Once, three hundred and twenty million years ago, a Norwegian river tumbled its way across the landmass then connecting it to Scotland and turned towards Yorkshire, pushing sand and grit before it. Over the millennia, those sands aggregated to become millstone grit.
More millennia passed. Temperatures in Northern Europe tumbled: an Ice Age. Glaciers ground and eroded the relatively soft stone which had been dumped so many centuries before. Seeping water froze, thawed, froze again, splitting the rocks. Cold strong winds buffeted away at rough edges. Those rocks assumed strange shapes, balancing improbably in the landscape.
Time moved on. Man arrived, farming too, and industry. But this little patch of Yorkshire, known as Brimham Rocks remains itself, untamable, unchanging, offering a feeling of security that some things remain constant for those of us lucky enough to live nearby this weird and fantastical playground.
It wasn’t our best walk. Chris and I set off to ‘do’ part of the Nidderdale Way on Thursday. Thursday was fine. Wednesday hadn’t been. Nor had Tuesday. There’s been an awful lot of rain lately.
Even as we started out, we realised that mud was to be our constant companion. And water, trickling along slippery, sticky oozy paths. We forded streams which according to the map simply didn’t exist. If we wanted to go onwards, we had to wade through running water, or totter across from unsteady stepping stone to unsteadier fallen branch.
It was tiring. Finding not-too-soggy resting places was challenging too. We had our sandwiches in a wood alongside what should have been a babbling brook, but was in fact a raging torrent.
And that’s when I noticed these stones – and trees. I’d expect boulders and branches like these to have a few tendrils of dry ash-grey lichen clinging to their surface. Instead they were thickly carpeted in vivid green. These specimens (and I don’t know what they are, despite a spot of Googling) were healthy, fecund and spreading very nicely thank you. It’s easy being green in such a damp, shaded and sheltered environment.
If you come for your holidays to Nidderdale in the Yorkshire Dales – and my goodness, I do recommend it – you’ll want to have an afternoon pottering around Pateley Bridge. It’s just won Britain’s Best Village High Street 2016 award.
And if you come to Pateley Bridge, you jolly well ought to visit Nidderdale Museum. Tucked behind the High Street near the Primary School and the Parish Church on the site of the former Workhouse, it’s a little treasure trove.
This little museum is entirely staffed by volunteers who cherish each donation and display as many as they possibly can in an engaging and informative way. You’ll punctuate your visit with delighted cries of ‘I remember that! My granny had one!’ Or ‘Oooh, I never knew the railway went there. I wonder where the station was?’. You’ll have an animated discussion with a fellow-visitor about being an ink-monitor at school, or about the mangle that was hauled out on washdays when you were a small child.
You’ll also see things that were not part of your own heritage, but which were an important part of Nidderdale’s past. You’ll discover that this pleasant rural area was once an industrial power-house, with textile workers by the score and lead mines dotted over the landscape. You’ll be reminded how very tough day-to-day life was on a Daleside small holding or farm.
Here’s a very quick tour:
We had a Ewbank carpet sweeper at home … and this splendid bed-warmer, simply heated by a light bulb … and a cream-maker.
A Ewbank carpet sweeper.
A 1960s Belling bed warmer. Known in our family as ‘the bomb’.
A 1960s cream maker (milk and butter required) with contemporary beakers.
We had inkwells like this at school, and I spent many painful hours in the company of copy books like these.
But look at this parlour:
And this wholly intact cobbler’s shop, transferred to the Museum in its entirety.
And here’s a glimpse of life on the farm, before labour-saving machinery came along.
We’ll be going again and again. So much to see, to reminisce over, to learn from. This engaging museum is a treasure in its own right.
My visit was one of the perks of being a National Trust volunteer. Brimham Rocks is Fountains Abbey’s nearest neighbour, and staff there organised this trip – thank you! The museum is open at weekends until mid-March, then daily during summer months.
As you travel Britain’s main roads, every few miles or so you’ll pass a convenient lay-by with a caravan, a shack, a portakabin – some less-than-permanent structure which has actually been there as long as anyone can remember. Parked outside it are lorries, vans, cars – all empty, because their drivers are in the Greasy Spoon – that’s what these huts and caravans are affectionately called.
These truckers and travellers have gone in for an all-day breakfast. The menu’s limited. All that’s on offer are various combinations of bacon, sausage, eggs – with baked beans, grilled tomatoes, grilled mushrooms or bread on the side. This is not Fine Dining. The bread served here is not artisan-crafted from some small bakery using speciality organic stone-ground flour from the mill down the road. It’s industrial strength pre-sliced pap. I doubt if the pigs used for the sausages and bacon have truffled around in the woods looking for acorns, or been fed wholesome scraps from the farm. The baked beans come in catering-size cans.
But we’ve got into the habit, when the boys stay with us, of having lunch at a particular greasy spoon near Skipton. What it lacks in finesse it makes up for by offering a really friendly welcome and rock-bottom prices. We make our order, plonk ourselves down at one of the formica tables, and relish a rib-sticking calorie-fest which will keep our stomachs lined for an afternoon of fresh air and fun at nearby Brimham Rocks. It comes under the heading of ‘Naughty but Nice.’*
*Salman Rushdie coined this advertising slogan for Fresh Cream Cakes when he was working as a copywriter back in the 1970s. Warning: Don’t Google this phrase unless you are on the look-out for sex toys or ‘adult-themed materials’. You have been warned.
