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The path to Whernside

It was summer, the last time I walked this route up Whernside, which is perhaps why I remember it so well. Which summer though? Let me see: I was driving a blue, mark four Cortina, which means it was 1982, and I was 21.

It was also my summer of love, or rather it was my discovery of the love of the transcendent phenomenon that is hill walking. Girls would come later, but the hills were more constant, always a revelation, and, like the present Lady Graeme, always happy to take me as I am.

It was a hot, dry summer, that year, and no trains ran on the Settle to Carlisle line. There was a strike by ASLEF over flexible rostering. The boss-class still moan about it in their histories of the period. They never did get the unions, or class warfare.

Today is cold. Back home, down on the Lancashire Plain, it’s been spring for weeks. The hedgerows are greening, the buds are budding, and the cherries and hawthorns are blossoming. But here, in Yorkshire, it’s still winter. An arctic blast greets us at Ribblehead, as we crack open the car door. There’s ice in the roadside gulleys, and an ominous bank of cloud is jostling the sunshine, threatening hail. The three peaks each have a cap of snow, and I’m wondering if we should have packed our ancient instep crampons – purchased from Settle’s legendary “Cave and Crag”, now sadly gone. I can’t remember the last time I wore them, and probably couldn’t work out how to fasten them anyway – they were always a pain. I should get some of those newfangled microspikes, but I keep thinking my days of winter walking are over.

Still here we are.

Ribblehead Viaduct – Settle to Carlisle line

The Ribblehead Viaduct is magnificent. A soaring masterpiece, circa 1875, when Britain called itself great, and without irony, though mostly because labour was cheap, and expendable, especially Irish hands, like my grandfather’s. But let’s not go down that road. It was all a long time ago, except time is less fixed for me these days, since I am no longer called to heel by the alarm clock every morning.

Last night I dreamed I was an apprentice again, back in the old factory, a place of several thousand souls. I was seeing and talking to people I had forgotten I knew, and whom I have not seen since nineteen seventy-nine. Sights, sounds, scents, … it was strange, but comforting to know those souls are still as they were, that we are all still as we always were, always are, somewhere in this weird thing we call time.

Anyway, it’s not the most dramatic of peaks, Whernside. It lacks the shapely grandeur of Ingleborough or Penyghent. But, being the biggest of the trio, it counts itself as King, and rightly so. And it’s not without its charms. By far the biggest charm, however, is the rising perspective is grants us of its nearest neighbour, Ingleborough, whose brutal geology is starkly displayed today, courtesy of a dusting of snow, which trickles down the gulleys in crinkles of dentritic splendour. Most of my photographs today are of Ingleborough. Whernside, I find, isn’t photogenic at all.

Ingleborough

The wind drops as we enter the lee of the land, and the chill shock of Ribblehead fades as we warm on the ascent. There are few other walkers about. That ominous bank of boiling cloud is a worry, but we’ll keep our eye on it. We’re overtaken by a lady who looks to be more senior than our own years, then a gentleman more senior than hers. Age is a funny business, part driven, I think, by something inside us. In the hills, I have known a man of eighty easily outpace a man of fifty, simply because he refuses to believe he is getting on. We can grow old at any age, give up and whither at forty if we choose. All we have to do is look back, and then we stiffen.

I am climbing the path up Whernside, so I must still be 21. This is not looking back. This is participating in the eternal, and therefore timeless, adventure. It’s a mystery, to which the hills grant us a tantalising clue. Or so I tell myself.

One foot in front of the other. Pause. Admire the view. Take some pictures. Plod on. We cross the snowline. Up close, it’s just a dusting, not exactly Tyrolean. But you can’t underestimate the British hills. Here, sudden change, and overconfidence are your enemies. Check the Met office, read the sky. Pack another layer, a head-torch, a survival bag. Know how to read a map, and use a compass, or at the very least walk with someone else who can. Yes, the OS app on our phones or our Garmin is terrific, but our technology is deskilling us, and that’s a risk in the hills, where we need our wits about us.

My last visit to Whernside was not 1982. It was around 2006. I came up from Dent that day. November I think. I made the summit with the left side of me white with frost, and my ear burning. I came down with tinnitus, which still bothers me off and on. That was a very cold day, a good day, another journey in life’s album of eternal nows.

A wall runs along the summit, and there’s a curved shelter which gets us out of the wind today. We catch up with the senior lady and exchange pleasantries. She is joined by a Yorkshireman who claims never to have been up the hill before. When asked why not, he explains with a grin that he could never get his van up it.

The way off the hill used to be like free-fall but, like many of our most treasured mountains, much has been done to tackle erosion, and there is now a carefully laid, twisty path that snakes us down in double quick-time, towards the valley bottom. Then it’s a couple of miles through pleasant pastures, back to Ribblehead, and the car. About eight and a quarter miles round, fourteen hundred feet of ascent.

I was never a hill athlete. I could not have climbed Whernside, having first climbed Penyghent and walked the moors from Horton. I could never have then gone on to tackle that imposing wall of Ingleborough. Those who attempt the three peaks have my admiration. That’s a walk that takes fitness, and character.

