This is NOT a good walk – it’s a GREAT walk.
Muker is home to a couple of hundred souls although that figure is down from three hundred at the turn of the century. It has St. Mary the Virgin church, a village shop and The Farmers Arms, a pleasant little pub. It also has a car park and that’s as good a reason as any to chose it as our start point. It’s an extremely picturesque little village that was first recorded in the bronze age and evidence supporting this in the form of a skeleton found, with flints, on Muker Common in the early 20th century.
The meadows around the village are sublimely beautiful and are of international importance. The local farmers are given grants to farm only using traditional methods and the results are fields full of the most wonderful wild flowers together with ancient grasses all protected by dry stone walls and occasional hedges. I’ll say more about the meadows on our return.
We leave the cars and walk to the bridge that hides the confluence of Straw Beck and the River Swale a little further down stream. The village seen from the bridge is like a picture postcard with roses and other climbing shrubs clinging to the walls of the houses and the odd small workshop that’s hidden behind ancient wooden doors. The track is easy to follow through the village and within a couple of minutes we’re making our way up the first of a number of lanes that are still used substantially by farm traffic. It’s not a steep climb but it does go on a bit and this encourages us to stop and take in the views
Our last foray on this walk took us over the Hooker Mill Scar then down into Keld, this time we’re walking around the periphery of the moor high above the Swale. It gives us magnificent views up, down and across Kisdon Gorge. As we walk we can see the remnants of the old lead mines with spoilage cascading from the source down the steep gorge and slowly being subsumed by the gorse, bracken and broad leafed trees reestablishing their claim to the dale. The path is obvious and follows ancient tracks established by wildlife and sheep coupled with evidence of human boot treads in the soft mud between the rocks. Many of the latter have been laid by volunteers who keep these tracks walkable by utilising local rocks of which there is an abundant supply.
As we walk around the side of the moor about a hundred feet from the ridge top the track begins to fall away but the view of the swale and tributing streams together with waterfalls and whitewater rapids justify the occasional stop even though we’re not out of breath.
We’re walking at about 1400 feet and the valley floor at this point is about 800 feet above sea level so we’ve got a clear view either way about 600 feet above the valley floor. Occasionally, a sheep, sometimes with an adolescent lamb, goes stumbling through the heather and gorse but there’s no evidence of a catastrophic fall so it can only be assumed that Swaledales are sure-footed, it doesn’t make it any easier to watch their haphazard gait and reckless disregard for the height as they try to avoid us though!
Towards the end of the outward section of the walk, down Birk Hill into Keld, the scenery changes to green grass and deciduous trees. Someone mentions a forest of oak trees that were cut down to build ships to maintain our control of the seas and I’m reminded of a wonderful song, “Dancing at Whitsun” and it carries these lines,
“The fields they stand empty, the hedges grow free,
No young men to turn them or pastures go seed,
They are gone where the forest of oak trees before,
Have gone, to be wasted in battle.”
I first heard it when I played in a folk band called Grimbles in the early 70’s. We did our debut performance at The Bridge in Grinton, not far from here. Jo Millican asked if she and Alison Blackhall could sing a song towards the end of our first set and “Dancing at Whitsun” was the song. What we were not expecting was the enchanting voices that emanated from such small frames, they were sublime and it was impossible to follow them such was the applause so we called an early break before we went back on – such a great memory.
Jo eventually teamed up (and married) Roy Duffield and for a while became the South Bank Grunters with Geordie Keith and they toured the folk clubs for many years either as the Grunters or just ‘Roy and Jo’ but we had the privilege of hearing her first!
Alison married and moved north to Scotland but both of them followed their nursing careers spending a lifetime looking after us all but I’m proud to have been there that special night, you can’t plan or arrange something like that.
You can hear an example of Jo and Roy here: (if there are any issues with copyright etc. please let me know and I’ll remove it immediately – I have no desire to offend thanks G.)
Also, please be aware that this is taken from a cassette tape that is over 30 years old!
Holly Child – from a charity Christmas album
We stop at the cafe in Keld and sit in the garden. The bacon sandwiches are excellent but they do struggle with numbers so if you see more than half a dozen at the door you might want to go to the loo first, they’re in the car park and whilst quaint, they’re very clean.
Twenty minutes later and we’re heading for the bridge that’ll take us to the North-East bank of the Swale and almost immediately to East Gill Force which is in full flow; we have seen it before when it was all but a trickle but impressive today. There’s a lot of experimenting as we try to create the milky shots that are possible with ‘proper’ cameras by slowing down the exposure, it’s not as easy on the iPhone but the results are not too bad.
We’re on our way again and it’s some more ‘up’ but not as aggressive as the track to Hooker Mill Scar. The target is the wonderfully named Crackpot Hall. The name is derived from ‘pot’ being a hole or ‘pothole’ and ‘crack’ being old norse for ‘crow’. ie. Crow hole.
