Christmas Trees in May

It was our second Christmas in the house in Thoralby and the snow was on the ground. The parents and I decided to go for a short walk ‘over the top’ from Thoralby into Walden and back via West Burton. Back then the plantation that we walked through was a small forest of conifers and other trees and it was a delight to walk through – even if I did slip over on my backside on one or two occasions.

Twelve years later, my father and I decided to do the walk again and see what progress had been made since the trees had been chopped down and new saplings planted. The wind was quite strong, even low down, and I tightened the drawstrings on my new wide-brimmed hat and ignored Dad’s laughing derision.

I’ll admit, I have no fashion-sense.

We took the road from Thoralby to Newbiggin, passing the old Crosslanes School (now a bunkhouse) and where the Newbiggin road bends to the right to run through the village, we went left and climbed a stoney farm track towards the first gate.

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The top of the farm track. It eventually leads down to West Burton, but we went to the right of the picure (c) Kim Ralls

Through the gate, the ground rises in a steep climb over grass that offers a beautiful view of Thoralby and Bishopdale. We could, in fact, see our house from up there.

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Thoralby (c) Kim Ralls

Up on the tops the birds were out in force. We saw curlews, jackdaws, lapwings and pheasants (guess who got a book of British birds for his birthday) and Dad had brought his binoculars with him so we could look across two dales to Bolton Castle and spy out the path we were to take. It perhaps doesn’t come across through the photos, but the visibility was stupendous as we paused in our assent every now and then to admire the scenery.

We were heading for a gap in a dry stone wall that marked the start of the old plantation. Driving down the hill from Aysgarth the other day, I glanced across to Wasset Fell opposite Thoralby and saw the sun glinting off countless plastic tubes set around saplings on the hillside. It will be some years before they come into their growth, but I can already imagine a great expanse of woodland stretching the length of Bishopdale. They’re only grown to be chopped down and sold for timber, but it will be beautiful no matter how fleeting.

We climbed and pointed out birds or features in the landscape. Dad’s done this walk many times and I let him guide – he kept ribbing me about my hat and the fact that what I had thought was the path on the map was in fact a steep-sided ditch, one that we’d never have climbed out of.

Finally we reached the plantation. Even though they’re only saplings, it’s still a pretty place to walk. My only memory up to that point was of a deep wood with the snow on branches and the sweet smell of pine needles and rich soil in the air. Now it was open to the sky and the long grass weaved and rustled in the wind whilst birds flitted between the young branches.

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In the plantation, looking back the way we’d come (c) Kim Ralls

A track had been mown though the long grass. The soft surface wasn’t easy on the legs; like walking on deep snow and having to lift your feet higher so you can see where you’re putting them next. Dad told me he’d seen birds of prey on his walks up here and I eagerly looked for them, just in case. I’d never be able to photograph them with my equipment and I’ve seen hawks and the like in falconry centres, but to see them in the wild would be have been a treat. Of course, I didn’t see any, but I wasn’t dissappointed.

Over another stile Dad pointed out a path we could have taken to climb Wasset Fell where clouds were casting long shadows over dry stone walls. Then we found ourselves walking through an area thick with young conifers.

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Christmas trees – thousands of ’em! (c) Kim Ralls

Well, I assume they were young. They hadn’t yet reached the gargantuan heights of the ones we had walked through so many years ago, but the smell was fantastic. Even in the middle of Spring with the sun shining and the sounds of Summer birds overhead, I had to admit to feeling festive.

“That’s next Christmas’ tree sorted, then” I said to Dad.

He laughed. “They grow so close together, they’d be too thin.”

The path began to slope down, bordered on both sides by conifers, the plantation stretching across the hillside as far as I could see. Saplings wrapped in plastic had been planted in neat little rows looking like strip bulbs with one end stuck in the ground.

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(c) Kim Ralls

Where the conifers ended, the path became a track laid with hardcore that curved down to the Walden road that runs from the top of West Burton and up the length of Waldendale.

We could see across to Penhill and Harland Hill. Dad pointed out a track running up between the two hills that would, if we followed it, take us over into Coverdale. It would be a lovely walk to do, though as Dad pointed out you’d need to leave a car at the other end to get home.

“We could always drive over and leave the van at the pub,” he said. “Then drive back in mine and start the walk.”

He leant me his binoculars and I could trace the path winding its way up between the two hills before it rounded a spur and went out of sight. I could see a small stream running below it.

“Thupton Gill,” Dad said.

Yorkshire place names always have a warm, friendly sound to them, like Thupton Gill, Thoralby and Thornton-Le-Beans. If you do the research, you’ll find the majority of them have Norse origins from when this part of the country formed part of Danelaw and was ruled by the Danes.

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The Walden road heading for West Burton (c) Kim Ralls

We followed the road downhill, jumping onto the verge when a milk-wagon thundered along at a rediculously fast pace.

“They don’t care, do they?” said Dad.

“I hope he doesn’t meet anyone coming the other way.”

A moment later a hatchback past us going in the opposite direction at an even brisker pace. I don’t think they cared, either.

Walking along the road we could see some of the paths criss-crossing Penhill and we started hatching plans to follow some of the ones I hadn’t been on yet; Dad thinking of the journey whilst I was thinking of the photographs.

The road would have taken us into the centre of West Burton, but we took another footpath that skirted around the top of the village. We stopped for a breather and I looked down the length of the village green towards the pub and the shop and the village hall where The Penhill Poachers rehearse (we’ve also played there on several occasions).

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West Burton (c) Kim Ralls

The path took us away from the village and across fields to join the farm track from Newbiggin. The wind hadn’t dropped all day, but the sun was getting hotter and I was glad for my hat, no matter how foolish it made me look (which is pretty foolish, if you ask my father).

We cut across the fields to the main road and walked home in time for lunch, a host of new walks filed away in my head for future reference.

Bullocks, Bunnies and Bluebells – Part 3

Despite my run-in with the bullocks, I was glad I had come along this route. The views of the river Ure were lovely and there was an abundance of water fowl on, in and around the water. There were more clouds in the sky by now and so my photos were looking better – a clear sky might look lovely, but in a photograph it becomes no more than empty space.

I was thankful that there were less flies on this part of the footpath and absolutely no cattle that I could see. Sheep might have followed me in a similar manner, but I knew I could scare them off if necessary. However, I’m labouring the point. It was still a beautiful day and I was looking forward to lunch.

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River Ure looking East (c) Kim Ralls

The river was tranquil, unlike the Swale on my walk to Easby Abbey, and ducks and gulls and wading birds swam in the water and ignored me as I walked by.

So far on my walk I had seen few signs with more information than the word ‘Footpath’ carved into the wood. As the river bent away from the path I was on, I climbed through a thin stile and saw a sign that proved a little more helpful.

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It felt like a lot more than four miles, I can tell you! (c) Kim Ralls

On the other side of the stile was the road from Worton that runs down and crosses over the river and then climbes up to meet the upper Dale road between Askrigg and Newbiggin. I crossed the road and into a neat field with, of all things, a paved footpath. Oh, what luxury!

