A walk in this part of the world is a reminder of two apparently contradictory things: the extraordinary impact of human society in the spaces it occupies and the fragile thinness of the landscapes that result.
A ‘landscape’ has long been understood as something difficult to define – its character, quality and boundaries all dependent upon perception, hence inevitably read and experienced differently by each person who encounters it. What is common in definitions of the term is the truth that landscape in general is the result of interaction between natural and human forces. This is as clear in Malhamdale as anywhere.
Here the frenetic dance between nature’s will and human craft shapes everything. Here the very materials of human occupation seem to burst directly from the ground, while the spaces carved by ice, water and wind define the pattern of infrastructure and settlement. The resulting complexity experienced as ever-changing crazily segmented vistas is as bewildering as it is mesmerising.
The part of the picture that always moves me the most lies between the houses and roads nestled in the deep of the valley and the majestic crags and hilltops of its heights. In the ancient lynchets and stone walls we see the bones of a civilisation – our civilisation, apparently clinging by its fingernails to the surface of the earth.
In the past few years, the precariousness of the human-nature dance has become clear to most of us, as the human role in the dance becomes ever more dominant. The consuming fury of our civilisation is laying waste to ever greater areas, making life for all the other creatures in our interdependent web at best challenging, at worst impossible. Some have seen the Covid-19 pandemic itself as a direct result of that imbalance, arising as it did from the concentrated exploitation of wild animals for human gain – a sign of a broken relationship and an urgent call to healing. It is at very least a reminder that we scrape away the natural part of the landscape not only at its but our own peril.
The diagnosis may be clear but how should we respond? What new steps must we learn in the dance? Technological, practical ones yes, but I wonder if we are so entrenched in our ways and so addicted to gain that a far deeper change is required. To relearn how to relate to the rest of our natural family, we need to transform our whole selves. Instead of asking ourselves ‘how much can I get?’ we could ask ‘how much do I need?’ – and for this to be an authentic, critical analysis of need. Rather than saying ‘what do I have to give?’, we could say ‘how much can I share?’ – thinking not only of those around us but of all whose needs are not met. And where we’ve concentrated on satisfying the needs and desires of the day, however fairly we try to achieve that, it’s clear that we also need to pay forward from our present abundance into a future in which the pressures on resources may be even greater than they are today.
We can look to ideas and movements such as agroecology, permaculture, regenerative agriculture or transition towns to find practical responses to these questions – and the time is long overdue for those with power and influence to do so – but for really profound inner change I’ve found nothing more resonant and helpful than this mantra from the Jain faith, introduced in a talk I heard given by environmental teacher Satish Kumar:
I forgive all living beings on this earth
I beg forgiveness from all living beings
I cherish friendship with all living beings
I have animosity towards none.
A walk through any landscape with these words in the heart or on the lips is one that will transform at least one essential component of that landscape: yourself.
I don’t make new year resolutions just as I try not to make false promises… But a spectacular walk up Buckden Pike on Christmas Eve had me determining to get out onto the hills more, by foot or on bike, however full or empty the inbox is. Walking in particular isn’t just exercise for the body – some of my best ideas occur to me on a good walk, as though the rhythmic tread helps to straighten out the thoughts into usable strands, in a similar way perhaps to the effect of a good night’s sleep.
So this week I took the bike for its first spin of the year, heading up beyond the Cove to the bridleway across to Arncliffe. It’s a bright, cold day and the going is mostly dry except for a few muddy and frozen puddles around field gates, so all’s set for a modestly challenging, if more often leisurely, cross-country ride.
I’m less than a mile out from the Malham Tarn road when disaster strikes: a sharp click and suddenly I lose all traction and come to an ungainly stop. Looking down I see the chain trailing uselessly behind the bike, snapped clean into a single string. I knew I should have replaced it weeks ago…
There’s nothing for it but to trudge back along my route and ponder the perils of procrastination – but not before enjoying a chilly picnic lunch by the shore of the Tarn, which is looking decidedly plumper and blue than the last time I wandered this way (see this blog for 16th July). May as well, since I’m in the neighbourhood.
The incident calls to mind a similar occurrence from a few years ago.
When travelling in south-west China I once hired a bike for a day’s exploration around temples and villages. Towards the middle of the afternoon just as I was pulling up the first hill of the day the chain gave out and with only a couple of hours before needing to re-join my group I had 15k to cover with only my feet and gravity to keep the show on the road. I tried thumbing lifts from passing open-backed vans but to no avail. Still, gliding downhill at a leisurely pace without the turning of pedals or the background whirring of gear wheels is about the most relaxing way to travel I know.
I remember this as I roll over the undulating road from the Tarn back to Malham and feel a certain kinship with people getting around on bikes the other end of the continent and the rest of the world for that matter.
And I put aside my plans to ride the bridleway to Arncliffe for later in the year. After all, had the chain snapped nearer to the furthest point of the trip, I’d have been walking home well into the night – something that would be much more enjoyable on a summer’s evening. Now there’s a pleasant thought for a cold day in January…
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..?