Thursday, July 27, 2017

Familiarity Breeds Apathy

It is my pleasure to welcome guest blogger Matt Hilton, a prolific and successful writer.

He is the author of the high-octane Joe Hunter thriller series, and the Tess Grey and Po Villere thrillers. His first book, Dead Men’s Dust, was shortlisted for the International Thriller Writers’ Debut Book of 2009 Award, and was a Sunday Times bestseller.  It was also named as a ‘thriller of the year 2009’ by The Daily Telegraph. 

Matt has also published novels in the supernatural/horror genre, namely Preternatural, Dominion, Darkest Hour and The Shadows Call.

His twelfth Joe Hunter novel, Marked For Death, was published this month, and his next Tess and Po novel, Worst Fear, will be released in September 2017.

Where does he find the time?

Please welcome Matt Hilton.

Familiarity Breeds Apathy

Recently I was appearing at a crime fiction weekend, and after one event got talking with an American reader, who asked me where I was from. I explained that I lived in a coastal village near Carlisle, in Cumbria, which earned me a blank stare. Attempting to pinpoint my location I explained that my home is very close to the England/Scotland border on the western side of the country. The blank stare persisted. So I asked if he’d heard of Hadrian’s Wall, which to his delight he had – albeit as the literary inspiration behind the wall featured in Game Of Thrones. He asked me, quite excitedly, if I’d ever visited Hadrian’s Wall, and to my shame I had to admit I hadn’t (not since I was a 7 year old child on a school trip). The realisation gave me pause for thought.

            I live within approximately twenty minutes drive of the Lake District, a stone’s throw from the Solway Firth, and around ten miles from the western most point of Hadrian’s Wall at Bowness-on-Solway and yet rarely visit any of them, preferring instead to drive, fly or sail miles to take in the culture of other lands. With that in mind, I recently jumped in my car, to take in some of my local sights with a fresh eye. Within half an hour and very little distance I had discovered some amazing historical places, ranging from the Roman invasion of Britain, right up to WW2, and how each had shaped my local area.

            For starters, I live in a village named after its very own abbey. Holme Cultram Abbey was a monastery founded by Cistercian monks in 1150 A.D. on territory held by Scotland at the time, but later reclaimed by Henry II of England. Having once been Scottish didn’t protect it from repeated attacks by Scots raiders, and even Robert The Bruce attacked it, despite it being the burial place of his father. After the dissolution of monasteries in 1538, the monastery was granted to the parish as a church. Several collapses of the building occurred over time, so the monastery isn’t as large or impressive as it once was. Ironically it was an arson attack in 2006 that caused its most severe damage, and forced years of restoration work to be undertaken before it was reopened in 2015.

Holm Cultram Abbey in 2017
A few miles to the west, and also towards the Solway Firth coastline lies the town of Silloth. Before entering the town, I discovered this pillbox style lookout post that once served to guard the adjacent airfield, used during WW2 to train pilots destined to go into combat against the Luftwaffe. Hangars still dot the terrain but these days have been converted for business uses, and the airfield has been left to nature, and a massive Sunday market.

Pillbox with a view of Skiddaw Pike and the northern Lake District    

Close up of pillbox

 Entering Silloth, it’s easy to spot that it was once the holiday destination for Victorians. The main street still retains its cobbles, and grand Victorian houses dominate the architecture, now largely converted to shops and flats. Opposite the main street is a large green and sculptured landscape, with man made mounds crowned by trees twisted by the elements and time. A promenade stretches approximately two miles along the coast, formed of a series of concrete steps. It’s easy to imagine ladies and gentlemen strolling along the prom in their finest clothes. Sadly the town lost its appeal as a holiday destination when the railroad between Carlisle and Silloth closed. These days it is still a seaside town, enjoyed by visitors from far afield, and is very popular with campers staying at various campsites within the town.

