Bench Marks Revisited

It’s safe to say I have returned from Lewis with more questions than answers. A trip to the standing stones at Calanais revealed you don’t need to travel 5,000 years back in time to unearth mysteries. No one knows exactly why the stones were erected, Patrick Ashmore says: “The most attractive explanation… is that every 18.6 years, the moon skims especially low over the southern hills. It seems to dance along them”. This doesn’t explain why in the second OS survey of the area (in 1898) there seems to be a track running right through the middle (had stones been removed?) and a Bench Mark (89.1ft) incised potentially into one of these ‘druidical remains’! I am pleased to report the track swings to the west of the circle and I could not find this OS graffito (also, neither track nor this particular BM, are recorded on the first survey: 1849-52).The short walk south from stone circle to shore-line passes the recorded ‘sites’ of two other Bench Marks and a ‘trigonometrical station’ (triangle with a dot in the centre), which appears on both maps at the summit of a mound titled ‘Cnoc an Tursa’. I’m not sure what would have been used to mark the place at the time, there is no ‘trig point’ extant (as we would know it), but a careful perusal did reveal a faint Bench Mark in roughly the right place.I have been trying to untangle what it is about B.M.s that I find so entrancing, I know why I’m drawn to contour lines, but there’s something about a mark hewn in a landscape that when repeated on a map – in roughly the same shape and form (vastly reduced size obviously) – beguiles. They served a purpose: fixing altitudes, and were incorporated for 100 years or so, although I have discovered neither start nor end date, nor why that particular symbol was enlisted; indeed in the landscape its format changes a great deal, if the site is not vertical it may be devoid of horizontal top bar. According to Jochta: Used and made from the 1800s to around 20 years ago… A familiar horizontal levelling line with a three-line arrow pointing towards it (usually upwards). Each one is unique depending on the mason who cut it, some are plain, some decorated. Some roughly cut, some exquisitely cut with high accuracy. Whilst I’m busy with the questions: is this symbol a particularly OS British/Irish thing?

The only Bench Mark (39.6) to appear on both 1st and 2nd edition of the 6” maps is on the corner of ‘Callernish Inn’ (1st) or ‘Post Office’ (2nd) and is – as with so many B.M.s in Scotland – sadly lost beneath a rough coat of pebble-dash.Bringing us to the B.M. on the beach mentioned in a previous post, it doesn’t appear on the 2nd edition, so I presumed it washed away by storm and tide. According to the Modern OS Explorer Series (458), the beach is made up of boulders, loose rock and mud, which is what you see (under a hefty carpet of sea-weed). We scrambled across to the visibly biggest boulder, and whilst I skidded around its base searching at ‘knee-height’, Cal and Julia leapt to the top and: Huzzah! There it was.

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Island Life: Lewis, 1851

“The thing about an island… is that you feel you can know it. You feel your mind can encompass everything in it, everything there is to see and to learn and to comprehend. You feel you can contain it…”

Perhaps this is how the OS men felt on Lewis, and before them, perhaps those early Surveyors of Schiehallion (a mountain which often appears to float – island-like – adrift from surrounding chains). Perhaps also too, in the Inishowen Peninsula, Donegal where the OS first explored using contour lines on maps, a do-ably sized chunk of land: specific, delineated. The plan, come September when I begin PhD studies, is to tackle the Irish Survey, so visiting Lewis last week was a practice run; an opportunity to get a feeling of how the OS went about their work in these far-flung places.I am hugely indebted to Margaret from Stornoway Library for trawling the 1851 census before I arrived. What has emerged (over 29 pages) is a snapshot into the lives of 80 OS men registered as living on Lewis then. In amongst the fishermen and fish-curers, shoe and straw-hat makers, are the chainmen, draftsmen, surveyors, clerks and officers of the Ordnance Survey: stationed in local houses and in Inns (run perhaps by a Proprietrix!) Marrying in, having children, making and living their lives on the Island.Over half of them were Irish (or with Irish wives) suggesting – prior to Lewis – some would have been stationed in Donegal, was one of their number involved in those first forays into drawing contour lines on maps?There’s more to follow regarding other Lewis-based discoveries, but I am sad to report missing a photograph that would have put faces to names. Allegedly Stornoway Masonic Lodge held a photo of the OS men. I was stood a drink, told some tall tales, given time to wander the wood-clad corridors (occasionally hung three deep in pictures of men in aprons), but of the photo I sought was no trace.

Opening quote from: The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack.

