The slow-going amble of a hedgehog had welcomed our first evening, its stretched body almost lost to us in the creeping dusk as it pulled night down slowly around it. Bothersome flies mobbed us, determinedly unspooked by waving hands, troubling the eyes and tickling at the nose. Loosening our strides down towards the river for some relief (past the honeysuckle, scenting sweet nectars), our eyes chased the evening’s swallow flights as they gulleted airborne suppers. This. This is what we had come for: space to breathe and to collect nature’s gleanings.
We had driven through moors of welted thistles and lapwings whose cunning kept them hidden in the stooked marram grasses; a snipe on a brief respite from its young; and grouse that only made themselves known by an antic chuckle: all throat and no song. Taking the narrowing country lanes that corset you between jumbling stone walls, we had seen the dying back of the cow parsley, and the emergence of the hogweed – all elbows and knuckles – evangelising to the sky. Loudly-proclaimed umbels; finest lacework before our eyes. We had looked doubtfully at glowering clouds of grey, against which the moors hulked sullenly. Here and there skulked hen pheasants, dun bodies carried low and a wary eye trained on all passersby. But as we got down into the valley, the creamy, tasty elderflower blooms saucered in the lanes: gone the hawthorn-blossoms that made the Dales white in May. Down, still down, through deepening lanes almost completely overarched in tiring summer greens of ancient oaks and sycamores, the road flushed us out like two partridge into the village of Low Row.
Fetched up in the bowl of Swaledale, away from wild unknowable moors, with their secret pockets of heath thymes, trefoils and bedstraws, our eyes claimed the downy meadows as our own. Stone-barned and stone-bordered living links, threading the valley’s geography, and as old as anything else here that the eyes can see, save only the brooding treeless hills. Their brute aspects are millenia-old limestone, crumbling in loosening shale at the top: slate-grey and warning of the folly of trying to climb them. They preside over layered volumes of stone, laid down almost-accidentally like forgotten books over centuries of time; little creatures, fish and plants, ossified forever in sedimentary secrecies. A day is but an eye-blink to these Yoredale geomorphologies; they deal in deep time. Stacking up silt and organisms in archives of rock; each one speaking to a different age of the world, differently charactered, with plants and animals discoverable in distinct typologies. I have been at Wain Wath force, the river licking at the rock like a tongue at gap-toothed gums, and found the minutely-preserved frond of a palm, and the impression of a bivalve shell. I have held them in my hands and felt the telescoping of time to when each of them thrived, in a landscape I would not have recognised.
And lying so lightly atop it, as seemingly impermanent and ephemeral as fossil is tough, meadowland is a temporary greening crust. The surface glamour to buried treasure. It does not know the words ‘lasting’ or ‘forever’, yet year on year, seed by seed, it incorrigibly grows itself again. To see a meadow is to see nature’s optimism writ large. Their vernal grasses were in the process now of oldening, some farmers already busy about the first summer cutting, leaving silvery waves of sillion hay in their wakes. Touched with a million yellow stars – buttercups, upturned faces transfixed skywards, the sun reified in each one – they were taking energy and laying it down for winter. Hard not to see them without the mind playing chin-tickling, fleeting tricks. At a distance, gold and green were the valley’s mantle: a straightforward dales greeting.
I am not deceived by their delicate glamour. However fragilely they may seem to cling upon the earth, there is something antique also in the meadow’s temporary armour. Some of these dales meadows have taken centuries of persuasion to come into being and are truly medieval. Years of sunshine have sung their petals and grasses open to make this rich lexicon of flower; countless winds have dispersed and deposited their seeds; floods of rain have watered them well in and been drunk down deep. Meadows are one of nature’s finest paradoxes: they are old and at the same time constantly renewed. They speak to decades, sometimes centuries, of patient craft and alliance between nature and farmer. If it is an orchid meadow, you can reckon that at least a century of sympathetic farming – leaving the meadow to its own devices for the majority of the summer; only mowing in August or September – has allowed the orchid to establish and bloom. Each one is only ever a temporary display of splendour, and I am smote with the nostalgia of looking over old things made crisply new.
Etymologically, the word meadow carries its own doom within it, deriving from the OE mǣdwe, which is in turn derived from the proto-Indo-European for ‘mow or reap’. Its name speaks of its unique relationship with farming, but also of its yearly ending. There is the undeniable risk that, mown too early, species of wildflower can be lost from meadowlands, and far more quickly than it took to grow and habituate them there. The farmer, working with nature, keeps the meadow alive and gets the benefit of the hay bounty as winter feed for the herd. The wisdom it takes to farm in this way is perhaps what George Ewart Evans meant when he called his account of the dying way of Suffolk farming life, ‘Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay.’
The next day – a birthday – we had come to the meadows from waterfalls where I’d sluiced my feet in sharp-cool water, and felt the touch of millenia in the peat-reddened rock and silt between my toes. I’d let abluvion wash the cares from world-weary bones. Now, under skies vastly blue, and standing in the midst of meadows pulsing with life, heat seethes over everything. It beats its velvet wings at the neck and limbs, as though it were a living thing itself; it crowds and sits like flannel in the mouth, and all the air is filled with the acrid tang of green growing things and dry dusts and grass seeds. The sun is a bright white disc above, with nowhere to hide from it in the wide-open cleft of the dale; fermenting the air to a heady cider in the blood. Everything about the meadows is wanting to get in: to get under the skin. It is oppressive and at the same time friending. I look on them as presiding mysteries. I want to chlorophyll up my lungs, and make them a little into my own chemistry.
Details come slowly from this cabinet of curiosities. I look upon the meadows with a collector’s avidity: wanting to claim and name every wildflower I see; to store up memorial specimens for my mind’s eye to take out and pause over later. My eyes, illiterate at first glance, see only grass, encompassed by walls of stone which trees have bitten through. All colour is made monochrome under the bleaching sun. In the blinding light, I have only mere impressions of blooms on the retina as I stoop-bend to uncover them from the grasses that crowd them. The grasses themselves – cock’s foot and meadow fescue, sedges and timothy – are brittling before my eyes. Bees and flies rise and fall, flower to flower, in lazy flights, absorbing the stark heat into their wings. Though newly July, the meadow’s hedging trees begin to show the oldening green of their leaves, left too long out in the sun. A percussion of cricketty strings from a myriad unseen grasshoppers clamours at my ear drums. All noise and no sight of them – I kneel to look. Ghostly things. A tinnitus of leg-squeakings. The meadows are a veritable factory of such things. A world in miniature, busy in the throes of industry: so alive that I feel the more so simply from being here under the same skies, breathing their goldening air.
Time was, we believed there was a signature for every ailment here: a plant resembled that which it was designed to heal. Eyebright to mend the vision because the flowers looked like little eyes; heartsease for an erratic pulse because the petals form a heart. The doctrine of signatures was the country folk’s herbal, and how many of the common names came about: lungwort, lady’s mantle; self-heal. This kind of physick was very literal.
I bind the Dales: I am flower-whisperer, way-maker, step-slower, rain-drinker, seed-shaker, stem-quaker, wind-friender, bird-bringer, ankle-kisser, hand-tempter, bee-fetcher, cure-grower, grass-singer, leg-clinger, lung-filler, soul-lifter, dew-sparkler, wave-bearer. See my pink storksbill, jewelled to perfection in magenta with a white eye; and here the perfect white stars of my stitchwort-flowered eyes; here tormentil to stud the grass and wink up at the sky with yolky yellow. These my treasures: come try, come try. See here, this harebell, here this bell of robin’s-egg blue, for you. Here, I’ve brought the colour of sky to earth. I sat on this through a hard-bitten winter, worked all the springtime on it, awakening seed and soil to this alchemy. It is a love song I prepared for thee. Self-heal for the hurt you carry; orchids to show you that there can still be beauty; betony to knit and clean your open wound; stitchwort to sew you back together; eye-bright to help you see all my treasures laid before you. I implore you, do not pass me by without brushing a hand through all my bounty. I am the layman’s apothecary: come try, come try.
