CHAPTER XII. SWALEDALE
There is a certain elevated and wind-swept spot, scarcely more than a long mile from Richmond, that commands a view over a wide extent of romantic country. Vantage-points of this type, within easy reach of a fair-sized town, are inclined to be overrated, and, what is far worse, to be spoiled by the litter of picnic parties; but Whitcliffe Scar is free from both objections. In magnificent September weather one may spend many hours in the midst of this great panorama without being disturbed by a single human being, besides a possible farm labourer or shepherd; and if scraps of paper and orange-peel are ever dropped here, the keen winds that come from across the moors dispose of them as efficaciously as the keepers of any public parks.
The view is removed from a comparison with many others from the fact that one is situated at the dividing-line between the richest cultivation and the wildest moorlands. Whitcliffe Scar is the Mount Pisgah from whence the jaded dweller in towns can gaze into a promised land of solitude,
'Where things that own not man's dominion dwell,
And mortal foot hath ne'er or rarely been.'
The eastward view of green and smiling country is undeniably beautiful, but to those who can appreciate Byron's enthusiasm for the trackless mountain there is something more indefinable and inspiring in the mysterious loneliness of the west. The long, level lines of the moorland horizon, when the sun is beginning to climb downwards, are cut out in the softest blue and mauve tints against the shimmering transparency of the western sky, and the plantations that clothe the sides of the dale beneath one are filled with wonderful shadows, which are thrown out with golden outlines. The view along the steep valley extends for a few miles, and then is suddenly cut off by a sharp bend where the Swale, a silver ribbon along the bottom of the dale, disappears among the sombre woods and the shoulders of the hills.
In this aspect of Swaledale one sees its mildest and most civilized mood; for beyond the purple hill-side that may be seen in the illustration, cultivation becomes more palpably a struggle, and the gaunt moors, broken by lines of precipitous scars, assume control of the scenery.
From 200 feet below, where the river is flowing along its stony bed, comes the sound of the waters ceaselessly grinding the pebbles, and from the green pastures there floats upwards a distant ba-baaing. No railway has penetrated the solitudes of Swaledale, and, as far as one may look into the future in such matters, there seems every possibility of this loneliest and grandest of the Yorkshire dales retaining its isolation in this respect. None but the simplest of sounds, therefore, are borne on the keen winds that come from the moorland heights, and the purity of the air whispers in the ear the pleasing message of a land where chimneys have never been.
Besides the original name of Whitcliffe Scar, this remarkable view-point has, since 1606, been popularly known as 'Willance's Leap.' In that year a certain Robert Willance, whose father appears to have been a successful draper in Richmond, was hunting in the neighbourhood, when he found himself enveloped in a fog. It must have been sufficiently dense to shut out even the nearest objects; for, without any warning, Willance found himself on the verge of the scar, and before he could check his horse both were precipitated over the cliff. We have no detailed account of whether the fall was broken in any way; but, although his horse was killed instantly, Willance, by some almost miraculous good fortune, found himself alive at the bottom with nothing worse than a broken leg.
It is a difficult matter to decide which is the more attractive means of exploring Swaledale; for if one keeps to the road at the bottom of the valley many beautiful and remarkable aspects of the country are missed, and yet if one goes over the moors it is impossible really to explore the recesses of the dale. The old road from Richmond to Reeth avoids the dale altogether, except for the last mile, and its ups and its downs make the traveller pay handsomely for the scenery by the way.
But this ought not to deter anyone from using the road; for the view of the village of Marske, cosily situated among the wooded heights that rise above the beck, is missed by those who keep to the new road along the banks of the Swale. The romantic seclusion of this village is accentuated towards evening, when a shadowy stillness fills the hollows. The higher woods may be still glowing with the light of the golden west, while down below a softness of outline adds beauty to every object. The old bridge that takes the road to Reeth across Marske Beck needs no such fault-forgiving light, for it was standing in the reign of Elizabeth, and, from its appearance, it is probably centuries older.
The new road to Reeth from Richmond goes down at an easy gradient from the town to the banks of the river, which it crosses when abreast of Whitcliffe Scar, the view in front being at first much the same as the nearer portions of the dale seen from that height. Down on the left, however, there are some chimney-shafts, so recklessly black that they seem to be no part whatever of their sumptuous natural surroundings, and might almost suggest a nightmare in which one discovered that some of the vilest chimneys of the Black Country had taken to touring in the beauty spots of the country.