On the South Downs, East Sussex

21 01 2006

If yesterday I had been asked to name a favourite seaside town in Britain, I would have had no clear answer. I have seen some beautiful coastlines in Southern England, most of them in Cornwall. But none are near to what may be called a town in the modern sense. Many are just overgrown villages, fishing communities that have lost their adventurous past and in some cases a beautiful beach or a cove with no population next to it. It is understandable that unspoilt beaches are away from the crowds, in fairly remote locations. So, I could have named Plymouth or St Ives, but only because there wasn’t a better choice.

Today, the situation is quite different. From the very first moment I am in love with Eastbourne. The very moment I stepped out of the train from London, a breath of fresh air hit me. It was as if the air, so long imprisoned in London, travelled by train to mingle with the sea breeze at Eastbourne. The first impressions of smell are hard to describe. It is an air that has been long at sea, frolicking and dancing with the waves and sea sprays, fully refreshed in such agreeable company, and then taking a short break at Eastbourne. Once I stepped out of the train station, the calls of seagulls are heard. The salty air is now much more noticeable. The eastern sky is a white sheet of light while higher up, the blue sky stretches to the farther cliffs. After many sunless winter days, this is a surprise. What is a seaside resort without these foods for the senses? Imagination plays into the ear and I fancy that the sea is just round the corner. It is in fact a good half a mile away from the station, passing the clean, well-kept streets of Eastbourne.

The beach is nothing close to the beauties of Asian beaches or the pristine wonders of Pacific islands. The gifts of nature are not bestowed equally on all. One must make best use of what one has and here in Eastbourne this is truer than anywhere else. The beach is clean and uncluttered. The walkways are pleasant. The buildings don’t interest much but they don’t spoil the view either. The shingle beach stretches a long way towards Beachy Head, the southern tip of this land. Groynes fill the beach all the way. Without them, perhaps nothing of the beach would have remained by now. The South Downs lie within sight of town, with their white chalk-cliffs and green rolling cliff tops. Although I love the uncrowded company of solitude, it was a nice to meet people along the esplanade and exchange short customary greetings. Elderly couples enjoy the rare sunshine. Others walk their dogs. Some explore the shingle beach picking perhaps shells, cockles, seaweeds, sea kelps or other secret wonders that the sea dares to throw up once in a while. Some fly kites on the downs. Others prefer to rest on the wooden benches and stare out across the English Channel.

There is indeed something more to be said of the wooden benches along the esplanade, along cliff tops or numerous other vantage points that offer excellent views of this part of East Sussex. As far as I could notice, all benches have been installed in loving memory of someone, by caring family or friends. There are not a handful of them, but hundreds. Love is strange and so is human ambition. Memories are faint and have little worth of their own. Nothing stands the ravage of time. All that matters is now and how we love the living. I could find not one bench donated for a purpose greater than its inscription, not one bench without an inscription. Perhaps, someday a bench will be installed out of complete benevolence, out of the need to provide a seat and not for holding memories of the dead or for self-glorification.

Perfection in beauty is hard to come by. There are elements of ugliness in Eastbourne but only in relation to my standards of beauty. There is some sense of decayed modernity in town where time has overtaken modern development. There is a mix of old and new but no harmony or special beauty. The pier jutting out into sea is an eye-sore. The bandstand cloaked in scaffolding is a misery. To make a perfect picture you must clip these intrusive details. Then you are with the sea, the sky, the beach and the breeze. Nonetheless, my love for mountains is greater and will always remain so.

At Eastbourne starts one of the many long distance National Trails, the South Downs Way, fairly easy on the legs at this stretch. The paths on the cliff tops are not steep or difficult. The outreaching views almost every step of the way are additional rewards. This is not the difficult South West Coast Path that we find in Cornwall. It does not take long to reach Beachy Head from Eastbourne. I could use many superlatives to describe these chalk-cliffs. Stupendous and magnificent were two immediate responses when I first saw them at close quarters. The cliffs are not nearly vertical or almost vertical. They are vertical. They rise without pause. They tower without fear. They glow whiter than snow. Veins of black rock run horizontally creating such a pattern that even modern abstract painters would find immediate inspiration.

A plaque at Beachy Head tells the story of the cliffs. It does not enhance my appreciation of the natural wonder but it consists of interesting facts that are worth relating. The cliffs were once part of the sea bed, as was the whole island of Great Britain. The cliffs have taken many million years in the making by deposits of algae and various sea life. Then sometime ago Africa started to push northwards into Europe, thus raising land above sea. This land stretched far into sea, perhaps a continuous piece of land with continental Europe. When the Ice Age ended about 14,000 years ago, sea levels started to rise. The process of land erosion by wind and waves accelerated. This has created these cliffs, the once sea beds exposed bare. This process continues to this day.

The waves beat incessantly against these mighty cliffs but their might is fragile as ever. At places on the cliff top, clefts are visible along the edge. These are by no means on the surface only. The clefts are seen to run deep and even visible along the sides as dark veins descending on a white face. If a group 20 men were to stand on one of these edges, the edge may well collapse and lose itself into the sea. Broken stones at the base point to this destiny. They lie as discarded bread crumbs on the floor. This process is constant and unforgiving. The sea will finally claim what was once hers. Thus we find that the magnificence of nature is made with patience and time, but easily destroyed by force and fury.

If walking on the cliff tops was an experience, walking on the pebble beach was more breathtaking. Access to the beach is by an iron stairway supported against the cliff at Birling Gap. Although no path is marked on the Ordnance Survey Map it is possible to walk to Beachy Head and back, but only at low tide. It was just after noon and the high tide was coming in quickly. It was still possible to walk a short stretch of the beach. With the sea on one side and the cliffs on the other, the path of a wanderer is advanced by guidance of nature.

It is hardly three weeks since my return from Yorkshire and today I am suddenly confronted with the same magic under a glorious sun brightly reflected by these white cliffs. The beach is full of pebbles but more prominent are the worn-out limestone rocks. These are the same wonders that I saw in Malham and the Three Peaks. That was erosion by rain water; this is erosion by the sea. The chalk dissolves easily. The water here acquires a colour as of coconut water. Even my light steps leave visible alterations to the texture of these rocks. While it is common for my boots to get soiled in colours of black, brown and yellow, here it picks up marks of pure white. The pebbles too are stunning: so many shapes, shades, curves and patterns. Each one is a unique piece of art, seemingly made without effort. But effort indeed is present though imperceptible; wonders take time.

From Birling Gap, the South Downs Way continues along the cliff top across Seven Sisters Country Park. These are seven chalk hills inseparably joined by green turf over graceful curves. Their sisterly bond can be made out only farther along the coast to the west and it was not in my privilege to seem them thus. I contented myself in walking the paths they had laid out for me. Then I proceeded north, along the meandering River Cuckmere which reflected warmly the colours of sunset. It is difficult to say why a river meanders in this manner when a direct path is available. Perhaps, there is a joy in lingering, to anticipate and prepare oneself before the final union. Perhaps, there is an uncertain fear in the thought of losing oneself. Perhaps, it is better to slow down after a long journey and savour each moment while it lasts. Thus, with such glimpses of river Cuckmere, I crossed Friston Forest, Litlington, Alfriston and finally Wilmington. The real purpose was to see the medieval chalk drawing carved against a hillside, the Long Man of Wilmington.

