The air hangs in heavy skeins about us, thick as threads to walk through and swollen with pollen almost tasting on the tongue. Unlike in the cities, the sky is split wide open here in the Dales and stripped by the hungry cries of the swallows winging it above, skirting the stone barns and scooping their dinners out of thin air. They swing loose on invisible paths, their characteristic forked tails making perfect stabilisers as they sail gracefully through each arc. It is pleasing simply to watch them belly out across the view and join up the two halves of the valley like a pendulum. Is it my fancy that they seem to fly southerly, as if rehearsing the end of year exodus to warmer climes? The snap and glide of their wings is nearly all one hears on this sultry day in the stillness of the meadow, and I think to myself: their dynamism is mine too. My thoughts follow them freely, hitched to their flights.
We’ve come to the hay meadows at Muker like pilgrims, humbly and seeking something rare: Yorkshire’s wildflowers grown undisturbed on Yorkshire soil. We are pilgrims in spirit at least, because in terms of transport we’ve cheated and driven in the VW to get here, parking up under a tree where the bank falls away into the river. The busyness of Muker envelops us from first footfall on its soil: sounds of water and laughter, ice creams being bought and slurped outside the general store which has faded postcards on sale at the door for 30p, proof that some things stand still. As we made our way over country-cambered roads, the farmers of Swaledale were out in force making hay while the sun shone, big machinery methodically cleaving, releasing into the air the acrid tang of newly cut grass so that it smelled ozone green, sappy and harsh to the nose. But at Muker the grass and flowers are left long until late in the season, an agreement between the conservationists and farmers to let the native wildflowers and the biodiversity they encourage thrive for as long as possible. It’s June. The meadows are not for harvesting yet, but are still in their growing season. Borrowed time.
The heat is not yet the smothering heat that will settle in this summer and cram like cotton wool in the ears and the mouth. It lilts on the tops of the buttercups, the yellow rattle and the delicately lobed flowers of the stitchworts. The shepherd’s purse is not leggy, stressed or dessicated with it yet, nor have the speedwells faded to palest blue, the edges of their petals crisped by the scorch of the sun. The tiny white tubular trumpets of the eyebright are still stout and unwavering in the embrace of the rattles and grasses; the cranesbills livid bruises of colour. Time for wilt and running to seed all too soon. There’s the promise of it even now in the building noonday heat.
Meadows like those between Muker and Keld are many decades in the making. Yet you can make a meadow in just a year too, proving that endurance is harder than beginning. They are part of the DNA of Muker and Swaledale now – a “unique selling point” the guidebooks depressingly averr, as if here were to be found a commerce of flowers; nature’s supply and demand. People travel to Muker specifically to see the meadows, as did we when first we visited in May, walking slowly but purposefully up the hill from the main street, anticipating our first view of them laid out under the sun, our imaginations having conjured great tempting images of meadows flower-full and an orchid in every patch. To see a wild orchid was the apotheosis of my desire and I coveted it like a child that wants the most prized sweet in the shop. I knew such images were traps for disappointment, but no one can control their wishes. Such was my wistfulness when, stopping to admire some flowers accidentally-on-purpose growing in a trough, we were accosted by one of the residents who took this as her cue and nipped in to provide botanical assistance. Cuckoo flowers, she informed us: pale, lavender-pink and lovely, clustering on slim-throated stems. The visual counterpart to the bird which (if you’re lucky) you hear calling at this time of year. The encounter savoured of the professional Mukerist, I thought at the time, fully aware of the town’s draw and perhaps assuming that the average Joe doesn’t know the names of Britain’s wildflowers. And I don’t really blame her – there are few enough of the native species about these days to make their names familiar.
To say their names out loud all together is my kind of liturgy – lady’s bedstraw, yellow rattle, eyebright, meadow cranesbill, self-heal, stitchwort, shepherds purse, speedwell. Sacred almost, and to be spoken of in hushed, reverential tones – or a jubilant incantation: a spell. And in one sense, these flowers were thought of as spells: self-heal for minor aches, cuts and pains; buttercups to tell if you like butter; stitchwort to relax spasms. All your cures at your feet, as it were: nature’s walk-in pharmacy for those who lived on and worked the land.
