Shifting grounds – mapping Bolton Fell moss

Guest Blog from Helen Cann

As part of the NERC-funded ‘Moss of Many Layers’ project, Helen has been commissioned to create an artist map of Bolton Fell Moss – a 400-hectare site that has experienced large-scale peat extraction and is now being restored. Helen’s map will show the bog’s industrial peat cutting heritage, ongoing restoration, and its future state as a National Nature Reserve, which will also be a massive carbon sink.

Helen has been busy researching from a distance, and has been talking to other members of the Moss of Many Layers team and was finally able to visit the bog to find out for herself just how it looks and feels. The  blog is Helen’s description of her day there last week when she visited with Rob Fraser (photographer).


“We walk over the old milling grounds to the Reserve Field, the four of us – the current warden, the volunteer (an ex-warden), the artist and mapmaker. Most of us know the lines of this land. I do not.

I have mapped it in my head, of course, researching online, digitally flicking through the yellowing pages of ancient books written in Cumbrian dialect and old land documents. I have an idea of Bolton Fell Moss but, like those papers viewed through a screen, that idea misses any kind of real life energy.

Now I’m here.

An image showing dried grasses and exposed, dark peat, extending into the distance: a raised bog.

It’s different to how I’d imagined. Wide skies. Less bleak. Parts are still scarred a burnt black, as if scorched. The evidence of peat milling shows as giant scrapes across the land but in places, those lines are softening with moss and rush, or silvered with water reflecting the early spring clouds. The landscape has shifted to something else over the past few years as it’s started to recover.

We stand on the Reserve – the small part of the Moss that was untouched by industry. To demonstrate the surface instability, the warden and the volunteer jump up and down. As they land, I watch ripples spread out across the mounds of moss like a small earthquake. This whole world feels like a strange but perfect animal – part plant, earth and water and forever moving. The sphagnum moss on the surface holds water like a sponge, keeping the peat underneath it wet; exactly how it needs to be for the bog to act as a carbon sink and for its delicate ecology to survive.

We walk further. It’s clear we’re not alone and share this space with many others. We hear the bubbling call of the curlews before we see them. Blunt tailed, they fly as a pair, their scythe-like beaks almost half the size of their bodies. They’re an unlikely-looking bird for sure.

A hare sits against the black earth in the distance. She turns her pale eyes towards us – and then she is gone.

Against the sphagnum and the silver heathers basks an adder, his back a graphic pattern of blacks and whites. The bog trembles as we step closer. The snake must be able to feel us but the sun is too seductive and he flattens his body some more against the highest hillock. We walk on. When I turn back, I’ve lost him, camouflaged against the grey of the ling. The warden finds the spot again, practised in reading the mounds of moss like a sailor can read the waves.

An image of an adder with diamond shaped black pattern along its back, resting on heather and pale mosses.

The volunteer and warden offer to take a core from the bog for us. A huge pipe, open on one side, perhaps a couple of centimetres in diameter and many metres in length, is slowly twisted into the ground like a corkscrew. The pipe is pushed down through, perhaps, 8 metres of peat until it hits the bottom. They pull it out with a cheer, as if unbottling champagne. Inside the core it’s clear to see the layers of peat changing in colour and texture as climate and interaction with the land has changed. This place has always been shifting.

Two men on a heather-covered piece of ground, holding parts of a very long straight pole, which is used to get a core sample of peat.

At the very bottom of the core sits grey glacial mud full of tiny stones. It comes from a shallow lake that must have been here during the Holocene. I scrape some of the clay out and ball it in my hands, pushing my thumbs in to make a simple pot. An age-old human interaction with the earth.

A woman and two men are looking at a peat sample taken from 9 metres beneath the surface of a raised mire.

The colour of the layers in the core rises to warm, wet browns of moss and plant debris that once fell into that lake, eventually to compact and create peat. I find an 8,000 year old birch twig, its bark still preserved, and the husk of a seed, the ghost of a life.

An image of a person standing and holding a peat corer, with some plant matter held between their fingers. the core shows peat as well as clay. the emblem on the person's jacket reads 'Natural England'.

Rob and I tread the boardwalk to a small central island of trees to take photographs. The boardwalk is being relaid and there’s a smell of fresh cut pine. It mixes with the yellowgreen scents of the Moss, cut with sharp ice off the Fells and the warmth of valley silage. The wind brings the calls of lapwing and greylag geese.

An image of a woman facing away from the camera, with trees either side.

We sit on a massive bog oak that reclines languidly now, although at one point, no doubt, it was pulled roughly from the peat as inconvenience to the digging machines. Its dry, silver bark reminds me of the patterns of moth wings.

I look out over the site. It’s a work in progress and will be for decades to come. Ideas are being trialled and constantly readjusted to calibrate to a shifting environment’s needs. The belief in the restoration of Bolton Fell Moss as a carbon sink and nature reserve is unwavering for the future though, however long it takes.

A woman sits on an old section of blackened bog oak, sketching in a book.

Now I’m here, I’m less certain of my first map drafts – I will need to change them as the restoration work and the bog itself have changed from my initial understanding. I have to accept that this is a place in flux and my map can only be a document of this landscape at one particular moment in time.

I’m happy, though, that I can take some stories from the Moss today, stories I might never have heard had I not visited. On the map I’ll include the larks and the lichen, the creaking frogs in the rushy pool, the voices of the warden, the volunteer and the artist. The science. The history. The hope. They all add to the multi-layered understanding of a place – to be used in a map that’s not simply a reductionist document of roads or territory.

The world’s climate is shifting now; and so must we. We have to find ways to capture carbon and prevent carbon release. Restoring bogland will help us do that, so in order to encourage this equally shifting landscape, this forever changing land of peat and water and moss, we must learn to shift with it too. And on a personal level, on coming to Bolton Fell Moss, I recognise that my own ideas have shifted and subtly, with them, so has my own world.

We walk back to the car. The yellow sunshine-faces of the coltsfoot flowers smile up at us.

Yellow flowers growing from peat.

To find out more about the Moss of Many Layers, visit this page.

To find out more about Helen, visit her profile page here.

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