Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 24, 2021
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Valley of the Dales Cross

history with pastoral splendour and discover England's Yorkshire countryside

Looking down onto Swaledale from the bleak, wind-swept moors of North Yorkshire, it's hard to imagine a more perfect symbiosis of landscape and buildings. Dry-stone walls meander across meadows golden with buttercups, creating a patchwork of fields on the valley floor, accented occasionally by weathered stone barns. Nestled into the valley, the sandstone houses of austere dale villages blend perfectly with the natural landscape -- even the roofs are made of sandstone. Beyond the villages, black-faced sheep dot the hillsides and stone walls climb higher and higher before petering out below the purple heights of the heather-covered moors.

This striking visual harmony -- in muted tones of green, brown and grey -- isn't accidental. Carefully protected within the Yorkshire Dales National Park, most of the land is privately owned and actively farmed.

Over 60,000 people live in the dales, but strict control of new development within the national park ensures that the landscape will remain as it has for generations.

While the word "dale" comes from an ancient Scandinavian term for "little valley," the history of this area goes back well beyond the time of Vikings. Neolithic hunters were probably the first people to settle in the dales, followed by tribes of the Bronze Age whose circles of standing stones marked important places that can still be seen. Later came Iron-Age farmers, then the Romans, Angles, Danes and Norsemen. The cultivated terraces created by the Angles in the 6th century are still visible in many spots. Dissected Dales

In medieval times, much of the land came under control of the Church, but with dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, the large estates were broken up and the pattern of today's landscape began to take shape. With the passing of the Enclosure Acts between 1780 and 1820, the old common fields were divided into small pastures and enclosed by the hundreds of kilometres of limestone walls that give the dales its special character.

Good roads now connect the dozens of different dales, and hundreds of kilometres of footpaths criss-cross the moors and fells. In spite of it being one of Britain's most popular hiking areas, the softness of the dales landscape is deceptive, for this can also be a wild and lonely place, especially on the high moors between the valleys.

For a few days in spring, the weather was reasonable as I explored the heart of the dales. Starting from York, I visited Ripon and Fountains Abbey -- one of England's most spectacular ruins -- before stopping overnight in the village of Dacre, just outside the park in Nidderdale. The rather quirky hostess insisted that she was the model for Mrs. Pumphrey, eccentric owner of Tricki Woo, the Pekinese dog immortalized by author James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small. By the time I left the next morning, I felt it was entirely likely.

Crossing Craven Moor, I passed through Hebden before dropping into Grassington in the heart of Wharfedale. Once a milling and mining community, the village is now one of the main service centres for the dales and has one of the six national park information centres.

Wharfedale is one of the largest and most beautiful dales. I followed the River Wharfe as far as Kettlewell before backtracking to enter Littondale, one of the smaller valleys that runs into Wharfedale. Halfway up the dale, the village of Arncliffe seemed deserted after the bustle of Grassington. The homes face a wide village green. Cattle were gathered here for safety when the marauding Scots attacked as late as the 16th century. Sheep-dodging

Outside Arncliffe, I took a narrow unfenced road over the edge of West Moor and felt the wild loneliness of the high country. Dodging sheep, their tiny black-faced lambs in tow, I carefully made my way down into Malham. The Buck Inn in Malham has a menu to fortify the most exhausted hikers tackling the Pennine Way's long-distance path that passes through the village. The inn's speciality, Malham and Masham pie, sounds like the name of a firm of solicitors in a Dickens' novel, but it's basically beef, cooked in Yorkshire's own Theakston Ale. After a pint of said brewery's dark and sweet "Old Peculiar," you might be brave enough to tackle the jam roly-poly or sticky toffee pudding -- but not me.


Malham is the starting point for two short but spectacular walks: One follows the Pennine Way to Malham Cove, a 90-metre cliff capped with fields of limestone; the other follows a narrow lane to Gordale Scar, a dramatic ravine that was one of the most popular tourist attractions in northern England in the 19th century.

Airedale, famous for its rough-coated terriers, leads south from Malham to Kirkby Malham. The church here has an "invasion beam," which could be drawn across its southern door in case of attack by those pesky Scots. It's also home to some intriguing carved Celtic heads on the walls. An 11th-century font, a receptacle used to hold baptismal water, was discovered atop a garbage dump in 1879 after it had been removed during the Reformation.

Crossing remote Scosthrop Moor, we descended into Ribblesdale at Settle before turning north towards Wensleydale. Narrow at its head, Wensleydale becomes broad, green and wooded with little of the loneliness of the other major dales. I headed "down dale" towards our second bed and breakfast at The Holly Tree in East Witton. The house was said to be one of the oldest in the dales, but my host Keith Robson laughed and said "Well, it's a bit like Boadicea's spear -- genuine except for three new shafts and two new heads." Pub-grub Renaissance

Not realizing until later that Mrs. Robson was a gourmet cook, I arranged to have dinner across the road at East Witton's pub. The Blue Lion is a perfect example of the transformation many English pubs have undergone in the last 20 years or so. The village pub was traditionally an organic part of the community. More than a place to drink, the pub also served as a social centre, a place where people could entertain their friends; however, it was rarely a place where one could get a good meal. In an effort to attract business, many pubs got into the restaurant business and The Blue Lion was one of them.

A wood fire blazed along one wall of the high-ceilinged rooms where drying herbs hung from hooks. The menu included venison steak, braised oxtail and sautéed pigeon breasts. My meal was one of the finest I'd ever had in Britain, quite a change from the pickled eggs you might have been offered a generation ago.

After dinner I walked along the edge of the long, sloping village green bordered by 19th-century stone cottages. A group of locals, enjoying the warm spring evening, played horseshoes on the green as I walked back to The Holly Tree.

At breakfast the next day, Mrs. Robson told me that she was busy organizing a village fundraising dinner to help pay for a new lead roof on the church -- thieves had helped themselves to the last one. Outside, the morning was grey and dismal as I headed for West Burton. Driving through the village, I took a narrow lane up Bishopdale heading towards Walden. I wanted to take one of James Herriot's favourite walks over the moor towards Coverdale, but as the road above Walden Beck climbed high above the dale, the misty drizzle changed to steady rain and I turned back reluctantly. Follow the Vet

By the time I reached Leyburn the rain had passed, and I stopped to walk along the strangely named Shawl, a terrace walk along an escarpment just west of the town with a magnificent view over Wensleydale. I had one more Herriot recommendation to follow, but again luck was against me. This time, the vet's favourite road from Leyburn over the moor to Grinton in Swaledale was closed with a barrier, probably because much of the area is used for military testing.

I took another route over Redmire and Harkerside moors and descended into Swaledale. The most northerly of Yorkshire's major dales, it's also the most remote and wild. To me it was also the most beautiful. Until the end of the 19th century, Swaledale was an important lead-mining area, and in places such as Gunnerside, its hillsides still bear the scars of mining activity. Some of the former miners' cottages in the village have now been turned into holiday homes for visitors.

The rain resumed as I turned away from the dales to journey northward. Again, I took one of the narrow roads past lonely stone farmhouses and grazing sheep. I wondered whether Herriot had ever passed this way on one of his late-night calls. Gentle, pastoral, wild and austere, the Yorkshire Dales National Park and its unique natural landscape is one of Britain's special places.

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