On top of Pen-y-ghent mountain you own the earth. Far below, narrow lanes edged by drystone walls wriggle through the billiard-table-green pastures, and all around are long, low skylines of ridges, cloud-skimmed and glacier-smoothed to languorous profiles.
From these high Pennine hills -- northern England's mountainous "backbone" -- vast treeless moorlands drop down through the green Yorkshire Dales to the Vale of York, then rise again over the heathered domes of the Yorkshire Moors to the cliffs and tiny fishing villages of the North Sea coast.
These four distinct regions of England's "wild heart" have been given an endearing face by the veterinarian-author James Herriot. His evocative tales of farmers, sheep, horses, struggle, joys and little kindnesses have brought this lonely land into the hearts of millions of readers, and "Herriot Country" is now a must-see on many 'round-Britain itineraries.
In fact, the modest Herriot (a k a James Alfred Wight) continues his veterinary practice (with occasional book-signing interludes) in Thirsk, a chunky market town centrally located in the Vale of York, between the dales to the west and the moors to the east.
Both the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors are classified as national parks, but in contrast to American counterparts the land is still in private ownership and life continues much as it always has -- a traditional mix of sheep and dairy farming, hay and clover pasturing, and posh grouse-shoots on the moorland tops for guests of titled landowners whose rights often extend back to the Norman Conquest of A.D. 1066.
The Yorkshire Dales part of Herriot Country is relatively small, a mere 30 by 40 miles, yet in its wealth of abbeys, castles, stately homes, cozy villages, market towns and geological features, it is almost an England in microcosm. Contrasts abound, and it is possibly this characteristic most of all that delights those who take time for leisurely exploration here.
In his book "James Herriot's Yorkshire," the author-vet describes his first impressions of this region when he joined Siegfried Farnon as an assistant in his "Darrowby" surgery:
I suddenly found myself in a won- derland ... a land of pure air, rocky streams and hidden waterfalls ... on summer days when the sun beats down on the lonely miles these uplands are a paradise, the air heavy with the sweetness of warm grass, the breeze carrying a thousand scents from the valley below ... Up here on the high empty moors with the curlews crying I have been able to find peace and tranquility of mind.
The hills south of Skipton, a sturdy stone-built market town and self-proclaimed "Gateway to the Dales," are dark, soggy and somber, resembling in character the millstone-grit strata that form their thick base. Further north comes the sudden shift to white-limestone plateaus, shimmering Sahara-bright under a hot sun and broken by a billion "clint and grike" fractures -- a dry, empty land stretched tight over a hollowed core of caverns, potholes and subterranean ruins, still largely unexplored.
This wild and beautiful region of lonely heights, clefted valleys and tight-knit communities clustered around sheep-cropped greens is a land of ancient power and mystery, little understood by outsiders. Witches worshiped their demons on the high peaks of the Pen-y-ghent, Pendle and Whernside; Romans etched a few roadways across its heather plateaus and even built Hadrian's Wall to keep out the fierce northern tribes. The industrial revolution began in cramped mills way up in the high valleys where Pennine streams were dammed for water power; bloody battles were fought across the wind-rounded tops.
And even today, while much of England has been tamed by agriculture and the frills of suburbia, this region remains aloof, alone. The few people who know this country -- the farmers, shepherds and those who cannot find peace elsewhere -- talk about its moods and myths, its secret places and the enormous beauty to be found here, with a respect verging on awe.
sisters sensed these mysteries and chose the southwestern part of this region for their tales of pride and passion; Charles Dickens depicted the strange mix of majesty and melancholy here in his "Nicholas Nickleby." Most recently the hard-edged poems of Ted Hughes (Britain's poet laureate) touch a darker soul with words as gritty as bedrock: Where the millstone of sky Grinds light and shadow so purple fine And has ground it so long Grinding the skin off earth Earth bleeds her raw true darkness ... -- From "Remains of Elmet," by Ted Hughes
But the moods of this region vary and each dale has its own distinct charm. Wharfedale is as warm as its name, in the lower reaches where soft hills hide waterfalls and the golden ruins of Bolton Priory stand in fat, green meadows. Further north, through such lovely huddled villages as Burnsall and Grassington, past the blunt-nosed cliff of Kilnsey Crag (sheered by glaciers in the last ice age, 12,000 years ago), the moorland fells loom larger and the valley hamlets take on a craggy, leather-scoured look.
