Borderlands and ‘so-so’ people

Feeling guilty. Feels like I promised to buy you a pint in the pub last week and you’ve ended up with two halves 7 days apart. But better late than never; here’s the second part of the border walk duology.

We - a couple of friends who can tolerate long walks, geology and wet feet - are in Cumbria, at Birdoswald and heading north through rough grazing and meadows. Also through what looks like several hundred acres of freshly planted, tiny conifers (good to see a few broadleaf saplings too but if I’m honest, I would like to have seen more...). 

It’s July and in the wetter hollows meadowsweet (remember its association with clay and ill-drained soils?) is in bloom and fills the air with its scent. Apparently it’s a diuretic and good for UTI’s, but remember my professional prefix is ge-. I’m a ge-ologist not a ur-ologist.

This walk has a definite therapeutic component, although more rational medical men might choose to describe it as homeopathic at best. Before long we find (it wasn’t lost just hard to locate) a Holy Well near Palmer Hill farm. What’s left of a flight of old stone steps takes us down to a ‘sulphurous’ seepage beside King Water - a shadow of its former holy glory no doubt. The water contains hydrogen sulphide; it leaves the ground clear but on contact with air develops a white colloidal bloom and the characteristic smell of rotten eggs. The origin of the gas - the carboniferous shales (geologists prefer to use the word mudstones) through which the water percolates slowly. More of springs and spas shortly.

After reaching Tumbler Rigg, we turn south, the mysterious establishment of Spadeadam is to our left and we keep eyes peeled for the elusive goshawk; although with all the booms and bangs maybe it’s not surprising that, yet again, we don’t see one. We give Crammel Linn, a waterfall on the Irthing, a wide berth. The road has been closed anyway since a hot day in late June when this natural beauty spot was left strewn with litter, and access to farms blocked by abandoned cars. NWT, like other countryside organisations, seeks to encourage people to enjoy nature, but sporadic irresponsible and disrespectful use, here and elsewhere in the UK during lockdown, means that there is more work to be done on public information.

Before long we drop into the Irthing gorge and seek out the Popping Stone, the rock where Walter Scott is reputed to have proposed to Miss Charlotte Carpenter in 1797. You won’t be surprised to hear me say that, without geology, literature and romance would be poorer - without these Carboniferous sandstone boulders, Scott would have had nowhere to propose, QED.

Gilsland spa - Ian Jackson

Image by: Ian Jackson.

The Irthing gorge has no need of romantic fiction, it is beautiful in its own right, brown trout rise out of the peat-stained, coffee-coloured water and grey wagtails and dippers hop from rusty rock to rusty rock. So it’s no surprise that we soon pass by a “chalybeate” (iron) spring - groundwater has passed through mudstone rocks with high concentrations of iron pyrites. But down beside the river is the Gilsland spa, a neat stone edifice, complete with 15mm pipe dribbling initially clear water that smells strongly of rotten eggs. In the 18th and 19th centuries people would come to take the waters here; not only immersing themselves in little bath houses, but also drinking one or two glasses a day. Did it work I wonder?

While its waters may have been equal or superior to any of those in the south of England, according to one travel writer of the day, its northern clientele and facilities were not. In 1841 Augustus Bozzi Granville writes, “Gilsland is indifferently frequented, and at best only by very so-so classes of people; except now and then, when a stray traveller (like myself for example) comes to Gilsland for local information and takes shelter for a day or a night - a period amply sufficient for seeing and enjoying all that there is enjoyable in the place”.

And before any Northumbrians start chuckling smugly, remember that only half of Gilsland is in Cumbria.