The Barren Hillside.

From: On Cambrian and Cumbrian Hills (1908)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Arthur C. Fifield 1908 London

The Barren Hillside.

  WE talk of the barrenness of the mountains, and barren in a sense they are, when contrasted with the teeming wealth of the plain, yet the bleakest of them, if studied with sympathy and insight, will be found to have a living and life-giving freshness of its own. Now and then, perhaps, when face to face with some scene of more than common severity, we are tempted to exclaim, with Scott—

The wildest glen, but this, can show
Some touch of nature’s genial glow:
But here, above, around, below,
On mountain or in glen,
Nor tree, nor shrub, nor plant, nor flower,
Nor aught of vegetative power,
The weary eye may ken.

But austereness is to the mountains what fertility is to the fields, not a blemish, but a glory; and if grey crag1 and wild hillside bear no visible fruitage, yet many are the spiritual crops which may be gathered from them by the understanding eye and mind.

  Some centuries ago the Lake District, as Wordsworth has remarked, “must have been covered with wood to a great height up the mountains, where native Scotch firs must have grown in great profusion, as they do in the northern part of Scotland to this day”; and he quotes a traditional saying that a squirrel might have travelled from Wythbum to Keswick without touching earth. In Wales the same conditions once existed, and Pennant, in 1773, referred to the earlier destruction of the oak forests which had clothed the upper dales. “Avarice,” he wrote, “or dissipation, and its constant follower, poverty, have despoiled much of our Principality of its leafy beauties.” We can no longer say of Snowdon or of Helvellyn, as of Mont Blanc, that “around his waist are forests braced”—not even miniature forests—but a closer knowledge will teach us that the hillside, even when barren of vegetation, is never barren of charm, and it may be that these mountains have gained as much as they have lost by the change. Certainly there is a keen pleasure to the climber in standing free of all entanglement of trunk or thicket on the bare and open fells.

  Not that the mountain is often a mere treeless and shrubless waste, for in some places, on the lower slopes, there is a thick ground-growth—carefully shunned by the traveller, but rich and beautiful in itself-of heather, bracken, and bilberry, and there are not a few spots where the flanks of the hills are a very wilderness of intermingled crags and brushwood, ancient lurking-place of “mart” or fox, but rarely if ever trodden by foot of man. When these fail, there may often be seen a line of stunted yews or hollies straggling up the slope, or a mountain-ash jutting out slantwise from the side of some narrow ravine and almost bridging the watercourse. The bilberry, like the heather, is at times found growing at great heights, especially in the rockier and less accessible places, such as the sides of Tryfan or Scawfell Pike, where it flourishes amazingly in some seasons and produces berries of giant size.

  Not less delightful is that close-fitting vestment of the hills, which follows so faithfully each ripe curve and contour, and so trimly encircles the projecting bosses of rock-the short crisp sward, on which the mountain sheep have their pasture. Even the stoniest tracts are softened, here and there, by these verdant interspaces, and it is refreshing to see a steep saddle of turf flung across a craggy ridge, or a streak of greenery running far down, like a path, among the grey and pathless screes. These grass banks are in parts notched and graded into a kind of natural stair, easy to climb and luxurious to descend; elsewhere they have a smooth and glassy surface which in dry weather becomes highly polished and rather treacherous to the feet.

  Very inviting, too, are the narrow winding tracks, models of skilful engineering, which sheep and shepherds between them have worn along the slopes-slender thoroughfares which often skirt the fells for some distance at the same level, and offer a less toilsome footing to those whose course is round some projecting bluff or hollow combe. A terrace-road, where one has a steep rise on one side and a steep drop on the other, is always a delight, even when one’s terrace is but a tiny sheep-path of a few inches’ width; nor is there any need to go to show places, such as the so-called “Precipice Walle” at Dolgelly, for a sensation which can be enjoyed in abundance on any unfrequented hillside.