Swaledale is long and lean with remnants of old valley industry and tough villages of Viking origin -- Keld, Thwaite, Muker and Reeth (riddled with odd little alleys but boasting an expansive green to relieve a rather weighty mood here).
Languorous Wensleydale, home of the famous cheese, is graced with castles, woods and picturebook communities -- Bainbridge, Askrigg (the setting for Herriot's Skeldale House), West Witton and Wensley, where James married his Helen and dined frequently at the Wensleydale Heifer pub. The market town of Hawes, way at the western end of the dale, is made of sterner stuff -- the perfect place for weekly sheep sales conducted with acerbic alacrity by auctioneers who know the moods of the broody shepherds and tweedy ruddy-cheeked farmers clustered by the dozen around the circular selling floor.
Then comes demure Malhamdale, wistfully scenic alongside the adolescent River Aire until the sudden cliffs of Malham Cove and Gordale Scar, where limestone crags burst through thin soil like an enormous skeletal frame.
And between the big dales the more adventurous explore a flurry of lesser valleys, some delightfully wooded, some bleak and storm-blasted, some so hidden that wanderers miss them altogether -- Coverdale (one of Herriot's favorite niches), Nidderdale, Bishopdale, Littondale, Dentdale (Dent is one of the most ruggedly unusual of all dales villages), Arkengarthdale, Colsterdale, Garsdale, Crummockdale, Grisdale and lovely Langstrothdale -- a dale, indeed for every mood and whim.
In spite of changes in farming patterns and the increasing population of "comers-in," the locals still rejoice (quietly, of course, with traditional Yorkshire understatement) in their heritage. They keep the old lifeway rhythms of spring lambing, summer wool-clippings and hay gathering, the November tupping by randy rams and the arduous foddering of livestock during the winter months. Add to this the daily milkings, the dippings, regular forays for lost sheep, village fairs, valley markets and regional shows, the evening rituals of darts and dominoes in the pubs, and you have a land of hard work, hard play and solid reassurances -- a place to touch the things that have endured.
History comes alive in these hills and valleys and the region is rich in the rhythm of its own heritage -- scattered lumps and bumps of Bronze Age settlements from 2,000 B.C. and fragments of Iron Age hill-forts from 100 B.C. (particularly the wind-worn remnants on the summit of Ingleborough extending over 15 acres and enclosed by a 3,000-foot-long defensive wall). Then came the Roman occupation until A.D. 400 and although nothing they built in the dales quite matches the mammoth undertaking of Hadrian's Wall to the north, they left behind a few stone-paved roads and the major fort of Virosidum just outside Bainbridge in Wensleydale. Bainbridge itself, a delightful village of bold stone houses set around a flower-strewn green, preserves the medieval custom of nightly hornblowing between Holy Rood (Sept. 27) and Shrovetide in early spring. The tradition began as a signal of the approach of nightfall to travelers in the forests that once surrounded the community, and is still upheld by members of the local Metcalfe family.
After the Romans' rather abrupt retreat, the dales experienced successive waves of colonization by the Angles, Danes and Vikings. Most villages originated during this period and name-endings of "ley," "ham" and "ton" reflect occupation by the Angles; "by" and "thorpe" are Dane appendages, and the Vikings had a knack for naming natural things in tight, crisp syllables -- beck, fell, crag, gill, scar, tarn, moor -- all still familiar words in today's dales dialects.
The Norman Conquest of England in the 11th century saw the beginning of a great period of castle building; magnificent remnants can still be seen at Bolton, Middleham, Richmond and Skipton. Expansive monasteries also arose at Fountains near Ripon, Jervaulx, Bolton Abbey and Rievaulx, but were later decimated during the 16th-century "dissolution" of Henry VIII's reign when the fiery monarch broke off all ties with the Roman Catholic Church and offered their vast religious complexes as stone quarries to the local populace. Only the sad ruins remain today.
Ironically the beloved "natural" landscape of dale and fell is actually a rather man-made creation reflecting 2,000 years of pastoral activity, slow cultural aggregation and the constant enclosing of pastures by thousands of miles of drystone walling, which today give such an idiosyncratic appeal to the narrow valleys.
