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Settle, Yorkshire Dales.

It didn’t seem possible the forecast could be right for morning. A clear day ahead, it said. Light cloud. Sunshine. But the wind was howling, there were flurries of snow, and heavy rain. I took the little blue car out the evening before to fill her up anyway. Well, I put enough in for the trip. At £1.48 per litre, my local garage is one of the cheapest, but that’s still a record high for me. I reckoned it would break £1.50 by morning.

It did.

But the weather had also changed. The wind had dropped, and it was looking like a dry day, as the forecast promised, so here we are, driving north, to Settle. But the heart is heavy, and the usual thrill at heading for the Dales is lacking. The news from Eastern Europe, this morning, is deeply unsettling.

Traffic is heavy, morning commute time. It takes half an hour to travel five miles, then an hour to cover the remaining forty. In the meadows north of Long Preston, the Ribble has flooded out, and several trees are down. The region has suffered a battering of storms, like everywhere else, these past weeks. But there are snowdrops by the wayside, radiant in the sun, offering glimmers of hope. Ingleborough, is white capped, and gleaming in the distance, a beacon drawing us in.

Settle is bustling, mid-morning. I’ve always like this town. In common with other places in the Dales, it refuses the overt touristification so many other places in national parks, like the Lakes for example, succumb to. As a consequence, it retains its authenticity, its soul. People still live here. I could live here. It is a town contained to the east by high fells, bordered by the Ribble to the west. My home village has few choices for walking, and all are dull. Here the choice is endless and grand.

It’s a good day for a walk, good light for the camera. We pick up the Ribble, and head upstream to Stackhouse, and the weir. The river is lively, and thundering. There’s a backdrop of finely textured cloud lit by a bright, low sun. Penyghent is peeping at us, snow still lying in the gullies on its western flank. The grasses are impossibly green, glowing with a promise that seems somehow inappropriate.

Then it’s Langcliffe, and the path through Dicks Ground Plantation, up the hill to Higher Winskill. The light intensifies, the clouds are moving, and the dale begins to breathe. Back in the summer, I sat here for ages, just watching the light change over Dick’s Ground, with its crazy patchwork of meadows. I try to tease back more of that memory, thinking to regain my centre by it, but it’s elusive. Finches duck about in the thorn tree at our backs. They’re telling us spring is coming. I hope they’re right. But spring will be late in the Ukraine this year, if it comes at all.

Sampson’s Toe, Langcliffe

We skip Catrigg force. I never could get a decent picture of it anyway. Instead, we head up the track towards Langcliffe scar. We’re looking for the Norber Erratics, and find a good one, a huge gritstone boulder atop the limestone. They call this one Samson’s Toe. Perched here for twelve thousand years or so, it’s seen a lot of history, most of it before we ever learned to read and write. It came from the Lake District, carried by ice. There were people around in those days, of course, but it’s anyone’s guess what they were up to, since they predate even our earliest myths. It’s likely they were making war, as we still are. Was there ever a time when we were not dangerous to one another? I presume not, but we were never so dangerous as we are now, so many ways of raining down fire on innocent heads.

We pick up the line of the craggy Attermire Scars, follow them south, towards the more gently rounded Sugar Loaf Hill. The way is of a sudden boggy here, a ring of gaspingly beautiful high dales draining into a broad, squelchy hollow, churned to a deep slime by heavy beasts. We find a dry nest of rock, and hunker down for lunch. Sugar Loaf is to our backs, the line of the Warrendale Knotts, stem to stern, for our view, and the light playing tunes along the length of it.

Warrendale Knotts

Back home, I’ve got more fence panels hanging by a thread. It’s been getting me down, this tail end of winter, but today I don’t care. Today I’m lucky my world is so safe I can be derailed by such trivia. The car ran well, made me feel good, actually, the snarl of it. Plus, of course, it’s a beautiful day, a beautiful view, and my boots haven’t leaked, yet. Still, there’s this shadow hanging over things. We think it’s one thing or another, but the shadow isn’t always a material thing. It comes out of the psyche, sometimes too out of the deeper layers, through which we’re all connected, in which case there’s a lot of people feeling the same unease as me, right now.

We pick up the ancient ways from here, beginning with the Lambert Lane track, and we come back to Settle, approaching from the south. The tracks run deep between dry-stone walls, and are flooded out in places, seemingly impassable. Walkers have taken rocks from the tops of the walls and laid them as stepping stones. These too are submerged now. The boots will surely leak at this challenge, but we arrive back at the car with dry feet, and no complaints.

