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Wensleydale

In 1900- “ The approach from Muker to the upper part of Wensleydale is by a mountain road that can claim a grandeur which, to those who have never explored the dales, might almost seem impossible. I have called it a road, but it is, perhaps, questionable whether this is not too high-sounding a term for a track so invariably covered with large loose stones and furrowed with water-courses. At its highest point the road goes through the Buttertubs Pass, taking the traveller to the edge of the pot-holes that have given their name to this thrilling way through the mountain ridge dividing the Swale from the Ure.

15Such a lonely and dangerous road should no doubt be avoided at night, but yet I am always grateful for the delays which made me so late that darkness came on when I was at the highest portion of the pass. It was late in September, and it was the day of the feast at Hawes, which had drawn to that small town farmers and their wives, and most, if not all, the young men and maidens within a considerable radius. I made my way slowly up the long ascent from Muker, stumbling frequently on the loose stones and in the water-worn runnels that were scarcely visible in the dim twilight. The huge, bare shoulders of the fells began to close in more and more as I climbed. Towards the west lay Great Shunnor Fell, its vast brown-green mass being sharply defined against the clear evening sky; while further away to the north-west there were blue mountains going to sleep in the soft mistiness of the distance. Then the road made a sudden zig-zag, but went on climbing more steeply than ever, until at last I found that the stony track had brought me to the verge of a precipice. There was not sufficient light to see what dangers lay beneath me, but I could hear the angry sound of a beck falling upon quantities of bare rocks. If one does not keep to the road, there is on the other side the still greater menace of the Buttertubs, the dangers of which are too well known to require any emphasis of mine. Those pot-holes which have been explored with much labour, and the use of winches and tackle and a great deal of stout rope, have revealed in their cavernous depths the bones of sheep that disappeared from flocks which have long since become mutton. This road is surely one that would have afforded wonderful illustrations to the 'Pilgrim's Progress,' for the track is steep and narrow and painfully rough; dangers lie on either side, and safety can only be found by keeping in the middle of the road.

What must have been the thoughts, I wonder, of the dalesmen who on different occasions had to go over the pass at night in those still recent times when wraithes and hobs were terrible realities? In the parts of Yorkshire where any records of the apparitions that used to enliven the dark nights have been kept, I find that these awesome creatures were to be found on every moor, and perhaps some day in my reading I shall discover an account of those that haunted this pass.

Although there are probably few who care for rough moorland roads at night, the Buttertubs Pass in daylight is still a memorable place. The pot-holes can then be safely approached, and one can peer into the blackness below until the eyes become adapted to the gloom. Then one sees the wet walls of limestone and the curiously-formed isolated pieces of rock that almost suggest columnar basalt. In crevices far down delicate ferns are growing in the darkness. They shiver as the cool water drips upon them from above, and the drops they throw off fall down lower still into a stream of underground water that has its beginnings no man knows where. On a hot day it is cooling simply to gaze into the Buttertubs, and the sound of the falling waters down in these shadowy places is pleasant after gazing on the dry fell-sides.

Just beyond the head of the pass, where the descent to Hawes begins, the shoulders of Great Shunnor Fell drop down, so that not only straight ahead, but also westwards, one can see a splendid mountain view. Ingleborough's flat top is conspicuous in the south, and in every direction there are indications of the geology of the fells. The hard stratum of millstone grit that rests upon the limestone gives many of the summits of the hills their level character, and forms the sharply-defined scars that encircle them. The sudden and violent changes of weather that take place among these watersheds would almost seem to be cause enough to explain the wearing down of the angularities of the heights. Even while we stand on the bridge at Hawes we can see three or four ragged cloud edges letting down on as many places torrential rains, while in between there are intervals of blazing sunshine, under which the green fells turn bright yellow and orange in powerful contrast to the indigo shadows on every side. Such rapid changes from complete saturation to sudden heat are trying to the hardest rocks, and at Hardraw, close at hand, there is a still more palpable process of denudation in active operation.

