Smiles in the Rock

What stories the rocks would tell. But they do not speak, so we must ask geology to infer. Like the rest of the Pennines, the Yorkshire Dales are raw rock that has been hollowed from the inside out by water’s skilful fingers.You could say that the real landscape is down there – in a stooping fantasy of stalagmites and flowstone, with underground waterfalls tinkling by. The mountains and their drama are merely a rooftop over that world.

But they, too, host rocks worth knowing. Here rests a traveller, a wanderer from a bygone age. Samson’s Toe is a glacial erratic ripped from its bed and dumped near Catrigg Force, resting under lichen’s patient greening.

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Other rocks stay put, but form staircases for Atlantic salmon.

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Salmon Stainforth Force Nov 22

And others merely smile, if you look at them kindly. This one high in the fells wears brachiopod fossils – marine creatures with shells, seen edge-on here as if you were looking at an oyster held flat.

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Then there are the pavements. Where limestone has been swept by glaciers and whittled by rain, it forms a most eccentric floor. Limestone pavement is a form of karst that, in its moment, sports an astonishing bloom of wildflowers. In winter they are stark and other-worldly, and difficult to navigate without breaking an ankle.

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But the grandest rocks of all keep utterly silent. To wander beneath Malham Cove and stare up into its giant grey face  is to read water’s diary. This has been England’s greatest waterfall, with dimensions similar to the American Falls at Niagara – albeit it is now a ghost, a curved bite-mark where grey-green meltwater from the Pleistocene icesheets ate the mountainside into a monstrous curve. The small modern stream falls underground through the limestone and roars out of a cave at the extinct waterfall’s foot.

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I have visited both Niagara and Victoria Falls, and Malham Cove is about as close as I will get, I suppose, to seeing what their faces must look like behind the roar. The sheer scale of it is hard to capture on camera, but it is even more difficult to comprehend that the stories of rocks are still being slowly, so slowly written. Who knows what the next chapter will be?

Whin Sill: Backbone of Fire

Hot, hot. The grass is brown, skies soft and deep, and the river rolls on slowly. A Met Office warning of extreme heat has been announced for a large slice of England, and having worked in 40c+ abroad, I hope that people realise that this isn’t the kind of friendly sunshine that invites sunbathing on the beach.

But there is another type of hot, and it underlies northern England like the blackened bones of an old dragon. Back in the spring, I travelled up to it, and saw what both people and nature have built on its back.

Bambough castle

Whin sill: leftovers from yesterday’s cauldron. It is volcanic rock that bubbled up as magma, cooking its neighbouring limestone into marble, and contracting into columns as it cooled. It props up the northern Pennines and holds aloft Bambaugh Castle, as well as Hadrian’s Wall.

Whin means dark and hard in old local dialect, and tough it certainly is: eons of glaciers, plants, rain, waterfalls and even the sea itself have struggled to scratch it.

Farne Islands

But life, as usual, sees an angle to exploit. What was once glowing and molten is now bright with puffins instead.

Puffin2 Farne

And a few other birds. The Farne Islands are in a class by themselves for seabirds, supporting an internationally significant frenzy of guillemots, puffins, kittiwakes and many other species.

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You do not simply see the Farne Islands. You hear them, and smell them, and watch in disbelief as the sea crashes helplessly against the whin sill while tens of thousands of living things raise their voices.

This is a razorbill, otherwise known as the lesser auk.

Razorbill

And these, Arctic terns, famed as the greatest travellers on Earth. Some migrate each year from the Arctic to the Antarctic Circle, an annual mileage of 30,000.

Arctic terns

A northern gannet, our largest seabird.

Northern gannet

Grey seals rest on the island edges.

Grey seals Farne

Keeping cool, whatever the fires that birthed these rocks.

Hope we all do the same.

Peddars Way: Almost Roman

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Black oil beetle, wandering in the north Norfolk dust. As a larva, this beetle climbed into a flower and waited for a solitary bee, hooking itself onto its unwitting host and hitching a ride to its nest. There it ate the eggs, pollen and nectar and slowly grew into an adult, ready to emerge on the Peddars Way.

Peddars Way

Back on the trail after a winter hiatus. The final quarter of the 46 miles is quiet save for skylarks, and you can imagine, if you choose, the legionnaires’ feet of 2,000 years ago. Where were they heading? To a coast of fitful weather and colourful cliffs?

Some have called it the Roman road to nowhere; it was built to intimidate the rebellious Iceni, rather than to obviously link towns. Today it is flanked by blackthorn, one of our fiercest shrubs – albeit its thorns are cloaked with beauty in springtime.

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Norfolk has no mountains, but in the north the trail rises through arable fields and falls once more, rolling over the bumps of moraine dumped by the icesheets long ago. In little villages, ducks sleep and chickens keep watch.

