I have always known that the northern Pennines hold a richness of ancient archaeology that baffles my mind with mysteries of stories and wonders. I have also been aware that this region has also been a dumping ground for terrible secrets, ones that the perpetrators have hoped time and grasses would finally cover over, making them disappear into the occult of our history.
Having lived here for many years my journeys onto the moors usually reveals some hidden, and at times painful, truth, such as coming across semi-barren land, the remains of tailing of lead mines, where barely anything has colonised the wound. Still raw, after many generations of hiding, exposed on the hillside, they lie, forgotten and shamed in their purpose.
Today, I walked the dogs up on a road that was new to me. The wind was sharp, bitter, ready to rain on me. Suddenly I came across a sign, bright red, standing sentinel and alone on the high moor. It read:
I became suddenly very aware of the lumps and scar tissue in the ground; sheets of concrete, moss-eaten at the edges as it attempted to colonise the surface, ghostly outlines of brick buildings, roads to nowhere. Up on the horizon was a skeleton of some once-huge structure. Now left to collapse and return its abandoned being to the Earth.
What was this place? What on Earth could have happened here? Why was it toxic, dangerous, explosive? Was I safe? Were my dogs safe, as they tried to take bites out of a carcass of a road-killed rabbit?
Amongst the enormous site were farms, and sheep. People remained in this place. To farm, to thrive. My mind went to how they must feel. Was this a landscape they loved? Or was it a landscape that kept others out, a deliberate act of hiding from the outside world? Or was I speculating?
I looked at the map. The entire moor side was marked “storage site (disused)”. Truly captivated, I took out my phone and googled it. What came up stopped me in my tracks:
Experts put residents’ mind at rest over moor’s dangers
RESIDENTS living near a former RAF base contaminated with chemical weapons have been reassured that the site is safe.
[…….] in County Durham, was used by the RAF during the Second World War as a chemical weapons storage and disposal depot.
After the war the site was cleaned up but an investigation completed in February 2008 showed there were still traces of harmful chemicals such as sulphur mustard, lead and arsenic.
Mustard gas causes skin to blister and is also carcinogenic.
As a result of the study the Ministry of Defence launched a second, more thorough investigation into the 85- hectare site, which is used for sheep grazing.
The full article can be found here
I looked up from the screen and took in the land around me. Here, on this lonely hill, hidden from the main road by the natural contours of the land, tons of toxic weapons were held, to be shipped to British and allied troops to use in World War Two. Dangerous work, for the body and mind. Who worked here? Does anyone still remember this site when it was active? Would anyone tell me? Suddenly I remember my old neighbour Jack, who died last year aged 92. He was in the Home Guard. Why didn’t he tell me of this place? Now I realise he probably knew all along, the site was on his patch, after all. He would have been tasked with protecting it, serving it somehow, no doubt. Keep it secret, keep it safe.
Tumbles of questions filled my mind. What was it like when it was in use? When did it get dismantled? What is the true impact of what remains? How long will it take our great Mother Earth to finally, truly cleanse this site of not only the chemicals, but the wounds? Who around me is holding onto this wound? I begin to see how wounds are held, like burning embers of pain, deep inside a soul for all their lives, hidden, occult, and if not carefully, lovingly healed they become the next generations’ embers too. What the Earth holds, is mirrored within us, and vice versa.
It has rained a lot recently. It has rained a lot since the end of the War. The moor gushes water, past the warning signs and down, into the rivers, into the Tees and into the oceans eventually. The water cleanses but contaminates at the same time, if that is what it has been given to carry. I shudder with grief, shame, horror at what we have done.
The rain that has been holding begins to fall, sharp onto my face. I have seen enough and decide to turn back. But before I do, I suddenly realise that this place cannot be an orphan from me anymore. I know of it now and I want to show it that I see it, I see into the occult of our wounds and I want to bring these wounds into the light. I go to one of the trackways that must have once led somewhere, a path through looming workshops and warehouses, but now leads only onto cratered moor land. I stop and look around for things to make a gift with. There is so very little up here, except dead rabbits, gravel and the occasional Pepsi can. I spy two spent shotgun cartridges. How fitting, I think, to make something beautiful with these for such a site. I gather some pebbles and make a tiny cairn, and pull dead reeds from the trackside. I make a bird. The Radical Joy Bird of love.
Disattisfied with what I have made, I fuss, trying to make it more beautiful with what I have. Then I stop, realising that this place has so very little to offer up, but what it has is enough and fitting.
As I walked back, I slow my pace to truly take in what remains above the ground; strange shapes spin my imagination back in time to the hustle and bustle of the War effort; people in RAF uniform, trucks, shouting, laughter, perhaps. I walk back the final mile, deep in my inner eye, reconstructing this whole world in my mind. What a place to have been and a time to have existed up here. Then I look up and realise that I am surrounded by an emptiness of true orphaning. This wound runs deep, I realise.
Yet, I know that I have made a bird in flight, a gift of beauty to this place. I wonder if a baffled farmer will come across it and wonder at the strangeness of humans.
Just as I leave the site, I spy the bright yellow of ragwort by the outline of a building. Such a dangerous plant. The sheep know instinctively to leave it where it grows. But when it is cut it becomes sweet, and deadly. It nods in the brisk wind and I turn from it, filled with its message.