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