Monday, 8 June 2020

A Short Walk on Grinton Moor

The other evening I went for a walk on Grinton Moor in Swaledale. I chose one of my favourite routes. I'm not sure “route” is quite the right word for it as, the more I walk the less concerned I am about getting from A to B. When you set your mind on an objective it's easy to pass over places of interest you pass on the way, telling yourself you'll come back another day to investigate them. Invariably, you forget, or at least I do. These days, it's often the case that I'll set out not to walk a line on the map but to simply wander at will for as long as I've time to wander. Day-to-day life is so full of journeys that have to be made at certain times to specific places. Since we're creatures of habit it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a walk made for no other reason than for the pleasure of walking needs to have similar conditions attached to it. It doesn't.

Yesterday was a wet day. I'd considered getting out for an hour all afternoon and kept checking the weather forecast. I don't know why I kept going back to it as I didn't need the Met Office to tell me that it showed no signs of changing. Then it struck me, did it really matter? I quite like walking on wet days, within reason. I'd go anyway. It was quite late by the time I set off. If I got a move on, I realised, I'd be able to get in half an hour's wandering before sunset. Driving over the hills, I found myself driving through patches of fog which got ever thicker the further I got. As I crossed the watershed into Swaledale, I could see there were masses of low cloud partially obscuring the fells. As I parked up, it crossed my mind that I hadn't brought my compass with me. So much for wandering. I'd have to stick to the Land Rover tracks or, at least, be very careful how I navigated my way through what little I could see of the landscape. At least, if the worst came to the worst and I got lost, I knew that if I headed downhill I would come to a track or road that would lead me back to the car. 

The presence of the Wellington Lead Vein is marked hereabouts on the map. A short walk up a Land Rover track across the moor from where I parked is a ruined stone building. I suspect it was once part of the lead mine there. I could see it looming through the mist from the road and made for it. It strikes me now that what was an adventure for me must have been the daily trudge to work for the lead miners over a century ago. From the ruin, I could see through the mist to a line of low spoil-heaps. I decided to head towards them. They were quite close together. So long as one was always visible, it should be an easy job, I decided, to retrace my steps. I found myself walking through an area of short grass and sphagnum moss, peppered with rabbit holes. A rabbit sat in its doorway darted underground as I approached. I soon reached the furthest of the spoil-heaps. I climbed to the top. Needless to say, there was no view to speak of. Featureless moor fell away from me on all sides, dissolving away into the whiteness. In the absence of the usual features to compare it to, the landscape seemed more spectacular, in a way, than it probably would on a clear day. I descended the heap and began to retrace my steps to the ruin. A minute or two later I realised I could see its outline through the mist, off to my left, reminding me how easy it is to get disorientated in poor visibility. I adjusted my course and soon found myself back at the ruin. I decided I'd stick to the Land Rover track for the rest of the walk.

A change in the light told me that above the mist the sun was probably setting. I checked the time. I still had a few minutes before it got dark, I decided, so I headed off along the track towards Snowden Man, a boundary stone on the watershed between Swaledale and Wensleydale. I passed another spoil-heap and took a moment to wander up it. Again, the view from the top looked deceptively dramatic. I returned to the track and carried on for a few minutes more but the further I went the fainter the track got, sometimes disappearing into beds of reeds. It was gradually becoming noticeably darker, too. It was time to turn back.

Walking around that part of Grinton Moor always takes me back to my very first experiences of fell walking. Years ago, a friend suggested we went to stay at the Youth Hostel in Edale, with a view to exploring Kinder Scout. I can still vividly remember arriving at the edge of the Kinder plateau after a stiff climb up a steep, grassy slope. I'd never been anywhere quite like it or at least, if I had, I hadn't been paying attention the way I was then. It was like stepping into a different, surreal universe: the bleak expanse, the deep channels cut through the peat by the action of the water, the strange rock-shapes. I've never been anywhere quite so uncanny. People must have always felt this way about the place judging by the names they've given to the features on the hill: Ringing Rodger, Kinder Gates, Mermaid's Pool, Madwoman's Stones. Simply reading them out loud from the Ordnance Survey Map conjures up something of the magic of the place.

