This remote part of Yorkshire is an ideal place to take stock and escape from modern life, finds David Robinson
In 1954, the poet WH Auden wrote an article for American Vogue about the best way of spending six days travelling from London to Edinburgh. He got it half right and half wrong.
Arriving at Heathrow, the American tourist should, he said, aim for the Yorkshire Dales and spend the second night in Appletreewick in Wharfedale. Nothing against Appletreewick – it’s every bit as nice as it sounds – but after Day Three, the Auden itinerary looks, from the point of view of modern tourism, distinctly odd. Three whole days would then be spent tramping the desolate moors of Upper Teesdale and north up to Hadrian’s Wall across some of the bleakest land in England, stopping to admire the occasional abandoned leadmine workings (Auden was a fan). Then they would have zoomed up the A68 to Edinburgh and civilisation.
If all of that sounds a) strenuous and b) dismal that’s because it is. But on Day Three, Auden’s American tourists would have had a glimpse of the finest countryside in England. Wensleydale first, then over the Buttertubs pass to Swaledale. Thwaite. Muker. Gunnerside. And, at the top of the valley, Keld.
You can tell these villages are remote just by the sound of their names – all Viking settlements so far from any place of power that they were never Anglicised. Even now, with national park planning regulations limiting new-builds and the nearest hypermarket 30-miles away at Catterick, they’re still immune from the blandification of modern Britain, still the kind of places you’d expect to see in featuring in the Oldie magazine’s “Unwrecked England”.
Keld is what Celtic spirituality calls “a thin place” – somewhere the dividing line between the ordinary and the spiritual seems to fade. It’s right in the middle of the far north of England, the centre of a cross that has the coast-to-coast walk from St Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay as its horizontal beam and the Pennine Way from Kirk Yetholm down to Edale in Derbyshire as its vertical one. It is, Auden wrote, “one of my holy places”.
Mine too, oddly enough. And I say oddly enough because I’m not the religious type. At the back of Keld Chapel, a sign pointed to the “Well-being Garden”. It sounded ridiculously New Age-y, and when I pushed open the gate through the cemetery, I was inclined to mock.
But when I sat down, the sun was warm on my back and I rested and looked around me. On the hill across the valley, a shepherd on a quadbike with three collies running ahead of him was rounding up his flocks. A sign explained that well-being wasn’t just about jobs and money, but our appreciation of the world around us, our physical and mental health, education, spirituality and social belonging. A carved memorial behind it remembered a recent woman minister who was “honoured in this dale”. What lovely words, I thought. And yes, I know full well that I really ought to be telling you about the Wensleydale creamery at the top of the next dale down (loads of free samples, go for the Coverdale Blue) or the joys of the Wensleydale Railway at the bottom, where it opens out into the Vale of Mowbray. I should be singing the praises of Black Sheep Bitter and urging you that whatever you do, do not drive past the butcher’s in Bainbridge without ordering a few fillet steaks for that special occasion (I’ve never had finer beef in my life).
I know this part of the world well, and there are so many places I really must insist that you see. The view south from our idyllic country house hotel, Simonstone Hall, near Hawes, so beautiful as to be almost symphonic. Semer Water, near Bainbridge, above which a friend of mine once had a hill farm. The pubs, the pubs, the pubs … the King’s Arms in Arncliff, where they used to film All Creatures Great and Small; the Punch Bowl Inn in Swaledale, the Charles Bathurst Inn up Arkengarthdale. Go on, have lunch in any of them and I’d be amazed if you’re not impressed.
But I keep thinking back to that Garden of Well-being in Keld. It’s either at the end of a long walk or the start of one. Either way, take your time. Feel the sun on your back. Wait around and see if you can see a spotted flycatcher or watch a willow warbler. Unwind. Relax. Take in the scenery, observe the shadows of clouds creep over the hills. Listen to the sound of Kisdon Beck down in the valley.
Sixty years ago, Auden got here before you. He wrote about it in his poem “Streams”:
Lately, in that dale of all Yorkshire’s the loveliest,
Where, off its fell-side helter-skelter, Kisdon Beck
Jumps into Swale with a boyish shouting,
Sprawled out on grass, I dozed for a second
So did I. So should you.
David Robinson stayed at Simonstone Hall Country House Hotel, Hawes (01969 667255, www.simonstonehall.com); until 31 October, a two-night stay for two people, with dinner, bed and breakfast in one of the hotel’s luxury rooms costs £450 (Sunday-Thursday) instead of the usual £510.