pausing on a hilltop
The forgotten dead lie under grass this wide hilltop. Walls divide the space. There are gates and stiles, a steep slope sprouting trees, crowded. Older trees, broad-beamed and statuesque mark half-forgotten field boundaries. The clouds had descended that morning before we walked this way, wrapping distance in mist. It lifted as we climbed, the sun drawing shadows, flaring moss into jewels, revealing a wider horizon so that, at last, on the edge of the cliff we saw old neighbours – Burr Torr and Ball Cross, Castle Naze on Combs Moss, Chelmorton Low. Mam Tor was a distant suggestion, a darker grey within a grey shadow. The River Wye far below curled round the foot of Monsall Head, glittering down towards Ashford-in-the-Water.
But the nameless dead lie here, lay here, discarded, for 2,000 years*. The same could be said of so many places in these crowded islands. There are plague villages, settlements, battlefields, burial fields, small camps, old barrows. Some lost, some known, a few excavated, most not. Just there.
To get over-excited about a single hill-top seems a bit unreasonable. Down there, peering over the edge of the scarp, just down there is a Roman-British settlement. It must have its own dead. And up in Taddington Dale, near the bypass, is Old Woman’s House Cave where Stone Age families lived and presumably died. Then there are the 19th century railway tunnels boring through the limestone hills to connect Buxton to Bakewell, opening the dales, offending Ruskin. How many deaths went unremarked then? No big tragedies, perhaps, but how many stray navvies fell, or died under that single rockfall, the slipped pickaxe, or breathed too much of that lung-rotting limestone dust. Turn again, and down there is Litton Mill, stylish now, nightmarish once for workhouse children. And there’s Taddington where they slept between sufferings. So many dead here. We live in a well-used land, a richly deceased landscape.
But the quiet, sad story of Fin Cop commands attention. It was a lost story. There seems to have been no tradition of what happened here or what lay, lies, under the grass. Names often hold clues but here, Fin Cop: the end of the hill? Or Finn Low – the mound of the fiddler Fin, or something to do a bit obviously with the Celtic hero Finn. Pennyunk Lane that brings us here from Ashford might have meant “the head (as in top of a hill) of the young man/young/youth”. But it might not. And for centuries nothing much happened here. There are earthworks, early Iron Age embankments. Traces, ripples now are all that remains in the fields of earlier burial mounds. Then there were later lead mining and limestone digging and firing in kilns. There are walls. And cows. And a forsaken hillfort commanding stunning views. But after that day, that night, it looks as if no-one lived here again. Still don’t.
I’m not feeling particularly reasonable just now. I’m standing here on the hilltop, on the cliff edge, turning slowly, counting deaths. There’s not much to see, tumbled embankments, a ditch and a dyke, doubled here, lost there. The stray pimples of those robbed out barrows. But trenches on a dig here found bodies and the site promises, threatens, more*. The scientist in me wants evidence, needs to know, needs the next trench. The storyteller feels the tale, looks at landscape, at bones and shapes a story of death and fear and scrabbled survivals on a rock scree slope. The shaman in me feels presences, the forgotten dead, the abandoned dead who no one honoured, no one named, the dead who were simply left.
“Tarans” we call them in Scottish stories – the unnamed souls of lost children. I find myself whispering. I pledge an evening with a single flame, a gathering fire to warm old bones, food offered, a libation to share, a space to sit, a listening ear, an attentive heart. I’ll hold a space, a stillness. That is the invitation though I know no-one may come.
* This was not intended as a report of the excavations. This is a report of a storyteller’s visit to the hilltop. You can find out more about the tragedy, horror, massacre ( what do we know?) of Fin Cop, here
When Buxton Museum and Art Gallery opens again in May 2017, you will see some of the finds from the recent digs, and ancient deaths
“Collection of the Artists” is another project under the encompassing umbrella of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery’s Collection in theLandscapes project. While the wider project is supporting the redesign of the Wonders of the Peaks gallery, the digitising of the collection and my own work with events – taking the collection out into the landscape, CotA is probably quieter. There are 6 artists, working with an Arts Council England grant to explore and respond to the dynamic of the Museum’s collection and the landscape it was largely drawn from as artists.I'm here as a storyteller and poet. My work for the museum is largely under embargo until project completion, so pieces like this one and the recent Bertram, Beeston and artists are sideshoots of the ongoing process
Richard and Amanda from Kidology have posted another Fin Cop blog, why not take a visit and have another view of the hill and its story