On the Road

The other day I went on quite a long car journey and arrived back home late at night. The road I drove down, doing my best, in the dark, to concentrate on the white lines and cats-eyes unrolling in front of me, was a relatively new one to me. My routes are chosen partly by contingency and partly by what I want to feel as I travel. I have to admit the nostalgia suckers me and the route I took holds my interest more than the newer, faster, more uniform A1. Twilight enhances the effect: the fading of the sun changes the world from

WALL

colour to black and white, surely the medium of preference for the lost world I’m dreaming of. The A1 cuts a line North across England, to the East of the Pennines. Here and there, along its length, sections of older roads shadow it, often just beyond the  wooden fences and  the recently-planted trees that border the new road. These areas of so-called “soft estate”, designed to screen out the road from the outside evoke, from the inside, a half-imaginary distant past of continuous forest and wild land. However, I’ve taken to traveling on those old, straight roads beyond the fences. When I do so I always feel an elusive sense of a more recent past – of non-dualled “A roads” dotted with occasional lay-bys, garages, lorry parks and cafés.

LORRY

My first journeys were made in a succession of second hand Lada estate cars. These were great. The British motor-trade used to endlessly denegrate the Lada: they were cheap cars and I can only think they  knew that if everyone realised how good they were, more people would buy them. They were good, too, in an age when one could realistically fix one’s own car.  I used to change the plugs and the oil myself. Once, I corrected an electrical fault  by dismantling, fixing and rebuilding a relay.

Frequently in those days I found myself driving from where I lived in Halifax to my parents’ house in Wensleydale, usually with my children, who were very small then. The road out of Halifax climbs almost up to the level of the lowest South Pennine moors. You pass the forest-lined Ogden Reservoir on you left. On the moor above it, there used to be a pub, The Withins Inn. When we first moved to Yorkshire, we went there a lot. You could go for a walk on the moor and buy a pint of beer and a cheap lunch afterwards. It was a good morning out for hill-loving adults with small children. Last time I drove past it, it was  a private house. The moor beyond it is dotted with white wind turbines.

Whenever I drive that first leg of the journey -from Halifax to Keighley- I imagine the area I’m traveling through being used as a location for a film of Lord of the Rings. This is my Mordor. It’s a land of marginal-looking farmland divided by tumble-down, blackened stone walls. Wuthering Heights country lies just over the hill. It’s grim. At least, it feels that way, to me.

Beyond Keighley, the land softens a little. At Skipton, the gritstone gives way to limestone. The whole landscape seems lighter. I find it impossible to drive up Wharfedale to Kilnsey and beyond without wanting to stop, get out and walk on the hills. In fact, it strikes me now that to drive, to travel along lines from one places to another, is often associated, for me, with walking fantasies. Something in me wants to make the journey I’m making on foot and -where there are hills- along the hilltops. From  the comfortable interior of a car, all seems effortless. The windscreen can so easily become too like the screen of a silent film. You think you’re in a place – but you can’t smell it or hear it. Is it warm or is it cold? You can’t feel the breeze on your face. If it’s raining, the wipers brush the water aside. You’re hardly there at all. It comes home to you when you cycle the same route and you experience all the missing elements. You realize, too, how steep the hills are. It comes home to you, too, when things go wrong.

Once, I was driving through Wharfedale in the dark, with my two small children in the back (it was before the third was born).  Not far from where the road passes Kilnsey Crag, I found myself driving through a deep puddle. It came up to  the bottom of the door, and seemed, in the dark, to go on forever. It had never happened to me before: I did what I’d been told to do and came out safely the other side.

Then the car stopped. I tried to start it again, but nothing happened. I was sat, in the dark on a remote road with two (for now) sleeping children in the back. What does one do? It was before the days of mobile phones. After a few minutes, another car came came down the road. Sensing a problem, the driver stopped. He said he’d be coming back the same way in a few minutes and if I was still here, he’d tell the garage in Kettlewell. It was good of him but there was no need. A few minutes later the electrics dried out and the car started.

I think of this every time I pass Kilnsey Crag. I don’t drive past it very often these days but when I did, years ago, I’d often stop to watch rock climbers attempting the overhang. Something about the cliff captured my imagination. My father painted me a watercolour of it. It’s hanging on the wall over my left shoulder as I type.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maiden Castle

 

I went for a run over Harkerside Fell in Swaledale the other day. I took a camera with me, as my route took in Maiden Castle – an Iron Age structure I’d not explored before. I’ve often seen it on the Ordnance Survey map and, since it’s  not far from here, I’ve often thought of visiting it, but never got round to it – I’m not sure why.

I set off from a lay-by not far from Grinton Youth Hostel and took a route across the moor to Grinton Gill, a stream that runs through a ravine. The path zigs and zags across the ravine’s steep sides before returning to the open expanse of the moor. I checked the map carefully from this point  on, as it wasn’t an area I knew well. The moor is criss-crossed with paths, some marked on the map and others not.  One thing that was obvious from the map was that I had to neither climb nor descend but keep contouring round the hill until the castle came in sight. Trouble was, I’d not seen it before and wasn’t sure how obvious it would be when I did find it.

It’s thought Maiden Castle was created about 600BC, perhaps falling out of use after the Roman Invasion. I was surprised to find how little was known about it. I’ve searched the internet and for every known fact there is quite a lot of speculation. A ditch surrounds a pear-shaped enclosure, big enough to accommodate a small village. Unusually, the entrance is flanked by an avenue of piled rocks about 100 yards long.

I needn’t have worried. The avenue was distinctive and as soon as it came into sight I dropped down the hillside to the start of it, as I wanted to make my first approach to the monument by walking along it. Was this the site of a settlement or place of religious significance? Some of the uncertainty about the place revolves around this. As you walk along the avenue you certainly experience  a sense of awe, but then the most prosaic things can have this effect when they are this old.

I stood in the central area, trying to take it all in. I wandered around the ditch. I took a few photos (see the slideshow, below) although I was very much aware that it was impossible to capture the scale of the place with a camera.

I’d intended to run on to the top of Harkerside but I was thirsty. Stupidly, I’d left my water-bottle in the car. I didn’t want to struggle on feeling parched so I headed back, leaving the top of the hill to another day.

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