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Swaledale

From the 1900s - ” There is a certain elevated and wind-swept spot, scarcely more than a long mile from Richmond, that commands a view over a wide extent of romantic country. Vantage-points of this type, within easy reach of a fair-sized town, are inclined to be overrated, and, what is far worse, to be spoiled by the litter of picnic parties; but Whitcliffe Scar is free from both objections. In magnificent September weather one may spend many hours in the midst of this great panorama without being disturbed by a single human being, besides a possible farm labourer or shepherd; and if scraps of paper and orange-peel are ever dropped here, the keen winds that come from across the moors dispose of them as efficaciously as the keepers of any public parks.

The view is removed from a comparison with many others from the fact that one is situated at the dividing-line between the richest cultivation and the wildest moorlands. Whitcliffe Scar is the Mount Pisgah from whence the jaded dweller in towns can gaze into a promised land of solitude,
'Where things that own not man's dominion dwell,
And mortal foot hath ne'er or rarely been.'

The eastward view of green and smiling country is undeniably beautiful, but to those who can appreciate Byron's enthusiasm for the trackless mountain there is something more indefinable and inspiring in the mysterious loneliness of the west. The long, level lines of the moorland horizon, when the sun is beginning to climb downwards, are cut out in the softest blue and mauve tints against the shimmering transparency of the western sky, and the plantations that clothe the sides of the dale beneath one are filled with wonderful shadows, which are thrown out with golden outlines. The view along the steep valley extends for a few miles, and then is suddenly cut off by a sharp bend where the Swale, a silver ribbon along the bottom of the dale, disappears among the sombre woods and the shoulders of the hills.

In this aspect of Swaledale one sees its mildest and most civilized mood; for beyond the purple hill-side that may be seen in the illustration, cultivation becomes more palpably a struggle, and the gaunt moors, broken by lines of precipitous scars, assume control of the scenery.

From 200 feet below, where the river is flowing along its stony bed, comes the sound of the waters ceaselessly grinding the pebbles, and from the green pastures there floats upwards a distant ba-baaing. No railway has penetrated the solitudes of Swaledale, and, as far as one may look into the future in such matters, there seems every possibility of this loneliest and grandest of the Yorkshire dales retaining its isolation in this respect. None but the simplest of sounds, therefore, are borne on the keen winds that come from the moorland heights, and the purity of the air whispers in the ear the pleasing message of a land where chimneys have never been.

Besides the original name of Whitcliffe Scar, this remarkable view-point has, since 1606, been popularly known as 'Willance's Leap.' In that year a certain Robert Willance, whose father appears to have been a successful draper in Richmond, was hunting in the neighbourhood, when he found himself enveloped in a fog. It must have been sufficiently dense to shut out even the nearest objects; for, without any warning, Willance found himself on the verge of the scar, and before he could check his horse both were precipitated over the cliff. We have no detailed account of whether the fall was broken in any way; but, although his horse was killed instantly, Willance, by some almost miraculous good fortune, found himself alive at the bottom with nothing worse than a broken leg.

It is a difficult matter to decide which is the more attractive means of exploring Swaledale; for if one keeps to the road at the bottom of the valley many beautiful and remarkable aspects of the country are missed, and yet if one goes over the moors it is impossible really to explore the recesses of the dale. The old road from Richmond to Reeth avoids the dale altogether, except for the last mile, and its ups and its downs make the traveller pay handsomely for the scenery by the way.

But this ought not to deter anyone from using the road; for the view of the village of Marske, cosily situated among the wooded heights that rise above the beck, is missed by those who keep to the new road along the banks of the Swale. The romantic seclusion of this village is accentuated towards evening, when a shadowy stillness fills the hollows. The higher woods may be still glowing with the light of the golden west, while down below a softness of outline adds beauty to every object. The old bridge that takes the road to Reeth across Marske Beck needs no such fault-forgiving light, for it was standing in the reign of Elizabeth, and, from its appearance, it is probably centuries older.

The new road to Reeth from Richmond goes down at an easy gradient from the town to the banks of the river, which it crosses when abreast of Whitcliffe Scar, the view in front being at first much the same as the nearer portions of the dale seen from that height. Down on the left, however, there are some chimney-shafts, so recklessly black that they seem to be no part whatever of their sumptuous natural surroundings, and might almost suggest a nightmare in which one discovered that some of the vilest chimneys of the Black Country had taken to touring in the beauty spots of the country.

