I felt stuck. In my head, I rummaged through my photo collection. I discarded foggy moody atmospheric mornings like this one. I rejected bright summer meadows and crisp snowy winter walks as not quite projecting the ambience I want to think about on this dismal January day.
Here’s what I’ve chosen. It’s an image that’s more than six years old now, but it sums up much of what we loved best about our years in France.
Our walking group had played its part in organising a walk for ramblers from all over the region. We’d arranged signage, helped sponsors set up their stall, marshalled the event, walked ourselves, and handed out certificates at the end before the visiting walkers departed. Now we could relax.
Here we are in the mediaeval town square in Mirepoix, unwinding over a good and copious meal with plenty of wine. The sun is shining. The afternoon stretches lazily ahead of us. We’re among friends. This is an ambiance chaleureuse at its finest.
We went for a walk from Leighton Reservoir this week. It’s in many ways a bleak, bare, sometimes boggy landscape, and this suited our mood in a bleak, bare post-Brexit week. The view is softened at the edges by the rolling, green, stone wall-skirted Yorkshire Dales which lie beyond the heathery moors.
But look what we found as we consulted our Ordnance Survey map. These were the places we passed, or could see at a distance:
Jenny Twigg and her daughter Tib (Two natural stone stacks towering out of this boggy moorland landscape. We didn’t get as near to them as we’d have liked this time)
Really, where else could we be but Yorkshire?
Postscript: Just at the end we met this little chap, a just-fledged thrush. We hope he (she?)’s ok, because he just about managed to fly rather stumblingly off to a safer place than the track where we spotted him.
The story is – there is no story to tell about our walk near East Witton.
It was cold, frosty but bright so we stepped out energetically. The day went on to be warm, breezy and sunny. There was only one stile to climb over. The ground was firm and frosty, but neither icy nor muddy. Nobody slipped or fell over or got injured.
The landscape was just right. The gently undulating farmland of the Yorkshire Dales gave way to moorland whose picturesque bleakness was enhanced by the occasional lonely tree. We’d pause to take in the long-distance views across the Dales. And as we returned through woodland to East Witton once more, there was a proper English parish church just asking to be photographed. Nobody was displeased by the views.
Our two pauses were ideal. Mid morning, we had picture-postcard moorland views in front of us, and the solid protection of a sturdy drystone wall behind. We ate our lunchtime sandwiches in sheltered bosky woodland, with convenient benches in the form of tree trunks. Nobody got cold, or wet, or lost their sandwiches.
The energetic uphill stretches were all before lunch. Our path afterwards returned us gently to the valley floor. So we got back to base after a gently-challenging workout. Nobody was exhausted or fed up.
So there’s nothing at all to tell you.
Oh hang on. This will have to serve as our banner news headline. ‘Hiker loses gloves on Wensleydale walk’. That was me. First one glove vanished, then the other. But as anyone who knows me will tell you, this is not news at all. It’s what I do most weeks during the winter.
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.
I’m at university this week. The University of Blogging. This seat of learning, which has no rector, no library and confers no degrees, runs a programme regularly hosted by WordPress,and aims to bring together people who from all over the world, keen to hone their writing and presentation skills, and to help each other to Write a Better Blog.
Publish a post you’d like your ideal audience member to read.
I’ve chosen to write for one of you. We haven’t met. We don’t live on the same continent. But we’re ‘blogging friends’ who enjoy one another’s posts and often say so. You say you like the posts I write about walking in the Yorkshire Dales. I like the posts in which you too describe your walks, often more extensive than mine, taking place over several days. You stride beside me – virtually of course – as I tramp along the leaf mould paths of a dappled English woodland. I stop to gaze across the green and undulating hills at the lattice work of ancient fields, divided by drystone walls, and share the view with you courtesy of my camera.
Except… I haven’t. Not lately. Those floods I wrote about a couple of weeks ago are an ever-present danger to some. And even for those who haven’t had flooded homes to contend with, the weekly rhythm has changed. Walking is quite simply not on. The other day, fed up with the lack of exercise, I took myself off to walk along country roads instead. I’d not been going ten minutes when I met a deep trough as wide as the road, as deep as my ankles, and as long as… well, I don’t know. It went beyond the next bend, anyhow, and I went home. The fields are home to seagulls who bob about on the choppy waters. The paths are streams. The streams are rivers. And the rivers are seas.
Quiz question. Which is the path, and which the brook?
A path through the woods.
Brian can’t wait to get home.
i) Quiz question: which is the path, and which the brook?
ii) This, I’m afraid, is a path.
iii) Brian-from-Bolton simply can’t stand getting his paws muddy. He’s urging me home – NOW.
But I’m keen to get out and about again as soon as I can. And I hope you’ll come with me, in a virtual sort of way, when I report back.
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.
Yesterday was the day when Malcolm was to have done his first ‘proper’ walk since his operation. But life got in the way, and at the last minute, he had to wait in for a workman. I went anyway, because I was ‘recce-ing’ the route ahead of leading the Ramblers on the same route in 10 days or so: and it’s a busy 10 days.
The route I was checking was a walk full of only charm and delight:
– because, unusually, I could get from door to door (not that walks have doors) courtesy of the bus that passes the end of the road. There are only 3 buses a day, mind you, so some planning is necessary.
– because it follows paths in the gentle sweeping valley of Wensleydale: a tranquil, lush and gently wooded area.
– because the walk begins and ends at one of Yorkshire’s ruined Cistercian abbeys – Jervaulx. It’s even more ruined than Fountains and Rievaulx, but it’s a peaceful place to meander through; to sit quietly; or to explore for flowers clinging to ancient architraves, or topping off columns which no longer have any roof to support.