So, anyway, back to the car. A lonely spot, Ribblehead – a collection of cottages and a pub, but it has a railway station. Coffee and cakes next, then. A toss up between Horton and Ingleton. Okay, … Ingleton it is. Beats working.

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Of all the routes up Ingleborough, I prefer the one from Clapham. The interest starts early, and is varied throughout – by turns sylvan, and dramatic. You can also make the walk into a circuit, if you include the three peaks route as far as Sulber Gate, then turn for home. The downside is you don’t get a look at the shape of the hill itself. For that, you have to walk in from Ingleton.

It’s a long walk, too, or so it seems. First, it’s a mile from the village to the start of the fells, then a mile and a half along a rough bridleway to Crina Bottom, and finally, a mile up a steep track through the limestone terraces, to the top. The interest actually starts about a mile from the summit, when the view suddenly opens, and you get a view of Ingleborough at its most aesthetic, and often its dramatic best. That last mile feels mostly vertical, though. The view is aided immensely by the farm at Crina Bottom, which has been providing foreground interest for artists for centuries.

I first saw that view as a drawing by Alfred Wainwright, in his venerable book “Walks in Limestone Country”, and I’ve often admired it. His pen and ink work possessed a charm that made the northern hills and mountains seem friendly, and accessible. Today’s visit has two objectives, then: one is to photograph the hill, as near as I can to how Wainwright drew it, and two, of course, while I’m here, to walk up it.

It’s a fine, late summer day, warming quickly to temperatures well in excess of the forecast. The light is softened by a faint haze, pooled here and there on the green flanks of the dales, and moving slowly. A little bird told me the kids were back at school, so “Holiday UK” is effectively over. Nevertheless, I make an early start. The village car-park is empty, which is a pleasant surprise. The hill is also quiet. It looks as if the mid-week scene has indeed been handed back to us retirees, now, and about time too. We must make hay, while the sun shines!

The long bridleway to Crina Bottom

I regret to say I am without the little blue car today. She’s making unfamiliar noises – a sort of clipping sound, like she’s picked up a flint, but I’ve checked the tyres, and she hasn’t. And anyway, it only comes on when she warms up. I suspect, in fact, she’s suffering a leaking brake caliper. So, for now, she rests up while waiting an appointment with the mechanic. It’s a pity; the drive to Ingleton from the M6, along the valley of the Lune, would have been perfect with the open-top. As it is, I drive it in the air-conditioned cocoon of my good lady’s car, which, however, I note is also making unfamiliar noises today. Never mind, it delivers me safely, and without recourse to the RAC.

Ingleton is one of those idyllic little places I have fantasies about retiring to, because, for all of its rural isolation, it does not lack facilities – leisure, library, even a swimming pool. And that’s before we get started on the varied walking hereabouts. I’m thinking they must have a canny council. Decades of austerity seems to have left mine bankrupt. It can’t even afford cat’s eyes to guide us home at night, let alone “facilities” for idle leisure.

Anyway, I make it along the long, sinewy bridleway to Crina Bottom, and take the shot, or rather several shots which I’ll muck about with later. The farm was up for sale last year. It’s remote, and entirely off-grid, a dream of a place to hole up in. But that’s a rough, steep, twisty drive to it along the bridle-way, though I note the sale included a Shogun 4×4, and you’ll need it. This place will be cut off at the merest hint of snow.

From here the whole of the mountain comes suddenly into view, and every inch of the route up it. Wainwright’s drawing really nails it. I’ve climbed Ingleton several times, been blown off it once, rained off it twice, and every time I do make the top, it seems bigger than the last. In this respect, at a thousand feet short of England’s biggest, I’m probably best advised to keep away from Scafell nowadays. Or maybe I just pace myself too quick, when I’m on my own, and wear myself out. We’ll make that our excuse today, then, rather than blame it on our middling mountain form.

As we make the climb, the vista opens out, and we get the wider views, which are especially fine across the upper reaches of Ribblesdale, from the viaduct at Ribblehead, to Whernside, then down the length of the Twistleton scars, and all the way out to the coast.

There was an amusing encounter with a family on the way up. It’s a scene you often see in the hills, on the popular tourist routes, the guy striding ahead with a remote air about him, an intrepid explorer with map and compass, wife in the rear, placating three kids of ages ranging from eight to early adolescence, and in various stages of revolt. In short, the kids were whining, though unlike me, they didn’t seem to lack energy for the climb. They just didn’t like the idea of it any more. The woman did a sterling job jollying them along, though I would have given up by now and walked them back to Ingleton for ice creams. Bringing up children has a way of rounding off all your square corners, until hopefully by the time they’re in their twenties, you’re as round and smooth, and slippery as a greased pool ball, with Zen for your middle name. I got a cheery hello from her as I came through at my snail’s pace, nothing from him. I hope she tore a strip off him when they got back.

There was another family on top who I particularly felt for. They arrived in a state of relieved exhaustion, and smiles of satisfaction all round at a climb well done. They sat down, opened their picnic, were distracted for a moment by the views, time enough for their dog to snaffle their lunch. All they were left with were bottles of water, and I’m sure the dog was already working out how to get its chops around those as well.

