Surveying Dan White’s benchmarks

Ian SM Farm

My mother could never come to terms with simply going for a walk. This was because all her life she had walked or rode a bike. For my part, I thought I got enough exercise dodging about after a cob, a dog and a few ewes. But now that I’ve started to take a ramble – it’s wonderful.

Stasia and I have a little circuit. Up the Fairy Glen, around the bottom of the forestry and home along the shore. With speaking to this one and that, the whole exercise takes about an hour. There’s so much to see.

Often on a wooden post by the river we catch a glimpse of the elusive Kingfisher. Its colours are indeed exquisite. Florescent blue with an underbelly of glorious deep red.

The Dipper, a little squat dark bird with a distinctive white breast, is not so coy, it showboats on a stone in the middle of the river, bobbing to entertain.

The Irish Jay, a beautiful bird with a distinctive white triangle on its rump, used to be very secretive but now it has positively come out; and red squirrels are so accustomed to human intrusion they’ll hardly get out of the way.

The Fairy Glen is bordered on one side by the Rostrevor River and the other by Kilbroney Park. To me it’s still ‘The Meadow’ it was when Miss Bowes-Lyon owned it. She was a cousin of the Queen Mother. Her interest was the Arabian Horse and I recall herds of them galloping in the 100 acre estate. I read that when it was owned by the Right Hon ASG Canning in the late 1800s a small heard of Siberian Yaks grazed the grounds. Mr Canning was a writer and a friend of Charles Dickens, but it didn’t shield him from the criticism: “It was so bad that only a longer novel by the same writer could be worse”.

Rostrevor has a legacy of ornamental grounds and forestry. The McCartan and Ross estates planted hundreds of thousands of deciduous and coniferous trees. )(Somewhere I turned up: 1856 planting by Ross in Ballymoney Td: 300,000 larch and 27,000 oak: 1879 planting by McCartan in Drumreagh Td. 150,000 larch.)

On our walk there’s plaques acclaiming ‘Sessile Oak’: Coastal Redwood: Giant Fir – Ross’s monuments before the other Ross’s Monument on the Warrenpoint Road.

When I was a boy and looking to swim with my friends I could see no value in the tide being out. Now as I walk along the shore it is fascinating. Seagulls flying up and dropping shell fish on the stones; there’s a very big sea-gull here now that I don’t recall being here in the past. Flocks of Brent Geese and ducks land and forage; and at the waters edge Cranes, an Egret, Oyster Catchers and Curlew.

In the early 1970s I was fortunate to work in Rostrevor Forest drawing maps. My journal tells me there were 85 local men employed there at the time. As far as I can see there’s only one forestry worker employed here now. The harvesting and replanting is ‘priced out’. ‘Far from human habitation’ two Kilbroney men, one a class-mate of mine, managed an enterprise up in Falla. Lorry loads of pigs hair from local bacon factories was tipped up and spread about a foot deep along the forestry road. Turned and weathered for about a week, it was further processed into high quality brushes. Shaving brushes I’m assured!

Down the other side where Kilfeaghan Loanan strikes out on to the mountains Dan White lived. When I was running a line of levels up the mountain we’d be in touch. Dan was a shepherd. The real article. I gather he managed flocks of sheep on the mountains for Wilsons from County Armagh.

When I knew him it was just his own flock but he still had a brace of outstanding sheepdogs. I’d watch him send them into the trees looking for sheep and over the Cassy Water River to the face of Formal. There, with whistles, tics and whoops, he’d gather and take ewes back. I’d say many of today’s top sheepdog men claim a link to his dogs.

When levelling out on the mountain I’d cut benchmarks (crow’s feet) every quarter of a mile or so on cropping rock. Give a value above sea-level, a textural description in the levelling book and draw a little sketch. This was so it could be put on the published map and a surveyor in the future could find it and use the value for their ends.

Dan White, too, took to cutting benchmarks. I’d return each morning to find he’d cut several marks in the vicinity. With his own hammer and cold chisel he cut marks more or less indistinguishable from mine. Muddying the water for the unfortunate future surveyor. Little did I know that with the advent of Sat Nav – in what I consider a very short time – my work would become obsolete; and Dan White’s benchmarks would be just as ‘important’ as mine.

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