High summer and after several weeks with barely a spot of rain, the dales landscape is beginning to look like a garden party where the drinks are running out. Fields that would normally be a verdant green are as beige as the high chapperal, sheep gnawing at the tufty, unappetising sward. Hedgerows sport withered skirts of wilted wildflowers; even some of the trees – the first to the water table with their big root systems – are looking a bit nonplussed, new growth flopping like handkerchiefs off some of the twiggier stems.
A troupe of walkers stopping by at the Meeting House excitedly report that ‘Janet’s Fosse is bone dry’, so I decide to investigate, hoping to get a closer look than usual. Setting off mid-morning it’s already hot enough to have forced a fellow rambler into the shade, and an Australian to boot, sitting on the ground under a spreading sycamore (or something). Here to walk the length of the country for charity, they had packed for English weather and they ruefully tell me, have somewhat more to carry as a result than now seems reasonable. I wish them well and offer a donation – cash, not more clothes. Obviously.
Janet’s Fosse is dry, though not to the bone – a dribble tumbles reluctantly over the tufa, supplying a much diminished splash pool – but I can stand on dry ground in the centre of what is normally a substantial, turbulent pond, perhaps a metre below where its surface would have been the last time I was here.
Gordale is even drier, nothing but a school party clinging to the rock face. I’m able to scamper up rocks that are normally drenched in a thundering cataract without a second thought, and onwards towards Malham Moor.
On this walk, I want to explore the high ground behind Malham Tarn, so I divert along the bridleway to Arncliffe through Great Close just as far as Back Pasture Hill, from where there’s a stunning view back towards Gordale and beyond to the slopes above the lower Aire Valley. Getting off the beaten track is worthwhile on its own merits for the peace and quiet and the chance to see a different view but turning back towards the Tarn, this little diversion comes with the added bonus of the sight of the lake still as a millpond, reflecting the marbled clouds so perfectly that approaching from above, the water’s surface might be mistaken for the sky itself, filling the frame around the silhouettes of trees.
Into the woods around the Tarn, the temperature drops by at least 10 degrees and everything is green – except for a stand of sapphire-blue Aconites in full flush. It’s one of the things woodland does incredibly well: moderating extremes of temperature and humidity.
The contrast with the grazed moorland couldn’t be more stark and I’m led to wonder whether without our continued intervention along existing lines, these upland landscapes would ultimately revert to a patchwork of moors, meres, mosses and forest, and would be far more resilient as a result. Woods and wetlands intercept and retain vast quantities of moisture (reducing flooding in lowland areas), effortlessly support an incredible diversity of species, and – if managed forestry is also part of the mix – provide timber, fuel, fibre and food in variety. If only we had an opportunity to amend the systems of regulation, subsidy and cultural convention that define what we understand by the ‘Yorkshire Dales’ (other similar upland landscapes are available) I wonder what might be restored in these landscapes…
The furthest point of my walk before looping back towards Malhamdale is the Tarn Moss – a nature reserve within a nature reserve, comprising a peat bog on the fringes of the tarn, access to which is via a sinuous boardwalk path.
Flat and damp even after the drought, this intricate habitat sports a plethora of rare and common species and is currently bedecked in the emerging florets of Meadowsweet flowers and studded with Ragged Robin and Devil’s Bit Scabious flowers, each it seems being visited by its own personal fly.
It’s a long walk back to Airton but mostly downhill and I’m in no hurry. Passing by Malham Cove on the way feels like a happy obligation to an old friend – I don’t think I’ll ever tire of visiting it, whatever the weather.
Drive, cycle or even take a leisurely walk through Airton and you could be under the impression this little settlement is no more than an extended hamlet, with just a few streets and occupied by houses more often than not with their backs to open fields. But small as it is, it was at some point considered large enough to have a place called ‘Town End’ attached to it; and although there’s never been a pub in the village and the post office closed a decade ago, the Town End Farm Shop and Café more than makes up for this by providing something of a local destination for residents and visitors alike.
Stocking both staples and artisan products, as well as local crafts and gifts, the farm shop is a destination of choice for discerning tourists staying in or passing through Airton – and is set to become better known still with the airing of ‘Best in Shop’ on BBC2 later this year: a documentary competition celebrating artisan food producers from Yorkshire and the North West. Chris Wildman, fifth generation Malhamdale butcher and owner of the farm shop and café, has been here before: a few years ago the venue appeared on Julia Bradbury’s ITV show Best Walks with a View.
Chris is passionate about promoting the local economy and protecting environment. The majority of products stocked at Town End are locally sourced and many others are artisan produced. Produce is sold in paper bags, not plastic carriers and wherever possible he looks for alternatives to palm oil in products on his shelves. The two key words are ‘story’ and ‘provenance’. For every product in the shop, the ideal is that there is a tangible narrative that can be traced back to its source. His own specialities, salumi and charcuterie, are derived from the family farm in upper Malhamdale, where Craven Longhorn cattle graze in a ‘pasture for life’ system designed to benefit both their health and that of the natural landscape.
For me visiting the café on a lazy afternoon is a treat; and it’s the view that steals the show. Everyone’s favourite spot is the couch in the corner with windows on two sides offering a panoramic view of the dale, finessed by the arching sweep of Malham Cove at its centre. And on a sunny day, the view from the terrace is even better. Any road, there’s no better way to appreciate the sight than over a hot drink and one of the freshly baked treats made on the premises and always served with a smile.