“Has it been in its mouth?”

“I don’t know, looks like it.”

“Well, I’m not having it.”

“No, I don’t fancy it either.”

From Ingleton to the top and back, is about seven miles, and just shy of two thousand feet of ascent. A possible circular is to descend now to Twistleton scars, then return to Ingleton via the downstream section of the waterfalls. I have done that route, with a mate who never knows when to stop, and for whom any walk under ten miles is no walk at all. We’ll not be doing that today. Instead, we retrace our steps.

I’m more tired than usual on the return, and dehydrated – one of those walks where you’re too weary at the end of it even to pull your boots off, though you know your feet will feel better for it. So I sat a while, until I came round, then changed my sopping shirt, and hobbled off in search of coffee. I hope my good lady’s car gets us home all right, and those pictures come out. They won’t be as good as Wainwright’s drawing, though.

Ingleborough, from Crina Bottom farm

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Great Hill – West Pennine Moors

There’s so much to do, places to explore. I’m itching to get back on the road, get up to Bowland, to the Dales, the Lakes, get the camera up the fells, have that long weekend at the Buck in Malham I’ve been promising myself since whenever. And now, retiring early I’ve plenty of time for all that creative stuff, all that travelling about. Except of course we’re still riding out the “C” word, and things seemingly getting worse, even with a vaccine on the horizon.

Stay at home, exercise locally. Do you know what that means? Me neither. We’ve been here before. I’ll still be taking the camera for a walk, but it’ll be doorstep to doorstep now. The downside is my shots may start to look like they’re all the same, because they are – just different lights, moods and seasons. But then what we sometimes overlook is the fact that while our local beat might seem monotonous to us, it’s still interesting to others whose own “familiar” is monotonous to them, but to us fascinating, and so on.

Anyway, these first bright, frosty days of 2021, I’ve been doing a lot of miles on foot. I’ve been inspired by my fellow outdoor bloggers to clock up a thousand miles this year. That’s a big number for me but, holding true to my ambitious nature, I’ll be happy with five hundred, which is around ten miles per week, and should be feasible, even locally. I’ve done more than that already, but then the weather’s been good.

Speaking of local, the header shot is of a beguilingly lovely Great Hill, in the West Pennines, under snow just now. I was last up there a month ago, but this is as close as I’ll get until the latest restrictions are lifted. I shot it from the west, around nine miles out, by the river Yarrow, near the village of Eccleston, a short journey for me by Shanks’ pony. There would have been people up there today, regardless of the new restrictions. The little road up to the cricket field at White Coppice, the usual starting point for the climb, would have been nose to tail with vehicles, like it’s been all year, everyone out for a “local” walk. Some will have interpreted that as fine, even though they came from Manchester or Liverpool.

It was pretty much like this before, everyone looking for a loophole. Admittedly, the loopholes are smaller now, so some are flouting the rules due to Covid fatigue, a sense of self-entitlement, ignorance or just sheer bloody mindedness. The danger, I suppose, is when the books are written, the wrong people will be carrying the can for the death toll.

Actually, this string of paths I’m on today is unusual for being little trod. Indeed, for the full hour I’ve been on them, I’ve seen not another soul. I’m after a particular set of shots here: late afternoon sunshine lighting up bare trees. I’m looking for long shadows running across green pastures. I need a long lens, a small aperture for depth of field, so a slow shutter, which requires a tripod. If the paths are busy, I always feel self-conscious with a tripod so rarely bother with one, but not today. Today it’s pleasant to slow right down, and just tinker with the camera. Plus, by the time I get home, I’ve added another four miles to that thousand-mile challenge.

There will be other challenges this year of course, like how to avoid catching Covid in one of the few developed countries where it’s running out of control. Then there’s the matter of how to get my jab when everything else Covid related has been an unmitigated organizational disaster. There’s also the issue of staying sane, continuing to obey the rules while abandoning my beloved Great Hill to insta-incomers, in their four-byes, travelling across tiers for a selfie in the snow. Judging by that last comment, my magnanimity may be on the wane, but no one’s perfect. At least I no longer shout at the Telly, but that’s because I use it mainly for casting You-tube stuff these days. I know, You-tube is a repository for the worst of humanity, but it’s also a place you’ll find some inspirational talent, no matter what your bent. I’ll close with one of my favourite channels, and a trip to Bowland which I’m unlikely to be making in person any time soon.

Henry, you’re an inspiration, mate, and your pictures make mine look like they were shot with a Box Brownie from the back of a galloping horse.

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mazda night journey HDR

It doesn’t feel like I’ve had the little blue car for long, but it’s getting on for four years now. It’s hard to describe how much pleasure I’ve had from driving it. I’ve discovered the roads have a sway to them not felt since my motorcycle days, the sunshine is brighter and, top down, the air is a dream of freshness, and all this is to say nothing of the places I’ve discovered with it – especially in the Yorkshire Dales, just a short hop from home, and a place for which the car seems to have been especially built.

For years now the remoter dales have echoed to the burble of its exhaust note, as the little blue car wandered with a tenacious grip and a surprising vigour, given its fifteen years. I’d thought it would last for ever. But then I noticed it was suffering from tin-worm in the back wings, and sills. A previous owner had already patched it, and quite neatly, but the sills are bubbling through again, and I’ve had an advisory on the MOT.