Meadow speaks the most eloquently of the two of us – with the fluency of flower and grass – so that I read its arrangements, every time, slightly differently, and always with wonder. Its fragility is inherent in the careful parasitic balance of yellow-rattle (sometimes called meadow-maker) and its host plant, grass. Like hedge bindweed, and other plants that make their way through symbiotic, mystical pairings – the yellow rattle binds itself to the grass and exhausts it, strangling its ambition to take over. Its smothering love makes space for smaller and yet more delicate flowers: dainties like the harebell, which the meadow conjures on the slenderest of stems for its little knell, such that a stiff fall of rain could lay it out.
These meadows are a vital link in the old Dales Corpse Way – the way in the medieval period linking Keld to Muker, to Reeth, to the final destination at St Andrew’s Church in Grinton. St Andrew’s was known as the Cathedral of the Dales and was the only church for centuries where mourners could bring their dead for burial. What hard-grafting business it must have been. We had walked some of the way from Keld in the morning’s heat, stifled by it with only our own bodies to carry, whilst noting the pale yellow and purple of the heartsease like a drift of snow upon the grass. The thought of bearing a body on hill-climbing and steepening ways, round about the valley until final reaching its bottom filled us with awe and horror. Did the meadows midwife them through her passages as they do me now? Through snug stone squeezes into meadows new, past green upon green of ripening winter feed: fattening and not-quite-mature-yet seeds. And did they pick some of her summer blooms to arrange in the funeral bier? Heartsease for remembrance; harebell for grief; agrimony, an old physick for melancholy.
They are sustenance in every sense, these meadows: in the practical sense, they keep a dwindling array of insect life alive; they feed the farmer’s sheep come winter; and they meet, perhaps least importantly, a deeply-felt need in me now, with the immediacy of a shot taken to the bloodstream. I inhale and draw the sillage of the meadow deep into myself: embrace the feeling of being pollen-bothered and spore-gathered and petal-fuddled in the waning light. My cantering heart won’t be still, but is attuned to smell; to the powdery puffs of pollen from the cock’s-foot grass; to a fescue’s touch. Remnants of living things thick-tickle my throat until my tongue is dumb from their clamouring.
It occurs to me that, across the whole country, meadows are kin – a dynamic chain of natured, inexhaustible being, which the bees, hoverflies, butterflies and moths, know the particularities of, and the byways between. Each one colludes to form a living map whose job is to sustain all manner of creatures. As we turn steps homeward out of the final stone squeeze, I know that soon enough it will be the time of the reddening sorrel, blazing its red-caped leaves to quarrel the grass; when all else will have gone to seed and sorrel alone will stand different and special. Then the ancient insect flight-paths, unmarked on any map, will once again lie dormant and unused: flower, seed and bee all buried, for another year at least.
When we arrived at Dunstan and walked down to the castle, I heard them. Unmistakably alien-sounding and causing a quick lance of joy in my chest: the seagulls were hawking their cries. Though gulls are ubiquitous almost everywhere these days, encroaching onto the thin, begrudging borders of our towns – wheeling over dumps and nuisancing the outsides of eateries – there is a difference my ear cannot miss in the rationed and contained cries of the gulls inland and the vast ache of cry the seagull emits on the wing above the sea. The sea wind does something in carrying this cry that enlarges it. Its voice fills an emptiness I did not know I was carrying around inside me, like a faint echo. The sea, the sea.
I have hoarded a desire to see the sea for a while now, having been absent from it for 23 months. Waves have been frozen in my mind; a restless sea halted without me to dip my toes into it. This week on the Northumberland coast, the sound of the sea haunts me at night, delivering restless visions. I listen to sterile digital waves in the wee hours of the morning to conjure sleep when it doesn’t come, buzzed from seeing so much of my family on this holiday to celebrate my dad’s 70th. My mind’s eye sees the sea spume, and the white membranes stretched like a sheep’s caul across the bob and lift of the waves. I lie awake feeling wired – all too aware of the sea no more than a mile distant – the knowledge of it like a whelk shell pressed to my ear. Now, today, I will walk the sea floor and I’m dumb with awe before it. Made a child again. The cries of the gulls interpret for me how wide and fathomless are the sea and sky. My soul has missed them.
I had decided weeks ago that I wanted to walk out to Lindisfarne, knowing that I could at the very least walk the causeway but hungry for a walkers’ counterpart to the road. A little research yielded fruit – the Pilgrim Way has been the footway in use since before Aidan first came here in the 7th century (that was when the original set of 15ft way-finding poles was erected). The “path” is navigable when the tide is out and has 2 refuge stations en route which resemble treehouses on stilts (in case of need). I possess a map, advice and tide times (and a healthy dose of well-meant familial concern about the wisdom of walking out to sea, which of course serves only to strengthen my determination).
Like one arm of a tuning fork, the Pilgrim Path veers away from the causeway and out into the silty and part-submerged sandlands of Beal Bay. The mainland curves in the distance down towards Bamburgh on the right, and the causeway leading to Lindisfarne’s Snook Point curves to the left, giving the illusion that you are in a land-locked lagoon, but for a small gap on the horizon straight ahead, between the southern tip of the Island and the twin Leading Lights. Fishermen use these “lights” to get their bearings when out in their fishing smacks, bringing back their sea hauls. They are beacons that represent home but also the dangers of rocks lurking on the sea bed.
It surprises me how tame it feels here, as I prepare to leave the road and cross the ancient slick of path to the Island. But it is low tide and the sea, for the time being at least, has relinquished its claim on the bay. Sucked back out to the main, gathering itself, waiting.
I’m feeling a little sharp and out of sorts at the outset, tired from the turmoil of sea-dreams, and impatient for the sand to take the edges off the corners of my mood. It is strange to farewell my family carrying on in the car, and to trudge the causeway road behind them; strange to walk beside the cars, but be marginalised into the silty-sedgey grasses by the wayside. There is a sense in walking the route to the Island of cutting myself off – of intentional marooning – that is irresistible and at the same time very vulnerable. I am fugitive, harbouring the fierce intent of walking out to sea, daring it to come back in ahead of time and catch me out with its on-rush of water. I imagine the tide leeching irrevocably and unstoppably across the flat sands of the bay, inching higher and higher by the minute, gaining momentum with nothing in its path to halt it. I am quite alone, left to my own devices for three miles until I make land like flotsam on the opposite shore, fending for myself in terrain in which I’m not native and where quicksands and bogs have been known. I am like any other pilgrim stranger here then, with nought but a vision and the way beneath my feet.
Somewhat prosaically, the Pilgrim Way begins on the road, and I am jealous of the farne monks and pilgrims of old who walked the whole of the original path – umbilicalling the motherland to the Island – unencumbered by tarmac, traffic and exhaust fumes. It has become the tradition that once a year the islanders walk the Way from Lindisfarne to the mainland, and partway along the St Cuthbert Way, in honour of the Saint’s memory. Soon enough comes the point of deliberate departure: at the bridge, crossing the Lindis river (the wand of water leading out to sea), and following the long marching line of way-marking poles which curve away from the safety of the road into sand, silt and water. From hereon, the shifting seascape is all silver. I cast my eyes adrift on it to land on any feature in the view that is not the monochrome movement of the water or the reflected sky, but there’s nothing between me and the mercury of the sea.
Keen to be off the road and away from the cars, I leave just before the bridge and have to spend some time finding a shallow enough place to cross the river. Wading out into it, I feel the strong suck of its resistance. It laps over my knees with freezing cold, washing off some of my mood, and salting me for the path ahead. My goose-pimpled flesh pays the toll as if this were a lesser Styx at the outset of my journey, stealing the warmth from my bones as the required fee of passage.
The Way yawns before me. I had not known what to expect from a path that the sea submerges for 10 hours of every day. My eye tricks along the horizon line and I am surprised at the horseshoe of land that, albeit distantly, surrounds me here and at how much water still remains on the sands, rippling out from my feet, an hour after the spring tide is out. My footsteps fall wetly, often making no impression at all, ghosting my progress through this watery world. The sky reflected in it gives me the impression of walking out onto glass, but for the kythins left by the lug worms which squirt spirals of black silt up through the sand. Two days before, I’d waded out from the golden sands of Embleton Bay and been chastened by its chilly North Sea grip. With some relief, I discover that here the sea lies sun-warmed: tepid and luxurious. Not a pilgrim’s penance at all. The saltwater is soft, lapping at my feet in warm transparencies that catch and in-prism the light. Letting it wash over me is keen pleasure. With a renewed sense of comfort, I relish the wind at my back and the sun strong and spangling on the water.
