I sat at my writing desk yesterday, staring at the snow gathering fast and thick before the eyes, coating the world outside with a thick layer of icing, rather assiduously. But I found myself thinking of Malham Dales. We were there last year around this time. It is a powerful memory, the kinds that stick with every iota of detail lodged into the cells, for our walk there had gathered momentum, assumed a life of its own. Now, this is a walk that has recently been declared by ITV to be amongst the top three in its list of a hundred ‘rambles, scrambles and ambles’ in Britain and North Ireland. But we did not know then of its upcoming celebrity status as one of Britain’s best walks (do watch the link at the end of the post, it is loaded with the most scenic walks in the British countryside).
Malham is a quiet village in the Yorkshire Dales, dotted with stone cottages, warm country pubs and ancient stone bridges traversed by packhorses once. The road to Malham, for us, was paved by 10 random stops because I had decided to change my blog host from WordPress to Siteground. That was all in vain. I ended up making the change this year, and keeping in mind the association, I could not help slipping in that photo of the limestone pavement of Malham in my earlier post.
A strange lunar landscape and a solitary tree sticking out of it. That is the draw of Malham.
But I am not a woman of few words and to let you go just like that would be monstrously unfair on my partiality towards chattering more than I should. Adi bemoans that I take five lines where he makes do with one. Usually that word is ‘nice’. I have naturally developed an antipathy to ‘nice’.
We stopped for a spot of Sunday brunch at a country inn where to the tune of hoppy ale, roast meat and Yorkshire puds, we were subjected to friendly interjections from a bald guy in a leather jacket, his girlfriend, and their hound who sat underfoot, throwing a hissy fit when another of his kind invaded his territory. Adi clammed up as he does when he is feeling particularly unsocial, so it was left upon me to be the picture of amiability. Frequent smiles and aching jaws.
When we got out of that warm pub with its flagstone floors and roaring fireplace, we were greeted by a sharp wind. Cowering into our jackets we set off into the pastures, past the beck that tripped over stones and gurgled its way into pre-historic woodlands where ancient ash trees were sheathed in moss. Upon barbed wires of dry stone walls, fluttered clumps of fleece in the wind — the aftereffects of scabby sheep having enjoyed a real good scratch. *whispers – I have a bit of that wool tucked into my box of souvenirs. Past bee libraries (I am not on crack), which are book nests transformed into dwellings for solitary bees in ash trees, we came in view of a startling sight. Janet’s Foss. The waterfall of Janet, the fairy queen. She is said to dwell in a cave screened by a waterfall which gushes into a pool that glows the colour of magic.
Till then it was a walk, which by its very nature, is suggestive of a slow pace. It stretches your body gently, lets the mind wander as you saunter, coaxes cobwebs out and generally paves the way to a beatific state of mind. Why, it soothed Adi’s frown away.
Soon we found ourselves in the middle of a limestone amphitheatre, along with a herd of grazing sheep. The beck flowed by, a river of honey gold glinting in the soft light of the sun, for it had emerged at some point to dispel the gloom of the day. Our jaws dropped as we turned around and surveyed this sheer display of nature’s power over us, tiny humans. A limestone landscape fashioned by the relentlessness of ice and water during the last Ice Age. We turned a corner and there lay Gordale Scar, a cave system that had collapsed and gouged the cliffs to reveal a gorge, that was at once intimidating and deliciously alluring.
We mused. Should we risk a climb? This is the part where I admit that we were wearing plain old walking shoes. The boulders were slimy, and the water gushing down it did nothing to bolster our confidence. As we walked away from that gorge, I simultaneously started whinging about not doing the one thing I had set out to do: see the limestone pavement. It was up there, you see, above the cliffs.
So my darling boy decided he would take me up. Up cliffs that were fenced off. Vast stretches of the inclines were varnished with jagged, grey limestone. As a reward, at the outset, Adi’s trousers caught at a snag in the fence. They ripped *whispers — at the crotch. But this did not thwart him. Oh no. He carried on and convinced me to follow him.
‘This should be easy,’ I said to myself as we started climbing. I had bypassed Adi when he called me from behind. ‘Look at the view, Nessie,’ he said. I turned, clinging to the long grass. And I froze. ‘This is what it feels when you reach the point of no return then,’ I thought, and a strange form of gut-liquefying panic gripped me. The bed of rocks below taunted me.
I started climbing then, and boy, I did not stop except to ride out the rushes of wind that whipped the grass. Oh that wind, it did not susurrate, it keened. What would have been music to my ears in a field, threatened to make me wilt on the steep inclines. After that there was no stopping. I have never felt more like a nimble goat in my life as I did then.
At one point, I called out to Adi. There was no reply. I would not dare to look down. It was too steep for comfort. My heart beating, with the rat-a-tat of a thousand Hitchcockian birds clamouring against window panes. After a short interval, but what seemed like eternity at that point of time, I heard Adi say faintly from somewhere below, ‘I am trying to climb a boulder.’ My imagination, already ripe with horror, had a whole tableau playing out. Of us desperately waving to speck-like people below for help. Perchance, they would arrange for an air ambulance for the foolish people up there, or would they rather nod their heads in contempt, and opine, ‘Odd folks. What did they think the fence is for? Let them stay up there.’
The relief that washed over me when I spotted my husband’s head pop up. I started back on my single-minded scramble to reach the top, which looked deliciously near. A final heave – thank heavens for my loose pair of trousers – and I was up on the edge of the cliff. I lay there, eyes shut, arms unclenching from clinging on to the grass for dear life, heart beating, legs trembling like jelly, sweat gathering beneath my jacket, the tee shirt demanding a gulp of air. Even today, I cannot believe that we made it to the top. The cliffs had been fenced off for good reason. Later, much later, I read a news story about a father and daughter who were out on a hike in Scotland. They went rogue like us, climbing a fenced mountain. It was a chance loose footing, but the father never made it back.
By this point, you might ask me to bugger off, because hey, you do not want adventures of this kind, do ya? But well, some hare-brained schemes once acted upon lead to spectacular landscapes as limestone pavements, where you too can get your trousers ripped.
Before I quit gabbing, I wanted to leave a note about the other rewards for this harum-scarum deed: It lies in the winding lanes that descend sedately to reveal the surreal beauty of the British countryside, for surreal is what it is and nothing less; in a pint of chilled ale at The Buck Inn; and, in the innocent faces of a dozen calves with yellow ear tags, who come lumbering around the corner to catch a sight of loud humans with ripped trousers.