The cost for a decent repair is far in excess of what the car is worth. So at the moment it’s tucked up, looking forward to just one last summer on the road before the breaker’s yard. I couldn’t sell it on without pointing out the work that’s needed, which will surely put any casual buyers off. An enthusiast with a knowledge of welding and body repair might take it on, but at most five hundred quid is what I could, in all fairness, get for it.

Sadly this is the way most old MX5’s go. They are like butterflies, built for warmer, drier climes, not the persistently wet brutality of roads in Northern Europe, nor especially its salt caked winters. Rationally, it makes no sense to invest any more in it. I mean, goodness knows where else the rust might be lurking – the body shop talked of common issues with the forward suspension, further advisories on the MOT and costs in excess of five hundred at some point in the future.

It’s a thing to ponder over winter, and quite sad. She runs well, has only 86,000 on the clock, and might in all other respects have another ten years of pleasure ahead of her, but there we are. All good things must come to an end.

“I’d bite the bullet and get it done, mate,” said the guy in the body shop. “These cars are becoming classics. It’ll be worth it in the long run.”

Nice guy, and an infectious enthusiasm, but he would say that, wouldn’t he?

Oh, I know he’s right, but classic cars are holes in the road you pour your money into. They take all your love and patience, and repay it with an ever more temperamental drift into old age and irritability. But for a short while at least, heaven for me has been a little blue car with a roof you can fold down, and a twist of dales country road warming to dust, under a hot summer sun.

 

 

 

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linton falls

Linton Falls on the River Wharfe

I’d planned to walk on the western coast, Morecambe bay, from Arnside maybe, but the Met office suggested moving the itinerary east a bit to avoid drowning in the tail end of a tropical storm hurled clean across the Atlantic. So the Dales it was and a brief window of opportunity that closed around tea time. Here I enjoyed calm and intermittent blue skies punctuated by showers and dramatic clouds, which eventually thickened over Grassington to a uniform steel grey and a more persistent rain.

The falls at Linton have become a bit of a magnet of late, my third visit this year. £4.50 for the day on the little National Park Authority car park – expensive in these still straightened times, but still half the price of a day’s walk in the Lakes. A week’s rains had swollen the Wharfe to thunderous proportion. People drive for miles for these falls, go no further, and who can blame them? There is falling water everywhere, and a fine wooden bridge to carry you into its most spectacular and sonorous midst. All falls are a draw, each of unique character, and blessed with a spirit of place. At Linton the spirit is that of dragons.

But today the falls were admired only in passing as I made my way up-river. I followed heavy paths to begin, over lush cattle churned meadow, then finally a bit of narrow lane that dropped me down to Conistone and the Dib.

the wharfe

The Wharfe, near Conistone

Limestone country throws up some odd landscape features, none more curious than the Dib, a narrow nick between steep rock  and a secret passage into the higher green beyond. It’s the former course of a beck, now long disappeared, but bears evidence of thunderous erosion in ancient times. It also affords some light scrambling, and a sporting route up onto the Dales way. I last walked its course thirty years ago, thought I remembered the Dib fairly well, but it turns out I didn’t. When I was young, it was those simple little scrambles that fascinated, and I tacked them all together in memory, leaving out a vast and lovely lost vale that separates the beginning bit from the end.

Today it was the vale that most impressed.

dibbs

The Conistone Dib

After scrambling out of the Dib we find ourselves on the Dales Way, just here a gorgeous broad green path that leads you back to Grassington and the Falls – a round of eight and a half miles, and then a couple of days for my bones to recover from the pummelling of wild footways.

There was a peculiar scent on the Dales way. I was upwind of a large group of kids who’d spent days wandering the Dales with big packs, doing their Duke of Edinburgh’s. A charming chatty lot they were too, in spite of being mud-caked and looking like they were ready for a brew, and collectively smelling like,… well, like human beings, sweated by long exertion, and who’d not had the pleasure of a bath for a bit. They looked weary, but determined, and in good humour. I admired their grit, was heartened to discover there are still lions among our youth – sufficient I trust to see off the donkeys who shall oppress them in their near future with tick sheets and performance reviews. So roar! Roar my little ones, roar like you mean it.

The Dales way descends some four miles, gradually to Grassington. This is limestone and green sward at its best, and views out across the Wharfe to Cracoe Fell, and a walk I did one frost dusted morning last December. Scent of mud here, and moorland sedge, something metallic in it, and then rain as the dramatically darkening clouds burst and the wind stiffens to the coming storm’s refrain.

I continue to follow my nose as the scent of the farm comes up at me, a good mile off yet, but the air sweetened with the unmistakable aroma of cattle en-masse, and midden. And then it’s the slick cobbles of Grassington and the scent of coffee and beer and chips. I’ve yet to see Grassington in the dry, but no matter. The rain does not spoil it. It’s going the tourist way in parts of course, but retains a certain gritty charm. And so long as people still live here, and the holiday cottages do not outnumber them, I see no reason yet for alarm.

on the dales way

On the Dales Way

I wash the mud off my boots in a puddle by the car, peel off the waterproof trousers, roll them up and put them in the slowly decaying carrier bag I’ve kept them in for years. My knee delivers a warning stab as I slip off the boots – reminder of an old injury, result of a bed and a flight of stairs and an overestimation of ability. That was years ago, the injury I presume a feature I take forward now.