Grinton Moor boasts nothing quite so fey but what's left of the abandoned lead mines does lend the area an aura of its own, especially on foggy days. And there is a Youth Hostel a little way down the hill. The elements are all there to rekindle something of that sense of awe I felt years ago on Kinder Scout.

 © Solitary Cyclist, 2020     

Friday, 19 April 2019

Gibbon Hill

At 543m, Gibbon Hill is one of several high points on the rounded ridge that separates Apedale from Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales. I walked up it once before, many years ago but, although I've often been out on my mountain bike on the tracks around  it, I've not been to the summit since.  The idea of revisiting it has been at the back of my mind for a long time.

Walking over hills is a very different experience to cycling over them. Walking is obviously slower, one is more in touch with the land and there is more time to take things in.  Cycling brings with it a whole different set of attractions. I enjoy both but for some time I've been thinking of going for walks through the places I visit on my mountain bike, as I often see, when cycling, intriguing features of the landscape that are often inaccessible on a bike and which cry out to be explored on foot.

Gibbon Hill is a case in point. I often find myself cycling along a Land Rover track that contours its north side. It crosses a stream, Grovebeck Gill, just before it comes to a shooting lodge. On the uphill side, the stream vanishes into a steep cleft in the hill. I often wonder what I'd find if I dismounted and walked up it. Perusing the map the other day, I was fascinated to see that it leads to a disused lead mine. The mine workings and the stream bed run a good part of the way to the ridge - and the summit of Gibbon Hill.

As I didn't have a whole afternoon to devote to the walk, to save time I parked half way up on the road that runs over the hill from Grinton to Redmire. I made my way across the moor, knowing that if I kept walking west I would soon intercept the gill and the mine workings. It didn't take long. Once at the cleft (known at this point as Kay Hush), I clambered down it through the heather to the stony bed of the gill and made my way up it. It gradually became less and less deep and I finally found myself stepping out, back onto the open moor. The ground was rough and had obviously been mined. Here and there there were spoil heaps. There were long stretches of peat devoid of heather, sometimes covered with a scattering of shattered limestone fragments. It was at this point that I came across the first of several tiny skeletons laid out on the peat. I saw few signs of life on this walk. I saw a couple of geese stood by a pool. Later I saw them as they flew over my head. I saw more signs of death. Several times, as well as the skeletons, I came across a scattering of feathers that, from a distance, I mistook for cotton-grass (which, of course, is not in flower yet).

Here and there, as I made my way through the workings, I came across pieces of wood. I was curious to know where they all came from. Finally, to my surprise, I came across a pit, full of pieces of wood. I was put in mind of Cornelia Parker's exploding garden shed.


It wasn't far from the wood-pile to the ridge itself. Distances on rough moorland can be deceptive: things that look a long way off can actually be quite close. Add to this the fact that in the absence of well-trodden paths one moves quite slowly and one can see how one can quickly get demoralised. Walking here has to be unhurried and philosophical. Put one foot in front of the other, then the other in front of the one - and so on. It is good that the ground is a pleasure to look at. The grass grows in tussocks. Each blade, green at the base, dwindles to a white, straggly tendril that drapes itself over the heather that grows around it.


In no time at all I reached the wire fence that runs the length of the ridge and turned right. All of a sudden I could see into both Swaledale and Apedale. I was surrounded by hills, although it was difficult to see far as it was quite hazy. I made my way along the fence to the summit. Although, as I said, I had visited it once before a long time ago, nothing about it seemed familiar. I sat myself down in the heather and ate an orange. A fence used to run away northwards from this point. All that remains of it now are a few decayed wooden posts.

When I set off back down, I decided to take a closer look at a tree I'd seen not far from the summit. I wondered if, perhaps, someone had brought their old Christmas tree to this remote place and planted it. Surely not. I can only think a bird dropped a seed. There are no other trees for miles. Being in such an exposed place, it's grown into the shape of the prevailing wind.


