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 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.
I first walked from Jervaulx to Jervaulx last April, and wrote about it here. However, I failed to lead my fellow ramblers along the same route later that month as I’d said I would, because it rained…. and rained. I’d promised them the walk though, and today was the day: bright, sunny, blustery – a perfect winter hike. Except for one thing. Those floods that have dominated British news this winter are still making their presence felt.
Our route today didn’t take us through pastureland. Sheep aren’t very good at being knee-deep in mud. It took us through soggy fields, and past lake after lake after lake: waters that simply were not there last time I took this route. It was all very pretty. Less pretty was the scene at stiles. Look at us skidding and sliding, trying to pick the shallower puddles as we waited out turn to get from one field to another.
We’re British though, always plucky in adversity. We soldiered on, sometimes a little weary of heaving mud-crusted boots along sticky, sludgy paths. But nobody fell over, nobody lost their sandwiches in the mud. Everybody enjoyed those vistas over the Dales, the starkly beautiful skeletal outlines of winter trees, the blue skies, dappled with characterful cloud. Were we glad to have made the effort? Well, I was, and I think my steadfast and dependable companions were too.