Monday, 31 August 2009

Wistman's Wood, Spinsters' Rock and Wistman's Wood.

The path to Wistman's Wood

We are on Dartmoor to seek out Wistman's Wood-a quest which begins fairly easily as there is a sign pointing out the footpath that leads to it from Two Bridges. But this is Dartmoor and a path which is easily defined at the outset can sometimes peter out into a fan of well trodden paths spreading out in all directions. Today this wouldn't be too much of a problem-the wood is only a mile or so along this path and should be easy to spot from a distance (it being the only wood around here and thus easily distinguishable from the Tor above, the river below and the sheep all around) but then we encounter another of Dartmoor's idiosyncrasies: the weather. Fine summer rain is all very fine and dandy in its own way but halfway between Two Bridges and Wistman's Wood, where the aforementioned path peters out, it creates a haze which hides all around which may help us into the right direction. But, we agree, Wistman's Wood has been there for dozens of centuries and probably longer so it aint going to go away. We can find it another day and, in the meantime, we shall go and find Spinsters' Rock instead. It is a place of legends.

OK, so which legend fires your imagination more? The one which insists the rocks were placed there by Noah and his boys who, having parked the Ark atop a nearby hill, wandered down to erect the stones after which they wandered away again? Or do you prefer the one that tells of the three spinsters? These spinsters were of the original breed for this title-i.e. those who spun rather than unmarried women-and this paticular trio are three of the twelve Nymphs of Valhalla of Norse mythology-the Choosers of the Slain in battle. These Nymphs were known as the Valkriur and they rode around the battlefield on horses, waving great swords around as they decided who should live and those that would die. To our minds this is far more stirring stuff than the namby-pamby Noah theory, and two of the spinsters had really cool names befitting their status: Mista and Sangrida. (the other one was called Hilda-which is almost as silly as calling a bull Alan: see earlier post.) Anyway, the story goes that these three erected the stones one morning before breakfast.

Whichever legend suits your thinking it is a place well worth seeking out. A peaceful spot, a magnificent cromlech standing alone in a field of grass that couldn't be any greener if it tried.

A few days later we are once again setting off up the path from Two Bridges to Wistman's Wood-this time without attending rain to baffle our inner lodestones once on the moor. The path to the wood is well defined at the start and at the end, in the middle there is just a few hundred yards which is difficult to follow. The problem that we had earlier that week was, without any visibility, getting past those few hundred yards and onto the track again is a matter of pure luck-we were wise to abandon the attempt because now we can see that we were heading the wrong way completely-we had been heading towards Crockern Tor. No such worry today, our path is clear and we take a stroll up to what has been described as "the most haunted place on Dartmoor".

Wistman's Wood is indeed a strange place. There are numerous stories of supernatural happenings in and around these ancient stunted oak trees, all of which have great credibility once you are stood amongst them-even in broad daylight. The trees (mainly oak but also rowan and willow) grow from between boulders that litter the hillside upon which the wood stands and everything-boulders, trees and the ground, is covered by a thick layer of moss. It is certainly an eerie place, which is a good reason to explore it fully-but slowly. It is not easy terrain to walk over as the moss disguises the crevices underfoot and in places can be slippery. But it is compulsively inviting to walk from one end to the other.

Apart from the various spectres which are known to wander here after dark Wistman's Wood is also believed to be the home of the Wisht Hounds, those terrifying beasts which roam the Moor at night chasing sinners, scaring seven shades out of the unbaptised and doing the voice-overs for "The Hound of the Baskervilles". (There is another canine spook in the woods-a small terrier called "Jumbo". The story goes that this little feller was hunting rabbits amongst the rocks when he got fatally bitten by an adder. His unfortunate moniker suggests that he was more than a little domesticated and this was presumably why he was unable to tell a rabbit from a snake. Perhaps his demise was the kindest thing really.....)

