We looked at the map again. ‘So we should be on this path,’ my mum said.
We’re definitely not, I thought. What path would ask you to descend at a 75-degree angle? This wasn’t Everest after all. The ground, however, had been walked – but by humans or sheep? At one point we found the husk of one of our coven hoofed friends. It was almost completely rotted out. The fur was unchanged, making the corpse seem fresh and fleshed out – whilst underneath it was obviously rotted and deflated. It’s face was a mass of black ooze.
‘Dead,’ Phoebe said. ‘I don’t think this is the path if even the sheep are dead.’
We were a few metres away from the edge of a sheer cliff. I was not feeling great. My toes tingled. I knew that if one of us was going to die it would be my idiot sister Kassie. Later she told us she hadn’t even see the sheep. I don’t know what she was looking at – her phone screen perhaps? Like I said, she’d definitely be the one to die up here.
We had decided to go on a hike from our campsite at Usha Gap – in a circle, around Thwaite to Muker, along the Pennine Way (or what we suspected was the Pennine Way) and then back to the campsite.
Thwaite, as supposed by the Norse name, was originally situated in an area of dense woods around a millennia ago. Now it’s in the heart of agricultureal land and barely a tree stands tall. It swelled in the 18th and 19th centuries when people would come to work in the local mines. The scars of said industry still litter the valley sides. But, for the last hundred years, depopulation has occured. It was felt even in 1899 when a great flood swept away houses and barns and nobody bothered to rebuild them. There just wasn’t enough people left. The streets are claustrophobic and some lanes are too small for cars, making this rural abode feel eerily abandoned and still.
We went from Thwaite to Angram, and as near to Keld as a vertical path could take us. Looking at Keld, I could see the spire of a church and the tombstones arranged around it like rays from the sun. And this is where, arguably, we lost the path and started hugging the side of the mountain (fearing for our lives). Down below we could see Swinner Gill and the old lead smelting mill, cradled by a deep valley, and the remains of Crackpot Hall.
After perching precariously along High Scar, we stopped and had lunch. Feasting on fresh Wensleydale from the creamy in Hawes; oatcakes and caraway seed crackers; greengages and apples.
Lastly, we descended into Muker, another creepy horror-story village that stood to attention like the Children of the Corn. The houses were tombstone coloured, the roads well swept, but the edges were rougher. It resembled in many ways a pile of boulders that had fallen from the heights of nearby hills – congregating on the lowest land. Marking a sceptred place of meeting. From which men had tunnelled and carved into these stones creating houses and sheds. After that, they sprinkled a packet of brightly coloured flower seeds over the entire thing to make it more appealing – which it most definitely early did. We walked past numerous garages and outbuildings which had slumped onto one another with cracking lintels and doors off their hinges. The dilapidation is almost picturesque, but also a little sad.
Muker has, for many years, been losing its inhabitance just like Thwaite. It’s as though the eyeless windows were pointing in the wrong direction as the young escaped to the bright lights of elsewhere. The old would die and families would be forced to sell the family jewels to tourists and second homeowners. People who’ll appreciate but not stay. People that fill the streets with a ghost-like silence. The quiet is heavy on your eardrums and you’ll wonder you’re not deaf. All you’ll hear is the beat of your own heart and the whirr of tinnitus in your ears. To put it into perspective, the population fell from 309 to 249 in the 10 years between the 2001 and 2011 census. That is severe.
Punctuating the ivory clouds at the centre of the village is the Church of St Mary. These saturated cotton wool blisters jostled so heavily on their blue background they seemed to be falling.
We walked through the graveyard – enlivened, unlike the rest of town, by three tourists and the dead. The door to the church was ajar and visitors were welcome, so we stepped under its hallowed eaves. Inside was warm and dry, although I imagine the damp is somewhat pungent in the winter. For once, I didn’t feel the church-like hush such buildings usually bring forth. I don’t think it was the absence of God. I think it’s because the village had already shushed its inhabitance and so there was no contrast between inside and out. In fact, the vibrancy of the stained glass window spoke of a building desperately trying to invigorate the populace. Of trying to entice them into the red-carpeted pews. I guess the question is who? Who comes here? The whole village wouldn’t fill the church. But then again, it leaves room for misanthropes to spread themselves out a bit.
Hanging, without ceremony, was a black and white aerial photo. It was taken in the days when such things were a struggle and you’d need helicopters, darkroom chemicals, barrels of time and a fair dollop of money to succeed in such an endeavour. The town, we learned, was identical to its 1965 predecessor. It’s spent 50 years in Tupperware.
We left and closed the door respectfully behind us to read the names and dates on the headstones in the yard. Who was who; who died and loved and gave birth and when, was all answered in cracked granite and lichen-covered engravings. After this meander, we followed a footpath down toward the main road, so intimately close to people’s gardens you might feel like you were intruding.
Along the main road was a one-room village shop, a multi-roomed art gallery and the Swaledale Woollens Emporium. It sold jumpers and it was August, so I don’t have too much to say about the latter, but the gallery was an interesting wash of blues and greens, landscapes and pastoral scenes – all remade in paint and ink and glass and clay.
The day ended less well. When we got back to the campsite we noticed that someone had put their tent about a metre and a half away from mine. They talked with booming voices until 10 pm and then snored for the next 9 hours. The noise and volume was akin to lawn-mowing a bear. The next morning, after a chat with the ever so lovely campsite owner, I went over and asked them to move to the opposite field. They didn’t want to – so we packed up and left for another campsite.
It is not okay to put your tent abnormally close to another’s especially when there is plenty of space on the site. This is unacceptable behaviour and I’m not the sort of person who will ignore such everyday rudeness. Although I will agree, that potentially being confronted by these complaints may make someone feel a little uncomfortable. But, being on the other end of a polite request is no worse than 9 hours of torture with very little sleep. If my little conversation stops that incredibly rude Ménage à trois from reoffending – then frankly, you’re welcome.