Caught by the River

A wet day in Swaledale

3rd May 2012

pic by Joel Hitchins-Samson

by Lisa Samson.

The Swale is swollen today, tumbling down from the upper dale after the heavy rainfall of the last week or so. True to its name – Sualuae means wild and tumultuous in Old English – it slurps up branches and pebbles, licking hungrily at the riverside path we’re walking on. The Swale has the reputation of being the fastest rising river in England. Only last December the village of Keld, at the head of the valley, was flooded when the river burst its banks.

The valley sides are steep and high and they close out the rest of the world. You cannot see above the heather topped hills, and you can focus only on the windblown landscape before you: the curly hawthorns, the sheep calling to one another across the valley, the curlew’s spiralling lament as it rises and hovers on the fell side. Other than the rich green of the fields, there is little colour on this spring day, just the stark white of the occasional May flowering blossom. It is one of those days when the rain clouds cover the valley like a lid and we scurry to seek shelter under a canopy of trees.

This is the northernmost Yorkshire dale and has been compared to the Tyrolean Alps, because of its altitude and relative isolation. In medieval times it escaped the feudal system to some extent because the steep valley sides made it so difficult to farm that land owners usually lived elsewhere. Swale people worked down the mines or eked a living from the strips of land ‘lynchets’ still visible in places where ridges rise in tiers on the fell side. (see photo). Far above us, on the south side of the valley, is the tarn known as Bloody Vale, because it was the site of a battle between a group of Scottish raiders and locals in 1314. For once, the Scots were defeated and it was a minor victory for this area that was frequently raided during the Scottish Wars of Independence. The villagers of Blades proudly retell the story of the Bloody Vale battle in my novel The Dead House Keeper’s Daughter.

New lambs are gambolling in the fields, while their scraggy mothers lie spent on the ground. Frolicking rabbits drive our dog crazy and he tries to dig his way into their burrows. There are almost as many dead rabbits as live ones lying in various states of decay by the wayside. Farmers shoot them because their burrows weaken the paths, making it easy for the river to eat away at the banks. We come across two places where part of the river bank has slipped into the river and formed a small islet that will be washed away in due course (see photo). Part of the coast to coast path was damaged in the December floods and is currently being repaired by the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.

By mid afternoon the sun makes an appearance as we are crossing the water meadows below Healaugh, where the land forms a plateau like an open palm. Once part of the manor of Healaugh, these fields are some of the most desirable in the valley, lush and fertile. We hear the shrill call of a lapwing and stop to watch as it flutters down to the water, where it sits on a rock and nods its crest from time to time, searching out flies on the surface of the water. The tower of St Andrew’s Church at Grinton is just visible above the trees. In medieval times it was a one storey building with a round Norman window at the west end, which is the view the pallbearers would have had of the church at the end of their weary trek from the upper valley carrying the corpses. Until 1580 this was the only church in the dale, which stretches sixteen miles from Tan Hill in the west to Marske in the east.

On our return journey in the early evening, we hear a flock of sheep clamouring for their hay and, as they follow their farmer’s quad bike they sound like fans at a football match, competing to bleat the loudest. At that moment, we are assailed by a volley of hail stones, sharp as shards of glass where they prick your skin. Shivering, we keep our heads down and quicken our pace, keen to get back in the car and home to our own dinner.

‘Lisa Samson is a writer of fiction and creative non-fiction. Her work has appeared in Brand Magazine and A Wilder Vein, an anthology focusing on the relationship between people and places in the natural environments of Britain. Her first novel Talk to me was runner-up in the Virginia prize for Fiction 2011.’