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...