“The Long Man” is a name that has little interest. “The Long Man of Wilmington” on the other hand has much interest. It is not that Wilmington is a village of great consequence. It is a simple fact that the figure on the hill is so inextricably linked to the village that one is not to be mentioned without the other. The longer name has more music in it. It links much more the past and the present, the art of medieval people with the village that is as much alive today as it was once.

This figure on the hill is rather plain and simple. Much of the art of our ancestors have been thus made without fancy decorations or adornments. Some say the man is walking on the hills with two staffs. Some say he is opening the doors of heaven. I have no beliefs or truth to express but I do have an opinion. The figure is a representation of the people of the land who created him. He is a medieval farmer who worked the land, enjoyed its offerings and loved it. He is a tribute to the hard ways of life in which the fruits of labour are sweet. On this hillside, he forever opens his vision to the beautiful valley that has been his support and welcomes all to share it with him. If he is opening the door to heaven, this valley is the only heaven he knows.





Woking, Surrey

7 01 2006

I was in London earlier today. On the return I had no plans to stop for long at Woking except to change trains. Due to a technical fault with the doors the connecting train had to be cancelled. The train had been packed beyond capacity. More than 1000 passengers had to get off to a crowded platform for an hour-long wait. I decided to have a slow dinner at Woking before continuing my journey to Farnborough two hours later.

Here in the UK they don’t have manual doors as in India. Manual doors are simple to operate and never fail. You don’t even have to close them. They allow trains to be filled beyond capacity! When I arrived in the UK, South West Trains still had some old trains with manual doors. It was tricky to open these doors from the inside. One had to slide down the window and reach for the door handle which existed only on the outside. At peak hours when such a train pulled into the station the slamming of doors made a unique concert of beats that needed no conductor.

One will be spoilt for choice at Woking to decide on an Indian restaurant. Literally, there is one every few paces. Even the truly British pub of Wetherspoons had a sign that shouts “Curry & A Drink: £5.49″. The taste of Indian food in whatever form has gone done well with the British public. That so many Indian restaurants can profitably prosper at close proximity in Woking is sufficient proof of this popularity.

I had my dinner at a restaurant named Binaka, an old brand of toothpaste in India and thankfully unrelated to it. Vegetable biryani was my choice of main course. It was excellent but didn’t excel the superior taste of my mother’s. Most Indian women are excellent in cooking, which may explain why so few Indian families come out to dine. Of course, Indians are careful spenders and this must also be acknowledged as a reason.

There is one thing that must change in an Indian restaurant anywhere in the UK. The waiters have the habit of walking up and down the aisles, throwing occasional glances at the plates. It is well-meant. They strive to give prompt service by being close at hand. However, this gives an uncomfortable feeling of being watched over by a schoolmaster doing his disciplinary rounds, ready to cane and chastise for not clearing the plate.

The second thing that I would like to see is a free flow of water without even being asked for it. Understandably, restaurants make a lot of money from drinks but something as basic as water must be served along with the menu cards. This is Indian tradition. Why, I have seen people walk into an English pub (at Greywell in Hampshire), ask for a glass of tap water and being served the same without any questions. I have done the same at a pub in the Cotswolds.





The Yorkshire Dales – Part 3

2 01 2006

26 December 2005 – 2 January 2006

Part1 | Part2 | Part3

New Year at Ripon

December 30th. Half-past seven on a winter morning. I felt I had stepped into a picture postcard. I was spellbound by the scene. Snow was everywhere. The stillness was gripping and the silence was absolute – no traffic on the roads, no people on the paths, no bird call to be heard, no leaf that moved. The snow still fell, very lightly. The doors remained shut and the windows dark. The village of Malham was still asleep. I was the only soul to step out into the cold morning and wait for the Postbus to take me to Skipton.

The day I arrived at Malham I had found out that the only bus is the Postbus that operates a few times during the day. As the name suggests, it is meant for mail services but it also serves those in need of public transport. My original plan had been to walk to Grassington to catch a bus to Skipton. With the weather turning so much worse and the continued trouble with my knee, the Postbus came as a saviour. Perhaps not. The bus scheduled for 8am never turned up. I had waited for nearly forty minutes. The next bus was at quarter past eleven. So I headed back to the YHA where I was informed that even the next bus may arrive only after noon given the state of the roads. Fortunately for me I got a ride from a couple staying at the Buck Inn. Unfortunately for me I arrived in Skipton a few minutes after the connecting bus to Harrogate had departed. So I had two hours to kill in Skipton.

When I reflect on this situation I can understand how having a car would enhance my travels. Flexibility is a great plus. The variations are plenty. Many points of tourist interest could be covered in a short time. For example, while at Ribblehead I could have driven to Thornton Force during one of the days before commencing the walk for the day. Walking to the summit of Pen-y-ghent could have been accomplished more easily with Horton-in-Ribblesdale as the base. A combination of a personal vehicle and public transport adds more possibilities. While at Malham, I could have driven to Grassington, parked my car there and taken a bus to Buckden. From Bucken I could have walked along the course of River Wharfe by the Dales Way to Grassington and then driven back to Malham. With a vehicle my itinerary would not have been reshaped by availability of accommodation. And lastly, getting to Ripon from Malham would not have been such a long journey. On the flip side, with a car of my own, the beautiful walk from Settle to Malham and the matchless scenes that came with it would have been missed.

So to get to Ripon, I hitched a ride from Malham to Skipton, took the bus X59 the plies along A59 from Skipton to Harrogate, and finally bus 36 from Harrogate to Ripon. The wait at Skipton was by no means wasted. A short visit to the Holy Trinity Church yielded nothing memorable. Having seen numerous parish churches, abbeys and cathedrals, this church had little noteworthy. So I contented myself in sitting at the back pews and reading some hymns and psalms. Divinity is inspirational. Wherever there is a presence of the divine, creativity is a natural process, be it in art, literature, music or any other human pursuit. The Christian hymns and psalms are real gems of human thought, feeling and belief composed with meaning, music and rhyme.

Arriving at Ripon a little before sunset, I quickly located the B&B I had booked for the next two nights. This was no self-catering accommodation and I had to walk back to the market square to get my dinner. I was in no mood to spend 10 or more on a proper restaurant dinner. A day of little effort and no walking on the hills didn’t deserve it. So I opted for some salad and fruits from M&S. (When it comes to food in Britain, there are only three retail chains that are worth shopping – M&S, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. Of these, Waitrose offers the best value for money. M&S is expensive and sometimes one pays more for the packaging than for the food.)

All market towns in England have been built on the same principles. I have observed this in Skipton, Ripon and many towns of the Cotswolds. There is a market square that forms the focal point of the town, the hub of business and activity. Market squares were previously meant for trading goods of local produce. Specific days of the week were designated as market days. These squares stand in the same place as ever but in a different time, selling different goods to people from a different age. Big cities expand and new town centres mushroom but market towns have retained much of the feel of the past. Many lanes converge at the square. If all roads lead to Rome, it is the same here. The Town Hall and the local parish church (in some cases a cathedral as in Ripon) are located close to the square. Retail shops, restaurants, pubs, banks, estate agents, post office, tourist information centre and many such necessary businesses of our day are all located within or near the market square. A monument honouring the men of the Great War, an obelisk erected by a wealthy benefactor (Ripon), an old market hall (Chipping Campden), a clock tower, a market cross or a medieval spire (Glastonbury) add to the interest of the square. Above all, the square is circumscribed by buildings in all directions such that if there is any sort of activity in the square it gets all the attention.

