Awakening the Moor

A throwback to my holiday last autumn…

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.

HL24

Air-dancing over Howber Hill

A local chieftain lies up here, somewhere, in some state. It is a good vantage point from which to spend an eternity: the big sky limitless above you, your lands laid out below, now chequered by modern-day field boundaries. Not much is known about the hill before the Bronze Age chieftain’s bones claimed it, but since then it has been the site of a beacon, ready to light the alarum in times of war, a remnant of a now invisible chain linking people across the country like an umbilical cord with the threats of conflict beyond their domestic and agricultural lives. Now the beacon and the chieftain slumber and no one watches on the hill.

Howber Hill sits next door to Beamsley on the extreme edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and has a parish boundary lying across it, visible only on maps. I like to think that parishioners of old would have met here once yearly with sticks, halfway up the fell side, to beat the bounds and make their claim to their bit of the hill, brandishing them in mock anger at their neighbours. As a hunk of earth settled like a benign megalith into its landscape, it gives the impression of great antiquity, compounded by the history bound up in its name. Howber Hill is named for the burial mound that lies at its top, now signified by a stone cairn two metres tall: ‘how’ meaning burial place, and ‘ber’ being a corruption of ‘burg’, stone. Rumour has it that the cairn itself has been something of a moveable feast over the years, and, sometimes spoken of as the site of the burial mound, it has as a result been confusingly elided with it. Where the chieftain now lies, who knows. The spot will have been selected for the 360-degree views it commands over the landscape: towards Rombalds Moor past Chelker Reservoir in the south, and over Beamsley and Wharfedale to the north. From sunrise over the ridge of The Old Pike to sunset over Skipton and the distant Pendle Hill, the chieftain presides over the valley, dreaming of old territories.

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Looking up at the summit of the hill today I know myself to be a soft-core hill-walker, braced for a climb, my legs keen and stretch-slackened for the uphill, but buzzing slightly with anticipation of the effort. The cairn can be seen very easily from the road below, with its distinctive pinnacle, a wobble-shy stack of assorted stones that are defying gravity and pointing skywards like a magician’s hat or an admonitory finger. Confession: I have never climbed a mountain, these generally being considered to comprise peaks of over 2000 ft. The summit of Howber Hill stands a mere 1070 ft (326 m) above sea level (and many of those we’ve already done in the car). It is by no one’s measure a mountain, but it’s stiff walking over heather and bog, riddled with old quarry pits and spring troughs.

We start with the gentle ascent, plotting a sickle path about the foot of the hill. A summit gives to the walker the something-to-get-to, an uphill aimfulness that focuses the feet and mind. But seeing the summit at the start and then following a circuit that initially leads away from it along Badgers Gate feels a counter-intuitive sort of walking. I am a badger with its fur rubbed wrong, looking back at the summit cairn we’re aiming for, but away from which we’re moving inexorably across the reaches of Langbar Moor. Keeping hard by the wall on our right, we part where it bends clockwise and we, going widdershins, meet the first stiff bluff of climb.

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Once I let go of the summit, trusting that we’ll get to it, I begin to enjoy the purpley-brown moor ground with its heather armour that is laid before us – the heath’s miniature forest, shin-high, and frothing below our knees. We pass managed copses of larches, burning yellow like torches, the needles bleaching and preparing to line the ground. We furrow our way through undulations of heather, its stems twiggy, and its bells paper-dry and crackling underfoot like pot pourri. Nan Shepherd said there was no bliss like walking barefoot over heather, but the ground here is bogged with water from countless local springs and sucks at our feet in wet slurps until we claim higher ground. In places we chance it between spongey outcrops of sphagnum moss, its starry tentacles drip-laden and greener than any green you see in town. I see sheep dung and think of its brown ooze between my toes – not today the barefoot confidence of the all-seasons walker. I’m sure-shod in boots that squelch and shift on the boggy mud-trails.

The water bubbles up from nowhere. There are several wells hereabouts: Pemberton and Riding Stone – but I do not see their hiding places. Wells and springs used to be marked with stones at their mouths and ‘clooties’ representing wishes would hang from a nearby tree, dipped in the waters of the well for luck or fancy. I’d decided on a pin to cast in if I saw a well-spring, but there are no markers of the old water holes now. Just the sphagnum bogs that pillow in generous tumuli under the soles of our going, and the unerringly upward shocks of marram grass which, folded underfoot, make a safe over-bog path.

