"And then came the grandest idea of all ! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!"It is said that a short one-way system was once introduced to Leyburn. In a display of cheerful anarchy, locals simply ignored the signs until the authorities, at a loss to know what else to do, removed them. A small victory had been won and life continued as if nothing had happened. Rejoice at your peril, though. Cycling through Leyburn you watch your back.
"Have you used it much?" I enquired.
"It has never been spread out, yet," said Mein Herr: "the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight ! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well."
I leave the small town behind and freewheel the length of a road that slants down the hillside towards the river Ure. Below me, in no particular order, a cemetery, a dentist, a pottery and a rugby pitch. Above me, on the horizon, empty park benches where you can sit, if you want, and enjoy the view. I turn right and begin the long slog up to Preston Under Scar. I'm turning back on myself, cycling in a circle, going nowhere. I'm only doing it today to see what I can see and keep fit. Pushing round a biggish gear, I cycle past Gillfield Wood and glimpse, between the trees, sunlight falling on a clearing. It is the sort of place that makes you want to stop and take a look. Today I keep going.
I come to a crossroads. If I go straight on, the road turns into an unmetaled track that leads onto the moor. I'm tempted to go that way: there are good routes there that would, in the end, lead me back to the road but I resist the temptation. Today, I want a good, sustained ride with no temptations to stop and laze in the heather. I turn right, sticking to the road. Next time, I tell myself.
The road I take, a broad A-road, runs for miles over the tops, often close to 1,000 feet up. If you cycle run or walk along it in summer you'll be greeted with a succession of curlews and peewits, circling their nests and warning you off with their calls. Now, though, they've raised their young and left. I cycle in something like silence.
This road is a border. To my left, the moorland rises, gently at first, to the top of the hill. To my right, fields slope down to the village. It's easy to think of the former as wild and the latter as managed and it certainly looks that way. Look at aerial photos of the moors, though, and you'll see a very different picture, one of a regular, man-made patchwork quilt. Sections of the heather are systematically burned and allowed to regrow in order to maintain a good habitat for the grouse. Less visibly, the grouse's predators are systematically eliminated. There's a lot of talk currently about the plight of the hen harrier which is being driven to near extinction by land management practices. Less exotic, but still problematic in my view, go walking on moorland and you'll come across small animals squidged in metal traps and crows which have been lured into lobster-pot like cages where they await their fate. The moorland to my left is no less managed than the farmland on my right. It crosses my mind that virtually every square yard of the land around me has been adapted by humans to the raising of animals to be killed - either for pleasure or for the shops and supermarkets. The land does have other uses: the military regularly train hereabouts on the moor. The countryside is a violent place.
At least no-one finds a use for the grass verges. These are left alone by and large. Odd, that cycling on the main roads in these parts should bring you closer to more land left to its own devices than you see on a lot of the off-road routes. This is perhaps why I feel more drawn to the shape of the landscape than to the texture we impose on it. It takes a massive effort to quarry a hill out of shape. The lead miners of Swaledale (just over the hill from here) tried but all they usually managed to do was to expose the rocky skeleton under the grass and heather.
I come to the high point on the road. A red flag flies here from a roadside flagpole to warn you that the army are out training on the moor. It's flying as I cycle past. It's all downhill from here.