Testing the Silent Spring in Yorkshire

Margaret Eldred is a freelance writer in Davis, Calif

I always enjoy taking visitors on my favorite hiking paths in California's Coast Ranges, and when my friends from England promised to reciprocate after a visit with me last year, I ordered a map of their home turf and started planning. I didn't know what to think when, just as I was packing for England in March, I heard about the foot-and-mouth epidemic and the closure of rural footpaths and parks at my destination in the Yorkshire Dales.

Laurel and I have been friends since childhood in Northern California. She and her husband, David, a native of Yorkshire, were refurbishing a second home to retire to in Threshfield, in Yorkshire Dales National Park. (Most of Britain's national parks are akin to our conservation areas, encompassing houses, farms, villages and shops that predate the park by generations, even centuries.)

My friends had been attracted by the region's remoteness--it's just south of the Scottish border--and by the beauty of the landscape--the ethereal morning mist rising from the River Wharfe, the green curves of the hills and the loveliness of gray stone villages within the park, which are kept historically authentic by law.

My husband, Bob, and I were a little apprehensive as we boarded the train from London to Skipton, where Laurel was to pick us up. She had called just before we left home to say that the disease was surfacing on farms to the north, and much of the park was closing to off-road activities. True, she said, our hiking plans would be curtailed, but she added that weather might have done that anyway; it was late March, and winter was lingering.

I wondered whether we would find enough to do and began to worry about the risk of bringing the disease back to U.S. livestock.

The Dales has been a sheep-raising area since 3000 BC; its well-drained limestone terrain remains green all year, making it ideal pastureland. Now, with sheep, cows and swine being slaughtered by the thousands and farmers fearing economic death, the climate in Yorkshire was grim. But the Dales in all its beauty, natural and man-made, turned out to be everything an American goes to rural England to see.

Our friends' home is just inside the national park boundaries, not far from Skipton, and our first evening there we learned how the British parks pursue the preservation of cultural as well as natural treasures. Their house is 100 years old, far from ancient in a valley that has been inhabited for 5,000 years, but they still had to obtain permission to make sure their remodeling did not affect the traditional character of their village.

The National Park Authority has restored or conserved more than 175 traditional buildings. As a result, townscapes are harmonious with the landscape and villages are exactly suited to their place because the buildings are constructed of local stone.

Our first morning, while David and Laurel worked on their house, Bob and I set out on foot (keeping to paved roads) to explore some of the early human history that the park preserves. The Angles (as in Anglo-Saxon) who settled here around 600 spaced their villages only a mile or two apart. In our leisurely morning walk we were able to visit three: Threshfield, Grassington and Linton.

The weather was cold, with temperatures in the 30s. Bob had left his gloves in London, so one goal of the day was to buy him replacements.

Threshfield had some of the most interesting traditional buildings in the area--the Old Hall, perhaps from the 14th century, and several fine stone buildings built in the 17th century, including a school still in use--but there was not much in the way of shops.

Grassington, a mile beyond, was chartered as a market town in 1282 and retains its commercial character. The cobbled square has been turned into a parking lot, but the two main streets are still lined with 18th century buildings, their ground floors crammed with shops.

In a mountaineering supply shop, Bob found a perfect pair of gloves. We asked the shopkeeper about business, and he said the forecast was so poor that he had decided to cancel his order of summer merchandise. We heard a similar story at the bookstore.

Compared with the sedate stone row houses of Grassington, Linton looked almost whimsical, with farm buildings, each in its own style, scattered around the village green.

Along the way, most of the driveways we passed had disinfectant mats set out, reminding us that the epidemic was spreading across the parkland. One dairy farmer had set out bottles of disinfectant and a sign asking all drivers to spray the undersides of their vehicles before entering. Many signs simply advised all vehicles to stay outside the gates.

The next day, Laurel greeted us at breakfast with a list of choices: a visit to the Victorian model industrial estate of Saltaire, a short drive to medieval Bolton Priory, a tour of the limestone Stump Cross Caverns, a walk on the road through Grass Wood to Kilnsey Crag. We had been attracted by the natural beauty of the dale, so we chose the walk.

Kilnsey Crag, a limestone outcropping, is a favorite with rock climbers, but its access had been closed. Even keeping to the paved roads, our walk turned out to be great for bird-watching. Lapwings swirled and dived over the riverside meadows, curlews soared and hovered in midair for an instant before descending, and pheasants poked along searching for food. I was disappointed that we couldn't walk in the woods, until I remembered that we were too early in the season to see bluebells.

The Yorkshire Dales is an upland, not mountainous, landscape. Imagine an undulating plateau, like a lumpy mattress, across the width of northern England. During the Ice Age, glaciers etched long, steep-sided and flat-bottomed valleys into the flat surface. These are the dales, most named for the rivers flowing through them.

David packed us into his car one morning, promising us some spectacular scenery during the drive up Wharfedale over to Bishopdale, down to Wensleydale, up over the fells again to Coverdale, and down along a little stream to Wharfedale and home. He was right.

As we ascended Wharfedale, the meadow grasses changed to rough pasture, then to tough moorland plants. We left the villages behind, then the isolated farms. The land became more stark, the views more expansive. At the top, snow lightly dusted the tawny surface of the rough grass. In the distance we glimpsed the rounded mass of Great Whernside, a high outcropping of sandstone, gleaming with a thick coat of snow.