I make for the poles that articulate the way. Their barnacled skins and ropes of seaweed are blunt reminders that this path is washed out twice a day by the sea, but they stand against permanent erasure and, marching in succession, set me right. I cleave to them. 123 of them lead to the far shore, dwindling to the size of matchsticks as my eye tries to count them. Ten of my strides make the space between each one: 1230 strides (or thereabouts) to the Island. A modest pilgrimage.
The poles were last replaced in the 1970s as part of an initiative from the Manpower Services Commission to provide work for the unemployed. I wonder what those men, down on their luck, felt about digging deep into the darkening silt below the sand to give the poles a good grounding, one eye cocked to the east to watch for the sea’s return; about the forest that the poles were grown in; and whose task it was to choose trees so ramrod straight for the task. Out here in the middle of the bay, the poles and I are the only verticals in an otherwise flat world; the only signs to give some permanence and presence to a semi-permanent path.
The view is mono-lateral and there is a faint anxiety in it for me – dweller of valleys and more familiar with the geography of Yorkshire. It is flattening, and initially I am flattened by it, finding that there is nothing to do but to succumb, let the way bear me upon it, and wash out my thoughts tinged with disquiet and distraction. Without my usual markers of flowers and wildlife to look out for, I notice more about the shifting quality of the light and clouds; the change from sand which shifts in gentle depressions beneath my feet to silty mud which squelches, squidges and slip-slides me along until I almost lose my balance, causing my heart to spike at every almost-fall. A bog mires the midpoint of the Way in a slake of mud. You think you know mud from woodland floors, garden beds, rammed-earth tracks – but that’s just dirt. In the choiceless bog, I disturb primordial ooze which covers me to the shins in the total ancient black of crude oil. I sink slowly and surely down into it, forcing foul gassy air to the surface in wet mud-burps. With some manoeuvring, and like a fish caught on a line, I contort and wriggle my legs free from the mud’s resisting kiss. A narrow miss.
Through the bog and past the second refuge tower (its wood desiccated and salt-dried as bone), the sands stretch before me streaked with livid green swad – a miniature kelpie forest with its streamers of seaweed pulled in the direction of the retreating tide. Caught in the fronds is a collection of cockle shells: the pilgrim’s badge. They lie treasured amongst the shifting weeds of the tidal pool, motionless for a brief borrowed while before the sea sweeps in again to toss and claim them in its foaming hands. I have not earned my cockle shell yet, I tell myself, moving on, my footprints fluid underwater.
I leave few marks of my going. Occasionally I spy the footprints of others, some similar in size to mine and similarly barefoot and I wonder about these strangers – about their reasons for treading the sea glass – whether they are pilgrims or tourists or both. There are others ahead of me on the Way, yet I feel a privacy in this levelling world which is at ironic odds with the cars on the causeway no more than 200 yards to my left. Sometimes these other prints are muddled and crossed with those of wading birds: green shanks, bar-tailed godwits and curlews (not forgetting the gulls). So absorbed have I become by what’s beneath my feet that it’s a while before I realise I’m being accompanied along the last mile by green shanks, scuttling the sand a few paces to the side of me looking for choice morsels in the sand-beds. I am tickled that they seem unfazed by my presence, this acceptance of me in their flatlands more precious than any cockle shell.
For a long time it seems I walk the Way without the farther shore getting any closer, and it’s at just this point that the bay feels at its widest too, stretched taut as if caught on the tenter-hooks of Island, beacons and headland. I am completely exposed on all sides: a small moving dot in the bowl of the bay. Any sounds I catch above the wind whistling in my ears are warped beyond safe recognition here. I think I hear a woman cry out, the sound seeming to come from the expanse to my right and advance towards me. It’s a thready moment while I scan the sands for signs of anyone in distress, but there’s no one and I tell myself, still with a glimmer of worry, that it must have been a dog’s bark that the sea wind distorted and bounced about the bay, only for a moment indulging my fancy.
I arrive on the Island at last, slightly regretful, with my wits a little pickled by my sea walk. I would not wish to spend too long out here on the tidal sands, caught and pent in a refuge tower, waiting for the sea to release me and subside again. But I’m already wistful for the freedom I found on the silvered sands, the clouds reflected at my feet. Already the sea is working to remove the impressions of my passage, undoing the traces I’ve left behind me. As if I never trod the Way, and none of this ever was. In the end, the Pilgrim Path’s as resistant to impression as glass that’s renewed with every change of the tide.
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.
Near the improbably named Botany Bay in the North York Moors threads Ouse Gill beck, plunging swift and strong through ironstone and shale deep down into the cut of Bransdale. Travel into the heart of the dale and you will find the National Trust’s High Lidmoor farmhouse, rented to holiday-makers like us: people on the hunt for adventure in the wildlands of the National Park; for escape from the humdrum everyday; for what Richard Mabey calls the ‘nature cure’. ‘Botany Bay’ conjures Antipodean daydreams, making its appellation here bizarre in the extreme, the village sitting in the middle of the North York Moors, where the briskly cold moorland tops brim with heather, offering a kind of wilderness irrevocably removed from the hot sand of south-of-the-equator beaches.
With music humming from the car speakers, we make our winding way through Gillamoor and begin to climb the moor. Twice we make a wrong turn just beyond Ouse Gill Beck and, my navigation skills cast into disrepute, I am relegated (perhaps fairly) to passenger only. But another thought occurs to me, legacy of countless children’s books where entrance portals to other worlds are found only after a test has been passed: the holiday destination that is hard-won is at once more worth the trouble, more private, and more likely to lead to adventures. This is a good sign, I think to myself, in this way neatly excusing my poor navigational skills. In direct proportion to the increasingly wild beauty of the landscape, dwellings of the human variety become fewer; instead gluts of beehives colonise the purpling moor-tops with their sweet promise. The bees are in heaven — in heather — up here under a sky I am not used to thinking of as so silvery-big. It hangs with infinite possibility. Scuds of cloud are caught on it, their pace leisurely and unhurried — a pace it is only natural that I will borrow for the week.
We climb the moor road which ridges the valley like a spine and startle unwary cock pheasants into berserk runs. Others pay us no mind at all and dawdle regally as if to make a point of access rights. Good for you, I think, as we go up and over the moor. It feels wonderfully remote up here, as though we are putting the rest of the world away for the week, and I can already feel myself ready to slough off my working day self: all the minutiae of life that keep us small and wearied in a busy world. A left turn with caution down the valley (the car managing the traps in the road woozily, jostling us back and forth), and then the breath held as we arrive up the gated farm track to take stock of our new fiefdom. Clouds spool out over the sky, farms pocket the fells on either side and between them fall enclosed plots laid out untidily like a quilter’s fat quarters, drystone walls threading between them. A great sycamore tree alongside the track pins the focus of the view to itself. Everything, for a week at least, is ours to the horizon line, and I am temporary custodian of this house and land.
High Lidmoor is a stone-built eighteenth-century farmhouse full of all the homely character we could wish for in a week away, and we fall into the swift game of choosing bedrooms and putting our possessions away the better to claim it as ours. I don’t think it would judge us if we spent the whole week indoors reading (my bag is bulging with books), baking and just being. Yet it’s a practical house too with its porch for walkers’ gear. Settling down in the easy chair in the living room with my book, I am facing two windows onto the little banking rise at the back of the house which leads up to the moor. Surprisingly close, the woolly white fleece of a grazing sheep passes outside, and in another minute a few more of them potter past nonchalantly mowing the grass. Then my eye focuses on the brown patches in between and I realise that there are countless rabbits among the sheep, fellow grazers enjoying an afternoon feast; little balls of brown fur almost invisible to a merely human gaze, were it not for the typewriter motion of their heads along the grass. The windows frame them like an alternative and better TV and, my book forgotten, I’m hooked.
