It’s an unpromising looking morning of the sort that in many locations would inspire me to stay in and do precisely nothing; but in the Yorkshire Dales landscape there’s no such thing as a lack of promise, be the sky leaden and the prospect ever so bleak. The late dankness has been replaced by a spell of dry weather, though the clouds still loom low over the hills. So, with no pressing engagements I set off on a cycle ride, determined to reach Malham Tarn – amazingly for the first time.
The great wall of landscape centred on Malham Cove and stretching to either side taking in Pikedaw Hill to the left and Gordale Scar to the right is an imposing barrier approached on a bicycle in the best of weathers. In the lowering cloud cover on this January Saturday it’s enough to make me contemplate turning this into a little jaunt to the Old Malham Café for a relaxing brew and a slice of their fabulous Yorkshire Curd. However, dogged determination to make the most of a rare dry day spurs me on to tougher if not greater things.
I’m no sports cyclist by any means, normally using the bike to get from A to B with a maximum range of a few miles – so I have to grit my teeth to make the ascent out of the village along Malham Rakes – a climb almost as demanding as High Hill Lane out of Settle and at least as long. Before long I realise I’m making slower progress than a very nonchalant looking hiker a few dozen yards ahead, especially as I keep stopping – to admire the view of course… That view fades and bleakens gradually as I climb into cloud so that as the gradient finally flattens out the cycle ride and in fact whole landscape take on a completely different complexion. Up here on the moor, the moist air is still, silent and bitterly cold. Everything is either grey or a bleached brownish green. Few trees and even fewer boundaries structure the landscape which seems to be framed only by low hilltops clothed in rough grass and sedges. It may not sound convincing as a beauty spot but actually this eerie emptiness is one of the things the north of England does really well; and to the busy soul drunk on the bustle of urban life (as I suppose I used to be before moving to Airton), a bit of isolation goes down quite nicely.
I plan to circumnavigate the Tarn and choose the clockwise route, bearing left to stay on the tarmacked road past the watersinks car park. Watersinks is a prosaic and aptly descriptive name for the spot where Malham Water peters out in the grass on its journey to the base of the cove where it re-emerges as Malham Beck – a strange surrender of a river to the ground which only adds to the mystery of this wild place.
Looping north along Cove Road I still haven’t caught sight of the Tarn, which as waterbodies go seems remarkably well concealed. Not until passing through the edge of some woods along the Pennine Way bridleway does the shoreline appear between the trees. It’s an entrance to beguile the most cynical of travellers (if there are such people…). Having climbed a thousand feet up a seeming vertical highway, here in the clouds I find a lake of tranquil beauty surrounded not by peaks but gentle shores of an almost fenland character. It’s as though the world has quietly reorganised itself while I was looking at the road, putting things the opposite way around to where they ought to be. But it’s all real – as is the bird hide I take shelter in to drink in the amazing serenity of it all.
As for the birds, apart from a few tufted ducks and coots near the opposite shore, most of the many species of wildfowl that habituate the Tarn are keeping out of sight – possibly not very impressed by the temperature. And were it not for the cold I could stay here all day with a good book and a pair of binoculars but there’s something else on this ride I’m quite looking forward to: freewheeling more or less all the way back down to Malham – about the most fun you can have on a bicycle, due deference to oncoming walkers & vehicles excepted. And this being a bike ride rather than a walk, I’m back in Airton in time for a warming lunch of soup & home baked bread by an open fire.
It’s easy when encountering a place for the first time to imagine that everything there is as it has always been, even when you already know that the place concerned has only recently been changed and refreshed.
On my first visit to Airton Meeting House and Barn I was sold on the idea of living here as warden almost instantly as much by the attractive, tranquil and well-ordered nature of the complex as by the wonderful welcome of the people who interviewed me and the potential to grow the programme of events and activities on the site. I knew that both the Meeting House and the Barn had in recent years been refurbished and was impressed with the result but remained unaware of the depth of the transformation – particularly where the Barn was concerned – until some of the members of the Meeting showed me photographs of the interior prior to the alterations.
