Mar '03 [Home]
Missile-Defence for a Saxon Tribal Queen
The North Yorkshire moors are a remote area full of historical incidents up to the present, when the Fylingdales missile-defence station has just been pledged to the U.S. Star-Wars system.
Roman forts, Viking raids, besieged castles from the Normans to the Stuarts, litter the fringes. The Cold War nuclear brink evolved Fylingdales's notorious golf-ball shapes. But the USSR and its threats gone, the globe quickly changes, and a new enemy and purpose are soon found to exploit its uses.
At a crossroads of history, the base stands on the route of the Lyke Wake Walk, once a Saxon burial trail, forty miles long, used in defiant secrecy of occupying forces, by monks carrying their dead to a special resting place. Still today, devotees of ethnic tradition hike the trail in groups. One breezy day, I walked it alone, seeing almost no-one but a shepherd on a pony waving a greeting, then, despite my good map, I lost the track and crossed the valley to another shepherd on foot to ask the way. He pointed at the ridge: Seek always the high ground. A young man content to be out alone with his quiet animals, he reminded me of when I had farmwork near here decades ago, and could have stayed that way.
Back on track, I passed three prominent features close together: Fylingdales base, Lilla Cross, and Saltersgate Inn. The worn monolith commemorates Lilla, a Saxon tribal queen, said to be the mother of Caedmon, a monk at nearby Whitby Abbey, whose inspired devotional songs are thought to be the start of English poetry.
The log fire is said to be never let go out in Saltersgate Inn. An excise man once hid in the fireplace to catch smugglers, but got smoked out and perished. Now the eternal fire keeps his ghost at bay. Become a folk music venue, the pub attracted me weekly to give poetry readings within music sessions, specially writing about rural humour.
One evening, left with no car back to town, I begged a sleeping spot in the crumbling lofts already crammed in soused folkniks, slumbering content. Needing a relief in the night, I stumbled through the gloom to see a white naked figure loom eerily before me. The Excise Man's ghost, back in revenge no doubt. Was the fire out at last? No! I was facing a tall old dusty mirror and the ghastly spectacle of myself. Then my foot pierced the rotten bare floor, leaving me hardly a leg to stand on.
Early morning down in the pub, the bar-girl made coffee for the staff and passed me a mug. "All right, Dave?" she said to the young barman straggling in. "No, I'm not. I'm going to see that manager. My ceiling fell in last night," he said.
Visualising the staff quarters just under my loft incident, I winced, said thanks for the coffee, and left hurriedly to hitchhike home, twenty-five miles down icy winter roads.
Not long after, a new owner of the pub disliked the folk fraternity, moving us from the famous room of the eternal fire, and its ghost, into a back bar. On one occasion, he hampered us even further by having double glazing installed during our evening stint. One of our circle, Farmer John, performed his own lugubrious songs of rural life, in his own sturdy way. During his performance, the windows fell, shattering on the stone floor. Slowly, a gathering infection of Vesuvius mirth itched and groaned across Farmer John's huge wrinkled face, as he sang, finally exploding as vividly as the glass had only seconds before.
This was the final act. No longer welcome, we found another pub some miles away. Just over the hill, the giant golf balls had been changed to different radar scanners. The game was over, vanished in the mist of the moors where headlights can reveal sheep smeared in sinister red from the brand-dyes of the farm they belong to.
If nuclear threats ever go over the brink, this area will be the first devastated to ashes, visualised in a future littered in sheep skulls, like Golgotha, only timeless stones left standing, abbeys and castles visible on the coastal headlands always facing the invasions of history; Lilla Cross sticking up for Saxon Christianity past the fall of Rome, heedless of such pomp, needing only community, purpose, a sign to look for along the bleak ridge of life's journey, a right to a path across land and to sing its story, a way to bury one's dead here, where now the World Powers make their latest stand of defence.
(A poet and painter, Patrick Henry is the magazine's senior contributing editor in the U.K.)
[The Lyke Wake Walk, 67 km (42 miles) courses across the North York Moors National Park, the largest expanse of heather moorland in England, from Osmotherley to Ravenscar. To earn membership in the Lyke Wake Walk club, the stretch must be completed in under 24 hours. To do so, means walking through the night. Professional runners complete the course in under five hours. Rights of way over private property have developed since formalized walks began in 1955. Fylingdales Radar Station appears here in the background.—Eds.]