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