In Ripon, on the facade of the Town Hall are to be found these words: “Except Ye Lord Keep Ye Cittie Ye Wakeman Waketh In Vain”. This is said to be taken from Psalm 127. There is a tradition in Ripon that has a link to this psalm. A Wakeman is someone who keeps watch over the town during the night. He is responsible for the safety of the town and has full powers to apprehend and punish those who break the laws. Every night since AD 886 a horn has been blown at the market square at 9pm to “set the night watch”. This tradition of blowing the horn is still carried on to this day although policing has changed. To be a hornblower in Ripon is no mean position. He is a public figure, well-known and respected. He is a trained musician and of good education. It is his responsibility to sound the horn every night at precisely 9pm, in every season and in any weather.

I had the satisfaction of observing this age-old tradition. The current hornblower is Alan Oliver who has performed this role since 1983. While he is on vacation his deputy fills the gap, as was the case when I was at Ripon. The hornblower drives to the market square. He is dressed in a crisp suit. He wears the official coat on top of that. The horn is slung on his left shoulder while he puts on his gloves and a hat of a rather curious shape. He then walks to the obelisk at the centre of the square. He checks the tuning of the horn. He takes his position in one corner of the obelisk. As the clock strikes nine, he steadily draws out the deep sound of the horn for about five seconds. Then he moves to the other three corners of the obelisk to do the same. He then describes to the inquisitive audience the significance of the act and the tradition that shaped it.

On New Year’s Eve I observed the hornblower once more as he ushered in the New Year. The ceremony started an hour earlier with the Mayor and other officials starting from the Town Hall for the cathedral. They were dressed in the town’s regalia that included the silver-gilded horn of AD 886. The Watchnight Service at the cathedral was short and simple, everyone being mindful of the time. The prayer consisted of no more than a seeking of blessings for the needy, the youths, the town, its businesses and trade. It was a beautiful gathering to celebrate their shared beliefs and welcome the New Year in a style that suits the history and tradition of this small town. Their love of Ripon was almost inspirational and spoke much of their pride in what they have. Then the crowd proceeded to the market square. The usual candles of previous years had been replaced this year with glow sticks. Once assembled at the square it was a wait of ten long minutes before the Mayor led the final countdown to the New Year. Fireworks followed. It was a strange gathering for me. I knew no one in town. I wished none. None wished back.

The day I left Ripon, the bus to Leeds was in the afternoon and I had to checkout from the B&B by 10am. Cathedrals have always been a refuge for the traveller. I made more than one visit to Ripon Cathedral and spent considerable time within its walls on the last day. Much is to be said about Ripon Cathedral. The arches at the crossing are lopsided. The vaulting in the nave and choir are wooden, not stone. The nave, crossing and choir are all at the same level. The altar is two steps higher. The lancelet west windows are clearly Early English. There are fascinating misericords in the choir. Among them is one which is said to have inspired Lewis Carroll – a griffin pouncing on a rabbit that tries to escape into a burrow. One of the most colourful group of stained-glass windows was the depiction of Faith, Charity and Hope. These are the three theological virtues. Likewise, I have discovered in Clandon Park the four cardinal virtues of Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance. But when shall we practice what we so highly regard? Or is it merely lip service? The Saxon crypt is a lot smaller than I had expected. It is not for the claustrophobic. The passage is no more than 2.5 feet wide. It leads to the main chamber and a smaller one adjacent to it. The crypt is kept empty to signify the resurrection of Christ and the whole cathedral stands in celebration of this resurrection. The Victorian stained-glass windows have been installed in someone’s memory by the parish, family and friends. Likewise, cushion seats and kneelers have been the contribution of the locals of our time. The cross-stitch on seats that line the aisles celebrate Ripon, its history, its churches, buildings, businesses and trade. They also depict the people, their work, amusements, beliefs and progress. The bellman who opens the market at 11am on a Thursday morning is mentioned. Neither is the hornblower forgotten. Historically and artistically, these seats are now just as much a part of the cathedral and the town as the subjects they depict. In this manner, every generation leaves something behind and leaves an imprint to the growing history of the place.

Cathedrals and church worships have been transformed in these modern times. At Ripon Cathedral mention is made of fashion shows being held within the cathedral. One may question if this is appropriate. Many cathedrals and churches regularly organise music concerts. These are rarely religious. Evensongs occasionally include unconventional songs that are boldly rendered by the choir. But such changes may well be needed to bring in the youths and the next generation of believers. Methods of worship can change. Worship can evolve to integrate with the social customs of an age. The role of the Church can change too. Ultimately, the individual’s belief of the divine should be preserved. The hope of salvation should be strengthened. In the four hours I sat at Ripon Cathedral, there was a constant activity of choir worship, sermon, discussion and prayer. The primary purpose has not been lost after all.

One cannot leave Ripon without a visit to the neighbouring National Trust property, a World Heritage Site called Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. I had started the day, the last day of 2005, with an ambitious scheme of walking all the way to Brimham Rocks and returning by bus to Ripon via Harrogate. I ended up spending the entire day at the World Heritage Site and it was time well spent. It is rare for me to sacrifice a natural wonder in preference to something man-made. This day has been one of those rare days. Yet we must realise that the wonders of man do not rise on their own. They proceed from the wonders of nature.

This Cistercian abbey started to redress the growing disillusions within the Benedictine order. They aimed at a simpler lifestyle. However, Fountains Abbey grew quickly into a large establishment. Like in the Cotswolds, wealth was made from sheep wool. To what extent their piety was preserved at the height of their wealth and richness is not known; but they certainly built a splendid building that in its present ruinous state stands or falls for our admiration.

If among castles, Corfe Castle lies indecisive between standing and falling, so is the case with Fountains Abbey among abbeys of the land. It is in a ruinous state but there is perfection in it. It represents a balance of what is there and what is not, of what still stands and what has fallen, what is old and what is newer, what has withstood the test of time and what has not. It is better than the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey which are too sparse and requiring much from human imagination. It is better than the great cathedrals that still stand today for they expose themselves openly, give little food for the imagination and hold little romantic aura.

The east window is a bare skeleton without flesh. It stands open to the sky, the trees and the meadow. It towers above you with its emptiness. Yet it is this very emptiness that frames beautifully the landscape beyond. The Cellarium is yet another example of this balance between ruin and preservation. The monks themselves would not have seen it thus. In their time it would have been broken up into smaller spaces. But now we see its entire length and are awed by the grand scheme of the medieval architect. The nave too is open to vision. One can see from one end to the other, through the choir and to the east window. The perspective is stunning from any angle you look at it, inside, outside, up or down. The Cistercian monks no longer walk these ways. The lay brothers no longer perform their daily duties. The continual prayers do not sound the walls. The abbey bells do not ring as before. Nature claims what was once hers. Moss is on the stones. Grass is on the floors. Ferns grow in crevices. Birds roost in the tower.

The old mill continues to work. It serves little of its original purpose but it is of educational value. The exhibition at the mill is worthwhile. The life in a Cistercian abbey is well related by a humorous video. It tells the tale of a novice going through the rigours of the system, learning to adopt the disciplined lifestyle that’s no more than simple necessities. It is a life dedicated to prayer, study and service. Who is to say it is not a better lifestyle than my own?

From the abbey grounds I wandered into the water gardens of Studley Royal. These are formal gardens but formality alone cannot succeed. If these gardens appealed to me it was only because of the informality of the abbey that preceded it. The same informality succeeds it. For example, the river flows by a winding course into the gardens where it is conformed to lines straight and rigid. Once the flow leaves the gardens it once more resumes its graceful course as it drains into the lake. Man may restrain nature only on the surface and for short moments only.