  But let it be supposed that verdure of any kind is lacking, and that we stand face to face with an expanse of bare cliff and scree—such as the south face of the Great Gable—the solid cliffs rising above, and the broken screes streaming downward and outward from their base. Here is barrenness indeed, yet a barrenness which, to the lover of such solitudes, is more fruitful than the choicest vineyard or cornfield. For how weird and suggestive is this stationary rock-fall of screes, this stony glacier arrested in its flow, yet retaining in its stillness something of the undulant shape! Viewed from across the glen, it looks like a great “tongue” of rocks lolling out from the mouth of the gorge many hundreds of feet above, and gradually widening in its fall; at closer quarters, it presents itself as a tolerably compact mass of individual boulders, none of any great size, across which it is necessary to pick one’s way with some deftness, because, like Wordsworth’s cloud, it “moveth altogether if it move at all,” and a floundering step may set half the hillside creeping daleward.

  It is centuries, no doubt, since these detached stones fell from their holdings, and they are themselves for the most part weather-worn and sun-stained like the parent crags, but they are still occasionally reinforced by new outcasts, when some exposed layer of rock has become disintegrated by winter frosts and rains; and then the story of the latest landslip is written visibly for several years in the paler hue of the screes and in the discordant rift in the escarpment. As a rule, falling stones, so great a danger in the Alps, are very rare among our mountains; once or twice in a season, perhaps, you may see, or hear, a big stone go thundering down the hillside when no human agency has been at work.

  I refer to human agency, because the mention of falling stones reminds me of the now disused sport of crag-bowling. The rolling of stones down mountain sides, still a recognized method of warfare among hillsmen, has rightly been anathematized in this peaceful country since rock-climbing became popular; but in the old days, when no one went on the crags, it was a harmless and diverting practice. Thus Gilpin, in his travels among the mountains of Cumberland, a hundred and twenty years back, remarked how the native children amused themselves in this manner; and Bingley, describing his ascent of Tryfan some half-century later, observes: “We stood on a mere point, and on each side of us was a precipice more deep than any I had before seen; we united our strength, and rolled down it several huge pieces of rock.” Thirty years ago it was common to see guides and tourists assiduously engaged in the sport, the process of which was somewhat as follows. Having first selected a steep “scar,” or a grass slope, with a pool if possible at the foot of it, and having made sure that neither man nor sheep was in the line of fire, the party turned their attention to some “huge stone,” as Wordsworth has it—

Couched on the bald top of an eminence,

and expended such energy as they had to spare in detaching this rock from its station, until it
slowly toppled over, gathered fierce speed, went smoking and crashing down the hillside, and buried itself with a wild plunge in the waters. Such was the pastime, a sort of vicarious glissade, and from my own bygone enjoyment of it I have been led to hope that the famous “labours” of Sisyphus, who, according to the old Greek legend, was condemned in Hades to roll a large block up a hill only—only!—to see it roll down again, were not quite so cheerless a fonn of punishment as poets have feigned. The self-imposed labours of the tobogganist seem to belong to the same class.

  But if any reader thinks that so dangerous a game as crag-bowling ought not to receive even this faint retrospective approval, let me add, as a warning, that I know one pilgrim who, for his former indulgence in it, sometimes pays the penalty in dreams. He has loosened, maybe, from its high parapet some monster of a rock, in weight and girth far exceeding any upon which he ever laid waking hands, and no sooner has he launched it on its mad career than he remembers with horror unspeakable that there is a cottage in the glen below—even now he sees its chimneys as the crag goes thundering towards it, and he awakes in remorseful agony at the sickening thud upon the roof.

  From the loose screes we turn naturally to the stone walls, where some at least of the scattered blocks have found lodgment and reconstruction. So familiar are these walls to us, and so closely associated with the hillside itself, that they seem to be a natural part of it, as the bridges of the valleys, and one would not willingly miss them from the bare landscape. It is rather surprising, indeed, to find De Quincey speaking of the “sad injury” done to the beauty of a mountainous country by its stone walls; for to some of us the stone wall has a more native charm in such districts than any quickset hedgerow could have: it has often furnished us with a shelter in storm, a shade in heat, a lunching and a siesta-place; we love it, too, as the haunt of our mountain companions, the wheatear and the rock-ousel. The scaling of a seven-foot wall, when the top stones have become insecure, may present some difficulty to the novice, and it is then that he is glad to find one of those convenient loopholes, or rather sheep-holes, through which, after temporarily removing the door-stone, he may insinuatingly worm himself. On some of the lower slopes, especially among the foothills near the seacoast, these walls are often of huge girth and solidity, and, being overgrown and intertwined with numberless ivies, mosses, and lichens, have a rare and peculiar beauty; but the increasing use of barbed wire, as an adjunct or substitute for the walls, is yet another sign of the vandalism which in so many ways is working havoc among the hills.