When you spend time in Wistman's Wood the spectres become real: everywhere through the wood unseen eyes are watching you, you can feel them and out of the corner of your eye there is...........something? or perhaps your imagination is playing tricks on your vision? It is a feeling that cannot be conveyed in words, nor can our photographs fully do Wistman's Wood justice. You will have to go and see it for yourself.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009


Day two sees us taking thirteen hours to cover a distance which we should have completed in just four hours, an early reminder that embarking upon a tour of these isles is only for those prepared to take the rough with the smooth: Our road network is at saturation point anyway and our one car, small though it is, is only adding to the problem. When we hit the traffic jam on the outskirts of Newcastle, where it took three and a half hours to cover just eight miles, we could only be thankful that this had not happened on day one-a sweltering hot day not conducive to the fine old tradition of sitting in traffic jams. Day two was a lot cooler and, though tedious, more bearable as we inched slowly toward the Tyne tunnel and the clear roads beyond. But Newcastle was not going to let us out of its clutches so easily. When we did finally escape the jam and saw one of these aforementioned clear roads stretching out before us our alternator burnt out-resulting in a tow back to the city to get it replaced. But we were lucky-late on this Friday evening the mechanic located a new alternator, fitted it and had us back on the road in under two hours, at a total cost of just £57. 50.

So, as planned, we awoke the next morning in Edinburgh for a weekend of exploration slightly off the tourist trail (though a few bits of the obvious places could not be left unseen.) People visit cities for any number of reasons, our weekend here is to mudhop on paving slabs: just as we might go for a long walk through woods or over green hills, with no particular plan other than to head in any direction which takes our fancy, so we approach Edinburgh. The kilt shops and castle tour were forsaken in favour of the back streets and lanes where history is more hidden from the public gaze. Cities can be magnificent places and none more so than this one, mercifully devoid of the '60s tendency toward ripping the heart out of centres in order to build ugly shopping malls (the one blot in Edinburgh is the Scottish Parliament Building-it has all the appeal of a multi-storey car park which was designed by an architect having a bad day!) If you are heading to Edinburgh seek out the Stockbridge Colony houses, dwellings erected after the formation of the Edinburgh Cooperative Building Company Limited-a group of craftsmen engaged in all aspects of the building trade who banded together to build decent homes for their families at the latter part of the 19th century. This co-operative spirit was born of a need to provide healthy and affordable living conditions for themselves and the buildings, quite apart from being attractive in their own right, stand as a monument to what can be achieved when folk work together.
There are two abiding memories of this weekend which will stay with us-in their own way they best sum up the city; We were looking around a graveyard, Greyfriars Kirk, where there are many old tombs enclosed in ornate stone and ironwork cages. The reason for these secure final resting places is quite simple-it was to keep the mortal remains safe from graverobbers who could earn a few shillings by keeping the Edinburgh Medical School supplied with fresh corpses and no questions asked. One of these tombs was for the most part underground with a small iron gate set into one side and steps leading down into the darkness. Crouching down to peer inside, one of us (it's ok Leon, we wont tell them it was you) had the fright of his life when a voice suddenly spoke to him from within. Moments later one of the local winos, can of Special Brew in her hand, climbed out of the crypt and proceeded to assure us, in a thick Scottish accent, that;

"Y'a'right pal, et's ooonly me, y'a'right there pal.... etc"

And the other abiding memory? It has to be the sight of three Japanese tourists who had kitted themselves out in the full Scottish regalia of kilts and blouses and were stood together posing as their wives took photographs of them. Hoots mon and och aye tha noo!

