Bolton Fell Moss is a vast expanse of lowland bog, situated north of Hadrian's Wall in Cumbria covering approximately 450 hectares, that’s about 840 football pitches in size. Since the 1950s it was a large-scale horticultural peat factory from which thousands of tons of peat were extracted. As a result, some areas on the site are 8 metres lower than the untouched peatland and had no vegetation cover whatsoever when the extraction ended. Before the restoration started on this ‘wounded’ site locals described it as looking “as if the earth had been burnt” or like a “desolate brown moonscape”.
However, it is now a National Nature Reserve and when it opens in 2023, following the long process of healing and recovering it will be on track to become a major carbon sink for England.
You enter the site via a large concrete area where the former site offices once stood. Several remnants of industry are visible: bits of metal, discarded components and a formidable retired peat-cutting machine. Passing this, you come to the start of the new access boardwalk, which follows parts of the factory old railway tracks and you can see different parts of the former milling fields that have undergone various restoration techniques, through re-wetting and re-vegetating and are now being closely monitored.
Filming the site for over a year, I saw in detail the Moss change through each season: from a sea of cotton grass, vivid green sphagnum mosses, a living carpet of spongey hummocks to deep purple heather. Lizards, moths, birds, dragonflies hovering over pools of water, as their special niches and habitats gradually return. As a solo self shooter there would be times I’d be on the site lone working, in a world of my own listening to air and watching the horizon. Sometimes while deep into changing a roll of film or a battery I’d look up and see hail, snow, torrential rain fast approaching over the expansive Moss. With only enough time for me to put my camera away and zip up my waterproofs before the rain landed.
The locals relationship to the site, past and present.
Bolton Fell Moss has a rich social heritage and rural community that lives and works around it. Peat was hand cut for domestic fuel for centuries before it was commercially cut, then milled, to supply the horticultural industry. The site became an important source of local employment for both full time and seasonal workers. As production increased, more machines arrived and fewer people were needed. Even so, as the factory was still one of the largest employers locally, there was a real threat to local incomes and a sense of loss when the site closed. The complex relationship between the locals and the site was exacerbated by compulsory purchases of peatland that had belonged to families for generations, but was necessary to ensure the restoration of the habitat could happen.
Former peat workers who had started hand cutting on the site from the1950s told me that for employment "it was either farming or the moss around here". A former worker visiting the site for the first time in 40 years said he was glad to see nature and wildlife returning to the Moss and he recognised the need of preservation and its heritage.
As the Moss is no longer being exploited for peat, there is a new generation of people who value the bog in a very different way. When the site reopens to the public it will still be a place which belongs to the local community first with their understanding of how rare it is: interlaced in local history and memories.
Connections made whilst working on the project.
Whilst filming I met with over 30 people including, people who worked here, people who live close by, conservationists, scientists, researchers, artists, volunteers and school children all with a different relationship to the Moss. The more people I met, the better my understanding was of the connection between people and place and this enabled me to tell a story about a ‘Moss of many layers’.
Favourite images/moments from the series.
As part of the project reconnecting the local community to Bolton Fell Moss, local School groups came to visit; some of the children had family members who worked in the peat factory. New generations were visiting the Moss. As I had only been on the site a few days before their first trip, I was learning along with them. Their joy and curiosity learning about the peat bog, with their arms deep in the squelchy soggy moss, was inspiring. The portrait of a primary school boy with his tray filled to the brim of bog vegetation, his never-ending questions and the delight when he found a new sample summed it all up for me.
Secondary and Primary school students took part in coring, the method of taking samples deep down into the peat and measuring the depth of the peat. It was hard to realise that I was holding a piece of earth 8,000 years old, that had formed just after the Ice Age; this is how deep the peat is in areas. Peat forms approximately 1mm each year and because of over 50 years of milling the earth in some parts of the site, there is only just a metre in depth.
In conversation with the secondary school students who undertook some of the peatland restoration on the Moss, they said, “we think about how we can protect life on Earth” and “In the next 50 years, it’s us the younger generation who are going to have to try to figure out how we can help to protect the environment.”
I also spent time with neighbours to the Moss, farmers Herbert and Margaret Slack. Over their fence they have seen the site evolve since 1950 and have had some of their own land compulsorily purchased and returning the Moss to ‘a wilderness’ as Herbert called it and “always changing”.
The impact of the restoration of Bolton Fell Moss on our warming climate.
We have realised the importance of carbon and keeping it in the ground, so restoration on sites like this is imperative. Without restoration, a bare, dry peatland exposes thousands of years of trapped carbon to the air and it becomes a significant carbon dioxide emitter, contributing to climate challenges. But if we restore it so that it is growing and making peat, the Moss becomes a huge potential carbon store again. Not only that, it also stores water within it. The unprecedented heat wave last summer (2022) in Cumbria with no rain for days, then suddenly an extremely heavy rainfall that flashes through the catchments so quickly that it causes serious flooding in Carlisle means that we need places like Bolton Fell Moss to act as the buffers to store water.
Protecting and restoring our peatlands is protecting future generations hopefully from the worst excesses of climate change – human’s future security.
Learnings from the project.
I learnt so much collaborating on an arts-science-community and research project. There was openness and fresh perspective from all disciplines. Each artist from PLACE collective examined and answered questions about Bolton Fell Moss in different ways. This broadened my own research and influenced my making. I would have conversations with scientists from University of Cumbria, conservationists from Natural England in which they would reveal new facts or new pieces of research so I’d have to scrabble from my camera to record them before either of us forgot!
The relationship between art and science is a most important one. Sharing knowledge and providing access to research beyond the scientific community is vital to engage us and inform us all of the seriousness of the climate crisis. My project a 'Moss of many layers' came to me from my involvement with PLACE Collective, felt like a small piece of hopeful activism in the form of a visual essay. I am not able to give you a scientific report on the site but I can share with you a portrait of a place and the people to whom it belongs. I know it will be one of many more to come.
All Images: Juliet Klottrup