And yet -- out on the mountains and high plateaus -- you can still find yourself in some of England's wildest country, vast primeval spaces echoing the melancholy cry of the curlew and the songs of the skylark.
Three of Britain's notorious "Long Distance Footpaths" cross these places -- the great 270-mile-long Pennine Way winding up into Scotland, the less ambitious 70-mile-long Dalesway and the arduous coast-to-coast walk from Robin Hood's Bay to St. Bees Head through the heart of the Herriot Country. You'll meet strange driven creatures on these routes -- "bog-trotting" hikers carrying enormous camping packs, hard-helmeted "potholers" always seeking a new cavern deep below the limestone tops, hang-gliding fanatics ever-anxious to hurl themselves off cliffs and, of course, the always-present blackface sheep, nervous and nimble among the heathery tussocks.
Drivers not accustomed to such "bog-trotter" antics often prefer to explore the lesser-known byways over the unfenced fells. And wherever possible time should also be spent in the old market towns placed strategically around the dales at the juxtapositions of valley and plain.
But in the end what people seem to remember most about the Yorkshire Dales are the people -- the farmers, the shepherds and the malt-and-hop mateyness of old stone inns where the big-armed village lads aim their darts with the precision of matadors in for the kill, and old-timers play dominoes by the fireside on cold "packy" days. Ted Hughes captures them in four simple lines: Old faces, old roots, Indigenous memories Flat caps, polished knobs On favored sticks.
You don't forget these dales.
Between the Yorkshire Dales and the Yorkshire Moors, the two prime elements of Herriot Country, lies the gentle Vale of York, another of England's "hidden corners." Tourists flock to York itself, a magnificent medieval city with Roman and Viking underpinnings, possessing the finest late-Gothic cathedral (the Minster) in the country and narrow streets of 15th-century timber-framed houses. But having "done the sights," they seem to leave little time for countryside rambles.
Admittedly the great success of TV's "Brideshead Revisited" has given nearby Castle Howard a much-welcomed boost, but such delights as Ripon Cathedral (and the nightly horn-blowing tradition of the town "Wakeman"), Knaresborough's Dropping Well, the Victorian spa-town of Harrogate, the ruins of Byland Abbey and the Elizabethan grandeur of Burton Agnes Hall all seem to elude those travelers harried by precise time schedules.
Peace permeates the quiet plains and vales below the great domes of the Yorkshire Moors.
The honey-colored stone village of Coxwold, just down the road from Kilburn, looks much the same as it did when clergyman and author Laurence Sterne came to live here in 1760 following the publication of his popular "Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy." Sterne's Shandy Hall, across from the 15th-century church with its unusual octagonal tower, is now a small museum. At the back room of the Fauconberg Arms pub here I finally learned the trick to mastering "double-top" on the dartboard from an ancient farmer who claimed to "know nowt about nowt and 'appy wi' nowt 'cos nowt's what I came wi' and nowt's what I'll go wi'" -- which, all in all, seems a rather sensible perspective on life.
Five miles further on, past the village of Cold Kirkby, a narrow lane winds up the high crags near Sutton Bank and Roulston Scar, to the 300-foot-high "White Horse of Kilburn" carved in the hillside by a local schoolmaster and his pupils in 1857. Views go on forever across green, field-laced plains and over the chalky Yorkshire Wolds speckled with farms and bosky copses.
A few miles to the east, the pretty market town of Helmsley nestles beneath the southern rim of the moors. Travelers tip their pint pots of Yorkshire ale at the half-timbered Black Swan Hotel and venture forth to explore the nearby ruins of a 12th-century castle in Duncombe Park and the Cistercian Rievaulx Abbey set on a grassy terrace above the River Rye. Real adventurers however bend below mighty backpacks and set off from here on the 100-mile-long Cleveland Way north around the North York Moors National Park (an ordeal not to be undertaken lightly).
Here and there, across the moor, in sheltered folds, graystone villages with red pantile-roofed cottages are scattered around greens and common land. Goathland, Beck Hole, Lastingham, Thornton Dale and Hutton-le-Hole all possess showplace charm that is captivating during an off-season visit but can pall somewhat when shared with deluges of "weekend Wordsworths."