From this beautiful city, and by complete contrast, we drive down to Lindisfarne, an island off the Northumbrian coast which is only accessible by road via a causeway when the tide is out. The island is small, measuring just a mile and a half long by a mile wide, with a population of 170-most of whom live in its one village. Having located our B&B-not easy when none of the sreets have name plates to identify them-and dumped our gear, we set out to explore. Whereupon we walked straight into what can only be likened to a scene from a Hammer Horror movie. Making our way through the graveyard (yes, we do seem to like graveyards) we suddenly heard the sound of dozens of wailing voices being carried in the wind. Moaning and wailing they were, in a low eerie manner guaranteed to conjour up images of The Night of the Living Dead: but it was still broad daylight and Ghosties and Ghoulies and Long-legged Beasties, by tradition, only walk abroad at night. If we had encountered this sound for the first time during the hours of darkness a good supply of clean nappies would have been essential but, as it turned out, the daylight served to help solve the mystery. Walking out of the graveyard and towards the shore we could see, about a mile out into the bay, scores of seals on a sandbank moaning and wailing for all they were worth. It had been a trick! It certainly fooled us simple Mudhoppers!

Outside of the village Lindisfarne has a castle high on a rock, a fisherman's dock, ruins of an Abbey and lime kilns and wide open spaces which, all with the sea as a backdrop, stretch out much further than the land and give the illusion of being in a much bigger place. The effect is one which takes away your breath and makes you ready to give up whatever life you live and move here without question. Approaching the fisherman's area there were to be seen a lot of upturned boats on the shore: not unusual, you may think, but these appear to be what were once quite large craft which had been cut in half. Which is exactly what they were. At the beginning of the 20th century the boats which sailed out into the North Sea to catch herring became redundant (the herring fishery vanished for some reason) and were pulled up on the shore, cut in half and the bow section was overturned. This was then converted into a shack, There is no doubt that during times of financial hardship many of these would have been used by the fishermen as homes, but today they are all store sheds-still standing after a hundred years.

We had just under twenty four hours on Lindisfarne, plenty of time to get acquainted with it and to know that we would have to return. It has to be said that our timings for arrival and departure had (quite by chance) turned out to be perfect. We had driven over the causeway to the island at half past five in the afternoon, just as that day's crop of trippers were leaving and we drove away the next afternoon as the next batch were arriving. The crowds number in their hundreds but our time there was spent with very few folk around, so we probably mudhopped Lindisfarne at its most deserted. During the course of our ten days wandering we will see some incredible places but this island will remain the jewel in the crown.

Our next port of call is Whitby, where we go well posh for a couple of days. Our B&B accomodation is in a magnificent guest house called "Number 5" (this is an unashamed plug for them-it ticks every box for comfortable relaxed hospitality, plus a few more boxes that you didn't know existed!)
What is at Whitby? The only answer to that question is that Whitby is at Whitby. Beyond the present day trappings of a popular tourist destination lies a small fishing port with a great history which belies its size. It was from here that Captain James Cook set sail to chart the world and discovered Australia in the process. More well known is that sometime in the later part of the 1800s a certain Bram Stoker was sat on a public bench on the West Cliff looking towards the ruined Abbey-a sight which caused him to go away and write the book "Dracula". (The importance of Whitby as an inspiration to Stoker cannot be underrated, his descriptions of the town in the novel go much further than anything else he describes within its pages-he must have felt a deep affinity with Whitby.) A less well known fact is that it was a Whitby man, one Captain William Scoresby, who invented the Crow's Nest. And that is all the history you are going to get from us-we want to talk about food! There are two local delicacies for which Whitby is rightly noted and proud of; the first being Fish and Chips. The town fries to perfection, so much so that this dish may blind the stranger to that other local speciality, Whitby Kippers. Breakfast time will never be the same again!

