Hell Gill (Instalment 2)
“....and so I slithered and climbed down Hell Gill’s dim, glistening insides, through a succession of cold baths, in one long primal scream.”
Hell Gill Beck divides the counties of Cumbria and Yorkshire and, in Mallerstang, is also the northern boundary of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The river Ure starts its journey in Yorkshire just a stone’s throw from here. I first moved to Cumbria in 1983 to work as an area warden in the north-west region of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and lived with my family in a ramshackle cottage at Fell End on the other side of Wild Boar Fell. My life, at that time, was entirely shaped by my work in the upper catchment areas of both the River Ure in Wensleydale and the River Lune in Garsdale, Dentdale and the area around Sedbergh. It wasn’t until I moved jobs in 1991 and went to work for East Cumbria Countryside Project that I switched catchments and discovered the Eden Valley with its beautiful river and tributaries.
It was a revelation in more ways than one. I had become very disenchanted with my job in the National Park. At first it seemed like a dream come true; I’d seen the national park concept as a ‘green-print’ for an ecologically sustainable future in the countryside as a whole; a partnership between local government and local residents, particularly the farming community, all working together to manage a productive rural economy in harmony with maintaining a beautiful landscape and a rich diversity of wildlife.
Instead there was conflict and resentment at every turn. The farmers’ hated being in the National Park and the National Park Authority maintained an aloof and condescending attitude to the farmers. Local residents, generally, grappled with inconsistent and intransigent planning restrictions. Visitor management was outmoded and still based on the American model of a national park which, in my view, was entirely inappropriate and endlessly confusing to the public. In the UK they are not parks, nor nationally owned as they are in the USA. The land is privately owned and farmed by farmers who feel that they themselves are an integral part of the land they farm. They are genetically territorial and I came to feel very sympathetic to their point of view. A senior member of staff told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was “becoming too friendly with the farmers”, yet I sincerely believed that the essence of my role was to win their trust and recruit support for a grand holistic vision that would benefit everyone. As he saw it, however, I was consorting with the enemy!
Thankfully most of the national park authorities have changed for the better since those early days and adopted a more enlightened and sensitive attitude in relation to the farmers. Their planning procedures too are now substantially more conciliatory and facilitating. But they are still called National Parks.
The nascent river snakes its way across more gently sloping terrain before suddenly plunging into the narrow, hidden cavity of Hell Gill, the limestone gorge that gives the beck its name. Over a thousand years ago Mallerstang was occupied by Viking farmers and Hell Gill may well have been ‘Hel’ Gill, an entrance to the Viking underworld of the dead, which in Norse mythology was called Hel and ruled over by a goddess of the same name. The Viking Hel was apparently a slightly more benign place than the Christian Hell but, even so, it must have been a bit depressing for the local Vikings to have the entrance right there at the centre of their everyday lives.
Hell Gill is 30 metres deep and 365 metres long but little more than a metre wide and most of the time the beck tumbles gently down in a series of hidden waterfalls and pools. Braver people than me regularly venture down there in the drier summer months, coming in from the top end, sliding and slipping from pool to pool in the half light and emerging at the bottom to dry themselves on exposed flat ledges of rock in the brightness and warmth of the sun.
In spate the beck fills the ravine with a raging torrent. The late Roger Deakin describes, in his book ‘Waterlog’, how he attempted to scramble down the Gill in more furiously deep running water than was reasonably safe and half way down found himself beneath an overhanging rock, staring into a terrifying “gothic emptiness”. Sensibly he retreated and climbed back to the top despite the full strength of the rampaging water being against him. I was happy to give the experience a miss and, skirting to one side, came down onto the wide green track still known, to this day, as Lady Anne’s Highway.