The Moor: Lives, Landscape, Literature
Faber & Faber, 371pp, £18.99
In the upper reaches of the National Portrait Gallery in London, Branwell Brontë’s oil painting of his sister Emily is cracked and fissured. The paint barely sits on the canvas. In front of it, an American woman employed by the gallery is delivering a lunchtime talk about the Brontës. She is knowledgeable and efficient, and she quotes from a contemporary review of Wuthering Heights, written by a critic who found the book barbaric, shocking and disgusting; beyond the pale of respectability.
But Emily Brontë is now the accepted face of the wild moors, and we cannot think of the Yorkshire moors without her. The savageness of her work has become polished by our preconceptions. It needs to be renewed; we must reclaim our moors from cream teas and see them from the vantage point of the raptors wheeling overhead.
William Atkins does that, gloriously, in his disinterment of the English moors. His book, which has an affecting section on Emily – who was called “the General” by her family and who emerges as fairly barbaric, too, not above whipping her own dog – approaches those mythic wastes in the way she did, walking over them, and populating their wilderness (which covers 6 per cent of the country) with the humanity that shaped it. Drawing on literature, art and industry, The Moor is as much social history as natural history. Atkins is an expeditionary anthropologist, making his way into England’s dark heart.
He starts his countrywide trek at an unlikely place: a vestigial moor in southern Hampshire, so insignificant that, even though it is less than ten miles from where I live, I never knew it existed until now. Atkins grew up there, in the town of Bishop’s Waltham. As a 14-year-old boy, he wrote a precocious GCSE essay on these few acres of wild land. The Moor is an imaginative, allusive extension of that enthusiasm – sometimes I felt young Will was doing his Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, and feared for his safety in bog and mist. But as Atkins sits down to his King-Size Pork Pie and sachet of Capri-Sun, poetry spills out. Not since Tim Binding’s haunting On Ilkley Moor (2001) has a writer evoked the uncanny spirit of the moors so powerfully.
The moors lodge in our collective imaginations from early on. As my father was Yorkshire-born, we spent summer holidays visiting the blackened parsonage, graveyard and cobbles of Haworth or the moorland asylum where my own uncle was incarcerated. Dartmoor, too – with its Gothic prisons and red-eyed hounds – is a fixed childhood memory for many. In the village of Princetown, Napoleonic prisoners of war froze to death in a building whose windows went unglazed. Inmates killed one another “over half a raw potato”. In its first ten years alone, 1,478 men died at the prison; Atkins describes their bones rising to the surface as if rejected by the moor. More benevolent is the presence of Buckfast Abbey and its bee-breeding monks, in whose company the author finds a certain anachronistic solace.
On Saddleworth, other ghosts appear – those of Hindley and Brady (Atkins could well have included the white-shirt-clad spectre that lurches out of the same midnight moor in Morrissey’s autobiography). And on the North York Moors, Atkins encounters the eerie early-warning installations of Fylingdales, with their ominous domes and oddly lyrical acronyms: SSPAR, “solid-state phased array radar”.
Deeper into Yorkshire we find Ted Hughes as a boy, climbing up the hills of Hebden backwards, because it was good for the leg muscles. And we follow Hughes and Sylvia Plath up to the ruined shell of Top Withens (claimed as the model for Wuthering Heights). “We could buy this place and renovate it!” says Plath, only for Hughes to reply, darkly, “except, of course, except/For the empty horror of the moors”.
But these are places of recreation and procreation, too. Atkins takes issue with Auden’s “celibate, evacuated landscape”. Instead, he sees the land alive with burping frogs, whinnying curlews and rising larks. He “landlopes” over every moor, and even immerses his body in the peaty brown water that runs from farm bath taps (Victorian spas offered the ultimate invasion of a peat enema).
While he charts murders, plane crashes and fields filled with the lethal leavings of army manoeuvres, he also walks out in the summer, continually turning his cap peak against the beating sun. In the winter, he crosses frozen expanses where, in a memorable scene, he sees what he thinks are wading birds taking off from a lake, only to realise the shapes are “fine platelets of ice being torn away by gusts of wind and flung up – twenty feet into the air, and scintillating”.
At points, Atkins might well be describing Antarctica, a terra nullius. At others, he evokes a more obviously managed landscape, joining a grouse shoot in an exciting episode evocative of a battle scene, with circular butts as trenches and well-dressed “guns” from town. Even in this celebration of futile death, an artificial harvest for which countless hen harriers and falcons have been poisoned or shot, Atkins sees a kind of transcendence. Handed a dead grouse, he swings its head between his forefingers as he has seen the hunters do, and it seems to weigh almost nothing at all.
Perhaps that is the beauty of this book. Vivid with incident and exquisite description, it has a touch so deceptively light that it too seems to weigh nothing, yet mean everything.
Philip Hoare’s “The Sea Inside” is out now in paperback (Fourth Estate, £9.99)