In early November this year my dogs and I spent a few days in one of the rounded limestone valleys in the Yorkshire dales, following its ‘old ways’ as Robert Macfarlane calls them.
Dentdale is one of those fertile places that have been lived in by us over many centuries. Like myriads of other sheltered spots on this planet, the dialogue between the deep time of geology and climate, and the shorter time span of human activity has shaped this place and my experience of it.
Old drove roads, like ‘Occupation road’, hug the more accessible slopes of the fells and well trodden footpaths follow the rivers along the bottom of the valleys, where villages and farms take shelter. Walking these green lanes and paths, reading the maps and local histories, I was immersed in layers of memory. Place names cluster thickly on the maps, summoning up ghosts of past lives, such as Nun House Outrake, Occupation road, Flinter Gill, Mill bridge,
Far Helks, Dancing Flags, Keld Beck, Scow. These words taste of particular regional voices and activities, many long gone. I mostly had these ways to myself, as I walked along, map in hand, dogs ahead, noses down savouring the new smells. I felt, though, that each step I took was treading in the footsteps of those who had been here before me. The names helped me imagine seeing the same landscapes through their eyes. The intricate networks of stone walls and stiles and the well placed bridges over gills, becks and rivers continually summoned up the present and past hubbub of voices of these valleys and fells. This is no remote wilderness, but all this human activity allowed me an easy access to this place, and the pleasure of solitary, reflective walks.
I am sharing these with you here, inspired by my reading, such as Robert Macfarlane’s ‘The Old Ways’. He lists some of the names we’ve given these around Great Britain:
the landscape is still webbed with paths and footways (–). Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, sarns, snickets – say the names of paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite – holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths. (page 13)
While I was saying out loud the names of the ways I walked I met few other walkers, but there were, of course, many other beings going about their lives as I passed through.
These grazing animals have contributed greatly to the shaping of this place. The maintenance of treeless, grassy hillsides, the stone walls patterning the slopes, the drove roads running along them, the scattered barns. However, the deforestation of the fells would have been in process long before we gave them over to large numbers of these domesticated animals – because of our relentless demands for fuel and shelter.
Our past needs for the flesh, wool and hide of these animals are now being met much more by imports from other places and so changing them as well as continuing to change this place. Just as all that is left of a past meditative way of life is a name – ‘Nun House’ and a restored stone wall, so the present dominance of the sheep on these fells may become another ghostly layer sedimented into names, materials, landscape
Down by the running waters I saw one heron waiting patiently for a fish, and the zigzag flight of small dippers. Robins stood on the tops of walls and watched me pass, crows black dotted the fells and croaked their distain as they flew overhead. In the late afternoons a few flocks of birds, starlings perhaps, created everchanging patterns on the sunsetting air.
We are not the only, or even the most forceful shaper of this place though.
Water is everywhere here, in gills, becks and rivers. Its dynamic presence, carving through the limestone, working the Dent fault, must have been one of the main reasons we settled here, alongside the trees, plants and wild life. What can we do without fresh water?
Living water has shaped these dales, and brought the beauty of colour and movement to them.
Talking about these water ways brings me to the rain that replenishes them and causes them to gush (as they did when I was there) or to diminish to a trickle during periods of drought. It’s not just the rain, of course, but the climate as a whole, and the geology of the rocks that create these places – all aspects of Gaia, our blue planet. My walks along the old ways of this place were also a dialogue with its particular climate –
– the sudden, heavy rain being blown into my face by the wind, the rain sodden paths, the bursts of autumn sunlight.
Although our human activites over the past two centuries have impacted on the global climate, as well as on these lands, we have much less control over this complex part of Gaia, I think. The rain, the wind, the sun and moon put the ‘wild’ back into this cultivated place, and my experience of it as I walked these ways.