Chapter 23 – A Walk Back to the Bronze Age

The next morning after breakfast, George and Rhan pulled on boots again. They stood outside waiting for Grace in the bright early-morning sunshine, looking across the fields at the elongated shadows cast by the spring sunrise climbing over the hills. Looking in the other direction, they gazed with fascination at a grey sea of cloud that isolated them from the plain below. Even as they watched, they could make out the sun beating back the mist and revealing more trees in the valley, yet Rhan felt relieved not to be taking the open-top car back down into the cold mass of fog. Up here, under a blue sky, they were the lucky ones.
Once assembled, they set off with the Cairn terrier leading the way – or at least the way he wanted them to go. ‘No Hamish, not that way today,’ or ‘Wait for us!’ were much-repeated phrases at the start of the walk.
They walked along an alleyway between high sandstone walls and dived into a covered passageway, cut like a tunnel through a terrace of houses. They found themselves at the village centre, to be met again by patches of bright, warm sunshine between long, cold shadows cast by the buildings. The cheerful light glistened and sparkled in ice coatings to the side of a flow of water running down the verge of the road.
‘There used to be a village stream,’ George explained. ‘It was confined in Victorian times to a stone culvert, but it keeps fighting to run free again on the surface.’
At the village centre, two roads from the moors met the road down into the fog-covered vale below. A stone pillar surrounded by three layers of stone plinths made up a village cross, but Rhan’s younger guide rushed ahead, keen to show her a more primitive uncarved stone predecessor that stood sadly across the road, next to a closed-up shop. Both the lonely pagan stone and the once upmarket general store spoke of past eras for the staid village centre. Grace made Rhan peer through the grimy glass shop window to inspect the massive brass cash till and the rows of haberdashery drawers, which could have belonged in some museum or costume-drama film set. George tugged Rhan’s coat sleeve and they were soon pursuing the dog up through the village.
‘So how many of these are second homes or holiday lets?’ Rhan asked her guides. George replied with a laugh.
‘It’s more like third or even fourth homes, never mind second homes. They’re only visited for a week or so a year, if that. Thank God, there’re not too many so far – probably around one in twenty, but still crazy!’
They left the tightly packed terraced houses and the more spread-out recent developments as they climbed towards the bright moors. On most sides, they were accompanied by clear winter sunlight, with a crystal blue backdrop that picked out the woods and hills above in sharp focus. Yet the sun, whose slanting rays had vanquished most of the early frost, still had a fight on its hands. An intimidating bank of fog appeared intent on smothering the low-lying world below, forcing the walkers to quicken their steps even as they discussed which fields and sections of the village behind them had been enveloped since their start.

Leaving the road, they followed a stream, splashing through the gurgling ice-rimmed shallows or walking beside deeper pools. They climbed the slope of a large dam and were soon walking beside a reservoir, lined along the far shore by larch and pine trees, with immaculate symmetrical reflections in the still water.
‘It’s very full,’ observed Rhan, looking at the water disappearing into the overflow beneath the mock-gothic tower beside the dam.
‘Well this isn’t used,’ George answered before his sister could respond. ‘Our water now comes from cleaner boreholes miles away and is pumped to the village. What you see here is only for people to walk round. It’s the last modern reservoir above the village. We wonder how long before it’ll be scrapped.’
‘But I thought that upland storage was the big thing to cut flooding of lowlands?’ Rhan asked in surprise.
‘Yeah, but the owners, the water authorities, want to destroy dams,’ George explained, looking at the water, whose surface was now steaming under the influence of strong sunlight. ‘It cuts down on maintenance and responsibility. The trouble is they allow water levels to stay permanently full – much higher than when the water was being used, so there’s no bloody storage capacity.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘Then the dams overtop when we get hit by the new storm cells that liven up our weather nowadays. They then demolish. That’s engineering for you!’
He pointed to the hillside opposite. ‘See that valley with the mist halfway up it? It once had two other reservoirs, but the second one is being bulldozed this year.’
Grace took over again. ‘Yup, Dad rants that the reservoirs could’ve made electricity for us, and a dam above another nearby village saved a farmer’s life by slowing a flash flood – before they demolished it. Whatever…the main drag is that we lose our best swimming lake! Hamish, where are you? Hamish, here!’
‘That makes no sense,’ Rhan responded, shocked. ‘I used to visit precious water supplies with my father. Did you know that he was a water engineer, Grace?’
