There was no way Stuart was going to let me drag him back up on the moors again after the ice-cream. We were supposed to be conserving energy ready for the early start on Saturday morning so I suggested we go for a drive. Having no clear idea of where we might go, I simply pointed the car towards the town awaiting inspiration. It wasn’t long in coming and we parked near the bridge that spans the Wharfe, the fast running river that gives this Yorkshire dale its name.
The town occupies one bank of the river; the site of the old, Roman fort of Olicana guards the passage, established after their defeat of the local people, the Brigantes. Across the water the road divides neat parkland from a wooded path and shingle shores along the watermeadows. As a little girl I had learned to skim stones here, but today we simply sat and watched the gulls, ravens and ducks for a while as the afternoon drew to a close.
The chatter of water over stones gives the impression of a shallow, pleasant river, but the Wharfe can be deceptive and runs swift. At low water it may only be a few inches deep, yet it can rise to become a deep and dangerous place in winter, flooding the meadows in up to twelve feet of roiling water. Not far away is the Strid, a short stretch where the wide river is forced into a narrow channel, barely a few feet across. Below the tumult, caverns have been gouged from the softer stone and the churning waters have claimed the lives of many who were foolhardy enough to attempt that leap. Here, however, the stream is wide and placid on a summer’s afternoon, sparkling in the sunlight.
We wandered on a little further in leisurely fashion until something caught my eye… a heron, statue-still, in the centre of the stream. Until recently I could count on one hand the number of times I have seen these great birds in the wild. Over the past few months they seem to be appearing frequently, waiting by roadside streams and canals or flying overhead with their long necks tucked away. Perhaps I am simply more aware of them… more alive to my own surroundings? Even so, and whatever the reason, there is something rather wonderful about seeing these strange, almost prehistoric birds fishing in their natural home. I barely dared signal to Stuart, expecting at any moment to see the great wings unfurl as it flew from the intruders. Yet it stayed as we watched, the shutter clicking on the camera, eventually retiring to the far bank where passers-by were oblivious to the magic and beauty a few feet away from them. I wonder at the analogy there…
We walked on to the bend in the river. The stepping stones were too far away for our leisurely and restful meander and we strolled back as the sun sank a little lower. The heron was still there and there were wagtails on the rocks. Time to head back, perhaps. I turned the car back towards the little town centre with its Victorian façade of golden stone and approached the junction; a left turn and a short drive would take us back up the hill to the moors and our hotel.
“Now where are you going?”
“I just wondered if I could still remember where to find the entrance to Heber’s Ghyll…”
My passenger let out a sigh. “I’m not a well man….” I ignored the vague note of despair in his voice.
“We’ll just have look… it’ll only take a few minutes…”
I had a feeling he didn’t believe me….