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Missed Signs (Bench Marks, Flush Brackets, Cable Markers)

Getting ready for Lewis entails getting my ‘eye in’, I need to be more proficient in spotting Bench Marks. Last week I found out I had lived many years within a gnat’s crotchet of some of the best in the country – who knew? – I’ll come back to that.I am on ‘the Angel’, also known as the number 10 back from Birtley, thinking idle Bench Marks thoughts when, at the Shipcote bus-stop, I spy what surely is my first Flush Bracket, best described as a rare metal version of a Bench Mark. I go back, take a photo and send it to Ian from who quickly dispatches these hopes; it’s nothing more than a cable marker: rookie mistake.Relaying this story to a good friend of generous spirit and a shared love of street furniture, we hatch a plan to find two Flush Brackets, which – according to the data-base – are both extant and within the vicinity of her place. Picnic packed, we head out on our ‘adventure’, the first is at Rookery Farm but behind a gate warning: beware the dog, thinking the second will be simpler, we heed the sign and head instead for ‘the railway bridge’ where we assume access will be a deal easier. But no. Firstly, how many facets can a bridge actually have? Having crawled along, around and over it, pulling back ivy and undergrowth, we traipse back to car and phone/internet for the exact location details. It then emerges our destination will entail climbing two fences to enter a field holding a high-spirited nag, then another fence onto the railway embankment – no picnic. Although it’s Bench Marks rather than Flush Brackets I’m really looking for, I hope Lewis isn’t going to be like this.Which brings me to and the saddest part of this post. In May this year I went back to Goring for the first time since we’d shifted mum to a care home. This trip was to scatter her ashes on Lardon Chase. We take a walk by the river, stay at the YHA as the house is no longer hers/ours, and eat at the pub we always ate at with mum. And I wonder after 50+ years whether this is the last time I will visit. All these years, all those years, and it turns out Goring, Wallingford, Pangbourne are rife with OS street furniture/markings. I have been regularly passing not only Bench Marks and Flush Brackets a-go-go, but actually quite rare ones at that. And all this time, I am ashamed to say, I never spotted one. Though in my defence, I was never looking for them. Then.

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Lewis (contours and bench marks)

In every sense, the next journey is into unknown territory. I feel confident discussing early uses of isobaths, even the life and times of Charles Hutton, but after him, the story of contours emergence onto maps takes place variously in: France, Germany and Switzerland (before finally pitching up in Ireland) and my reading of various OS sources hasn’t caught up. So, in a side step, my eye caught on Lewis – which kept cropping up once the use of contour lines was ‘established’ in Britain. I sold it to my partner as a ‘holiday’, we’re heading to the Outer Hebrides next month. In that far off corner of Britain it appears the OS men went ‘off-piste’ contouring every 25ft instead of only every 50… WITHOUT PERMISSION. Why? They liked being there for sure, and were present long enough for their names to appear in the census. But why go for so much detail? I need the equivalent of a ‘trig point bagger’ (yes, they are a thing): a Bench Mark logger? I want to know why so many ascents on Lewis were marked with a slew of B.M.’s; did they really get the chisel out and mark so many random boulders and stones thus? There are plenty in ‘normal’ places as well: sides of buildings, along roads, but, there’s even one marked on the beach by the ‘Callernish Inn’ (sadly no longer a hostelry) 6.4ft above high tide, they didn’t expect that one to last, surely? So, I’m going in search of Bench Marks (weather and partner permitting), but please! If someone has already done this – and written about it – do let me know, then we can have a holiday instead.Finally, huge apologies to Callum McNeill-Ritchie for forgetting to credit his photos in the last post (and dissing his sausages in an earlier one).

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Slow Mountain

What do you require to be ‘in the mountains’? Fit? have the right kit? A ‘type’ perhaps comes to mind: Gore-Tex clad, wire-sprung legs, map as necklace, nose pointed firmly at a summit. It’s a stereo-type that we saw quite a few of: those racing up and down again. But is there a point where fitness or ‘ability’ becomes a ‘disability’? There’s such a wealth of experience that, in the rush for the top, the (boy) racers miss out. Like ‘slow city’ and ‘slow food’ movements, perhaps we need ‘slow mountain’ too.I’m thinking of Nan Shepherd enjoying a snooze in a lonely patch of heather, or our own slow circumnavigation. Then there were the three who pitched up for a cuppa at the yurt 7.30 one morning; I thought, in a state of sleep-stupor, they had set off at first light for the summit, yet couldn’t understand why they looked so relaxed, refreshed, but, they had been to the Lek: listening, watching birds, being still on the mountain. Each of our participatory sessions had elements of stillness. Installing a yurt was the brilliant idea of Kevin from Artlink Central: a safe space, warm and dry, a place to meet others and get out of wind and rain. It also became art studio and music venue.

                                                                        Artlink brings artists together, it works with people experiencing exclusion, disability or disadvantage. But once the travails of actually getting out of the city and onto the mountain are overcome (and we recognise there is much more work to do to make this possible), ‘disadvantage’ can transpose into advantage: if you move slowly, you see more, it’s also to do with what you see, how you see; when William says: “Bees collect flowers and put them in honey” I see the world momentarily with his eyes, we shared perspectives and surprised ourselves into re-thinking what it is we see or believe, a kind of cross-pollination of perception ensues.Only after breaking an arm – so he couldn’t go down the mines – did Charles Hutton receive the education to enable him to excel at maths. For John Muir, an accident to his right eye followed by weeks of near blindness provided the impetus to change direction and ‘follow his dreams’. Enabled, disabled; any sudden change to one’s senses (through accident, contemplation or simply being in a new environment: mountainside rather than city) can feed the imagination and create the conditions for new insights.

