David Smith, our co-ordinator for creative learning is spellbound by the Lancashire Witches 400 programme….

Searching for Ghost Bird over the Bowland fells.

– a site specific live art installation by Louise Ann Wilson.

Saturday morning; sunshine, a chill wind blowing off the fells. I’d parked in a layby on the Trough Road just north of  Dunsop Bridge. I was a lone walker following the Ghost Bird marked way drawing attention to the plight of the disappearance of the hen harrier not only from these fells but from England.  All was a part of the commemoration of the deaths of those lonely souls, the Lancashire witches.

It wasn’t quiet.  Noisy water urgently making its way through purple heather; wind moving the leaves of a passing coppice; my boots stumbling on a hard path.  I wasn’t sure what all this was about but….

Woodsmoke from a chimney.  A barn.  A young woman beckoned me across.

‘Hello’, I said.

No answer

She pointed to the Barn.

To the right a stall, laden with eggs, too many to count.  The whole floor covered. A feeling of fragility and perfection.  Is there anything more naturally perfect than an egg?  Dare I touch?  Better not; it’s not the first time I’ve been in trouble with artists. To the left another stall, the flagged floor covered in the whitest of downy feathers ruffling slightly in a breeze.

In the middle, a door.  The young woman, still silent, gestured for me to go in.  The door closed behind me. The rear wall lit by candles.  White coats hung from hooks. A roaring log fire in a grate.  In front, a naked woman, rolled into a ball-shape, foetus-like, still as stone. A living sculpture?

I left the barn; the path headed steeply towards the fell side.  Puffing now, the chill of sweat on my back; I could see a cairn of colours, bright plastic colours.  Only when I came close did I see that it was a metre high cairn of spent shotgun cartridges.  Greens, blues, yellows and brass catching the sunlight.  No doubt now where the artists were saying responsibility lies for the disappearance of the hen harrier.  I wonder… what would be the Countryside Alliance’s response?  I turned as I rested by the cairn.  Alone.  A landscape of astonishing beauty: purple heather climbing the fells; a meandering stream on the valley floor; brackish pools lying in the bog, the brownest of brown, water dead still.

Onwards and upwards following marked posts across fresh heather and sticky bog towards twelve enormous white feathers, in a line on the crest of the fell.  Strikingly white, graceful, their quills working with the wind, a shot of beauty on the skyline.

Then a bizarre moment: at 1200 feet above sea level a man, standing in the partial shelter of a gun butt, dressed in a light suit, collar and tie, ordinary shoes 100 metres away silently gesturing for me to join him.  As I approached, still silent he pointed downhill to a steep gully in the peat.  Lining the gully on each side were a dozen gun butts.  Each invisible from the moorland side, visible only from inside the gully.  In each, the naked form of a man or woman, lying curled, silent and still, in the shelter of the butt.  Each pale, deathly white, a moving sequence of still beauty.  A surreal moment…well it was longer than a moment…

As I made my way down the gully, from the final butt an older, suited man pointed the way down to rejoin the path.  There was no birdsong, a rising wind took the warmth off the sunlight.  As I made my way downhill I could hear my boots on the stony track and the voices of other walkers about to enter the ‘gallery’.

What was it all about?  The tortuous journey of ten women crossing the fells from Pendle to Lancaster?  The disappearance of the skydancing hen harrier?

Some facts:

  • Hen Harrier: probably the most important bird species to have bred regularly in the Forest of Bowland.
  • 2011 only 4 successful breeding pairs observed in England – all in Bowland.
  • 2012 no successful breeding pairs registered in Bowland or in any part of England.
  • Root cause: Illegal killing and disturbance. (RSPB)
  • Driven grouse shooting enables practical conservation of rare bird populations at minimal cost to the taxpayer.  (The Moorland Association)

Who cares anyway?

You can find more information on Ghost Bird on the Lancashire Witches 400 website.

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