On Liminal Spaces: 2. Meditation On Carl Wark | Karl Hurst

The date and purpose of the construction and ramparts at Carl Wark is uncertain, it has been described as being “unlike any other [structure] found in Northern England.” It is widely postulated to be of Iron Age origin, perhaps dating from the 8th to the 5th centuries BC. There is no evidence of settlement within the enclosure so it is unlikely that the site was used for a continuously occupied fort; it may have been used as a place of refuge for a population living in the surrounding area or it may have had some ceremonial purpose. (from the Wikipedia entry on Carl Wark).

938The need to signpost and signal our movement in landscape is a basic impulse. Brought on through the fear of being lost, we look for easily discernible features that we can turn to as touchstones or way markers. When reaching a cairn or trig point, it is generally accompanied with a sense of relief or excitement; others have been here before us and, in marking the way, have left us a refuge point (similar to booths and bothies). Along with this antecedent fear is the need to create marks or markers ourselves, either as a method of demarcation for our stake in naming a place or as a way to gesture a route for others who follow. Before going into detail about signal and sign in landscape, I want to recount my first journey to Carl Wark, as it bears relevance to further discussion.

Many before me have attempted to project a meaning onto Carl Wark, but with little or no supporting evidence any theories of its origins and purpose remain highly speculative and subjective. My purpose and approach here is somewhat different to that of the archaeologist or historian. I do not wish to speculate on the purpose and place of monuments as sites of interest in themselves, but rather on the events of objects through time and space. I had seen Carl Wark on an OS map before I visited it, but had not seen any photographs, and knew very little of its background. Its name conjured a great longing for ancestors and the desire to instinctually feel my way toward it felt more compelling than to saturate myself with any preconceptions and expectations. Trusting to the idea that I would know it when I saw it, I set out with no more than a vague sense of where it lay relationally to other features in the landscape. This first tryst failed as I couldn’t spot it amongst all the other ridges and peaks. What I didn’t know was that my approach had been all wrong; I was destined not to spent time that day on Carl Wark. I still had a few photographs from the journey so it wasn’t a disaster. However, as I returned home my obsession with Carl Wark deepened. As I traced where I had been on the OS map against where I should have gone, the need for marking space became apparent. Loaded with new knowledge, I set out again from a different angle and this time hit it plumb on, as I was able to visually retrace my previous attempt across the horizon line. I had learnt that the sense of difficulty with non-relational, random travelling is that it is impossible to feel yourself in a landscape in anything other than a purely physical way.

182Carl Wark has some very unique features. From all but a few angles it is innocuous, invisible. It lies lower on the horizon line than any of the surrounding ridges and tors, so it hardly dominates nor imposes itself. If you are looking for the monumental drama of Stonehenge you will not find it here. Yet if approached from the almost flat moorland below it is possible to sense its qualities as a construct. If it was ever used as a fort in anything other than name then it is strategically very ill-placed. If it is a subsidiary, a garrison for its larger neighbour Higger Tor, then no evidence has ever been found to support this either. It is also difficult, unlike stone circles or barrows, for example, to work out which of its features are natural and which constructed. It seems as though a natural remainder from past tectonic traumas has been adorned, added to, one might even say aestheticised. This desire to shift debris into meaningful shapes can be still witnessed today in the ever-evolving art of cairn building.

925Cairns are worldwide trans-historic phenomena. Along with cuts and daubs in stone, cairns are part of the most ancient form of communication. In a sense, they sociologically pre-date the more organised, static ceremonial aspects of the henge or barrow. They are continually being added to or reduced, almost like the attempt through millennia to maintain an equilibrium between environment and usage. This can be seen today in both the peak and lake districts where rangers continually remove new-formed cairns as a way of landscape management. The cairn takes many shapes and forms and can be seen as an early type of land art. It is art that is anonymous, proletarian, shape-shifting, both practical and aesthetically timeless. Art as having a practical use, of being multi-functional, is something the gallery system has long since eradicated. Yet here functionality and sensibility are one and the same.

447I would argue that it is possible to see Carl Wark in a similar way. I do not think that features in landscape necessarily serve a single function, but that they might change over time and from user to user. I realised this when discussing cairns with a fellow walker. He argued that they are an intrusion on the natural scene, whereas I suggested that I found them less intrusive than a modern day information point. Then we discussed at some length if we would add a stone to a cairn as reaffirmation or remove one as keepsake. We parted without agreement, happily sharing the difference. The balance is always a fine one, as can often be seen in cairns themselves where a huge stone sits on top of a much smaller one, or in a cairn that is so high and thin you wonder why the wind hasn’t simply pushed it over.

598My feelings on Carl Wark are very similar to this. If it is possible to think of landscape as pertaining to civility (rather than to the more legislative ‘civic’) then the sense of belonging without evoking community or tribe becomes possible. This is not to suggest a desire to tame nor enclose wilderness but to navigate a relationship with it. To seek a wilderness and origin that is unimpeded by humankind is often a regressive and predominantly male pursuit. On Carl Wark it is possible to not yearn for some perceived loss of archaic communality but to place oneself directly in it, free both of denominational anxiety or the need for occupation. The simple pleasure of passing over important historical sites as part of a larger journey has become central to how I like to photograph an emotional response to landscape, rather than an objective one. When traversing one point to another each trajectory counts, each step is a fresh perspective and treating landscape simply as a series of stunning views or important archaeological sites seems to miss the point. Since failing to find Carl Wark that first time I have returned as often as possible to be with it, walk over it, around it. I have been on both its bright and shaded sides, sometimes I have admired it like a great sculpture, sometimes it seems as small and comforting as a terrace house. Yet still each time some new perspective emerges and its mystery again engulfs my meaning. It is this continual shifting that fuels my sense and desire to return over and again.

This is the second of three new essays on photography by Karl Hurst; the first essay (‘Reflections on Impracticality’) appears here. Karl Hurst’s Flickr photosets can be viewed here, including the series
Booths from which all five photographs featured in this piece are drawn. Two previous essays for the Longbarrow Blog, My Island Home and Out on the End of an Event, reflect on other aspects of his photographic practice. Details of his publications with Longbarrow Press (writing as Andrew Hirst) are available here. His sequence ‘Three Night Walks’ appears in the walking-themed poetry anthology The Footing (Longbarrow Press).


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