‘No, I didn’t.’ Grace ignored the dog and fell into step by Rhan. ‘So your father – that’s why you’re an engineer? All that Maths and Physics, ugh!’
‘I was the only girl in school to study those subjects!’ laughed Rhan.
‘Oh my God! That sounds lonely…or did you have someone special?’
There was a slight pause while Rhan worked out what she was being asked.
‘No, I was just really quiet. The thought of having a boyfriend never bothered me.’
‘You must be a really nerdy swot, like bro.’
‘He is no swot now. I have to nag and bribe him to get practicals and tutorials done; we only just scrape through. Everything and everyone is relative I suppose,’ Rhan mused as she waited for her study partner, who kept stopping to look and poke at things beside the stream, much to the annoyance of his sister. The stream passed through a gap between steep hillocks that stood sentinel either side of the beck.
‘Um, this was from an older generation of dams – one of several,’ George announced, flicking a look at Rhan, which suggested this was not just a stopping point on the tour, but a useful diversion to break up the girls’ discussion. ‘The village was a typical early-industrial Yorkshire town. There was alum mining and linen weaving, which then moved from cottages or large shared attics into mills powered by waterwheels. This was one of three historic dams. They powered two or three waterwheels – another linen factory down there in the fog had another three wheels. Then there was a flour mill between them.’
‘Don’t forget the bottom flour mill with all the stones, which still has a real living miller in the house next door!’ his sister prompted. ‘And the two hydro generators.’
‘What?’ Rhan’s flagging interest was suddenly piqued again.
‘Oh, the big houses reused old alum dams or made new ones for electricity,’ George explained. ‘They owned the streams and could afford dynamos to light their houses before the National Grid arrived. But as the big modern dams are redundant, this beck produces nothing. When the power fails, the pumps close off, and so does our water.’
‘Welcome to the real unsustainable world,’ Rhan said, cutting across his musings. ‘In Iraq, we only had electricity and water for an hour or so a day, if things were going well. Most of my friends from Syria will have forgotten what electricity can do!’
‘And then you come to the UK,’ George took over. ‘And we can’t think of life without such comforts. The latest problem is that we even need it to open our electric doors and gates. Without power, we can’t even find out what’s going on once the local phone masts, the internet and our digital radios fail.’
‘So?’ Grace said.
Smiling, Rhan responded, deflating the family tension. ‘Well it’s heaven here with or without power. Just the sound of water ¬– it’s so peaceful! Which way now?’

Saving their breath for the walk, they climbed through a steeply sloping wood of Scots Pines and a field of rough grass before clambering over a final drystone wall. Jumping down, they were suddenly on the open moor, and were wading through a blanket of calf-high bush that Rhan was informed was called heather.
‘In August the whole lot turns shocking pink and purple,’ Grace called out, sweeping her arm to the horizon and breaking into a run. Rhan bounded after, laughing at both the exhilaration of being part of a rolling hillside that went on and on into the sunlight, but also laughing at the short-legged dog who was bouncing his way through the heather. They headed towards a collection of five or six stones, grouped together on a slight rise. One of the stones was standing, while the rest were inclined at varying angles or laid flat.
‘What are these?’ Rhan asked as they slowed their run.
‘Stones!’ George responded unhelpfully, arriving from behind.
‘How do you put up with him, Rhan?’ Grace took a symbolic swipe at her brother, but continued in an authoritative manner. ‘There are lots of stones peeking out of the heather if you look. On this side of the valley, every stone must have meant something. They were dug up and dragged into position, some just a metre or so but others much further. Well,’ she paused, giving herself time to look at the stones before them and then rushed on through her description. ‘These are standing stones and along with all those along the edge of the ridge – they’re probably Neolithic, which means late Stone Age. They were here to impress, I think. If we had time to look in the heather, we would see the pits they came from – they usually look like they were dug yesterday. Let’s see, the stones are sometimes decorated – well those,’ she pointed doubtfully at some worn dimples in the top side of a rock, ‘could be old cup holders, as George used to call them, but then they could just be natural.
‘Oh, look at this!’ Grace exclaimed after a few moments from the far side of one of the stones. ‘Even George couldn’t say so many chiselled marks were natural; there’s twenty or so orientated in – what? – three different directions.’
‘Yup, man-made! Not a bad find, sis.’
‘But what does it mean? Why has someone done this?’ Rhan asked, shaking her head in puzzlement.