It is the beginning of a steadfast fascination over the course of the week’s stay and – though I felt it when we first entered the comparatively small Bransdale – I begin to appreciate that this is indeed a special place, with the suggestion of being the last fully-wilded bastion in Britain. A townie by birth, I have never before seen so much wildlife so plentifully and trustingly out in the open. With the present day list of endangered species growing and the drive to conserve and ‘reserve’ natural habitats, it is refreshing to experience wildlife so blithely careless of my own human intrusion into its domain. I stand at the window for some time and watch a rabbit clean itself, totally absorbed by its fidgety and particular movements: the ears relaxed and mobile in the absence of any perceived danger; the hind leg up to scratch; the twitching of its mouth. It has not escaped me that glass divides us and I know very well that were I to venture outside into the rabbit’s world it would freeze, turn its impossibly snowy white tail (how do rabbits’ tails stay so clean?), and run. Meadow pipits arrive like leaves blown in haphazardly on the wind to their over-wintering homes, picking over the ground between their larger neighbours of grouse, partridge and pheasant.
I go out the first clear night to see the stars shining brightly, pricked into the deep blue velvet of the sky, for once uneclipsed by the cityscape smudges I am used to. Bats sound overhead with their leathery flights and I stay out a while to spot constellations, occasionally obscured by black shadows passing between me and the stars, quick as an eye blink. Leaving my curtain ajar at night, I wake with the sunrise to a new morning ritual of looking out to see what is stirring in the spell of mist that rests in the valley with the fragile impermanence of spider silk. Only the lonely sycamore punctuates it. Seeming to hover over the lane, the tree is a ghost of its yesterday self. I feel as though I could blow a puff of wind down the dale and send all the mist scattering into nothing. High Lidmoor is a place which seems to invite such fancies.
On an impulse, I want to awaken the valley out of its shroud; to stir it up; and put the dozy pheasants picking prettily like dainty pedants along the lane to flight. They’ve got the world to themselves at this hour, safe from intrusions upon their morning perambulations. With mayoral swagger, wearing their feathers with vanity as badges of office, they are curve-bellied, sleek and ponderous. Mischief takes over and before I know it I am impatiently booted and out the door onto the hard core of limestone and shingle. The pheasants have heard me coming and scramble in their undignified runs down the lane, bobbing under the fence with outraged croaks. It seems they will only fly at great need, preferring to wheel their legs like pull-along toys, but always with the perfect posture of their office. I have a fast-growing affection for them: the glib walk, the tail feather dashing and signing the air in their wake, the green neck and white collar – some of the best plumage that fowl finery has to offer.
Walking out on the tops of the moors I am at the ‘betweening’ of the seasons: summer is issuing bursts of sunshine and warmth, and autumn is beginning to claim the heather, scorching the tops of the fells with its slow, amorous burn. The arrival of the meadow pipits signals cooler autumn weather on the way, but it is still warm enough to leave my coat behind. I hug the dry stone walls (stone is the Yorkshire building element) as I ascend the hill behind the house, passing a fir plantation to my left and a view unravels before me in broad strokes of greens, purples and golds under the vast open sky. The weather changes quickly here but I have some warning: I see the rain coming up the valley and try to judge the time it will take to reach me as the grey stretches out its fingers up the hillside. I search out cover in the wide open space and hunker down into a rabbit run between deep marram grasses. It is boggy, cold and wet, and I instantly question the wisdom of this hiding place. Better to be on, to spring the fence and climb into the other fir plantation down by the pond. The dense needles of a spruce enwomb me and I am an escaped Magwitch under a desultory tree, under the clouds, under the rain. It is a humorous position in which I find myself, mingling with spiders, scarlet cap fungi, and last year’s pine needles underfoot. I am almost supine in my idiocy without my coat. But it is a close vantage point which allows me to observe the particularities of things.
Silflay for the rabbits lasts all day and there is one abiding pattern: feed, flight, hide. They are particular creatures, industrious little mowers grazing the thin grass of the fields, round little balls focussed downward. Their sidewise eyes are alert to danger in case of encroachers – least patient of strangers of all the wildlife I have encountered here. I can be 200 yards distant and my steps will render them absent. I am the flight-provoker; the scurry-hurrier; the threat-deliverer. Yet even in flight rabbits are interesting to study: their run a stretch-gather movement powered by the hind legs. First the ears twitch, noting my presence and alert for the danger I might pose and a stillness settles over them. It’s a stalemate and if I break it, that’s it, they’re off, flowing through the cracks of a dry stone wall with fluidity and economy of energy. Through improbable gaps barely a spit wide – how do they do that? During another holiday in Low Embleton, Northumberland in 1993, a rabbit became my first encounter with death. I was eight years old, and a bother in the wake of an older sister gone for a walk over the sandy hillocks on the extreme edge of the village. I had followed her and she’d probably rather not have had me slowing her down over the duney marshes. I can’t exactly remember now how we came upon the rabbit, only that across the sandy ground we sensed its distress and knew with the clarity that children sometimes have, something was badly wrong about the eyes and the limp-driven limbs. A man and his wife came along, assessed the situation with pinched frowns, and all of a sudden I was clutched tightly to a stranger’s chest and then – whack! – the rabbit was no more. A swift compassion. Soft shock, the thump of rock through bone. Something alive was no more. This was the first I knew of death in the wild and the first I knew of death as a kindness. I was shaken and a little numb as I recounted what had happened to mum back at our week’s home. Myxomatosis she said, a big word for an eight year old to swallow. It came to the UK in the 1950s shortly after it was trialled as a ‘pest’ control in Australia. 99% of our native population of rabbits died in a few years, but numbers have since recovered. Looking about me now, I believe it. Rabbits have the moors almost to themselves up here, more numerous than the game birds. I will always be grateful for the kindness of the stranger who held me tight to her so I wouldn’t see her husband lift and lower the rock in his hand.
It is the curious loneliness that afflicts the nature-lover the most: that which we wish to cherish and be near, we cause to disappear. It is a shame and I regret it: to approach the natural world with wonder and joy and yet feel myself to be excluded – by virtue of humanness – from it. But it is the curse of our over-industrialized, intensively-farmed age. We love the wild, yet at best our presence constantly transforms it and, at worse, destroys it. These are the melancholy thoughts that plague me in this kind of lonely, nature-retreating funk. I can watch the wildlife and wonder at it, but I will never be wilded into it. I am in a world of vital bodies, could I but see them, yet I feel myself to be utterly alone up here, on the crown of the fell, on the cusp of the world.
Perhaps it’s the slower pace of things, or the delicious-tasting water piped in from a nearby spring, or the sheer availability of so much wildlife to watch at close quarters, but gradually over the course of the week the tensions of elsewhere ease and I am delightfully weathered into the rhythms of the cottage, birds, sheep and rabbits outside its windows. Waking with, watching and following the wildlife outdoors becomes my routine and my obsession. Swallows stoop and swerve outside my window one morning, swooping through the air in swinging motions to catch insects ready for their migratory journeys to Africa. Strange to think of such a staple of the countryside soon to be flying over sub-Saharan dust. Their destination on each scoop-dive is the eaves outside my window, a muster line on the edge of the roof. No telegraph wires here for them to settle on as they prepare for their great journey. The risks are high, some will not return. With the changing seasons, all creatures are having to adapt – the swallows now arrive a week earlier each year than they did in the 1970s, and I wonder if in fact they tarry later as well, putting off the inevitable, as I do before the commute to work?
Like the swallows, I will return here, and slip once again into the rhythms of Bransdale.
As seen in the February 2018 issue of Dalesman magazine.
Last night was snow-cold, the wind coming in from the west, whistling down the chimney, and I went to bed with an extra blanket and a childish hope for snow (the proper job stuff) come morning. I woke to a bright white light streaming in through the uncurtained sliver of window and rushed to see – not the immense powdery drifts of my childhood when mum would dress me in the pink “Michelin” body suit – but a clear sky with a wafer moon hung past its time and a thin crisping of snow, gift of the night. Enough to put a smile on my face and call me outdoors.
A snow day and its promise of adventure prove that snow transforms the spirit just as much as the landscape it blankets. I have a spring in my step as I begin my walk to Trench Meadows to watch the birds, ignoring the sullen portent of the one-for-sorrow magpie on its straight arrow-flight – the first corvid of the day, part of the genus which includes rooks, ravens, crows, jackdaws and jays. Snow crystals encrust the roof tiles and duvet the cars. The pavements are rinked with ice and puddles are crackle-glazed with it. The feet retain a memory of how to walk on snow – of how it crunches and makes an awkward impression of the foot and, compacted, slides me as I go. Firing off the top of Baildon Moor, a cold hard sun etches everything sharply, chiselling at it like a knife. Reaching a grassy verge, I put my hand down to touch a snow wavelet (only word for it) and find it a surprise to the skin: hard and smooth as glass and tingling with cold.
