Sunday, February 10, 2008

Postcard from the Yorkshire Dales (9)

Friday, 8th February 2008

It has been well over a year since my last Postcard from the Yorkshire Dales. This beautiful early-spring weekend deserves the production of another.

The ability to escape from the rigors of the surgery on Thursday afternoon last week, allowed my wife and I to arrive in the Dales that same evening, with the promise of a long weekend ahead. With the dawning of Friday, the promise became reality with weather to match our enthusiasm for shaking out the walking boots.

The village of Gargrave was our starting point. From there, the seven-mile walk took us alongside the River Aire for a short distance, before climbing up to where the Pennine Way awaited. The latter served as the route to East Marton, from where the Leeds-Liverpool canal’s towpath became our course back to Gargrave.

Just prior to joining the Pennine Way, the track took in a bridge over a railway line. The line nestles within a deep cutting, the two sets of rails disappearing into the curves of the hills in both directions. High above, the rolling dales were pre-eminent. Standing on the bridge and gazing down at the line, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the mammoth undertaking that the fathers of the early railways set their minds upon, when the concept of a railway was first envisaged. The task of taming a corridor through this rugged countryside, with the manual digging of cuttings, blasting of tunnels, and levelling of tracks, must have been a Herculean project in those early-industrial days. The presence of the railway is something we now tend to take for granted. However, standing on that isolated bridge, with nothing but the hills and wind for company, one could not help but sense the magnitude of their achievement.

East Marton is a small hamlet adjacent to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. Its major architectural attraction is the presence of a double-arched bridge: not in the sense of twin spans, but one arch on top of the other. The increasing volume of road traffic over the first bridge meant that a stronger structure was required. Instead of rebuilding the entire bridge, a second arched structure was simply placed on top of the first; a concept which now gives the erroneous and initially disorientating impression that the canal must have once run at a level some twenty feet above its present location!

The English canals have long been a fascination for me. It is as though the process of stepping from the towpath onto a canal boat takes one through a time warp. Time itself slows, the frenetic pace of the modern world is banished, and peace and tranquillity reign. I harbour this dream of one day owning a broad-beamed barge (similar to a narrow boat, but twice as wide, and for which the northern-most canals, such as the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, were specifically constructed). My imaginary barge is painted a deep green (of the ‘British Racing’ variety), with its name, The Apothecary, emblazoned on its side in scripted gold lettering. Other gold-painted motifs, drawn from my personal armorial bearings, such as a fox rampant, holding a saxophone and quill pen, would further adorn the sides. I would spend my days gently meandering through the serene countryside of the Dales; whilst my evenings would be passed with The Apothecary moored to the towpath in an isolated spot, far from evidence of modern civilisation. There, I would sit on the roof, playing jazz and blues on a tenor saxophone, with only the sheep in the surrounding fields for an audience. After dark, I would retire to the candle-lit saloon, where I would write deep into the night, accompanied by a crystal glass of malt whisky and my Labrador, Thea.

Et in Arcadia ego.

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