Victorian sculpted landscape in Silloth

A few miles further along the Solway coast to the west and you pass through Allonby. These days it is the destination for kite enthusiasts and even surfers, and a for a famous ice cream shop known far and wide. For many years when I was a police officer based in West Cumbria, I used to drive to work through Allonby towards Maryport, and would often wonder about an unusual feature of the landscape. Take a look at this accompanying picture:

Fields sloping down to the flood plains and seashore mainly dominate the terrain, and yet there was this one mound that always struck me as unusual. And it had good reason to. It is the remains of Milefortlet 21 (or Swarthy Hill), an extension of the fortifications dotting the northern English countryside built by the Romans to defend against Picts invading from across the Solway. The fort underwent extensive archaeological study in the 1990’s, as did two associated towers nearby. The cliff on which the fortlet was built has been reclaimed by nature, but the remains of the ditches and turf ramparts can still be observed when the fortlet is approached across adjacent farm fields.  

Milefortlet 21 now reclaimed by nature
Milefortlet 21 now reclaimed by nature

If one stands at the foot of Swarthy Hill aka Milefortlet 21, you can see evidence of another period of history, this time Elizabethan, in the Crosscanonby Saltpans. For nearly seven hundred years, salt was made from seawater here, and the site at Crosscanonby is a well-preserved example of the practice.  The large, circular, elevated structure seen in the accompanying photos is known as a sleech pit, or a kinch and was a storage tank. It was built of cobble with a clay infill and lined with reeds to act as a filter. Nearby is a settling tank (now just a depression in the earth) and in the shallow tidal waters lie the submerged timber remains of an elevated tank.

The circular sleech pit at Crosscanonby Saltpans

Sleech pit showing original cobble interior structure, and view across the Solway Firth
 to Criffel Pike In Scotland

Lastly, still standing at the foot of Swarthy Hill, you can see a promontory to the west, where again there is evidence of a Roman fort, this time known as Senhouse, where recent excavation of the Hadrianic fort was completed, and where there is a museum to commemorate it.

View towards the promontory and Senhouse Roman Fort
They say that familiarity breeds contempt, but I think in my case it was one more of apathy. 

Right then. I’m off to Hadrian’s Wall next.  @MHiltonauthor Twitter official author page at Facebook



  1. Thank you for having me, folks.

  2. Hi Matt, I will try not to call you Joe although, to me, you are and always will be Joe Hunter!
    I have travelled a little in that area and have to say that Maryport stands out in my mind as an area of intense social deprivation. Houses boarded up, no shops open, no youth around, the empty harbour, emptier streets, yet everywhere beautiful architecture with peeling paint and old guys sitting outside the pub sipping ale slowly.
    Was it like that when you worked there? And has it benefited from any investment?

  3. Hi Matt, Nice to see you here! Fascinating! What the heck is a sleech pit ?

  4. What is it about just the thought of the English/Scottish/Irish/Welsh countryside that draws one into a sense of lush green serenity? Perhaps it's my Pittsburgh roots...longing to breath free...or my New York City urban existence...longing to simply breath. Whatever the answer, Matt, thanks for the journey. I loved it.

  5. Hi Caro, you can call me Joe if you like. I answer to most things. You're right about Maryport. It did go through a period where it was looking run down, but it also had some wealthy neighbourhoods too. I think the problem was that some of the large industries pulled out of the area (British Steel for one) and the town felt the pinch. But as far as I know the port area was regenerated and a new aquarium and visitors attractions etc added. It has probably been eight or nine years since I was there (it used to be my patch when I was a copper), but when I was there I tended to be dealing with the wrong uns so was usually in the rougher parts of town.

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  7. Thanks Jeff. I've had the pleasure of visiting both Pittsburgh and NYC so can see where you're coming from. But to be fair when you live surrounded by all this fresh air and greenery you sometimes forget to stop and take stock. It's nice when you're reminded, as i recently was. Glad you enjoyed my little trip around my local stomping ground.

  8. Hi Cara. Nice to be here. It has been a while, eh? A sleech pit or kinch, I believe is the Elizabethan term for the pit in which they collected the salt from the seawater. It's not a term I've heard used in the modern era - even here in north Cumbria.

  9. Thanks, Matt. Too many interesting places to see.

  10. Hi Stan. Huge thanks to you for hosting me here. It was a bit of a rediscovery journey for me, so thank you for giving me the push to write the piece. It's incredible what's around you when you take the time to pause for a moment and take it all in.