And driving home I wonder how I’ll remember this walk in another thirty years. I wonder too about the importance of the accuracy of recall, when our mind so easily bends things over time to its own ends, and to a mere precis of past moments. It’s can’t be that important, since it did not stop me from carrying a fondness for this place, nor a desire one day to return.

I’d better not leave it another thirty years or I’ll be eighty seven.

Still, I might just manage it.

We’ll see.

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penyghent from horton irThere were three events at Horton in Ribblesdale on Saturday. I’m not sure what they were exactly but I assume each involved a lot of boots scrambling over the Dales’ three peaks – Penyghent, Whernside and Ingleborough. It also meant the carparks were pretty much filled up by mid-morning. It was a relief to find somewhere to leave the car on the overflow.

You can usually see Penyghent from Horton. It resembles the prow of a mighty ship, sailing a rolling green ocean of moor over Brackenbottom, but not today. It was in a strop over something, possibly all the attention it was getting. There was a riot outside the cafe, start of the three peaks route, an army of excited children, hundreds of them, squealing at a pitch fit to burst eardrums while their minders bellowed instructions. An optimistic notice on the wall urged a more respectful tone in consideration of neighbours. I hope none of them were trying to lie in that morning, let alone nursing hangovers.

Better get cracking then. The last thing I wanted was to get stuck at the back of that lot. I managed a ten minute start before I heard them swarming up the track behind me. It was a more strenuous ascent of the hill than I’m used to then, one lacking the luxuries I normally allow myself of lots of pauses to admire the view and take photographs. I would have let them pass, but there were other armies of pixies, elves and dwarves all mustering in the rear and it would have taken the entire day.

The route ahead was also very busy, in particular there were jams of jittery folk on all the craggy bits below the summit plateau, and then a walking day procession along the paved way to the trigpoint. More squealing children awaited my arrival there, while a party of crusty old curmudgeons cracked open a whisky bottle and splashed out generous measures of amber comfort. It was an eclectic gathering for sure, ages ranging from five to eighty five, the atmosphere one of festival, of celebration. There is no other hill like Penyghent on a weekend afternoon.

Starting out overcast, the weather had turned a bit edgy, a light breeze at valley level stiffening to a bitter easterly. I crouched on the leeward side of the wall, some distance away from the merriment. The wind was blowing clean through it, chilling the sweat on my back, so I used the sack as a windbreak and caught my breath at last – long slow breaths, filling my lungs with that musty, muddy, metallic air of the high places.

Then the army of elves, pixies and dwarves caught up, and the summit was lost to madness as they over-ran it. Time to move on. I pressed, squished and excused my way through the crowd to get anywhere near the stile, then queued for my turn to get over it. Ahead of me, crocodile after crocodile of three peakers headed west into the wind-blown mist, jackets flapping like lubberly spinnakers all along the well trodden way to Whernside. How a mountain can take such punishment as this, day in day out and remain beautiful, I don’t know. If you like your mountains quiet, and Penyghent’s still on your bucket list, come mid week, term-time, and come early.

Three Peakers are a mixed bunch and, yes, they make me grumble. It’s this apparent blindness to the metaphysical dimension of the hills, for how can they be tuned in to that when half of them have phones glued to their ears? They come to do battle, while for me a walk is more of a cooperative endeavour between oneself, the mood of the hill, and the weather. Still, I do admire their grit. I didn’t follow them, I headed north instead, along the line of the wall into a high moorland wilderness, towards the more sublime, summitless solitude of Plover Hill.

Plover Hill is Penyghent’s quieter, less intrusive neighbour. If we include it in our day’s outing it makes for a more significant leg-stretcher, the round from Horton being then a shade under ten miles. It also affords time for a more peaceful contemplation of the Dales. I did not meet a soul again until crossing the three peaks route once more, above Horton.

Conservation work has improved the descent from Plover Hill, which had begun to scar quite badly, recent rock-paving bringing us safely down to the broad valley that carries the Foxup road, a lonely, pathway, linking the villages of Foxup and Horton. If you’re looking to put some miles between yourself and the next person – even on a busy summer’s weekend in the Dales, Plover Hill and the Foxup Road are a good place to start.

Back at Horton, feet on fire by now, I was ready for a brew but the cafe was still besieged by screaming pixies. They looked too fresh to be returning, but couldn’t be setting off so late in the day, the whole three peaks round having to be completed in under 12 hours if you want your badge, and rather them than me, I thought. I gave them a wide berth, retrieved the car from the sheep plopped meadow, and drove to Settle for a more restful pot of tea and a toasted teacake at the Naked Man.

