I am sitting with my lady at the entrance to Goredale Scar. It’s seven years since I was last here and its impact on me today is as if I am seeing it again for the first time. I have not seen a single photograph or painting of this place that conveys a fraction of what it makes me feel. The scar is monstrous, an overhanging limestone chasm with a stunning double fall that fills the echoing space with a tremendous roar. And right now what I’m feeling is inadequate.
The Scar is a dramatic highlight on one of the finest walks the north of England has to offer, but it presents also a serious obstacle to progress, since the path gives way here to a daunting 30 foot scramble up the middle of the fall. It’s not a difficult climb, not as difficult as it looks from here, but it is intimidating, especially when there’s a lot of water coming over it. I have failed here more times than I have succeeded.
As we sit today on this sunny afternoon, now overhung with shade and a chill wind that seems permanently to issue from this daunting chasm, many people come to admire the scene, some seriously attired, but none make the climb. There is one likely lad in mirrored snow-shades and elite gear, complete with ridiculous hydration sack and nicely muscled calves. He climbs half way, but I note this is only to pose while his lady takes photographs from below. He’s thinking of his Facebook page, and is rather missing the point. He could do the climb easily, looks fit and confident enough, but it’s clearly not a priority. I find his demeanour annoying.
Climbing the fall one gains entrance to the upper chamber, an eerie, mystical place, one reserved for the Faery or those passing the initiatory challenge of the climb. There we find ourselves in closer proximity to the stunning higher fall that pours from a gash in the rock. Then we climb to the moor-top and make the long crossing to another of Malhamdale’s jewels – the tarn.
Large sheets of water are unusual in the Dales, water disappearing where one would expect it not to and springing up where it is least expected. But Malham tarn endures, shimmering shallow at thirteen hundred feet, a mirror reflecting the sky. It was like a sheet of quivering quicksliver the last time I saw it, one stark winter’s afternoon.
From the tarn, the walk turns south, along the Watlowes, a long dry valley that leads to the airy rim of Malham cove. From here, the tea rooms of the village beckon, and we complete the day with numbed hands wrapped around steaming mugs of Yorkshire tea: the successful round; the perfect day in the Dales, but first you have to climb the fall at Goredale Scar.
I did it first when I was 25. Confidence was not lacking in those days, and the reward of that adventure is still fresh in my memory – the heat, the dust, and the dry-bone whiteness of the limestone dales that summer. Life itself is such a hard climb in one’s late teens and early twenties, and all we have is our self belief to drag us from our beds. It can make us overconfident at times. It can also make us very successful, driving us on to extraordinary achievements. Somewhere along the way though, I ran out of steam and now, at 54 it’s the needs of others that gets me on my feet. Without them I’d just as soon remain in my armchair, or catch yet another hour in bed. And as I sit here gazing at that wall of rock, I have the feeling I am no longer capable of tackling it, that life has moved on and only makes me feel all the more my smallness these days, reminds me too of my vulnerability in the face of intimidation. I am losing my nerve for it.
Testing myself on the fall today is out of the question. My lady has never known the fever of the outdoors, and for her the walk into the scar is quite enough to have her legs aching tomorrow. So we will sit a while, sipping coffee from this flask, and admire the view, a view not even Turner managed to capture all that well. And then we shall cut to the tea shop.
The Mazda’s on the carpark, and my memory of the drive here is still raising a smile – top down, sun shining, the narrow, twisty dales roads never failing to bring that sweet little car to life, nor me when I feel her suddenly tingling through my palms.
It’s been a cracking day so far, but not a day for doing the round. We’ll peel off shortly and take the shorter way back to the village, by Malham Rakes. It’s more a day for contemplation, for memories, and for future plans.
Shall I permit this erosion of my confidence to continue? Can I even stop it? Can I regain the cock-sureness of the twenty five year old me? Would I even want it? Shall I ever smile back in the face of intimidation, and make my way, live as I should, unbowed, unafraid, instead of for ever fumbling for the exit door of an early retirement? But retirement to what? Escape from what? How can I fear that climb up Goredale Scar when I have done it so many times already? Must a man prove himself every day of his life? And what does it prove anyway?
No doubt I shall return to Malham this year, with the aim of completing the round. But will I have the courage, when I stand at the foot of that wall, water rising from every fissure? And will I take it well, the feeling of failure, if I fail, knowing it could be another seven years before I come again? Am I better simply staying away?
I am still reasonably flexible and walking-fit. There is nothing about me that I did not have when I was twenty five, except now what is lacking is my self belief. The last time I came this way the waters were so high my friend and I couldn’t even get near the first hold on the fall. An audience watched us try and, no matter how sensible our retreat that day, we were embarrassed by it. I remember it clearly, can still hear the roar like a dam had burst and all the waters of Hell were coming down around our ears.
We completed the round using an awkward bypass route, but it was not the same, and we knew it. The fall had tested us, and we had failed. We feel it still. All of this might sound like an overblown nonsense, but if the land does not stir something in us, we should not trouble to leave our cities.
S0, Malhamdale again, March, 2015. The snows are lately gone, and when the sun comes through one feels the first stirrings of life in the earth. How well I know this place, know it in all its seasons as a walker. But only alone I think have I felt it properly. Here, today, there is a distance. I hold the feeling at arm’s length, knowing my lady sees it not as I do, feels it not as deeply in her bones. The scar is an amphitheatre, soaring, overhanging with a breathtakingly textured rock, and as I eye the crags and cracks and hanging vegetation, I soar into the little slits of blue beyond.
She was more charmed I think by Janet’s Foss, a little earlier in the walk. And who wouldn’t be? Janet’s Foss has something of the Faery about it – is indeed named after the fairy that dwells in the little cave there. This fall is like an inverted fan, a perfect run of water spilling lace-like into a shallow, green tinted pool. A very beautiful spot, a place to linger, and another of the jewels of the Dale, one that manages at once to cheer the heart, to welcome and refresh the spirit. Goredale has the opposite effect on me, repelling the faint of heart, but for all of that it remains one of the most Romantically sublime places I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting.