I think these views take over a little bit of your heart and soul. This is looking from an archaeological site – a roof slate quarry site on Mallerstang Edge – across the valley where I live, to Wild Boar Fell, one of the distinctive mountains that fascinates me.
This site isn’t one of the ones that I’ve discovered in the valley, but I like it because it’s enigmatic. I can’t find any written evidence about it, so there are all these questions that haven’t got answers. That’s one of the things about being an archaeologist, you’re always reading the landscape; it’s like a big detective story where you’re trying to put together the pieces. Sometimes you can find historical records that help with those pieces, but most of the time you’re looking at sites that nobody knows about, and trying to work out what people were doing there.
When this site was recorded, many years ago, it was marked down as a slate quarry, but the geology isn’t actually slate. I think they were quarrying roofing flags, which is where the confusion has arisen. In days gone by, when they didn’t have vehicles, the quarry workers would have taken their horses and carts up there and worked away for the week, then come home, probably to Kirkby Stephen or down to Outhgill in Mallerstang at the weekends. When you go up there, there’s a little village of workmen’s huts, which would have been a home from home for them.
I’m a pre-historian, so my favourite sites, especially the ones I’ve found in the valley, are prehistoric; all you’ve got to go on is what you can read in the landscape. Over the years I’ve become an amateur geologist as well as a professional archaeologist. You need to be able to read what’s geologically natural in the landscape and then be able to identify the manmade or the man-altered features, and then work out reasons for those alterations.
My most notable find in Mallerstang is a Neolithic enclosure, just to the right of this view. I’d found a lot of flint tools in the valley, which are evidence of prehistoric people living, working and trading here. I knew there were no recorded prehistoric monuments in the area, so I went looking in all the obvious places, and there it was, a ‘causewayed-type’ enclosure, sitting on the hilltop. It’s not very distinctive, and it’s not at all photogenic! It’s one of those features that’s been hiding in plain sight for nearly 6,000 years. These enclosures are signs of people from the first farming communities meeting together. In Mallerstang, we don’t have a Parish Council, we have a parish meeting and I have the dubious privilege of being the Chair. To be Mallerstang’s Chair and then to have found the first ever place where the parish ‘meetings’ started all those thousands of years ago, that was a really special moment. It’s lovely to have put it on the record.
That exploration is part of human nature. People go to the moon, or the bottom of the sea, or wherever, without realising that there are sites on our own doorstep that are undiscovered that can be explored. I first set foot in this valley when I was ten years old. I’ve always loved living here, even before I studied archaeology. But having grown up and roamed around these fells for donkeys’ years, it’s surprised me that I couldn’t see what I was looking at for so long. Studying archaeology is like having a veil lifted: suddenly you’re looking at an entirely different landscape. Once your eyes have been opened you can’t ever just go for a walk and enjoy the view, because you’re always questioning what you’re looking at, you’re always trying to work out what people have done there before. You look at the landscape in a completely different light.