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YOU didn't get many hikers in the winter months, but around Easter they'd start slogging through, their backpacks heaped under the village tree as they disappeared inside the post office, our one shop, in search of ginger beer or Kendal Mint Cake (no chance). It was usually windy as well as raining, and I couldn't understand the attraction. I knew the next mile or so of the route - up School Lane, past the quarry, down across the fields, by the marsh, over the hill to the lonely white farmhouse by the beck, up and down another hill, on to the canal bank and round by towpath to East Marton. I'd done the walk many times with my parents and cousins, always ending with crisps and lemonade at the Cross Keys. But I can't say I envied the walkers their route. It was cold. The light was pale as primrose. You'd not catch me dead trekking the April fields in heavy boots.

Partly it was just that it was home, by definition boring: you can't be a smiling tourist in your own back yard. And, though the Pennine Way ran through, our village, Thornton-in-Craven, wasn't that pretty: publess, straggling, and bisected by a busy main road (my friend Simon, knocked off his bike, was never the same afterwards), it was too near the Lancashire border to be a proper Dales village. When I did start doing some walking, in my late teens, I looked further afield, to the Lake District or Pyrenees. I was 30 before I tackled a section of the Pennine Way.

By this point, having moved south, I'd come to understand that Thornton has its charms, that nearby Skipton is an unusually pretty market town, and that beyond in all directions lie beauty spots that people will drive hundreds of miles to visit. All for free, on my doorstep. But I'd been too blind, indolent or moodily adolescent to see.

My father had seen it, choosing the nearby mill-town to set up in medical practice with my mother chiefly because of its proximity to the Dales. On his rare days off, he could think of nothing better than a drive to Malham Tarn or Burnsall or The White Scar Cave near Ingleton. But he was my dull old dad, and as we negotiated the Pennine switchbacks the main feeling my sister and I had from the back seat of the car was that he'd better wind the window down or we'd throw up.

Now my father is dead, but my mother and sister still live in Thornton. A tripper to childhood sources, I go back several times a year, often driving my own children to the same places to which I was driven 30 years ago.

Bolton Abbey and the Strid, for instance, where you can park near the Cavendish Pavilion and walk down to the l2th-century priory, a ruin which Ruskin once praised for its "sweet peace and tender decay", and which has more recently featured in David Hockney's photographic collages. Across from the priory are stepping stones, always good for a wet plimsoll or two, and in summer trout leap from the slow brown water. A walk on either side of the Wharfe will take you back up to the Strid where, whatever the season, tumultuous waters swirl in the narrow ravine between two sets of rocks. The name, I was always told, comes from the bare stride it takes to get from one side to the other. If you're foolhardy enough. For centuries this has proved too giant a step for many a man, and once you're in the black water you don't come up again, not alive. Wordsworth commemorated an early casualty in a poem written circa 1808:

If you've not made Romilly's mistake, you can follow the Wharfe up past the aqueduct south of Barden Bridge. Further on lies Burnsall; beyond are Grassington, Linton and Threshfield - delightful in my day, though Grassington now gets very busy. Crowded or not, Wharfedale is one of the most beautiful landscapes. It was after seeing it that Turner painted Hannibal Crossing the Alps. Alps is pushing it, but high up on an April day, watching the hills roll away to infinity, you can feel you are breathing mountain air.

The other outing we regularly used to make was to Malham and Gordale Scar. From a distance, the climb (to the left of the Scar) looks difficult, even dangerous, but it isn't. The walk round Malham Tarn takes you past a house at which Charles Kingsley once stayed - The Water Babies is supposed to have been set here. Most exciting of all were the rocks above Malham Cove (that extraordinary 250ft stone curtain). I wasn't good enough at geography to understand why they looked as they did - ie, they'd been "created when glacial melt-waters ran down the steep hillside produced by the fault and eroded back, cutting into the edge of the limestone bed". But I knew what I liked, which was leaping about the weird "pavement". By June, martins would arrive to build nests in the great rock overhang.

