Caught by the River

Walking into Summer

12th June 2012

pic by Joel Hitchins-Samson

by Lisa Samson.

We came upon the village of Arncliffe last summer when we climbed the steep ascent from Kettlewell up to Middlesmoor pasture and were caught in a freak thunderstorm amongst the craggy cairns of Park Scar. Through a swirling mist, we saw Arncliffe bathed in sunlight below us and, as we slithered down the wooded valley side, it seemed to us like the Brigadoon of the dales. When my husband discovered the Falcon Inn, with its tiny bar serving beer from a jug straight from the barrel, we did not get much further that day, but we have returned many times to explore this remote and beautiful vale. Unlike Brigadoon, it can be approached any day of the year via a road that links it to Grassington in the south and Malham in the north, yet apart from the cars lining the village green, it appears to have been little changed by the outside world.

It is by the southern road that we approach the village on a still day at the end of May. The valley is in shadow but a faint band of sun warms the top of Old Cote Moor to the east. If you walk out of the village on the Malham road, over the beck and across the fields towards Litton, you eventually come across an extraordinary sight: a river with no water, just a bare riverbed with a few trickles running between the pebbles. Today we’re hoping to see some water in the Skirfare after May’s heavy rainfall, though we’ve been told that the river does in fact flow under the limestone in summer.

The valley bottom is broad and flat, ideal for grazing sheep. It is said that in the 13th century the monks of Fountains Abbey owned Littondale and it was they who introduced sheep to the dale. As we stride past a proud oak displaying its froth of new leaves, a lapwing dives and twirls in the air, firing a volley of sharp squeaks to warn us to stay away from its nest. A short distance away we find a speckled green egg sucked dry, probably by a magpie. My examination of the egg is cut short by the appearance of a herd of brown heifers with distinctive white stripes lumbering towards us; I sprint the rest of the way across the meadow.

On a wooden footbridge over a stream we pause to watch two male pheasants circling one another on the hillside, locked in a strange courtship contest for a female who has had the good sense to make off into the undergrowth in a flurry of feathers. Simultaneously, they jump a foot in the air whilst honking like vespa scooters but never actually go in for the kill.

About a mile north west of Arncliffe, is the nature reserve of Scoska Wood, where a public notice informs us that the abundance of wild flowers is due to the ban on fertilisers in the area. Sure enough, the river banks are carpeted in birds’ eye primroses that wink in the watery sunlight. High on the hillside, hidden from view, is the mouth of Scoska Cave that tunnels about a quarter of a mile underground. At the turn of the 19th century, archaeologists found the remains of a 40 year old woman who died from a blow to the skull with a blunt instrument over 1500 years ago. She was probably an Iron Age woman, killed with one of the very tools that made them famous.

As expected, there is no water to be seen and we sit on a rock in the middle of the invisible river to eat lunch and watch as four chunky lambs come frolicking across the stepping stones. Their mothers call desperately to them from the other side of the fence but the confused lambs prance upstream over the white pebbles of the riverbed. The day is getting progressively warmer and the sun is now caressing us with its gentle fingers. We remove our jumpers and breathe in the scent of the drying grass.

We end the day with a half at the Falcon, where a small crowd of Emmerdale-type locals guard the bar. We sit outside and for once I try the much celebrated beer from a jug. It is flat and syrupy with a bouquet like fermenting haystacks in summer.