Such a morning as this is quite ideal for seeing the remarkable waterfall known as Hardraw Scar or Force. The footpath that leads up the glen leaves the road at the side of the 'Green Dragon' at Hardraw, where the innkeeper hands us a key to open the gate we must pass through. Being September, and an uncertain day for weather, we have the whole glen to ourselves, until behind some rocks we discover a solitary angler. There is nothing but the roughest of tracks to follow, for the carefully-made pathway that used to go right up to the fall was swept away half a dozen years ago, when the stream in a fierce mood cleared its course of any traces of artificiality. We are deeply grateful, and make our among the big rocks and across the slippery surfaces of shale, with the roar of the waters becoming more and more insistent. The sun has turned into the ravine a great searchlight that has lit up the rock walls and strewn the wet grass beneath with sparkling jewels. On the opposite side there is a dense blue shadow over everything except the foliage on the brow of the cliffs, where the strong autumn colours leap into a flaming glory that transforms the ravine into an astonishing splendour. A little more careful scrambling by the side of the stream, and we see a white band of water falling from the overhanging limestone into the pool about ninety feet below. Off the surface of the water drifts a mist of spray, in which a soft patch of rainbow hovers until the sun withdraws itself for a time and leaves a sudden gloom in the horseshoe of overhanging cliffs. The place is, perhaps, more in sympathy with a cloudy sky, but, under sunshine or cloud, the spout of water is a memorable sight, and its imposing height places Hardraw among the small group of England's finest waterfalls. The mass of shale that lies beneath this stratum is soft enough to be worked away by the water until the limestone overhangs the pool to the extent of ten or twelve feet, so that the water falls sheer into the circular basin, leaving a space between the cliff and the fall where it is safe to walk on a rather moist and slippery path that is constantly being sprayed from the surface of the pool.

John Leland wrote, nearly four hundred years ago, 'Uredale veri litle Corne except Bygg or Otes, but plentiful of Gresse in Communes,' and although this dale is so much more genial in aspect, and so much wider than the valley of the Swale, yet crops are under the same disabilities. Leaving Gayle behind, we climb up a steep and stony road above the beck until we are soon above the level of green pasturage. The stone walls still cover the hillsides with a net of very large mesh, but the sheep find more bent than grass, and the ground is often exceedingly steep. Higher still climbs this venturesome road, until all around us is a vast tumble of gaunt brown fells, divided by ravines whose sides are scarred with runnels of water, which have exposed the rocks and left miniature screes down below. At a height of nearly 1,600 feet there is a gate, where we will turn away from the road that goes on past Dodd Fell into Langstrothdale, and instead climb a smooth grass track sprinkled with half-buried rocks until we have reached the summit of Wether Fell, 400 feet higher. There is a scanty growth of ling upon the top of this height, but the hills that lie about on every side are browny-green or of an ochre colour, and there is little of the purple one sees in the Cleveland Hills.

The cultivated level of Wensleydale is quite hidden from view, so that we look over a vast panorama of mountains extending in the west as far as the blue fells of Lakeland. I have painted the westward view from this very summit, so that any written description is hardly needed; but behind us, as we face the scene illustrated here, there is a wonderful expanse that includes the heights of Addlebrough, Stake Fell, and Penhill Beacon, which stand out boldly on the southern side of Wensleydale. I have seen these hills lightly covered with snow, but that can give scarcely the smallest suggestion of the scene that was witnessed after the remarkable snowstorm of January, 1895, which blocked the roads between Wensleydale and Swaledale until nearly the middle of March. Roads were dug out, with walls of snow on either side from 10 to 15 feet in height, but the wind and fresh falls almost obliterated the passages soon after they had been cut. In Landstrothdale Mr. Speight tells of the extraordinary difficulties of the dalesfolk in the farms and cottages, who were faced with starvation owing to the difficulty of getting in provisions. They cut ways through the drifts as high as themselves in the direction of the likeliest places to obtain food, while in Swaledale they built sledges.