Early retirement from the rat-race features ever greater in my plans these days as the light at the end of my personal tunnel of captivity grows brighter. I have wondered about the Dales villages, of downsizing, of nesting up in an old stone cottage within sight and sound and easy access to these beautiful hills. It’s an idle fancy for now. I’m probably better where I am, just driving in as needs be, but if I did decide to do it, I wouldn’t be moving to Horton in Ribblesdale.

Simply too many boots on the ground these days.

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thorpe-fell-top

The Weathered trig point on Thorpe Fell Top

The greatest pleasures in life are free. It’s not a particularly profound observation, but we sometimes forget. Life closes over us and we think we have to buy our way to pleasure, to satisfaction, or even just to make ourselves feel a little better. We all know this doesn’t work. What does work, is a simple walk, preferably up a hill. After a walk up a hill, no matter what life is nagging us with, we return relaxed, magnanimous, philosophical. It’s like a reset button, a thing that reliably blows away all the wormy gremlins.

Of late I’ve been seeking my hills in the Yorkshire Dales, an area unique in character and, to my mind, not as spoiled by rampant tourism, as the neighbouring Lake District. Unlike the Lakes, in the Dales we still find towns and villages that are home to a mostly indigenous population, where the trinket shops are few, and the holiday homes and b+b’s do not yet outnumber the genuine residences. Here, I find every visit yields yet another discovery, another unexpected hamlet with village green, duck-pond and homely teashop.

My most recent discovery, on this bright, frosty winter’s morning is Linton. Linton fits into the geography of Wharfedale, being just a stone’s throw from Burnsall, Hebden and Grassington. I’ve been driving up and down the Wharfe for years and not suspected Linton’s existence at all, and was drawn to it eventually simply as the starting point for this walk up Thorpe Fell. I had to check the map, and there it was.

I don’t know the stories of place here as well as I should, but this lends a touch of mystery to the land, and a void into which imagination tumbles with all the enthusiasm of the Romantic poet. I am prone to a certain mysticism in the empty places. There are many parts of the Dales, particularly what I still think of as the old West Riding, that have something of the big-house estate about them, something almost Feudal. This area is dominated by the vast Bolton Abbey Estate, and not well served with rights of way across its siren tops – we woolly hatted ones I imagine being discouraged, pre “Countryside and Rights of Way Act”, but we are now free to explore – just don’t expect many waymarked paths while you’re at it.

Thorpe Fell is one of the most stunning heather moors I’ve seen. This morning the heather is dusted with frost and presents us with rather an eerie, windswept yet curiously beguiling wilderness. I can imagine September here will be ablaze with purple, and promise myself I will return to see it.

From Linton, we make our way by meadow and country lane to Thorpe Village, from where a track begins the ascent of the moor, petering out by degrees until one is all but relying on a sixth sense. There is a feeling of isolation, of loneliness which makes all the more surprising the presence of rather a fine tea-hut on the moor’s windy edge. It isn’t marked on my edition of the Ordnance Survey map. The hut looks cosy, but is locked up tight and shuttered against intruders – I presume being solely for the use of the sons of gentlemen when they come up in their tweeds and knickerbockers to shoot grouse. But there is also rather a fine, open, grass roofed barn nearby, also not marked on the map, and in which I take brief shelter while enjoying lunch.

There is an indistinct summit to Thorpe Fell, complete with weathered trig-point, but it is not served by any path – the only path hereabouts veering off from the tea hut roughly north west, avoiding the summit which lies to the south west. The land, however, is open access, unless the gentlemen are shooting of course, and today they are not, so we are free to make a stab at its general direction. It’s a quarter mile or so of raw moor-bashing, the heather thick and springy with just the occasional weathered outcrop to provide a firmer going.

From the crumbling trig point (506 metres) the views are simply stunning. It’s also possible to see the next objective, the memorial on Cracoe Fell a little to the west of south west. It’s best to head due west from here though, rather than make a bee line, otherwise peat hags and the upper reaches of Yethersgill make for a laborious approach. Instead, due west, we pick up the line of a wall, and beside it a confident path leads us more easily to the memorial.

The memorial, a huge cairn, sitting atop a fine outcrop, adds height and drama to the fell – it bears a plaque marking the years 1914-1919, and the names of the fallen. This is the point at which we begin our descent, first to the village of Cracoe, then back through the meadows to Linton. But there is no direct route to Cracoe from the top, as I discovered in the attempting of it. I was thinking to head north west, a trackless bee-line towards an enticing bit of track that runs up from Cracoe to a weather station, but this leads quickly to bog, and for me rather a cold dip as one foot broke through the crust into something altogether less pleasant below. So, it’s better to back track a little from the memorial, back along the wall we have just come along, to where a gate gives access westwards. Either way we’re aiming for the Fell Lane track, which takes us to Cracoe, and the meadow paths home to Linton.

We’ve been walking for 5 hours now, the light beginning to leak away as we cross the various stiles and lush, frost dusted meadows. My feet always seem to know when I’m on the last mile, whether the walk is a couple of miles or ten, and they start to complain. But it’s a pleasant complaint, anticipating the eventual loosening of laces, and the body’s repose after a day in the field. Darkness is coming on, the temperature plummeting as we return to the car, and my boots begin to steam when I pull them off.