On the way I stop by a hornbeam hedge I know to listen in on the sparrows that have set up residence inside, chirruping busily, invisibly and it must be said very loudly so that you cannot help but stop to wonder at the commotion as you pass. Hidden within their hedge stronghold, their cries are a playful “nothing to see here.” Just flashes of colour arcing between the close-grown branches. Pausing with my ear cocked towards it, I feel like Gulliver in Lilliput, wondering what all the different twitterings mean. Great tits swoop exuberantly from small front garden trees in flashes of yellow and warn each other of my approach. While among the birds, my presence is foretold along the hedgerows as that of an intruder.
Trench Meadows is designated an area of special scientific interest because it includes patches of rarefied and much prized acid grassland. In early summer a litany of wildflowers drive up between the grasses: orchids, self-heal, meadowsweet, cow parsley, dock, nettle, greater plantain, creeping buttercup, harebells, knapweed, loosestrife, bird’s-foot trefoil and thistles, later to be joined by the marching blue of the devil’s bit scabious and the sulphur yellow of ragwort. Birds are attracted by this superabundance of wildflowers (the meadows in summer teem with them) and their seeds, a staple of their winter diets. The tramping of the bullocks let loose in autumn helps to re-sow the flower meadows, and the birds join in the effort of renewing it. Moles plough the ground (their mounds today dusted white), turning manure and seed under, ready for next summer. It is a habitat in perfect and rare balance with itself, supporting a vast array of invertebrates including moths, butterflies, grasshoppers and red soldier beetles — and these in their turn feed the birds.
I find the gateposts at the bottom of the lower meadow rimed with velvet ice that slicks the fingers with remembered cold. The moisture in the wood has been cooled and then frozen overnight, expanding out of the posts to create ice-prisms that glint-warp the light. Snow is scribbled untidily into the meadow dips and edges and the glare of reflected sunlight makes it hard at first to see the birds; it is easier like a spy to pick up their chatter. I collect birdcalls at random and try to detect which species I’m hearing. With diligent watching, I glimpse them on the wing: blackbirds, red-bibbed robins, sparrows and tits flit deftly in between the steel stems of the brambles with busyness and purpose. The bones of the trees and shrubs are exposed with the fall and decay of leaves, freeing up uninterrupted sightlines with which to observe bird flights.
In the middle-storey branches, wood pigeons are making clumsy landings and unceremoniously inserting themselves on an already crowded perch, no matter whether their fellows are shoved off or not. Rose-breasted nuthatches drilling their beaks into low-slung branches add a different layer of sound, and in the foreground tiny clutches of goldcrests hop from grass to scabious stalks in dainty whorls of flight. There is such a rising chorus of bird calls that it’s as though a great drama is taking place at the avian level, from which I am excluded. Perhaps this has always been going on just fifteen minutes from my doorstep and I am only now tuning in to it. Still higher above, the sun catches at the white wings of common gulls, wheeling in a loose pack, keeping a weather eye on the lie of the land below for any choice scraps. Tens of thousands of feathers shutter and bar the light over me.
The black shadows which I hardly notice at first, so ubiquitous hereabouts, are the crows, corvus corone — the birds everyone thinks they know and which Chaucer dubbed the ‘jangling’ bird of woe. These are the ones I’ve particularly come to study, learn and glean the habits of. Crows on the top-loftiest perches of the meadows’ birches and oaks, sitting singly, lonely, on improbably slender branches. Crows on the ground carrying out forensic searches with their plague-doctor beaks, turning over the snow for any signs of life: a dusting of white on the black lacquer of their bills and the sheen of their feathers. Crows stooping in the sky crying their guttural, malcontent rawks. Close to, the power in that 45cm wingspan is raptor-like and I am captive to its flight.
I became intrigued by crows a couple of months ago when one appeared from its perch at sunset and commenced an exhibitionist rawk! rawk! rawk! interspersed with loud mechanical clicks of its beak, producing a sound like two halves of a coconut shell being snapped together. It was utterly mesmerising and confounding to watch, the crow often seeming to pick the elevated platform of a rock or bench from which to declaim. Though I had not witnessed this call before, it seemed to be an end-of-day ritual, carried out with the nonchalance of routine, like brushing teeth.
Today the crows are so assiduous in their uniform searches among the snow-stiffened grasses you’d think a murder had been discovered – and in a way it has for that is the collective noun for crows: a murder of them. Yet, bent in scimitar curves, beaks to the earth, displaying their elegant feather pantaloons, they amuse rather than threaten. One – a jester – puffs up its feathers and hops crab-wise, looking in my direction with an oblique, obsidian eye. It dances over the snow and when I look away at one of its companions starts up a petulant karr! keearr! to draw me in again to its antics.
Two hours of counting crows and the light is beginning to fade. Oak branches with gluts of them in their weave stretch into a snow sky, pink and buttery at the horizon line leaching into cool blue. The air is desolate with cold. The crows swoop against it like bits of cloth caught on the up-rise, to eventually land and re-commence their calling. I spy a second magpie and my thought follows the nursery rhyme: two for joy. All the promise of spring lies under the snow, under the crows, in the cold hard ground.
Autumning; v. the transformation of things in the natural world from their summer to their autumn selves.
Nan Shepherd wrote in The Living Mountain that when others talked the mountain – which was her constant companion and to which she was almost mystically attached – was silent. I’ve expressed a similar sentiment myself: to walk in solitude is best. And yet. Today we are companionable and quiet together as we set out into Strid Wood at Bolton Abbey in Wharfedale, letting the trees and the deepening cut of the ravine speak for themselves. Only occasionally do we interject our wonder. The russeting landscape does not need us to interpret for it; but occasionally wonder with the force of an electric charge asserts itself with the need to be stated aloud, as though in sharing it between ourselves we lay claim to our unified experience of this magic.
It is the morning preceding the autumn equinox and night and day exist in fragile and temporary harmony, split perfectly even like two halves of a ripening gourd, an uneasy truce until day starts its slow decline and we, grudgingly, will get up to darkness and our evenings will arrive with inky black before their time. Today we each walk with one foot in summer and one in autumn; looking forward and also behind. The outermost leaves of the crowns of the trees are flushed in eager reds: their chlorophyll gone, revealing their true colours. Those leaves further in are masked, for now at least, by their top-lofty canopies and are able to hang on to their green: summer’s final whisper. Sharp rot, leaf-decay, wood-smoke, the darkly astringent tang of fungi pushing up through the earth. We take the woodsy taste of it deep into our lungs, accept autumn is in the air and that summer has been lost until next year.
We do not do any of this deliberately; we are none of us aware that today marks the equinox until later reading an article about it – but our talk is preoccupied with the autumning of things: with the turncoat leaves, their deaths around us (and they do die brilliantly in this late-summer, autumn-precocious sun), and the chilling air that has brought a heavy sparkle of dew to the floor of the valley: silver underfoot.
The night has been cool and cloudless before us and I think to myself that the sunrise over the top of the valley will have been luminous as mother of pearl. The sun will have broken over the treetops in arcs of pale splendour and, for an exquisite moment, the night-dews will have borrowed its brilliance. The birds which noise to us now (the musical trilling robin, the shrilly barking crows that wheel overhead, the wagtails) must have started their cacophony of song in that thin morning light. A grey wagtail dips exuberantly in its distinctive flight over the sun-meshed water on our left. Happy to be about its day-flight; happy to be buoyed up on the autumn breeze.
We are lucky that the sun has lingered to throw gold upon the changing trees before us; trees that clump together and march the sides of the valley, guiding us up through its mysteries. The sunlight is not constant but strikes here and there through the leaves as, timbered on either side, we ascend with the valley mostly hidden from view. With the thick marches of trees conspiring to keep our destination a secret from us, and the way winding round the natural depressions and inclines of the land, our business is simply the path, the bank with its hospitable roots, the tangle of which wasps and other creatures have made homes in, and keeping a weather eye on the sheer treed drop to our left. At the same time I am attentive to the minutiae of life around me. Sunlight catches at the clapping wings of a speckled wood butterfly, charmed out of hiding by the promise of late-summer warmth on its wings. Finally it settles on balsam. How majestic it seems, propped up on its forelegs, its abdomen flush to the leaf, its wings spread to their openest extent, as though presenting itself for the sun’s inspection. There is deep contentment in its manner. Speckled woods habituate stands of oak in particular.