The views along the dale are astonishing and the weather is being kind so there is little haze and the Swale meanders the bottom of the valley with the steep sides of Arn Gill Scar on the left and North Gang Scar on the right. It’s also interesting to see where we walked only an hour ago; it’s a long way up!
The track divides and we take the left fork towards Crackpot Hall and within a few minutes it shows itself. I’m not sure what I expected and find it both disappointing in it’s ruinous state and also rivetingly interesting for the same reason.
The building has been a hunting lodge for Thomas the first Barron Wharton who used to come to the oak forrest to hunt red deer. It was also an office for the local lead-mining industry and a family farm over the decades if not centuries. It is also has a secret! Well OK, perhaps not a secret but during the 1930’s Ella Pontefract and Marie Hartley visited and eventually settled in the dale and whilst they were visiting Crackpot Hall they saw a four year old who had a “mocking, chuckling laugh” as she roamed alone with her dog and cats, her name was Akice and they wrote about her in one of their books. Alice suffered from ill health and died from blood pressure at the age of forty-nine, Marie managed over a hundred years and the little girl Alice was tracked down by David Almond who produced a 30 minute programme about Crackpot Hall and the book they wrote; you can find it here https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06nr54x
We spend a few minutes exploring the ruins and decide to split into two groups. The ‘A’ team will be going to a pothole and waterfall at the head of Swinner Gill and the ‘B’ team will continue along the track and we’ll meet again in an hour a mile or so along the dale.
So we have a little more ‘up’ as we disappear behind Crackpot Hall then along a narrow track high above Swinner Gill. It’s about a half a mile to the waterfall that act as our marker to turn left and scramble up a narrow gorge with lose rocks either side and smooth rocks rendered that way by trickle and torrent over millennia. Some of the rocks are huge and create steps that need a little bit of scrambling to conquer but the water is only a trickle so, with a little bit of planning at each stage, there is no need to get wet.
At the head of the gorge there is a wonderful waterfall with lichen in various shades of green and the odd sapling trying to establish itself in crevices between the rocks. They don’t know it yet but, come the next storm and flood their choice of site will be exposed as tenuous and their chance of being here next year is almost zero.
The pothole sits to the left of the waterfall and, for me, is uninviting but Chris ventures in a few yards and emerges again with a smile; I’m still not tempted!
It’s a damp little glade and reminds me of a walk I did in the jungle on Penang when I was doing a bit of work in Malaysia.
I was working in Malaysia and had hired a car to travel around the island on a day off. I was in a hotel at Batu Feringghi on the North Coast of the island and twenty five years ago the car had to be delivered to the resort from Georgetown so it was a later start than I would have wanted; however, that worked in my favour. As I travelled around the periphery of the island I spotted a hand written sign with the word “waterfall” scrawled on it so I parked the car and peered into the jungle in the direction that it indicated.
There was a black plastic water pipe about 6 or 8 inches in diameter snaking its way into the lush green wood and had it not been for the fact that it was there, I certainly wouldn’t have ventured in; however, it was and I did. My brain was telling me that all I had to do was follow the water pipe into the wood in the direction of the waterfall and there would be no issues coming back out as all I had to do was use it as my guide in the reverse direction, so that’s what I did.
After about twenty minutes following a track to the side of the pipe I heard the sound of children playing. I’m thinking that this is a tropical forest (in reality it was a just a big wood but it was dense) so what the devil are kids doing playing in it. As I ventured further the sound of the kids became louder until I came to a glade. It was surreal. There was a waterfall cascading from a rocky outcrop about thirty feet above and around it there were tropical trees in various stages of growth around and below. Some branches had become so heavy with huge leaves and had broken away but not severed completely from their host. Bark had been torn and hollows had appeared and filled with water where orchids and other tree born plants had established themselves. I was astonIshed to see what looked like hydrangeas, I have no idea why I was surprised, they just looked out of place in a jungle environment.
The water was cascading into a pool about the size of a double decker bus lying on its side and there were more rocks covered in soft green lichen with kids jumping into the pool from either side of the waterfall and swinging on two ropes that had been tied to overhanging branches over the water. Their delight was evident in the squeals and screams as they hit the warm water in the pool. The pool was in a dappled shade created by the vegetation and the size of some of the leaves was astonishing
The Malaysian school day started very early and finished about one in the afternoon so the kids were free to play all afternoon. These children were having a whale of a time when suddenly an adult voice broke the spell, “Hello!”
An adult Malaysian couple were sitting on the pipe where it was suspended a couple of feet off the jungle floor between a fallen tree trunk and some rocks, they were smiling at me so that was a positive.
“Are you lost?”.
Rather than answering the question I paused for no other reason than I was amazed that she knew I was English.