When we have left the highest part of Wether Fell, we find the track taking a perfectly straight line between stone walls. The straightness is so unusual that there can be little doubt that it is a survival of one of the Roman ways connecting their station on Brough Hill, just above the village of Bainbridge, with some place to the south-west. The track goes right over Cam Fell, and is known as the Old Cam Road, but I cannot recommend it for any but pedestrians. When we have descended only a short distance, there is a sudden view of Semmerwater, the only piece of water in Yorkshire that really deserves to be called a lake. It is a pleasant surprise to discover this placid patch of blue lying among the hills, and partially hidden by a fellside in such a way that its area might be far greater than 105 acres.

Those who know Turner's painting of this lake would be disappointed, no doubt, if they saw it first from this height. The picture was made at the edge of the water with the Carlow Stone in the foreground, and over the mountains on the southern shore appears a sky that would make the dullest potato-field thrilling.

A short distance lower down, by straying a little from the road, we get a really imposing view of Bardale, into which the ground falls suddenly from our very feet. Sheep scamper nimbly down their convenient little tracks, but there are places where water that overflows from the pools among the bent and ling has made blue-grey seams and wrinkles in the steep places that give no foothold even to the toughest sheep.

We lose sight of Semmerwater behind the ridge that forms one side of the branch dale in which it lies, but in exchange we get beautiful views of the sweeping contours of Wensleydale. High upon the further side of the valley Askrigg's gray roofs and pretty church stand out against a steep fellside; further down we can see Nappa Hall, surrounded by trees, just above the winding river, and Bainbridge lies close at hand. We soon come to the broad and cheerful green, surrounded by a picturesque scattering of old but well preserved cottages; for Bainbridge has sufficient charms to make it a pleasant inland resort for holiday times that is quite ideal for those who are content to abandon the sea. The overflow from Semmerwater, which is called the Bam, fills the village with its music as it falls over ledges or rock in many cascades along one side of the green.

There is a steep bridge, which is conveniently placed for watching the waterfalls; there are white geese always drilling on the grass, and there are still to be seen the upright stones of the stocks. The pretty inn called the 'Rose and Crown,' overlooking a corner of the green states upon a board that it was established in 1445.

A horn-blowing custom has been preserved at Bainbridge. It takes place at ten o'clock every night between Holy Rood (September 27) and Shrovetide, but somehow the reason for the observance has been forgotten. The medieval regulations as to the carrying of horns by foresters and those who passed through forests would undoubtedly associate the custom with early times, and this happy old village certainly gains our respect for having preserved anything from such a remote period. When we reach Bolton Castle we shall find in the museum there an old horn from Bainbridge.

Besides having the length and breadth of Wensleydale to explore with or without the assistance of the railway, Bainbridge has as its particular possession the valley containing Semmerwater, with the three romantic dales at its head. Counterside, a hamlet perched a little above the lake, has an old hall, where George Fox stayed in 1677 as a guest of Richard Robinson. The inn bears the date 1667 and the initials 'B.H.J.,' which may be those of one of the Jacksons, who were Quakers at that time.

On the other side of the river, and scarcely more than a mile from Bainbridge, is the little town of Askrigg, which supplies its neighbour with a church and a railway-station. There is a charm in its breezy situation that is ever present, for even when we are in the narrow little street that curves steeply up the hill there are quite exhilarating peeps of the dale. We can see Wether Fell, with the road we traversed yesterday plainly marked on the slopes, and down below, where the Ure takes its way through bright pastures, there is a mist of smoke ascending from Hawes. Blocking up the head of the dale are the spurs of Dodd and Widdale Fells, while beyond them appears the blue summit of Bow Fell. We find it hard to keep our eyes away from the distant mountains, which fascinate one by appearing to have an importance that is perhaps diminished when they are close at hand.