Now that it is June and our second visit, we approach the start of the way through the meadows knowing a little of what to expect. It’s the buttercups we notice first, as though the tips of the meadows unfolding before us have been burnished with yolky liquid light. May was good for this – but June! June is godly. To see them now, numbering in the thousands and clothing the earth with gold is mirage-like. You or I would dream a place like this. It is this vague elusiveness that enriches the sense of the meadow’s impermanence. You walk through it aware of the cycle of the seasons and each flower seen is as flash-by-soon-die as if it were already cut and dried.
My gaze snags on the roughened walls of the stone barns on the approach, already looking ahead greedily, but as with so many national trails and popular beauty spots, there is a bombardment of signage at the start which arrests you just as you’re ready to begin. At Muker, these signs are mostly wooden with some plastic and metal ones for variety. Variations on ‘keep your dog on a lead’, ‘stick to the paths’ and others trumpeting the rarefied nature of the meadows jostle on a crowded wooden post. Admonitory salutations to get us on our way with the appropriate air of solemnity for the task at hand. Meadows are not to be tripped through lightly, you know.
When we embark into the first, we do so paying the required fee – the cost is to our dignity by having to push ourselves through the stone squeeze, like camels through the eye of the needle. The passing from each meadow into the next is conducted in this fashion: through the sutures of stone squeezes in various sizes. The effect of so many uncomfortably close encounters with the local stone is to transform the simple act of passing through a gate into an event, and entry into each meadow is bargained for in this way. That’s fair enough, I think to myself, secretly enjoying the ceremony of passing through each different stone ‘cwtch’.
I find the meadows themselves slightly self-conscious of their draw for the tourist: divided by a flagstone path up the middle with a to-ing and fro-ing of dog-walkers, families and hikers processing up the line. One man calls out in our general direction as he passes, “I’ve not seen a single insect in any of these meadows!” It’s a baffling salute to strangers on the way, as if the meadows are not performing satisfactorily in his eyes. We ourselves have witnessed many insects, and bees in particular, and I share a look with my companion, again thinking of the profesional Mukerist, preoccupied with demonstrating their conservation-mindedness, here to affirm their allegiance to the local flora and fauna.
The valley is so far removed from its glacial founding that it feels a little like a large open nave, with worshippers treading the old stone aisle cutting up the centre. Curious. The flagged path serves the twin purposes of keeping the wilful worshipper along the straight and narrow (and in case you don’t get the message there are signs telling you to keep to the path), and forcing your momentum as you proceed ever onward. There is of course an onward inclination to every path, and I am driven by the hunt for the elusive orchid too, my heart a little sore at not having found any. But I must confess what is most attractive in the idea of a meadow is the dilatoriness it invites. The way in which it calls one to meander in amongst, not simply through. Dogs illicitly off the lead have made canine desire paths through the long grass, and Oh how I wish I could join them. With regret, I discover that the Muker hay meadows do not encourage dilly-dallying, and you are certainly actively discouraged from all thoughts of wandering in amongst them. Bent backed, our heads at flower-height, we must appear oddities to those toeing the line. At this level, the bouffant heads of the clover are rendered in beautiful and particular detail. Our survey of the flowers on offer is of necessity limited to those which can be glimpsed from the path, and our naming of them is something between tentative skill or guess work and clumsy misattribution.
It is not that I do not understand that the walker is corralled in this way to protect the flowers, but that I regret that such prohibition should be necessary at all. The path through a meadow feels as unnatural as a corset and the experience of walking it – for one who has come to see the wildflowers – thrums with latent frustration. I am heartened to see one woman, having abandoned the path, sitting against the dry stone wall of the last meadow before the river and simply relaxing into the moment as swallows jettison their bodies with abandon above.
You can stare at a clutch of flowers against grass for a long time until the mind slowly unstitches them into their different forms. Sense is made slowly of them. More enchanting perhaps than any orchid are the heart-shaped seeds of the shepherds purse. And plantain – which I’d been used to think of as a playground weed, so sad and lank in tarmac crevices – when in flower has brown heads dusted with white pinpricks like sugar. My favourite flower glimpsed this day? The eyebright, once thought to be a remedy for soreness of the eyes; its little hairy stems support spires of brilliant and tiny white lipped flowers, not unlike those of the penstemon family. Beautiful, all clustered together, like nuns’ wimples or arms stretched wide.