Nature has had the upper hand lately. Snow, and plenty of it, disrupted our daily rhythms a few times in recent weeks. Rain, and plenty of it, has swamped fields and tracks, making a walk in the country an utterly unreasonable pastime.
The other day though, cabin fever got the better of us, and we made a break for the countryside near West Witton, reasoning that some of the tracks there would be more or less passable. They were. More or less.
But Nature made its presence felt in full force. Here was almost our very first sight on our walk – a mother ewe with twin lambs so very newly born that she was still calmly licking them clean as they tottered beside her, looking for their very first feed of milk.
The weather was mild. Surely the snow would be long gone? Not up here. Bitter howling winds a week ago had snatched the snow into deep drifts at the edges of fields, or pounded it into hillside crevices.
Redmire Force lived up to its name. Look at the waters swirling, frothing and plunging over the boulders in the River Ure. Look at the tree torn from its cliff side, now hanging precariously over the river.
And as we came to the end of our walk – look! Is this a river, or is this a field, unusable by the sheep who normally graze here, but forming a stopping off point for the occasional passing water bird?
If you go walking in Wensleydale: if you go for a walk from Jervaulx to Jervaulx via Thornton Steward, you’ll come across this tree home, at the edge of a field, commanding views over the valley.
It’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere, but I always like to imagine a doting grandfather, tall and rangy from a tough life’s farming and probably reminiscent of the BFG, lovingly creating a little refuge for his grandchild in this hollow tree.
I couldn’t fit in it, neither could you. Perhaps the grandchild is too big now. It’s all a question of scale after all.
This is the scenery near Leyburn in Wensleydale. This is Bolton Castle.
Imagine sitting in the grounds of this 14th century castle as evening draws in, a picnic beside you, to watch The Handlebards’ version of Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’. You know this will be no ordinary performance. The Handlebards are four female actors who cycle the length and breadth of the kingdom, with all they need for the tour crammed into two bicycle carriers. At each performance, they take every part in Shakespeare’s comedy of bizarre mistaken identity, family breakdown, love and lust.
So far so good. But this is England in July. We’d had two days of almost incessant rain. In a downpour, the Handlebards cycled the 26 (mainly uphill) miles from Ripon, where they’d performed at the Workhouse Museum.
The Castle has a Great Hall. Performing here rather than on a soggy greensward seemed a better idea in the circumstances. And it was. During the evening it rained. And then rained again. The audience never noticed a thing. We were too busy admiring the way four women became twenty or more people.
To become a man, all they had to do was don a codpiece adorned with a tennis or cricket ball. A selection of hats served to distinguish one character from another. Bicycle handlebars identified the wearers as sheep. Your character needs to disappear stage right to enter stage left as someone else? Easy. Leave the person whom you were addressing in charge of your hat, and s/he will continue to talk to it. With the flourish of a stick, a youth became faithful, ancient Adam. Orlando and his family were all twoubled by an inability to pwonounce the letter ‘r’. And so it went on, as one inventive twist or piece of slapstick followed another. Shakespeare would have loved it.
I’m now a Handlebards groupie. And the fun doesn’t end here. In other venues, having travelled there on other bicycles, a troupe of male actors is giving similarly irreverent treatment to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. We’re on the mailing list.
‘Everything stops for tea’. Not if you take it on the train it doesn’t. Just imagine. You and your fellow guests are seated at an elegantly appointed table covered with a damask cloth. Here are china cups and saucers, heavy cloth napkins, weighty cutlery. Before you, a Proper Cake Stand, prettily stacked with sandwiches (cucumber, of course, but also egg mayonnaise, ham and chutney and so on), two kinds of scone with clotted cream and strawberry jam on the side, and properly English cakes: chocolate cake, sponge cake, cream-filled meringues, tiny eclairs. Attentive and charming service. Unlimited pots of tea, of course too .
We were on the Wensleydale Railway, at the invitation of Susie and Pete, old friends from France and currently visiting England.
This is a heritage railway, staffed by volunteer enthusiasts, with engines and rolling stock from earlier times. Our carriage had been built in about 1913, at the behest of the infamous director of the Titanic who dressed himself as a woman in order to make his escape from the sinking vessel in a lifeboat. Our tea time experience was masterminded by the Institution at Bedale.
Our tables were ranged down the middle of the carriage, enabling us all to have views of Wensleydale as we sat enjoying our tea. The train chugged steadily along the track, offering views quite different from those available to us as we travel by road, or walk along country footpaths. We were in another less hurried age, and enjoyed passing through little stations, past signal boxes pressed into service once more when trains like ours are on the move.
At Redmire, we had to dismount as the engine chugged away to turn round and pull us back once more to Bedale. We had time to admire the rolling stock.
Our steam train was off for repair. This youngster dates from the 1960s.
This was afternoon tea at its finest: a leisurely experience enabling us to put present worries aside, just for a couple of hours.
Have you ever had a flutter on who might win the Grand National or The Derby? If you have, there’s a very good chance that the horse you fancied might have trained at Middleham.
Middleham’s a small town in Wensleydale of 800 or so inhabitants. You’ll notice its fine castle (Richard III stayed here) even before you get there.
And when you arrive, you’re as likely to see – no, you’re likelier to see – horses rather than pedestrians. The principal industry of this little place, since about 1730, is training horses. There are some 15 training establishments in town, and each of them may have up to 150 horses or more, aiming to be among the next generation of racehorses.
