On the final page of A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes: ‘the county was something I chose to return to again and again’. She is referring to Marin County, CA, and the last chapter of her meditation on loss in all its senses, place and memory, describes her involuntary revisiting, in dreams, of the ‘one story house’ where she grew up. She comes to realise that it held more narrative versions, and more connectedness to the wild hinterland she loved, than she had previously believed possible. It seemed an appropriate thing to read on my final day in the county I choose to keep returning to, Yorkshire.
I grew up in the West Riding, which had become West Yorkshire before I went to secondary school. We had many school trips and family days out in the Dales, about 40 miles north of the industrial towns, some of it administratively still in the West. My dad, a baker from Dewsbury, used to spend all his weekends cycle-touring up there, and later he took his family by car on practically every day off. I’m not entirely sure that was what his wife had bargained for, but his daughter took to it as eagerly as she took to her schooling, and it established in her a pattern of escaping the urban at every opportunity. It was the perfect place to study for O and A levels in Geography, though I suspect I actually became quite complacent about it, underwhelmed by the things that made other tourists gawp. And quite dismissive of the tourists. It was far more exciting to go up to the Scottish Highlands.
I live in Edinburgh, and go back to some part of Yorkshire every eighteen months or so. I’ve just returned from cat-sitting for a friend in Airton, Malhamdale. Airton was somewhere you passed through en route to limestone mecca Malham. A couple of miles south of the Craven fault-line which is the reason for the geological highlights of Malham Cove and Gordale Scar, it’s a farming village with a main green and several satellite ones, and seventeenth-century buildings, including a Quaker meeting house. It’s near the source of the Aire, which goes on to flow through Leeds, and which I always thought of as a more industrial river than, say, the Wharfe or Swale, more like the Calder I grew up beside.
I’m not synaesthetic, but I am highly sensitive to the way bedrock and soil colour the land. Limestone has always signified light and brightness to me, in contrast to the gritstone of the southern Pennines. Millstone grit, to give it its full name. Think wuthering heights, remains of Elmet, the small-town toxicities of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley. The green over limestone has a luminescence; that over gritstone – beautiful also, despite the grimupnorth connotations – generally produces a more matt, olive tone.
WH Auden’s poem ‘In Praise of Limestone‘ opens: ‘if it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones / are constantly homesick for, this is chiefly / because it dissolves in water’. The poem is at least as much about the karsts of southern Europe and the crises of masculinity as it is about the poet’s own formative Pennine landscapes. I have also been homesick for the red sandstone of Arran and the gneisses of the far north of Scotland and Isle of Lewis; for the coastal bluffs of the south of France. I am probably homesick for whatever sort of rock I have most recently left behind, but a real feeling of hireath is most likely to be triggered by the sight of Pennine millstone. Limestone gives a lighter sense of longing and nostalgia, and also, I think, of hope.
The first evening was quite disorienting: familiar and unfamiliar both, unhiemlich, even. I went to the pub in the next village, Kirkby Malham, for ‘home killed’ (not cured) gammon, sold by weight. I had the smallest, and it was huge. Intending to continue towards Malham afterwards, I actually took the wrong road, and headed uphill towards Settle. I was rewarded with a fresh angle on Malham Cove, and southwest of me was the Lancashire witching hill, Pendle Hill, and the dark moors that extend towards Bradford and the industrial cities. I felt caught between the two, and surprisingly far from home.
Next morning I went for breakfast and provisions at the excellent local farm shop (it’s local, artisan, everything nowadays, unlike in the 70s and 80s), and felt a bit foreign, with my strange bank notes and own shopping bags and not realising you could buy alcohol before noon on a Sunday. But it’s the post Tour de France D’ales, and you can. After a couple of days of walking, eating and looking after a lovely cat called Picasso, I re-acclimatised. Oh, I love limestone! Walking down a green lane between limestone walls has long been a favourite pastime and a source of joy.
The contrast between the worked countryside and the wild is marked in Malhamdale, courtesy of the decisive Craven fault, though cattle graze above it, and uncultivated species blossom by the riverbank below it. Nuances within each category become discernible, when you have the leisure to savour them all on daily walks that connect places in, above and around the dale over a ten-day period at harvest-time.
Venerable drystone walls in limestone demarcate ancient field systems above Malham village. From a distance, they resemble bobbly knitting (though admittedly there may be a chicken-and-egg issue here). Downdale, modern machinery worked the fields all day and into the night, and serially transported its loads to farm-yard, competing on the narrow lanes with tourist traffic. When not walking off-road (cattle! mud!), I hopped onto the verge to let them all pass and admired the wild flowers. As well as being the longest single stay I’ve had in the Dales, this was the first time I – a bad hayfever sufferer – had been resident in summer. I took my anti-histamine, and went out to find what was there, just as I’ve taken in recent years to going for walks at dawn and dusk, when you see, hear, smell, different things. The sparse vegetation capable of flourishing in the limestone grykes, that I’ve only seen in books before, was at its peak.
I’m surprised by how scant my recall could be: I remembered key sites / sights, like the Cove, that tend to appear frequently on calendars and magazine covers anyway, and I remembered details like the whitewashed – now flaking – sweetshop where the roads fork in the village. But I’d failed to retain any image of what excites me most, the sweep of the county seen from the heights, the horizons, the extent of view. This shouldn’t surprise me, as I know all about the sublime: the unrepresentable, the unrecoverable, the impossibility of retaining what we most desire, but it does. It made me wonder (given little in the broader picture will have changed), what did I actually see as a child?
My dad, though never an assertive person, used to have set itineraries and omissions that he stuck to – there were some places we always just drove past. Maybe he had more of the cyclist’s mindset than the walker’s, and of course he’d be aware of what time he had to return to bakery duties. I’d look out of the rear window, wanting to stop and explore. Malham Tarn was one of these places, and now I finally got to linger there.
Last Saturday had been hot by this summer’s standards – I walked in a t-shirt, and sat for long periods with books and ice-cream. Sunday was wild, like one of those Hebridean ‘summer’ days, and it was a delight to explore the variety of topographies in the National Trust Malham Tarn estate: upland moss (raised bog) and groundwater-fed fen, bird hide, boat house, broadleaf avenue, an orchid house which has been converted into a sustainable building for group use. I emerged tarnside to the accompaniment of waves, then crossed the flat high grassland and dropped into the shelter of the limestone valley above Gordale.
Underfoot conditions are tougher than in my local Pentland Hills, but there are also more people around participating in recreation activities. When I fell into a deep concealed ditch in the less visited southern Pentlands last month, there was no one around (actually I wasn’t badly hurt, and I was quite glad there was no one to witness my tumble). Now, scrambling down to the top of the force (waterfall) at Gordale, as I had up to its base the previous day, I knew that if I had newer boots with grippier soles and the rock was drier, I could still make the direct connection between the two, and was happy to leave it at that for this trip. When I was young and lithe, I took for granted what my body was capable of, in the same way as I took for granted the scenery I was privileged to be able to experience. Now I try to make the time to cherish both.
Places like Malham village were very busy on weekends and bank holidays when I was a kid. My dad’s car used to give them a swerve and head for quieter spots. Nowadays, an off-season traveller with a love of remote places, I’m even less used to tourist hotspots. One thing that struck me, though, was that in my Yorkshire youth you only ever saw white faces once you were out of the city. You still wouldn’t call it multicultural, but now there are Asians and a smattering of other ethnicities, clad in lyrcra or gortex for their chosen pursuits, or chasing their ice-cream eating children around village greens. These will be second- and third-generation children of immigrants, now at home, in this country, in this county.