The even grander views over the next ridgetop made up for not seeing the bluebells. I knew then I would have to return when the threat of disease was over and the weather milder. I wanted to walk across the ancient moorland paths so I could feel the great expanse of sky above me and have leisure to explore the scents and sounds of the land.

Our way took us within five miles of the infected area, and the precautions against transmitting the disease were greater than around Threshfield. Roadside signs warned us that we were approaching an area of strict control. Several times we had to drive through hastily constructed shallow troughs filled with disinfectant, and once we were warned not to get out of the car because the road went through an unfenced grazing area. But we didn't see--or smell--evidence of the slaughter taking place just a few miles away. (Last week the danger area boundary extended to Threshfield, but the incidence of new cases of the disease has dropped off.)

In Wensleydale we detoured to Bolton Castle in the village of Castle Bolton (not to be confused with the village of Bolton Abbey, which is about 30 miles away and the home of Bolton Priory).

This was one time when I felt a visceral connection to the history of a place. Scotland's Queen Mary Stuart was held captive in Bolton Castle during the winter of 1568-69, having fled an uproar against her reign. Technically she was a royal guest, not a prisoner, of the English queen, Elizabeth I, and she expected to be provided with luxuries suiting her station. Her host had to borrow tapestries from his neighbors to warm her chambers and kitchen equipment to cook for her 51 attendants.

From the moment we entered the main hall I was shivering with cold, despite wearing a fleece jacket and long underwear. The wind whipped through the unglazed windows, and we huddled in corners for warmth. It was worse in the courtyard. The walls were three stories high; even if the sun had been out, it would not have warmed the stones at the bottom except at midsummer.

I climbed to the battlements but stayed only seconds because of the wind. I imagined that the view over Wensleydale--rock-fenced pastures, softly rounded hills, a village church--had not changed much since Mary looked out to plan her escape. Shivering in cold and sympathy, I made my way down to the warm car.

Next, David drove us across another moor to Coverdale, with Great Whernside once again looming majestically before us. Our descent into Wharfedale was dramatic. Like a mountain stream rushing toward the plain, the narrow road cascaded down the fell, reaching a 25% grade toward the bottom. Then we were back on the gentle valley floor and turning toward Threshfield.

Throughout our four-day stay, I thought about the plague afflicting the Dales. The radio and newspapers were bristling with arguments seeking to pin down cause and blame, and with distressed musings about whether animal farming could recover. I work at UC Davis, home of California's agriculture studies and research. I teach writing, not science, but I have a deeply felt attachment to this field, and I share the pride in agriculture's place in California. I dared not think "What if ... "

Before returning to London we sealed our boots in a black garbage bag, even though we had stayed on paved roads. In London we laundered the clothes we had worn in the countryside.

At the San Francisco airport, we handed over our boots and shoes to the Department of Agriculture inspection agents to be disinfected while we waited. An agent warned us to stay away from cows, sheep and pigs for five days. I promised her we'd wash all our vacation clothes again to eliminate any chance of the virus slipping through.

Back at home, I was confident that I had taken all possible precautions against transmitting the disease short of staying away, but I still had a sense of foreboding. If sheep farming ends, it will take only a year or two in England's damp climate for bracken and scrub to crowd out the pasturelands' grasses and flowers, and maybe 10 years for trees to start growing up. The landscape, the inspiration for the poets and painters who shaped England's culture, would be lost forever.

I felt lucky to have seen it.


Guidebook: In the Yorkshire Dales

* Getting there: From LAX there's nonstop service to London on American, United, British, Air New Zealand and Virgin Atlantic. Starting June 16, restricted round-trip fares begin at $955. We took the train from King's Cross Station in London to Skipton ($66 per person round trip), where our friends picked us up. The five-hour trip required a change in Leeds, where car rentals can be arranged. It's about 25 miles from Leeds to Skipton, at the southern boundary of Yorkshire Dales National Park. A drive from London to Skipton takes five hours, traffic permitting.

* Where to stay: My friends recommend the Queen's Arms in the village of Litton, about 10 miles from Grassington. It's a cozy country pub in a 17th century stone building. Rooms, all with bath, are about $82. Queen's Arms, Litton, Skipton, North Yorkshire BD23 5QJ; telephone/fax 011-44-1756-770-208, Internet http://www.yorkshire dales.net/stayat/queensarms /index.htm.

They also like Ashfield House in Grassington, a no-smoking hotel where all rooms have private baths. Rates: about $47 per person, with breakfast. Ashfield House, Summers Fold, Grassington, North Yorkshire BD23 5AE; tel./fax 011-44-1756-752-584, http://www.ashfieldhouse.co.uk.

Many other hotels and tourism listings can be found at http://www.yorkshirenet.co.uk.

* Where to eat: My favorite meal was trout baked in a Stilton cheese-walnut crust at Kilnsey Park and Trout Farm, in Kilnsey on B6160; open only for lunch. Local tel. 1756-752-150. http://www.yorkshirenet.co.uk/visit/kilnsey/index.htm.

We had a fine dinner at the 16th century Red Lion Inn on the River Wharfe in Burnsall, also on the B6160. Tel. 1756-720-204, http://www.redlion.co.uk.

* For more information: British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York, NY 10176-0799; tel. (800) GO-2-BRITAIN (462-2748), http://www.btausa.com.

For information on areas affected by foot-and-mouth disease, see the Yorkshire Dales National Park Web site, http://www.yorkshiredales.org.uk.

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