Selling house – farewell to limestone country

May 13, 2007 at 3:47 pm (Uncategorized)

I haven’t had time to write anything for ages because we’re in the process, finally, of selling our house in Lancashire. I’ve been up there sorting things out – and I feel sad that we’re selling it, and that I haven’t been able to spend more time there.

The house is in the Silverdale/Arnside area of natural beauty, and if you’ve never been there you should go. It’s the nub that sticks out just beneath the Lake District – a small peninsula made up entirely of limestone. The rock, originally laid down at the bottom of tropical seas, is now eroded into a series of steep crags and flat-bottomed valleys, where the water which has percolated through the permeable rock, surfaces again in ash-shaded springs, so startlingly clear it makes you thirsty, or collects in reedy ‘mosses’. The fields in front of our house were once a moss, but have been drained for farming – but the sea and the rain still conspire to keep them under water half the year – you can boat on them. Huge flocks of birds winter there – when you walk out, you set them up in flocks of thousands, which seem to bounce from hurrying cloud to cloud, the water reflecting their impossible formations. I was there in March, when the flocks had departed and the waters had fallen back. One warm evening, as Ide had finally drifted to sleep, I was enjoying the silence at an open window, when it was broken by the eerie mating call of the lapwings from the water meadows, uncannily like a child’s cry. These birds nest on moorland too, and the sound, ringing in the darkness through the long nights of March, must have resonated with Wordsworth’s imagination of his lost Lucy. Lapwings are declining in numbers, but this part of the country is in one of their stronghold, where their importance is marked on the maps – ‘Twitefield’, for example, bears one of their northern nicknames. Their calling – all night long in the secret dark, in the fields that refuse to dry out – seemed like the sound of the mysterious persistence of nature.

Warton Crag, the most southerly of the series of Silverdale’s limestone hills, rises behind the house – its south face shining softly in the sunlight, and again in the full moon – silvery indeed. The limestone is hard to cultivate, and most of the peninsula is cloaked in bright coppiced woodland, with a mossy carpet of fern, bluebells, wood anemone, wood sorrel with its tiny shamrock leaves, and Solomon’s seal. In the clearings are low-fertility meadows, full of cowslips and marjoram. The grikes in the limestone cliffs and pavements hide the deep roots of lily-of-the-valley, rockrose and bloody cranesbill. We moved into Moss Cottage, and went for our first walk, on another warm March day, which seemed put on by the Crag in welcome. The year’s first butterflies fluttered up beneath us; ravens, kestrels, buzzards and mating peregrines soared above, as if to get first sight of summer rolling round. Slim tree trunks were silver too against the moss, with just a lacing of green at their buds. A stoat froze in our path to look us up and down. Orchids, violets and primroses were out early, gleaming against the dark earth and last year’s leaves. There was never a more lovely day.

But April and May look lovely too – around the small fields the walls and hedges wind up and down the valleys as though they grew of themselves, with the may frothing over them like foam on a brimming pint of beer – and smelling like it too. Every bush hides its own warbler – my favourites are the blackcaps, burbling and laughing all out of time. In the woods, hazle and ash wade ankle deep in bluebells, the thickening canopy keeping in their dusty sweetness. The hollows are full of starry wild garlic, which loves limestone – its pungency rising with the moisture from the shady rocks and the old wells, so you feel the smell like a cool hand on your warm shoulder as you come in from the sunlight.

I’ve never seen the rocks in their full summer dress of marjoram and rockrose – we’ve always been away by the time the peregrine chicks hatch. Autumn brings more silver, as the old man’s beard floats out on the breeze. The hollies, perfectly shaped like little Christmas trees, are cheery bright as the weather gets colder. When the flowers are gone you start looking out – the view gets better as the air crisps up. To the east the flat-topped Ingleborough is often spread with a snow, like a well-smoothed tablecloth. To the south, from the foot of the crag, stretch the flooded fields, their wind-rippled surface often stilled with ice – a mighty stretch of water to rival the Lakes. Beyond the fields the glistening sea sands stretch away – to the west dazzling into sky, further north hemmed in by the long rough line of Cumbrian mountains. These are sometimes dusty blue with white caps, but more often dark, their ragged edges mirrored upwards in a gathering curtain of drenched cloud, growing leaden and then weighing down to obscure all before your eyes. The mountains’ jagged backs catch the force of many a shower before it ever gets to us.

Our house itself is made of limestone too – with huge oak crucks and beams that show the curves of the trees felled to make them, and the irregular marks of the adze that shaped them early in the eighteenth century. The house was built by someone named Dawson – a mason’s mark on the beam gives the full surname, while the date-stone on the front of the house reads ‘J.D. 1732’. There was a wealthy lawyer of that name in the village around the time, perhaps the house was his. We had an exciting time renovating – when restoring the original floorboards in the main bedroom, we found mysterious things underneath – a pipe stem, a shaped piece of glass, and a gigantic pile of chaff – upstairs? Then there’s the fireplace, way too grand for a house this size — we speculate that it may have come from a mansion nearby which fell into ruins and then was steadily pillaged over the centuries. It could even have come from the Old Rectory, a 14th century mansion, the picturesque ruins of which are just across the road.

If we can afford to buy in Cambridgeshire, I expect it’ll be a 60s semi – more space, but rather less romance…

We’re selling the house privately – there are details and some photos here.

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