The images were a revelation. I was looking at pictures of tired, dishevelled rooms of a character with which anyone who frequents old church halls or Victorian community buildings up and down the country would be familiar. Looking at these photos, dank, musty aromas almost reach out of the images and the cold air seems to fill with footsteps and voices echoing off hard, dreary walls, floors and ceilings. In the old photos of the Barn, those ceilings appear low – too low to correspond with the comfortable spaces I’d first encountered – and contribute to a desultory atmosphere of unreconstructed gloom.
This was the first indication that the refurbishment had been more substantial than the refit and decorate that I had imagined – albeit a thorough one. After checking the location of the old photos and standing as close to the equivalent spot as possible, the real nature of the changes became clear. Walls had been removed, floors lowered, staircases re-oriented. None of the new fixtures and fittings stood in the same place as their predecessors, so that to effect the changes, the entire building had been rewired and re-plumbed.
In short, none of the former spaces seemed to map onto what I knew. ‘Before and after’ photos tell the story: dingy corners are replaced with light-filled rooms, care having been taken to ensure access to windows from all directions wherever possible; clutter is exchanged for simplicity and order, patchy surfaces of multiple dismal shades superseded by a simple palette of warm colours, cleanly applied.
A glance at the plans revealed how space had been gained by incorporating the former garage of the Nook (now the warden’s residence) and two rooms above it into the Barn – as would have originally have been the case, since the division between these distinct building structures always lay where the join is today.
These alterations must have involved extraordinary technical challenges and in my view the incredible transformation of the Barn, carried out by builder Colin Atkins under the direction of architect James Innerdale, is if anything more spectacular than the excellent refurbishment of the Meeting House. Taken together, the two projects represent an exceptional achievement on the part of a few committed individuals, Airton Meeting’s current clerk Laurel Phillipson and the late and much loved Kevin Berry being particularly instrumental. Their efforts – not least in raising the £300,000 required within the constraints of Quakers’ principled opposition to the use of lottery funding – ensured not only the buildings’ conservation and ongoing use but the continued presence of a living Quaker heritage in Airton, one of Quakerism’s oldest heartlands. May it be so for many years to come.
Opinions differ on whether we’re to have a cold winter or a repeat of last year’s dreary murk. In the cities, where roads are well gritted, gas mains reach every household and there are hundreds of corner shops and supermarkets to hop into when the milk runs out, a blast of snow in early November might have seemed like reassurance that climate change hasn’t had the last laugh – at least yet. Out here in the Dale, a deep freeze would be somewhat more inconvenient. Either way, whatever winter throws at us we’ll need to be prepared.
In this year of upheavals in the national and international political climate it can be tempting to take on the uncertainty of the world in our lives, by putting off decisions perhaps, tightening our belts and focussing in on our own immediate concerns. I know that can happen in my case anyway. But turning inward doesn’t stop the problems of the world from building up.
A few days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre nearly two years ago I was reviewing papers on a breakfast radio show. Pressed by the presenter for some kind of response I reached for the nearest cliché, saying that at these times instead of turning away in suspicion from people we think we have little in common with we need to reach out to exactly those people. It wasn’t especially profound but it was said as much to myself as to the listeners. Those people are the newcomers, people in other ethnic or cultural groups, people in our workplaces we thought we didn’t like, the side of the family we don’t see any more, neighbours with alternative political views, refugees… Looking people in the eye and thinking ‘you’re as valuable as me, and what hurts you hurts me’ can be challenging when we’ve our own worries; but it’s what makes communities and society at large work. If only we could manage that at a global level too we might start looking for and really committing to the solutions to economic degradation, extremism, environmental destruction and climate change.
Writing this in mid-December I could hardly blame readers from wondering why I haven’t explicitly mentioned Christmas yet – in fact at this point you might be forgiven for imagining saying ‘bah humbug!’ But perhaps I have been talking about just that… Experienced by probably the majority in this country as a time for families to draw in together, huddling round a hearth or its modern equivalent, the 42” TV, the message of the Christian Christmas is at least in part almost the exact opposite of that cosy vision. It’s a message that I’m reminded of whenever I greet visitors to the Meeting House or Barn. It’s that the outsider sometimes holds something far more valuable than we can supply on our own or from our innermost circle: the invitation to look outwards and upwards to the wider world, to sound the depths of our humanity and realise the potential for human communities when all people are included. Now that’s something really worth preparing for, winter or summer.
