Northside - Andrew Martin feels the countryside bite back

We took a short break in the Dales: two days in proper countryside

At Christmas, you see London as it might be in an ideal world. All true Londoners remain, while the true northerners hit the A1, and, momentarily, the city is tolerable and workable - or so I would imagine, because I'm always one of those on the A1.

On this occasion, we were heading for a short break in the Dales: two days in proper countryside, with proper early closing on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and proper dead animals cut in half on the roads. We were staying at Burnsall, in Wharfedale, which is a completely unspoilt village (code for "no council estate").

In the bright, sparkling late morning, the four of us walked along the river to the hamlet of Hebden, and returned via some pretty hills. Then it was off to Stump Cross Caverns, where I entertained my sons with my reminiscences of geography field trips of the 1970s.

Later, my wife and children went off somewhere for tea, and I walked into Burnsall's one shop to ask for a newspaper. "Don't do papers," said the lady at the counter, "try Hebden or Appletreewick." As I stepped out of the door, she added something I couldn't quite catch.

I set off again along the river towards Hebden. When I got there, the light was failing fast, and I guided myself through the village by the lights of outdoor Christmas trees. On the main street there was indeed a shop, and it did indeed sell newspapers, but it was closed.

I turned around, and a small bus containing nobody except its driver loomed out of the gloaming. "I don't suppose you're off to Burnsall?" I called up to the driver, but he just laughed. I turned away for a second, and when I looked again, he and his bus were gone.

I followed the Christmas tree lights back towards the river, but they gave out some way short of the water. Climbing a stile, I entered a zone of total blackness. Groping forwards, I found the river by stumbling on a root, triggering an explosion of roosting waterfowl, which nearly gave me a heart attack. Feeling like a John Buchan fugitive, I noted, possibly for the first time in my life, that there was no moon.

I fumbled my way along the river bank, and the walk that had taken half an hour in the morning now took twice as long. When I finally blundered into the brightly lit bar of the hotel, I realised I had acquired puttees of solid mud, and that there was a very nasty scratch along the back of my hand. I suddenly pieced together what the shopkeeper had said as I set off: "Be careful, it's getting late."

But that's the thing about real countryside. Sometimes it bites.

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