I toyed with the idea of simply retracing my steps back down Grovebeck Gill but, feeling lazy, decided to follow the ridge instead. The sun was getting quite close to the horizon and I would be unlikely to need the map if I went that way. All I needed to do was walk along the fence until I came to the prominent cairns on the next named summit, Height O'Greets. I'd made my way down from there many times. Once I reached the cairns, I turned down into Swaledale towards the road. Then, on a whim, I changed course. I could afford to, as I was making good time. As I said, I knew this part of the route well and, as so much of this walk had been completely new to me I didn't want the sense of discovery to end. I veered off towards Grovebeck Moss, where I found myself weaving a path through flat, bright green patches of ground. A small pool seemed to glow, completely filled as it was with a gelatinous mass of green algae.  Fortunately for me, I decided, it hadn't rained much recently.  If it had, I'm quite sure I'd have ended the walk sodden from the knees down.  I got back to the car not long after sunset.


Saturday, 30 March 2019

Pickerstone Ridge

I've been meaning to make my way to the top of Pickerstone Ridge ever since I realised it existed. At 565m, it's the highest point on the horseshoe of hills that encloses Apedale, a remote spur of Wensleydale. It's not even really called Pickerstone Ridge - the name properly applies to its southern flank. It just happens to be the nearest name to the summit printed on the map. It sounds odd but it's not an easy hill to see from the valley, which perhaps accounts for its nameless state. However, viewed from the hills around Gunnerside Gill to the north, it takes on the kind of prominence one might expect.

I approached it from Whitaside Moor. on the Swaledale side. I parked on the minor road that runs from Grinton to Askrigg and set off on my mountain bike up the loose Land Rover track that runs from there up to Apedale Head. It was hard going. It was a bright, clear day but a cold wind was blowing in my face most of the time. Half a mile up I took a slight detour, turning left onto another track. I wanted to find a waterfall I'd not visited before which is marked on the map on the flanks of High Carl. Following the map, I then took a right turn onto a less well-defined path through the heather. I'd been having an easy time of it on the Land Rover tracks. This took a little more thought, especially in the wind.

I soon came to the waterfall. It's only a few feet high and not spectacular but it's a pleasant spot. One thing I like about exploring hills is how, when you do, you discover  features not visible from a distance. I certainly wasn't aware of this small valley until I came across it. The path round the top of the waterfall was very narrow and I dismounted, lugging my bike around it and up the steep ground behind it. I stopped to peruse the map. It's a very popular track but, just for a moment, it wasn't entirely clear which way it led.

It wasn't long before I regained the main Land Rover track.The approach to Apedale Head from here always reminds me of the top of Ben Nevis. It's a bit fanciful, I know, and it's a sobering thought to reflect on the fact that the piles of stones and the gravel deserts here are the product of human mining activity.

A wire fence runs across Apedale Head along the watershed. Turning left along the fence would soon bring me to the summit of High Carl. Turning right takes you, after about half a mile, to the summit of Pickerstone Ridge. A faint path runs along the side of the fence. I stopped riding the bike at this point, pushing it along the path and, once out sight of the main track, leaving it by the fence. I continued along the fence until I arrived at a point opposite the summit, then struck out across the moor to the summit itself. It's always hard to see where the exact top is on a gently rising dome like this but, wandering around, you often come across a point where you suddenly get the feeling that all the ground around you is falling away, albeit gently. I walked around for a while and took a few photographs. The wind had dropped. In the late afternoon haze the surrounding hills were reduced to shades of grey, their ridges to distant, undulating lines.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Friarfold Hush

Gunnerside Gill is an uncanny place. It’s a deep, steep-side cleft that cuts  through the Swaledale moorland for some three miles. The place is strewn with the ruins of past mining activity which has left massive scars on the landscape. The result is a place that is more intriguing than a lot of other, relatively unspoilt areas of the Yorkshire Dales.

The East side of the Gill is dominated by three massive “hushes”: Gorton, Friarfold and Bunton.  Lead miners were in the habit of damming streams that ran down hill-side gullies, waiting until a sizeable body of water had gathered and then bursting the dam. The force of the released water stripped the surface layers off the gully sides, exposing the rock. In Gunnerside Gill this technique was practised on a massive scale. Seen together from the flanks of Rogan’s Seat opposite, the three great hushes form an imposing moonscape. “Moonscape” is an overused term for such places but in this case it is hard to think of a better way to describe this mass of almost vertical grey rock.