I’m always different after a walk. I’d left home that morning labouring under a cloud, my vehicle potentially stuffed at four years old with a major transmission problem . I’d been duped by the dealer I bought it from, was feeling fobbed off and badly served, facing now the prospect of a search for another vehicle and all the hazards that entails (dodgy dealers included – even the big glossy ones), or a very expensive repair. Ah,… cars eh?

Either way were looking at a serious hit in the wallet at a time of year when one can ill afford it. To be sure, it had felt like the end of the world as I’d dragged my bones from bed that morning, and mustered my walking gear, so much so I nearly didn’t bother setting off. But as I poured out my coffee in the Cracoe Cafe that evening, I could not have cared less.

It was a fine sunset, a clear azure sky, another keen, frosty evening coming on. The moon was up, Venus in attendance, with a distinctly coquettish gleam in her eye.

What more could a man want?

Well, let me see,… ah yes!

I ordered a toasted teacake.

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man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A MillsAmazing, how quickly the cosy glow of one’s holidays fades, isn’t it? Mid morning, first morning back at the day job and there you are, things settling upon you once more, a million crabs nipping and nagging at you, something slithering over your skin – that all too familiar cold slime of responsibility. Then it’s out into the near stagnant commute, arriving home some indeterminate time later, brain-fried and grumpy, then bed by ten, waking at six thirty a.m. feeling totally unrefreshed, and getting up and doing it all again.

But we would be much worse off if we didn’t get that two week break, if like in the olden golden times of arch Conservatism, the labouring masses got no holidays at all, but for Christmas day, and we worked a six and a half day, sixty five hour week until we dropped dead, never having climbed a step from poverty – a regime we’re heading back to if our young are to have any hope of living off the wages that are paid in these enlightened, tightened times, these times of grim austerity.

I can’t believe I am still hearing that word.

Surely austerity was for the nineteen fifties, after the world was nearly ruined in a storm of war that lasted five years – not this, this financial crisis, this money game, this accounting fraud that has already lasted much longer than a world at war, laying waste to the less fortunate of nations as surely as if they had been invaded by tanks and guns.

The black tide of Nazism was defeated in less time than this. And the only strategy against the tyranny of the money game that the money captains can come up with is to convince us there is no alternative to an eternal free fall into a future of less and less, into an austerity of eternal midnight.

Alas, it is the banishment of all hope, all ye who enter here.

But for a weeks I flew. I climbed the little road from Malham in a lovely old car with the top down. I flew all the way to Leyburn, I left the bustling market square at Masham early one Saturday morning beneath a deep summer blue sky and with the birds singing, and I flew all the way to Scarborough. There, I walked the long front from north to south bays and back, explored the steep and narrow of the old town, and breathed a different air. And the gulls were not the killer gulls of the bonkers press. They were the snow white fisher-birds I have always known, and there were only ink-dirty fingers pointing blame where blame there was none, creating a story, where story there was none, while steadfastly ignoring the real story of our times.

In the creed of Nowness, the past is unimportant, but the recent memory of a positive experience can sustain us, at least for a little while, as we nudge ourselves back into the material reality of our dayjobs. It creates a bit of space. The darkness of the first week back after one’s holidays can then be punctured by a gentle reflection. But I fear in my case, after thirty seven years of nine to five, I am already growing out of work, my mind turning far too soon to other things. I would as soon eschew the looming golden watch, escape instead, travel the length and breadth of my United Kingdom in that little roadster with a light bag and a box of books, and a little tapping pad on which to muse and write of what I find along the way.

Sigh.

It’ll be a while before I can realistically do that, but there it is:

The dream of flight.

Of escape.

But what if what we are trying to escape from is a state of mind? one that constructs cages for itself, and the cage is on castors, so we cannot help but take it wherever we go? What if it cannot be escaped by running? To be sure the snares of the material world are myriad, and the thing with snares is the rabbit strangles itself by thinking it can get away, by resisting, by struggling. But by resisting, the noose only tightens all the more. It is the evil efficiency of the snare, that it uses one’s own energy to bring about our destruction.

Thus it is the creed of Nowness teaches us the art of escape through stillness, by creating space within ourselves so we slip through unharmed, like a slippery seed, clean through the arsehole of the world, to bloom elsewhere, upon another plane. And so, even amid the nine to five, we walk a kind of inner freedom, and we do not mind the world as it is any more. Even the bumbling blather of austerity talk and money tyranny melt into the background, into a meaningless Muzak.

Or so the theory goes.

It troubles me only in that all of this sounds a little defeatist. Surely if we are trapped we should fight with all our might, and at the very least do something? Seeking instead our escape within we might as well be wishing an early grave, for both things are liberating in a sense, but hardly what one might call living. I suppose it’s just this feeling I have done my time at the work face, my nose pressed against the dirt for too long, and would leave the struggle to others now, to those who still can – struggle on. For as the saying goes, those who can do, while those who cannot do teach, and those who are not for doing any more, and cannot teach, can only write.

I don’t know if I’ve returned, post trip, with a straighter head or not. It feels a bit wobbly to me. Do you think?

Graeme out.

