A Dinner of Herbs

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Follow the river Wharfe up from Cawood where it joins the Ouse; up through Tadcaster, westward through Otley, Ilkley, and the Strid; past Bolton and northwards well into the Dales proper. Now go further, through the rolling patchwork of Grassington; still deeper following its sinuous flow through Kettlewell, to where the river fancies itself young again in Langstrothdale. Here the river is parented at Beckermonds, a name which means meeting of the becks, of Oughtershaw and Green Field. At their confluence the river is born. A mile or so from the river’s source and up the dale’s southern fell you come to the old farmstead, Cowside. This is where we have holed up for the week, vacating the humdrum of our workaday lives in this stone-built, homely and eminently practical farmhouse, steeped in its own agricultural biography, which survives in its name; in the ‘poultiggery’ which still stands beside the farmhouse (though empty now of poultry and pigs); and in its wholesome painted plaster epigrams: Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a stalled ox and hatred therewith. This is wisdom that still holds true even in the fast-paced and all-encompassing world of technology from which we are escaping.

The steading is embraced on its northern, southern and eastern sides by tall sycamores – now edited of their summer green – which form a natural windbreaker. We’ve watched throughout the morning as the wind has raised itself with louder and louder moans, whipping up wild wintry weather and sending it down the dale with mischief and bluster. It is with some surprise, then, that we find ourselves setting out for a walk. Harsh and inhospitable, the weather is throwing everything it has against the notion of mere walking for pleasure. But there’s a wildness in the fugitive holidaying self that answers in the future affirmative: I shall go. And so – gloved, hatted, zipped and well-wrapped – my companions and I make a party of three somewhat naively turned loose onto the fell.

Of a sudden I feel an ooof! to the chest as the wind steals my breath. They say that if you fall into icy water your lungs contract and you go into near-instant ‘cold shock response’. Never having had this misfortune, I can’t be sure, but this feels a little like that with the easterly wind barrelling into us full tilt. The wuthering gets into you, reaching icy fingers into the bones and lungs and meddling with your wits. Eyes streaming and breath steaming, I look down at the raw, hard beauty of the dale, whitened with cobwebbing frost. A few stunted and wiry hawthorns are wind-martyrs, bent-backed and crookedly veining the sky in inky friezes. A cry and a circling overhead is perhaps a kite lilting on the wind, seeming to defeat gravity and motion all at once. So cold is the hard smack of wind to the forehead that the very thought of the keen-eyed predator freezes in the mind and when I look again it is gone. The gale resists our every step down the fell towards the river and, stubbornly, we dig our heels deeper.

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Slowly my mind unseizes and I can appreciate the frozen world around me. Though it is afternoon, the ground remains bound in frost, the branches of sparse trees furred into mystery with it, and the grass and leaves underfoot stiff and crackling to the boot. Puddles shatter like hardened sugar as we go. We cross the sluggish river spilling over its pitted stones where mallards have fastidiously abandoned the icy flow to stand on the limestone like fair-weather bathers. Cowlicks of moss cleaving to the stones are washed greener, their vibrant colour courtesy of the clean fell air. Strange to think of a stretch of county being united by this thin ribbon of river and for a moment I feel a kinship with others who will marvel at it as it tumbles over fosses, under bridges and through towns.

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Our steps take us along the old packhorse route – the valley’s spine – that used to connect Lancaster with Newcastle. We are overlooked by the scarred fell sides, gouged by countless winter snowfalls that melt into action every spring. Still there’s the bite of the wind. Bodies battered, we begin to assume postures of apology for having dared to venture out on such a day, and are driven deep into ourselves even as we’re driven deeper into the valley for any sort of shelter. But the days of the medieval Forest of Langstroth, one of several royal hunting grounds, are over – the trees having given way to open moorland. Stone wall enclosures for grazing are the valley’s spiny architecture, marching down improbably steep hillsides. I wonder at those who assembled them at such unlikely gradients; whose hands were bloodied and callused by them.

Alone in the valley, we do not see another person as we go. The black-headed sheep grazing the lower pastures give us uncanny stares from eyes fathoms deep, following us with gazes that seem to say it is their land and we ofcumden are tolerated under sufferance. Walkers come and go with their temporary tracks, but the sheep leave lasting impressions. They are the masters of this landscape, each one shaping it by habit, cutting terrace paths into the fell-side.

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The walk is, of necessity, shorter than we would like, our toes and noses urging us home to hearth, hot chocolate and warmth. We look out for the landmarks that signpost our way back: the bent tree bussing the wall with its branches; the two bridges; that farm ascending the northern fell. Now that we have relinquished our ambitions to walk further, the wind is a help-mate, tidying us homeward. Seeing the smoke from our chimney, we’re a collection of smiles. I think of the farmer returning, more respectably than we, from a hard day’s work up the fell in days gone by and how much more he must have welcomed this sight. The sky is milky, flushed with rose and lavender hues into soft opalescence, but even as it darkens to mauve in the east and a few stars peep, I think of the farmer’s family, their hardiness, and their dinner of herbs.

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Autumning

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.