Friday, 15 January 2010

Bodmin Moor

It was spring 1300. Your husband had set out early to begin work. You bent over the fire, raking the glowing turf ‘coals’, adding dampened turves to keep it going through the day, crying a little in the acrid-sweet smoke. Hard weeks lay ahead; cutting, transporting and drying the ten thousand turves your farm would need in the coming year.

Your house was near a Bronze Age settlement. The field boundaries and paths you used were the same. Bodmin Moor had been shaped and changed over hundreds of generations, each careless of the impact they might have. The earliest hunter-gatherers burned swathes of the dense oak and hazel woodland to make hunting easier. Bronze Age farmers thrived, creating more than two hundred settlements. Those who came next cut down more and more trees until, by 1300, you had nothing but the turf to use as fuel. But turf seemed inexhaustible. Moor industries relied on it; streamworking, quarrying and clay-working. In 1305 alone, smelting stream tin used 250 tonnes of turf charcoal. Did you ever think it might run out?

All that remains today is an acid grassland able to support a few sheep and ponies. People revere it for its loneliness; thinking its windswept, barren hills one of the last untouched places in Britain.