Attuned to one another’s particularities of gait and tolerances of various gradients, we pitch and slow in silent allowances for each other as we go; as the ravine cuts a little deeper and we climb a little higher; our lungs are tired bellows at labour. The river Wharfe is a constant clamouring companion and we cannot help but let our gazes fuss at it as the path moves us inexorably up and away from its noise. Exerting its magnetism, it draws our eyes downwards between the breaks in the trees, thundering to be heard. On top of the view – on top of the world – we admire the silken silvered ribbon of the river below as it winks and glows between the trees. More and more of it will be revealed over coming weeks as the trees lose their leaves to its flashing flow. The river stretches wet fingers as it goes to creep up rocks, slip over pebbles, and catch at leaf and branch to bear them seawards.
Sessile oaks abound in Strid Wood and autumn is inaugurated in them in strange ways. With none of the haste of the ash, which discards its leaves prematurely and greenly every year, the oak blots its leaves with yellow blisters as though stricken; the edges of the blisters blacken, or in some cases red and orange touch it to lend more of autumn colour to its decay. Over weeks of weathering the blisters increase until gradually the whole leaf is taken over by motley colours, and even then it is slow to fall away. It is a haphazard kind of autumning. More often it is the twiggy bracts – this year’s growth – that fall off in winds and weathers, taking the reluctant leaves with them. I see only a few fallen oak leaves on the path; many more are the acorns whose surprisingly loud drops are an integral part of the forest’s chatter at this time of year.
The river Wharfe is parented in Langstrothdale, its source the shake holes of the Yockenthwaite and Horse Head Moors. The narrative of the river is one of increase and drama: from shake hole springs to becks, from becks joined to form hill streams, from hill streams converging into the river. The name Wharfe derives from the Old English weorf or the Old Norse hverfr meaning winding river. And it does wind in an almost leisurely manner through its deep dale valleys, turning back on itself, noosing and curving with serpentine, sinuous skill. Until the section called the Strid between Barden and Bolton Bridge. Here it kills.
Strid is a name derived from the Old English stryth, meaning strife or turmoil. It is the section of water where the river tightens its belt and cheats its volume into a squeeze that’s sized only a pace wide. Here the pace of the river grows faster, the momentum greater, as it twists and dashes itself down the ravine.
We arrive at last at the water’s side. On the bank’s sharp brink of rock I cram myself into this moment by the water, let it throb in my veins. The river is both drama and danger; people have died here. Perversely quicksilver and beautifully terrible. Its breath is in the air and on the moss-fringed rocks that suck thirstily at it. These rocks that line its passage have been scooped out and undercut by it in smooth crescents as it gushes downstream. A treacherous combination seam of fluid and organic matters colliding. The scalloped edges have their secret pools and hidden depths between. They say that it is 9m deep just here, carving out the limestone shelf beneath it, and the undertow strong enough to keep an Olympic swimmer under. The Wharfe has narrowed too quickly from its 30ft width higher up the ravine to this narrow stretch of the Strid. My gaze cannot rest for long on the water without being pulled upstream to the source and thunder of the course over its rocky bed.
I dwell for a while in a micro world: I pick a bubble to follow but it’s futile and I lose it; a single leaf falls slowly and with the grace of a bird; the greenest moss I’ve ever seen tickles the tips of my fingers. I let Autumn with all its burning majesty pass through me as the woods exhale their leafy crop on long-held breaths and the river blows out its fury.
Rain lashes through a whimple of cloud. Days of dirty skies have succeeded one after the other lately and whenever I look out of the window with a fool’s hope, the rain whitens everything with its diagonal, dashing fall, making a mystery of the view: a veil between me and the world. My slate-grey mood prowls withindoors to the tattooing droplet-driving dance. Everything is variously damp and dank-smelling inside as well as out and the house is, for a time, unhomely and I a fidgeter indoors. But, after a morning’s fall from a granite firmament, now the belt of rain-pall has slackened and I step out into mizzle — a good word — which is to say a something or nothing rain; half-masted between a mist and a drizzle; short-changed out of full onslaught; a cobweb of wet on the eyelash; rain’s last resort. The onomatopoeia of ‘mizzle’ suits the barely-embroidering dew of it on my skin and clothing. By using it, I think with a deft complacency, I am keeping this scarce-heard word alive, breathing life back into it as it wets my tongue. Mizzle. It’s one of many words we’re helping to lose through the slow erasure of non-use.
Hand in glove with the elements, my walking today is warm and muggy — almost cosy — in my spangled mizzle-sheen and I lift up a round face into the lea of where I think the sun might be, there in the opaque, blinding white halo. The valley has been washed by heavier morning showers than this and now the very last dregs in the sky-cup are filtered through a fine cheesecloth of cloud leaving only this light haze to drowse upon the grass banks and the willowherb. Its speckling on my skin is almost pleasant; a light refreshment after the stale indoors. I’ve timed my walk with the weather and, in a sudden access of exuberance at the lessened rain, the postman hulloes me and calls that I’ve brought the sun out with me. I am word-stumbling in denial, but he’s curiously adamant as though I had the power — a weather-charm weaver — and, cheerfully amused at the thought, I press on.
Looking out across the valley as my steps draw me down into the crease of it I see — whoosh! — a swift performing its sky-dance, its black wings the merest lilting on the wind. Insects must be drawing it to thread itself back and forth across the scree of cloud, and with what a swooping joy it cleaves the air! Such effort for just a mouthful on the wing, I think, hoving onward though back-glancing at its dipping display. Around me, nature is turning herself to the business of fruiting. Where once were the delicately white-anthered blossoms of the hawthorn, now berries thicken in perfect curvatures; apples are approaching shop-worthiness on the tree; and the rowan berries are already choleric with red, their orange anger earlier than ever this year. I see a whole cycle from flower to fruit on one bramble bower: the pink-white rose-like blossoms, the green fruit still tightly unripe, and the rich blood-black berries, as heavily hanging as antique ear-bobs. It is a worry what the birds will do as a result of this too-soon bounty when the year draws on to dearth, and I send my thought up with supplication: not too hasty, autumn. As if drawn by these forebodings, my eye is caught on goose-stepping lines of black rooks and crows patrolling the playing fields for worms. There is something morbid about their presence as they move forward in forensic searches, like a police line punctuating the green with their funereal sweeps.
The top of the Glen shows itself dazzled and imperfect; the stone houses rendered softly indistinct; and the tree-bank losing its sharpness. The sun, making a brief appearance, sets the haze to silver and I know that somewhere there must be a rainbow, beyond my sightline and beyond my gift today. Trundling on down the hill, my steps mechanical having walked this path so many strides now, I am headed (I know it with sudden clarity) for Hirst Wood: for just-in-case cover; my native tree-patch; nature’s ancient thatch in serried rows of leaf upon leaf. Sometimes my feet draw me down to the wood with the instinctive understanding of sole to soul.
Hirst Wood emerges as a shadow on my left, its darkling silhouette of beech, birch and oak hugging the side of the Leeds Liverpool canal; occasionally dipping a toe in it. Now that I have the shortcut by Caroline St and Dallam Ave by foot-rote, the prospect of being ensconced, enveloped and covered over with green is only ever a mere 10 minutes’ walk away. As with other ancient woodlands, admittance to this hallowed, treed sanctum has been bargained for with many walkers’ feet. If we stopped turning in at the side of Hirst Lane, it would forget us and close the gap over again with irrepressible green as though we had never been here at all; never pressed the leaves with our feet; nor watched the squirrels’ scampers; not heard the invisible birds’ calls. No respecter of people this wood, and I am heartily glad of it. I tuck myself away into the fold of its trees, my steps cushioned on a thick layer of rich black loam: good growing soil that roots you if you stand still for too long, but pleasant to push a toe into. A complicated black, textured and coarse, with bits of bark and moss returning to the earth. Centuries of leaf mould worked over by worms, beetles and mud-boring bees have connived at this good grounding.