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My eyes down, seeking the next bit of dry ground, I see patches of an unfamiliar scat – not sheep, nor rabbit, but little white-tipped brown caterpillars, and I think to myself that these are the droppings of the red grouse. We saw a pheasant in a field on our drive up from Ilkley, but grouse is the main game bird up here, though this is our first clue as yet to its presence. The moor heather is pregnant with them, invisibly, like silent children whom only absolute necessity will conjure forth. On towards The Old Pike, our steps soon cajole them out of hiding. There, quick with its indignation and corkscrewing out of the heather, is the first; almost black against the grasses and soon hidden away again, left in peace to peck off the heather seeds. The cry of the red grouse has a wind-up quality to it: the call starts very fast and garbled but graduates to a few short chokes spaced at longer intervals. We hear them cry in their heather hides at 200 yards’ distance, from the safe confines of which they chortle at us as if defying us to discover where they lie. Red eye crests and plump bodies set low to the earth and blending with their cover. A lot of comical blether at our passing. It raises a smile and an irreverent chuckle in answer.

The path is not to be trusted, crossed with streams and rocks, and peters out amid the heather upland, leading us to bury our feet and lower legs more deeply into it. There’s red grass intermingled with the brown blaze of heather – flares of colour. We are knee-deep struggling up the hill, balance becoming sketchy as the wiry heather trips and tricks us at will. It’s a small relief when we come to one of the moor’s bald patches where the heather has been scorched off in a controlled burn. This allows fresh tender shoots to break the earth – a delicacy for the grouse. From a distance the moor’s patches are flayed skin or seasonal maltings. A rest and a breather looking back down over the patchwork pasture below – off toward Ilkley from where we’ve driven and a town that we know. Dad’s eye is caught by a large bird of prey westwards cutting soundlessly through the air – a buzzard perhaps. It hovers for a moment before flying over the ridge. That large span of wings bearing it effortlessly – no call, no sound at all from this silent stalker on the breeze. A king of the air, once very rare but now on the increase.

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Pausing a moment to look up at the ridge-top, I’m startled by a sudden flocking of birds, magicked into being, on the wing, on the air, as if just for us who stop to look at their antic-soaring. Moving as one, swooping and diving, they are a bellows at work on the wind. This, I think, is air-dancing. Not starlings, but paler and larger, moving together down and over the heather. I wish I knew the names for everything I see out in the wild but I’m tongue-tied with no proper nouns for the birds hanging and flitting before my eyes. If I had their name it would make them more real somehow; but as it is they are like a dream dancing before my eyes, swift on the up-rise and weaving in amongst one another. I hear the lift of their wing-feathers as a ruffle of silk kissing the air. They draw back and forth, once, twice, thrice, and then are gone – tipped over the side of the moorland and into the valley, pouring themselves on as we look homewards and wonder if they were real.

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With the help of the occasional snow pole, the path is retrieved from wherever it had got to and the cairn’s back in view. I pick up a small flat stone from beside a patch of waxcaps to add to the stack. I was here. The summit in sight, my enthusiasm redoubles and I plough on up the rocky path. Just as we’re cresting the rise of the ridge and our goal’s in sight, the flock returns, swooping low above our heads down the side of the fell and we are a part of their great sink and swell of rhythm over the moorland. Their pale underbellies sail above us. The grouse are untroubled by their low rushing flight, as distant as wind through pine-tops and close as breath puffing past the cheek. I wish them back, but they vanish out of sight.

At the top, the world’s lidless and open to the elements; the ground scabbed with rocks; and the cairn a grey eminence. I place my rock with an odd sort of anti-ceremony and look down the steep north-west side of the hill. We remark in surprise when we see more cairns on the way back down the ridge path: another and another marching in lesser beacons down the hill. Dad offers wryly, They’re the cairns of the people who didn’t make it to the top, and we share a laugh at our own expense.

For it is not so very far to climb after all, certainly not as crows, and other birds, fly.

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