‘It’s conceptual art, from thousands of years ago,’ Grace explained.
‘Unfortunately the instructions to the concepts have been lost,’ George added smugly. ‘It’s not art. I think it was for counting; over on that sunny hill beyond that arm of new fog, I know of a stone where there are six pairs of cup holders. It was obviously a calculator, used back in the pre-metric days, when everything was by the dozen.’
‘That fog is definitely getting closer,’ Rhan remarked with unease, cutting off George’s hypotheses. ‘It is amazing, but what happens if it keeps rising?’ She watched the ill-defined shadows of white-grey, with wispy outriders, march into the valley below them, flowing in from the ocean of fluff in the plain below. Ahead, a white army used a different route to infiltrate across and below them, cutting them off from the highest moors.
‘We lose the sunshine, unless the sun wins and burns it all away,’ George replied flippantly. ‘It’s only cloud without the will to fly, to quote Bill Bryson.’
Rhan turned and started in surprise. From their high position looking out over the fog towards distant hills, she saw something massive in the clear sunlight above the dense ocean of fog. ‘What was that?’ she called.
The three of them stood, rooted to the spot, while something large and heavy rose lazily up out of the mist a few miles away, leant over and sank back down, like a jumping whale or a badly tossed caber at a Scottish Highland Games. A few seconds later, it happened again.
‘It’s the top of one of the wind turbines!’ Grace burst out, laughing. ‘We can only see the blade that’s raised!’
‘My God, that’s cool!’ George studied the process a few more times. ‘It’s great to see them on clear days, right up into County Durham.’
‘That is amazing,’ Rhan murmured, rooted to the spot until urged into action by George.
‘Come on! I want to show you some of the Bronze Age roundhouses we think we’ve found while you’ve been wasting your time at rowing camp.’
A rapid stride across the flat upland took them to a shelf of land where grass and moss grew beneath a bank of heather. George and Grace dragged their visitor around an unimposing circle of stones edging a low-lying patch of dark green grass, set slightly lower than the surrounding moss and sparse bracken stalks.
‘This is one of five or six houses in this settlement,’ George reported as Rhan counted seven paces across the diameter and checked it again in another direction. ‘They are really spread out, so there could be others in the bracken and heather. They usually have this diameter but some are up to twelve metres. They have a varying number of stones around the edge, every metre or so, and usually a central collection of stones. We don’t have the earth bank walls they have in Scotland, or the upright stones they have on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. We can only see these low stones now because soil levels have dropped.’ George walked into the middle where he could reconstruct the building by drawing in the air.
‘The edge stones must have been bearing pads for the timber rafters, spanning into the middle,’ suggested the trainee engineer. ‘If the stones took the axial thrust, they could’ve done without a central post – but it would have been easier to build, and more sturdy if there was a post in the middle here, on that central stone. I presume the door would be on the low east side, so they could have coffee on the terrace in the morning.’
After a pause, George lightened his tone slightly to indicate a joke. ‘Oh I’m wrong there! The Parisi tribe were from the Iron Age, so these residents, if they were from the Bronze Age, would have had to wait a thousand years for their coffee and Gauloises cigarettes. Besides, in the Iron Age, the Parisi tribe were just south of this area when the Romans arrived and this bit of Yorkshire was part of the rival Northumbrian Briganti tribe. That’s their military road coming out of the mist on the far side, taken over from the Bronze Age. On a good day, we reckon we can see its route across the flat valley, right to where it crossed the River Tees at Yarm.’
‘OK,’ Rhan responded suspiciously as she wandered around. ‘I agree there is a bit of a circle here, but there are more impressive stones aligned just outside the circle. They appear to enclose a more rectangular shape. What does that mean?’
‘Our theory is that…’ George started, but Grace interrupted with an answer she had waiting.
‘I think they’re stables or pens to keep the animals at night.’
‘I’m not so sure,’ her brother suggested uncertainly. ‘Those other stones could be in two lines down there. They look like they could be the beginning of our Bronze Age double wall rather than another building.’ George indicated other aligned stones in the heather below the house. ‘We haven’t tried to join the dots yet. It’s all like a Sudoku…any guesses are just that, pencilled ideas, until we have a complete row. Even then it’s only our creation, but it makes dog walking more fun finding this stuff.’
‘Well, the stones across there are on a curve rather than a straight line.’ Grace continued the argument, leaving Rhan in the dark. ‘And they’re much too far apart, so they’re not the double wall. They may be earlier Neolithic.’