Looking back over the entries to this journal there’s a definite bias towards winter themes and more than a touch of appreciation for snowy scenery. If a reader had never visited Malhamdale they might have the impression that it’s by and large an icy wilderness populated by shivering sheep. Nothing could be further from the truth… in fact during a recent snowfall one long term resident told me it had be several years since snow had lain as thickly – although it used to be more of an annual event, the rules of climate change applying here in Airton as in the rest of the country…
There’s a simple explanation to my blogging more in the winter. It’s a time more than ever when the landscape I love to explore and write about seems to change faces from day to day with varying light levels, low sun angles, atmospheric moisture, and yes, the comings and goings of the snow. On the other hand, at this time of year the Barn is less busy, so whilst I enjoy the outdoors throughout the year, there’s more time in winter to write about it. Perhaps I hope to tempt a few more visitors to experience the magic of a Malhamdale winter! (Though unfortunately the daily changes in weather that make it so interesting for me mean that snow and frost can’t be guaranteed to ice the cake of a stay in Airton at any time of year.)
However, there’s more to my penchant for wintry walks and snowy tales than aesthetic appreciation or convenient timing. Winter might be the dog end of the year, with its gloomy, short days and brown, muddy fields but the annual stasis of the natural world is also a prompt to slow down and be a little less preoccupied myself. Just as the best ideas often come to people during sleep, the energies needed for the coming months can be gathered during winter. Deliberately taking the foot off the throttle a little can allow the germ of new things to emerge from the compost of what has gone before – interests, projects, even at times an entirely new direction. Of course, this doesn’t have to happen in winter, but the analogy is both convenient and resonant.
Here’s a new thing: with every winter’s day looking different here in the Dales, it’s not hard to understand the legendary proliferation of Innuit words for snow. I’ve counted at least 3 types only today… So I’ve looked a bit into whether ‘the Yorkshire Dialect’ (of which I know there are many variants) can make any similar claims. The result? The only word I can find for snow is ‘snah’. Now that seems remiss to me, so I’ve made an entirely unauthorised executive decision and would like to propose the following completely made up pseudo-dialetical words for the stuff in at least some of its forms:
frickle snow falling as light, dryish flecks
snarush snow falling in thick wet clumps of snowflakes
snamush the same but already half way to melting by the time they reach the ground
snawhit a blizzard – a proper white-out
frish snow like a grainy powder showing up the crevices in stone walls
frawp a dusting of snow on wet grass
frash a thin layer of wettish snow laying on top of partly thawed ice
freck a thin layer of cold, dry snow laying on top of an even colder layer of ice
squaff snow that squeaks under foot
flurrm* an impending snowfall that makes the sky look pinkish
flerrm* an impending snowfall that makes the sky look yellow
slurrm* an impending snowfall under a damp grey sky
drish snow that’s been chopped about and got riddled o’ dirt
snud compacted snow that’s been driven on
snadding a full blanket of snow on a damp overcast day
snidding a full blanket of snow lit up by sunshine (the best sort)
*In these examples, the double ‘r’ should be pronounced as a separate syllable.
[If ever any of these words get into regular use I’ll deny all knowledge. And just in case one person’s snow is another person’s rotten cabbage, the same goes if they just happen to coincide with obscenities in any existing language or dialect.]
Well, I’m glad I’ve got that out there. Now what were my jobs for the rest of January..?
Spring is at last well under way as Malhamdale glistens like a many faceted jewel. Is it me or is the sunlight somehow cleaner than it’s been for months; cleaner here than anywhere else I’ve lived?
I say ‘at last’ as it seems to me in my impatience that my sowings and plantings are taking their time this year. Moving north by 150 miles last autumn I should of course expect things to wake up more cautiously in this part of the world although weren’t those crocuses on display just as soon as in my home in the midlands? The ‘early’ potatoes are particularly slow; in spite of weeks chitting followed by weeks in the soil, pre-enriched and pre-warmed under black cover, not a single shoot is emerging. Broad beans are almost as shy. I’ve all but given up on some shrubs and herbaceous perennials completely; but at least the Hostas in the bog garden I made after Christmas are sending up determined spears and will soon make a great show of leaves – if the slugs don’t stop them.
I shouldn’t be so impatient but that’s the kind of gardener I am: I want to be out making things happen to my timetable, testing nature’s boundaries with schemes to warm things up, catch the light, beat the pests, put on a show. Nature, on the other hand, is quite happy with its own plan. The scattering of flowers growing around the Meeting House without any intervention from me is proof of that. Best be guided by its schedule rather than trying to control everything; grow what wants to grow when it wants to grow and not what doesn’t even if it’s feasible with large amounts of energy and inputs to force it. That doesn’t stop tinkering of course. In fact, it’s almost the first thing to do in a new place – otherwise how do you find out what will work?
One of the most useful pieces of advice from the world of permaculture is to ‘observe and interact’. Both are crucial to discovering how to work with any particular environment. We need to watch what happens naturally, then watch what happens if we move a pebble to know if moving pebbles is a good idea. All very scientific and all quite challenging for impatient types like me.
It doesn’t just go for gardens either. Leaders of any description do well to wait a while before suggesting any changes to the way their teams, groups or movements go about things. And in everyday life, moving to a new place prompts a great deal of finding out about how things tick, the better to find one’s place in the community.
What’s more, observing and interacting don’t need to stop; in fact they should never stop if we’re to be successful gardeners, group members, creatives, people. Why? Because like it or not, things evolve. We only need to look at the state of the world in 2017 to verify that.