Scandal and Swindale Becks (Instalment 14)
“The stream invites us to follow: the impulse is so common that it might be set down as an instinct; and certainly there is no more fascinating pastime than to keep company with a river from its source to the sea. Unfortunately, this is not easy in a country where running waters have been enclosed, which should be free as the rain and sunshine to all....”
A.H. Hudson Afoot in England 1903,
There are almost no Public Rights of Way alongside the river Eden between Kirkby Stephen and the village of Warcop. A.H.Hudson goes on to complain;
“….sometimes the way is cut off with huge thorny hedges and fences of barbed wire – mans’ devilish improvement on the bramble – brought down to the water’s edge. The river follower must force his way through these obstacles, in most cases greatly to the detriment of his clothes and temper – or should that prove impassable, he must undress and go into the water.”
I was dis-inclined to put myself to that trouble, not to mention committing a long linear act of trespass so, a few days later, I drove my car along the lane instead. Pleasingly the lane crosses the Eden three times en-route to Warcop; three good places to pause and ponder. I do share Hudson’s sense of outrage regarding what still is to this day a frequently encountered legal prohibition of public access to rivers. Perhaps a patient, systematic campaign, similar to the one that so spectacularly achieved our ‘right to roam’ over open hill country a few years ago, will eventually win us the right to keep closer company with all our rivers as well.
Two kilometres along the road, I parked the car, walked down the byway, which goes to Soulby and stood for a while on the long wooden footbridge that crosses the river Eden, a stone’s throw from its confluence with Scandal Beck. The tributary, a substantial river here, originates from a few tentative trickles draining off the western slope of Wild Boar Fell and, by a happy coincidence, there is a nice view from the footbridge of the Fell’s distant crouching flank, neatly framed between nearby riverside trees. As the two rivers collide, it looks like the scurrying passage of each maintains its separate rushing momentum, crossing one through the other, swopping sides as they push under opposite ends of the bridge, enclosing an expanse of calmer neutral water in between, before mixing together and settling down as one.
Starting just above Stennerskeugh Clouds, a white moonscape of limestone pavement jutting out from the side of the fell, the Scandal runs down through Ravenstonedale village, which boasts two of the best ancient herb rich meadows in Britain, and on through the lovely, hidden valley of Smardale under the majestic Smardale Gill viaduct. Smardale Gill National Nature Reserve occupies six kilometres of obsolete railway track with adjacent steep banks of woodland and there are visible traces nearby of circular huts in a Romano British settlement and the rectangular ‘pillow’ mounds of medieval rabbit warrens now known as the Giants Graves. In the summer there are flowers such as spotted, fly and fragrant orchids, bloody cranesbills and wild thyme, common blue and dingy skipper butterflies and birds such as redstart, pied flycatcher and wood warbler. The Settle-Carlisle Railway goes over a viaduct at the northern end of the reserve and bypasses the quietly ensconced village of Crosby Garrett on another viaduct just over a kilometre to the north.
All my years with East Cumbria Countryside Project, walking, surveying and helping to manage the improvement and maintenance of Eden’s intricate network of public footpaths and bridleways, helps me track the wider landscape’s scattered topography in my head. A river’s catchment landscape is a self-contained hydrological unit, complex and confusing, occupying its own extensive but physiographically diverse environmental empire. Its water courses describe all the twists and turns of the hills and valleys. Most river catchments are badly polluted and even the apparently clear waters of the river Eden and its tributaries are subject to substantial pollution from agriculture. Thanks to the Eden Rivers Trust, working closely with the farmers, much is being done to counteract recurring problems like heavy grazing by livestock on river banks, excess nutrients from fertiliser and livestock waste and careless disposal of chemicals.
The Scandal Beck supports respectable numbers of the white clawed crayfish, our indigenous crayfish, as do several other upper Eden streams, such as the Belah and, further north, the Lyvennet. The biggest threat to their continuing survival is the larger American invader, the signal crayfish, a more aggressive species brought to Britain in the 1970s and bred in captivity as a culinary delicacy. Within a few years many had escaped, or been deliberately introduced to the wild, and are now widespread in many river catchments where they have decimated native populations through predation and as carriers of a deadly, fungus borne disease to which they themselves are usually immune. Even without their actual presence, the fungus can easily be carried from an infected river to a clean one on an anglers clothing or equipment so the fishing fraternity’s fastidious vigilance is a vital factor.
Resuming my drive along the road to Warcop I stopped briefly on Blandswath Bridge, the second crossing over the Eden, just south of where it is joined by the River Belah. Further upstream Argill Beck joins the Belah and both rivers tumble down through a series of steeply inaccessible gills where tracts of ancient woodland have survived since medieval times and, consequently, support an unusually well preserved arboreal ecosystem. Some of the woodland along Argill Beck is managed as a nature reserve by Cumbria Wildlife Trust. Just south of Barras, on South Stainmore, the River Belah cuts through a very deep and narrow gill which was once traversed by the spectacular Belah Viaduct on the Trans-Pennine Railway between Tebay and Barnard Castle. Demolished in 1964 the viaduct was a huge latticed iron girder construction, 60 metres high and 307 metres long; it was the tallest bridge in England!
At the third crossing over the Eden, Musgrave Bridge, close to Great Musgrave village, I parked the car again and walked along the river bank on a short length of public footpath where there are some seats to sit on, making it a very agreeable place for a picnic lunch next to Great Musgrave’s church. The church is dedicated to St. Theobald, a hermit monk who died in 1066. News of his death was, no doubt, overshadowed by more pressing affairs in the south of England that year, although he was later made the patron saint of charcoal burners. The present building dates from 1845 but there has been a church on the site for at least 800 years. Rush bearing ceremonies are held here and at Warcop church every summer.
Swindale Beck runs into the Eden just east of the church, from its source on the North Stainmore Fells, so when I finished my lunch I decided to a walk through the village and pay it a visit. There are wonderful views of two sets of ‘lynchets’, prominent ridges on the hillsides, left and right, at the far side of the village where, in the Middle Ages, crops were cultivated on terraces. The beck, more like a river here, regularly breaks over its banks, flooding and scouring the fields and depositing piles of shingle and driftwood. The shingle was busy with a throng of excited oystercatchers as well as some fretting black-headed gulls and a number of pied wagtails skittering around on the mud.
Upstream Swindale Beck races down through Swindale Beck Wood and the twin villages of Church Brough, clustered below its splendidly ruined castle, and Market Brough, split asunder by the noisy A66. The course of its journey can be followed, albeit not in close proximity much of the time, along public paths from the Middleton in Teesdale road, just below the boundary with County Durham, at the spookily named Deadman Gill Bridge. There might well have been a gibbet here once upon a time, where criminals’ corpses were left hanging beside this lonely road for months on end; it does have a slightly forbidding atmosphere about it.