My new walking boots had proven very comfortable, but it was nice to have my feet on a solid surface for a change, especially when you consider that most farmers in the Dales do the bare minimum to maintain footpaths on their land (and I suppose they do have other things on their minds).

Across this field and into the next where ewes moved lazily when they deigned to move at all. Lambs played in and about the clumps of long grass until I came near. Then they scampered back to their mothers and huddled together. I muttered ‘mint sauce’ as they ran.

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Wether Fell seen from below Askrigg (c) Kim Ralls

The paving came to an end at a stile reached by a flight of stone steps with a metal bannister – would wonders never cease?

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How considerate (c) Kim Ralls

For those who don’t know, Askrigg was used as a location for the TV series All Creatures Great and Small starring Christopher Timothy as James Herriot. It was also my parents’ choice for our first holiday in the Dales when my sister and I were kids. The holiday cottage we rented is still there, though I didn’t go looking for it this time. I was ready for something to eat.

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Askrigg (c) Kim Ralls

The village is beautiful and unspoiled by its brush with fame – the house on the right of the photo was used as Skeldale House in the TV series and is now a B&B called, funnily enough, Skeldale House B&B. At the bottom of the village stands St Oswald’s church and the beginning of a waterfall walk that I’ll cover in a later blog.

There are three pubs in the village – The Kings Arms, The Crown and The White Rose – and it had been years since I had ventured into the Crown with my family for an evening meal when we had our holiday, so I simply went with the Kings Arms because it was the first one I came to. Inside the walls were covered in photos from All Creatures Great and Small as well as shots of the cast and crew relaxing at the pub, which also served as the Drovers’ Arms in the TV series. The bar was empty when I went in and I was glad for a chance to sit down to a sandwich and a half of dark beer. The woman behind the bar said it was a lovely day and I agreed.

“Come far?” she asked.

“I’ve just walked over from Thoralby,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, though I think what she really wanted to say was ‘why?’

I ate my sandwich and drank my beer and had a look at some of the photos on my camera. There were quite a few where the sky was washed-out, and though I would try to rescue them on the computer once I got home, they were destined for deletion. It’s always disappointing when photos don’t come out the way you hope, but I learn something new each time and so no photo is completely wasted.

The bar was lovely and cool and the beer was sending me to sleep, so I decided it was time to move on. I felt the back of my neck and was surprised at how hot it felt. I was burnt on my forehead as well and I knew I was probably going to feel rotten later. Still, I’d come this far and I certainly wasn’t going to let a little sunburn spoil the walk home.

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(c) Kim Ralls

I left Askrigg and walked back along the paved footpath until I came to the field near the road from Worton. A farmer was driving his tractor across the field and towing a muck spreader behind. Manure was flying out of the back and coating the field where I was suppposed to be walking. But what about my new boots?!

Living in the countryside, the smell of muck doesn’t phase me as much as it did when we only came here for our holidays. I climbed into the field, realising that the farmer would take a little time to cover the whole area. I didn’t look at the ground – I knew exactly what I was stepping in – and gave the farmer a wave when he saw me. I was ready to stand and let him past, but instead he stopped the tractor and motioned for me to continue. I carried on, all the while hoping I didn’t slip in anything nasty.

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(c) Kim Ralls

Leaving the field, I turned right and followed the road over the river and up into Worton. The village is tiny and apart from the pub has nothing much of interest. I had looked on my map and seen that I had two options. I could go up through Worton and then on to Thornton Rust and finally over the tops to Thoralby. Or I could go back the way I had come and have to run the gauntlet again. Do I really need to say which was the more appealing?

The map showed no footpath from Worton to Thornton Rust and so I followed the single lane road up a steep hill that offered a splendid view of Askrigg and the hills behind.

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Askrigg from the Thornton Rust road (c) Kim Ralls

I took my time climbing the hill, jumping onto the verge when a tractor or car came by. At last the road went round a tight bend and levelled off. I looked down at Worton and was surprised at how high I had climbed. To my right was Addlebrough again and I passed a footpath sign with the hill’s name on it. This was something to file away for future reference. As was the footpath sign I then passed on my left pointing down to Worton. Well, you live and learn.

I followed the road into Thornton Rust, another picturesque Dales village that I had last visited in March with The Penhill Poachers, a folk-rock band I play in. Next to a red phone box was the footpath I was to take for the final leg of my walk.

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You don’t see many of these nowadays (c) Kim Ralls

This was one of the last photos I would take on this walk for two reasons. First the battery in my camera was running low and the second was that the footpath from Thornton Rust to Thoralby covers a couple of difficult spots where I needed both hands free. I put the camera in my bag and walked up the hill, watched by a few inquisitive sheep.

Almost immediately I ran into difficulties. Not from the terrain I was walking on, but from the confusing signposts I encountered. Before I started walking regularly, I had no idea just how many paths criss-cross the hills in this area. The sheep continued to stare whilst I compared my map with the directions the signs were indicating. Eventually I realised that I was in fact on the right route and carried on. The path climbed steeply and at one point a small stream ran across the path, the stone beneath was slippery under my feet.

At last I found myself on the top and enjoyed a 360 degree view of Wensleydale and Bishopdale and the hills of the North, South, East and West. Forgive the cliche, but it actually did take my breath away and I took my camera from my bag again to take a couple of shots.

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(c) Kim Ralls

I walked on and noticed that a lot of the fields had shallow dips in them. I remembered that these were called shake holes. The hills in this area are mostly limestone and, over the centuries, rain has seeped into the rock and carved out caves and pot holes all over the place. Any Dales farmer will tell you stories of sheep going missing on the tops and how the most likely explanation is that the unfortunate animals have walked into one of these dips in the ground. The soil is very thin there and it only takes one mis-step for it to give way into the caverns below.

And I was walking amongst them.

I put the camera away and carried on. My feet were aching and my head and neck were burnt to a crisp. It didn’t take long to reach the final descent into Thoralby, marked by a stand of scraggly trees like those atop Lady Hill. As I crossed one field, there was a rustle in the long grass and a hare darted out from its cover and away before I could bring my camera to bear. It wouldn’t have done any good, of course, because my lens simply can’t zoom in far enough for that kind of image. But it was beautiful to see.

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(c) Kim Ralls

I passed the stand of trees and walked down into Thoralby. Part way down, the footpath went through a metal gate and onto a steep concrete track. I could see the village below and tried to take one final photograph looking across the Dale to Pen Hill, but my battery had run out at last and so I headed for home.

Bullocks, Bunnies and Bluebells – Part 2

With the rabbits playing hide-and-seek and the day not getting any cooler, I moved on from the warren and followed the path over boggy ground towards the west end of the dale. In one place a wooden walkway had been laid down and I could see why; the mud beneath looked as though it had the consitency of tomato soup. As I climbed over and through stiles of varying widths and designs, I looked to my left at Addlebrough and over my shoulder at Lady Hill. On my right there was a small woody area behind a dry stone wall. It looked cool under the trees, but there were no paths that I could see and I didn’t want to risk trespassing.

