My previous trip to the millstone quarry on Carr Crag had been incredible, but I couldn’t help but feel that the weather had cut my exploration a little too short and I knew there was still a lot more to be discovered. So a few weeks later with some better weather in the offing my dad and I walked down the now familiar track towards the ruins of Flushiemere House. Together we followed the path which slowly wound its way up the small dale past the old mine shop with the aim of reaching the northern most end of the line of crags. Here we hoped to find evidence of the people who visited this remote corner of the Pennines thousands of years before us, and like the millstone carvers that followed them they had left their marks upon its coarse weathered stones. These carvings known as Cup and Ring marks are thought to date to the early Neolithic period around 5,000 years ago just when humans began to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. Their original meanings are now sadly lost in the mists of time though the people who made them seemed to favour certain locations within the landscape. The most common places are on boulders and crags which overlook valleys particularly if there are springs near by, a few marked stones have also been discovered set into streams themselves. Archaeologists have also discovered mounds of burnt material close to certain sites, all these clues are thought to hint at the ritual importance of these areas. It is also worth remembering that the landscape of the Pennines was very different in the Neolithic period. Before the arrival of intensive pastoral farming and mining the dales were densely forested and the valley bottoms often choked with marshes and wetlands, Carr Crags and other similarly rocky outcrops could have formed clear ground above the tree line, a perfect location for hunters to watch the movements of game below or the early farmers to oversee their herds.
After negotiating our way through the snow-covered peat hags we reach the crags and soon started to see boulders covered in carvings. Ranging from small thumb size peck marks to large soup bowl sized cups that covered the surfaces of the massive stones. The the carvings seemed to be more primitive in their designs compared to the more complex patterns found on the boulders of Barningham Moor to the south but the sheer volume of markings was astonishing.
We worked our way along the line of the escarpment stopping now and again to examine the boulders as we went till we reached the location of my earlier visit. Now with the better weather conditions it was possible to see the full extent of the workings. Together we must have found over a dozen millstones all in different stages of creation from the roughing out all the way to the finished article. A few of the worked stones had obviously failed during their carving, an unforeseen fault in the fabric of the stone which led to all the carvers labour going to waste. Looking at the scale of the quarrying it left me wondering was this the result of a large workforce, or generations of small groups of people scraping out a living in these tough conditions? Who were these people who toiled up here on this exposed fell side 600 meters above sea level? Neither could I get over the thought that when the day came to stop work for the last time, what must it have felt like to just down tools and leave all their hard work to the elements? Once again Carr Crags left me with more questions than answers, holding onto is secrets until another visit.
I thought I would add little note about the pictures. A recent sort through my darkroom led to the rediscovery of a packet of very out of date Kodak Bromide Grade 2 photographic paper from the 1960’s. To cut a long story short I couldn’t help but give it a go, and I’m happy I did because the results were remarkable. Not only did they have a wonderfully warm tone, but also a fantastic textured finish which shows through even in the scans I’ve posted, sadly I only have two or three sheets left!
I had probably been sat there for too long. The weather report had given me a brief window between the two weather fronts which were moving across the country from the north, but in my defense it had been a long haul up the steep fell side, and the giant gritstone boulder I had found provided the perfect shelter from the bitter wind which was sweeping across the moorland behind me. The day had started off fine and cold with a bright glishy sun which reflected off the tumbling waters of the Flushiemere Beck. With the stream gently chuckling between it’s frozen banks I walked along the icy track towards the old mine shop of Flushiemere House high above the small hamlet of Newbiggin, and from there I left the main path and started the climb to reach the weathered stones of Carr Crags. From my perch amongst these stones I looked out across the vast panorama of fells that make up the skyline of upper Teesdale, each peak carried its own snowy mantle which glowed in the low afternoon sun. But while I soaked up the mountainous vista, around me the clouds were quickly turning darker by the minute, bringing with them fresh gusts of snow. It was starting to look like I didn’t have much time left to explore before the weather would completely close in around me.
What had drawn me here was the hope of finding some relics of a long gone industry which existed here high up on the bleak shoulder of Jame’s Hill. For centuries the hard rough sedimentary rock these crags are made of had been used to make millstones. From what I had been told these stones were strewn throughout these outcrops like loose change, each one carved by hand but then abandoned before they could be completed. It seems strange to think that after all that hard work they should be left to weather and erode. It turns out the carvers where the victims of a changing market driven by a desire for softer flour that could be milled with fine-grained millstones imported cheaply from the continent. In the end it literally was just not worth the effort to get these stones down the hill.
The first millstone I came across was probably only 20 feet from where I had been seated. It lay on a broken stack of stones half buried in snow-covered turf, but as I started to compose my shot the snow which had been till then only falling as small flurries was quickly becoming a blizzard. Despite the worsening conditions I tried my best to capture the scene taking as many exposures as I could before deciding to move on.
Millstone on Carr Crags, Liquid silver emulsion on watercolour paper.
With my back to the now increasingly savage wind and snow I picked my way along the crag. Here and there I could make out more evidence of the people who spent their days working here. Tucked into a mass of rubble I saw a small circular cell, like a cist made of rough hewn stone it seemed most likely to have been built in an attempt to provide some protection asgainst the prevailing winds, a simple testament to the working conditions.
It was an incredible feeling to be enveloped in the squalling snow, watching it smudge out the landscape, there was an intense feeling of isolation, of being removed from the day-to-day world far below. Soon it became obvious that the weather was not going to break and I had run out of time to take more pictures. So I decided to head for the safety and comfort of home and by using the compass bearing which I had originally followed to reach the crag I descended through the swirling snow. Along the way down my mind kept drifting back to the millstone carvers and what they must have endured to hew these millstone from the hard unforgiving gritstone, only for all their endeavours to come to nought due to our love of soft white bread. Now the sound of pick and chisel has been replaced with the croaking call of the red grouse, and the stones have become home to the mountain hares.