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And then the road ends in a glory of sand and salt.

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Or does it? The coast has eroded southwards in the last two millennia and Romans would have had to march a little further to glimpse the North Sea. We do not know what was at the end; possibly a ferry port across the Wash to Lincolnshire.

But back to the south for me.

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A few comments about Peddars Way for anyone else considering walking the National Trail. The first leg starting from the south includes a very dangerous road crossing (over the A11!) which should be avoided, possibly by beginning at Stonebridge. In general it is an easy trail to walk and well-signposted, and wildlife and historic landscapes are abundant.

Peddars Way: Timekeepers

“Deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone.” – Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

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This is a village, an old, busy village, with streets, moats and people. Houses of wood coated with clay and capped with thatched roofs clump in any old direction, shepherds and dogs passing by. Reeves inspect fields, villeins and free workers sweat as they thresh grain, and disagreeable types languish in the stocks. Oxen pull ploughs – but they are gone.

The thought remains. Great Palgrave is the ridges under the clouds in the above photo; the village failed in the 15th century, leaving only the bones of its roads and structures behind. Elongated bumps in old English fields almost always indicate archaeology, but some of it is much bigger.

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St Mary’s Church is a treasured survivor of another lost ancient village. Houghton-on-the-Hill reached the 19th century before its population drifted elsewhere. The church dates from 1090 AD or possibly earlier, and its walls wear bricks crafted by the Romans, no doubt recycled by later peoples from a nearby ruined villa. Inside are 11th century wall paintings.

The Peddars Way goes forward, yet time drifts backwards, and the road that the Romans built 2,000 years ago points remorselessly on.

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But some may call it young. A watcher rests beside it: a longbarrow that was already 1,700 years old when the legionnaires arrived.

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Inside this mound are bones of Neolithic people – the earliest farmers, they who set in motion changes to the British landscape that evolved into a dazzling mosaic of semi-natural habitats, inadvertently supporting such a rich community of animals and plants.

It is a sobering thing to look at this barrow and know that the Romans and Iceni – perhaps Boudica herself – saw it, even as they must also have seen the bracken turn gold.

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I can only guess at their memories of their walks, and their thoughts as the trail led onwards towards the sea.

Walls, Walls, Walls

…and only plants know how to climb them.

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These are the bones of Pickering Castle, a watchman of the north for centuries. Today it rests on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, flanked by a market town also made mostly from stone.

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It’s almost symbiotic, the connection between humanity and rock. It shelters and guards us, while we craft it into new purposes. But it does not always need our hands to build walls. There are other, much older edifices, and those watch the North Sea.

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The cliffs at Whitby are of Jurassic age, and dinosaurs and crocodiles sleep within them.

Even without fossils, their patterns catch the eye.

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An invitation to walk onwards, to learn more lessons of the walls.

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Curtain on the Mountain

The drama has two acts, and a curtain is shaking between them in the wind. Down there – a long way down – are people, railways, and dreams.

Monte Rosa cross Jun 19

Above them, above me, are the kings of the Alps, the greatest mountains this side of the Caucasus. Most of the highest summits are within a few miles, splitting the clouds and cradling their glaciers.

Matterhorn from Monte Rosa Jun 19

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And that curtain – it’s made of trees. It might be valley meadows and alpine crags that dominate Switzerland’s image, unsurprising given their wholesale assault on human senses. But between them are the trees, a forest sweet with pine sap and scurrying with life.

Forest CH Jun 19

In fact, about a third of Switzerland is forest, and when the mountains start rising it is conifers that dominate. In them, beech martens bounce and red squirrels bury pine cones.

Red squirrel2 CH Jun 19

It is quiet, footsteps on fallen needles –

A raven barks.

For a moment I’m remembering Canada, being alerted by ravens to a nearby cougar. Ravens and large carnivores are linked together as much as the mountains and the river. Cougars are not indigenous to Europe, but we do have one large cat: the Eurasian lynx, snowshoe-pawed and ears flagged with tufts. A much larger species than its North American counterpart, it preys mostly on roe deer. Lynx were reintroduced to Switzerland fifty years ago and have a small presence in the Alps. So do wolves, which returned of their own accord from Italy.

Like large carnivores almost everywhere, their relationship with rural communities is not easy, but conservationists try to find ways for people and nature to coexist. Perhaps in the future, ravens will not have far to look.

In the here and now, the forest floor is growing sapphires. Wild gentians abound.

Gentian CH Jun 19

And amethysts; I’m not sure about this one, unless it is a mountain pasqueflower.

Mountain pasque flower CH Jun 19

It is the pattern on the curtain – the complex threads of landscape and life.

