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malham tarn

Malham Tarn

It was a good day for a wedding on Saturday. I note the Capital was considerably taken up with it, streets lined with people waving their little Union Jacks at the happy couple. Celebrities from around the world descended in their finery. There was pomp and ceremony and tradition, as only the British can deliver it, and I’m informed a good day out was had by all.

I missed it. I was up around Malham, in company with most of the north of England, who’d had the same idea. Perhaps we each selfishly thought the roads would be quieter, that everyone else would be at home, glued to the telly, but I’ve never seen Malham as busy, and this before midmorning when I rolled up in the little blue car to find an atmosphere of celebration. I say this every time I go to Malham, that I’ve never seen it so busy. Best to go early, crack of dawnish, even midweek. But there was no big event, certainly no big screen coverage of the capital’s shenanigans. Everyone had simply gone up for a walk, or a picnic, or to sit outside the Buck with something cold and fizzy, and watch the world go by.

Malham sits at the foot of one of the classic walks in the British Isles, a circular route of limestone country that’s by turns fearsomely dramatic, and heart-stoppingly beautiful. It’s rightly popular, also a small wonder it can take this amount of foot traffic every weekend without wearing away.

I couldn’t park in the village itself and was reluctant to commit to the overflow field, so drove on up to the Tarn where I got the last spot on the little car park. But the as the area’s popularity soars exponentially, the driving is becoming dangerous. The road up is single track and steep. I can thread the little blue car along mostly anything and she’s plenty of guts for a climb, but it’s what you meet along the way that’s the problem. And you’re meeting more and more traffic these days, a lot of it inappropriate for the girth of the road. I met a Renault Kadjar. This is a huge vehicle. I wouldn’t take a bus up here, and I wouldn’t take a Kadjar for the same reasons. I managed to pull in, narrowly avoiding the drystone walls, to let it pass. It wasn’t for stopping and the driver didn’t seem able to manoeuvre it much anyway – just kept going sluggishly and expecting everyone else to move out of the way.

Then I met the cyclists, weaving about, doing one mile an hour crawling up this one in ten gradient ahead of me. The little blue car won’t do one mile an hour uphill, it judders and bucks on the clutch, but you can’t roar past because the road’s too narrow and you’re worried about meeting Kadjars around the blind bends. You have to wait for the straight bits, then floor it and hope for the best. I have the feeling recreational cyclists don’t fully appreciate the risks they take in places like this, nor the hazards they create for others, or they would stow their egos and their single-minded battle with the grade, get off their push-hogs and let us poor motorists pass on little roads like this.

The tarn is the northernmost checkpoint of the full circular walk, and I wondered about doing it in reverse, but this puts the steepest of climbs towards the end, besides it was a hot day and I couldn’t be bothered. I wanted to soak up the atmosphere of the Dales without soaking myself in sweat, so I took a stroll, by the tarn, which was impossibly blue under an equally impossibly blue sky. Then I headed down to Malham Cove, along the Trougate track. At the cove it was standing room only among the clints and grikes, and the cacophony was reminiscent of any mass social gathering in an echoey place.

I returned along the spectacular Watlowes dry valley. Three or four miles all told. Lazy I know, and such a short outing wouldn’t have satisfied my younger self much, but times change and I’m as excited these days by the sight of early flowering purple orchid as I am by the ascent of Goredale. Conditions were outstanding, but sadly walkers were too many, clogging the trails, either powering up behind, sucking impatiently on their Platipus Packs, or loitering in front for selfies along the narrow bits. But I was happy to be out in the sun, celebrating the season, celebrating the country, taking my turn on the steps, calling hello in passing to pleasant strangers. And no one here was waving a Union Jack.

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Mazda3One of my worst nightmares as a motorist is  killing someone, not just through my own carelessness but also the result of their own. Either way it would change my life for the worse, probably ruin it. It hasn’t happened yet, touch wood, and if I thought about it too much I’d never get behind the wheel of a car, but we must remain mindful of the possibility and always drive carefully so we maximise our chances of averting tragedy should the unexpected arise.

There are little roadside shrines all over the place now – touching displays of flowers, teddy bears and favourite football strips, each telling the story of a very personal tragedy. We drive by, perhaps momentarily reflective, wondering idly what happened and who it was that died. It happens a lot. Surgeons in A and E departments are hardened to it, that innocent people are killed randomly and pointlessly all the time in stupid road accidents. If we would like to preserve the fantasy that they do not, we need to take care, and think. And we need to slow down.

I have three points on my license, courtesy of a policeman’s radar gun and a momentary lapse of concentration – proof, if needed, that I’m as careless as anyone else. To an idiot driver three points aren’t going make any difference, but to one who liked to think he was a safe pair of hands, they’ve been a cautionary note. I think I am more careful now than I was before.

