It’s the big ticket sights that mostly draw flocks of tourists to the Dales – the spectacle of Malham Cove or Gordale Scar, the aloof majesty of the three peaks, the grandeur of Wharfedale… But for me the real charms of the area lie in the rich diversity of its everyday landscapes and the extraordinary lesser known places that for the most part are bypassed by the crowds.
Around 10 miles west of Airton, between the villages of Austwick and Feizor a craggy hillock rises unobtrusively from the plains below Ingleborough. At this time of year its flanks blush greenish blue as that most English of springtime scenes, the bluebell wood, reaches its annual climax. So, having been tipped off that the display is a superb one this year I head to Oxenber Wood on a spare afternoon hoping I haven’t already missed the show.
Oxenber and Wharfe Woods now clothe the former Austwick township quarry – a sort of stone larder used by the people of the village in the 19th century – also historically managed as wood pasture with coppicing. The combination of the limestone formation (often breaching the surface in the form of limestone pavements), this historic pasture management and its elevation above the surrounding intensive pasture has created a unique, species rich ecology now designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Marvellously, it’s also one which the public can enjoy via a good network of waymarked paths.
Entering the wood by one of these narrow, steeply climbing dirt tracks is like crossing the threshold between two worlds, swapping the simplified ecology of the grazed field for a much more complex environment, full of niches and hollows filled with uncountable variants of plants and animals. It’s not quite wild – ongoing light management prevents that and for good reason, as occasional grazing and coppicing ensure there is sufficient year-round light for rare ground-flora to survive. But there’s enough wilderness about it for nature to function as nature does.
The wild is nature’s cauldron, where species mingle, adapt and evolve. In the fertile open spaces, variation flourishes whilst in the difficult marginal niches, differences are exploited and particular characteristics promoted. Cast a brief glance over this woodland, perched on a rocky hillside with stones breaching the surface everywhere, and you’ll see a reserve of biodiversity, not just of different species but within the same recognisable species – tall / short, deeply coloured / pale, robust / slender… Here are plants rarely seen elsewhere and new to my eyes; there a solitary bee in unfamiliar livery. Here a splendid orchid; there a crab apple in fabulous blossom. In short, this is a thrumming pool of genetic diversity, all too small on its own but potentially contributing ecological resilience to a wider network of similar places and between them to the landscape in general. For however sophisticated our technological approach to landscape and agriculture, its resilience still depends upon the ecosystems services provided by species found only in the natural world. Imperil them and we imperil ourselves.
In the world of ecology, distinctiveness matters, because the interrelationships that make a habitat tick are finely tuned to the special characteristics of the organisms that have co-adapted in it; and because introduced varieties of the same species found locally but with dominant habits both disrupt those interrelationships and reduce the overall genetic diversity of a species. That reduces the resilience of the species to pests and diseases, in turn undermining the resilience of the habitat and ultimately that of the bigger ecosystem in which we live known as planet Earth.
That’s one reason why these almost-wild places are so precious. Another is the sheer sensory delight and refreshment they give, free of charge, to anyone who seeks them out. This season’s special gift is the abundance of colour fizzing from the lush energetic new growth of the woodland floor. As I wander, my eye is caught by all kinds of spring flower – creamy primroses and sulphur cowslips, wild garlic, dog’s mercury, cow parsley, cuckoo flower and speedwell. But the monarch of the spring, sweeping all before its enveloping train is the bluebell. Their slender, graceful stalks and nodding, dark bells seem to cover every patch of ground. Here but for a moment, they paint the hillside in regal livery, commanding attention to some wordless ceremony and are gone. They and their admiring public will be back to relive the scene next year. Until then we must content ourselves with memory.
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.
The other day I received an envoy from nature. Small and mostly blue, the diminutive bird caught my attention as I sat at breakfast looking out over the patch of weedy garden in front of the Nook. Normally a Blue Tit would disappear at the first sign of anything moving in the shadows; but this one was hopping about on the windowsill, practically pecking the glass in what looked very much like an attempt to get noticed.
It’s not the first time this has happened. A few years ago, at my previous home, a Blackbird raised my attention at the kitchen window in much the same way. Different species, different place; but in both cases the bird feeder that I normally filled regularly was empty. Although I resist the human tendency to anthropomorphise everything, in both cases it was tempting to conclude that I was being instructed to rectify the omission, and promptly…
Amusing as that thought is, there’s something deeper worth examining in what the apparent demands of a couple of wild birds might say about our relationship with nature. We’re increasingly aware (I hope) of the toll that industrialised human activity is taking on the natural world – not least through the issue of plastic in the oceans so eloquently exposed in the BBC’s Blue Planet II but also in deforestation, species loss and of course, the spectre of climate change to name a few pressing matters. But these are only the latest manifestations of the impact that human society has had on the world. In fact, many thinkers draw clear lines between human advances from pre-history onwards and the loss at each stage of some of nature’s richness. The industrial revolution is perhaps the first time these impacts become blatantly obvious but the message is, the rot set in right from the start of humanity’s long walk over the planet.
Of course, to leave it at that would be an over-simplistic analysis of human conduct, not least because it’s impossible to identify a ‘starting’ point in any species’ evolution. However, somewhere along the line, the dominant cultures of the world first detached themselves from, then set themselves above the natural world, defining roles for themselves at best as ‘stewards’, at worst as exploiting conquerors, with representatives of every gradation in between. The result is that everything about the contemporary industrialised way of life takes far more from the natural world than it can possibly return – in land, in water, minerals, clean air and even life itself.
There is another way to look at nature. We can start by deconstructing the idea that we should be in relationship to it en masse, as though humankind and nature were two categories of equivalent weight in some kind of equation. Instead, the reality is that the one entirely encompasses the other: humanity is a product of the natural world, entirely dependent upon it and in relationship, not with ‘it’ as a whole but with the hundreds of thousands of other species involved as well as the physical parameters of this spinning rock on which we all find ourselves. Ecological author and activist Tony Juniper puts it succinctly: ‘Economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of ecology’. In other words, everything we do (economy) is a subset of and relies upon the health of everything else that happens beyond the borders of human intervention (ecology).
The shift in thinking we need is one which enables us to act as though we are participators in that interdependent ecology rather than either exploiters or paternalistic supporters of it. Instead of attempting to create a zero sum gain of inputs and outputs – an impossibly complex equation – our aim can be to find pathways that reinforce rather than diminish the intricate relationships between ourselves and other components in nature’s web. We can start by asking ourselves what we really need to consume in order to thrive; then identifying where we can source those things in a way that supports rather than parasitises the relationships between other components of the natural world. Next we might fruitfully consider what makes for real wealth (as opposed to money and things). Finally, we could find ways to reuse and recycle materials essential to that ideal but which can’t be returned to nature at the end of their useful life.
Tossing a few seeds to feed a handful of garden birds might seem like a great gift but really it is nothing in comparison with what we cost the earth in every conceivable way every day of our lives. So when the Blackbird and Blue Tit come knocking on my window, the message isn’t just ‘please feed us’; it’s much stronger. What they are saying is ‘You owe us this and much more – don’t forget it.’ And I’m fine with that.
Some amazing reading…
Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harari
What Has Nature Ever Done For Us? – Tony Juniper
The Great Work – Thomas Berry
Silent Spring – Rachel Carson
Agri-culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature – Jules Pretty
The Earth Care Manual – Patrick Whitefield
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.
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.