‘Let’s keep going,’ George suggested, breaking into a run again. ‘We need to show Rhan some sections of that double wall. It’s just across here and down.’

The two girls followed George across the flat, slowing over the lip of the moor top through broken areas of hillside, where George paused to continue the guided tour. ‘What do you think of these little quarries, Rhan? We used to think they could be Bronze Age, along with the roundhouses scattered all over, and the double wall you’ll see soon. There are little quarries all along the escarpment and there are extraordinary fine knitting-needle-like chisel marks on some.’
They dropped down below the quarries on the lip of the escarpment, slithering down a rough and steep slope, pock-marked by holes. George stopped at the edge of two holes divided by a ridge or short wall of rock.
‘The quarries here could be older though, from the Neolithic,’ he said, pointing at the dividing rock. ‘Look at that partially hacked-out stone! It was intended to be a standing stone around two metres long. It still needs trimming on this side and it’s still attached to the outcrop of rock along the bottom. There are others down there. I bet the quarrymen were pissed off when they heard no one wanted these massive stones, after all that work! “Sorry mate, haven’t you heard? The Stone Age is over so our time’s up and we’re done for. At seven o’clock this morning we started the Bronze Age. So no one wants your massive stone monuments any more – they are just too inconveniently heavy.”’
‘That is amazing,’ Rhan remarked, appraising the wasted effort. ‘It was quite an industry!’
‘That’s a point,’ George said thoughtfully. ‘No one thinks of stone quarrying in the Stone Age as an industry, apart from all the flint that was imported from Lincolnshire or somewhere to here. Yet even in the Bronze Age, hacking stones, or even nicking them from the Neolithic sites, must’ve been the major industry, besides farming.’ There was a pause as Rhan considered what life must have been like until George tore off again. ‘Come on, you have to see our wall. Run before the mist arrives! Hamish, come on boy!’
‘This wall we’re going to see – it isn’t just ours, Rhan,’ Grace explained breathlessly as they bounced down the steep hill through the spongy heather and into beds of dead and brittle bracken. ‘The biggest stones, the Seven Sisters and bits of dyke were well known…but we’re still claiming most of it…where we’ve found extra sections…and pushed the bracken down for the first time.’
Rhan made no response, waiting until they stopped their reckless descent near the base of the steep slope amid another jumble of worn and venerable standing stones. She immediately started to examine the large relics.
George was delighted by Rhan’s evident interest.
‘Just stand here on this bracken mound, Rhan! You’ll see how the best-known and tallest Seven Sister stones actually align themselves into two rows of vertical standing stones, two metres apart – you can see another five brothers on one side and seven or eight sisters on the other. It’s flipping obvious now, but it took Linda, an archaeologist who Dad used to chat with on the bus commute to town, to point it out.’
‘Oh yes!’ Rhan exclaimed enthusiastically, holding his shoulder for balance. ‘I can see smaller ones as well, peeking out of the reeds and that bracken stuff.’
‘You’ve got it. The stones aren’t quite touching – they‘re spaced at around half-metre centres,’ George told her quietly while Grace took no notice. ‘OK, now follow the lines of stones down and you’ll see more on the same alignments. There’s a stretch towards the bottom where many stones were robbed for that square Viking building area to the right, but see how the two lines tie into that dyke beneath the hawthorn tree.’ Rhan leant against his back, following his arm pointing across the hillside, waiting for him to continue. ‘Archaeologists say stone and gravel were piled up between the standing stones, dug from ditches on each side – typical of Bronze Age cross-ridge dykes.’ She nodded, listening in silence, not wanting to interrupt his description. ‘Except this wall crosses the side of a valley, not a ridge, and it crosses earlier hollow ways and cuts through much earlier-looking stuff!
‘We’ve found the two lines extend into that bog, but the stones are now coming out of it each year as the swamp dries out. You may be able to see more stones where the walls pop up on the far side of the bog, just by that group of hawthorn trees and that rough area of boulders.’ There was a pause until Rhan nodded slowly again, holding on to his pointing arm.
‘The alignment is less clear-cut beyond, along that steep slope where the bracken is still deep, but we think the double walls drop into that foggy valley, almost a kilometre away.’
‘This is fantastic!’ Rhan enthused. ‘It’s the stuff of goose bumps!’