One of the most interesting aspects of the gardens is the dichotomy that is symbolised in the movement of water. Along the canal is the constant flow of water, always on the move. The ponds that surround it are still without even a ripple. This stillness was heightened by the surface ice on the ponds. There are two sides to everything and one is necessary to complete the other. Perhaps in summer there is a bit more colour on the ponds with blooming water lilies.

On the whole, I must confess that I was disappointed with the water gardens. The problem was not in its beauty but in the enjoyment of it. The formality comes with a design that could only be appreciated from a high viewpoint. Unfortunately, even in winter when the trees were bare of foliage, no clear views could be had from any of the paths on the hills. The Surprise View showed the abbey in the distance and the placid river but not the bridge, the falls or the artificial ponds. I couldn’t climb the Octagonal Tower for it was locked and there was no view from its base. Perhaps, in the 18th century the place had less trees and better views. If such views are to be seen again we would need to undertake the sad task of bringing down a few trees.

At ground level the perspective is quite different and not all that exciting. The truth is that at ground level the design is not seen to its advantage. The geometric shapes are morphed. The composition as could be seen from above is compressed, the balanced scheme lost to the eye. The only consolation is the monuments that are seen better by being closer. Neptune stands on a rocky island in the middle of the Moon Pond. Wouldn’t Diana be symbolically a better choice? Certainly, there are monuments that add to the beauty but it is not landscape gardening as in Stowe or Stourhead.

St Mary’s Church is visible from the village of Studley by a long straight road. The road cuts through the deer park. Sika deer were visible in plenty with their eye-catching posteriors. A pleasant walk through this park led me all the way to Ripon. It was a fitting end to a year filled with many fine walks, a year filled with many fine days, for a fine walk makes a fine day.

Farewell to Leeds

Returning to Leeds, I stayed at Headingley, just next to the church of St Chad. There were no buses on New Year’s Day but at least there were trains. It was a rather long walk from the station to the B&B. Worse still I didn’t have a detailed map of the area. It was only the accurate directions from the landlord that enabled me to find my way to the accommodation. Being next to the church, I was constantly reminded of the quick passing of the hours. The bell tolled every 30 minutes and time was short indeed. At this rate the year will be over soon although this was only the first day of the first month.

The room was comfortable. If there had been no books in the room I would not have noticed the absence. Instead, there was one book in the room, purposefully placed on the table – The Holy Bible. I was staying with an elderly couple who were Christians. They informed me that they were travelling to Calcutta in a week’s time. Their purpose was to help some Taiwanese understand how Christianity could be made to sustain and develop in a culture where it’s a minority.

I didn’t have a great deal of hope for the last day of my trip. It was a Bank Holiday Monday and I knew that most places would be closed. True to my anticipation, the City Art Gallery was closed. The Royal Armouries Museum was the only place that was open. With so much construction going on around the museum, it was a long taxing walk to get to it.

This museum is indeed a splendid place to visit. It displays a vast array of weaponry from ancient to modern. It covers the contribution of every civilisation that we have known. The sole realisation was that every civilisation has excelled in something, has contributed something to the art of weaponry, has influenced in some way weaponry as we know it today. I admired with great interest the swords and daggers from India. The 19th century powder flask of nautilus shell carved with flowers and foliage is a masterpiece. The medieval armours including the Lion Armour is craftsmanship at its best. The museum was too much for one short visit.

Leeds has some lovely buildings. One of them is the former building of the Leeds and County Liberal Club. It was opened in 1891 and is decorated on the outside with red brick and Welsh terracotta. Patterned motifs and stylized Ionic capitals keep the facade interesting even today. The Corn Exchange, now a shopping arcade, was closed for the day but it looked an attractive building on the outside. The Town Hall is an imposing building. There are some beautiful modern buildings too of concrete structures, glass facades and decorative sculptures.

After such a splendid time in the Dales, it is a pity to end my trip in Leeds which I view as rather boring and lifeless. At least, that’s the impression on a Bank Holiday. Occasionally, one may pass by a few pedestrians but mostly the streets are deserted and the shops are closed. It’s a strange feeling. When I am in a crowded city I yearn for the quietness of the mountains or the expanses of the countryside; but today I prefer the familiar face of a bustling city. A city that’s deserted is eerie. Worse still, I may have to pass by Leeds for my next trip to the Dales.

Expenses

Accommodation £ Food £ Transport £ Others £ Total £
Fri, 23 Dec - 20.00 30.00 - 50.00
Sat, 24 Dec 08.50 02.50 10.00 01.00 22.00
Sun, 25 Dec 08.50 - - - 08.50
Mon, 26 Dec 08.50 - - - 08.50
Tue, 27 Dec 08.50 07.50 - - 16.00
Wed, 28 Dec 09.00 01.00 - 01.00 11.00
Thu, 29 Dec 15.50 17.00 - 01.50 34.00
Fri, 30 Dec 32.001 08.00 06.00 - 46.00
Sat, 31 Dec 29.00 06.50 02.00 07.002 44.50
Sun, 01 Jan 22.501 - 05.50 - 28.00
Mon, 02 Jan - 02.00 08.00 - 10.00
Total 142.00 64.50 61.50 10.50 278.50
1 With breakfast
2 Guide books at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal

Part1 | Part2 | Part3





The Yorkshire Dales – Part 2

2 01 2006

26 December 2005 – 2 January 2006

Part1 | Part2 | Part3

The Three Peaks

For the next few days I stayed at Ribblehead. On Christmas Day, I walked up to the peak of Whernside, came down by the western slopes, walked through Dentdale, and returned to Ribblehead by Cowgill, Stone House and Blea Moor. On Boxing Day, I went up to Ingleborough and returned by some spectacular limestone formations. The following day I intended to climb Pen-y-ghent but foul weather prevented such a pursuit. Each day was different, a new beginning. With each day, new experiences have taken all the stress out of me. With each day I felt a fresher life as on the day I was born. There is so much beauty in this world that one begins to ask why, what for and for whom? What a waste that there is none to appreciate this beauty. Then one sees that it is for man but still the greater question remains – how should he make sense of it all? And if there is sense in it, is man too a necessary part of this beauty? Is it not true that one who sees beauty is beautiful too?

In the days and nights at Ribblehead, I had isolated myself. There were no newspapers, television or radio. Surrounded by hills, my mobile phone had no reception and was of little use. There were no shops or restaurants. The provisions I had brought lasted through the whole four days. The house where I stayed had two bedrooms with eleven beds, a kitchen with basic facilities and a toilet. In summer this place would be full of visitors but this weekend I was the only one around. It seemed a little unbelievable given that I had had a tough time finding accommodation. I cooked breakfast and dinner. I packed lunches at the start of every day. When basic food is nutritious but tasteless, a good selection of fruits always keeps the appetite going. In any case, a hard day of walking on the hills keeps the appetite healthy.

Walks were undertaken in various conditions. The day I arrived was the only day of proper sunshine. The cold wave seemed to have arrived with me. On Christmas Day, the sheep kept to their habitual tasks, oblivious to the birth of the Good Shepherd. As I left Ribblehead behind and walked to the peak of Whernside the colder temperatures on the higher slopes began to be seen and felt. There was ice everywhere. Puddles rested under a layer of thin ice. Lakes and ponds lay still without ripples. On higher slopes, stone slabs had been laid to make a proper walking path and avoid erosion. Crevices and groves on rock surfaces trapped water that had turned to ice. As such, these proved to be slippery and dangerous. On the contrary, the usually boggy ground was solid and easy to walk on.