16 We find ourselves halting on a patch of grass by the restored market-cross to look more closely at a fine old house overlooking the three-sided space. There is no doubt as to the date of the building, for a plain inscription begins 'Gulielmus Thornton posuit hanc domum MDCLXXVIII.' The bay windows have heavy mullions and there is a dignity about the house which must have been still more apparent when the surrounding houses were lower than at present. The wooden gallery that is constructed between the bays was, it is said, built as a convenient place for watching the bull-fights that took place just below. In the grass there can still be seen the stone to which the bull-ring was secured. The churchyard runs along the west side of the little market-place, so that there is an open view on that side, made interesting by the Perpendicular church.

The simple square tower and the unbroken roof-lines are battlemented, like so many of the churches of the dales; inside we find Norman pillars that are quite in strange company, if it is true that they were brought from the site of Fors Abbey, a little to the west of the town.

Wensleydale generally used to be famed for its hand-knitting, but I think Askrigg must have turned out more work than any place in the valley, for the men as well as the womenfolk were equally skilled in this employment, and Mr. Whaley says they did their work in the open air 'while gossiping with their neighbours.' This statement is, nevertheless, exceeded by what appears in a volume entitled 'The Costume of Yorkshire.' In that work of 1814, which contains a number of George Walker's quaint drawings, reproduced by lithography, we find a picture having a strong suggestion of Askrigg in which there is a group of old and young of both sexes seated on the steps of the market-cross, all knitting, and a little way off a shepherd is seen driving some sheep through a gate, and he also is knitting.

From Askrigg there is a road that climbs up from the end of the little street at a gradient that looks like 1 in 4, but it is really less formidable. Considering its steepness the surface is quite good, but that is due to the industry of a certain road-mender with whom I once had the privilege to talk when, hot and breathless, I paused to enjoy the great expanse that lay to the south. He was a fine Saxon type, with a sunburnt face and equally brown arms. Road-making had been his ideal when he was a mere boy, and since he had obtained his desire he told me that he couldn't be happier if he were the King of England. The picturesque road where we leave him, breaking every large stone he can find, goes on across a belt of brown moor, and then drops down between gaunt scars that only just leave space for the winding track to pass through. It afterwards descends rapidly by the side of a gill, and thus enters Swaledale.

There is a beautiful walk from Askrigg to Mill Gill Force. The distance is scarcely more than half a mile across sloping pastures and through the curious stiles that appear in the stone walls. So dense is the growth of trees in the little ravine that one hears the sound of the waters close at hand without seeing anything but the profusion of foliage overhanging and growing among the rocks. After climbing down among the moist ferns and moss-grown stones, the gushing cascades appear suddenly set in a frame of such lavish beauty that they hold a high place among their rivals in the dale.

Keeping to the north side of the river, we come to Nappa Hall at a distance of a little over a mile to the east of Askrigg. It is now a farmhouse, but its two battlemented towers proclaim its former importance as the chief seat of the family of Metcalfe. The date of the house is about 1459, and the walls of the western tower are 4 feet in thickness. The Nappa lands came to James Metcalfe from Sir Richard Scrope of Bolton Castle shortly after his return to England from the field of Agincourt, and it was probably this James Metcalfe who built the existing house.

The road down the dale passes Woodhall Park, and then, after going down close to the Ure, it bears away again to the little village of Carperby. It has a triangular green surrounded by white posts. At the east end stands an old cross, dated 1674, and the ends of the arms are ornamented with grotesque carved heads. The cottages have a neat and pleasant appearance, and there is much less austerity about the place than one sees higher up the dale. A branch road leads down to Aysgarth Station, and just where the lane takes a sharp bend to the right a footpath goes across a smooth meadow to the banks of the Ure. The rainfall of the last few days, which showed itself at Mill Gill Force, at Hardraw Scar, and a dozen other falls, has been sufficient to swell the main stream at Wensleydale into a considerable flood, and behind the bushes that grow thickly along the riverside we can hear the steady roar of the cascades of Aysgarth. The waters have worn down the rocky bottom to such an extent that in order to stand in full view of the splendid fall we must make for a gap in the foliage, and scramble down some natural steps in the wall of rock forming low cliffs along each side of the flood. The water comes over three terraces of solid stone, and then sweeps across wide ledges in a tempestuous sea of waves and froth, until there come other descents which alter the course of parts of the stream, so that as we look across the riotous flood we can see the waters flowing in many opposite directions. Lines of cream-coloured foam spread out into chains of bubbles which join together, and then, becoming detached, again float across the smooth portions of each low terrace.