‘It’s even weirder when you think of the effort they needed to construct this wall,’ George suggested. ‘It could’ve taken many gangs of workers decades upon decades to cut out the stone, fetch it down from up there, and to build this, all without even a JCB. If each stone took a team two or three weeks to quarry, fetch, and place, they may have managed, say, twenty a year. And how many stones? One kilometre, two, four thousand stones,’ he calculated using his fingers. ‘This double wall could have taken two hundred years for one team of say four people to construct – or perhaps forty people twenty years – about one generation!’
‘You’re right – it is weird,’ Rhan agreed. ‘The cost on the community looking after forty workers not producing food or anything useful must have been amazing.’
‘Or, I could be wrong,’ George admitted. ‘If they just took the stones that had been quarried by someone else, it would have only taken a year or so.’ Rhan ignored this throwaway comment.
Grace called over to provide more useful background data. ‘That’s the ancient track George mentioned. It was a motorway, before the Romans marched along it and long before it became the “Drover’s Road”. So all of this wall might’ve been security or even advertising for pubs, burger bars or pizza huts selling stuff at a service station down in the valley by the stream. The people up here may have been pretty well off if commuters had to pay tolls. So that may have funded the wall, or maybe they had an EU grant!’
Rhan laughed at her young guide’s portrayal of history.
‘Or an army of slaves,’ George added ominously.
‘But what was this double wall for?’ Rhan asked them both. ‘Where does it go? And why? And how come you know so much?’
Grace had wandered off below again, so George, still standing close to Rhan, was pleased to answer her.
‘Well, we revealed most of it over many years of taking Hamish for a walk. See that mound of bracken on the line of the stones on this side?’ He pointed at the nearest of many humps of bracken. ‘If you stomp that down, I bet you’ll expose another stone. Then within a few weeks of letting the air into the old bracken leaf, it’ll dry up and just blow away, leaving the stone on display. We know so much because we’re currently top experts in the world on this site, so it’s easy – we can just make it up!’ he shrugged. ‘We soon find something else that shows whether we’re right or wrong.’
Rhan struggled to grasp the flood of information as George continued his sporadic narration.
‘That’s the fascinating thing about this hidden valley: we can see who did what and when, relatively speaking, give or take the missing Iron Age. Ground levels are back to their ancient positions so word of mouth, history books and common sense allow us to guess the date of recent excavations, and ancient dykes or tracks. We have First World War practice trenches from the early 1900s, Victorian and Georgian quarries and dams from the 1800s and late 1700s, a couple of farm footprints on the edge of the moor from God knows when and that Viking longhouse from the first millennium. Before that we have nothing in the valley from the Iron Age, but loads of recognised Bronze Age dykes, roundhouses and burials. So older stuff with bigger and more stone must be from the Neolithic Stone Age. Simple!
‘That footprint of a “Viking” building area to the right down there for example.’ George indicated with a nod of the head. ‘It’s been looked at by several archaeologists in previous decades, but another archaeologist family friend, Richard, visited recently and says it’s just the right shape for a Saxon or Viking longhouse. It would be old anywhere, but it’s modern around here and fits with missing stone from the double wall! Cool eh? It must have felt a bit isolated having a house up here, as we think the valley was otherwise deserted, but all that third-hand Bronze Age stone must’ve been just too convenient and tempting not to use. Oh, and it was able to make use of a water channel from four thousand years earlier to save having to wait a thousand years for someone to invent running water!’
‘Besides, Rhan, George was a nerd who read all those Horrible Histories books.’ Grace built up the picture from ten paces away. ‘He spent years fighting Assyrians, Babylonians and whatever in one of those Empire Earth computer games! Our parents still laugh at his cataloguing of events when he was little – he used to bring his history picture books to them to complain about errors on early civilisations.’
Rhan put her hand to her mouth, chuckling and gazing at her tutorial partner in surprise, while Grace continued.
‘Mum publishes books on archaeology, and dad is a conservation engineer, so they know some stuff, but we think most of this would blow the minds of archaeologists. We have no reputation, so we can come up with wild ideas.’ Grace was gradually walking closer while still searching the ground. ‘We knew we needed to find the Bronze Age roundhouses up there sooner. They had to live somewhere if they built all of this wall. It just took us longer to find than expected. Now we know what to look for, we find new ones most weekends, dotted around wherever the ground levels out. If you think it would be a good place to camp, there’s almost always a house nearby, or so we think.’
Rhan looked between brother and sister, wondering who provided the more compelling story as Grace continued their apparent competition to drag their guest back into prehistory. Grace started pointing at new features that Rhan would never have noticed.