I crane my neck up in an arc of longing at the top-lofty beeches and birches; their branches crackle-glazing the sky in stilled squiggles; their cover giving me dry underfoot. Their arms uplifted are greedy snatchers at the hemisphere: ’tis the lure of drawing upward to the highest height; to the point at which the wood tries to leap out of itself into the sky; where the mist rests on the tops of the trees; where the smallest branches quiver their littlest leaves into the air. And then in meteoric rush, like ball from bat, stone from sling: a wood-pigeon casts itself aloft from its cover — a signal to others of the presence of an intruder — and though I provoked its flight with an incautious step, it’s my heart that seizes in the relative stillness. The alarm raised, it’s many minutes of patient waiting before the woodland creatures disclose themselves again. A grey squirrel in stops and starts frets its way from one tree to another, keeping me in sight out of one obsidian eye before scarpering up skywards again. Birds begin their calling-on songs again.
Deep in the heart of the wood, the trees tell me the names to call them by: wood-waker; root-delver; bark-bone maker; timber-teller; crown-weaver; sky-tracer; storm-quaker; trunk-bracer; root-throne forger; wildling-wose; spring-bloomer; ring-worker; skin-splitter; treacle-sapper; burl-wound bearer; heartwood-wedded; wind-singer; groan-swayer; nut-hatcher; place-crowder; high-yammerer; close-creeper; leaf-twitcher; branch-creaker; breeze-shaker; autumn-surrenderer; leaf-looser; rime-wearer; dryad-dancer; rough-cladder; sky-stretcher; stone-breaker; whack-shiverer; rain-taker; squirrel-friender; south-bender; soil-anchor; ground-gripper; sun-chaser; bough-lacer; mage-whisperer; sooth-grower; seed-blower; whip-branch tickler; sometimes-sickener; blast-bowled sentinel; night-moaner; woodpecker-martyr; earth-sifter; light-blending dapple-sender; path-riddler; way-pointer; fey-shifter; branch-lifter; star-gazer.
All the names of the trees suggest themselves in the crook’d, bent and twist-turned forms I walk between; in the soughing of the wind about and through them; in their wood-barked complexions. Oaks are best for gnarliness; the birches straight but ghosting in their white papers. The beeches, taller than all the rest, have by far the highest conceit of themselves. This wood holds a queen of beeches, burled and cankered about her large waist; bent with age; over-crowding the path. She is so generous in size that many Merlins could have been enchanted into her. Surrounding herself she has sown a circle of her young: satellites to her parent tree. She reaches out arms to her progeny. Nothing much will grow under beeches because the shade they manufacture with their leaves is so complete; not so the shiver-leaved birch whose tremble of leaves is so light-permissive as to be almost translucent — and so they are when a shaft of sunlight hits them. The floor of this woodland, under birches and between, was so thick-carpeted with bluebells in spring that walking here was, for a month, entirely blue. Now the cracked pods of the spent bells have all but unburdened themselves of their black seeds; just a few still await a forager to help spill them.
Though it is a modest woodland, barely half a mile from end to end, to enter Hirst Wood as I do today, fugitive from mists and the threat of more rain, is to claim sanctuary from the world without for a quiet while: a pause between two breaths on a walk. I begin to appreciate this wood as meaning more than its parts: the accumulation of the years of its trees told in countless hidden rings; its centuries of leaves; yearly nests and egg-hatchlings; squirrelled nuts and acorn-ripenings; parent trees and be-treeings. And indeed, with barely a week passing without my accustomed pilgrimage to Hirst Wood, it has acquired for me now the savour of a walk-familiar: that is, a place one may walk and let the mind spin-drift because the peculiarities of its ways are so known to foot and memory. To go through, into and under it day after day — to know it in all its guises — is to walk, I have found, still partly in the wood when away.
Six kilometers from Rombalds Moor and adjacent to Hawksworth lie the brute passes of Baildon Moor. This is coal country and we send our steps into the still-black paths of it with presentiments of steep slopes choked with slakes of coal dust. The crag which makes the Moor’s topmost point up-rears before us with taunts of unclimbability; the paths clawed into the sides of it leave raw, differently-coloured, untidy edges in its fascias, like candle wax dripped down its sides which has melted the land away in its wake. These deep, hollowed-out half-moons of paths cup our feet awkwardly as we place our steps; their rocky bottoms pocked with eruptions along the way. Our boots grapple and scrabble, our ankles wobble and struggle on the shifting shale of coal glass, graphite dust and slate shard that clog such paths. There’s grist in this walking: eyes down, heavy frowns alert to where the way might betray us, shoulders round and bound forward into the uphill strikes of the paths. Lung-puffed and quad-tight we three labour to the top, occasionally calling a thin strain of encouragement to one another: keep going father; keep going sister; keep going daughter. The going is slow and the paths know our every stumble, every founder and falter, like haltered horses wearied by the uphill on these deep-dug ways. Coal wagons laid them as early as the fourteenth century, but it was the Victorian corves that entrenched them, greedy for mill brimstone; grinding into the ground expedient traffics from the shallow surface pits, with some days more, but increasingly less, coal to show for their back-and-forth trips.
The element up here is an alchemy of gloss-faceted carbon mixed with sand- and limestone sedimentaries and shale. In some places the coal could be mined just under the surface skin of the Moor – its black dermis – easy pickings for colliers but low-grade at the top; the quality stuff harder got at and lower down in the dense, adamantine clutches of the ground. A messy craft of shaft and shovel to draw the deep, eighteen-inch-thick black treasure out. Now, if you scud a boot across the thin-grassed hillocks up on the crag, near the old pits left like belly-craters to fill up with rain, you uncover still a jet, dusty shale. Shards lie in smudges of smashed and broken pieces that hardly resist the boot, littering the path in compressions of primordial trees squeezed with economy into dark mysterious seams through stretches of time. A gobbet of coal from up the moor-path is a surprise of lightness in my palm: fetched through three millennia to my small hand, attesting to lost topographies, an inky remainder of strange oversized ferns and giant forests that once covered this land in close, pre-coal darknesses. Here now – after oozes of swamp, harsh glaciation and vice-like pressures – only grasses dare to shuttle up from earth to sky. Now the terrain is bald, the once-buried swamp forests in their secret pressings are forced to light again through its peeling, friable skin. And I think: everything falls apart at the seams at last. Coal remainders – uncanny when thought of as archaeology – show the Moor has not forgotten its ages-old biography. Its history has been matter-of-facted into place names and topography with Lode Pit Lane and Colepit Close.
A map of the Baildon Moor ‘Inclosures’ made by Robert Saxton in 1610, shows the craters of four surface coal pits like navels in the landscape. The workings were open; but later day-holes were dug into the sides of the hill for miners to disappear into like moles; bell-pits sunk down to seams and opened out at the top to collect up their black. These are now grassed over and boggy at bottom; the putters and huryers who worked and umbilicalled them more than a century since, dead, perhaps forgotten. In the 1852 Ordnance Survey map, several of the pits were already marked as old and out of use. Extensions to local railways and problems with floods would eventually close the remaining three mines worked by William Midgley after the 1870s. A census in 1881 shows only 3 men left working the pits, like fossils themselves, stuck in a monotony of work, scratching a living out of a land where the quality coal had already gone. Nothing left but the bits and pieces that I see today – carbon drawing on to dust – fit for home fires only. Now not even the tenements and settlements of the peripatetic coal workers remain at Low Hill or Moorside: in the end as transitory and finite as the black stuffs they excavated, no sooner uncovered than gone and moved on to the next seam of inky black sheen.
We make for the trig point on the topmost plateau of the hill to claim the lie of the land with satisfaction in our eyes, lungs, and feet braced wide apart against the wind. Cross-hatchings of putters paths, flecked with coal, go down from here near the old pits. Shards of the erst-landscapes lie at my feet like jumbled words that perhaps made sense all in a line down there in the stratified dark: a reflective gloss in the light of a lantern. A wilderness is available to us in 360 degree vistas and we see the enormous pock-marked leavings of nineteenth-century smeltings along the Dobrudden access road as though a volcano had extruded them in sulphurous loads. They lie quietly now in large cankers of surface slag, partly cladded over with grass and moss. The birds have marked this territory as theirs now: the meadow pipits, skylarks and plovers in numbers as the strong, vital sound attests. All heard but hardly seen. On the way back down I collect a banded curlew quill discarded in a tussock and put it carefully away to take home in my pack.