I’ve ridden my mountain bike around the area quite lot but I’ve never taken it into the hushes. A favourite Land Rover track of mine runs along the top, along the edge of Melbecks Moor. I had ridden this previously and passed a post and a cairn that marked the turning  to Friarfold Hush,  itself invisible below the rim of the fell. Although I had never taken it I had always felt drawn to it and knew that I would return one day when I had the time to explore it.

Yesterday was the day. I cycled over the moor from Surrender Bridge and took the turning. It turned out to be every bit as challenging as I expected. The track quickly became so steep and narrow that I knew it would be impossible for the likes of me to descend it and stay on the bike. At first I could find gentler detours but, as the gully steepened further, staying on the bike proved impossible and I was reduced to pushing it and manhandling it down the twisting track. Rock rose up on both sides and the rocky slope was littered with scree. Riders more skilled than myself can descend the hush in less than two minutes. It took me quite a lot longer than that.

I finally reached the bottom, a flat, grassy spot where a fingerpost marks the junction of the track with a bridleway running along the Gill. The map told me that if I followed this it would take me up the side of the Gill, back to the Land Rover track. I spent a couple of minutes weighing up the possibilities. The bridleway was steep and narrow, no more than a sheep track cut into a steep hillside and rising to some 200 feet above the stream in the valley bottom. I’d have to push the bike up it somehow. The alternative was to cycle the other way down to Gunnerside village and follow the road back to Surrender Bridge. I decided to take the bridleway.

Half way up I met a couple of walkers coming down.
‘My god!’ said one of them, ‘A man with a bike!’
I smiled and nodded.
‘We might be able to help you,’ he said.
‘How’s that?’ I said.
‘We’re both trained psychiatric nurses,’ he said.
After a brief, friendly chat, we went our separate ways.

The slope eased off and at last, after having to drag the bike up a final steep slope, I made it to the Land Rover track. I stopped there for a rest, eating, drinking and admiring the view, safe in the knowledge that the ride back to Surrender Bridge would be relatively easy and mostly downhill.

Someone who didn’t end up pushing his bike down it has made a film of the descent of Friarfold Hush. It’s all worth watching but the descent itself starts at about 3:06.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Return to Apedale

Yesterday, for the first time in a long while, I got the chance to go out on a wild bike ride. I'd not been sat doing nothing so I felt fit and the idea of doing the familiar (to me) nine mile round of Swaledale and Apedale didn't seem that daunting.

It was late morning when A and I parked in our usual roadside place and took out our bikes. The air felt cold - a lot colder than on my previous visit, months before. At least I'd remembered my gloves. The sky was clear save for a few thin strata of high cloud and there was a light breeze. We usually tackled the round anticlockwise, setting out over Harkerside Fell, but the gamekeepers were out heather burning and a thick pall of smoke was blowing over the track we usually took. We decided to go round clockwise instead. With luck, the fire might have burnt down by the time we reached the final descent of Harkerside.

We picked our way up the ascent of Height O'Greets: this is the only part of the route where there's no good Land Rover-track to follow. The ruts and puddles I remembered from the Summer were now frozen solid and covered with ice. We found ourselves pushing our bikes quite a lot of the way. The bare top with its rocky cairn feels a lot higher than it actually is but since it was chilly and we had a long way to go, we didn't linger. The descent into Apedale  is effortless: a well-kept track runs straight down the hillside to the valley-bottom. However, I wanted to avoid an emergency landing on frozen ground if I could. I proceeded with care.

We usually find ourselves descending the track through Apedale at speed. Ascent is obviously slower and gives one more time to take in one's surroundings. Apedale has an uncanny feel to it. Old tracks lead off to the left and right, only to fade away or disappear into the folds of the landscape. It's hard to tell what is ancient and what is more recent among the superimposed layers of human activity: there is a jumble of mounds, tracks and spoil heaps all in the process of fading back into the ground.

