We sat on a patch of earth, the only nettle-free patch we could find within this scrap of woodland, and we listened. We had fallen in love with the knot of patchy trees as soon as we had climbed over the stile, and so here we sat. The dale unfolded before us, field after field of sheep and grass. The only noise in the whole area came from the castle, beyond the wall. Whoops and cheers offamilies enjoying a falconry display. We sat with the dogs, allowing the day to pass, thinking absently about what it would be like to own this little patch of God’s own country. Welcome to the Yorkshire Dales.
The lodge was a great place to base ourselves: cheap, spacious and with views across Wensleydale. It was not an offer we would see repeated. The huge windows drew in light from all directions, and opened on to a balcony where young birds played all through the warm days. Our daughter, still not of school age, ran back and forth through the open plan living space, screeching with delight at the sensation of a home on one floor. She would carry this on all evening, free of her oh so restrictive bed time, until she crashed out and allowed her parents a few hard earned moments of respite.
Whenever we are in the vicinity we always make a beeline for Hawes. Often we leave it too late, and this was one of those times. I wanted cheese, our daughter wanted ice cream, my mother wanted to have a wander and a gawp, my partner wanted a pee. We were all satisfied. The Hawes creamery, for all its crowds and its hyper-commercialism, is a great place to get things done. We had missed the tour of the factory, and the demonstration of cheese making, and the museum of bits and bobs associated with cheese making, but once we were through the hordes we found what we wanted.
We were aiming for a famous fish and chip shop, excited about the prospect of not having to cook that night. We parked up in the car park above the town and ambled our weary way down, after a day spent walking. I knew the place from previous visits, and had heard rave reviews from bikers in hot, sticky leathers. Today there were no bikers about, and even the pub forecourt seemed empty. My concern grew as we walked along the front street and saw no queue hanging out the front of the famous establishment. The sign showed that we were ten minutes late; our stomachs cried.
We had left lunch too late, and we needed a pit stop. Aysgarth Falls seemed like the perfect spot, so we parked up and took the dogs out. We began with the upper falls, and the fight scene from Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves. Every inch of space was crammed with people with the same idea as us; our dog bayed at the other pets there, and tried to take them all on in epic battle. Our repast was fraught, and we ate joylessly. My attempts to keep guard only fragmented the group even more.
Our walk took us out of Castle Bolton, and down to an old train line. The terrain was pleasant as we all trundled down the hill, giddy dogs in tow. We talked as far as the disused tracks took us, and peered at the earthworks. The heat hit hard, and we were all panting in the glorious Yorkshire sun. We turned back and meandered our way across bridges and through stiles. And then the terrain shifted upwards; we realised that the fun of a downward slope would always be paid for in the pain of an upward one. As we trudged back across the ever-increasing gradient, stopping occasionally to catch our collective breath we dreamt of long drinks of pure clean water and comfortable chairs.
The middle falls of Aysgarth were at the bottom of a muddy slope, littered with wooden steps and cast about with impossible angles: it was little more than a viewpoint. We retreated from the edge and made our way back to the car park. There were fewer dogs around now, and we were beginning to hear ourselves think. Our first visit to the falls, several years earlier, had been in absolute contrast to this, with barely a soul to bother us. We sat on a sand bar at the upper falls and ate; the place was ours. We walked down the forested slopes to the lower falls and paddled in the crisp, clear waters.
A trail of people made their way out of the town of Malham, towards the cove. I remembered them as a snake, coursing its way along pristine paths, with their packs and their walking sticks. They left me agog: in years gone by the pursuit of a walk in the countryside had been one of purity, of the escape from the hustle and bustle of a world of black smoke and fetid air. Here we were now, with a car park full of cars, shifting the smoke and the fire to the countryside, in order to join a queue to see one of nature’s wonders. I wondered to myself how much longer it would all be with us like this.
The entrance to the falls was through a village pub, and that pleased me no end. We didn’t venture in to the hostelry itself, but the thought was so redolent of an England gone by, punctuated with inns and coach houses, each in competition with the next. A tourist attraction could be make or break to a bar in a village. This one had a spectacular waterfall – Hardraw Force – and it was more than worth the price of admission. The most spectacular beer garden the world has ever seen.
A woman appeared suddenly from behind a low stone wall, adjusting her trousers. The rest of the group had missed it, but it set me wondering: here we were, having a pleasant walk around a tarn in Malhamdale, in open countryside: why was it such an issue for one of us to have a pee behind a wall? I understand the desire for not allowing the world a glimpse of your intimate areas, but there seemed to be some degree of shame in being caught. I think this is somewhere we all need to unite upon and accept: when we are at one with nature, we should be free to be as animals are, and pee behind a wall, a tree, a rock, a bush or a sheep; and furthermore we should be applauded for it, too.