Water. Something as basic as this is everywhere and in a constant state of transformation. Vapour condenses to morning dew. Water solidifies to ice. Ice melts as the sun rises. Water turns to vapour again. Rain, sleet or snow fall to the ground. Even toasting a bread slice for breakfast or boiling a kettle of water displays this transformation. This is the cycle in nature, the cycle of life.

If the view from Whernside towards Ribblehead was stunning the day before, the view from the peak towards Baugh Fell was different and equally stunning. The lush valley of Dentdale added to this beauty by providing a clear contrast. (In earlier travel records, I have spoken of the aspect of contrariness in the nature of beauty.) The barren slopes steeply rising from the valley of Dentdale made an imposing background. The brownish-orange colour of moorland closer to me and their wavy texture added to the overall balance and effect. On the approach to Dentdale, looking at the prospect of Rise Hill, I was overcome by a strange mix of feelings. This hill rises to the north of Dentdale and is as much a part of the valley as it delimits it. The dry-stone walls were seen to divide this hill into patches of unused land. Earlier appreciation turned to sudden abhorrence. The beauty of the hill seemed to be affected by human encroachment. Only the might of Baugh Fell in the distance preserved the wild energies of nature. But I also realised that just as beauty is only skin deep so is its loss.

Crossing Dentdale itself was an easy task but getting to it proved to be a surprise challenge. A level ground crossing Foul Moss and Blea Gills – I must mention at this point that it is fairly easy to describe tracks in Britain with reference to Ordnance Survey maps; every element of nature is named, be it a hill, a peak, a valley, a pass, a cliff, a moor, a moss, a wood, a gill, a beck, a tarn, a way, a common… – promised to be an easy path on the map. Maps give lots of information but the condition of a track is not one of them. It turned out that this track was muddy all the way and I took twice as long as planned to get through it.

Easy walking along Dentdale made it more enjoyable. Dentdale has its own viaduct of 11 arches. This viaduct is also seen from a distance on some of the paths going up Whernside. More interesting were the carrions of two ravens hung on a barb wire, wings drooping and still, feathers still intact, beaks gaping wide, eyes half-open and feet gripping the cold air. A few paces from this dismal scene I came across another that had a greater presence of death: a dozen bats strung in a line, decomposed considerably, some without ears, some without feet, some in bits and pieces, so that it was difficult to confirm if they were bats, rats or something else altogether. What strange custom and what pride in such a gory display of the day’s catch! Is this a custom of Yorkshire people alone? I don’t know but it was certainly the first time I had seen it in this country.

The return to Ribblehead via Blea Moor was a privilege. In today’s world, silence is a precious commodity, rarely found and easily abused. On Blea Moor silence is the only thing to be heard. It may sound strange to hear silence but indeed if a person was locked up in a quiet sound-proof room he would still hear something, a steady sound that escalates to a high pitch, a sound that comes from within the ear. Such was the sound of silence on Blea Moor. Where I stood, there no breeze blew, no cloud rolled, no bird sang, no stream flowed and nothing stirred. Only silence.

Climbing Whernside was a breeze and I hadn’t expected any worse. Ingleborough, on the other hand, had some steep climbs but still within reach of an easy conquest. But how quickly the weather can change and how difficult things can become! The climb up Ingleborough offered many fine views including the scars on the opposite side of the valley to the west. Whernside, now a familiar sight, was no longer distant and harsh. Pen-y-ghent, covered in mist, still kept its secrets. Such views were short-lived. The mist rolled in thick and steady. Without any view, the path ahead was the only focus of concentration. Walking in such poor visibility is almost meditative and rhythmic. If the rhythm is broken it is only by an alertness that enforces that the path is kept strictly underfoot. The tough part was getting to the peak, with winds strong enough to put one out of balance. On terrain this close to a precipice, a misstep is a certain fall; a fall, a certain injury.

Some may ask if this is worth the effort. Such a doubt is misplaced. It never occurs to the mind of an adventurer. The rewards are all there for the taking. Two such rewards have been mine on this dreary day. The first was on the way up Ingleborough. The higher slopes were covered with green moss with patches of ice here and there. From this sprung tall blades of grass. The dew on them had solidified to shiny crystals. To witness white grass swaying to the wind was ethereal. This is survival at its ultimate. The second reward of the day was on the return to Ribblehead via Selside. The limestone formations strewn wide across the valley in between Ingleborough and Pen-y-ghent are breathtaking. One can admire the little plants that have established themselves in this ecosystem. It is mostly ferns that grow in the niches under the rocks and in the deep shaded spaces between them. One can walk the narrow paths between these eroded rocks, feel the smooth curves and textures, or be mesmerised by the contorted shapes. Here it is hard to believe that one is in England. Signs of human presence are minimal and even these are hardly noticeable. Such is the wild natural aura of the place that it demands all attention. Rocks, whittled away by elements of nature over time, form a unique landscape. It is as if these rocks were left behind in some prehistoric journey of the mountains and the seas. These are the freckles on the face of this beautiful land and still make the face more beautiful. The rocks are silent but they tell their stories. Each rock bears the imprint of Time in a unique way; yet all of them stand together in brotherly solidarity. Together in their skeletal forms they stand firm, facing Destiny. They know that one day their end will come.

Across these limestone pavements I viewed the spectacular peak of Pen-y-ghent, the clouds finally dispersing. The sky was clear. The peak revealed its characteristic shape, a gradual ascent on one side but scree covered steepness on the other. Often it appears that the best way to enjoy a mountain or a hill is from its base, in utmost humility. Still an attempt would have to be made to get to the top of Pen-y-ghent because humility doesn’t come easily to human minds.

The final day at Ribblehead began with a generous spread of frost from the colder night before. The sky was murky and showed sure signs of a proper winter day. After a short walk towards Pen-y-ghent I realised that it was in fact not just frost that covered the hills but snow as well. It was not long before the sleet showers started. A cold wind blew, beating the sleet against my face. Paths were faint and visibility poor. These conditions were new to me. I had never previously walked in proper snow. Thin sheets of ice hiding cold clear pools lay everywhere. Misstepping on one could mean cold wet feet for the rest of the day. Snow got between the threads of boots. With each step it made a crunching sound. A clean white country lane stretched ahead only to be left behind with ungainly footprints made in a hurry. As the day wore on, some serious snow started to fall. I decided to follow the road to Horton-in-Ribblesdale and returned by the same route. The scenes of the day have been enjoyable without doubt. Pen-y-ghent once again stole the show. Covered in snow, it presented a face so different from that of yesterday. The rocks projecting from its steep cliffs hung like a necklace of precious stones. All the surrounding hills had turned white. The grit salt on the road kept it ice-free for only a couple of hours and no more. Occasionally the sun came out from between the clouds and all the hills glowed in its light. There is something striking in colourless white experienced in this manner: pure, clean, fresh and uniform.