Seven or eight miles round, still early in the afternoon, we top the day off with coffee, and a toasted bun, at the Naked Man café. Face masks have mostly gone now. Covid scared us all witless, two years ago. Suddenly, no one cares about it, any more.

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naked man cafe

Ye Olde Naked Man Cafe – Settle

It was an unusually quiet drive east along the A59, then a left turn at Gisburn for the undulating and sinewy-twisty loveliness of the Hellifield road, which becomes the A65 at Long Preston, which directs one a little more assertively north and west in the direction of Ribblesdale, which brings us finally to the beautiful little Dales town of Settle. The last time I was in the Yorkshire Dales – Ingleton, back in March – the season was a good few weeks behind Lancashire, but seems now to have overtaken us in the race to summer, the Laburnum tassels already opening to cascades of yellow, while the Laburnum in my own garden, down on the Lancashire plain, is still some weeks away.

For company on the drive I had the inoffensive burble of chatter on the radio, but I remember only the one snippet of an interview with a writer who inadvertently posed me the meditation for day, which was: is it better to fail utterly at doing something you think you’ll love (like writing), than to survive doing something you merely tolerate, (like holding down a conventional day-job for 40 years)?

It’s a question I’ve often asked, especially now as I’m approaching that 40 year service mark myself. Unlike me, the writer in question did indeed give up on the financial security of the conventional day job in order to take the risk  of doing something she loved. The message was clear: you only pass this way once, so don’t waste your life doing something you don’t particularly enjoy. It’s sound advice and hard to fault, but at the gut level I wasn’t so sure; I suppose it all depends on how you define “surviving”, and whether or not you believe happiness can be achieved by “doing” anything.

It’s okay, even heroic, to take a risk on realising a dream if you’re single, when there’s only you to crash and burn, but what if you’re married, with kids? It’s a conundrum – and it depends how “far out” that dream is, I suppose, and how easily you can balance your own desires against a responsibility towards others. I chose financial security, at least as much as that’s possible for a time-served engineer living through a downsizing, de-industrialising phase of his nation’s history. I made my choice and I stuck with it, but for all of that I’ve never considered myself to be a frustrated author, held back by the shackles of wage-slavery. I am still writing, still publishing, of a sort – just not rich or famous at it. And driving into Settle on a sunny Friday morning with my walking gear in the boot, and all the fells looking so timelessly lovely as this, I could hardly feel that I was wasting my life either.

constitution hill

Constitution Hill, Settle

Of all the Dales towns and villages, Settle is my favourite, but then my favourite is always the last place I visited, so others need not feel too put out about it. It was a beautiful, warm sunny morning, and there were American tourists photographing Ye Old Naked Man Cafe. I joined them for a few shots myself. It must be the most photographed cafe in Yorkshire. The day was shaping up well. In winter I’ve thought of Settle as the coldest, teeth-chattery place on earth, even something a little dour about it, but basking in the spring sunshine it made for a very respectable waymark on the tourist’s tour-de-UK.

My walk for the day was a circuit taking in the not-so-secret secret waterfall of Catrigg Force, then the cave-dotted crags of the Attermire Scar, and returning via the breathtakingly beautiful Warrendale Knots – four or five hours and six or seven miles of varied ground, and every step begging a pause for a photograph. It’s a walk I’ve done twice now, in the company of a friend, both times characterised by atrocious weather, and the fact we got lost. It was a pleasure to be seeing it at its best for a change -the camera was charged and ready!

But was she right? Who? The writer who talked about taking a chance on doing what you loved. She’d been working in New York, in a Lawyer’s office, watching the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapse, and thought to herself, there are people in those buildings who’d been thinking to stick at the crap dayjob a little longer, while putting off their dreams – whatever they might be – and if only they’d gone and lived the dream a little sooner! But would I have done anything differently if I could? I don’t think I would. Of course I have always wanted to write, but for me the writing, like much so much else in life,  has lead me in directions I did not expect.

Near Lancliffe

Approaching Lower Winskill

The walk takes you out of Settle, climbing first the aptly named Constitution Hill, then along a path through the high meadows above Springs Wood. All is lush green and lovely here, the meadows contained by the white limestone dry-walling that demarcates much of the upland regions and which assumes an almost painful pearly whiteness in strong sunshine. We drop down briefly into the village of Langcliffe before continuing our way north, up Ribblesdale, along a green lane, walled in between ancient field systems, then  on to the energetic Stainforth Beck, which, pouring through a nick in high limestone crags plunges into the Sylvan glen that contains the roaring spectacle of Catrigg Force.