Eventually I came to a stop. According to the map, the footpath hugged the edge of the woods and emerged into Woodhall opposite the garage. This meant going through a metal gate and up what looked like someone’s driveway. This I did, but I began to feel uneasy. There was no sign and the track looked as if it was leading to someone’s front door and not the main road. Had I missed something?

I retraced my steps and walked along the edge of the field, searching for a signpost or a stile or anything to indicate that I had made a mistake. Surely I had misread the map and I was meant to cross lower down. But there was nothing and I went back to the gate and walked along the drive again. I rounded the corner of the house and a bunch of collies in metal cages went mad, barking and snapping and leaping about behind bars. There was no one about and I didn’t stay long enough for someone to come searching for the source of the disturbance.

The track became a stoney drive that curved up and round a bend. Half-way to the top I saw a wooden gate in the wall and went through, heaving a sigh of relief (and heaving my body through the rediculously narrow gap).

Opposite the garage was a lane marked with a T-junction sign. A wooden arrow pointed down it with the word ‘Footpath’ written on it. That was about all the help I could expect on today’s walk.

I followed the road down until it became another dirt track where I stopped and looked at the map. It was mid-morning and I didn’t have any pressing need to get home, so I looked at the dotted lines indicating footpaths and found one that would take me to Askrigg. I worked out that it would be lunchtime when I arrived and perhaps a pub lunch would be a nice treat. I put the map away and walked on, passing a tree that was still full of blossom even though the other trees I had seen in the area had shed theirs weeks ago.

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(c) Kim Ralls

What really swung the decision for me was the part of the map that showed I would be walking for a little way along the old railway track. It would be lovely to follow it and see the view presented to the passengers when the line had been in use. I took a footpath over a field where geese strutted and honked at each other (and me when I got a little too close). There were more clouds in the sky now and their brief shade was a welcome relief from the sun.

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(c) Kim Ralls

Eventually the path climbed up onto the track bed and I followed it along, keeping to the edges because the middle was almost a quagmire. A little way down was a stone and iron bridge that was still intact. I was pleased, if a little surprised considering how many of the old bridges have been dismantled over the years. This wasn’t a bridge that had carried track and I wondered if that had anything to do with it. I couldn’t think of any reason for it to be left intact, though the National Park Authority has a habit of decreeing certain structures have to be left untouched because they’re a particularly fine example of a certain feature (mullioned windows, for example). It wouldn’t surprise me if one of them had seen this bridge, decided it was worth preserving and issued the necessary paperwork with no regard to the fact it was in the middle of a field and sheep have no interest in British railway architecture.

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(c) Kim Ralls
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To the right is the path I had to take – the middle was like a swamp (c) Kim Ralls

I could only walk a short way along the track before the footpath turned to the right and into a field. The signs indicated that I could cut along the bottom of the field and head to Askrigg, or I could hug the right-hand wall and walk North to Nappa. I started along the bottom until I caught sight of a herd of bullocks in my way. As one they raised their heads and stared at me and from that distance it was hard to tell if they saw me as friend or foe or nothing important.

I waited. Perhaps they would go back to their grazing or dozing or whatever it is bullocks do to pass the time. They kept staring at me and I decided the best thing to do was to cross the field diagonally and keep my distance. In the middle of the field was a small rise and I walked with it between me and the herd so that I had a low profile and (hopefully) appeared non-threatening.

They started to walk towards me.

I kept moving, trying to maintain an illusion of outward calm despite the voice in my head telling me to throw caution to the wind and run for all I was worth. If you ever find yourself in this situation, running is actually the worst thing you can do. All the advice I had seen online and on Countryfile tells you to let your dog go because the animals will chase it and leave you alone. OK, what if you don’t have a dog?

I thought about that scene in Withnail and I where the two of them are – whoops, almost forgot the spoiler alert – threatened by a bull and one of them is encouraged to run at it shouting. It works in the film, but I didn’t want to put it to the test here. I could see the stile from where I was and what followed was the most perverse game of Grandma’s Footsteps I’ve ever played.

I turned my back on the bullocks and walked as calmly as possible to the ladder set against the dry stone wall. I could hear the animals following and every few paces I would stop and turn to face them. They would stop and look at me and none of us would move for a moment or two. Then I would continue and they would follow.

I did this five or six times until I was only a short way from the stile and then I did something stupid.

I ran.

I could hear the bullocks galloping after me, but I was committed now. I could say that I had visions of what might happen running through my head, but in truth all I saw was the stile getting closer and closer until I was leaping up and over and into the lane on the other side. The bullocks came to a halt behind a metal gate and looked at me through the bars. I felt the adrenaline rush fade and stood for a while watching the animals watching me before they decided to go back to grazing and forget about the idiot who had invaded their field and led them in a mad dash for no apparent reason.

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The view after I left the bullocks behind (c) Kim Ralls

I found the footpath to Askrigg and walked on feeling somewhat embarrassed by my behaviour. In all likelihood, the bullocks would have just followed me at a slow amble until I was gone from the field. In fact, they had almost certainly come to associate humans with feeding time and had assumed that I was the farmer. This didn’t make me feel much better as I followed the path along the banks of the river.

I  didn’t care whether the sun was over the yardarm or not; I needed a stiff drink.

Bullocks, Bunnies and Bluebells – Part 1

Lady Hill is a prominent landmark between Aysgarth and Worton on the A684 as it winds its way through Wensleydale (ooh, I love alliteration!) It’s a small hill, topped with a copse of scraggly trees and, according to the OS map I had downloaded to my phone, it is bordered on either side by footpaths running almost parallel to the road. I decided that this was going to be my next walk, despite running mostly on the flat in the middle of the dale. This was partly because I’d always wanted to see it up close and partly because the map states that there’s a rabbit warren there. Aha! says I, methinks I’ll see if I can get some pictures of some cute little bunnies.

The sun was shining from the bluest of blue skies as I set off up the hill from Thoralby to Aysgarth. As usual I had packed my raincoat in my backpack, along with my tripod, remote shutter release and a magazine (clean, I promise you). Huffing and puffing along the road, I was beginning to give serious consideration to going back and ditching everything but the camera and my water bottle. The sun was shining, as I said, so did I really need a raincoat? Well, all the best advice says to be prepared and so I carried on slogging and admiring the view up Bishopdale towards Kidstones pass.

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Bishopdale looking towards Kidstones. (c) Kim Ralls

The road from Thoralby to Aysgarth is a series of short, sharp inclines broken by level stretches like a set of steps. I’ve found you don’t notice the level bits so much when you’re on foot and especially not with the sun burning a hole in the back of your head. At almost the half-way spot, the road curves round a bend over Tom Gill Bridge and up Tom Gill Bank and here was where I left the road and took to the fields.

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Tom Gill bank. (c) Kim Ralls

The little patch of shade near the bridge was very welcome and, not for the last time, I wondered if I shouldn’t have borrowed a hat from somebody before setting off. The footpath climbed steeply, like the road, but at least once I reached the top it was over and I could catch my breath whilst I watched gulls swooping over a nearby pasture and, behind them, the slopes of Addlebrough that, one day, I intend to climb if I can find a footpath. The view from the top must be truly splendid.