‘As George mentioned, our latest idea is to work out whether water channels you can see there, with a line of reeds crossing the slope diagonally, were used by the roundhouses, or whether it was just the Neolithic Stone Age people who bothered to construct elaborate cold-and-cold running water systems. Those green areas above us seem to be well-watered paddocks, which we guess the Bronze Age animals carried on using after they took over.’
Grace’s tone changed briefly as she pointed at a smudge of grey near the ridge.
‘Oh Rhan, have you seen the herd of cattle over there? They have really woolly coats – you should see the calves, they are so sweet…anyway, we’re hoping that there are too many crazy coincidences for us to be completely wrong all the time. But just wait ‘til you see the really freaky stuff from the Neolithic.’
‘Stop talking and come and see!’ George was again very keen to continue his guided tour and strode off, talking as he walked, leading the girls up and across the hillside towards the cattle, which were lowing loudly.
‘This is where the double wall crossed an older “hollow way” that links to what we call the Neolithic ceremonial walk, going straight up the hillside through that green paddock area with bits of old walls and Grace’s water channels. You can see the bigger two-metre-long fallen Neolithic stones spaced out every five or six metres, although it’s still a bit uncertain. At the top though, near those cows, most of the Neolithic stones are still standing. They run next to a long-known Bronze Age “cross ridge dyke”. We’ve found another dyke, which goes back along the ridge towards those first roundhouses we saw!’
Rhan began to laugh at the enthusiastic outpouring of extraordinary data, punctuated by more ridiculous sketches in the air as George painted a picture of the ancient landscape. She bit her lip and kept her questions until she had a chance.
‘What is a dyke for and what is a hollow way?’
‘A hollow way’s just an ancient track, worn down by use, with large stones shifted to the side,’ came the enthusiastic reply from Grace. ‘The tracks had dual carriageways or even three lanes for the steep bits and they seem to have been used like railway tracks, so one or two people could direct a whole herd. And a dyke is a mound with a ditch on one side. Up there the ditch was on the inside, presumably to keep their animals from wandering away.’
‘We’ve got monuments here that could span two, three or four thousand years before Rome was founded,’ George boasted to Rhan, who was now exploring as she listened. ‘We have cist graves for hundreds of common people. But, we do the finding, not the digging, so we could be wrong. Mind you, even removal of the bracken was like excavating…you should’ve seen it when the live bracken was higher than your head and the dead bracken leaf more than your knee height. It took some stomping. Stones used to be found then lost for months. But now the level of most of the ground has dropped all by itself…you can see the exposed roots of dead or dying trees left on the surface. Look, the biggest tree over there fell down last winter. The bases to the standing stones and even the bottom of pits appear to be at the same level as they were five thousand years ago on the sides of the hills. We see different things each time we come up, as the landscape changes from month to month and year to year.’
‘Anyway Rhan,’ George continued with a mischievous grin. ‘I know you’ll be interested to hear that one of the main reasons we’re finding so much stuff so easily is because of climate change…that and those shaggy-haired cattle over there and because much of the bracken has been poisoned.’ George now had Rhan’s full attention as they climbed slowly, and his sister had wandered off still further.
‘And…they say it was climate cooling that drove people off the high moors.’ George played a trump card again. ‘It was half a degree warmer when people lived up here.’
‘Hang on! Warmer than when?’ Rhan immediately took the bait. ‘We now have more than a degree of warming from pre-industrial times, so it will be much warmer this year than when these hills were occupied!’
‘Yup,’ conceded George, nodding. ‘Most Bronze Age civilisations collapsed when it got cooler. Same as in the Iron Age when the Roman Empire started to collapse. Now we’ve the opposite problem with mega global warming, so there’ll be unstoppable demand to move back up here!’
‘Cool! So if Rhan’s right,’ Grace said as she wandered near to them again, searching the ground, ‘it might explain why the bogs are disappearing and we can see more of this old stuff again.’
‘Live peat bogs like cool wet zones,’ George continued. ‘So we’re seeing the moors change to shrubland…or do I mean scrubland? But I’m afraid it’s more likely that we’ll see all the peat burnt away sooner or later. It gets really dry now, even in winter. And once lit, up’ll go the moor tops and all that stored carbon. If it doesn’t burn it just blows away. Grace isn’t kidding – we’ve lost half a metre or so of soggy bracken soil in the last year or so.’
