The weather turned cool and showery by week’s end, making for a wet and windy drive up Wharfedale. Mazzy did not enjoy it as much as her first trip here, back in July. That day the sun shone and the air shimmered with a high-summery heat, and the moors had about them a sluggish, humid quiet. With the top down one could smell the hedgerows and meet the gaze of passers by – share greetings with them as we motored leisurely on. Now though, great curtains of rain pressed in on either side of the valley, spilling over the fells. It had me fumbling for the wipers I’ve not used all year, and of course the top was up, so the world passed remote to all but my visual senses.
We were delayed near Kilnsey by a collision between a camper van and a road sweeper. The camper was a terrible mess, its side torn open and the remains of some poor souls’ holiday spilled all over the road. The queue inched by as best it could while policemen jabbed fingers in ad hoc traffic control. They must have to deal with many such incidents on this stretch, and I don’t envy them the task. The road along the valley of the Wharfe is as narrow and twisty as it’s always been, but the vehicles we’re driving are getting noticeably bigger. Mazzy’s a low slung, narrow slip of a thing, perfect for threading her way up and down country like this, but she and I are moving against the tide which insists what country like this needs is a pumped up four-by-four with the assertive beam of snowplough.
I stopped off for a brew at Buckden, then made pilgrimage to Hubberholme – pronounced “Ubberam”. Hubberholm is a tiny hamlet in upper Wharfedale, beloved of generations of walkers, also home to St Michaels and All Angels, one of the loveliest of our Norman churches. Though the increasing secularisation of society has led to the diminution of moderate religious congregations everywhere, England’s churches retain their potential as foci for binding communities, and in a more prosaic way provide a statutory and timeless continuity with their records of births, marriages and deaths. The church at Hubberhome dates to the 12th century, and has the look of a place that was not actually built at all but rather that it grew organically from the soft earth, here on the banks of the Wharfe. Its pews bear the distinctive adze marks and the unique rodent-motif of the celebrated Mouseman. It has about it the scent of old churches everywhere, and rests in the profound silence that pervades these remote valleys, a silence reinforced for me that morning, stepping out of an old roadster after seventy miles in the pouring rain.
St Michaels and All Angels is the resting place of J.B.Priestly, native of Bradford, novelist and playwright, known to me through his work on the relationship of man with time. I think a lot about the nature of time, and more recently have tied myself in knots with it almost to the point of despair in wrestling with my current work in progress – a work that takes only halting steps forwards these days. For my trip I had packed my toothbrush, but left my laptop behind, thinking to let the story rest for a bit. In making pilgrimage to Hubberholme and JBP, I wasn’t expecting a synchronistic finger pointing to the way out of my literary cul-de-sac; it was more a case of stoking the boiler of imagination, and hoping something would emerge in the fullness of “time”. All the same, my pilgrimage bore fruit, I think, or at least I came away feeling more philosophical about the dilemma. I self-publish to a small audience, for nothing; I write novels like I used to do Origami, for the personal satisfaction of completing a puzzle, rather than labouring for coin. In my current game, as with Origami, there are no deadlines – only pleasure in the folding and unfolding of lines, hopefully winding up with something self-standing at the end of it, and all from a blank sheet of paper. I sometimes forget this, but the timeless peace at Hubberholme, proved a timely reminder that time has no existence other than in its relation to man, and that all deadlines are ultimately defeating of the self.
I stayed the night in Wensleydale, in the pretty little market town of Leyburn, passed a pleasant evening in the Golden Lion and woke on Saturday to a brighter morning. Then I drove to Aysgarth, to the falls. At Aysgarth, the River Ure is rent by a series of dramatic steps over which the waters thunder, all peaty brown, like stewed tea. There is an upper, a middle and a lower falls, spread over a kilometre length of the river, and all accessible by well maintained walkways and viewing points. The National Trust have set up camp here, providing decent car-parking and a visitor centre. It costs £2.50 for a couple of hours, which I didn’t think was too bad, and the falls of course are worth it. Then it was on to Hawes, and from there the long, bleakly spectacular run of the B6255, to Ribblehead. We managed this bit of the run with the top down, Mazzy’s humour lifting enormously, making her roar with the pleasure of it, and lending to the sun-splashed, blue-skied scene, at last, a moving connection that brought a lump to my throat.
It was a weekend of thoughts then, about the nature of time, about writing, and even of Origami. It was also a weekend of waterfalls and old churches. And it was a weekend of roads, the best in England, roads that make driving still a pleasure, a pleasure I had largely forgotten on account of long decades spent behind the wheel of a car merely commuting. But as that accident near Kilnsey reminds us, these roads can also exact a terrible price for a moment’s distraction. They are beloved of many, but struggling now to accommodate the sheer variety of transport they nowadays carry. Along the way I encountered vast lumbering peletons of MAMILS; I came upon huge farm vehicles hauling skyscrapers of hay; then there were the wide-beamed Chelsea tractors, the caravans, the motorhomes; and there were entire squadrons of ton-up motorcycles, a half glimpsed minuscule dot in one’s rear view mirror, then roaring past your ear like a jet fighter barely a second later,…
Even in remoteness these roads can at times feel terribly crowded. Now and then though the way simply opens, and it’s just you, and the freedom of the Dales.
That’s the magic of it.
Footage: Mazzy’s dashcam. (Mr Happy was along for the ride)