Any visit to Whitby has to include the climb up the 199 steps that lead to the Abbey-if only for the fantastic view from the top. The town, both old and new, spreads out in front of you while directly below are the two piers which form the harbour entrance. Further afield is the line of the Yorkshire Coast and the grey expanse of the North Sea-from this position on the East Cliff you feel as if you can hold the whole scene in the palm of one hand. Behind you stands the Abbey ruins and in front of it the Church of St Mary. Given its position high on the clifftop the effect of the dark weathered stone of both church and graveyard give it a slightly forbidding air-and if the outside seems brooding just wait until you go inside the church. St. Mary's has the rare distinction of being far more forbidding inside than out; it is set out with a claustrophobic array of high sided box pews which must cause the congregation to feel trapped once a service commences. No chance of sneaking out for a crafty fag during a long and boring sermon.
A few short miles down the coast from Whitby is Robin Hood's Bay and the cluster of houses known locally as Bay Town, built into the sides of a narrow steep ravine leading down to the sea. The layout of the streets and houses here appear to be random-it's as if they were all constructed high on the cliff above and then thrown over by some giant hand to land where they would in a jumble below. Bay Town grew from a small fishing/smuggling community, situated so close to the sea that on one occasion the bowsprit of a lugger crashed through a window into the bar of an Inn-how the various insurance companies sorted out who was to pay for this particular bit of storm damage is not recorded! To have a seatown built into the cliffs is not unusual around our coasts, but Bay Town stands out for the ammount of buildings squashed into such a comparatively small area-creating a fascinating maze of streets and alleyways to explore. When it was an isolated spot in centuries past it must have been a tight-knit community indeed.

From the coast we head inland to the Yorkshire Dales and the market town of Settle where we are to spend a couple of days staying with a friend. From here we set off to mudhop a landscape startlingly different to any we have yet seen on our wanderings-hills from where water falls down into deep valleys, a lush green outlook of rich pasture which shows its skeleton everywhere with the limestone rock exposed through the grass. Settle itself, though seemingly very sedate and easy-going, has in recent years committed an act which plonks it very firmly into the tradition of English Eccentricity. Inevitably it involves a red telephone box, one of the last strongholds of our inbred idiosyncrasy. On a small area of green, surrounded by houses, stands a red telephone box which BT had decided was no longer keeping in service. So the town council purchased it, the phone and all of its gubbins were removed and the box was handed over to a group of local residents who have turned it into an art gallery-which they proudly advertise as "Probably the smallest art gallery in the world". Whilst it is true that, somewhere in the world, somebody could jump on this slogan and say, "No it aint, I know of one smaller", this cannot detract from this reassuring example of quirkiness: The Gallery On The Green. It is well worth a visit, admission is free, the impressive art on display is ever changing plus, once inside, you have the whole place to yourself!

It is in the Yorkshire Dales where we forgo our mudhopping and embark upon a little bit of Limestone Pavement hopping instead. No sooner had we decided this than the fun began-the six mile drive that took us from Settle to the village of Malham. The road is narrow and its twists and turns are absurdly tight as they make their way up hill and down dale, it's like a cross between two fairground rides combined: the Rollercoaster and the Switchback. But this drive, potentially nerve-wracking to driver and passenger alike, is one that benefits from the forced lack of MPH-who would want to hurry through countryside like this? So when we get to Malham and discover that it is one of the places that the long-distance path "The Pennine Way" passes through we are sorely tempted to wander off on this 267 mile trek straight away, just on a whim. But then we agree to compromise and head to Malham Cove instead-it's only a mile away.

Malham Cove is a natural limestone formation some 263 foot from top to bottom, or from bottom to top when you are climbing up the 400 irregular steps which take you to the Limestone Pavement above the cove. Steep steps. The climb is well worth the effort, not only for the view over this part of the Dales but also to stand on the Limestone Pavement-a rock formation found in very few places in the world. As with a lot of our landscapes it was formed by the good old Ice Age-an era determined to leave its mark throughout the land with sculptures on a gigantic scale cut into the earth.

More evidence of the aesthetic leanings of the thawing ice caps is seen at Gordale Scar where, even in this dry season, Gordale Beck runs majestically down the rock to fall gracefully onto the heads of the school party playing at its base. The walk here from Malham Cove has taken us through a country lane with farmland on each side and where there is farmland in the Dales there are the old stone barns. These structures, and there are thousands of them throughout the Dales, have a neglected air about them nowadays, but when modes of transport and roads were more primitive the barns were essential to the survival of the Dale farmers; a lot of storage space would have been required for the seasons when the scattered and isolated population would have been completely cut off from the rest of Yorkshire. Also, being in a damp environment, cereal crops had to be taken into barns to dry out once cut. Being built of local stone they blend in with their surroundins perfectly, as do the miles of dry-stone walling stretching off in every direction. Little do we realise, as we turm from Gordale Scar to make our circuitous way back towards Malham, that we are about to enter a different world; one of Fairies and Hermits.