The coal ways of Baildon Moor have become something other than they were originally carved out for. As early as the 1890s, day-trippers from Bradford – weekenders getting away from the cloying monotony of Victorian inner city smog with advice from zealous doctors; golfers anticipating the tee; butterfly collectors crazed with their nets; tweeded twitchers – all swarmed the Moor and overran the villages in pillages of the middle class at play. In 1910 the Shipley Times declared, “The country is tempting just now.” But industry itself was once powered from here: the traction engines, steam machines, the factory wheels, the tall valley chimneys issuing their smuts; these all got their spark from deep in the heart of the Moor.
With thanks to Joyce W. Percy whose article, ‘The Lost Villages of Baildon Moor’ was very informative, published online on the Bradford Historical & Antiquarian Society’s website.
Summer burst with its glory into my corner of Airedale in the week leading up to the solstice; the sun having discovered that it could be brilliant again and sending down its heat; the magpies almost dazzle-shy from the reflections off the water; and the sky a porcelain blue overhead. I spent the precious mornings once got out of bed in this hot heady week like a bluebottle at the window, my heart dashing itself between chores against the panes of glass to be outside and about my walk. Heat with the smother of a blanket enrobed me when first out of doors, and then it sat like a baked stone in the mouth. The infinite palette of green and the flowers with their newness still upon them were chromatically burned onto my retinas, so that there was the ghost-blindness of them when I closed my eyes to summer’s wild happenings in the tucked-up shade of those nights. Outside, down the hill, past the canal and the boat club, the desiccated riverbanks dusted me as I clambered over squeezes in the dry stone walls, my dress trapping warmth and insects under it like a collector’s net or a bell jar; specimens for later. The river was lazy and slow, haloed with murmurations of flies, caught in the spangled reflections off the ripples of the water. I trained my strides to their pace, my gaze resting in dream-visions of sun-caught fire on water. It’s all going on in there, I thought. The gill-filtering fish; the spawn in its molecular gluts; the tadpoliest prefaces to frogs; the reeds and weeds quiescent to the river’s course; the silted clouds starting up round newts. But on the surface, there was just the gentle hum of fly-swarms and my thick thirst.
Every summer in some sense recalls the first summers I experienced when a girl and in it I recognise again the features of my child – my tadpole – self. The grass tickles now as it used to tickle bare legs under blue and white school summer gingham as I looked forward to an impossibly long holiday, like a thief waiting to steal into the hot outdoors. Every seasoned tree I now see in its already-antique, spring-lost green is descendent of those in Richmond Park, holder of the trees I used to climb, the bark sharp to the skin and the nooks within its shape ready to be dens. The baked sizzle of asphalt now summons memories of the baking of the roof tiles under my childhood windowsill when they radiated heat into summer evenings for dangling little feet to warm themselves on. In that impossibly furnace-like week, before the solstice and Midsummer’s Day would come to jinx everything, my eyes – like the eyes of the child inside me – were on stilts to cram in everything they could see.
Then came the rain, lording it over the last week or so, making the world soggy, the paths bogged, and the river almost solid with flood. I experienced walking only wetly and uncomfortably. Now it is the last day of June: plenty into summer, post-solstice, and more than midway through the year. All harum-scarum today, the year seems busy fashioning a gilded shell for itself to climb back into in autumn; its thought turned inward and busy and private. It is a day that casts its gaze forward to a cold winter to retire into. Or so it feels now with bulging rain clouds ominous above, cousins only once removed from the deluges that have been falling ceaselessly this week in days-long tyrannies of showers. The Aire is in spate, the weir at home overflown with it – nigh to bursting its banks with it; and the red clay chokes it, muddles the fish in it, so the fishermen by the way have an easier catch of it. The churning red makes some of the mallards fastidious of dipping a web-toe in its fast flow. This watery world is strong-currented, swollen, with whirlpools eddying near the banks ready to catch at the shanks of the unwary walker. The minnows’ spring shoaling to glean the warmth from the shallow water’s surface seems many weathers ago now. I would not have been a fish these last few days in the spated river, blind to the world and the fisherman’s hook, of a sudden tossed and tumbled in amongst the rocks, fast-driven and knocked about pell-mell. Only the week before under the blaze-balled sun the river was a sluggish, lucid drawl, its pace philanthropic to the fish in its run.
I have misgivings, caused by these sudden summer rain deposits, about the solidity of the path under me today as I begin my walk: my purpose to discover what lies beyond the patch of woodland at the base of the Chevin. The ground up top on this ancient ridge is millstone grit, so called because it was formerly a preferred substance for quarrying millstones; but today the foot of it is mud-locked. Avoiding the worst of it with walking on the grass either side of the track, still my feet suck into clay leaving deep foot wells behind me; something of myself on the way. In spite of this I make steady uphill progress under a thicket of branches, between tall stems of sorrel, grasses crowned with their heavy heads of seed, and nettles grown up tall as weeds. There is white clover at my feet along stretches of the path, but not further into the verges – the grasses won’t make room for it there – and, smiling, I am made like Olwen of the Mabinogion who sows flowers into legend with her steps. The way opens up from close quarters between trees into a meadow on the cusp of gold from green. Sending my eyes out across it, I see there is no evidence here now of winter dearth; any scars there were have been completely covered over with straight grassy glyphs searching upward for the sun behind its shroud.
The air over the meadow is close. At first all I see in the shifting sea before me is the grass and the aged green, but gradually the eye trains itself to look more closely at spots of colour shifting among the screen of stems that are wattled and webbed together. Are those flutters? A distinctive clap of papery wings dragging a body up in the air with it, clumsy, colourful, its course unplotted and full of darting diversions. More of them, riding the undergrowth, give purpose to my steps as I pick one to follow. I send my feet after it, like untidy ploughs imperfectly bending the stalks of rough meadow-grass, and they start up clouds of ringlet and small skipper butterflies as I pass, their dusky soot and sunset wings flapping the air jubilantly. It’s a tussocky wilderness in here: a micro world of seed, spider and chrysalis husks on knapweed stalks; everything busy from first peep of dawn until the late long-day dusk. The narrow-bordered five-spot burnet moths have hatched here perhaps in the last week or so and are now busy drinking nectar, mating, and stretching their black and red wings, it seems, with relief after a week of rain-soaking. A couple, holding themselves delicately and tenuously among grasses, are wedded together in the quiet cool underworld of the meadow, perhaps to be meddled with by cobwebs and spiders as others have been. These meadow spiders have their nurseries under dew-crystalled canopies of cobwebs slung between the grasses. They loom them over their eggs with morsels in wait for their hatching. I tread carefully round them, spider-fearful and not wishing to crush their gauzy confections that are dew-lapped in the grass.
Butterflies and moths do not like to be abroad when it rains: they hide themselves in the low-leaved nooks of their host plants or cling to the undersides of trees and hang there in stillness, letting a sort of catatonic calm settle over them. They do not sleep, but they enter a state approximating it. There are so many here today that I cannot see how they could all hide themselves from the wet. But, wonderful though it may seem, they have; and as soon as a dry dawn arrives they emerge again with a fevered industry, ready to mate and gather energy and begin the cycle again. They fly like thimble-sized hummingbirds for two months only, furiously working and laying their eggs under leaves. And then, weary at last and having ensured their progeny, they die.
Today, here among them, following them in circles, my joy sits on the wings of this day-loving moth.
Their white flowers offer
their lips to bee lovers
as they hover and linger
over a drop of nectar,
that is possibly sweeter
than anything – far better –
than I might taste, ever.
Whitely they bob like a
lay of snow over the
green in thick blessings or
a dying surrender at
close of an afternoon’s
long, tender while.
on the green near that
tree, but not under.
I watched the mower
cut down the clover
as though it were nothing,
just tidying the green.
For every clover that’s been
I mourn a little. Dreams,
spun from days of growing,
return fresher, quicker;
and here for the summer;
with rain to get plumper,
and lusher and bee-stung;
blushing beneath a sun
that beams adorations
on white-globe plantations.
I was never so happy as
when walking through clover,
a disciple of summer,
catching eye-fulls of bee-fur
on a blisteringly hot day.