As one goes westward, the road penetrates right into the bold scenery that invites exploration when viewed from 'Willance's Leap.' There is a Scottish feeling—perhaps Alpine would be more correct—in the steeply-falling sides of the dale, all clothed in firs and other dense plantations; and just where the Swale takes a decided turn towards the south there is a view up Marske Beck that adds much to the romance of the scene. Behind one's back the side of the dale rises like a dark green wall entirely in shadow, and down below half buried in foliage, the river swirls and laps its gravelly beaches, also in shadow. Beyond a strip of pasture begin the tumbled masses of trees which, as they climb out of the depths of the valley, reach the warm, level rays of sunlight that turns the first leaves that have passed their prime into the fierce yellows and burnt siennas which, when faithfully represented at Burlington House, are often considered overdone. Even the gaunt obelisk near Marske Hall responds to a fine sunset of this sort, and shows a gilded side that gives it almost a touch of grandeur.

Evening is by no means necessary to the attractions of Swaledale, for a blazing noon gives lights and shades and contrasts of colour that are a large portion of Swaledale's charms. If instead of taking either the old road by way of Marske, or the new one by the riverside, one had crossed the old bridge below the castle, and left Richmond by a very steep road that goes to Leyburn, one would have reached a moorland that is at its best in the full light of a clear morning.

The clouds are big, but they carry no threat of rain, for right down to the far horizon from whence this wind is coming there are patches of blue proportionate to the vast spaces overhead. As each white mass passes across the sun, we are immersed in a shadow many acres in extent: but the sunlight has scarcely fled when a rim of light comes over the edge of the plain, just above the hollow where Downholme village lies hidden from sight, and in a few minutes that belt of sunshine has reached some sheep not far off, and rimmed their coats with a brilliant edge of white. Shafts of whiteness, like searchlights, stream from behind a distant cloud, and everywhere there is brilliant contrast and a purity to the eye and lungs that only a Yorkshire moor possesses.

A short two miles up the road to Leyburn, just above Gill Beck, there is an ancient house known as Walburn Hall, and also the remains of the chapel belonging to it, which dates from the Perpendicular period. The buildings are now used as a farm, but there are still enough suggestions of a dignified past to revivify the times when this was a centre of feudal power.

Turning back to Swaledale by a lane on the south side of Gill Beck, Downholme village is passed a mile away on the right, and the bold scenery of the dale once more becomes impressive.

Two great headlands, formed by the wall-like terminations of Cogden and Harkerside Moors, rising one above the other, stand out magnificently. Their huge sides tower up nearly a thousand feet from the river, until they are within reach of the lowering clouds that every moment threaten to envelop them in their indigo embrace. There is a curious rift in the dark cumulus revealing a thin line of dull carmine that frequently changes its shape and becomes nearly obliterated, but its presence in no way weakens the awesomeness of the picture. The dale appears to become huger and steeper as the clouds thicken, and what have been merely woods and plantations in this heavy gloom become mysterious forests. The river, too, seems to change its character, and become a pale serpent, uncoiling itself from some mountain fastness where no living creatures besides great auks and carrion birds, dwell.

In such surroundings as these there were established in the Middle Ages, two religious houses, within a mile of one another, on opposite sides of the swirling river. On the north bank, not far from Marrick village, you may still see the ruins of Marrick Priory in its beautiful situation much as Turner painted it a century ago. Leland describes Marrick as 'a Priory of Blake Nunnes of the Foundation of the Askes.' It was, we know, an establishment for Benedictine Nuns, founded or endowed by Roger de Aske in the twelfth century. At Ellerton, on the other side of the river a little lower down, the nunnery was of the Cistercian Order; for, although very little of its history has been discovered, Leland writes of the house as 'a Priori of White clothid Nunnes.' After the Battle of Bannockburn, when the Scots raided all over the North Riding of Yorkshire, they came along Swaledale in search of plunder, and we are told that Ellerton suffered from their violence.

Where the dale becomes wider, owing to the branch valley of Arkengarthdale, there are two villages close together. Grinton is reached first, and is older than Reeth, which is a short distance north of the river. The parish of Grinton is one of the largest in Yorkshire. It is more than twenty miles long, containing something near 50,000 acres, and according to Mr. Speight, who has written a very detailed history of Richmondshire, more than 30,000 acres of this consist of mountain, grouse-moor and scar. For so huge a parish the church is suitable in size, but in the upper portions of the dales one must not expect any very remarkable exteriors; and Grinton, with its low roofs and plain battlemented tower, is much like other churches in the neighbourhood. Inside there are suggestions of a Norman building that has passed away, and the bowl of the font seems also to belong to that period. The two chapels opening from the chancel contain some interesting features, which include a hagioscope, and both are enclosed by old screens.

Leaving the village behind, and crossing the Swale, you soon come to Reeth, which may, perhaps, be described as a little town. It must have thrived with the lead-mines in Arkengarthdale and along the Swale, for it has gone back since the period of its former prosperity, and is glad of the fact that its situation, and the cheerful green which the houses look upon, have made it something of a holiday resort.

