Long shadows in the uplands

Late summer brings annual hallmarks that herald the start of a slow transition towards autumn. For some, the 1st September marks the threshold of a tumble, a fall indeed, into winter’s foggy prelude. It’s rather like the statement often heard immediately following midsummer night, declared with grim foresight: “Well, that’s it! The nights are drawing in now!”
The seasons, of course, do not respect either the convenience of a calendar or the stark boundaries we draw at three month intervals. As August wanes, the burnt yellow hue of arable fields become muted by morning mists and heavy dew. Spiders seem to claim every shrub and bathroom corner, and the shadows grow longer in late afternoon sunlight. The cycle of harvest and ripening of orchards once dominated this time of year. It is still evident, but now less marked by custom and diluted by the ever present produce that fills our supermarket shelves irrespective of season.

A recent holiday in the uplands of the Peak District reminded me of the seasonality of settlement in a landscape etched with the memory of ever shifting flocks and herds moving from vale to heath and back again. Reaching even further, the remains of Mesolithic camps that facilitated a different kind of harvest not bound by hedgerow or drystone wall. The Peak District, as with all landscapes is still productive, shaped by the engine of farming, the farmsteads and wayside settlements that grew in response to market demands. Even so, there is no mistake that it is now a place of recreation. Temporary settlements of sparkling white caravans and pastel tents now seem to equal the weathered limestone historic buildings. Lycra, carbon fibre and the red flares of bright waterproof jackets negotiate the twisting lanes and footpaths, with progress occasionally confounded by a flock of sheep on the move.

Our small party of holidaying families, clustered together on a hilltop campsite, compare the specifications of current generation tents on display. The children play on in spite of this. Absorbed by hunting for snails amongst the nooks and fissures of drystone walls. As the evening arrived though, all would unite about the fire pit to watch the long shadows give way to the brief glow of sunset and then the night sky. For this short period every evening some part of the experience felt timeless and shared with our predecessors. The howl of door zippers brought the day to a close with the march downhill to complete ablutions. A time made awkward by my modern urban habits as most nights I would plunge a bare foot into cold, squelching mud in search of an earlier discarded Welly. “Did they have this problem in the Bronze Age when stepping out of the roundhouse to pee?”

Holidays end all too soon and the camp must be crammed into car boots and top boxes. There is a tinge of loss as the ground is surveyed in a ritual search for missed tent pegs. This was August Bank Holiday and the final camping trip of the summer. From now on the camp sites will be home to a dwindling number of temporary homes until autumn finally hangs out the Closed until April 2017 sign. One final look at the site to contemplate the patterns of yellow, tortured pasture threaded with dark, muddy tracks. The last trace of our late summer settlement.

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