My first day in the Dales was sweetly received; I sat brooding on our bench in the little garden of our cottage (which has a public footpath going through it up the mountain) and drank in the scenery. I cast my eye from rolling hills with bright green covering up to the stone capped dale with rocky ridge-lines jutting out proudly from the hillside. Small clusters of trees dotted the landscape down in the valley complemented by white flecks of sheep here and there, small fluffy lambs gaily stomping about, giving a wholly idyllic and Virgilian hillscape. The rolls and dives of hill are patterned and outlined with dry-stone walls, made from the hills themselves in beautiful craftsmanship. One’s spirit is renewed and finds rest in these hills and valleys, with every breath I felt lifted. This is perhaps a more rugged place than Tolkien’s shire, but with a folk festival in the ‘Green Dragon’ on our first night, you can’t help feel that goodness flows into the people and music from the heart of the earth, very shire like in its atmosphere; sleepy, friendly and happy.
The folk festival at the ‘Green Dragon’ was a treat for ears and eyes, rugged faces with toothless smiles and drunk eyes greeted us as we entered the poorly lighted and ‘oldy worldy’ type pub. Music flowed from room to room, some rooms more sombre, others had a quick tempo and Irish feel, but all held a unique sound and talent which was a joy and privilege to be a part of. It was surprising to see probably over 100 people tightly squeezed into this low ceiling’d pub, a quiet village was bustling with people because of the music. I found out that this is an eagerly awaited event, falling only thrice a year. How lucky we were!
But before the warmth of the pub could be enjoyed, a hike was fully necessary. From the lowland Shire-like valley to high peak I marched, up on Abbottside. High, flat, wind-bitten and isolated is the top. The long wail of the curlew and call of the sheep are the only noises that accompany the howl of the wind. No soul did I pass on that lonely height, but the isolation was part of the beauty, away from the intrusive noise of cars and towns, alone in the wild; sheer joy! Up here there is nothing except the wildlife and sheep. Height and distance are warped by the clarity and stillness of the air whilst the deep folds in the land make a long and hard climb up to the top seem like a short saunter through some heather. I was looked down upon only by the peaks which surround me, dwarfing everything in sight. Here it takes only a small amount of minutes for the skies to change and darken, with a stiff breeze the clouds rolled on from nowhere over Dodd’s fell and Great Shunner Fell, both disappear in the vastness of the weather as the air sharpens and the wind rises. ‘Here I come’ the storm gently announces.
On the second day it was the peak of Great Shunner Fell that was our aim, and great she was. We embarked upon four miles or so of climbing from drover’s road amidst pasture then up to moorland, with a view behind of how far we had come out of the valley and a view ahead of the vastness of this fell. The valley was wide, green and tame with the fields being bailed for winter feed of sheep and cattle. A race against the weather ensued; wet hay is no good and would be costly for the men and women who farm this changeable land. The comings and goings of folk far below were miniaturised, small specks slowly moving in the fields. On High Abbottside we were far from this panic, far from anything indeed. Behind us lay our worries and burdens, ahead rested a fleeting freedom from the madness of this world. For this four hours of hiking I was fresh and new in the world again. I was temporarily free from the filth and grime which one picks up in our lives, free from other peoples thoughts and perceptions of me, free from obligation and expectation. Out on these heights, I am who I am.
As we ascended the land became boggier, in winter it would have been more than treacherous with swathes of black peat laying in wait; leave the slabs at your peril. Small clumps of cotton grass and bog asphodel gave colour and life to the otherwise monotonous mass of common spike rush. Every now and then a steep rise leading to what looked like the top would emerge from nowhere, once climbed it would give way to more climbing and trekking, ever did this fell taunt us. But as we walked we were simply unaware of the difficulty of the climb, we were surrounded by beauty in all directions. To my left lay Cotterdale, empty of life it seemed with no village or croft in sight. My heart yearned to explore the untouched land. To my right lay the fell I climbed yesterday, somewhat dwarfed now by the might of Great Shunner. Yesterday I felt high up, today was immensely higher. Ahead was more climbing; deceptive were the rolls of hill and ever on and on the path went, winding through the grass and bog.
At the top we were greeted by strong winds and dramatic skyscapes, as well as a few friendly Geordies. We could see for miles, Pen y Ghent and Whernside (two of the ‘Three peaks’) loomed dark and mighty in the distance, whilst we could just make out the giants of the Lake District far and foreboding. Apart from these few monuments of nature we looked up at nothing, we had conquered the 2340ft (716m) fell of Great Shunner. The march down was wearisome and sad, we knew this moment was drawing to an end, as we saw less mountain we grew quiet, we were in the valley. Small once again; we had finished. Walking down a mountain is difficult, not in the traverse necessarily but in the reluctance of spirit to leave a height. It is hard to articulate, but that’s exactly why people climb to the heights of the world. Nothing else does them justice, a photo or a word falls short. Only when up there can you understand why you climb.