Walks never go as planned, at least for me. Perhaps, this reflects on my poor orienteering skills and lack of proper training. In some cases, it’s just the situation that’s different from expected. More than once I have had to change my routes during this trip. While walking in Dentdale, there was the need to cross a stream but Tommy’s Bridge was closed for repair. It would be reopened only in February 2006. A simple alternative was presented on a notice posted at the bridge and this had to be taken. On another occasion, the public footpath that passed a farm had been diverted. The suggested alternative could not be found. The risk of crossing the farm could not be favoured. The planned walk had to be aborted completely and a much shorter alternative was selected. That was the day of heavy snow. That was the day Pen-y-ghent could not be conquered. Ingleborough was a different matter. I had intended to climb down from the peak by way of Gaping Gill and Ingleborough Cave. The first problem was the mist. The second was that the peak is in fact a wide plateau and the path I was looking for starts right at the edge of the plateau with no clear path leading up to it. There are no paths on the plateau. It is has been in use by our ancestors since the Iron Ages. I spent only 30 minutes at the peak and I was anxious for the calm comfort of the valleys below. It is almost unimaginable that Iron Age people used to live in this inhospitable terrain. After some fruitless searches along the rim of the plateau, tempting danger in some cases, I finally changed my plan and returned via Simon Fell. This is possibly my only regret of the trip. This region is riddled with caves and pot holes but I had not explored even one of them. On the other hand, I am thankful that I have not been trapped in a cave or fallen into a pot hole. It all depends on the point of view.

The evenings at my lodging were quiet as ever. Upon returning from my daily walks, I used to take a light snack and a hot drink. On some days I took a short nap. A simple dinner followed later, cooked in a microwave oven. On a couple of occasions I hand-washed my clothes before dinner and hung them on the radiator so that they would be dry by next day morning. Evenings were also the time to make notes about the day, spend an hour or two reading poetry and sometimes write some of my own. Sunsets are early in winter and rarely spectacular because the sun is usually never seen. As the hours darkened, the silhouettes of hills darkened in the distance. Staying at Ribblehead, right in the heart of the Dales and within sight of the Three Peaks, it was easy to notice that these distances are not much. The silhouettes then disappeared with the fading light. All that remained was darkness without form, shape or size. In this complete dark space that stretched in all directions, the cold chill of the night began in earnest. It was comforting to know that I had a warm bed for the night, a simple dinner in wait and a restful night that’s well deserved.

The Wonders of Malham

On 25th December, I walked 28km in 8 hours; on 26th December, 15km in 6 hours; on the 27th, 19km in 4 hours. On the 28th, I walked from Settle to Malham and then around Malham, covering about 16km in 6 hours. I have realised that on some of these days I have walked too much. A more leisurely approach would have enabled me to appreciate better the works of nature. It is not enough to see and admire, to stand in awe and take in an eyeful. It is more important to formulate what one feels, to understand if possible that feeling. Feelings are not easily understood and sometimes even missed in their fleeting journeys. Better still would be to put them down in words because any appreciation is incomplete as long as it remains inexpressible. In like manner, it is of no importance to me to know how this landscape was formed. The unearthed secrets of geology are of no consequence. It little matters if the rocks are limestone or sandstone. It little matters if these are remains of the last Ice Age or something more recent. It suffices to know that these are the works of nature, ever changing and enduring in various forms. Feeling is greater than knowledge.

For the rest of the trip there was not much walking done. A surprise injury to my left knee had turned from bad to worse. For a long time I wondered what had caused this injury. I had hit my knee against the metal edge of the shower screen while staying at Ribblehead but this was dismissed as minor. Then I realised that on Christmas day I had suffered an early injury. The walking stick had come in the way. I had been carelessly swaying it around and the knee had suffered a direct hit. The pain was short-lived and never troubled me for the next few days. However, the walk from Settle to Malham had been done with the full weight of my backpack, not just a day pack. This had woken the pain from its grave. This injury plus the growing Achilles Heel that has been with me for many months, prevented further serious walks on the hills.

Therefore, the last serious walk was the one from Settle to Malham. I arrived at Settle by the 0715 train from Ribblehead. So early in the morning no one came to issue tickets. I travelled without one. As the early bird catches the worm, or one makes hay while the sun shines, it was a day to walk the snow-clad hills before the sun started to melt them down. It was a beautiful walk of untouched beauty. The scenes were picture perfect. The air was still with the wonder that had taken just one night in the making. Every object was clothed in snow. The sun came up to warm the pastures far away beyond Settle. As the snow started to melt, the colours of the valley were revealed in a new subtle light. There were yet places where the sun could not reach and the snow remained secure in those cold shadows.

More than once in Yorkshire hills I have had unexpected encounters with sheep. The walk to Malham was no exception. They seem to be somehow more intelligent or more daring than their counterparts in Southern England. They understand well the truth about strength in numbers. They will not hesitate to adopt an aggressive attitude towards a solitary walker who has no choice but to pass their private spaces. Sheep don’t understand the concept of public paths and rights of way. In my case, they could have viewed my walking stick as a threat. I have seen them team up in numbers, lower their sharp horns and follow me as I pass the fields. Only the threat of my waving stick kept them at bay. Having said this, I must acknowledge that their horns are a beauty. They represent the face of the Dales so much so that the Yorkshire Dales National Park has made it their logo. At Malham YHA, it is the same face made out from a mosaic of colourful pebbles that welcomes visitors. Likewise, at Buck’s Inn at Malham, the doors to the toilets don’t say “Ladies” and “Gentlemen”; rather then bleat “Ewes” and “Tups”. The discovery of a culture lies in these small things, things that tell the life of ordinary people. In the case of Yorkshire it is a life that is primarily farming. In the Dales, you are never far from a sheep farm.

The names of places are also of much interest, not only in Yorkshire but in much of the country. It is easy to see that dale names are derived from the rivers that flow through them. River Ribble flows through Ribblesdale and River Wharfe through Wharfedale. But this is not a general rule. Littondale takes its name from the village of Litton. Dentdale comes from the village of Dent although one wonders if River Dee holds the etymological root. Mention is made of Malhamdale around Malham but such a name does not appear on the OS map. The reverse is just as true where a stream takes the name of the dale as in Widdale Beck, Raydale Beck or Bishopdale Beck. Likewise are named many coastal towns by the river that drains into the sea. Falmouth, Sidmouth, Exmouth and Weymouth are some examples. In these cases, the river has been a means of navigation, a life support to farming and settlement. It is therefore natural that any town that depends upon it and grows by it, should take its name. Often, names are reused. I have crossed River Avon in Dartmoor. I have also walked by River Avon in Oxfordshire only to discover later that these are two different rivers. There is a place called Basildon in Berkshire, but there is yet another Basildon in Essex. There is St Ives in Cornwall as well as in Cambridgeshire. There is Gillingham in Dorset as well as in Kent.

There are many proclaimed wonders in Malham: Malham Cove with its limestone cliffs, gullies and pavements; Malham Tarn carved out by glacial movement; Water Sinks where I suppose water suddenly sinks into the ground (but this was no wonder today where all was ice on the surface and no water flow could be heard); Janet’s Foss which to me had little remarkable; Gordale Scar, the most impressive of them all, a difficult climb that could not be attempted with my injury. The paths between these places were traversed with difficulty. The difficulty was due to the injured knee but also due to the slippery conditions that prevailed. In many places the snow had melted to murky black ice. The eroded limestone pavements were a beauty and just as much a danger. So were the roads and paved walkways. I realised that my boots were not meant for these conditions. Every step had to be taken gingerly. Other walkers didn’t seem to have a problem.

I suppose I would have climbed Gordale Scar if I had made an attempt. I suppose I would have taken a risk if I had greater faith in myself. Decision making is a difficult thing. It treads a subtle line between cowardice and foolishness, between confidence and arrogance, between humility and diffidence, between greed and ambition, between love and madness, between pride and vanity, between lethargy and self-contentment, between idleness and contemplation, between thought and action.