  But of all the treasures of the hillside the brightest and purest are its watersprings, sources of those many Welsh “afons,” and English “gills” and “becks,” whose beauty might convince the most hardened and sceptical of town-dwellers that the Naiads were something more than a dream. Follow one of these swift mountain rivers, such as the Cumbrian Esk or the Cambrian Llugwy, or better still, perhaps, one of the lesser and more headlong freshets, from its deep pools and rock-basins in the lower valley to its birthplace under the heights, and you will marvel at the prodigality of its charms—so deliciously do the waves come dancing and singing down the slopes in a succession of hidden falls, no two of which are alike, or in an open cascade of white foam, such as often wins for such streams in the Lake District the name of “Sour Milk Gill”; and at last, as the current dwindles, you will trace it to some brimming tarn, or to its high fount in green mosses among the rocks, or will possibly lose it underground, where it may be heard bubbling and gurgling below the stones in its invisible cradle.

  These becks, it must be remembered, unlike the turbid snow-fed torrents of Switzerland, are as clear as crystal, so that in calm weather you may see every pebble at the bottom of the pools, and the trout poised with waving fins; but after a heavy rainfall, when the streams are in “spate,” it is often no easy matter to ford them, for then the merest runnels, across which you step to-day without hindrance, may tomorrow be a raging flood. On the other hand, there are times, though much less frequent, when the smaller streamlets are withered up under a spell of summer heat, and their dry channels are useful only as a stone staircase for the climber, who in such seasons may become acquainted, as never before, with the feeling of thirst. I think the sorest temptation I ever underwent, without succumbing to it, was when, on my first visit to Scawfell Pike with two fellow undergraduates, on a burning August day, we found a jug of claret-cup left to keep cool, in the spring above Esk Hause, by a party which had trustfully preceded us to the summit. It must have been owing to some morally bracing influence in the high mountain air that that cup was untouched by us had we been subjected to the same ordeal on the banks of the Cam, it seems but too certain that not one drop could have been spared.

  The mountain tarns, in which many of the becks have their origin, lie for the most part in hidden recesses, unsuspected from below, under the crowning heights, and mark the beginning of the last stage in the ascent. It is rather curious that the older school of nature-lovers should have felt themselves disposed to melancholy rather than to joyfulness amid such scenes; even Wordsworth speaks of a “not unpleasing sadness” as naturally induced by the sight of these pools, and surmises that “the prospect of a body of pure water, unattended with groves and other cheerful rural images by which fresh water is usually accompanied, and unable to give furtherance to the meagre vegetation around it, excites a sense of some repulsive power strongly put forth.”2 Here is a strange relic, in the mind of a great modem poet, of the medieval sense of antagonism between man and nature: we now think rather of these remote tarns as wells of life and healing, to be repaired to by the pilgrim who needs refreshment and comfort in the jostling conflict of mankind.

  If Cumberland is superior to Wales in its lakes, it must be admitted, I think, that Wales is unrivalled in its tarns; there is nothing in the northern district to equal such gems of purest water as Glaslyn,3 or Dulyn, or Llyn-y-Cae, the pride respectively of Snowdon, Carnedd Llewelyn, and Cader Idris. In their bird-life, too, the lonelier Welsh tarns, where the sandpiper comes to breed by the shore, and the cormorant and other sea birds to fish in the waters, have a fuller and more varied interest. Here, however, I am touching on the subject of the next chapter; so I will only add that, with the features which I have mentioned, the barren hillside is not likely to lose its attractiveness for nature lovers. A wilderness it may be, but of a sort which brings to mind the rapt words of the poet—

Oh, wilderness were paradise enow.

1 “Probably these crests of the earth are for the most part of one colour in all lands, that grey colour of antiquity which Nature loves; colour of unpainted wood, weather-stain, time-stain; not glaring nor gaudy; the colour of all roofs, the colour of things that endure.”-Thoreau, Journal, x. 452.
2 Description of the Scenery of the Lakes.
3 I refer to the natural, not the actual, state of Glaslyn; for this most beautiful of tams has been cruelly desecrated by the copper-mines.

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