‘But isn’t peat on moors one of the biggest stores of carbon in the country?’ Rhan asked. ‘So is anything being done to fix the peat bogs and stop the release of methane?’
‘Well, the short-term solution is to re-soak the ground, which may last a few years. But for the long term…’ George put his hands on his hips, considering the problem. ‘I suppose rewilding with trees might just help fix the peat bogs and stop the release of methane. Old peat beds can survive at depth and are one of the more difficult soils for us to engineer, according to Dr Graham. But others think trees would exacerbate the problem. No one seems to know.’
His study partner smiled at references to a bit of their geotechnical engineering lectures, which had meant little to her at the time. She hadn’t really known what peat had meant, but she now had a peaty-black leg to show there was at least one patch where the drying process had been held up.
‘I’ll go with the trees!’ Grace declared. ‘Getting lost in a gigantic forest would be fun.’ She had a more romantic take on events, until she had a second thought. ‘But the gamekeepers burn the trees anyway – they make money from shooting grouse, so they don’t want to see trees…or other wildlife. You should see the lines of wire snares they leave, to throttle foxes, badgers and Hamishes.’ Grace wrapped her hands around her own throat to indicate the process, and then rushed over to stroke the dog.
‘Could they make money from tourism?’ Rhan asked, shocked at the negative publicity for the open landscape.
‘Well, these ruins are hardly as grand as the reconstructed Stonehenge, and the biggest stuff here has been pushed over and never reset,’ George pointed out. ‘And there are other moors with better rock carvings. You’re seeing stuff in transition but next year there’ll be grass turf on most of this area.’
Rhan looked puzzled at George’s explanation, so he carried on.
‘Well the biggest Neolithic stones have been allowed to fall over or have been pushed over. The builders of a Christian chapel on the other side of that hill would hardly want to see this pagan extravaganza, would they? But the Bronze Age people may also have had it in for their Neolithic predecessors. They probably wanted to obliterate the splendid works of the ancients with their massive walls, tightly-packed stone towns and stone-lined procession routes, not to mention their bloodline.’ He looked around at the remaining landscape, hemmed in by the encroaching fog. ‘It’s uncomfortable knowing about previous civilisations that lasted for thousands of years. So all their messages to the future – to now – with their indecipherable artwork and major monuments, have simply been ignored or…’
‘I thought people are writing books about the Bronze Age like never before?’ Grace interrupted from her search above them.
‘Yes,’ her brother conceded reluctantly, drawing out the word. ‘I’m not sure how much interest there’d be in all our roundhouses here, but there’ll be even less interest now our society is on the slide. We should’ve been planting the moors so we can move back up here in a couple of decades’ time, but the planning laws will insist we try to resist the inevitable heating world. It’ll be cooler and damper for crops like wheat up here when things really heat up, but without preparation, the soil will still be rubbish, so the sooner trees return the better. I’m not sure the adders will like it.’
‘Are there many snakes?’ Rhan enquired.
‘They’re intimidating,’ George replied. ‘They sunbathe at waist-height on the mounds of moss or on rocks. Ma doesn’t let us bring Hamish up here in the summer, so we tend to keep to the moor tops once the frogs and toads come out of hibernation.’
‘Hey, come and look at this!’ Grace demanded excitedly. ‘I think it’s another roundhouse.’
George and Rhan strode across and were soon assessing the stones that Grace pointed out in a rough circle, where the mossy ground was replaced by dark, green grass.
‘Grace House!’ Grace claimed.
‘Well if that is a hut, what about those?’ Rhan asked, looking at an adjacent set of stones. ‘Actually, do you think there may be two more circles? The grass extends under them both.’
‘Yup,’ George confirmed, pulling a yellow box out of his pocket. ‘Grace House and Rhan Houses or…Numbers 1, 2 and 3 Reservoir Crescent View. Great finds!’
‘I am honoured,’ Rhan laughed, glowing with pride. ‘Is this how you find stuff?’
‘Sure is,’ called Grace. ‘But we’ve never found three roundhouses close together before, have we George?’