“Just following the water pipe”, I answered and she invited me to sit with them. It turned out they were on designated duties watching the kids that day. There was normally 4 adults and the others would be along shortly. The kids were allowed two hours in this idyllic place then back home for more play involving ball games including football. No computer games in dingy bedrooms here then?
They told me that the English league games were transmitted through the night and many people would get up to watch them.
I stayed for twenty minutes as they practiced their English on me then began to make my way back to the road following the pipe to vacate the trees and without which I would have been well and truly lost.
It’s only now, as I write this, that I realise how privileged I’d been and my only regret is that I didn’t ask her how she knew I was English when she first spoke?
Clearly, I didn’t remember all of the above whilst in the damp little glade near Crackpot but it certainly stimulated the memory and I’m bathed in gratitude for some of the memories and experiences that I have. If you have any reservations about doing something please remember this – “most of your regrets will be for things that you didn’t do with only an occasional one for something you did”.
We spend some time at the entrance to the pothole and enjoy the lichen and waterfall then look in wonder at the smoothness of the rocks strewn around the narrow gorge creating an ‘interesting’ exit for us although now it is thankfully, downhill.
As the gorge opens up we make our way back up to the higher path which has significantly fewer rocks although the shale does add its own challenge and we’ll be able to practice our body-surfing as we slide back down it to re-join the lower path. Dave, normally surefooted and quiet, has a view on shale; it involves expressing himself with a number of fluffing words as he creates shale avalanches on his journey between the two tracks. I’m already on the lower one armed with my phone locked on slow-motion-video just in case we get the opportunity of an action shot if he slips! With mixed feelings, I can report that he didn’t slip but there are a couple of stills showing the concentration on his face.
The track continues to regain height only to go down again in a series of steps that are easily negotiated and we cross the stream over some stones that could be interesting in wet weather. We’re on the East-Side now and climbing again or rather, we’re staying on a contour at the same height above sea level but the gorge is dropping away and exposing us to an ever increasing drop should we chose to fall off.
We’re becoming slightly alarmed at the concept of a considerable scramble if our little track doesn’t make a bit of an effort to decline when we see the ‘B’ team milling around some stones at the valley bottom near the Swale; it has to be said that they do look tiny. As we make rude gestures and shout even ruder things to them we scare a family of grouse and a grouse that’s been scared leaves take-off so late that it uses leverage from your toe to get airborne. It accompanies this with an unbelievable racket from its beak with a twofold intent:
- scare you back (which it does) and
- To draw your attention away from the nest that you nearly stood on (also which it does).
The delight for us is that the chicks make their getaway and hide in the gorse and heather but not before presenting us with an octet of fluffy cuteness. As we pass they’re already making their way in an arc to where the nest is and by the time we’ve got over the ‘shock and aaw’ they’re back in their nest.
Meanwhile we’re back to looking for the south-west passage down to the valley bottom and within the amount of time necessary for the ‘B’ team to shout their rude responses to our rude remarks I see the vague evidence of a track through the heather which is probably maintained by sheep; however, it does lead to a path running parallel to an old wire fence and that becomes our escape route without having to borrow a paraglider.
Back in the base of the valley our route back to Muker is easy and includes quite a number of other hikers, bikers and even a jogger. The valley floor is flat and the Swale meanders like a sleepy snake to prove it.
We reach a footbridge on the outskirts of Muker and return to the beautiful meadows which are even more impressive now that we’re exposed to full sun.
We can pick out Buttercups, Clover, Wood Crane’s-bill, Melancholy Thistle, Yellow Rattle, Pignut, Lady’s Mantles, Rough Hawkbit, Cat’s-ear and Sweet Vernal Grass.
In fact, four meadows at Muker are named as one of sixty Coronation Meadows in 2013 by HRH The Prince of Wales. These meadows are celebrated as the surviving “jewels in the crown”, places where people can enjoy the riot of colour and abundance of wildlife. They are also used as ‘donor’ meadows to provide seed for the restoration of new meadows in the same area.
You can find out more about meadows here: how hay meadow restoration works.
If you don’t want to do the walk we’ve done then there’s a four meadows walk here: https://www.ydmt.org/resources/files/meadows/muker_meadows_walk2.pdf
I remember playing in the meadows and hedgerows around Castle Hills, Northallerton where I grew up and I can tell tales of camp fires, cowboys and indians, shooting wood-pigeons with a catapult and roasting them on the camp fire with potatoes ‘borrowed’ from a farmer’s field and roasted to a cinder in the centre of the yellow hot embers. The white interior of the potato, was accessed by breaking through the black charcoal that had formed from the burned skin, was just divine. Perhaps that’s another story…
We’re back at Muker now and making our way to the cars. This is not a good walk, it’s a great walk and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. If you’re able bodied and can tolerate middling heights I’d urge you to go.
Enjoy the snaps…G..x
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