marine creatures; fossils of brachiopods, corals, and sea-lillies; organic material.  It therefore readily evokes an oceanic feeling in stone.  When Auden tries to imagine ‘a faultless love, or the life to come’, he hears ‘the murmur of underground streams’ and sees a maternal limestone landscape.  His reading of this landscape has been interpreted as an allegory of human history, and of the human body.  Against Plato, Luther, and Descartes, Auden argued for the sacredness of both body and land.

Traveling north, the transition to limestone is fairly obvious.  The stone walls become shining white or pale grey, often blobbed with yellow lichen.  There are many more wild flowers.  Last week we were not disappointed.  We pass the pothole peppered western edge of the Dales (one hillside conceals Gaping Gill, a cavern large enough to contain York Minster), and head for the Morecambe Bay limestone.  Because of the crazy spring weather we’ve had in 2013 we found Wood Anemone and Rock Rose in flower on the same day.  The former usually appears in March and April, the latter in July.  We dream-walked amongst the most spectacular carpets of Cowslips that either of us had seen, mixed with Bluebells, a gorgeous combination of golden yellow and intense purply blue, gasping and gesticulating at the wonder of the moment.

Cowslips and Bluebells, late May 2013.

Cowslips and Bluebells, late May 2013.

Unsurprisingly, the area attracts a devoted band of naturalist pilgrims.  There is a small enclosed pasture, no bigger than an average sized garden, that I call the Shrine.  It is home to Bird’s Eye Primroses, Dark Red Helleborine, Fragrant Orchids, and Juniper bushes.  On a previous visit we were privileged to witness what was presumably a family group of five Common Lizards basking in the hot summer sun.  Last week we met a party of ‘Common Naturalists’, including a couple of quite elderly women lying on the ground, identifying tiny mining bees.

Birds Eye Primrose, May 2013.

Birds Eye Primrose, May 2013.

The limestone pavements of this region are some of my favourite places on earth; wonderful dreaming grounds.  One of these special habitats has some venerable residents, dwarf trees, the largest of which are thought to be around a thousand years old.  They will have grown, a few millimetres a year, for two or three hundred years, then died back, and grown again, several times.  The land here looks much the same as it would have done when the Normans, and possibly even the Romans, came by.**  Well, parts of it do.  Both my favourite limestone pavement reserves were established in the nick of time.  Large swathes of this incomparable landscape had already been trashed for commercial gain, and taken away for use in garden rockeries.  The contrast between the devastated areas, now gradually being re-colonised, and the ‘natural’ areas, is plain to see.

Ancient dwarf Yew emerging from grike.

Ancient dwarf Yew emerging from grike.

I love the tactile quality of limestone, but different micro-areas have a distinctive feel, often indicated by the kinds of tree or plant growing there.  Last week, for example, with due caution and great respect, we re-visited a powerful spot where Deadly Nightshade/Belladonna plants grow beneath a row of Yew Trees.  The deathward facing aspect of Nature (as perceived by humans) is well represented elsewhere in this area, in the Yew Woods, the notorious quicksands of Morecambe Bay, and nowadays in the Ticks that flourish here.  Somehow we haven’t got round to formally introducing ourselves to these very other-than-human residents yet.  Perhaps we should?  I was also aware of geological/geographical resonances.  Here was limestone, made from the remnants of marine animals from a long vanished tropical estuary, next to the tidal pulse of a present day estuary.  And there were biographical resonances too.  I have early childhood memories of holidays on the bright chalk of the East Kent coast.  Here I was, once again, escaping amongst pale organic rock.

Then, of course, there are the reed beds.  These too are wonderful dream spaces.  One beautifully still evening I was scanning a reed bed for birds, whilst listening to a dusk chorus of Reed Warblers, Blackcaps, Blackbirds, Thrushes, Goldfinches, and occasionally Raven, Buzzard, Jackdaw, Collar Dove, Geese, Moorhen, and Coot, when I noticed that an area of reeds seemed to be moving about of its own accord.  Then I spotted a dark shape, obviously a mammal of some kind, making intermittent jagged movements.  Finally, two small antlers appeared above the pale reeds.  More sudden twisting lunges followed.  A young Roe Deer stag seemed to be locked in combat with an invisible adversary, rising up and then dropping down, thrusting his antlers towards the ground, then shaking them about wildly as though entangled in some phantasmal web.  Eventually I managed to work out that he was on his own, engrossed in an impassioned solo dance.