Her brother became business-like, ignoring the question. ‘I’ll record their coordinates, if you could take pictures of each other in your houses from different angles. We could call these 1 to 3 Wall View Crescent!’ he suggested, typing into the GPS box. ‘At last, we seem to be starting to find the houses for those that lived and worked up here. They used to say that ancient people didn’t live up here and only visited to bury their dead, but…well, you’ve seen the massive works.’ George concentrated on the GPS before continuing. ‘We’re starting to balance the number of tumuli, where they buried their dead, with the number of huts we think the Bronze Age people lived in.’ He waved his hand down below them and up ahead. ‘We can start by showing you a few of the best tumuli or barrows. Some are marked on the maps but we’ve found many more recently – the ‘rents and us. What we don’t get is that the experts say the tumuli were also built before Bronze Age people arrived, which messes thing up. Anyway, let’s go before we get smothered. That bank of mist is winning out.’

Hamish had been sitting patiently and obediently to mark one of Grace’s house stones for the photographs, but bounded off with the three who were now glad to be climbing again as the cool fog started closing in on their heels. The air was no longer bright and sunny and they were glad of the warming exercise. It was some time before Rhan worked out who the “rents” were, but she was glad she had not asked once she’d worked out the answer.
Once they regained the top plateau, they ran across the very short heather to two circular mounds, and George showed Rhan a hidden third, all with different forms of construction. The hidden one was almost flat, surrounded by a stone kerb and a water-filled ditch. Another had a hollow, circled by two ditches and mound walls, while the third was a stone-covered mound around five paces across.
‘It’s strange how each tumulus is so different. You would think that Uncle Bob would get the same as Grandpa?’ Rhan mused.
‘Very odd,’ George agreed. ‘From the twenty five or so in this valley, hardly any two are the same. Some tumuli still have the borrow pits nearby where they dug out the stone – they rarely got round to backfilling, the messy bastards! Down there’s an almost square one, which might have had stone side walls. We only have one tumulus that’s a textbook classic; the rest must’ve been made or designed to measure, just like the graves for the lesser members of the family we might see later.’
‘They certainly liked great views from their tumuli,’ Grace commented in a low voice, obviously talking about the interned chiefs, before continuing in a more flippant tone. ‘But we’ve found lots of new ones all down the hillside and in the valley bottom just by the car park, so perhaps some preferred ice cream vans to a good view! These mounds up here would be a great place to be buried, but perhaps not today. We’ve been caught by the fog at last.’
‘It’s going to be cold,’ George said. ‘We seem to be back into yesterday’s weather. Are you going to be warm enough Rhan? Let me.’
Rhan was happy to let George wrap the borrowed woollen scarf around her head and tuck it into her jacket, as though she was a little girl again. From the corner of her eye, she noticed Grace smiling at her brother’s mollycoddling.
As Rhan studied the ancient burial mounds, it became possible to look up directly at the fading sun. It turned orange, then a ghostly red before the silhouette of the great disc disappeared into the roof of fog over their heads.
‘So this is what “Fog on the Barrow Downs” was all about,’ Rhan exclaimed, standing on top of the largest tumulus.
‘Was that The Hobbit or Fellowship of the Ring?’ enquired Grace.
‘Fellowship!’ Rhan and George chimed.
‘Can I just check: you know your way back, don’t you?’ Rhan asked uneasily as they started to walk downhill into an unyielding wall of fog. ‘The swirls of mist are spooky…Oh God, what was that?’
She stopped dead. A disembodied yet distinct voice from the mist called out.
‘Go back – go back!’
It was answered by another on their other side.
‘Go back – go back!’
Hamish dashed off to investigate. There was a whirring noise followed by a third warning, further off. Rhan stood still, shocked, peering into the mist for at least one of the voices. She then thought to look at the brother and sister and relaxed as she realised they were struggling to repress their laughter.
‘It’s just grouse. This whole moor’s protected so they can be shot,’ Grace explained, adding, ‘Their call’s really eerie, isn’t it?’
‘You two are enjoying my unease and are showing off,’ Rhan chided them. ‘OK, it is scary, but it is also exhilarating and it’s a totally new experience for me.’
‘Sorry, but it was fun.’ George linked her arm in his and a few seconds later Grace had grabbed her other arm. Walking three abreast made it difficult to wade through the heather over the rough terrain, but it was cosy, until they had to split up to navigate a descent. They were now walking in swirling, dense cloud of drizzle that numbed the senses and made it hard to keep balance, leading to frequent stumbles. Rhan concentrated on looking at her feet and tried to ignore the inhuman calls of the grouse to “go back”. She even enjoyed the bickering of her guides, as the two constantly debated their best route or even where they were. In this featureless world without paths, encircled by just a few metres of grey, the slope of the ground was the only clue to their location.