Friday, April 21, 2006

Postcard from the Yorkshire Dales (6)

Easter Day, 16th April 2006

What more could one ask for than blue skies and sunshine on Easter Day? Along, of course, with the ability to enjoy it all.

The centre for today’s chosen excursion was the charming village of Austwick, situated to the west of Settle. Known to locals as ‘Cuckoo Town’, in memory of folklore concerning the arrival of the cuckoo as heralding good weather, this ancient village sits amidst splendid limestone hills. The immediate area also has an impressive network of green lanes and it was along these that we made our walk.

The nearby hamlet of Wharfe, which was soon reached, has the advantage of being in an elevated position. From there, we were able to look down on the intricate pattern of dry stone walls, which are so characteristic of the Dales. Largely dating back to the Enclosure Acts, the walls have no easily recognisable plan, the result being fields of various sizes and shapes, delineated by the crazy geometry of the walls. In places, walls have been built into another field, only to rapidly turn and run back out again, thereby leaving a U-shaped field. One can almost hear the question being asked of the original waller:

‘Na’ then. Why didst tha do it like that, lad?’

‘Nobbut, jus t’mak it look pretty.’

‘Ah, that’s awlreet then.’

Cynical of me, perhaps. However, the result is pleasing to the eye.

Along with the walls, the sheep must rate as the second most associated feature of the area. At this time of year, they are well into the process of lambing. The bleating of the lambs makes for a noisy environment, albeit one that gives a pleasurable sense of well-being. On one occasion, three lambs bleating at different pitches, followed by the deeper bass-like sound of the parents, sounded rather like an ovine choir tuning in preparation for an open-air performance. That said, I couldn’t help but compare the sound of the lambs with the crying of human babies, thereby reflecting on my ready acceptance of the one (that of the lambs), compared to my innate desire to excuse myself from a noisy baby clinic as quickly as possible!

Such musings aside, the discovery, alongside a wall, of the dead carcass of a stillborn lamb, together with the fresh after-birth of another, vividly served to remind us that this is a harsh, working environment and not one that is sanitised for our leisurely enjoyment.

The bridleway to Wharfe is signposted to Crummack Dale, a name that is pleasing to the ear in a mildly amusing way. As we walked, my mind set to with a quick poem:

T’was in the village of Crummack Dale
Where old Tom lived beyond the pale.
‘He is far too old,’ said his wife,
‘To be riding that horse.’
But Tom took no notice
And fell off, of course.

(The Poet Laureate has no cause for concern.)

Every now and again, the green lanes cross small streams, one in particular by means of a clapper bridge; a popular construction in this area. The latter is a simple bridge consisting of stone slabs laid across a series of rocks or piles of stones.

At this time of year, within many of the streams, as well as in the banks alongside, are rows of Butterbur plants. With their broad leaves and clumps of violaceous (almost orchid-like) flowers, they are difficult to miss. The leaves can grow to thirty-six inches in diameter and were once used for wrapping butter; hence the name. The Middle Ages apparently saw an additional use for the roots. According to the herbalist, Culpeper, once powdered, they could be used to remove spots and skin blemishes.

Back at Austwick, the Game Cock Inn serves an excellent pint of Thwaites bitter, which gave us a marvellous excuse to sit outside and enjoy a little more of the much-welcomed April sunshine, whilst allowing the rest of the world to go by.

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