Then comes the real Yorkshire coast, a powerful melding of cliffs and communities in tight ocean-carved clefts.
The fishing village of Staithes snuggles at the bottom of a long steep hill. Big chapels peer over the jumble of rooftops and alleys that drop abruptly down steps to the harbor. Fishermen huddled together on the bridge lack the levity of their counterparts further along the coast to the south. Some say it's the Viking blood still evident in the odd Norse names on some of the fishing boats; others suggest that it's the isolation of the little town where, until recently, women wore traditional white bonnets (I saw only one on my visit) and everyone spoke the pure Cleveland dialect, incomprehensible to outsiders. James Herriot writes lovingly of Staithes:
The entire place breathes the very essence of the sea; the gulls screaming over the tiny harbor, the waves driving in from the far blue, and rushing, white-crested, between the breakwaters, the little fishing boats drawn up on the shore, the men in dark jerseys, oilskins and sea boots, the big red door of the lifeboat house.
You can't help but love little Whitby, huddled around a long harbor below the graceful remnants of a 13th-century abbey. Centuries of gravestones cascading down the steep hillside below the ruins (a climb of 199 steps from the harbor) emphasize the importance of this site as a base for Christianity in England.
Capt. James Cook lived here on Grape Lane and watched his famous ships being built, naming them appropriately "Adventure," "Endeavour," "Resolution" and "Discovery." A few shipyards are still open today, and the jostling crush of fishing boats along the wharves suggests that Whitby still takes its links with the ocean seriously even though the real economic base is in the candy-floss guzzling, shrimp-peeling, whelk-chewing, ale-drinking, sun-tanned tourists. Lace-curtained boarding houses and bed-and-breakfast places nudge and shuffle around the more refined resort hotels lining the hill above the harbor like Victorian grande dames. Kids and kissing couples are photographed under the 15-foot-high whale jawbones near Cook's statue on the cliff-top park, while Whitby's famous seagulls, said to be the rowdiest in England, spiral the rooftops firing vocal bombardments.
South of Whitby, the one-time coastal fishing community of Robin Hood's Bay has all the artistic charm of an Italian hill town complete with confusions of high-pitched red pantile roofs cascading down an alarmingly steep hillside, tangles of alleys, steps and arches, brief dramatic vistas of seascape between clustered cottages and tiny cafe's, stores and inns catering to the daily surge of admirers.
For all its popularity, Robin Hood's Bay has magic and a touch of mystery left from its days as a smuggling center in the 18th century. Each house, so one resident told me, has its hiding place for contraband, and one alley, known as The Bolt, suggests that rapid escape from the authorities may have been necessary from time to time. "Or from't flippin' tourists," one old fisherman grumbled over his beer in the Bay Hotel at the bottom of the village.
And even further south, Scarborough Castle, the shell of a 12th-century bastion built on the cliff-top site of a Roman signal station, beckons like a beacon through the "sea frets" and "roaks" (fogs) that plague this stretch of coast. Fine Victorian hotels with elegant stucco trim line the cliff tops, linked to the beaches below by serpentine paths or "funicular railways" -- cable-pulled elevators. The north and south sections of the town are joined around the base of the castle promontory by the splendid Marine Drive, where everyone comes at one time or another to dodge the spray of waves that never cease their battering.
Somehow Scarborough manages to offer a little of everything, from a large fishing-fleet harbor, ghost trains, slot machines and periwinkles by the millions, to a spa and medical baths, concert halls, an art gallery, natural history museum and a true sense of British dignity and propriety amid all the turmoil of the tourist season.
But in spite of (or maybe because of) all the distracting hullabaloo and urbane charms here, you quickly begin to miss the bare-backed hills of real Herriot Country, those big broad domes ground down by the "millstones of sky," the brooding fells and windsong through the tussocks, the scoured clefts and white bones of the echoing limestone gorges. You miss even the needled penetrations of Pennine rain, the blackness of the bogs and the whole wonderful lark-free spirit of a land still loose from the silly strictures of men, still mysterious -- still simmering with ancient energies and bursting with savage promise.
As James Herriot says: "Yorkshire is a magical place."
David Yeadon, a native Yorkshireman and author-illustrator of many travel books, is currently adventuring his way around the world preparing a series of articles and a book entitled "Time Out: Wanderings in the Wild Places."