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Addlebrough (c) Kim Ralls

I left the gulls to their play and followed the path towards Aysgarth. I had a choice of two gates and I chose the left one that would take me over more fields and out onto the Thornton Rust road at the Hawes (West) end of Aysgarth. The footpath became a muddy track between two houses and I kept my mouth clamped firmly shut against the horde of midges and flies buzzing around my face. I’ve no idea if Australians really do hang corks from their hats, but I could see why it might be a good idea. Perhaps I’ll try it one day – I’ve no fashion-sense anyway.

I left the flies behind and stepped onto the road as a tractor and muck-spreader rumbled by with their own collection of insects trailing behind. I turned right and followed the tractor into Aysgarth to where the Thornton Rust road joins the A684. Aysgarth is a pretty village that tends to be overshadowed by the waterfalls nearby – scene of the stick fight in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner. I once worked at the pub above the falls and the landlord at the time did his best to convince oblivious holiday makers that Kevin Costner had stayed at the hotel. We had a number of ‘Kevin Costner sat/stood/drank/stubbed his toe here’-type anecdotes we were supposed to repeat ad nauseum to the patrons. Some even believed us.

Crossing the road, I followed a footpath down towards the river – the sign mentioned the mill, but that was not where I was headed. No, there was a little patch of wood by the side of the river that I was headed for. I’m a sucker for a woodland trail – and pasta and old books, but not necessarily at the same time.

The track lead down to the river and another choice between right or left. Right went off to the mill and the upper falls – worth a visit if you’ve never been before. Left took me through a field and over a ladder style into the trees.

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One of the easier stiles I’ve had to climb over the years… (c) Kim Ralls

Out of the sun it was blissfully cool and either side of the path were tonnes of bluebells between the trees. I could have quite happily sat down with a novel and a plate of spaghetti and stayed there for the day with the birds in the trees and the soft hush of the river below.

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(c) Kim Ralls

I took photos and breathed in the smell of trees and bluebells and wildflowers. I’ve had fourteen years of living in the Dales and I had never known such a beautiful place lay a short walk from my front door. Incidentally, I looked at my map and discovered this wood is called Roger – check for yourself if you don’t believe me.

Anyway, I walked through the wood and admired a view of the river I hadn’t seen before. I love a good river walk and from a couple of angles the sun was in just the right place so there was little or no reflection on the water; photographers spend money on polorising filters to achieve this (and I will too), but today I was incredibly lucky.

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One river, sans reflection (c) Kim Ralls

The footpath rejoined the road a few yards down from where I left it in the village. What might have seemed an unnecessary detour had proven more than worth it. Walking along the road was not the most pleasant experience – farm vehicles and HGVs move for no man – and I was glad when I came to a layby next to the river with the iron footbridge that was the start of the main path I would be following.

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(c) Kim Ralls
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(c) Kim Ralls

The bridge was rusty, but solid and the view either side of the river was beautiful. The sun sparkled in the water and it was easy to ignore the constant noise of traffic in the background. I crossed the bridge and followed the track up a gentle slope, pausing to look at the ruined railway bridge that used to carry the Wensleydale railway between Northallerton and Hawes before joining with the Settle to Carlisle at Garsdale. The railway has been restored and carries passengers as far as Redmire, though the company is attempting to raise the funds to reopen the line all along the original route, though with so many bridges demolished, it may be far in the future before this is realised. I tried to photograph the ruined bridge, but the bushes and weeds had grown over it so much that it was hard to make out the structure in the image.

The footpath joined the upper Wensleydale road and I turned left. Yet again I was assailed by farm vehicles and had to hug the wall running along the road and wonder what on earth was under the pile of leaves I was standing in. Eventually I came to another footpath sign and left the road with a certain amount of relief. Now I could walk through the fields without fear of tractors and lorries and caravans.

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View of Addlebrough – there were a lot of flies about, hence the black spots on the image (c) Kim Ralls

Walking along I had a lovely view of Addlebrough and, once again, I wondered if there was a path that would climb to the top. I imagined the spectacular views I might have from the summit and filed it away in my mental list of walks to do.

Most of the fields I walked through had sheep in them with lambs gambolling (maybe even gambling as well, don’t let their innocent little faces fool you) over the hillocks and in and out of patches of long grass. Overhead peewhits and gulls soared and the once-clear sky was now dotted with fluffy white clouds. I had come out wearing a hooded jumper just in case the weather turned foul – you never know – but by now I was swealtering and so I tied it round my waist. There was a gentle breeze blowing and I was glad I had remembered to pack my water bottle. I was going to need it.

I climbed over another stile and had my first close look at Lady Hill.

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Lady Hill (c) Kim Ralls

Thoughts of climbing it crossed my mind, followed by ideas for photos that I could take from within the copse. But if there’s one rule I always obey when out walking it’s that you never wonder off the path if you don’t have to. It’s easy to forget that somebody owns the fields that you’re walking through, not to mention the livestock you see. True, I’ve gotten lost on more than one occasion and found myself wondering if I’m trespassing, but I’ve always made every effort to get back onto the path at the earliest opportunity. My photo ideas would have to remain in my head for the time being, especially as I had arrived at the rabbit warren.

In a dip in the ground was a pile of rocks spotted with holes like Swiss cheese (yes, it’s an overused simile, but I’m afraid it’s the most appropriate in this case and so you’ll have to forgive my lack of originality). Now, I thought, I can snap a few bunnies for the archives.

Or not.

I’ve often lamented the short-comings of my only camera lens, but on this occasion it was I who was lacking. The two rabbits that I did see poked their heads above ground and dissappeared again before I had a chance to press the shutter. I had crouched low and was certain that if I waited they might come out again. Not a chance. I must have been there twenty or thirty minutes before I decided I was wasting my time. Obviously I needed to be much further away and for that I needed a longer lens. If you’ve read my previous blog posts, you will have realised that wildlife and I don’t seem to get on. And it’s not as if I haven’t made an effort.

However, I was to have a definite close encounter later in the day…

Richmond To Easby Abbey

Richmond has a comfortable, worn-around-the-edges feel to it; not scruffy, per se, but the stones are worn and the shop fronts haven’t had a lick of paint for some time. It’s a working town, through and through, but has more charm than most. It sprawls beneath a Norman castle, the bailey rising above TV aerials and providing a sanctuary for numerous doves and pigeons in the way of all crumbling ruins. I love the town for its character and most of all for the riverside walks.

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Taken at the end of the day’s walking; why couldn’t it have been like this earlier?! (c) Kim Ralls
Today, with the sky overcast and a Spring chill in the air, I took a walk along the river Swale towards Easby and the ruins of the Premonstratensian (stop sniggering at the back) abbey. I parked in the Co-Op car park and walked down across the bridge towards the Station, now a cinema complex. There were no signposts, but just before the entrance to the Station there was a flight of steps descending towards the footpath running along the river bank. Today also served as a means to break in my new walking boots as the old builder’s boots I’ve been wearing for the past three years had finally been worn out. Inside one, a part of the ankle support had broken and was cutting into my ankle as I walked; the last time I took them off the sock on that foot had a patch of dried blood just above the heel. Lovely.