As I said, I'm feeling pretty fit but I have to say the final, steep ascent from the valley bottom to Apedale head was a bit of a slog. It began to feel like we were taking or bikes out for a walk. Near the top, it leveled out. We crossed the watershed and the skyline of Wensleydale was replaced by that of the bleaker, wilder Swaledale. We stopped for a few minutes and sat on the side of a small spoil heap, eating and drinking. The breeze had dropped and I was reminded of the times I'd spent there the previous Summer. It's definitely one of my favourite places in the Dales. Despite the signs of human activity. it has an almost tangible sense of remoteness about it. Perhaps those signs actually add to the effect: the mine workings were abandoned so long ago they add a sense of human activity being distant in both time and space. This is an illusion in a way: I've written before of how closely the moors are managed - the bleakness of the surroundings is maintained by the patient, systematic work of the heather-burners we had encountered earlier.

The hardest part of the route was over. From here, good, straight tracks with sweeping descents along the flanks of High Carl and Gibbon Hill lead to the summit area of Harkerside Fell. I always remember the stretches of descent when I go this way but in fact there must be a net ascent involved! Perhaps the ascents are short and sharp. By the time we found ourselves descending Harkerside Fell, the breeze had returned. It had, thankfully, changed direction. The heather could still be seen blazing on the skyline but the wind no longer blew it into our path.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Apedale Head

I wondered if I was being foolhardy setting off so late. It was five to eight in the evening when I set off on the circuit. I've done it many times: starting on the hillside outside Grinton you head up Harkerside Fell. A good Land Rover track goes on from there up Swaledale, contouring high above the river Swale. A left turn takes you to Apedale Head and the descent of Apedale. From the valley bottom a steady climb takes you over the cairned summit of Height O'Greets and back to the start. The total distance is about eight and a half miles.

The track to Harkerside zig-zags round the valley before heading up a broad ridge to the top of the fell. It's a great descent but for now I'm climbing up it. If these two had been making this short film the other evening they would have passed me coming up:

As you reach the edge of the plateau you pass an earthwork. It's not a complete fort but I've always assumed it was made by the same people who built the Iron Age hill fort, Maiden Castle,  on the Northern flank of the fell. Lead miners, too, have left their mark on the hill. It's tempting to stop at this point to wander around, to take in the view and imagine oneself into the past but I'm very much aware that the sun is not far from the horizon and I've still a long way to go. The top of the hill is dotted with lead miners' pits. The human influence on the landscape is more obvious from the air: aerial photos show it in places to be dotted with man-made craters. The most ubiquitous sign of human influence, though, is the absence of things: any forests that may have grown here have been felled a long time ago, to make room for grazing perhaps, to make charcoal, to build the stockade that might have topped the nearby earthworks or just to cook and keep warm. The heather is kept short by regular burning. It's easy to forget that this apparent wilderness is a closely managed environment.

Especially on an evening like this. The sun is inching still closer to the horizon. The breeze I noticed when I set off has dropped and the air feels warm. The sky is cloudless save for a few hazy horizontal wisps in the far distance. From the top of Harkerside, the track winds down steeply. It's loose and can be tricky but soon levels out. It passes a wooden hut used by shooting parties. I've never actually seen anyone there: there's a room with chairs and tables, like a small village hall without a village. From here it's an easy ride to Apedale Head. I stop on the way. The evening is just too magical not to. I sit back in the heather, and try to take it all in. I'm not trying to break any records after all. Daily life can be such a round of things that need to be done that even when the things are rewarding and not onerous it's still easy to forget what this freedom feels like and unconsciously impose demands upon oneself that mimic the constraints of everyday working life. I'm talking about the sort of freedom that is perhaps impossible most of the time, the sort the dispenses with demands and purposes. I set out from A. I will have to return there sometime, preferably before sunset (although I have a torch and a strategy should I be caught out). However, there is no reason from me to go to B in  preference to C or deadline to drive me on (except my own convenience). If I want to stop, look and breathe freely, I can. It's a great feeling. On a hill, like this, one can feel like Ratty messing about in his rowing boat.