This went on for some twenty minutes before I was joined by a couple of birdwatchers.  The silent connection between myself and the stag was broken.  He stopped and stared accusingly at us.  He had probably been rehearsing for the Roe Deer rut, that (unusually amongst deer) happens in the Summer.  It must be difficult for other-than-human people to find space for intimate rites in this human-dominated landscape.  And, of course, we contemplative humans continually have to negotiate the distractions of others responding to quite different discourses about landscape; as visitor attraction, curriculum prop, or outdoor gym, for example.  Anyway, I felt hugely energised by the young Stag’s display of vitality, and came away with a new appreciation of the impulse to imitate the dances of animals.  Back in the cottage I even performed a brief re-enactment.  Very brief, actually.  I’m not as nimble as I used to be!

Lady's Slipper Orchid, part of a species restoration programme.

Lady’s Slipper Orchid, part of a species restoration programme.

One of the most spectacular non-human residents we met was another plant.  There is, apparently, only one truly native surviving specimen of the Lady’s Slipper Orchid in the wild in Britain!  It was always rare here, and was declared extinct in 1917, after centuries of plant collection.  Reginald Farrer, a nineteenth century botanist, wrote of a 17th century gentlewoman who collected many specimens: “if only you had loved these delights a little less ruinously for future generations ….does your uneasy sprite still haunt the Helks Wood in vain longing to undo the wrong you did? … accursed for evermore, into the lowest of the eight hot hells, be all reckless uprooters of rarities”.**  The Lady’s Slipper Orchid is now the flagship project for the species recovery programme.  Seeds are sent to Kew Gardens for germination, and plants are planted out in plugs, and protected from slugs (!).  Rob Petley-Jones has become a veritable guardian of the species, having spent the last fifteen years ascertaining the preferences of these extraordinary limestone loving plants, and is now confident that a self sustaining population will be re-established.

There’s much to be said for returning to a much loved part of the world, over and over again, adding ever more layers of memory, building an ever finer grain image of a ‘sacred’ landscape.

B.T. 3/5/13.

* Note: there’s some debate about whether Millstone Grit weathers naturally to a dark colour, due to the oxidisation of iron minerals.  There is a mill chimney near here that rises, on its own, out of the middle of a field on a hillside (the mill was in the valley bottom).  Its westerly aspect is stained dark grey/black, but its sheltered leeward aspect is still a pale sandy colour.


** as Rob Petley-Jones put it, pers comm.
** Natural England leaflet, Lady’s Slipper Orchid, in the Morecambe Bay Limestone Hills.

Laurie Fallows, Wild Flowers, and where to find them in Northern England, Vol 1; Northern Limestone, Frances Lincoln, 2004.

John Wilson and David Hindle, Bird Watching Walks around Morecambe Bay, Palatine B0oks, 2007.

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“I love the thought of deer practicing their courting dances; and you doing their dance! A lot of the old circle dances came from watching animals & birds. There’s one particular one that mimics the mating dance of cranes. The ancient yew tree is wonderful.”  Jo Pacsoo.

4 thoughts on “Praising Limestone

  1. I love this journey from Lancashire’s millstone terraces to the limestone pavements of Morecambe. I’ve visited Warton Crag and walked across the limestone paving there, and attempted to find Fairy Holes and failed but haven’t visited this area yet. Thanks for the great descriptions and photos, in particular the lady’s slipper and dwarf yew. Would you mind if I reblogged it on Mythical Lancashire tomorrow?

  2. That yew tree growing out of the craign looks like it has legs and an arm! A few years ago i discovered a small patch of lady slipper orchid along a logging road up the mountain here in central Pennsylvania. I understand it has a symbiotic relationship with some fungus under ground and is very picky where it grows.

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