Janet's Foss, a small waterfall over which the Gordale Beck falls into a deep pool before rushing and tumbling over a rocky course under the trees. This pool was used in times past by the farmers for dipping their sheep but there is a far older history to this place; behind the waterfall can be seen a cave and it was here that Jennet, Queen of the Faries in these parts, made her home. There is another cave nearby wherein lived a Hermit, as legend would have it, but Jennet's chosen dwelling is by far the more excellent spot. Looking out from behind her curtain of water she would have a view of the lush vegetation crowding on each side of the Beck with Dragonflys dancing in the air before her, their vivid colours changing as they caught the sunlight-a stark contrast to the open dales which surround this oasis. The farmers dip their sheep elsewhere these days but, walking down the valley beside the beck, we know that Jennet lives here still, waiting to entice foolhardy mortals into her dangerous and lovely realm.
After Settle we point our car in the direction of the North Yorkshire Moors, taking a meandering route out of the Dales through Wenslydale and a break in the journey at Aysgarth Falls. This triple flight of waterfalls on the River Ure captured the imagination of Turner, Wordsworth, the producers of "Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves" and, last but not least, us simple mudhoppers. Stretching your legs is always a good idea on a long journey but beware of doing it in a place like this-you dont want to leave!

Leaving is made easier however because of where we are heading: the Moors have great appeal to both of us. Our B&B is in the village of Castleton, from where we can wander in any given direction and within minutes all signs of civilisation have virtually disappeared. It is little wonder that this national park is so popular but, having said that, there is very little evidence of it being a 'tourist trap' (or a 'honeypot', as they call it in this part of the world) there is so much of it that there is plenty to go round. Even at Goathland, a village made famous as the setting for Aidensfield in the TV series 'Heartbeat' and which attracts many thousands of goggle-box addicts every year, there is not much to differentiate it from any other quiet Yorkshire village: the only thing out of the ordinary here is the Ford Anglia panda car parked up outside the village stores.
As we explored our immediate surroundings Wheeldale was a highlight, and not only for the 1 mile stretch of Roman road with its hard-core and drainage ditches still visible. Walking through the heather with the rich peat soil beneath and Grouse running off in all around us fell firmly into the category of 'Life's simple pleasures'..... did crossing the River Esk at Lealholm using stepping stones so well made and placed that they give the impression of being a regular throughfare, rather than a haphazard method of getting from one side of a river to the other. Somewhat less reassuring to the ankle department was our walk, or rather clambour, along the banks of a stream which we discovered somewhere along the way and which begged to be clamboured along. No clear path, instead large boulders and tree roots made the going slow and awkward-but fun. And when you have landed in a place with no reason to know nor care where a path might lead you to, nor to worry about how long it takes, then you are well and truly Mudhopping.

One final impression of the North Yorkshire Moors, names and locations deliberately witheld: We had stuck our heads into the bar at a village Inn to ask directions, which we were given by one of the locals within but not before we had noticed that this bar was pretty much unravaged by the modern trend to destroy the 'Good Old British Pub'-it looked real and lived in. The next day, and in the next village, we were talking to somebody who knew the area well and we mentioned the Inn. She looked at us in alarm and said;

"You didn't have a drink in there did you?"

We answered in the negative and told her that we had just popped in there to ask directions. She continued;

"If you ever have a drink in there, have it from the bottle or can-their glasses are filthy, everything in that place is filthy, they don't keep the place clean at all!"

All of this was related to us with her facial expression showing disgust at the thought of this filth but then, after a slight pause, the look softened as she said;

"Mind you, it's not surprising really. The people who own it are very old and almost blind

One day we have just got to go back to that Inn!