17Some footpaths bring us to Aysgarth village, which seems altogether to disregard the church, for it is separated from it by a distance of nearly half a mile. There is one pleasant little street of old stone houses irregularly disposed, many of them being quite picturesque, with mossy roofs and ancient chimneys. This village, like Askrigg and Bainbridge, is ideally situated as a centre for exploring a very considerable district. There is quite a network of roads to the south, connecting the villages of Thoralby and West Burton with Bishop Dale, and the main road through Wensleydale. Thoralby is very old, and is beautifully situated under a steep hillside. It has a green overlooked by little grey cottages, and lower down there is a tall mill with curious windows built upon Bishop Dale Beck. Close to this mill there nestles a long, low house of that dignified type to be seen frequently in the North Riding, as well as in the villages of Westmorland. The huge chimney, occupying a large proportion of one gable-end, is suggestive of much cosiness within, and its many shoulders, by which it tapers towards the top, make it an interesting feature of the house.

The dale narrows up at its highest point, but the road is enclosed between grey walls the whole of the way over the head of the valley. A wide view of Langstrothdale and upper Wharfedale is visible when the road begins to drop downwards, and to the east Buckden Pike towers up to his imposing height of 2,302 feet. We shall see him again when we make our way through Wharfedale but we could go back to Wensleydale by a mountain-path that climbs up the side of Cam Gill Beck from Starbottom, and then, crossing the ridge between Buckden Pike and Tor Mere Top, it goes down into the wild recesses of Waldendale. So remote is this valley that wild animals, long extinct in other parts of the dales, survived there until almost recent times.

When we have crossed the Ure again, and taken a last look at the Upper Fall from Aysgarth Bridge, we betake ourselves by a footpath to the main highway through Wensleydale, turning aside before reaching Redmire in order to see the great castle of the Scropes at Bolton. It is a vast quadrangular mass, with each side nearly as gaunt and as lofty as the others. At each corner rises a great square tower, pierced, with a few exceptions, by the smallest of windows. Only the base of the tower at the north-east corner remains to-day, the upper part having fallen one stormy night in November, 1761, possibly having been weakened during the siege of the castle in the Civil War. We go into the court-yard through a vaulted archway on the eastern side. Many of the rooms on the side facing us are in good preservation, and an apartment in the south-west tower, which has a fireplace, is pointed out as having been used by Mary Queen of Scots when she was imprisoned here after the Battle of Langside in 1568. It was the ninth Lord Scrope who had the custody of the Queen, and he was assisted by Sir Francis Knollys. Mary, no doubt, found the time of her imprisonment irksome enough, despite the magnificent views over the dale which her windows appear to have commanded; but the monotony was relieved to some extent by the lessons in English which she received from Sir Francis, whom she describes as her 'good schoolmaster.' While still a prisoner, Mary addressed to him her first English letter, which begins: 'Master Knollys, I heve sum neus from Scotland'; and half-way through she begs that he will excuse her writing, seeing that she had 'neuur vsed it afor,' and was 'hestet.' The letter concludes with 'thus, affter my commendations, I prey God heuu you in his kipin. Your assured gud frind, MARIE R.'