One participant arrived from the city in pumps and thin cardigan. Undaunted, she borrowed boots, jumper and jacket and threw herself into being, moving, creating on the mountain. It was a timely reminder; some kit is GOOD! Her comment on leaving: “I could do anything in these boots”.

I’ll leave John Muir to sum up:

“Another glorious day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.” 

This is the ‘last post’ regarding the Lines of Attraction festival. If you have been missing out on contour lines fear not, in September I begin PhD research on the subject, and have already compiled a few more leads on the subject.

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Time (and a ‘second fiddle’ post)

Mostly this blog concerns itself with space, place and their representations on maps, ‘time’ plays second fiddle. But the Lines of Attraction mini-fest contained so many time distortions I thought they deserved unpacking. Without a watch and with no phone signal those five days in the yurt occurred ‘outside of time’, each moment was experienced in and of itself, I inhabited it as much as I did the yurt. There was a time-rich ‘dense’ quality to the experience. So, it came as no surprise to read how time literally alters with altitude:

“…time passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level. The difference is small but can be measured with precision timepieces… This slowing down can be detected between levels just a few centimetres apart: a clock placed on the floor runs a little more slowly than one on a table.”                                                                Carlo Rovelli “The Order of Time”Can ‘now’ be cupped within an episode from 1774? I could have been Maskelyne residing in his bothy, taking a cuppa outside after dark to check the night sky for stars. Like he, eminent locals, surveyors and scientists met with me in my temporary residence to discuss the mountain; not quite a ‘re-enactment’ but echoes thereof: ripples in time. And on our last night we too held a Ceilidh though ours – in an age of health and safety – was a soberer affair, nothing burned (apart from the odd sausage). Stories and memories are like time-capsules, altering with age and telling, and during our Ceilidh new histories of Schiehallion were forged, new memories made alongside the playing of folk tunes as old as the fiddle (we did rescue THE fiddle from its ‘museumy bonds’, and heard it played – but not at the Ceilidh where the risk of history repeating itself was too great). I keep thinking back to a poem written by Jon Plunkett for the event which conveys those space/time fluctuations of physics so much better than I:

“We are talking minute measurements here.
fractions of fractions taken from the space
between a star-line straight and true,
and a plumb-lines slim deflection,
the subtlest bend of gravity,
the tiniest sway of cosmic force,
just enough to weigh the world.”

Extract from “The attraction of mountains, 1774” by Jon Plunkett, 2018

The ‘Yellow London Lady’ being played by Fiona Farris of the Lus Collective

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Companionship, Place and the Contour Walk

“What apps do you use?” We’re on the first steep climb to reach the 700m altitude of our Contour Walk on Schiehallion, a mountain that can descend into cloud at the drop of a hat, so to have navigation tools is advised. My response? I use the most highly prized and sophisticated navigational guide I know, one with the ability to provide detailed background information that I didn’t even know I wanted to know. More versatile, responsive and sympathetic to users than the most expensive micro-gadget, my prized asset is a refined ability to seek out people who ‘know’ a landscape and are generous enough to walk with me. Then I can ‘lose myself’ in the walking, looking and listening and if we stray from the path it’s not that we are ‘lost’, more likely our attention has been diverted by an unanticipated ‘find’.

Image courtesy of Richard Paul

We were well endowed for the Contour Walk with: botanists, geologists, surveyors to name a few. The aim – beyond the climb – was to traverse following ‘a line of equal altitude’ so, yes, our guide had an app for that. Leaving the path, the ground grew soft with heather and hummock, our right legs learned to shorten slightly as we leant into the mountain, and the best route finder ‘app’ became our guide’s dog, she could pick out the most even routes – and occasional deer tracks – better than we.

Image couteau of Richard Paul

Stopping for lunch at the remains of the Southern Observatory it became clear why locals would have chosen this place, sheltered from prevailing winds, when more tempting flatter (but windier) areas were available nearby. Was it local man ‘Red’ Duncan (Robertson, the fiddle player) who chose it for Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne?

For the experiment in 1774/5, the involvement of local people was essential, as it was again in 1802 when John Playfair made his Lithological Survey (as Maskelyne had failed to ascertain “the specific gravity of the rock that make up the mountain”). After 25+ years, all trace of the ring of theodolite stations around Schiehallion was gone from the landscape, but not from the memories of locals who had been involved with the experiment.In Playfair’s writing, there is a palpable sense of ‘treading gently’ in this place, it was “not necessary to dig into the mountain or blast the stones with gun powder” (or even “procure holes to be bored” as Hutton had suggested). Instead he speaks of ‘native rock’, ‘rock species’ and ‘living rock’ (I think of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain), he must have been in the company of these same local men who loved Schiehallion and for whom its burns, wells, stones and caves spoke: alive with myth and legend, and thus feeding Playfair’s own sympathy for this land, one hears it again in his description of parallel plates of strata, he perceives as having “a neatness and accuracy which a work of art could hardly exceed”.

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