I followed the footpath away from the town and past a bend in the river where the water flowed placidly between banks of pebbles and sand and tree roots. Along its length, the river alternates between these stretches of tranquil beauty and bubbling rapids running between rocks and stones. For someone who can’t swim, I seem to find myself drawn towards lakes and rivers and waterfalls with alarming frequency.

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(c) Kim Ralls
I walked along the pebble shore until I could go no further and had to retrace my steps to get back onto the main footpath. This ran beneath a wooded canopy for most of its route towards the abbey and was lovely and peaceful even with the dog walkers, mothers with babies and a party of ramblers decked out for an assault on the Matterhorn (did they really need to use pairs of walking sticks in the middle of Richmond?) There was the constant sound of the water winding its way through the countryside and birds in the bushes and trees.

I had stopped glancing around at every tweet and chirp in the trees knowing that my lens isn’t powerful enough to take the kind of photo I’d like. However, just as I was (silently) ridiculing the walking party and their sticks, a robin landed on a branch near me and then dropped down to the path. I took the lens cap off and zoomed in. Yes, it was close enough to make a half-decent photo!

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(c) Kim Ralls
I crouched down and took photo after photo, determined that I wouldn’t miss anything. If it flapped its wings, I wanted to catch it; if it decided to pull a worm from the ground (do robin’s eat worms?) I would snap a photo mid-tug.

I probably took more photos of this one bird than the rest of the walk combined. Anyone passing must have thought I was mad, moving along in a half-crouch as if imitating a Ukrainian dancing the Hopak. Eventually I realised that I was wasting time and that I still had the rest of the walk, not to mention the abbey itself, to photograph. I took one last photo of the bird as it stood on a branch by the side of the path and then we went our seperate ways.

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(c) Kim Ralls
About half a mile down the track the trees fell away for a moment and I was granted my first, long-distance view of the abbey. From where I stood it seemed small and shabby and not really worth the journey. The walls matched the colour of the sky, a kind of grey-ish sandstone in the middle of trees and grass.

I carried on and crossed a wide bridge with metal rails coated in peeling white paint and wooden boards stretching from one side to the other. The river ran underneath in a brackish loop spotted with frothy rapids and rocks the same colour as the abbey stone. Of course, it would make sense that they should be the same. Why build an abbey from anything but local stone?

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(c) Kim Ralls
Across the bridge, the path became a wide track bound on one side by the river and on the other by a wooded slope filled with blue and white wildflowers and birdsong. A short distance on, I heard the sound of a car door slam and an engine starting up. The track I was walking on was actually a lane for a row of houses looking out over the river. What a beautiful place it must be to live; off the beaten track and surrounded by water and woods and photographers.

No, I didn’t take photos of those houses; give me a little credit.

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(c) Kim Ralls

Next to the abbey stands the church of Saint Agatha. I’ve never heard of her, but her church is neat and pretty, if a little too dark inside for photography – I don’t like using a flash if I don’t have to. As I walked around the outside, swifts or swallows (I can never remember which one is which) chased each other over the rooftop and in between the abbey walls where I could see a scattering of people admiring the stones and reading the information boards placed at important points.

At the entrance to the abbey was a map showing the outline of the ruins and an artist’s reconstruction of how the building might have looked in its day. I took photos of the building from what I thought were the best angles and tried to avoid stepping in piles of pigeon droppings. There were a number of signs throughout the complex warning of the dangers of crumbling walls and uneven surfaces but nothing about the current tenants.

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They don’t make ’em like the used to! (c) Kim Ralls
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The refectory; not a tea cake in sight… (c) Kim Ralls
With the sky still overcast, I decided to shoot a few black and white photos, the stones full of intersting shapes and angles. My first view back on the other side of the river didn’t give me a clear idea of how big the site actually is. It’s nowhere near as extensive as Fountains Abbey, for example, but there’s still plenty to see. The information signs all have artists’ impressions on them to show what the building must have looked like originally, though sometimes it’s hard to match the painting with the broken arches and crumbling walls.

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(c) Kim Ralls
As usually happens when I’ve got a good ruin to look over, I lost track of time and I’ve no idea how long I was there. Perhaps it was walking between centuries-old walls, their bricks held together by mortar and fragmented memory and only the birds for a congregation, but eventually I knew it was time to move on. As I turned to leave, the sun peered out through a gap in the clouds and the walls turned pale sand in colour. It was as if the old place was coming to life again and I took a few final shots before the light dimmed and the place went back to sleep.

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(c) Kim Ralls
Leaving the abbey, I followed the footpath sign and walked with the river on my left and open fields to my right. At a fork in the path I had the choice of carrying on or taking a left and heading down towards the river bank. I turned left and descended a flight of rough steps.

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The woodland at the bottom of the steps was full of white flowers and a strong smell of garlic (a quick online search once I got home informed me that these are called ramsoms – a type of wild garlic).

I have walked more woodland paths than I can remember, but this was one of the most peaceful I have been on. Beneath the trees I couldn’t see the grey sky or hear the traffic on the road. The air was cool and fresh and light.

A sign near the abbey had warned dog owners to keep their animals on leads as the bank was a haven of geese, swans, ducks and other waterfowl. I didn’t see any, but there were plenty of thrushes and finches and the like flitting from branch to branch and staying resolutely out of camera range. Alright, then, I thought, I’ll photograph the bloomin’ garlic!

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From here on it was hard to see the river as the trees grew so thick along the bank that they blocked my view most of the time. I could hear things landing on the water and assumed they must be ducks or geese. Small things skittered in the bushes and squeaked at me until I stopped trying to see what they were and went away. I remembered watching a cartoon about gnomes when I was very small and going out looking for the little red hats that the narrator promised I might see if I was very quiet and kept a sharp look-out. I never saw any back then. I didn’t see any today.

After following the path until it became another track to someone’s house, the trees thinned out and I could see the spot where I had taken my first photos of the day. The sky was still overcast and everything looked a little drab from under the trees. I hoped it wouldn’t rain and carried on, wondering where this path was going to lead to; I hadn’t seen any footpath signs since the abbey.

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(c) Kim Ralls
Eventually the path joined the main road above the bridge leading towards the station. To my right was a church that I had never been inside and, since I had plenty of time, I thought I would take a look. It was bigger than St Agatha’s and looked like there might be better light inside for photography. Alas, the door was locked and I contented myself with a few photos of the gargoyles leaning out from the roof and regarding me with a stoney indifference. Perhaps it was time to go home.

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(c) Kim Ralls

Knowing What I’ve Got

Richard Bernabe, a photographer I follow on Twitter, recently announced that he was heading on a trip to Africa. Various people left comments wishing him luck and asking if he needed any assistants or (in my case) if he’d packed enough sandwiches. The photos he and other globe-trotting photographers produce from these excursions are nothing short of stunning. The wide-open horizons, the glorious sunrises and sunsets, the incredible weather systems and, of course, the varied wildlife make for images that captivate an audience and turn yours truly green with envy.