Quakers may not mark Christmas in their worship but as individuals we do join in with the seasonal fun & festivities… so if you’re reading this in December, have a very happy and restorative Christmas – and we’ll look forward to seeing you in 2017!
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!
Mid-autumn and nature is ratcheting up the splendour by providing a rare flourish of snow, bringing new contrast to an already colour saturated landscape. Malhamdale really knows how to put on a show.
A friend’s visit makes a perfect excuse to explore this rapidly changing scenery. We head up river from Airton along the Pennine Way, feet soon squelching in half-thawed puddles, eyes fixed on the hills above Malham trying to make out where the line is between white earth and white sky, with only flecks and shadows to distinguish subtly textured hillside from cloud.
Soon, arriving at Mires Barn, we hive off north-eastwards along the paved footpath hugging Gordale Beck. As the valley narrows, becoming a steeply sloped gorge, woodland closes round and the air stills. It’s a cliché, but there’s definitely a magical feel to the space under a tree canopy, with or without leaves tinging the daylight green.
The little gorge has the added ingredient of what appears at first sight a highly mysterious feature in the shape of Janet’s Foss. This waterfall slides over what looks to be an outpouring of surplus concrete but is in fact an entirely natural agglomeration of limestone, in effect an outdoors stalactite, formed over millennia as the lime-laden beck tumbled over the moss hanging from the natural cliff edge left by the retreating glaciers. The resulting limestone wall hides a chamber, open at one side, once thought to be the home of Jennet, queen of the fairies.
Emerging into open space again, our next destination is Gordale Scar, a twisting cul-del-sac of an imposing, high-sided rocky gorge ending in a chain of waterfalls beneath overhanging cliff faces. Were it not for the paved route in, this would seem an entirely uncompromising landscape – the end of the earth. Rocks strew the ground, topped with miniature snow peaks, echoing the striated hillsides above to which trees cling crazily. The only sounds reverberating around the precipitous slopes are the cawing of ravens and the thrashing of water on stone. After a respectful few minutes we’re sufficiently humbled and exit the way we came, leaving the spirit of the place to its own thoughts.
The wind has whipped the snow onto the north and eastern faces of the drystone walls, betraying its origin and the reason behind this cold snap. Skirting the hillside past Grey Gill the view seems almost entirely wintry, save for a few reddish brown trees around Gordale Beck; but as we climb towards the hills above Malham Cove, a contrast develops between our snowy surroundings and the far greener, darker reaches of Malhamdale in the distance. Snow-dusted fields we marched across earlier in the walk appear verdant from up here. The deep grey sky over the south and west is a warning that the light will soon fade and we should complete our circuit of Malham Cove before too long.
Up here the landscape has been simplified by the snow to a high contrast light and dark; a line drawing highlighting only the essential counterpoint of topography, walls, rocky outcrops and occasional trees. Then the light does something very special: the face of Malham Cove has come into view below just as the sun leans towards the horizon, turning the grizzled precipice into a crinkled cloth of gold. It’s a moment that would made this whole walk worthwhile but is only one of many in what has been a uniquely enchanting day. Yet there is more to come.
The limestone pavement above the cove is treacherous underfoot in the best of weathers, so we pick our way around the less pitted area to the rear to avoid twisted ankles and sprained wrists. Even so, the greatest of care is required, the snow having disguised the undulations underfoot. It seems we’re not the only wanderers to brave it today, tentative footprints giving clues to safe routes. Sturdy boots are an essential tool and I would enjoy this more I feel with the aid of a walker’s pole. None of this takes away, however, from the astounding view, and the sense of being at the edge between two worlds: the wild and the tame, the ancient and the contemporary, the snow-bound wilderness and the sheltered valley where life is still possible.
And it’s to that valley we now return, navigating the steps west of the cove to its foot. After taking a detour to see the Malham Beck gushing from the letter-box opening at the base of the cliff, we begin the long trek back along the road. It’s only quarter to four but rumours of night are gathering and by the time we trudge foot-sore into Airton, the dark and the chill have settled and the fire and hearth are as welcome a destination as were the extraordinary places we encountered today.