Waterfalls make great subjects for photography, with the best examples being judged by a fairly strict set of criterion: not too slow a shutter because that misty milky effect is definitely passée now, and definitely no ugly fallen trees to spoil the view – at least according to the forums that discuss these things. The latter is an unfortunate requirement because at most significant falls of water, there’s always a log gone over the top and lodged itself somewhere in the flow – the falls thus eliminating themselves, apparently, from the “sublime” category. I don’t know, nature is what it is and I think we have to take it as we find it. It’s strange, but I can look at a fall like this and those untidy logs are nowhere to be seen. It’s only when we look at the pictures afterwards they stand out. It’s as if in trying to capture something, we imagine them as simpler than they really are. I note the Catrigg Foss log has slowly been working its way out of shot since I last visited.

catrigg foss

The path to Catrigg Foss

But we were thinking about that “living the dream” thing. Have I not wasted those forty years? I suppose we can all wonder this, especially in moments of transient unhappiness. But I’m old enough now to realise that if I’d ditched the day job at 25 like I intended to, and banged away at publication for my novel “Sara’s Choice”, that really would have been a waste. For all my naive enthusiasm for the tale, it was hardly literature and the world is not exactly the worse for my having abandoned it. It does not even appear as a freebie download in the margin of my blog.

I have the internet to thank for stripping the writing of its “arty” veneer, its debatable mystique. I was never going to make my living at it, and that’s not defeatism or lack of self confidence talking. Call it experience, and reading the runes, but I finally worked it out that there has always been more to the publishing lark than I was ever going to understand in one lifetime. Then I realised I didn’t want to publish anyway, I just wanted to write, and put my stuff somewhere where people could read it, and maybe have a chat now and then with those readers who felt the urge to get in touch. I didn’t want my life to consist of literary parties, speaking tours, book signings and publicity bashes. I wanted to do a job I was reasonably good at, but one I could also shut in a drawer every night at 5:00 pm, then go home and do the stuff I wanted to do. And now and then I wanted to take the days that were owed me, and slip away to beautiful spots like this. It seems I have not wasted those 40 years at all, and am already living that dream. It’s just that sometimes we think we’re not, that the grass is somehow always greener on the other side. In this sense there’s a risk, not that we will will fail at the dream, but  that the dreams will reveal themselves to be simply whatever we’re not doing at the time. And chasing those dreams is just another form of materialism.

catrigg foss waterfall

Catrigg Foss

From Catrigg, a dusty path leads across open moor to the narrow Langcliffe road, which we descend a little way until a close cropped path leads us off through the green towards the Attermire Scars – great limestone crags, running with scree. These are famed for being dotted with the entrances to several caves: Jubilee, Victoria, Attermire, and the Lookout Cave. They are all accessible, with care, and have been drawing the eye of humans since Neolithic times. They were used as burial places, also as hidey holes by the Celts during the Roman occupation – beautiful period jewellery, and even a chariot have been recovered. But I’m not much of a caver and wasn’t tempted to explore, except to wander a little way into the most accessible of these holes – the Jubilee Cave.

jubilee cave

Inside the Jubilee Cave, Attermire Scars

The return to Settle is via a lush meadow pathway that follows the line of the Warrendale Knots – dramatically shaped limestone crags that rise several hundred feet above the green of the dale. This is Carboniferous limestone country, laid down in a tropical sea some 360 million years ago. Compared with the immense age of the earth we’ve come from nothing to iPhones in a heartbeat and it makes one wonder if we’ll still be here in another 360 million years. The sun has another 6 billion years to go, which makes the earth quite young, and I’m wondering at what point in our evolution we shall finally get our hovering jet-scooters, like in Dan Dare, and when the problem of the daily commute will be solved by teleportation, and when the day job itself will finally be abolished, enabling us all to live the dream, however we define it.

But if we’re all living the dream, what then what shall we dream of?

warrendale knots

The Warrendale Knots

At a little over six miles, the walk is by no means a severe one, but my feet have a way of complaining on the last quarter of any hike, whether I’m doing two miles or twenty, so I was feeling like I’d had a decent outing by the time I made it back to Settle. I found excellent coffee at the quirkily named “Car and Kitchen”, where I sat out at the pavement tables in the warm late afternoon sunshine. How would I like to change my life, at that moment, I wondered? How could I improve on the day as lived thus far? Well,  right then it would have been to settle, in Settle and to have hills like this for company all the time, instead of the dreary plains of home, where all I can see is sky.

Funny things though, dreams, to say nothing of the dreamers who dream them. If I was surrounded by unremittingly steep hills like this all day, I’d probably be  hankering after a bit of flat.

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