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wormy gremlinsGrey, warmish, threatening rain all day but without following through. Managed to keep the top down. The driving from Leyburn is excellent on good roads, fast and curving. As usual the Mazda seems to take about 30 minutes to warm properly, then she purrs and revs sweetly, and with a sharper responsiveness. I enjoy a relaxed run to Richmond. It’s my first visit, and I rely on the ‘Droid to navigate me. This turns out not to be necessary. I park by the Cricket ground and make my way to the Market Square – seemingly ubiquitous to all rural Yorkshire towns. The whole of England was once like this. We have lost so much.

It’s £2.00 to park, £2.00 for coffee in a pretty little tearoom that used to be the bus company office and waiting room. The coffee itself is worth the trip. To the pretty lady at the till, I say the thank you I was not able to at the time, on account of the press of other customers. The day is gloomy-overcast, so I enjoy the castle walk, a pleasing overview of Richmond to be enjoyed for free. There is something about the town that reminds me of Knaresborough, another Yorkshire town I adore. I pass an hour here, then recover the Mazda, drop the top in determined fashion, and retrace my route back to Leyburn, then further south to Middleham. Parking is free at Middleham’s little market square, coffee also free courtesy of thermos and guest house kettle. There are some spots of rain on the run south from here to Masham but I keep the top down and teeth gritted as the car feels so much better when she’s driven al fresco. We avoid a soaking and arrive at Masham for 2:00 pm.

Sadly Masham is grey as the sky, and the hotel room is not ready. There are twelve rooms to be serviced by an overworked and overheated teenage lad, slaving on minimum wage. It seems my anosmia remission allows only the sweetness of sweaty bodies today.  And coffee. Still, I applaud the lad’s fevered and good natured industry.

The room is ready for about 3:00 pm. Room is not great. Grey, dour. It is also strangely corporate and lacking welcome. Courtesy coffee and tea are clearly rationed. Austerity “heavy”. I am by now a little tired, and feeling off-song. The room looks out over dour cobbled backs and buckled rooftops. I can still smell teen sweat.The windows are prevented from opening by more than a crack to admit air, lest I should instead wish to end my life by leaping from them. This smacks of corporate risk assessment. Not cheery. Almost laughable.

By 4:00 pm I am already looking forward to checking out. It is 60 miles to Scarborough tomorrow. For the promised free Wifi one must enquire at the desk. I cannot be bothered.

A 20 minute snooze improves things a little, but I am woken by man in the corridor asserting his displeasure to staff at lack coat hangers, soap, bath mat, and functioning bulbs in his room. I’m clearly more fortunate in that my bulbs work. I realise with a start I also lack bath mat and soapy things, but then remember I have brought my own. I decide to make do with a spit-wash. Hmm. Serious penny pinching here. As for coat hangers I shall manage without unpacking my case.

The Guardian runs with a picture of Kayne West (rapper) and Bob Dylan (legend) on the front page. Scientists have analysed their lyrics and a computer algorithm pronounces the somewhat obvious fact that rap makes greater use of vocabulary. In other parlance it is more wordy. But this equates to nothing; it is a statement of the obvious, and the article puzzles me. I cannot decide if newspapers deliberately make scientists out to be stupid by paraphrasing them, or if such things really are considered worthy of PhD study. Personally I prefer Dylan, but then I am of that generation, and not fond of rap.

The newspapers are also in a lather at the possible election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, some suggesting it is an appalling idea, others more sanguine. The thing that excites them is Corbyn is very left of centre and we have not heard a proper Socialist voice in a long time, or at least not one grossly caricatured in the largely right wing press as raving mad, which of course Corbyn will be if he begins to look like a serious contender. Yet anyone familiar with the Dao knows current times make his appearance more or less a certainty, and some might even say long overdue. Personally I would welcome it, though I am not the Shang-ri-la socialist I once was. Militant socialism is as stupid as swivel eyed conservatism, Corbyn seems more moderate. Left wingers also divide the Labour party, though it was founded on altruistic and inclusive Socialist principles, and a Corbyn ascendency would raise the possibility of a bifurcation into left and right flavoured Labour parties. I wonder what they will be called? It will certainly enliven political debate in the coming years. This is a fascinating turn of events and I am buoyed by it.

Anyway, dinner in the restaurant: Brewer’s Chicken, not bad, though a little “industrial”. The restaurant presents a better face than the hotel’s rooms, though I note the poor couple at the next table are unable to pick anything from the menu that the kitchen has remaining. The waiter keeps returning to them with apologies. They are good natured, though exasperated, and settle finally for what the kitchen has, rather than what they actually want.

I’m letting the story settle for today. I shall pick it up again in Scarborough. I feel a change of working title coming on – Mending Time, perhaps? There will be something about watch repair. The main protagonist, Finn, repairs worthless old watches as a hobby – reflecting my own recent interest in this field.

It’s late now. It’s difficult to focus on anything. The room is hot and there’s an irritating music beat vibrating up from the restaurant below. I hope it doesn’t go on all night!

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mazzy interior

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.

hubberholme church

Saint Michaels and All Angels – Hubberholme

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.

aysgarth upper falls

Aysgarth upper falls

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)

Drive carefully.

Graeme out.

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