– because the path I took leads through English parkland which at this time of year is home not only to sheep, but to their young lambs, busily feeding, playing ‘I’m the king of the castle’, and having lamb-races, before cuddling up with mum for another little sleep.
– because Thornton Steward, a quarter of the way through the walk, is a picture postcard of a village. There’s a green where you can rest for a while whilst looking beyond the cottages to Wensleydale beyond. Even better, there is a village hall. You won’t find anyone there, but the door is open. The villagers encourage you to come in, make yourself a drink, help yourself to a biscuit, and have a ‘comfort break’. Whilst relaxing, you could browse the books on display in two large bookcases. Swap one of your own if you have one, or if not, make a donation and take a book away.
– because just outside Thornton Steward is the charming, tiny, isolated church of Saint Oswald. Mainly Early English, it still has fragments – parts of the nave wall and the porch door – dating from before 1066.
– because at the edge of a field quite near the church, some lucky child’s dad, or granddad has made a very special tiny secret den from an ancient hollow tree. Just look at this:
– because I passed Danby Hall, as well, begun in the 15th century and finally finished in the 19th century. Danby Hall was once the home of the Scrope family, a Catholic family of some influence who hid priests, attended clandestine masses and somehow survived the turbulent times of Tudor-Elizabethan England.
– because most of the second half of the walk is along the River Ure. On one side, it’s all woods, wild garlic and wood anemones. On the other, open views across the river itself, and Wensleydale beyond.
– because the route was so well way-marked that I barely needed a map to find my way round.
– and because of honesty boxes. That’s how you know you’re not in the city. Park at Jervaulx Abbey and there’s an honesty box so you can pay the parking charge. Visit the Abbey itself, and there’s another one. And at Thornton Steward they encourage you to make a donation for your refreshments: but no-one checks up: it’s up to you to do the right thing.
On the walk, I thought of poor old Malcolm, stuck at home whilst I enjoyed one of the very first summer days, bright, fresh, and really rather hot. I thought of one of my fellow bloggers, Sharon, whom – very exciting, this – we’re going to meet in a fortnight or so when she comes to visit Yorkshire: she might like this walk. And I thought of another fellow blogger, Kerry, an American , who’d probably love to use the wool all those lambs and sheep are busily growing in one of her weaving projects, even though wool isn’t usually her chosen medium.
We’re just back from France. Specifically, we’re just back from Laroque d’Olmes, the town which we left exactly a year ago, and which for six and a half years, we called home.
We felt anxious about this trip. What would we feel? Would we find we’d made a horrible mistake in leaving Laroque? Would our now rusted and un-exercised French measure up to a week or more of more-or-less constant use? Would people want to see us as much as we wanted to see them?
What actually happened was that for the first few days, we barely had time to think at all. As soon as we got there, we were launched into A Social Diary. We’d have lunch here with one set of friends, our evening meal there with another. We’d slot other friends in for morning coffee, or afternoon tea. One morning we even commandeered the local bar and held court there, in order to catch up with people whom we couldn’t see in any other way. We started to flag. We simply couldn’t keep up the pace.
And luckily, we didn’t have to. Saturday was the day the walking group had suggested we set aside for them. The planned ‘rando’ had to be kicked into touch because of the promise of rain and wind. Instead, a dozen or so of us walked for a couple of hours whilst Jean-Charles, as clerk-of-works, organised a team to transform a roofed shelter outside the church in nearby Fajou into a banqueting hall. As ever, this turned into a magical occasion in which home-made tarts and pies, home-cured sausage, cheeses, bread, wine, more wine, cakes and puddings of every kind were crowded onto picnic tables for us all to feast upon as we gossiped and sang and reminisced, trying not to notice the cold and wind only inches away from us. It felt as if we’d never been away. Part of our time was spent making plans for the group to visit us here in Yorkshire. Watch this space!
Malcolm’s been lent an Ariegeois beret, and here we both are with our friend and hostess, Tine at the end of the feast.
It’s the south of France, it’s Easter Saturday, it’s freezing… but really, we ARE having fun.
The walk home afterwards. It’s suddenly got sunny.
After that, life became so much more leisurely. Lunch in Foix on Easter Sunday with friends, then a lazy Easter Monday with our hosts, getting sunburnt in the garden, cooking and eating the traditional Omelette de Pâques.
It’s memories of all those moments with friends that we bring home with us. Memories too of the much-loved scenery of the foothills of the Pyrenees. Would we return there to live? Not a chance. Laroque itself is going through very tough times, and it shows. The shop, the once-thriving music centre, children’s services – all are struggling. Some of our French friends commented that perhaps we could have made our lives easier by not getting ourselves involved in day-to-day life there, and they could have a point. We plugged into the local networks that talked and acted against corruption here, services closing there, money talking somewhere else, when instead we could have been sitting in our little bubble on a sun-dappled terrace drinking wine and sun-bathing. But by getting involved, we hope we made friends for life, and understood a little more about the society we briefly became part of. But never fully part of. Our very different background, our lack of real understanding of certain basics of French culture left us always feeling to some extent outsiders, however much we were accepted and made to feel at home. It feels as if this is the right time to be involved in life in England once more.
And anyway, who could bear to be anywhere else but here when the daffodils are in bloom?
The days are short The sun a spark Hung thin between The dark and dark. John Updike, “January,”A Child’s Calendar
A bright winter’s afternoon. Just time, before the evening cold sets in, to get out for a couple of hours of brisk walking: 5 miles or so along familiar paths. So familiar that this time, I focus on the sky: changeable, unpredictable.
Sometimes it’s moody, sometimes cheerful, sometimes simply rather grey and colourless, at other times dramatic, particularly towards sunset. Come and walk with me to watch the clouds.