One. The whole of the short story, Scar Ghyll Levels resonates with geology. The protagonists are young Yorkshire lead miners and the story is sprinkled with mining words like ‘bouse’. I love the adaptation of the cover that became the splash for the YouTube version.
It speaks of the hellish conditions in a 19th century lead mine, but mining provided a living and there wouldn’t have been any mining if it weren’t for the rocks and the processes they underwent deep underground: hot mineral-rich brines rising through fissures and faults and, as far as the lead veins were concerned, often threaded through layers of limestone. You can see relics of the mines on the dozens of photographs I’ve put on YouTube. They’re the background to the audio version of the story.
Two. Over to Weardale in North-East England, the setting of the County Durham Quad tales. More lead (similar geology) in Book 5, A Share in a Secret. Nick has fallen down a bell pit and Ross and Raith have to try to hoist him out. Miners would often dig a shaft, then open it out at the base so that the mine resembled a long-handled bell. A lot of the early mines were unregulated. They’re not always on maps but they’re recognised by the depressions they leave on the ground and a grass-covered ring of debris. The shafts can be capped and back-filled, but, sometimes, the capping gives way. It’s usually hares or walkers’ dogs that take a tumble. In Book 5, it’s Nick.
Three. And still in Weardale, grouse moors. Those upper slopes of the Durham hills – just heather on the grits that lie on top of the cycles of limestone, sandstone and shales. Nothing else will grow, but the heather is great for nesting grouse, and grouse shooting is profitable. So, the moors are well-managed by the owners of the large estates. Fire is one of the ways they do that. The patchwork appearance that results is beautifully shown on the Body Parts and Mind Games video. In the extract, Mike commits arson – to flush out the men who have kidnapped Ross, not to flush out the grouse. It works.
Four and Five. This cyclicity… repeating sequences of limestones, sandstones and shales. They’re called Yoredale cycles after the old name for the R. Ure in Yorkshire. There, they are seen to perfection. The cycles are probably caused by periodic changes in the Earth’s tilt and orbital radius with respect to the Sun. The changes affect insolation and, hence, relative water depth and river profiles as well as temperature more directly. Those affect the kinds of sediment deposited in, on or near the rivers, lakes and huge deltas that, millions of years in the past, dominated this area of northern England. (You could check out Milankovitch Cycles to find out more.) The sediments, buried, solidified, exhumed… gave rise to the quarrying industries that feature in the Quad tales, Ace in the Picture and Body Parts and Mind Games in particular.
The quad live in a fictitious abandoned quarry village, Tunhead, at the head of Tun Beck, an imaginary tributary of the River Wear. Tunhead Quarry (also fictitious) is where Raith nearly lost his life at gunpoint, and where Ross suffered burns when a carelessly discarded cigarette set dry, overgrown vegetation on fire. Those burns have ramifications: they set the story going. There’s a lot about the quarry in the stories – its history, its modern use – and there are a lot of quarries in Weardale, although, like Tunhead, nearly all of them are abandoned now. Smallish ones, overgrown hollows on the hill sides and near the river banks, and much larger ones that clearly show up from the air. Andy Ditchfield, who lives in Weardale and filmed all my videos, used drone footage of two, the quarries at Stanhope and Eastgate. Eastgate’s enormous quarry is the backdrop to the scene in which Raith is in danger but I think that Andy included Stanhope’s because he knew I would love to see it.
Six. As you travel eastwards through Co. Durham, these Weardale strata dip below the younger deposits and what you get is coal. Or, did get. The Durham coalfields were some of the UK’s most important, and towns and villages developed to supply the fuel that helped turn iron into steel in towns like Consett, or, literally, heat the nation. Whatever I might think about fossil fuels, I totally and absolutely empathise with Mike’s anger in A Share in a Secret. The region (not unlike my own) has never really recovered from the political decisions made in the seventies and eighties to get rid of the unions and the industries they represented. The resulting continual unemployment is part of the background to the story and helps to explain why Mike is determined to make the bad guys pay.
Seven. Waterfalls. Not Weardale, Teesdale, the valley of Co. Durham’s other major river, the Tees. The Whin Sill outcrops in Teesdale. It’s an igneous rock (dolerite) that extends for miles within and atop parts of northern England. Hadrian’s Wall, the old barrier between England and Scotland, takes advantage of it, and so do geologists and tourists when they visit Teesdale and gaze at High Force.
Weardale doesn’t have anything quite as wonderful, but I pretend that it does and call it Harnell Force. It’s Raith’s ‘special place’ – where he goes when he’s upset. His husband, Phil, has a limp, caused by a landslide there, but Khaled, the boy at the centre of Polyamory on Trial, well, he suffers far more than Phil does when he climbs it. High Force is spectacular. It’s also dangerous. It’s also privately owned and aerial photography isn’t allowed so, when Andy wanted to film a waterfall to go with the relevant Poly on T extract, he travelled over the Co. Durham border into Northumberland and filmed Ashgill Force instead.
On previous blogs, I’ve mentioned that I find it really difficult to describe the setting of the tales in terms of their scenery, even though the hills and rivers and quarries are firmly in my head. So, the stories are very stripped down into what I see as essentials: dialogue, introspective reflection and narrative. Weardale, Teesdale, Arkengarthdale…they are stunning, though, and, obviously, although their landscapes have been much modified, the geology shines through. Here is the link to my YouTube channel. There are some stunning videos, all shot by Andy over me reading extracts from the Quad tales, and Scar Ghyll Levels is there too.
Buy link: https://amazon.com/-/e/B07PDGWWPG
Video footage by Andy Ditchfield : http://www.skywardaerial.co.uk