Country diary: a north-west walk threaded with stone

Country diary: a north-west walk threaded with stone

For a week we walk up Wharfedale, through Wensleydale, across fells and down the Eden Valley, mostly following Lady Anne Clifford’s Way towards Penrith.

Sunlight emphasises the bounty of haw-laden hedges, the brilliance of golden crab apples trampled in red mud, purple sloes strung with spider webs, and occasional yellow dung flies. Even on dull days, pastures and strips of woodland below stony scars glow emerald and copper through the murk. Wind-blasted rain pursues us across Stake Moss with its peat hags, shooting butts and knots of sheep huddled behind tumbled walls.

By the Ure, flagstones lead across hay meadows used as “fog” (grazing after grass cuts), and we meet a farmer and dog, moving a flock to higher ground, away from anticipated floods when gills will run brown and waterfalls spout from cloud-shrouded summits. Next day trailers of sheep are off to Hawes for the sale of Swaledale “gimmers” (young females) that average £68 per head; later we hear about last year’s record price of £92,000 for a precious Swaledale ram.

Ubiquitous walls thread the land and, on the second day out, we saw a man mending a gap by Starbotton, where the pebbly shapes of local river-stone are more difficult to work than the blocky millstone grit or slabby limestone. A good waller builds five metres a day, binding sides with through-stones, packing cavities with fillers and topping with coping stones.

On walls beside the deserted High Way, across the flanks of Abbotside Common, individual stones are like miniature rock gardens – mossy, and with lichen sprouting tiny trumpet-like fruiting bodies. Above the Settle-Carlisle railway, this ancient way along turf and limestone ledges, beside shake-holes and rushy moors, was followed by the Romans, and later by jingling pack-horses and drovers herding animals from Scotland.

Past derelict farmsteads and the bridge over Hell Gill rushing with Eden’s headstream, we have nearly three more days to go, towards Pendragon, Brough and Appleby castles with glimpses of distant Blencathra. At dusk, on the last most wearisome day, we are heartened by sight of hundreds of geese, honking and flying south-west in straggling Vs, high above the swollen river.