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. Their often smooth grassy slopes 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.