Granted, I’ve only been using a DSLR camera for a short space of time and I am nowhere near as experienced as these men and women, but I can’t help but feel a longing to get out and photograph the wider world.

But while the Yorshire Dales might not have exotic allure of the Serengeti, Pen Hill is little more than a mole hill compared to Mount Kilimanjaro and, let’s be honest, next to Victoria Falls, those at Aysgarth are little more than a set of leaky fawcetts, it’s my adopted home and I do feel lucky to live where I live.

I still feel jealous of Richard and the rest, but the Dales are not without beautiful scenery of their own.

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Pen Hill (c) Kim Ralls

Over the May bank holiday, I took a walk over to West Burton. There is a small waterfall – Cauldron Falls – that I have photographed on a few occasions and the spot is, for me, the epitome of the word ‘picturesque’. Tucked in the bottom corner of the village, were it not for the weathered sign pointing the way, the casual observer would have no idea it was there.

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Cauldron Falls, West Burton (c) Kim Ralls

A short track leads down between houses to Walden Beck and before you see it you can hear the rush of the water as it plunges into a deep pool carved out in the rock before winding round the end of a broken dam – man-made – and under a thin, hump-backed footbridge. It’s a peaceful place, even during holiday season when the tourists flock to the better-known waterfalls at Aysgarth and Hardraw. I’m grateful for this because it makes it much easier to photograph the waterfall without waiting for people to stop taking selfies to grace social media under the burden of non-sensical hashtags: #poser #wet #grimupnorth.

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Footbridge over Walden Beck (c) Kim Ralls

As I said, I’ve photographed the waterfall on several occasions. I’ve been there in sunshine, rain and snow and was beginning to think that I probably wouldn’t get any better shots than the ones I had already taken. The snow-scenes were pretty enough, but under heavy grey skies they looked drab and uninteresting.

Then I hit upon an idea. In the nineties there was a television adaptation of Ivanhoe and several scenes were filmed in the Dales. Bolton Castle was the castle of King John and Cauldron Falls was used as the hideout for one of the other main characters (I’ll avoid spoilers because it’s a brilliant series and well worth watching). The character in question inhabits a cave, the entrance to which is next to the waterfall. There is no cave behind Cauldron Falls, but the cliff overhangs somewhat and I realised this would be a great angle from which to photograph the waterfall.

There was a young couple throwing a stick for a German Shepherd puppy when I arrived. The man would throw the stick in the pool and the puppy would plunge in and paddle furiously until it reached the stick and paddle furiously back to the shore, only to scrabble at the rock until one of its owners had to lift it bodily out of the water where it would stand looking like a large drowned rat; then the whole process would be repeated again. Apparently dogs enjoy this sort of thing.

I took a couple of snaps from the usual angle whilst I waited for the couple and their dog to finish their game and head off. The first rule of landscape photography, I’ve been told, is to exercise patience when people are in the way.

Once the couple had left, I crossed over the bridge and walked towards the overhang. Even in my sturdy old builder’s boots (cheaper than real walking boots, but they’ve done the job) couldn’t get a firm grip on rock slick with spray and moss. I had visions of my feet going out from under me and either falling face down with my smashed camera beneath me, or landing flat on my back with my camera intact if not my dignity.

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Cauldron Falls, West Burton (c) Kim Ralls

It took a little time for my eyes to adjust to the gloom beneath the cliff, but straight away I knew I had made the right choice. I set up the tripod low down so that I could get as much of the water in as possible and shot a few test snaps to get an idea of light levels. A professional would have a light-meter and all sorts of test cards to help judge the best exposure time and aperture setting. I trust to luck and the ‘P’ mode on my camera. It stands for ‘Programme’ and is basically an automatic mode that sets shutter speed, aperture and ISO (sensitivity). Most of the time it gets it spot on, but I do like to do things myself when I can and so I switched to manual and took a few shots using long exposures to blur the water and give it that soft, ethereal look.

This is a great effect, but it is over-used, and so I switched to a faster shutter speed and got some freeze-frames of the water. I can’t help thinking that it captures the power of the water and looks much more dramatic. I posted the photos on Twitter and everyone preferred the blurred water over the freeze-frame. Well, each to their own, I suppose.

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Cauldron Falls (c) Kim Ralls
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Cauldron Falls (c) Kim Ralls

Whilst I was photographing, I noticed a small bird on the other side of the pool. It would hop about on the rocks and then fly up and over the waterfall, I assumed to its nest. As mentioned in previous posts, I am a novice when it comes to bird recognition (apart from curlews and gulls – they’re easy), and I had no idea what this little one was. I tried to take its photo, but the damn thing wouldn’t sit still and, when I checked the images back, I saw that as usual my lens simply didn’t have the magnification to get a decent shot.

Whilst this was happening I was joined by an older gentleman wearing comfortable-looking loafers on his feet. He was doing a much better job than me at walking over the slippery rock beneath the cliff. He took a few photos with a tablet and we had a little chat before we noticed that the bird that had been hopping over the rocks was now flitting under the cliff and back out again. We watched it land near the top of the wall and two yellow beaks snapped out from a hole and cheeped their demands for food. The gentleman and I took our leave so as not to disturb the nest further and went our separate ways.

I am still jealous of the globe trotters with their arsenal of lenses and filters and other specialist equipment. I keep promising myself that, one day, I’ll travel the world and take the kind of awe-inpsiring photos that grace the pages of National Geographic and Time and others. But, for now, I’m also grateful for living where I do and having the time to enjoy it.

Taunted (Again) By Curlews

Read Taunted By Curlews Part 1

Part 2

I was determined the speckled gits with their silly curved beaks and warbling cries would not get me down. I had come to enjoy the countryside and that’s just what I was going to do. I carried on towards Marsett, snapping away at the views and watching the lambs frollicking in the fields – I defy anyone to watch lambs at play and not feel their hearts melt. I remembered an article I had read about photographing deer and how to make the images really stand out. It had said that you should get down so that the camera was at the deer’s eye level. If the animal is moving, then position it to one side of the frame with the animal facing the opposite edge to leade the viewer’s eye through the image. There were no deer around, so I had to improvise with a sheep.

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Walking into Marsett I was greeted by a chorus of ducks catapulting themselves into the air with a loud clatter of wings. They can move surprisingly fast when they have a mind; don’t let all that waddling along in search of bread fool you.

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The village of Marsett looks like one large farm and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was close to the truth. The houses are neat and tidy and four-by-fours of various ages and descriptions stand in the lane along with the occasional tractor. There is a green bordered on one side by a beck that does, in fact, babble as it winds its way down towards the west end of the lake. I would follow this beck for some distance along my route which was now marked by a single wooden sign, the first I had seen since the bridge next to the lake several miles back.

As I walked along the beck, I disturbed a duck from its resting place and brought my camera to bear, thankfully with the lens cap safely tucked away in my pocket.

