We who have the good fortune to be able to travel to far flung places with strange sounding names tend to forget that, in a country as compact as the British Isles, there exists a wealth of beauty, a varied landscape and wildlife potential that has no match on our crowded planet.
Left- Bluebells along a dry stone wall Right-The landscape of the Yorkshire Dales looking over to the Traddock Hotel at Austwick
Each year my wife and I make a point of paying a visit to part of the UK we are not so familiar with – although sometimes we are moved to go back to a favourite place. Sometimes we go on our own; sometimes with friends and it’s always a pleasure. Just recently we went, with friends, to the Yorkshire Dales. We’ve been there before, but not to this particular area and stayed for a few days at a small country hotel in Austwick.
Happily the weather Gods smiled although a sharp wind, with an edge honed like cold Sheffield steel, blew in from the north. The air was as clear as glass and from our hotel window we looked out across a field gilded with buttercups to blue-tinged limestone hills in the distance. The hotel looked as if it had once been a large farmhouse and lots of interesting staircases with banister rails polished by decades of care led to welcoming comfortable and elegant rooms.
Swifts, newly arrived from Africa, skirled around the roof; males and females, newly paired, screamed up under the gutters to find nest sites in gaps behind the eaves and loft spaces – sadly lacking in modern dwellings. I have fitted a specially designed swift nest box under the sealed eaves of our 1950’s home and live in hope that one day a pair will bless us with their presence. The box is fitted with a camera just in case! The swifts, swallows and house martins in the Yorkshire Dales were finding the flocks of sheep and herds of cattle very much to their liking and productive of flying insects to feed their young. In consequence they were everywhere in the skies.
It’s about a four hour drive from our home to this part of Yorkshire, so as soon as we had deposited our bags in the hotel room we set off to stretch our legs and explore in the direction of a famous local stone known as the ‘Erratic’. It’s a very large rock composed of a different material to other local stones. It balances, incongruously, on an outcrop of limestone bedrock. These erratics are rocks left behind after the rapid melting of the immense ice sheets that covered this region during past Ice Ages; the last Ice Age having retreated only some 18,000 to 12,000 years ago.
The ice sheet that covered the Yorkshire Dales and surrounding landscape was estimated to be over a kilometre in depth and weighing billions of tons – and it acted as a natural sculptor’s riffling file smoothing and carving the bedrock. Evidence of this ancient glacier action can be seen in the huge areas of ‘limestone pavement’ scraped clear of any vestige of soil on the surface. As the ice slid inexorably over softer limestone, hard rock embedded in the ice gouged and carved a series of trenches, some deep enough to hide a standing man. Known as ‘Grikes’, the local dialect word for a crack or trench in the pavement, these fissures developed their own ecosystems over the intervening millennia, allowing fragile plants to thrive. Some species would have been unable to survive unprotected at ground level, so the limestone pavement is a botanists’ dream.
The softened profile of the hills and dales owe their features to these past Ice Ages. One such beauty spot, Malham Tarn, was once the site of an immense cataract of melt water, indeed it still looks as if it’s waiting for enough rain to restart the waterfall, silent for millennia, to tumble and roar down the valley.
Left Redstart and right Peregrine chicks
These days the eroded limestone is home to a nesting pair of peregrine falcons, currently with well grown young perching over a mind-numbing drop to the valley floor. Volunteers and staff from the RSPB have set up a bank of telescopes to enable visitors to look up to the peregrine’s family life. The peregrines are wonderful and the patient, friendly RSPB staff answer questions from the public with enthusiasm. One of them pointed out a bird I have been trying to photograph for ages, a redstart. In the past either the light has been wrong, or the bird hidden by twigs or leaves, but this time everything was just right.
All photographs copyright of Dennis Furnell