Cogan’s Travels: to Rothbury in search of an ancient landscape

by John Cogan ARPS

In his Narnia prequel The Magician’s Nephew, CS LEWIS creates a mystic land between the worlds, a place where the two children who drive the story can travel to “other worlds” simply by entering one of the many ponds that are scattered around the clearing.  The idea is not so far-fetched when you stand amongst the trees at The Lady’s Well.  There is no bird song there; the trees remain still providing shelter and protection for the spring.  Only the way to the West is open, only that way can the soft, warm, golden light of evening penetrate the protective gathering of beech, yew and holly; three of the most significant of the mighty trees in the panoply of ancient forest lore.  It is this quest to find the ancient landscape that has drawn me to this part of Northumberland.

This is in the Rothbury area and is an ancient landscape dotted with once-busy settlements that are now home to the crow and the curlew, whilst the ubiquitous sheep graze the grass short.  Medieval ridge and furrow fields scar the hill sides with their regular tramline-like scars; indicative of larger communities and arable farming.  Generations of sheep have worn trackways across the slopes and earth banks whisper of harsh, past protection.  Peel towers and Bastles still stand proud and bring the lawlessness closer to our time.  Those Border Reivers and raiding Scots, now long since gone, yet still are providing a background tempo to now-peaceful communities

An absence of urban development or industrial desecration has left the ancient agrarian, hand-to-mouth existence visible.  The lumps and bumps so beloved of archaeologists are visible to those who look. They are even given names on the OS maps: settlement; Five Barrows; enclosure; hill fort; Joseph’s Cairn.  On a mild autumn day Jeff T. and I are approaching the Lady’s Well, armed only with our trusty cameras.  Jeff has his film-loaded 6 x 5 plate camera and tripod whilst I have the Pentax 645D, my “Precious”.  Situated close by the village of Holystone where the car is parked, we walk the quarter mile along a field boundary till we reach the place where the spring emerges from the ground to become the Lady’s Well.

All around is evidence of the past.  To our left are the unmistakable ridges and furrows for medieval fields; running north to south they conform to the classic alignment for maximum drainage and sunshine.  You can see such features in many areas; even the outskirts of Sunderland and what is now Houghton Golf Club, but none as clear as these.

The National Trust cast iron plaque tells you the well was used by the Romans and has rumoured associations with St Ninian and St Paulinus.  There is an 18th Century statue which purports to be of St Paulinus set within the enclosure.  He is portrayed contemplating the cross that stands centrally in the pool.  But experience tells us that if the Roman’s venerated the well then they were making their mark upon a site already sacred to the native population.  The magic of water that rises from the ground becomes both a source of pure liquid but that mystical interface between the worlds; the surface of which provides an entry to the land of the departed.

Standing within the enclosure you do not have to work on the imagination to become aware of the power of the site.  The beech trees (hallowed as the power of recording; the word “beech” has the same root as “book”) grow tall and form an over-arching dome over the well.  Yews, those sacred trees that surround many a sacred site since antiquity, grow and prosper there.  Holly, the tree of winter and of death and rebirth occupies a corner of the enclosure.

The evening light with its intensity dimmed strikes the back of St Paulinus’s statue and moves on to the stone cross, reputedly placed there by the nuns from the Holystone Priory (tasked with the care of the well until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries).  This is the magic moment.  The light and the shadows, the atmosphere that comes alive as you set up your camera: a high enough ISO, f8 at 1/125 second and let the power of the place suffuse your image.  This is not a place to rush.  Take your time and feel each image glow on your sensor.

Now, you have probably reached the conclusion that I’m a bit of an old romantic.  Jeff T is there with his 5 x 6 plate camera and black cover working the scene whilst I sit quietly and absorb the atmosphere. It is a place where you can wax lyrical.  Yes, but Jeff is a pragmatist and a technician.  With meticulous care he sets up his camera and times his nine second exposure.  The alternative for Jeff is a little Panasonic with a “filmic lens” connected by an adaptor.  Of dear, my arcane behavior is infectious.  It is whilst sitting on the bench watching the sun sink lower in the West that I become aware of the emotional imperative that is guiding my selection of photographs.  It is the narrative of the place that drives my images.  This is where you can see what I have made of the day in the Rothbury area, and how each image reflects my attempts at understanding the landscape and its history.

The Ordnance Survey Landranger map you need is number 81.  The grid reference for the Lady’s Well is 955029.

Cameras used:

Jeff’s were his hand made 6 x 5 plate camera and the Panasonic

My cameras were the Pentax 645D with 75mm lens and the Fuji X E1 with the standard Fuji 18 – 55 mm lens mounted.

Pictures:  John Cogan ARPS

Processed with Snapseed.

Beech Tree Buttress Roots

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Beech Tree with Cross (in Dry Brush)

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Lady’s Well with St Paulinus Statue

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Hill Side Farm (in Dry Brush)

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Cattle and Sheep amongst Ridge and Furrow

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Lady’s Well (in mono)

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Sheep Grazing next to Lady’s Well

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