When Reeth is left behind, there is no more of the fine 'new' road which makes travelling so easy for the eleven miles from Richmond. The surface is, however, by no means rough along the nine miles to Muker, although the scenery becomes far wilder and more mountainous with every mile. The dale narrows most perceptibly; the woods become widely separated, and almost entirely disappear on the southern side; and the gaunt moors, creeping down the sides of the valley seem to threaten the narrow belt of cultivation, that becomes increasingly restricted to the river margins. Precipitous limestone scars fringe the browny-green heights in many places, and almost girdle the summit of Calver Hill, the great bare height that rises a thousand feet above Reeth. The farms and hamlets of these upper parts of Swaledale are of the same greys, greens, and browns as the moors and scars that surround them. The stone walls, that are often high and forbidding, seem to suggest the fortifications required for man's fight with Nature, in which there is no encouragement for the weak. In the splendid weather that so often welcomes the mere summer rambler in the upper dales the austerity of the widely scattered farms and villages may seem a little unaccountable; but a visit in January would quite remove this impression, though even in these lofty parts of England the worst winter snowstorm has, in quite recent years, been of trifling inconvenience. Bad winters will, no doubt, be experienced again on the fells; but leaving out of the account the snow that used to bury farms, flocks, roads, and even the smaller gills, in a vast smother of whiteness, there are still the winds that go shrieking over the desolate heights, there is still the high rainfall, and there are still destructive thunderstorms that bring with them hail of a size that we seldom encounter in the lower levels.

The great rapidity with which the Swale, or such streams as the Arkle, can produce a devastating flood can scarcely be comprehended by those who have not seen the results of even moderate rainstorms on the fells. When, however, some really wet days have been experienced in the upper parts of the dales, it seems a wonder that the bridges are not more often in jeopardy.

Of course, even the highest hills of Yorkshire are surpassed in wetness by their Lakeland neighbours; for whereas Hawes Junction, which is only about seven miles south of Muker, has an average yearly rainfall of about 62 inches, Mickleden, in Westmorland, can show 137, and certain spots in Cumberland aspire towards 200 inches in a year.

The weather conditions being so severe, it is not surprising to find that no corn at all is grown in Swaledale at the present day. Some notes, found in an old family Bible in Teesdale, are quoted by Mr. Joseph Morris. They show the painful difficulties experienced in the eighteenth century from such entries as: '1782. I reaped oats for John Hutchinson, when the field was covered with snow,' and: '1799, Nov. 10. Much corn to cut and carry. A hard frost.'

Muker, notwithstanding all these climatic difficulties, has some claim to picturesqueness, despite the fact that its church is better seen at a distance, for a close inspection reveals its rather poverty-stricken state. The square tower, so typical of the dales, stands well above the weathered roofs of the village, and there are sufficient trees to tone down the severities of the stone walls, that are inclined to make one house much like its neighbour, and but for natural surroundings would reduce the hamlets to the same uniformity. At Muker, however, there is a steep bridge and a rushing mountain stream that joins the Swale just below. The road keeps close to this beck, and the houses are thus restricted to one side of the way.

Away to the south, in the direction of the Buttertubs Pass, is Stags Fell, 2,213 feet above the sea, and something like 1,300 feet above Muker. Northwards, and towering over the village, is the isolated mass of Kisdon Hill, on two sides of which the Swale, now a mountain stream, rushes and boils among boulders and ledges of rock. This is one of the finest portions of the dale, and, although the road leaves the river and passes round the western side of Kisdon, there is a path that goes through the glen, and brings one to the road again at Keld.

Just before you reach Keld, the Swale drops 30 feet at Kisdon Force, and after a night of rain there are many other waterfalls to be seen in this district. These are not to me, however, the chief attractions of the head of Swaledale, although without the angry waters the gills and narrow ravines that open from the dale would lose much interest. It is the stern grandeur of the scarred hillsides and the wide mountainous views from the heights that give this part of Yorkshire such a fascination. If you climb to the top of Rogan's Seat, you have a huge panorama of desolate country spread out before you. The confused jumble of blue-grey mountains to the north-west is beyond the limits of Yorkshire at last, and in their strong embrace those stern Westmorland hills hold the charms of Lakeland.

If one stays in this mountainous region, there are new and exciting walks available for every day. There are gloomy recesses in the hillsides that encourage exploration from the knowledge that they are not tripper-worn, and there are endless heights to be climbed that are equally free from the smallest traces of desecrating mankind. Rare flowers, ferns, and mosses flourish in these inaccessible solitudes, and will continue to do so, on account of the dangers that lurk in their fastnesses, and also from the fact that their value is nothing to any but those who are glad to leave them growing where they are.

 

More to follow ....

 

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