Monday, 29 February 2016

Weekend in the Wet: The Land of "Stripey Cows"

When I told the girls I look after that I was going to be spending a February weekend in Yorkshire, their old home county, they were particularly insistent that I said "hello!" to the stripey cows for them. And the sheep. Of course.

I did indeed say "hello!" to a field of Belted Galloway cattle, a hardy breed perfectly happy left out on the moors in Winter in the fields above Malham Tarn, but I will admit it was said quietly and from what I consider to be a safe distance - I love many animals, but as a general rule, cows are amongst those I avoid if possible, having been on the receiving end of their parental wrath when aged about 8 years old. Old fears stick, it seems.

That's the second half of the title explained. The first half, as it happens, only applies to one of the two days I was there - the first day, in fact, dawned with a winter sun that brightened the chill of the shadows, the icy streams that criss-crossed the narrow roads gleaming in its gaze. This day was spent at an old childhood favourite place - the Ingleton Waterfalls Trail.

A year round attraction, on this particular day the river shone brandy-coloured in the sun, the path twisting up and up the valley of the River Twiss on a stone hewn trail right beside the river, offering an amazing view of the waterfalls and the feeling you were completely isolated in the valley, a small explorer of long ago, experiencing the woods always as if for the first time.

At the start of the walk, the bottom of the valley, the river is calm and smoothly flowing. It has the air of Sunday afternoon about it, gently bumbling along after accomplishing greater things in its earlier reaches.

It is here that we stopped and hunted for dippers: the giveaway white-splotched rocks sticking out of the river mid-stream our first hint of their presence.

Too fast to photograph, on my unprepared iPhone camera anyway, this small brown bird with its white splashed breast, looking quite the little gentleman, flashes in and out of the water in an instant, darting up and downstream through the crisp air with the speed almost of a kingfisher, and double the validity in camouflage in these mossy woodlands. Rivers at home in Hertfordshire are no territory for dippers, so it's always a joy to spot them when away up north.
N.b. This was also the place where I saw my first catkins of the year!

As we progress into the higher reaches of the river, it becomes livelier, the bubble of the water moving from an adagio to a vivace, a fast, dance like staccato of falling water as we pass from one waterfall to another, from the swift progression of the three Pecca Falls to the vast roar of Thornton Force, which brings to mind much larger cousins in Iceland, and is hewn from the rock almost specifically to the method of a geography textbook.

Following a brisk walk between falls at approximately 1,800ft, my brother and I are distracted from a heated discussion about embryonic stem cell research, of all things, by a soaring buzzard above our heads. Looking over to the snow-capped Ingleborough, with the entrance to White Scar Caves a splash of dark white lower down on its shoulder, I imagine that the buzzard has the perfect view on this clear, frosty day.


My personal favourite fall lies on the River Doe, which we walk down on the return to the Falls Centre in Ingleton. This is the Triple Spout, just above Rival Falls and Baxenghyll Gorge (fantastically dramatic names for fantastically dramatic landscape). Lying in woodland which naggingly reminds me that my arboreal knowledge is by no means up to scratch, this fall has water almost the colour of ale, which cascades tighly round a bend with the sense that it knows exactly where it is going, and will take anything that gets in its way with it. No dippers here, the water moves too fast and with too much volume for them.


                                                              
  For those who have some sort of a head for heights, a seemingly rickety but of course technically
structurally sound metal bridge is then reachable, offering a look straight down to the Baxenghll Gorge beneath your feet.

The path then continues as the river once again finds its more leisurely way through the dramatic landscape of the other side of the valley through woodlands of silver birch, the bark peeling and shining in the sunlight. While not as rich as when Spring truly arrives, the sound of birds is starting to make its way back through the bare trees, their arms still stark of leaves but now perches for tiny virtuoso tits, robins and the tiny but unmissably loud shouts of wrens.








The second day was more illustrative of 'typical' February weather - as the title suggests, it was wet. Not just slight-drizzle-wet, smack-you-in-the-face-get-you-lost-in-cloud-at-1500ft-wet. The morning began dry, but bitterly cold; there was snow on the ground as we parked at Malham Tarn and breath steamed in the frozen unbroken air. 

A more challenging walk today, which took us down past Water Sinks down the Ing Scar dry valley to a breath-taking reveal of the the height, breadth and grandeur of Malham Cove from above - the limestone pavement.


With grikes (gaps between slabs) ranging from a foot or so to a couple of metres, the slippery rock made interesting walking, particularly when I was completely distracted by looking into the gaps to witness the microhabitats they form. My particular favourite find was the beautifully named Harts-Tongue Fern, but sadly the photo I managed to get was both blurry (I was gripping my phone very tight for fear of it falling in the gap beyond return) and sadly also featured a large amount of litter which had been dropped into the gaps. Disgraceful really, how humanity value rare places like a limestone pavement of this size so much we drive miles to come and see it, only to then treat it like a dustbin. I did identify some plants I saw, however, despite my frustration with humans, and learnt more using this website: Limestone Pavement Conservation.

We then went on to walk to Janet's Foss (another waterfall) through the lovely Malham village and following Gordale Beck, which goes onto Gordale Scar, a waterfall in spectacularly dramatic landscape that was valued even in Victorian Times for its beauty, and is home to many rare mosses and ferns.

(please note this image is not mine, all other photographs on this blog were taken by me. This photo belongs to http://www.the-bee-bole.com/2014/07/malham-bee-library_16.html which is worth a look for more information about conservation in this area!)
Janet's Foss was an opportunity for more dipper-watching time, where one tiny gentleman managed to almost let me get near enough for a clear photo, but not quite. I was also fascinated by the installation of 10 'bee boxes' (see above) through the short piece of woodland that leads to the fall, which smelt of Ransoms even now, months before their peak bloom. The boxes were installed only in the proud ash trees of the woodland, as a gesture to recognise the problems that have been had in the area with Ash-Die Back disease, which has infected 36.1% of all 10k squares in the country (http://www.forestry.gov.uk/ashdieback) These bee boxes are an important effort to aid bee conservation, and seeing them was a fantastic addition to the walk, and almost made me forget quite how hard it was raining.

Despite the rain, it was a fantastic weekend of wildlife watching and walking in a spectacularly dramatic landscape that is always worth a visit, despite the weather or the season :)

"I won't know for sure if Malhamdale is the finest place there is until I have died and seen heaven (assuming they let me at least have a glance), but until that day comes, it certainly will do."
-Bill Bryson



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