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OK, it wasn’t a curlew, but at least I had expunged the earlier incident. I should, perhaps, explain that with the day being so bright and sunny and there being a fair wind blowing, I was paranoid about getting dust on my camera lens and having great spots all over my photographs. More crucial was the need to prevent the lens getting scratched. It’s the only one I’ve got (and the reason I’m not a wildlife photographer), so if it gets damaged I’m snookered.

I checked the photographs just to be sure as a curlew warbled somewhere behind me. You may laugh I thought; was I becoming paranoid?

Further along I saw another heart-melting sight that conjoured childhood memories of days out to an open farm in at about this time of year. Memories of little red lamps and barns smelling of straw and sawdust and new life. A female duck was busy herding her little brood of soft yellow and brown chicks down the stream. The little ones huddled around their mother at the sound of my footsteps and I only took one quick photo before I moved on. I looked back and saw the chicks swimming through miniature rapids and nibbling at the little weeds and grasses growing beneath the water.

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After a while, the stream bends away from the path and you enter the nature reserve, a region of marsh and streams at the west end of the lake. I still had some curlew-related determination left and I thought that, surely, this was the kind of place where they would abound and even with my little 18-55mm lens I would be able to get one or two decent shots. It wouldn’t matter if they were flying, walking or driving a bus, just so long as I could get my picture.

I could hear geese honking in the distance, but I couldn’t see them for now. They were out on the lake where the only lenses powerful enough to get a photo cost more than I earn in a month. But, I didn’t mind. I was busy trying to work out whether I was still on the right path or whether someone was about to stop me and tell me I was trespassing. Farmers in the National Park have to put stiles and gates in their fields if it’s on a public footpath, but they don’t make it easy for you. The stiles are always narrow beyond belief and the signs are left to weather and rot and fall down. The only new signs I’ve seen since we moved up here have been in my own village and they were by the roadside and so easy to access.

It being Spring, the fields are full of lambs and their mothers. Notices are tied on fences warning people to keep dogs on leads and to walk through fields single file so they don’t disturb the livestock. Walking through one field, though, it was the livestock that were disturbing me. Pairs of little eyes watched my passage and I had that creeping sensation in my stomach that means one of two things. Looking over my shoulder I saw a flock of ewes ambling towards me at a steady rate and I assumed that they thought either I was the farmer, which meant dinner time, or I was a threat which meant running time (for me). I’m not a coward, I just have a strong sense of self-preservation.

Thankfully the sheep and lambs in the next field were considerably more apathetic towards my intrusion and I passed amongst them without so much as a head being raised.

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By this time I was starting to wonder if I was ever going to find the ruined chapel mentioned online. Normally these things, no matter how small, are indicated by a wooden footpath sign with something clear and precise like ‘church’ or ‘ruins’ or ‘footpath’. The best signs even have the distance written on them, though so far none of those I had passed did so. I mean, the website had to be genuine; it had a map and cookies and everything. The internet wouldn’t lie to me, would it?

I laboured up a slope and heaved myself through another tight stile and worried that this time my jeans would rip and I’d have to finish my walk with one leg dressed in denim and the other wearing hotpants. But I made it through and there, to my left and behind a low wall, was the chapel with one of the nicest views from a holy place I’ve seen.

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I’m not a believer, but there’s something about old religious architecture that I find comforting. I can quite happily stand for ages looking inside churches and chapels and enjoying the way these buildings are constructed. The play of light as it shines through strained glass; the cracks and chips in the supporting columns; the knots and lumps and sweet smell of the wooden pews, their seats worn down by countless pairs of buttocks over the centuries.

The Dales are full of pretty little churches in towns and villages and a lot of them are still in use, though in bad need of restoration. Stop at any village noticeboard and nine times out of ten you will see a notice for some charity fund-raiser aimed at re-leading the roof of the local church, or preserving the sixteenth century fittings that are one of only a handful that still survive.

This chapel, however, needs more than a bit of re-leading. I suppose there came a time when the congregation dissipated and the building just wasn’t worth the effort to maintain. It’s sad, in a way, when you imagine what it must have been like to attend a sermon with the view out over the lake and the wading birds calling overhead and the sounds of life in the fields.

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And the curlews.

I left the little chapel behind, glancing over my shoulder at the sound of a pair of lambs gambling amongst the headstones whilst their mother kept one eye on them and the other on the grass she was munching. It was a nice contrast to see the crumbling walls become the playground of young wildlife.

The path went pretty much straight across more fields until it came out above the shorline where sand and mud were washed by white-capped waves stirred up by the ever-strengthening wind. It was at this point that I caught sight of the geese out on the lake, honking at each other and preening themselves. A curlew strutted across the sand and ruffled its feathers at me as if to gloat at my lack of a long lens.

But there are times when something you need falls to ground before you and, in the middle of the path, settled the largest Red Admiral butterfly I’ve ever seen. I knew what it was because my grandfather had taught me about them when I used to watch him digging in his garden. He would show me the Red Admirals and tell me to chase off the Cabbage Whites that were intent on devouring his carefully cultivated lettuces. It became a good-natured challange between me and my younger cousin to see who could scare them off first. The butterflies, not the lettuces.

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From now the path undulated above the shoreline and I saw more peewhits wheeling and diving. They would fly up into the air and hang motionless as they battled the wind before they eventually gave up and decided it was much easier to just float on the surface of the lake and paddle. They’d get wherever they were going a lot quicker that way.

I crossed one last field and the stile took me over the wall and down into the road a little way above the Pay and Display car park. As much as I enjoy walking, it felt good to have something a little firmer under my boots for a change. My legs were aching and I was beginning to wish I’d brought a hat to wear; the temperature wasn’t particularly high, but of course that didn’t make any difference when I’d spent several hours out under the sun. Still, I felt a certain sense of achievement and even the lack of any curlew photos was not enough to ruin the moment.

I walked back along the road to Bainbridge, noticing half-way along that my camera battery was almost empty. I switched it off and packed it in my rucksack and descended the final slope down towards the village green where the van was waiting. It was nearly two o’clock and although I wasn’t feeling particularly hungry, I thought it might be a good idea to sit down on one of the benches on the green and eat my peanut butter sandwiches. The moon was rising above the hills and I felt tired, but satisfied.

An RAF Hawk in black livery swooped low over the village, framed perfectly by the roofs, and I dove for my rucksack before I remembered that my battery was probably too low to get any shots in. Oh well, there would be other times, I was sure.

I stood up, brushed the crumbs from my lap and tried to ignore the curlew taunting me somewhere in the blue.

Taunted By Curlews

PART ONE

There are several, inter-related reasons why I am not a wildlife photographer, but the main one is that I don’t possess a decent telephoto lens with enough magnification to pick out the sorts of things I’d like to photograph. Living in the countryside, we are surrounded by a lush, vibrant ecosystem – and lots of sheep – that should be a haven for the wildlife photographer. Birds on the wing, rabbits and hares dashing pell-mell across fields – and in between the sheep – and at night we hear the cries of owls on the hunt and the tiny screams of their prey. And sheep.