I get back on the bike and push on. I'm determined to take it easy now, not pushing too hard up the hills and freewheeling down them. I want to live in the present. I come to a t-junction. I turn left for Apedale Head. This stretch feels particularly remote. I guess it's a trick of the topography and the fact that much of it has been scoured down to rock and gravel by the lead miners. It might sound fanciful but it always reminds me of the approach to the summit of Ben Nevis.

I stop again when I reach the Head, the watershed between Swaledale on one side and Apedale and, beyond it, Wensleydale on the other. The sun is about to set and I phone a friend. We chat about the last time we cycled this very route. As we talk, a curlew circles round and round protecting its nest. I set off again in the gloaming. The track slopes down gently at first but soon plunges downhill. I proceed carefully until the gradient eases again: in the bottom of the valley the route is almost flat but slopes just enough to make it possible to move fast easily.

Height O'Greets, though little more than an undulation on a ridge, has something of the feel of a real mountain summit about it. A stone cairn stands on a loose, rocky mound. By the time I arrive there it's pretty clear I'll get back to my starting point in daylight. I pick my way downhill  back down into Swaledale along the tricky, eroded paths that crisscross the moor here. The apparently smooth grassy slopes hereabouts conceal dodgy little drops.

It's rained all day here today. It's not at all like the recent evening I've just described. On days like today I revert to the exercise bike.  I turn on the music and get my head down. My current favourite is Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog. No-one I know here has ever heard of him although he has played with Tom Waits and John Zorn, to name but two. Perhaps it's because his projects are so different: you're never sure exactly what sort of music his latest outfit is going to come up with. I like that. This certainly gets me turning the pedals...

Sunday, 2 April 2017

The Inner Explorer

Over the winter I've been getting out when I can, often just on the road, putting in a few miles here and there to keep myself fit. Today, though, I went for a long ride over the fell overlooking Redmire in Wensleydale. My route took me along Cobscar Rake. I'm exploring tracks in the area with a view to linking the fell there with Apedale and Harkerside, creating a longer off-road circuit than the one I know. There's probably a booklet or a website somewhere that will tell me everything I need to know. However, I want to discover the route for myself and preserve a sense of adventure. Thinking about this when out riding today I immediately thought -as I often do- of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books. The children in these stories explore their surroundings, give places names of their own and draw maps. The fact that adults have already mapped and named places in the Lake District is of no importance to them. Exploration, however we adults justify it, and whatever else it might be, is play. Even when an environment has been extensively used by humans (as these fells have been), what matters to the explorer in me is that whatever I'm exploring is unknown to me. (I would like to know the origin of some of the hill and place-names round here, though: in addition to Apedale there is a Zebra Hill and a Gibbon Hill).
My route took me past the pool by the ruins of Cobscar Mill. It's always good, I think, to come across a pool on the fells. It looked quite deep and there were ducks swimming on it. I wondered if it would be good for a swim - it was a sunny day and one could almost imagine it to be a warm one too. I was a little concerned, though, that it was close to ruins associated with lead mining and might be polluted.
I headed off West to where the track meets a road. I turned up it and climbed to the cattle grid by Greets Moss. This is the watershed: from here you can see down into both Swaledale and Wensleydale. You also get a good view of some of the tracks and tops of Apedale. These would have to wait for another day. I had a little time on my hands but not enough to explore them. I headed back down to the Mill, this time taking the track along Chaytor Rake to Preston Moor. I found I was making good time, so I set off to explore Candle House Rigg. I suppose the stone hut on the hill to be the Candle House of the name. A track I didn't know stretched away from the hut towards the horizon. I was intrigued to know if it linked up with the tracks in Grinton, on the far, Swaledale side of the hill. I resolved to return another day to find out.
A few minutes later I found myself splashing through the ford at Petticoat Rake. Soaked but happy I turned onto the tarmac of Whipperdale Bank. A few moments later, a cycling club out for a ride, all clad in black lycra, swept me up and carried me along down the swooping, steep hills towards Leyburn. It was what I would imagine it would be like suddenly to find yourself flying in the middle of a murmuration of starlings.