The second day in Malham was one of necessary rest. No walks were undertaken. I browsed lazily at the Tourist Information Centre. There was not much else to do in this village. I had lunch at the Buck Inn. I ordered stir-fried oriental vegetables with rice and samosas. Strangely, only one samosa turned up, in singular not plural. So for dinner I tried the Lister Arms where above the door was printed “1723″. I arrived too early for dinner which is served only from 7pm. So I started with dry Chardonnay while pouring over A.E. Housman. Dinner came later: basil and tomato pesto topped with rocket salad, garlic bread and a side order of mashed suede, steamed broccoli and peas. It was a relaxed day on the whole.

One cannot leave Yorkshire without a taste of Yorkshire pudding. On the last night at Ribblehead, I had this as a starter at the Station Inn. The main course consisted of a serving of fresh salad, wild rice and a mix of vegetables. It was excellent and good value for money. I have eaten at some expensive restaurants in London but nothing captures the spirit of an English dining experience so much as in a country pub. Even if the food is not English, the ambience makes up for it. I fondly remember some dinners in Keswick and Rosthwaite in the Lake District. In Glastonbury, the dinner was served from a freezer and a microwave. This too is as English as many other things. In the Cotswolds, the food was as beautiful as the place itself. The local flavour and colour brought a whole new meaning to the experience. In Plymouth, the decor in the pub was inspired by the sea and every detail bore that influence.

Before I proceed to describe the rest of my travels I have to relate the unique experience of staying at the Hill Top Bunk Barn. This converted barn offers self-catering accommodation for as many as 32 people spread in 6 rooms. The lounge area is spacious. The kitchen is well-fitted. Bathrooms are clean and well-maintained. The walls are of stone and mortar. There is no plaster to cover their elemental beauty. The wooden rafters are unvarnished. The stairs are of limestone slabs. The furniture is a mix of old country style and mid-twentieth century modernity. On this particular night when I stayed here, the place was comfortably warm and a bright Christmas tree stood in a corner. The air bore the smell of the country and farm, natural and fresh. Most of all, the entire place was for me alone!

At Hill Top Bunk Barn, my attention was strongly drawn to one of many traditional English wooden chairs. I immediately recalled the chairs I had seen at the Geffrey Museum in London. Here at the barn, the chair is still in active use, functional as ever, as old as the style itself; it was no museum piece. True appreciation of this chair is possible only in its rightful setting. If this chair had been in a modern room in London it would have looked out of place. Even if it had been in daily use it would be no more than a showpiece. However, at the barn it is in its natural setting, in a place where it was conceived and made. It blends well with the floor, the walls, the roof and wooden rafters. It aesthetic value is best preserved here. This is indeed a tribute to the skilled craftsmanship of an age long lost. In recognition, it is not out of place to describe this chair. The legs and the six spokes that form the backrest are beautifully carved. This carving is not elaborate or excessive but executed in just proportion and manner that reflects the modest taste of country folks. The legs and the spokes of the backrest fan outwards. This is a welcome gesture and an open invitation for someone to sit. The promises of comfort are well discharged. The smooth texture and its interminable relationship with nature grow better with age and use. Since the legs open outwards, an H-shaped crossbar join the legs, thereby providing greater structural stability. The backrest has a wide notch at the top and this serves well in lifting the chair easily. All these may sound mundane and ordered but the visible grains in the wood forever speak the chaotic beauty of nature.

Part1 | Part2 | Part3





The Yorkshire Dales – Part 1

2 01 2006

26 December 2005 – 2 January 2006

Part1 | Part2 | Part3

Preparations

It has not been my practice to record trivialities of any trip be it a weekend break or a longer one. I have not bothered to write about how I travel, what time did I start my journey and how did I proceed; how long did I have to wait for the bus, where I had my lunch or how difficult it was to find a particular walking track. I have not mentioned anywhere the cost of such travels, either in terms of money or time. Neither have I described the preparations for a trip, how I zoomed on a particular destination and the ways of gathering useful information before travel. If I had touched on any of these earlier it is only to bring out a particular point, a curious incident or peculiarity of the place visited. Otherwise, what interest could they hold for the reader? What use could be derived from such details that have little connection to place or people?

However, I start these notes differently, with the very trivialities I have thus far avoided. They have a place, though not a permanent one. They are of interest to the non-traveller who has never ventured beyond the comfort of his home or country. Equally so, they are of interest to those who detest public transport and thus miss the many pleasures they offer. In these little details lie the soul of my travel, not the place itself but getting to it and getting about it. These details trace the signature of my travel methods and perhaps even of myself. From these lines I wish to reveal who I am, not by telling but by showing.

My first visit to Scotland some weeks back had been a brief one. The great distance between Hampshire and Scotland, and the great many natural wonders of Scotland that I am yet to see justify a longer visit. The week long break from Christmas through New Year was a perfect opportunity to visit Scotland once more and give some continuity to my travels. With this in mind I headed to Farnborough Library to find out what’s waiting out there. A quick read was sufficient to tell me that I was not prepared to tackle the Scottish mountains in winter. Walking in snow and ice on unfamiliar remote terrain is a dangerous challenge. I have never used crampons. With my lack of experience in such conditions it was clearly a risk. Public transport in Scotland during winter didn’t look good. So the next best option was to visit Northern England. Lake District had already been visited earlier this year. Northumberland didn’t excite me too much but I guess this was because I was already biased towards the Yorkshire Dales. I had been considering the Dales since summer. These are moderate hills that could be attempted even in winter. In bad weather, the valleys offered adequate consolation. I also found that cheap accommodation was plenty in the Dales.

I borrowed the required maps, Ordnance Survey Landranger 98 and 104. Some general books on the Dales had to be read before leaving. For company, A.E. Housman and John Betjeman were also borrowed.

After some research the plan quickly took shape. Leeds appeared as the best place to start for the Dales. I would spend some nights at Kettlewell. It was in the heart of the Dales and a good base for exploring Wharfedale, Littondale, Conistone Moor and Malham. It had a YHA and some bunk-bed accommodation. The day before Christmas there were buses from Leeds to Kettlewell, although not a direct route. After leaving Kettlewell, for the next few days I would use Hawes as the base to explore Widdale, Sleddale, Wensleydale and Thwaite Common. Then I would make my way towards the region of the three peaks, perhaps using Selside or Horton-in-Ribblesdale as base. Buses between places had to be sorted out, one step at a time. Given that on some days there were no buses it was important to stay at a suitable base with sufficient walking opportunities.

In summer I could afford to take just my tent, get the train or bus tickets and travel without concern. Winter is different. Cold nights are silent killers. I had to get accommodation for all the nights. I e-mailed Kettlewell YHA only to find that they were closed during Christmas. I called Malham YHA with the same result. I called numerous other places that offered cheap stays. All of them were fully booked, not by individuals but by groups that had leased the place for the entire holiday period. It became clear that accommodation was going to determine my plan and I had to change it accordingly. Finally, I got lucky at The Station Inn at Ribblehead. This place was available for the first four nights including Christmas. I quickly booked it. Ribblehead seemed a good base to explore Whernside and Ingleborough. It wasn’t exactly the best starting point for Pen-y-ghent but I wasn’t complaining. To get a bed for four nights was in itself an achievement.