But what I would dearly love to photograph is a curlew. These large wading birds are a common sight in the Dales and their long, warbling cry is a herald of spring. Now, as I said, I am not a wildlife photographer. Living in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, I tend to photograph the countryside itself, rather than all denizens great and small.

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Semerwater (also written Semer Water on local signs) is the second largest natural lake in the region. Earlier today I packed up my camera, tripod and peanut butter sandwiches (it was either that or ham and I felt like something crunchy) and drove over to the lake and parked on the shoreline. No sooner had I got out of the van, than I heard my first curlew, warbling somewhere up in the clear sky. I hunted around, but wherever it was I had no chance of getting a photo.

I snapped a few shots of the lake before noticing a sign reading “Have You Paid And Displayed” in chipped paint. The price was £2.70 and I didn’t have any change. I drove back the way I had come, wondering if the aged van was going to get up the hill without assistance, and followed the road into Bainbridge. It’s a lovely little village and I’ve walked from the village green over to the lake before and I wasn’t put off by the extra distance: it’s only a couple of miles each way and my boots are old and comfortable.

The road meanders up from Bainbridge and the views of the surrounding hills were particularly beautiful today. I saw a pair of Hawks in the distance – the RAF jet trainers, not the birds – and, not for the first time, lamented the fact that the only lens I have is an 18-55mm zoom that came with the camera. It’s a perfectly good bit of kit when you’re just starting out and I’ve taken some lovely pictures with it already, but it’s frustrating when something’s just that little bit too far away.

Anyway, the road meandered and so did I. Birds were whistling in the hawthorne bushes lining the road and I felt the eyes of wary sheep following me in the same way that certain paintings seem to follow you round the room. It’s no less disconcerting when you know they’re sheep, either.

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Countersett is a pretty hamlet just past the half-way point between Bainbridge and Semer Water. Farm vehicles sit amongst dry-stone walls with sheep and cow muck covering the rust and dents. Another curlew warbled in the trees away from the road and I was damned if I could see where it was lurking – apparently speckled plumage helps when hiding from blundering great idiots who want to take your picture, “celebrities” of the world take note.

The only other soul that I encountered before I reached the lake was an elderly lady walking a small dog on a lead. “Lovely day!” I called with a cheery note in my voice. The woman grunted and the little dog sniffed my boots before it was dragged off with a muttered “Get away.” I’m not sure if she meant me or the dog.

Birds continued to whistle and call in the trees and bushes and I saw a lot of varieties, but had no idea what they were. Greens and greys and browns flitted from branch to branch and chirruped their merry little songs. I made a mental note to buy a book on British birds so next time I might actually know what I’m looking at. Apart from curlews, of course; I know what they look like.

Leaving Countersett, the road joins Marsett Lane and you have a choice of left or right. Left takes you down to the lake shore and the Pay and Display sign and right takes you, predictably, to Marsett. I went left and received a pair of curt nods and a grunted ‘A’right?’ from two passing cyclists as they laboured up the hill with red faces, swigging from water bottles and sounding as if they might keel over at any moment. I’ve never understood the concept of ‘cycling for pleasure’.

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The road leads down a small hill and over a single bridge. The last time that I came here it was snow-bound and I had been wearing several layers to compensate for the fact that the van’s predecessor had very inefficient air conditioning. No matter where you set the dial, the car became a sweat box in five minutes and it was simpler just to put an extra jumper on. I’d risen early that morning and driven over to photograph the sunrise because I thought it would make a lovely picture. Unfortunately, I hadn’t checked the weather forecast that morning and I was rewarded with thick grey skies and an icy breeze. I still took my pictures, but they weren’t exactly the stellar, award-winning shots that I had hoped for.

However, today the sun was shining and the sky was a clear blue as far as I could see, though there was the small matter of a very stiff breeze trying to bowl me off my feet. I was beginning to wonder just why did I bring my tripod and my waterproof jacket with me; they were stuffed in my bag, but it was extra bulk I could have done without, especially when you consider how thin some of the stiles around here are.

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Just before the bridge I turned off the road and went through a small gate where a sign read ‘Marsett Lane’. Yes, this was the road I had just been on, but I knew what I was about because I had looked at a map before I came out – I just hadn’t brought it with me. The lake was to my left, but screened by a line of low trees and bushes filled with the noise of birds chirruping and chirping and otherwise making a racket. And above, somewhere in the expanse of blue, I heard another curlew cry out of range of my camera. I was beginning to notice a pattern emerging.

The walk was over uneven terrain and I didn’t see much of the lake again before I rejoined the road about three quarters of a mile down from the junction with the road to Countersett. Frankly I didn’t see much apart from the ground because it was so boggy in places that I thought I was going to land flat on my backside. Back on the road it was easier and I made quite good time, even at my normal leisurely pace. There were plenty of sheep in the fields and, above the bleating of the ewes and their lambs, I heard a small bird calling what sounded like ‘twiii-it!’ I’ve since done a bit of research and discovered said bird is calling ‘Pee-whit!’ from which it gets its name (they’re more commonly known as Lapwings). Of course, they may just have easily been calling me names.

I won’t be applying for David Attenborough’s job anytime soon.

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Marsett Lane, like the road from Bainbridge to the lake, meanders and walking along it I felt no need to rush. Once you get passed the end of the lake you can look over the fields towards the far hills and the expanses of trees that I would love to explore at a later date. I could take my time and enjoy the scenery and snap away to my heart’s… ooh, curlew!

I brought up my camera, amazed that this bird was flying so close; dare I even hope that it might be close enough to be more than a little speck in the viewfinder? Yes! It was right above me and if it had chosen that moment to soil itself as it passed over my upturned face, I probably wouldn’t have complained because my finger was pressed firmly over the shutter button and my camera was clicking away with a sound not unlike one of those old-fashioned football rattles you see in archive footage. The bird flew true and I was so excited that I decided to break my cardinal rule which is never look at the photos until I get home. I scanned through the dozen or so shots I had taken and my face fell from a look of rapture to one of naked horror and dispair…

They

Were

All

Blank

In my haste to get the perfect shot I had left the lens cap on the camera. The birds in the bushes and the trees and the sheep and lambs in the fields witnessed the sort of expletive-laced diatribe that Gordon Ramsay would be proud of. I called myself every kind of name under the sun and stopped short of throwing my camera on the ground and jumping up and down on it.

No.

I would be grown-up about this and accept that I had ballsed up. I would carry on with the walk to Marsett and down through the nature reserve so that I could see the little ruined chapel that I had read about. I would get some lovely photos of the ruins and the shoreline and the various flaura and fauna that came close enough. I’d photograph bees and other insects with my camera. They were not as shy as the birds. And there are always sheep in the Dales, if you fancy a subject that isn’t too skittish as long as you stay your side of the wall. No, I would carry on and spend an hour or two looking through the results when I got home. Who knows; the RAF use the Dales as a training ground for jets and they’re alway flying low. Maybe a Hawk or a Tornado would pass just close enough for me to get that once-in-a-lifetime shot. I would carry on.

If only that flaming curlew would shut it’s flaming beak!