On the opposite side of the steep-sided dale Penhill stands out prominently, with its flat summit reflecting just enough of the setting sun to recall a momentous occasion when from that commanding spot a real beacon-fire sent up a great mass of flame and sparks. It was during the time of Napoleon's threatened invasion of England, and the lighting of this beacon was to be the signal to the volunteers of Wensleydale to muster and march to their rendezvous. The watchman on Penhill, as he sat by the piled-up brushwood, wondering, no doubt, what would happen to him if the dreaded invasion were really to come about, saw, far away across the Vale of Mowbray, a light which he at once took to be the beacon upon Roseberry Topping. A moment later tongues of flame and smoke were pouring from his own hilltop, and the news spread up the dale like wildfire. The volunteers armed themselves rapidly, and with drums beating they marched away, with only such delay as was caused by the hurried leave-takings with wives and mothers, and all the rest who crowded round. The contingent took the road to Thirsk, and on the way were joined by the Mashamshire men. Whether it was with relief or disappointment I do not know; but when the volunteers reached Thirsk they heard that they had been called out by a false alarm, for the light seen in the direction of Roseberry Topping had been caused by accident, and the beacon on that height had not been lit.

Wensley stands just at the point where the dale, to which it has given its name, becomes so wide that it begins to lose its distinctive character. The village is most picturesque and secluded, and it is small enough to cause some wonder as to its distinction in naming the valley. It is suggested that the name is derived from Wodenslag, and that in the time of the Northmen's occupation of these parts the place named after their chief god would be the most important.

In the little church standing on the south side of the green there is so much to interest us that we are almost unable to decide what to examine first, until, realizing that we are brought face to face with a beautiful relic of Easby Abbey, we turn our attention to the parclose screen. It surrounds the family pew of Bolton Hall, and on three sides we see the Perpendicular woodwork fitted into the east end of the north aisle. The side that fronts the nave has an entirely different appearance, being painted and of a classic order, very lacking in any ecclesiastical flavour, an impression not lost on those who, with every excuse, called it 'the opera box.' In the panels of the early part of the screen are carved inscriptions and arms of the Scropes covering a long period, and, though many words and letters are missing, it is possible to make them more complete with the help of the record made by the heralds in 1665.

A charming lane, overhung by big trees, runs above the river-banks for nearly two miles of the way to Middleham; then it joins the road from Leyburn, and crosses the Ure by a suspension bridge, defended by two very formidable though modern archways. Climbing up past the church, we enter the cobbled market-place, which wears a rather decayed appearance in sympathy with the departed magnificence of the great castle of the Nevilles. It commands a vast view of Wensleydale from the southern side, in much the same manner as Bolton does from the north; but the castle buildings are entirely different, for Middleham consists of a square Norman keep, very massive and lofty, surrounded at a short distance by a strong wall and other buildings, also of considerable height, built in the Decorated period, when the Nevilles were in possession of the stronghold. The Norman keep dates from the year 1190, when Robert Fitz Randolph, grandson of Ribald, a brother of the Earl of Richmond, began to build the Castle.

It was, however, in later times, when Middleham had come to the Nevilles by marriage, that really notable events took place in this fortress. It was here that Warwick, the 'King-maker,' held Edward IV. prisoner in 1467, and in Part III. of the play of 'King Henry VI.,' Scene V. of the fourth act is laid in a park near Middleham Castle. Richard III.'s only son, Edward Prince of Wales, was born here in 1467, the property having come into Richard's possession by his marriage with Anne Neville.

18We have already seen Leyburn Shawl from near Wensley, but its charm can only be appreciated by seeing the view up the dale from its larch-crowned termination. Perhaps if we had seen nothing of Wensleydale, and the wonderful views it offers, we should be more inclined to regard this somewhat popular spot with greater veneration; but after having explored both sides of the dale, and seen many views of a very similar character, we cannot help thinking that the vista is somewhat overrated. Leyburn itself is a cheerful little town, with a modern church and a very wide main street which forms a most extensive market-place. There is a bull-ring still visible in the great open space, but beyond this and the view from the Shawl Leyburn has few attractions, except its position as a centre or a starting-place from which to explore the romantic neighbourhood.

As we leave Leyburn we get a most beautiful view up Coverdale, with the two Whernsides standing out most conspicuously at the head of the valley, and it is this last view of Coverdale, and the great valley from which it branches, that remains in the mind as one of the finest pictures of this most remarkable portion of Yorkshire.

More to follow ....

 

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