Autumn can be spectacular anywhere but this year the relatively calm conditions have turned Malhamdale into a treasure trove of visual delights. The best way to enjoy them is at walking pace.
On a dry day any time is good for a walk. I like the early morning for tranquillity and the rapid changes in light that invoke a sense of optimism for the day. There are countless possible routes for a short walk, on and off road. The Pennine Way, passing along the bottom of the valley a few dozen yards from Airton Meeting House, offers the perfect rationale for a quick tour of the Aire, either upstream or downstream. Just a couple of miles from its source at Malham Cove, the river is already some twenty feet wide, showing just how significant a role it plays in draining the surrounding hills. As well as the steep slopes of the upper valley, the enthusiastic flow of the river also has much to do with the porosity of the limestone bedrock in the area – and the free draining soils of the hillsides.
Airton meets the valley bottom in the form of its 18th century mill. Now tastefully converted to apartments without losing any of its imposing character, this building frames the view upstream at what is something of a pinch point in the valley. As much as I enjoy a ramble along the river through the dramatic landscapes around the Malhams, however, my choice today is to head downstream into the more gently rolling if equally intriguing patchwork of fields, rough pasture and copses lying south of Airton. There’s a kind of parkland character to the scene, framed by trees as much as hillsides and with the winding course of the river etching leisurely curves across the landscape before hitting the buffer of Eel Ark Hill, where it abruptly turns to the right. In the distance, the crusty peaks of Flasby Fell peer over the nearby tree tops – a reminder if it were needed that we’re walking through the outlying reaches of the Dales.
As the mottled sky begins to brighten, the autumn colours deepen, contrasts growing between trees of different type and stature. My grandmother used to say that she enjoyed seeing the true shapes of trees in winter; but it’s this time of year when the texture of woodlands is at its most apparent, each species turning a different shade of red, yellow, brown or grey and at a different time and pace. I particularly enjoy the flashes of silver along riversides from the massed undersides of ageing poplar leaves.
It’s tempting to follow the waymarkers southward but since I’ve no desire to end up in Edale a few days later, I allow my rumbling tummy to remind me this is a pre-breakfast ramble and turn back towards Airton along the road. Aside from dodging commuters and farm vehicles on the narrow lane, this is a good choice just for the breathtaking sight of the distant Malham Cove framed between the overhanging trees and the buildings at the southern tip of Airton. In a car and even when cycling, this view appears for a few seconds at most. At walking pace there’s time to drink it in; and as the first direct sunlight of the brightening morning lights up its craggy face I’m reminded again how incredibly lucky I am to be living in this unique landscape.
The Dales have been familiar to me since childhood as a place of adventurous day trips with my Yorkshire grandparents (based near Barnsley) and escapes with rambling groups whilst at university in York. But although I always thought I would eventually move to Yorkshire, I imagined the move as a sideways step from my home city of Coventry into one of the region’s metropolises – not through any particular love of cities but because that’s what I knew and because statistically speaking, the chances of a ‘Volunteer Resident Friend’ (VRF) position coming up in a small village in the heart of the landscape I’d grown up captivated by is much less likely than finding a job in Leeds or Sheffield.
I’m completely thrilled to be here. Never mind that I’ll miss countless friends, my small suburban garden, the amateur orchestra that until last week I conducted, the choir of Holy Trinity in which I sang Bass, Coventry Quaker Meeting, the community farm at Ryton Organic Gardens from which I collected fresh vegetables every week, etc. Coventry was good to me but I know already that life in Malhamdale will be just as rich.
As the VRF at Airton Barn I will enjoy welcoming visitors from far and wide. One of the attractions of the position was the opportunity to meet new people as they travel through. As well as residential visits the Barn is a great venue suited to a wide range of creative activities including courses, retreats, away days and exhibitions – a programme I hope to continue to facilitate, having been looked after so well by my predecessor Floe for four years. In the short term however I’m taking time to explore the country lanes & fill my lungs with the Dales air as well as getting confused over the names of the neighbours (my apologies if that includes you…)
Drop in at Airton Barn soon!