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?

Antiquity

Red fox, close to the North Downs, circa the late Pleistocene, aka the last ice age.

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I happened across this drawing on Wikimedia last week, and was immediately struck by the curious thought that Edwardian scientists were drawing Pleistocene red fox bones not so many miles from where I now photograph those foxes’ probable descendants. This particular sketch dates from 1909 and is printed in A monograph of the British Pleistocene Mammalia,¬†but the animal itself knew these hills many millennia ago.

What did it see on its daily travels? Its England was a kind that no living human has known. Spotted hyenas, straight-tusked elephants and cave lions roamed here, and foxes thrived alongside them all. They truly are a marvel of flexible pragmatism.

Today, of course, they live alongside us instead.

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This vixen is known as ‘Pretty Face’. She has raised cubs this year, although she has not brought them to the garden. Her daily wanderings involve navigating cars, fences, and potentially dangerous introduced species such as pet cats. Like her ancestors, she survives.

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And so does our ‘other’ fox, the glorious fox-and-cubs Pilosella aurantiaca.

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And yet, like the conventional fox, it speaks of a hidden story. While flesh-and-blood foxes came to what is now England under their own steam – we were still a peninsula attached to continental Europe at the time – the flower arrived with help. It was brought here by people almost 400 years ago, when the unfortunate Charles I was on the throne. It was thought to be a cure for poor eyesight, but soon escaped into the countryside and has brightened up roadsides ever since.

I wonder if the first gardener who planted it realised that it would long outlast the king.