Home & Shop Companion #0087
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
Once, whilst traveling to see my parents many years ago, the train came to an unscheduled halt in the middle of the countryside next to a big ploughed field. The straight furrows glinted in the sunshine, a sure sign of some clay in the soil, and the evenness of the furrows and tidy headlands caused me to comment on the quality of the ploughing. My traveling companion, my girlfriend at the time, replied ‘you must be the only person on the train who would notice.’ Statistically, she was probably right in her observation, but there was also a hint of rebuke in her tone, indicating a lack of interest and an all-too-common disdain for the craft and the value of farming. Coming from someone who had a concern for the environment and liked to get out in the great outdoors on foot on a bike, this came as a bit of a surprise, and a disappointment, because then, like now, my appreciation of the countryside comes not just from the space and the natural world, but also from trying to understand the landscape, and the life and work of the people who live there.
A little over a week ago, Liz and I spent a few days in the Yorkshire Dales. The Dales are a popular tourist destination, the limestone hills and valleys of this part of the county being designated as a national park. Unlike other countries, our national parks are not areas of wilderness, though they are mostly in sparsely populated and wilder upland areas, but over centuries these areas have been managed by people, and reflect past agricultural and industrial activity. Our national parks came into existence to allow people to get out into the countryside, a movement which gained momentum as people searched for open space and quiet away from the industrial towns with their mills and mines, factories and foundries. Today, however, many who travel to these areas seem content to view the landscape through the window of a car, rather than heading into the hills, so you only need to walk a few hundred yards and you are soon on your own.
One day during our visit, we headed up one of the smaller side valleys, left the car in the village, crossed the river which was completely dry and headed diagonally across the valley bottom, crossing the lower meadows, over stiles punctuating the dry-stone walls which divide the fields, and up onto the edge of the moorland.
With each few feet of extra height, the view back down the valley became more expansive, the isolated barns dotted around the fields, the stone-built farmhouses surrounded by sycamore and ash trees becoming ever more like toys at our feet.
It is easy to see why this special landscape was deemed worthy of preservation, so few new developments are allowed, the houses, stone -walled and stone-roofed, harmonising with the dry-stone walls and the rock exposed in the dry riverbed and on the thin soils high on the valley sides.
It was just past one such rocky area where the limestone forms a pavement as it pushes through the soil that we got to the highest point of our walk, and sat down in the lee of a wall to eat our sandwiches. Ahead of us there were still a couple more barns, isolated in the fields at the top of the valley, where in the past, hay was cut and made, then swept to the nearest barn and forked down to waiting cows during the winter. To milk the cows, the farmers visited each barn in turn, carrying a back can, like a rucksack, on their backs, or, if they had more cows, a can was strapped on each side of a pack saddle, placed on the back of a Dales Pony. But today, there was just a quad bike or two to be seen a few fields away, but no ponies and very few cattle, just sheep. Just then, the only other walkers we saw all day came from the other side of the wall going the other way, but after that it was quiet, with scarcely a breath of wind and only an occasional bleating sheep. Anyone seeking peace, like those industrial workers of a hundred years ago, would find it here – Yorkshire as it has always been; on a clear sunny day, Yorkshire at its best. At least that is what the brochures might suggest.
Some may agree, but not me. My first surprise was that in mid-September the river was dry, but a local told me that with a bit of rain it can be in full flow by the morning, so maybe that was normal. Then perhaps it was the deafening quiet that was disconcerting, because there was scarcely any birdsong, the lower fields being a carpet of nitrogen green, with no hedges, just walls, and few trees except those planted to shelter the farmsteads, but most of the ash trees already showed the tell-tale signs of ash dieback disease. Looking to the upper slopes, in many areas the bracken was encroaching as it does when there are no cattle to tread it and eat the young shoots, and on the steepest slopes, the surface had been trodden into tiny terraces by the sheep’s feet as the thin soils and lawn-short grass had been pushed downhill, and in places there was no soil at all. But this, we are told, is how the traditional landscape of the Dales is supposed to be, preserved by statute, tradition, and the expectations of generations of ramblers, landowners and farmers.
On our way back, we dropped down through the farmyard at the head of the valley and followed the path down alongside the river. Here, there was a new fence, some twenty yards from the riverbank, the area in between planted with a mixture of different trees, and in the next field, the fence enclosing the new plantings extended into the field to enclose boggy gullies created by years of cattle treading in the sides of small streams. Here at least, someone was taking the degradation of the land seriously, but I doubt whether the farmer financed the planting himself, hill farming being far from lucrative. So perhaps it was done with national park funding, a good use of public money if ever there was. After a few more fields, the new plantings stopped and the breed of sheep changed, clearly a different farm. Then further down the dale we could see a steep area on the far side of the valley, partly covered with invasive bracken, planted with trees. Whether the trees were planted to limit the bracken’s spread, to stop soil erosion, to provide shelter in an area which is notoriously bleak in winter, to provide more varied habitat or to provide another income stream in time, I don’t know, but clearly there is starting to be a change in approach, and in the understanding of the landscape. But it is a slow process because most of us are invested in the way we do things now, and often don’t notice the gradual changes in our environment or know whether a change is an unusual event or part of a slowly evolving pattern. So I cannot tell you whether the lack of water in the river has become more acute recently, and I doubt many residents of that dale could either, or whether in the days of our grandfather’s grandfather, the water would have run more regularly. Perhaps not, because photos from a hundred years ago show even fewer trees than today, the increase in sheep farming having started around three hundred years ago. But go back nearly a thousand years, much of this area was royal forest, a term used to describe hunting ground, a mix of trees and pasture, bog and moorland, a diverse landscape. I doubt whether the land was so productive back then, but I guess the river would have run all year round.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.