CHAPTER XIII. WENSLEYDALE
The approach from Muker to the upper part of Wensleydale is by a mountain road that can claim a grandeur which, to those who have never explored the dales, might almost seem impossible. I have called it a road, but it is, perhaps, questionable whether this is not too high-sounding a term for a track so invariably covered with large loose stones and furrowed with water-courses. At its highest point the road goes through the Buttertubs Pass, taking the traveller to the edge of the pot-holes that have given their name to this thrilling way through the mountain ridge dividing the Swale from the Ure.
Such a lonely and dangerous road should no doubt be avoided at night, but yet I am always grateful for the delays which made me so late that darkness came on when I was at the highest portion of the pass. It was late in September, and it was the day of the feast at Hawes, which had drawn to that small town farmers and their wives, and most, if not all, the young men and maidens within a considerable radius. I made my way slowly up the long ascent from Muker, stumbling frequently on the loose stones and in the water-worn runnels that were scarcely visible in the dim twilight. The huge, bare shoulders of the fells began to close in more and more as I climbed. Towards the west lay Great Shunnor Fell, its vast brown-green mass being sharply defined against the clear evening sky; while further away to the north-west there were blue mountains going to sleep in the soft mistiness of the distance. Then the road made a sudden zig-zag, but went on climbing more steeply than ever, until at last I found that the stony track had brought me to the verge of a precipice. There was not sufficient light to see what dangers lay beneath me, but I could hear the angry sound of a beck falling upon quantities of bare rocks. If one does not keep to the road, there is on the other side the still greater menace of the Buttertubs, the dangers of which are too well known to require any emphasis of mine. Those pot-holes which have been explored with much labour, and the use of winches and tackle and a great deal of stout rope, have revealed in their cavernous depths the bones of sheep that disappeared from flocks which have long since become mutton. This road is surely one that would have afforded wonderful illustrations to the 'Pilgrim's Progress,' for the track is steep and narrow and painfully rough; dangers lie on either side, and safety can only be found by keeping in the middle of the road.
What must have been the thoughts, I wonder, of the dalesmen who on different occasions had to go over the pass at night in those still recent times when wraithes and hobs were terrible realities? In the parts of Yorkshire where any records of the apparitions that used to enliven the dark nights have been kept, I find that these awesome creatures were to be found on every moor, and perhaps some day in my reading I shall discover an account of those that haunted this pass.
Although there are probably few who care for rough moorland roads at night, the Buttertubs Pass in daylight is still a memorable place. The pot-holes can then be safely approached, and one can peer into the blackness below until the eyes become adapted to the gloom. Then one sees the wet walls of limestone and the curiously-formed isolated pieces of rock that almost suggest columnar basalt. In crevices far down delicate ferns are growing in the darkness. They shiver as the cool water drips upon them from above, and the drops they throw off fall down lower still into a stream of underground water that has its beginnings no man knows where. On a hot day it is cooling simply to gaze into the Buttertubs, and the sound of the falling waters down in these shadowy places is pleasant after gazing on the dry fell-sides.
Just beyond the head of the pass, where the descent to Hawes begins, the shoulders of Great Shunnor Fell drop down, so that not only straight ahead, but also westwards, one can see a splendid mountain view. Ingleborough's flat top is conspicuous in the south, and in every direction there are indications of the geology of the fells. The hard stratum of millstone grit that rests upon the limestone gives many of the summits of the hills their level character, and forms the sharply-defined scars that encircle them. The sudden and violent changes of weather that take place among these watersheds would almost seem to be cause enough to explain the wearing down of the angularities of the heights. Even while we stand on the bridge at Hawes we can see three or four ragged cloud edges letting down on as many places torrential rains, while in between there are intervals of blazing sunshine, under which the green fells turn bright yellow and orange in powerful contrast to the indigo shadows on every side. Such rapid changes from complete saturation to sudden heat are trying to the hardest rocks, and at Hardraw, close at hand, there is a still more palpable process of denudation in active operation.