It was the first tendrils of low cloud, drifting silently and menacingly across the open hillside in the rapidly dwindling late afternoon light, that really began to kill the mood. Within moments, visibility was down to just a few yards.
Getting to England’s most tranquil location had not been without its stresses – but getting back out was going to be even less relaxing.
It had taken the best part of two hours from the last human settlement – a Victorian grouse shooting lodge hidden deep in the Kielder Forest – to make it this far. We had bumped along rough woodcutters’ tracks and forded a swollen river in a Skoda saloon until we could go no further. As we continued on foot, our path rose steadily through the pines, snaking past a disused quarry before skirting along the edge of the tree line. There were not even any sheep around.
Eventually it was time to strike out on to the bog, where the threat of plunging waist-deep was all too perilously real. After we clambered up to the highest point around to survey the area and soak up a little of the atmosphere, the fog descended and we were soon blundering down the hillside as fast as possible to prevent a story about peace and quiet becoming one on the helicopter rescue of hapless journalists.
This week a 500m x 500m square of the Kielder Mires in Northumberland was officially declared the most tranquil place in England, after Salford University academic Trevor Cox described it and became the first person to knowingly visit it.
Professor Cox had made the journey as part of a global quest for his new book, Sonic Wonderland: A Scientific Odyssey of Sound, in which he visits some of the world’s most aurally exciting places.
The expert in acoustic engineering and creator of the popular Sound Tourism blog went to Northumberland in search of silence – but was instead rewarded with the drone of stinging insects, wet feet and the niggling fear that he was trespassing on Ministry of Defence land.
“It was a curious experience,” he recalled. “I was very tired and the midges were biting. I was also quite nervous because it is near a military base and I wasn’t sure I was supposed to be there.”
The exact location of this tranquil spot at the northern periphery of a crowded and noisy country was originally identified in 2006 by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) in an ambitious project to create a national tranquillity map which it is hoped will help safeguard the English countryside from future development.
Its exact co-ordinates had been kept secret – presumably to prevent an unseemly dash by anti-adrenaline junkies and non-thrill seekers – until Professor Cox persuaded researchers to provide the co-ordinates for his book.
Establishing exactly what tranquillity is and where it can be found was an elaborate process. To create the map, researchers asked the public what they considered to be the essential components of tranquillity. Responses included being within earshot of natural sounds such as water and wildlife, and away from manmade noise and objects – particularly road and air traffic, power lines and light sources.
The results were overlaid on to existing datasets using a Geographical Information Systems (GIS) model. What emerged was a map of England on which huge splodges of red indicated the least tranquil areas – around the major conurbations of London and the South East, the West Midlands, the M62 corridor and the industrial areas of the North East.
The rest was either a yellowy green, indicating a moderately tranquil environment, or deep verdurous patches indicating where serenity was most likely to be found. The largest expanses of this could be seen stretching up the spine of the north Pennines towards the Scottish border.
Of course the natural world does not “give” a wilderness experience. It is what it is. It stimulates emotions and feelings – something the Romantic poets knew all about. But as Erica Popplewell of the CPRE explained, that does not mean it is not good for us.
“It’s physically and psychologically valuable to escape the noise and intrusion of city and urban life. It results in reduced blood pressure, increased mental performance and reduced anxiety. This is something we all know to be true but it affects us in some ways that are difficult to measure – we just ‘feel’ better,” she said.
Blanket mires like Kielder’s are rare, not just in Britain where they have been largely destroyed by plantations, drainage and grazing, but also on a global scale. They are acidic, low-nutrient environments fed entirely by rain and provide refuge for rare species such as tall bog sedge, lichens and sphagnum mosses. Less is known about the natural fauna, although the area is rich in invertebrates and merlins, Britain’s smallest birds of prey, breed on the edge of the plantations.
Ironically, the recent history of the area offers a far-from-tranquil vision. In the late 1950s the then Ministry of Aviation built a base just across the Cumbrian border at Spadeadam as the test establishment for its Blue Streak programme, which it was hoped would provide Britain with an independent intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missile.
Because of the fear of pre-emptive Soviet strikes, ministers ordered the digging of a deep silo, but the project was abandoned as a costly failure in 1960 because it was believed to be too vulnerable to attack.
Instead Harold Macmillan signed up to the US Polaris submarine-launched system and Spadeadam focused on building satellite launchers. In 1977 it became Western Europe’s first full-scale electronic warfare tactics range, where as an RAF base it later settled on the motto “If you seek peace, be prepared for war”.
Both power politics on such a grand scale and the intricacies of the ecosystem are hard to imagine while perched on top of a cairn in a remote bog with both eyes fixed warily on a lowering cloud base. There is a deep sense of isolation and threat posed by both terrain and weather.
Silence – considered a key component of tranquillity – remains elusive, and not just because of the elements.
One of the key characteristics of whether we enjoy a particular sound is whether we have control over it and, crucially, whether we know when it will stop, Professor Cox explained.
“Silence in one sense is the absence of noise but if you go to a silent place you will hear the sounds that the body makes, of blood going through your head and the ringing in your ears,” he said.
Meanwhile, some of places we perceive to be serene are among the most bustling and are far from silent. “If you were in the countryside and you heard, for example, 50 decibels you might think it was quite noisy,” he said. “If you were in London and you had just come from Oxford Street and were sitting in Soho gardens the same level of noise would seem quite quiet.”
The authors of the tranquillity map pointed out that the experience of what is or is not serene can vary greatly on any given visit. Perhaps on a summer’s day, when the sun is shining and a gentle breeze is dissipating the clouds of midges, Kielder might be perfectly tranquil. In less clement conditions, the search for tranquillity can be anything but serene.
Tranquillity rating: how it was scored
Each 500m x 500m square of England has been given a tranquillity score, based on 44 different factors affecting people’s perceptions. Those factors include: seeing a natural landscape; hearing birdsong; experiencing peace and quiet; being able to see stars clearly at night.