On the third morning there was a quiet air, as if land and sky were waiting for some unknown event. Fog rolled off Abbottside into our valley slowly and surely, enveloping the hillside. There was a silent grandeur about this mist, bound by no one and nothing save the wind. The cloud was heavy and refused to break, this dampened all sounds in the hills, but failed to dampen spirit. The air was fresh and clean, giving life to our weary bodies. Despite illness I walked along Mill Gill Foss, down to a tall waterfall among the trees. It was mighty, the water fell off the cliff between two precarious outcrops of rock, both barely supporting the boughs of trees. As I clambered to its foot and then up the side of the waterfall, the rush and boom drowned out all other noise. Perched on mossy crags I felt tiny below huge ceilings of rock and tree. The air was refreshing and felt as if I drew new life in every breath I took.
The fourth day came and I battled no illness or weariness; instead I endured the siege of rain, wind and cold. In search of adventure and history we fought our way up steep sided fells among tall grasses and sharp rock, far from the path. At an ancient kiln we rested from the climb, once our bearings were found we began an even steeper ascent. Any ground we made was made doubly by the menace of the cloud. Once we reached the top of a rocky ridge the malice and rage of the skies was unleashed. Wind howled about us seeming to wail and scream at us. The rain whipped our skin and soaked us through. On that high ridge we were mere prey for the weather, small intruders in this time old land. The wind grew stronger and the valley was obscured, along with the towering masses of the fells, by thick and heavy cloud; we were now both blind and cold. We were swiftly forced to take momentary shelter in a shallow shake hole, but cold lingered and rain persisted. Eventually we were forced off the hillside, without having found a mine, or even venturing to the top of the fell. We were defeated, and solemnly wound our way through pasture back to the hearth.
My penultimate day was one of waterfalls and rivers. First I begrudgingly paid £2.50 to see what was heralded as England’s ‘tallest unbroken waterfall’; although beautiful, (as all waterfalls are) I was heartily underwhelmed by its height. The ‘tallness’ was perhaps the most disappointing aspect! But the moisture thick in the air (which soaked me) was a fresh wakening for the day to begin with.
Next were Aysgarth falls, mighty after a night of storm. Water thundered over rock thundering as if a host of men sang a deep and rhythmic song borne out of the earth itself. The rust colour of the water caught rays of sunlight and was transformed to a brighter hue, giving off warmth even as we watched. Bitter cold was the water in reality, fierce the gallons seemed as the rolled by in swollen regiment. I felt tiny and weak next to the raw power which had nature today had on display, a mere speck among greater things. We watchers were transfixed by the fleeting, yet wholly permanent, tumble of water. I wondered how many ancient eyes in times gone by had sat and pondered aside these falls, similarly mesmerised. As darkness grows in the world today and change seems to race through our small country, wanted or unwanted, it is important to remember what won’t change, what we can hold onto; powers which are a part of us as we are of them. Shakespeare voiced these best, speaking of the ‘tongues in the trees, books in the running brooks and sermons in stones’. Our land and its features are permanent. Tree and root will grow whilst river and beck flow, flowers will bloom and birds will groom and even as I yawn, the sun shall dawn. These things we must hold onto, where we’re from, who we are. This is what gives us humanity, and only with this steadfast humanity can we drown out the reckless clamour of hatred. Creation has permanence about it because of the creator; the rock amidst the falls.
My final trek in this land was long and for the most part slow. We wound our way up ‘Gunnerside gill’, over in Swaledale, my favourite dale. This Gill is heavy with history and was a heavily mined area. The wreckage is all that remains. Vast heaps of grey rock lay along the river, up the hillside and atop the fell. Ruins of the smelts, kilns, shops and other buildings lay as if part of the landscape, tucked into the mountainside. The land on both sides of the river, with steep cliffs, is utterly ruinous; scarred seemingly beyond repair. It is, however, difficult to picture how much worse this would have been. Spews of sulphur smoke, crunch of stone, shouts, furnaces, flues and shafts would have been noisy and polluting. Now this grey ravine holds a quietened sadness, an eerie feeling lingers as if the land is brooding over the almost fatal abuse it has endured.
The mine shafts are alluring with a mysterious presence drawing me into the dark and gloomy entrances. Despite the haunted silence, broken only by the drip of water, the long dark tunnels have a strong call. Only 10metres or so do I ever venture, but on and on to uncharted depths do the tunnels lead and the blackness calls you ever further. A strange, almost disturbed presence dwells in the unnatural quiet of the tunnels. Perhaps it is well I forget to bring a torch or boots, else I’d have no excuse to not delve further.
For all the wasteland and scarred mountainside, somehow part of the beauty comes from the mines, the tips and the ruins. It gives the land a visible history, which allows travellers to attribute their own emotions at seeing these sights. It lends understanding to the hard life, now gone, which existed here. The history and the hills are one, and it is rare to see the life blood of a region so close to the surface.
I was extremely blessed to spend a week here, cut off from the wider world (we had no signal or wifi the whole trip). It was refreshing to be allowed out of the clutches of tech and connection. We were left to our own thoughts and musings. It was beautiful.