The mills are alive

In the Yorkshire village of Airton, one of the main attractions is enjoying a new lease of life
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In some parts of the Yorkshire countryside, it never seems long before a box-shaped, one-time mill looms into view. A mill that has been converted to a Dettol factory and then, more recently, into a set of spiffing apartments, is a little more unusual, however.

In the village of Airton, 10 miles or so northwest of Skipton in North Yorkshire, the occupants of this newly elegant mill have the comforting sound of the little river Aire bubbling past outside their limestone walls - and the comforting knowledge that their rooms were well disinfected before they took up residence.

"The old bell on the roof used to be rung to get the workers to the mill," comments a kindly Airton man we happen to meet on the narrow stone bridge at the bottom of the village. "The mill was used for producing Dettol in the war. Hidden well away from the German bombers, up here," he added before continuing his walk, out from the hollow which envelopes the mill on this shaded riverbank and into the thin sun.

We had walked to Airton from much less picturesque Gargrave, a larger village on the busy A65 Harrogate to Kendal road, five miles or so nearer Skipton. The Pennine Way runs through both villages and, for ease, we had happily followed its acorn signs.

At first it took us along a small road, where we were joined by locals enthusiastically walking their dogs. Then it was an up-slope pull across billiard-table, sheep-nibbled fields past Crag Laithe, the walk's high point - only in the physical sense - at around 600 feet, and on down slope to the river Aire.

Underfoot, the fields are as flower-rich as Astroturf, having been fertilised and Swaledale-eaten until only dye-green grasses survive. The occasional grassy bank can glow yellow with buttercups in summer, sometimes speckled with the pink-purple of betony, but the rest of the year they are monotonously green. More interesting are the dry stone walls that cut through them, often garlanded on their dark, shaded sides with dripping sponges of burnt green mosses.

We followed a route along the riverbank, heading towards Airton, with views of Pennine high spots like Cracoe Fell and Rylstone Fell way out to the east. After the heavy rainfall that is not uncommon here, we couldn't have tramped this way without paddling across Aire-flooded fields, so volatile is this river which drains down from the honeypot of Malham and its spectacular limestone cove a few miles further north.

Stopping for a while on a stone bridge below Newfield Hall to sum up the surrounding landscape, you quickly realise what a disaster the area is for anyone fond of woodland. It would be hard to find a landscape less well-endowed with woods and trees south of the Scottish Highlands. But, someone, somewhere, has similar concerns. A few tiny stretches of riverbank have been planted up with willows and alders and fenced off to keep the woolly mowers at bay. If they survive the floods, these bank liners will eventually become major features in an otherwise tree-impoverished, wide- open valley.

Up on the steepest banks, a few scrappy bits of woodland are also being extended, with trees planted in protective tubes. But what a mess. The wasted planting effort was obvious in the fact that most had been knocked down, and now left a trail of crunching plastic tubes, cluttering the path, as evidence.

In truth, however, the open hills and moorlands which comprise the popular picture of the Pennine Way make up less than a quarter of this 268-mile National Trail. First opened in 1965, it mostly runs through lowland valleys, from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in Northumberland on the Scottish border. It would take you around 17 days to complete the full-length trek, and over the last decade the Countryside Commission has stumped up over pounds 5m to help cure hilltop erosion, improve waymarking, and establish better routes.

Impressed, we were just two of the quarter of a million or so walkers who trample along it - or small sections of it - each year. Our pockets were suitably stuffed with Pennine Way leaflets, including one that listed B&B's, hotels, post offices, phone boxes and, of course, pubs along the route. We noted that Airton has a Quaker hostel - with bunks - and one listed B&B but, unfortunately, no pub.

The end stones of the old stocks still decorate the green in the middle of the village as a reminder of villains past. But even if you wanted to, it's not easy to escape history here since Airton is stuffed full of 16th- and 17th-century cottages. One is perhaps even older, with an endearing doveloft perched right above the front door.

For the walk back to Gargrave, we rather foolishly followed our Ordnance Survey map's yellow roads and found ourselves having to constantly dodge cars as they roared by, full pelt, en route to Malham.

In summertime you fear being killed in the rush and our only regret was that we didn't follow the river Aire and the Pennine Way back to Gargrave for a quieter return walk. If we had done so, we would at least have had a second look at the old mill - and perhaps another chat with the only Airton resident we had seen.

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