Every day clusters of riders take their charges up onto The Gallops to exercise and train them. We citizens who come to the area to walk and take in the views have to play second fiddle, at least during morning exercises.
Who cares? On Thursday, we were happy to share the views and skyscapes with such magnificent beasts as we strode across the moorland.
Later on, we walked through Coverdale, past Tupgill, upwards through the tiny hamlet of Caldbergh along wild and little-frequented tracks. Then it was sheep who were obliged to share their pastureland with us. They were sure we’d have mangel-wurzels to offer them and hurried towards us. We hadn’t. They were unimpressed.
We left them to it. We had a walk to finish, preferably before lunchtime. And we rather hoped for something more appetising to eat than mangel-wurzels.
This was a fine day for a walk, and a fine day to have a few history lessons thrown in
This is what we did. Here’s our starting point at East Witton, about 15 miles from home. It’s a lovely small village of about 250 people, where most of the houses were built in the early 19th century round the extensive village green.
We passed through fields with views across the Dales. We walked along a green lane, through woods, and eventually reached a wooded gorge through which the River Cover runs, and where we crossed over the charming stone bridge known as the Hullo Bridge. It was quite a climb up the hill on the other side, and we were hoping for glimpses of Braithwaite Hall. Too many trees in full leaf. We hardly glimpsed it.
It’s built on the site of a grange belonging to Jervaulx Abbey. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries it continued as a sheep farm, as it had been under the monks. This is an area where the monks of both Jervaulx and Fountains Abbey extended their influence widely: enormous numbers of sheepall over the region were managed from local granges where the lay brothers who cared for them lived.
We were nearly in Middleham now. This is above all a horsey town. The monks of Jervaulx bred horses, and brought them to the Moor to exercise them. When the monks eventually went, the horses remained, as did the training tradition . Middleham these days is home to around 15 racehorse trainers and 500 horses, yet it’s a small town of hardly more than 820 people. It was too late for us to see the horses out on the Gallops this morning, so instead the first thing we saw was the castle, which dates back to 1190 and was the stronghold of the powerful Neville family from the 14th century. Richard Plantagenet, later Richard III was sent here as a young man to be trained in arms by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, his cousin.
Warwick had the bad habit of changing sides throughout the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) depending on whether the Yorkists or Lancastrians had the upper hand. Eventually he came to a bad end when he was killed by the Yorkist King Edward IV and his younger brother Richard. Edward gave Middleham Castle, and much else to Richard who lived there with his wife, virtually ruling the North of England, for 11 years. When Edward died, Richard seized the throne and reigned for only 2 years before dying in August 1485 in the final battle of the Wars of the Roses, the Battle of Bosworth in Leicestershire. And there his body remained for 517 years, before being exhumed from a car park in Leicester in 2012.
For us, Middleham was the site for a rather good picnic, followed by a visit to a teashop for an indifferent cup of tea, and even more indifferent cake. But the calories were useful. There were stiles to cross into fields deep in cut grass, waiting to dry off into hay: a fine walled track Straight Lane – to walk along before reaching the River Cover, languidly passing over bleached white stones on its way to meet the River Ure. We briefly touched the road once more as we passed Coverbridge Inn. This dates from 1684, and was owned by the same family – the Towlers – till 1930. Local legend has it that when the monks of Jervaulx were forced to disband in 1537 at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, they shared their secret recipe for Wensleydale cheese with the Towlers. We shall never know.
A final walk along woodland paths, open farmland, fields enclosed by characterful drystone walling and we were back in East Witton. A grand day.
It was my turn to lead a walk on Tuesday. I chose Coverdale. Here’s why.
The River Cover, which gives the dale its name, wanders through an isolated corner of Wensleydale. Here you’ll find hamlets with intriguing names like Swineside, Horsehouse and Gammersgill, a few abandoned leadworkings, a great many sheep, and not much else. The principal settlement, Carlton, has 230 inhabitants and the main – the only – road to it is mainly single track. This is where we began our walk.
Here were hillsides, close-cropped by sheep. Here were ancient terraced field patterns showing that the area, even if lightly-populated now, has long been settled by farming communities. Here were narrow steep-sided gills sheltered by glades of trees. It offered a walk full of variety.
We yomped up and across meadows populated by those sheep and their curious, always hungry lambs, enjoying long-distance view across the fells. Curlews called above us.
We climbed over wooden stiles, stone stiles, ladder stiles and through narrow-gap-in-the -stones-stiles. As we passed though woodland we sniffed the slightly acrid but appetising tang of early wild garlic.
Soon we could see our half-way point on the other side of the valley. Horsehouse these days is a tiny collection of isolated homes. But it gets its name from the days when it was a really important staging post for those making the long journey from the north (even as far away as Edinburgh) to the south (London?).
And once we’d crossed the River Cover, we were in woodland again. We found a grassy bank, complete with bluebells, tree trunks to sit on, fat white pebbles for the waters to tumble over: perfect comfort, perfect peace.
After lunch, curlews gave place to oystercatchers, with their smart black and white plumage and vivid orange beaks.
And then we came to the point in the walk where the instructions read ‘Turn left at the last stile’. How mystifying. How can you possibly know which the last stile is till you’ve passed way beyond it and not found another? Ever-resourceful we found our way anyway, strode through Gammersgill, across a few final fields, and got to journey’s end not long before the day’s sunny warmth gave way to wind and showers.