The Craven area - my bit of the Dales - is notable for its limestone, the stream-carved brightness, the sculpted whiteness, so different from harsh granite and grey millstone grit. It was a special moment at school when I dis-covered Auden's "In Praise of Limestone", the first poem in which I recog-nised bits of the world I knew. What Auden admires in limestone seems much like his love of wearing slippers and going to bed at nine - a comfiness:

Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur

Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

From a distance, it's hard to work out which bits of a hillside are limestone outcrops, and which are sheep - the other dominant feature of the landscape. Being middle-class incomers, we were moved by the annual dramas of sheep- rearing: the lambs mewing pathetically for their mothers, the silly ewes and tups getting their heads stuck in wire fences, the rituals of dipping and shearing - including that moment when the bewildered sheep runs off in relief, little red nicks in its new nakedness. The farmers were less sentimental, measuring dead lambs in lost income, not tears; any dog found worrying sheep would be shot on sight. These farmers were famous for their curt tongues and tight wallets. I grew up afraid of them.

There were other places we must have visited: Gaping Gill, Simon's Seat, the Valley of Desolation, Kilnsey Crag (where you park and try to pick out fluorescent-bright climbers on the rockface). But looming back I'm conscious of all I failed to see and do. I explored Ingleborough Cave, learning there (and promptly forgetting) the difference between stalagmites and stalactites, but on a guided tour (unlike some of my schoolfriends, I wasn't hardy enough for potholing). I climbed Pen-y-Ghent, but not the other two summits of the Three Peaks (the challenge was to do all three in 12 hours). I only once visited Skipton Castle, home of the Clifford family: Lord Clifford being famous, in Shakespeare, for fighting on the wrong (Lancaster) side in the Wars of the Roses. I never took the Settle- Carlisle railway, one of the great achievements of civil engineering (72 miles of track, 12 tunnels, 15 viaducts). I even turned down the chance to board at Giggleswick school, preferring to be a state day boy at Ermysteds Grammar School in Skipton - and thus missed the chance of being taught by Russell Harty.

There was always the feeling that the real action must be elsewhere. One summer's day in the late 1960s, I drove a friend to a remote Dales farmhouse, where, he'd assured me, a guy he'd met at a party would be waiting to sell us LSD. The farm was deserted. We walked off, came back, hung around and nothing happened. So it goes, said my friend, several hours later, and so we went. Rural life was one non-event after another.

But the place had its pleasures, home-grown (gooseberries and broad beans), home-made (crumbling towers of Wensleydale cheese) and home-brewed (Theakstons ale from Masham). There were also the pheasant and grouse which friends or patients would bring my father, and which he'd hang for a week in the outhouse - too reminiscent, for me, of the dead crows which Pennine farmers string up to discourage other carrion.

One August I took part in a grouse-beat on the Duke of Devonshire's land, as one of a large group of (male) adolescents. We were driven up on to the moors in the backs of lorries and Land Rovers, dropped at 100-yard intervals, and then - at a signal - set off in line, swishing and shouting at the heather. The little birds skirled off ahead. We could hear guns popping in the distance, but by the time we reached the spot the lordly, tweedy, booted and deerstalkered gunmen would be lounging on tartan rugs drinking champagne. No rest for us; it would be straight on to the next beat. There were six in a day, and needed to be if the aristos were to bag enough braces. I became a socialist that August. We were paid a daily rate even more paltry than that paid on other estates. When one of the beaters asked for a pay rise, and - refused - tried to persuade his fellows to go on strike, he was told never to show his face again. Footsore, I didn't show again either.

My school exercise books from a few years earlier show a complete indifference to moorland birds such as grouse, but are full of excited descriptions (copied, I suspect, from the Observer Book of Birds) of mistle thrushes, rooks, jackdaws, long-tailed tits, pied wagtails, wheatears. Many species did not come till summer, but in April the plaintive crescendos of curlews could be heard, and lapwings be seen hurling themselves about (a performance intended, I was told, to lead would-be intruders away from the nest). Hares sat up on hillocks (their ears twin peaks), then rocketed away. The becks ran fast, and snow hung on in shady gullies.

It gives me a chill just to think of it. Global warming or not, the climate of the Dales hasn't changed much in a quarter of a century. Flowers are still scarce in April: snowdrop, primrose, celandine. The swallows are months off. The fields by the Aire, or by Thornton beck, are often underwater. But when the sun shines on their plate glass, or a curlew cries, or I stoop to restore a fallen piece to a drystone wall, I feel a different kind of chill: the hair-standing-up, shiver-down-the spine kind. I wouldn't want to live there all the time - not yet - but it's the place I think of as home.


Yorkshire Dales short break information packs are available from Craven District Council (01784 850252). Prices start at pounds 84 for three nights b&b. English Heritage (0800 300 666) also organises short breaks in the area.