It is convenient that information on public transport is available on the Internet and could be obtained within a few clicks. The holiday period does complicate the details. One has to check the normal timetables and route maps. Then, one must apply the special restrictions due to Christmas, New Year and the Bank Holidays. When in doubt, one must call the bus operators and usually there is more than one operator serving an area as large as the Dales.

But first I had to get to Yorkshire. Train was the most comfortable option – to start at six in the morning, reaching Ribblehead at about noon. The cost of this came to about ninety pounds! So comfort had to be sacrificed for cost. A return ticket by an overnight bus from London to Leeds was only thirty pounds and I booked it without further thought. From Leeds, a single ticket to Ribblehead costs only ten pounds. My return path would be different anyway.

So it began and my plan resembled nothing of what it had been. From Ribblehead I had to take a train to Settle, walk from Settle to Malham where I would stay for two nights at two different places – the first night at Hill Top Bunk Barn, the second night at Malham YHA. Then I would somehow (I didn’t know how) make my way to Ripon which is way out of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. There were no direct buses from Wharfedale to Ripon. For that matter, there were no buses whatsoever from Malham. Malham truly appeared to be unconnected by public transport. I could find no information on the Internet. Ripon had never featured in my original plan but it was the only place that had a bed for New Year’s Eve and that too at a price I normally wouldn’t pay. So another trip to the library was made to borrow Ordnance Survey Landranger 99. A check of current weather conditions at BBC’s website prompted me to buy a new waterproof jacket. Provisions were bought – broccoli and carrots for vegetables; pears, apples and oranges for fruits; cereal bars, cereals and chocolate powder for breakfast; Uncle Ben’s pre-cooked flavoured rice and Bachelor’s noodles for main meals; white bread and tortilla wraps for preparing packed lunches while on the move. The accommodation at Ribblehead was self-catering. The pub would be closed during Christmas and I had to be self-sufficient.

For the last night I decided to stay at Leeds but all accommodation proved to be expensive. It was almost seven in the evening and I was still at the office making phone calls to book a bed. The bus from London Victoria was to depart at eleven. I had to return home, have dinner, pack my stuff and leave. The bed for the last night had to be booked later.

Arrival in Leeds

I left London Victoria by service number 465 at 2330 and reached Leeds at 0515. There is no proper sleep in an overnight bus but snatches of short naps are easy for the weary. The incomparable comfort lies in the fact that someone does the driving while you relax as much as you can. The connecting train from Leeds to Ribblehead was at 0849. The time in between was usefully spent walking the dark empty streets of Leeds in the hours before sunrise. I was surprised at the number of notable buildings. Their details were hidden in darkness yet their silhouette put on a stately appearance. I didn’t know the identities or who built them. There was time enough to find these out later on in the trip.

Some effort was made to book a bed for the last night of my stay in Yorkshire. Without proper contacts or resources it was a difficult if not an impossible task. In addition, the tourist information centres would be closed on New Year’s Day when I was scheduled to arrive back in Leeds. It was therefore decided to wait for the Tourist Information Centre at the train station to open at 0900 so as to sort out not only the accommodation but also bus routes and timings within the Dales. Thus, I postponed my departure from Leeds to 1049. Meanwhile, I came to know that all local buses were off-service on New Year’s Day. Fortunately, National Express was still running and I managed to book in advance my return from Ripon to Leeds.

Finally, after a few phone calls, I was successful in booking a bed for the first night of the New Year. I now had confirmed accommodation for all the nights. Buses and trains had been sorted out. Where this had not been possible, a day-long walk was seen as a challenge.

First Glimpse of the Dales

“Dale” is from an old English word that means a deep, narrow valley edged with steep slopes. I first came across this word in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, as a word spoken by Queen Titania. There are many places in England that could be called by this name. However, the fame of the Yorkshire Dales is so widespread that a mention of the word could mean nothing else. It is a fame established by the enduring beauty of the place.

The first glimpse of the Dales was by the famous Settle-Carlisle rail route. The mist revealed the landscape in parts and never in whole. It was as if one had to earn the privilege to experience the magic of the Dales. Low hills gave way to higher slopes. All of a sudden, the dramatic Pen-y-ghent came into view but its peak remained hidden. The moors around were bare and bleak. Yet they had a charm that came from their wild isolation. The promise of splendid walks was already beginning to mature.

But earning one’s privileges doesn’t come easily in the Dales. The first Yorkshire farmer I met had a frowning face. The welcome smile was missing. The beauty of the Dales seemed to be a private prerogative of the locals not to be shared with suspicious visitors. Influence of the outside world was shunned, perhaps regarded with prejudice and contempt. The barns and farm-houses had little touch of modernisation, at least on the outside. The only sign of any outside influence lay in the presence of a bewildering array of machine-driven farm tools. To guess each one’s use would in itself be a challenge to the city dweller. Of course, I am being too sarcastic. One should not judge all Yorkshire people from one short meeting on a cold day.

One of the first things I noticed in the Dales are the ubiquitous walls. Dry-stone walls are not new to me. I had seen them in and around Keswick. Perhaps, I had not studied them closely before but here in Yorkshire these walls are breathtaking. There is a neatness and perfection in their design and execution. They tumble, wind and explore the hills in a static dance. As one stone connects to another without anything in between, one wall connects to another with a filial bond and affection. Though they divide and separate the land, the unity and uniformity in the landscape cannot be missed. The walls are further strengthened by wooden poles on either side. Barbed wires link these poles in a zigzag pattern along the length of the walls. Here beauty and art stand in tribute to the skilful men of the countryside.

The first view of the Ribblehead Viaduct was an unforgettable one. The viaduct in itself is not a wonder of man’s ingenuity. The fame of the viaduct lies in its settings, surrounded by hills all around. Here is some wilderness, a place where one least expects to find any mark of civilisation; as if a wandering uncouth tribe, knowing no more than hunting and gathering, should chance to see this stone bridge of 24 arches gracefully joining hill to hill, and stand in silent awe. A thin wisp of cloud hanging over the bridge only heightened this allure. Then to walk through and under this viaduct, to look up at the towering edifice was to experience it in a completely different perspective. The viaduct seemed to tower above and over the hills, to frame the hills within the bounds of its supports, to mock the same hills and their elements from which it was made.

The hills that surround the viaduct are not mean in size or shape. They have a imposing character of their own. Their barren face seen from far belies the little lives that thrive even on higher slopes. The ground is wet and boggy. Wild grass and moss thrive in plenty. Sheep graze even at a height of 500m. Sightings of little birds are only for those with keen eyes. On the very first afternoon at Ribblehead (300m), I climbed Whernside up a steep path. I left the peak of Whernside (736m) for the next day and stopped at 600m. I stood on wet solid ground but I could hear the soft flow of underground streams right under my feet. The surprises of nature cannot be numbered. The view from Whernside towards Ribblehead has little comparison and much wonder. The peaks of Ingleborough (724m) and Pen-y-ghent (694m) are clearly seen. The lesser hills join in undulations like rhythmic waves on a sea. Country roads wind and disappear. A solitary smoke from a farmhouse rises and loses itself. The valley is secretive and the mist still hangs. The mist moves slowly, linking, unlinking, dividing, joining, circling, flowing, swirling, departing… The setting sun bathes the scene with a subtle glow. Some bare trees catch and filter this light as through a translucent veil. The clear sky and a few clouds on the western horizon accentuate the drama. The curve of the viaduct completes the picture. Next to it, the Station Inn, with my bed and a warm dinner, awaits my return.

Part1 | Part2 | Part3








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