If you’re a regular reader here, you’ll know I’ve been spending time on the back lanes of West Lancashire, tootling about between the villages, enjoying the air with the rag-top down, in my menopause-mobile. A small sports car is not the best of vehicles for being safe in. I’ve noted other drivers expect certain things from it, and are puzzled when it doesn’t conform to type – to the extent that I’m considering fitting a defensive dashcam. But it’s been an education, my number one observation being that, sadly, people no longer drive for pleasure, no longer seem to enjoy just motoring. The price of fuel and the sheer volume of traffic on the roads has killed that golden age when we used to take pleasure in just getting there. If we’re not merely commuting, we drive to show off now, or to get from A to B as quickly as possible.

What’s struck me as well is the greater number of cyclists about on the roads nowadays. The Wiggins factor has spawned a new generation of pedallers, to say nothing of a consumer boom in very expensive bicycles. Of course, cyclists require careful handling, not just because they’re vulnerable, but because they can also be rude and aggressive, and no one wants an ugly exchange spoiling an otherwise pleasant day out.

Filtering at junctions is a major source of conflagration, cyclists weaving their way to the front of a long, multi-laned queue and assuming drivers can see them coming up from behind. I have been called an effing willywhatsit by a cyclist for lacking eyes in the back of my head while he lurked in my blindspot. Perhaps he didn’t realise I had my sunroof open and could hear him.

On the backlanes the cyclist presents an awkward obstruction, since there’s a fundamental mismatch between the speed of a bicycle and a car. The Wiggins factor is thus responsible for the fact that more of my time is now spent crawling at ten miles an hour behind a pair of male (usually) Lycra clad buttocks. I don’t complain of the female variety, but of course the additional danger in that situation is one of distraction.

Speaking as a man I find there’s something half way between ridiculous and repulsive about the male buttock – especially when it’s in your face, so to speak.The temptation is to overtake when it might not be safe to do so, but a decent long straight, with no hidden corners doesn’t always come to hand when you most need it. What you need instead is patience. Several cyclists dotted along a stretch of bendy, twisty road, travelling in both directions, or a whole pack of them, demands a high degree of judgement and balance between brake and accelerator. Inexperienced, unskilled and impatient motorists dread encountering cyclists, even hate them, but it is always the motorist who bears the greater responsibility for safety here, since he is capable of doing the most damage.

I was stuck behind a pair of unsightly buttocks for a number of twisty miles last night. The guy was going at it hell for leather, managing an impressive twenty miles an hour, even up a slight incline. There was nowhere to pass safely, so I hung well back, much to the chagrin of the brightly lit BMW, riding intimidatingly close to my rear bumper.

When a clear straight came up, I was able to ease by safely and the cyclist graced me with a cheery thankyou. I think the fact we were both in the open air, and audible to one another helped engender civility. The enclosed environment of a saloon-car by contrast seems only to encourage petulance.

The road had a forty limit and I accelerated to just under it. Forty felt safe, given the forward visibility and distance between the bends. The Beamer passed me seconds later like I was standing still. I didn’t see him giving me the finger, but I felt it as I ate his dust. He must have hit sixty before I lost sight of him. I trust he managed not to hit anything else.

That network of little lanes makes for a lovely run out of an evening, but one must be careful, and not just of bicycles; this is a big horsey area too – lots of farms and stables dotted about, and horses sauntering along the pretty country lanes. A horse and rider presents an even bigger challenge to the motorist than a bicycle – they require more space to get around, and they move very slowly indeed. I’m always afraid of spooking them and springing a rider into the road. I have ridden horses, all be it appallingly, and I know it takes some guts to mix them with traffic. How the brightly lit Beamers manage them I’ve no idea. It’s a wonder they don’t explode with self-important rage.

Most of the villages hereabouts have strict twenty mile an hour speed limits now. Part of my route last night brought me through Croston. It’s a tight passage through this lovely little village, lots of parked cars and people enjoying a sunny evening outside the pubs and restaurants. It’s not easy to drive at twenty and I’ve noticed few bother, as if it were only an advisory limit, that thirty or even forty is still okay. But it’s not. In an automatic you need to drop the drive down a notch to manage it properly. (That slot with the number 3 next to it will do). In a manual it seems to sit awkwardly somewhere between third and fourth. There’s a reason fothat speed limit; hit someone at twenty and you’re unlikely to kill them.

It was in Croston I picked up a couple of youths in their fluorescent Ford Condom. They glued themselves to my bumper and didn’t take kindly to my half mile of doggedly obeying that twenty limit. Indeed they gave me a good blast on the horn to draw attention to their displeasure – to say nothing of their ignorance and stupidity. Then they raced past, subjecting me to my second shower of dust and stones that evening. I’d like to remonstrate with them here for needlessly frightening the life out of the good lady Graeme. I’d also like to remind them that inappropriate use of the horn is against the law. It’s also likely to cause offence, and is the number one catalyst of road rage incidents.

They’re probably good lads really, but people change on the roads. I don’t know if we become more our true selves,… or less.

Drive safely.

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