Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Postcard from the Yorkshire Dales (5)

Good Friday, 14th April 2006

The pub at Tan Hill sits in isolation, like Noah’s Ark amidst a sea of heather and grass moorland. The simile is apt. Often in pairs, weary walkers, straight off the Pennine Way, pass through the pub’s doors looking for warmth, sustenance and more often than not, simply shelter from what is a bleak and potentially hostile environment.

Situated at 1,732 feet above sea level, The Tan Hill Inn is the highest pub in the British Isles. If reaching it on foot means traversing miles of rough and boggy landscape, then the journey by car is only fractionally easier. All road routes are tortuous and, in winter, often impassable except by tracked vehicles. (The pub has two bobcat type tractors with trailers).

This was to be our second visit, the first being almost three years ago to the day. On the 19th April 2003, the weather was far worse than the brisk wind and cloud studded blue sky of today. On that previous occasion, it was bitterly cold, with a gale force wind and heavy-laden skies. Snow still sat in vast patches, lending credence to the claim that winter often lasts for six months up here. The decision to re-visit this outpost today was a happy coincidence as far as the precise date was concerned, being chosen more to allow us to escape the convoys of tourists flocking to the more popular honey pots on this Good Friday holiday.

Our chosen route from the southern dales was the most scenic rather than the most direct. It began with a drive northwards through Wharfedale. This dale never ceases to please the eye and must rank as one of the most attractive dales in North Yorkshire; it is certainly one of my favourites. I often dream of owning a property set on the southern slopes of the dale, where I can sit in the early evenings with a malt whisky and watch the last of the day’s light gradually close down the dale for the night.

At the meeting of Wharfedale with Langstrothdale, just past the village of Buckden, the slightly more rugged country of Bishopdale is entered. This also means leaving behind the last of the visiting traffic and we soon had the road to ourselves, allowing for a leisurely ascent and enjoyment of the many waterfalls tumbling off the limestone escarpments.

At West Burton, a most scenic village set around a large central green, surrounded by hills and complete with everything the perfect village ought to have, we turned towards Aysgarth and drove past the series of falls there. At this time of year the latter are simply awesome, with vast quantities of water crashing over the rocky platforms. The spray bounces several feet into the air, forming a curtain of mist amidst a deafening roar of white water.

Beyond Aysgarth, we headed up to Castle Bolton. Built in the reign of Richard II, the castle was once a Royalist stronghold and in 1568, Mary Queen of Scots was kept there for six months. From the Castle to Reeth, where the truly picturesque Arkengarthdale commences. This finally delivered us to Tan Hill where the isolation of the area is immediately emphasised by a demonstration of dry Yorkshire wit. For, on crossing a cattle grid on the approach to the Inn, one is cautioned by a yellow sign announcing that this is a neighbourhood watch area!

At Tan Hill, there is really no restriction to where one walks. The moorland extends in every direction for as far as the eye can see, with no trees to break its starkness. Apart from the occasional isolated stone barn and the sheep, which are to be found in small flocks scattered over the hills, the area is otherwise deserted. Most people arriving by car stroll along sections of the Pennine Way, as that avoids the danger of the many old mine shafts, now water filled, which are liberally scattered around the area.

We chose a four-mile circular route, making part use of the Pennine Way towards the south and a small B-road back up to the Inn. The route allowed us to marvel at the richness of the land, as in places where water has dug deep channels, the peat can be seen to extend to some four or five feet in depth. In some of the watercourses, Common toads were in evidence, both in body and with their spawn in frequent clumps along the freshwater streams.

A humped-backed bridge, across a small river halfway around the walk, presented an ideal opportunity to shelter from the wind and take refreshments. Even on short walks, it is important to take time to savour one’s surroundings. As the Welsh poet, W H Davies said:

‘What is this life if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare?’

What better way than over a cup of tea and a sandwich?

* * *

With its yard-thick stonewalls, roaring coal fire, home-cooked food and best Yorkshire bitters, the The Tan Hill Inn is an excellent place to rest from the elements outside. A blackboard beside the entrance warns ‘Beware of the Landlady – she’s a nutter.’ Inside, the truth of this announcement rapidly gains credence as the landlady introduces everyone to a small brown dog (which looks like a cross between a dachshund and a terrier) accompanied by a blue-collared, orphaned lamb called Tan. The latter is evidently not house-trained. However, the landlady quickly attends to the problem, afterwards giving the carpet a liberal spraying from a bottle labelled ‘oven-cleaner’. Winter must cause strange things to happen to the mind at this altitude.

After suitable fortification, the route home is the slightly shorter way across Stonesdale Moor to Keld and Thwaite. The descent is often greater than 1:5 and the road less than four metres wide, which lends to a fun drive. We stopped several times en route to watch from a distance whilst a farmer and his dogs shepherded a flock of sheep down the road to new pastures. (He has a hard enough job on his hands without us causing his sheep to scatter onto the surrounding fell sides. Consideration for those who have to work this land must be paramount in such rural areas.) Finally, we dropped down to Hawes (now packed with tourists) and escaped west to Ribblesdale, where the viaduct acts as another crowded hotspot. As we passed each one, we reminisced about our previous ascents of the three peaks, Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen Y Ghent, the summits of all three being clearly visible on this wonderfully clear day.

Ultimately, we reached Settle and from there, it was but a short drive to our home village and tea with hot-cross buns.

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