In the third and final blog of this autumn walking series, Simon explores Weet’s Top on a frost-bitten November day
It was the morning stroll that turned into a day-long ramble. Intrigued to discover the secrets laid by the night’s frost, I set out with camera to the riverside, snapping rime covered seed heads and fronds of fern, swapping lenses between close-ups and landscapes with frigid fingers unused to the sudden cold.
The magical beauty is unsurprising to anyone who has seen ice before; what draws me on are the striking patterns of ebb and flow on the hillside opposite. Parallel rises and falls strafing the surface of the ground, these ‘lynchets’ were caused by the transverse ploughing of a slope by a single farmer, unlike the multiple parallel land holdings indicative of ‘ridge and furrow’ elsewhere. Now in the relief of light and shade thrown by the low sun on the frozen earth, the sculpted hillside tells its history more clearly than in any other kind of weather.
Exploring these undulating fields rising east of the river leads to the hamlet of Calton and a decision point: do I turn clockwise back home for elevenses and to get on with the day or make a longer loop anti-clockwise to see what lies beyond? There’s an enticing high point on the map not far away and the views on a clear late autumn day would be stunning… There is no contest, so I turn north-eastwards to the bridleway up to Weet’s top.
It’s not long before the decision is vindicated. Rising above the tree line not far from Calton, the view opens out to envelop most of Malhamdale, the grizzled southern edge of the Dales and the Aire valley around Skipton, reaching beyond to the hills of West Yorkshire, south-west to the magnificent gritstone plateau of Pendle Hill and west to the rolling horizon of Bowland in Lancashire. This skyline is familiar but what is breath-taking today is the spectacular temperature inversion that has spread mist like white butter on the valley floors, punctuated only in the foreground by tree tops and rises, so that the landscape unfurls below like the dishevelled humps of an unmade patterned duvet.
From here upwards there is little shelter, so that the sun has thawed most of the frosted ground; but in places walking alongside minor ridges I find my right foot connecting with hard, frozen ground while my left lands on soft, sun-soaked earth. It’s the line between autumn and a winter that’s all too eager to establish itself here by late November – perhaps the reason why I meet so few walkers on what is a perfect day to be out on the hill.
The path to Weet’s Top is long and straight, rising gradually and easily across the rush-flecked moor. It’s such an inconspicuous peak that unless it were marked by a trig point I might have walked on past. But it’s the highest point for some distance, giving a panoramic view of the southern Dales and the farther peaks and troughs of the region. Pendle Hill is an ever-present companion on this walk and it’s easy to understand how it caught the imagination of early Quakers as a place inspiring vision and far-sightedness. Other peaks have no less character, each uniquely contributing to a visual feast: Flasby Fell to the south with its jagged ridge line; Thorpe Fell, south-east, with a war memorial marking its summit; the impressive snow-covered flank of Great Whernside closing the view north-west and the grit-strewn slops of Hawksmill Clowder closer to hand in the north to name a few.
On a day that began in the frigid belly of the wintry dale it would be reasonable to expect this exposed spot to be impossibly uninviting; but the sun is strong enough here well above the misted valley to have warmed the still air sufficiently that I’ve been obliged to pack up my outer layers, only replacing my pullover after a brief lunch stop. I retrace some of my steps, hiving off to the right to make a loop of this increasingly extended morning stroll. Up on the moor, away from most boundaries and waymarker posts it’s easy to misjudge one’s direction by a degree or two; I manage to find myself on the wrong side of a steeply sloped gill but notice soon enough to avoid too much of a detour. Veering too far right again it’s on turning back towards the sun that possibly the most exquisite sight so far is revealed: a field of gossamer stretched between the blades of rushes twinkles, vacillating in the light breeze caressing the hillside, its million tiny authors blown away to make their spidery fortunes somewhere else.
I soon find the track leading down to Hanlith and before long have to replace coat and scarf – the temperature inversion having held all day, it seems as though the air cools by a degree with every step. At the bottom I’m contemplating whether to stop for tea and cake at the Town Head Café in Airton when I slip, not on ice but mud – a reminder that it’s still not quite as cold as it might be in a week or three.
There’s one more delight in store before I get to clean up though. Following a group of three gents with some serious looking binoculars I catch them up at the riverside near Airton where they’ve stopped, looking intently at the trees in the near distance. When asked what’s piqued their interest, they reply ‘the Fieldfares’. Sure enough, hundreds, perhaps thousands of small birds that my untrained eye might have taken for Thrushes are decorating the nearby tree-tops, periodically flitting from one tree to another. Unlike Starlings who appear to act as one organism pulsating in the sky at dusk, these white-bellied birds alight from the trees one by one, the whole troupe unpeeling chaotically from each tree, landing, then moving on soon after in a delicate dance that flecks the air like glitter in a snow globe. Deep in thoughts of hot tea, setting the fireplace and sifting through the photos of the day, I might well have missed this, the last and best sight of the day!