I’m not so blinkered as to believe that Yorkshire has all the best bits of scenery. I’ve had days to recharge the soul in every English county from south to north, from west to east, enjoying stirring uplands, gentle verdant hillsides, sky-filled flatlands, slowly-flowing rivers and tranquilly tinkling streams, and the constantly-changing views from the beach at the seaside.
All the same, what we saw whilst out walking today gave every picture postcard of anywhere outside the Yorkshire Dales a run for its money.
From Pateley Bridge, set in the heart of Nidderdale (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), we energetically panted and clambered through Guisecliff Wood, whilst looking down at the village of Glasshouses below. We emerged, puffing for breath at the top, One way, we could look across the Daleside landscape of ancient field systems and stone-built settlements, to the vale of York beyond.
The other way were the moors, no longer bleak, because this is heather time. We breathed in the intoxicating smell that I like to buy potted up as rich, almost peaty flavoured heather honey. We stared, almost mesmerised at those carpets of blooms stretching away from us, mile after mile: not lilac, not lavender, not violet nor damson – simply that special low-key subtle purple that only heather can deliver.
Past Yorke’s Folly: it’s said it was built in 1810, commissioned by the local landowner, John Yorke of Bewerley Hall, who was casting about for some means to keep his labourers in employment in a time of economic depression. These men received a shilling and a loaf of bread a day for their efforts.
Then it was back to woodland again – very English woodland, with a full green canopy, not yet ready to turn to autumnal colours. Skrikes Wood, Nought Bank, Fishpond Wood.
Then back along a few final paths before returning to Pateley, and a very welcome pub lunch.
Pateley Bridge, population just over 2,000, is slap in the middle of Nidderdale, an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) appreciated for its landscapes, its rich flora and fauna, and its now hard-to-spot industrial past. But if you were there this last weekend, it might not have been to use the town as a base to explore the Yorkshire Dales. You might instead have been coming to Niddfest, a new family-friendly festival offering a weekend of talks and outside events for nature lovers, and especially book-loving nature lovers, of all ages. That’s why we went, on Saturday, and again on Sunday. We had a pretty busy weekend there, but it turns out we weren’t busy enough.
We weren’t there when Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and National Poet of Wales Gillian Clarke introduced the festival, reading from their work. We were absent from the sessions when the likes of Piers Torday, Katharine Norbury and Michelle Harrison were reading from and discussing their books. We didn’t go on the Moor Safari, or on the river walk along the Nidd, or foraging for wild edible plants. We didn’t commandeer our grandsons so they could explore for bugs at Studfold Adventure Trail, or go den-building in the woods.
What we did do was go on what was billed as a bird-watching walk with Mark Cocker and the Nidderdale Bird watchers’ group. And what a way to start. A young cuckoo landed on a fence post, and was immediately followed by his unwitting foster-mother, a meadow pipit, who spent frantic moments stuffing food down his always-open throat. Bear in mind that a meadow pipit is some 15 cm. long, and weighs in at 15 g . The cuckoo wasn’t far from its adult size of 33cm, and 110 g.
With a start like that, the rest of the morning might have been a let-down. But it wasn’t. We saw an old shed where a colony of swallows had begun their days, and learnt that they, like most swallows, would end up wintering in a reed bed somewhere near Durban, South Africa…. some twelve and a half thousand kilometres away. We saw house martins, goldfinch, and quantities of ‘red’ birds – red kites, redpolls, redstarts. We learnt to distinguish thistle varieties, and learnt which ones bees favour. We began to understand just how many varieties of bees, beetles, flies and other insects populated this limited corner of Nidderdale. All this thanks to the bird watchers and especially to Mark.
Then we hurried up to Middlesmoor – to hear Mark again, in conversation about his books. Do look at his website – here – to learn more. His nature writing is something special. He celebrates wildlife in its day-to-day environment, but believes the natural world is far more than an interesting and quite engaging backdrop to our lives. It’s fundamentally important, and environmental issues need to assume an equal, if not a greater importance in political decision-making than, for instance economic affairs. Instead, they are sidelined if not totally disregarded.
This politics-with-a-small-p approach continued the next day, when we heard Oxford graduate and Cumbrian shepherd James Rebanks speak about his bestseller ‘The Shepherd’s Life’. He has many strings to his bow (adviser to UNESCO for instance) – farming in the Lake District simply doesn’t pay. He points out that our desire for cheap food, our disconnection from where our day-to-day nourishment comes from is putting traditional farming, where animals are treated well and with respect at risk.
And then it was Rob Cowen. How could we not be fascinated by his book ‘Common Ground’? He has become forensically interested – almost obsessed – by a small patch of green space just at the edge of Harrogate. This small area was our own ‘green lung’, only yards away from our front door when we too lived in Harrogate. He weaves the story of his growing infatuation together with more personal notes about the baby he and his wife were expecting. It’s clear his well-being depends upon his developing close relationship with this edge-land, this little piece of woodland, river and grass still clinging on to the top corner of a busily expanding town. Nature writing with a difference.
What a rich feast we had. In some ways we’re sorry we didn’t cram in more of what was on offer. But as you see, we had more than enough to digest. A brilliant festival. It had better come back next year.