Down the Trail

Poppy unopened CH Jun 19

The poppies still in bud will have a surprise: they won’t flower alone. Every plant here has its attendants – winged, busy and bold.

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Butterflies are abundant, and so are smaller creatures.

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The red and black stripes of the minstrel bug warn predators that they taste foul.

Bug on flowers CH Jun 19

And of course, the colouration of bees signals their ability to defend themselves.

Bee on round-headed rampion Jun 19

But despite subtle warnings, the path is peaceful, winding over gentle slopes of meadow and coniferous forest, the shockingly tranquil toes of the Alps’ mightiest giants. Not that the mountains let you forget them; there is still a snowpack flanking some streams, and all the water ferries glacial dust into the Vispa.

Vispa River Jun 19

That milky hue – the colour of a snow leopard’s eyes – is mountain blood and bone. Glaciers scratch the peaks as they move, scouring rock to powder and sending it to the river via by their outflow streams. It is a familiar story from mountain ranges everywhere, but I’ve not seen many that do it with such haste. Water here is hasty; it has to be, with valley rims on both sides soaring over three kilometres above the river. Streams leap from the glaciers in waterfalls so numerous, I suppose that no one has ever thought to give them a name.

Yet this is a valley of humanity, as well as wildlife. The village of Täsch is at least seven hundred years old. Today it largely survives on tourism rather than agriculture, but relics of former times are in the streets – a drinking trough for livestock lives on.

Tasch water trough Jun 19

Flowers, insects, water, people – none are alone. They are all part of the fabric of the Mattertal.

Walking in a Paintbox

So many colours! All shining between snow and sun.

Alpine meadow Jun 19

Hurried breakfast, out on the trail. It is a switchback – what could be more Swiss? – and it is fragrant, pine sap perfume leaking from a thousand trees. Red squirrels flit between them, much darker here than their lowland kin.

Red squirrel CH Jun 19

The Matterhorn is veiled – clouds encircle it, as if entranced. Somewhere to my right are the misshapen summits of the Monte Rosa massif, western Europe’s highest mountains after mighty Mont Blanc. It is always winter up there, and even ten thousand feet beneath the Rosa, the snow is yet to die.

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Waterfalls infuse the Vispa River with glacial glow. But the meadows sparkle on with every colour in the paintbox.

Mountain houseleek

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Globeflower

Globeflower CH

Yellow alpine pasqueflower

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Alpine aster

Mountain aster CH

Every forgotten bank and unnamed corner is as rich as England’s best SSSIs. Up to eighty species of plant per 100 square metres – this is a garden of wild things, stretching onwards for mile upon mile.

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The trail has not ended. Many hours have passed. Time to pause and reflect.

Dagger in the Clouds

Matterhorn: king of mountains, definition of mountains, the raw heart of a mountain after ice and erosion have stripped everything superfluous. Standing high, monstrous pyramid of unbreakable gneiss.

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Switzerland: home of mountains. I’ve been needing to come back here for a long time. Even the train from Geneva painted alpine through the windows, pure white ridges and their epaulettes of clouds, cut in pieces by high towers of bare rock. At their feet are lakes as blue as gentians, and meadows that remind the rest of Europe that modern agriculture does not have to mean environmental death.

From the train CH

From the train2 CH

And so, into the Mattertal valley, on a cog railway that clings to the narrowest of ledges between mountain shoulders and a canyon that plunges to a milky glacial river, criss-crossed by stone bridges that make you giddy even while seated on the train. But, for certain, there is only one mountain, and rounding the last curve of track it greets you, a dagger pointing above the station to the stars.

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The Matterhorn is irresistible to humanity. Flanked by higher peaks, yes, but none so perfect, none so tyrannical. It is easy to imagine the terror of early travellers across the 11,000 foot Theodul pass, shadowed to the west by this highest of triangles. Early mountain people speculated that the summit held a city of the dead – unreachable, and mystical.

But not everyone was convinced that it was beyond mortal man. It was my own country that supplied some of those who first scrambled up there – in a time before crampons, GPS or headlamps. Edward Whymper survived that day in 1865; four of his party did not. The rope that broke on their descent now lies in a glass case in Zermatt. It is hardly thicker than a human finger.

Matterhorn rope

Today, most people who climb the Matterhorn do so under the watchful eye of highly experienced Alpine guides. The mountain ignores them, shouldering its glaciers and dazzling the valley just as it has since humans learned to count time.

Matterhorn glacier

As Luna rises over the forests of Monte Rosa’s flanks, it is time to reflect with a map and ponder tomorrow’s hiking trails.

Luna and pines CH

Not going too close to the king of mountains. But its presence adds a royal intensity to the path.

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There is only one mountain, and this is its realm.