Eden Benchmarks
Exploring the cultural landscape in East Cumbria
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A remote and Tranquil Valley (Instalment 3)

“He’d a French cocked hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doeskin:
They fitted with never a wrinkle; his boots were up to the thigh!
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
                        His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky”.

                                                                                                Alfred Noyes

The Highway was once the only way through the valley and an important trading route for hundreds of years.  It was almost certainly frequented by highway robbers and legend has it that during a violent storm, which had destroyed the bridge across Hell Gill, the infamous highwayman Dick Turpin escaped the clutches of pursuing policemen by leaping across the gorge on his horse, Black Bess.

The legend might have some basis in fact, although it is more likely to have been a local highwayman called Ned Ward, who was active in the 18th century, rather than Dick Turpin.  Ned was a native of the dale who, with his accomplice Broderick, apparently confined his criminal endeavours to robbing wealthy off-comers and leaving local inhabitants well alone.   This approach, perhaps an interesting example of early hill farm diversification in the absence of agricultural subsidies, gave the villains some protection from the law but eventually, one stormy night, the police arrived with warrants for their arrest.  Having successfully apprehended Broderick, they failed to catch Ned who broke through the thatched roof of his cottage and galloped off on one of the constables’ horses.  He may or may not have jumped over the bridgeless gorge but he did escape and, according to accounts at the time, eventually settled in the Newcastle area to become a coal miner. I don’t suppose he ever “rode with a jewelled twinkle” but I like to think he might have kept a twinkle in his eye.

From Hell Gill Bridge, or Devils Bridge as it is sometimes known, the beck meanders through several fields and then, close to where it turns north at the bottom of the valley, pours over a steep cliff in a waterfall called Hell Gill Force.   Depending on how much rain there has been the waterfall varies in size from a timorous trickle to a demonic deluge.  I am always amazed at how quickly rivers rise after a day or two of heavy rain.

The ground along the horizon on the opposite side of the valley, known as The Nab, just left of Wild Boar Fell’s pointed summit, bristles with a row of tall thin cairns like teeth in a crocodile’s jaw.  Wild Boar Fell was presumably a good place to find wild boar before they became extinct in this country.  Sir Richard Musgrave, a 15th century knight who lived in Kirkby Stephen, reputedly killed the last one.  As if to prove this, a boar’s tusk was found, years ago, in his tomb in Kirkby Stephen’s church.  Perhaps the cairns were put up by him, like notches on a trophy hunter’s gun, to keep a tally of all the wild boars he’d previously slaughtered.

Lady Anne’s Highway crosses rougher ground going south to Cotter Riggs, where it joins what is now the A64 to Hawes but I was heading north along a flat section of the track which runs parallel with the infant, northbound River Eden in the valley below.  The wide straight path here has the feel of a classic green road; the grass grows in thin soil over flat slabs of limestone pavement and is kept cropped, like a bowling green, by the incessant nibbling of Swaledale sheep.

Lady Anne Clifford travelled regularly along this route on arduous journeys between her castle at Skipton and the four castles she owned in Westmorland.  It was obviously very different in her day.  Sitting precariously in a horse litter, rather like a sedan chair supported by long poles slung between two horses at the front and rear, she was always accompanied by a veritable army of noisy companions and servants on horseback and in numerous creaking carriages with a cart, pulled by oxen, carrying her large, heavy bed.  The road would have been much more rutted and slippery with mud, making progress agonisingly slow for such a bizarrely attired procession in all their pretentious cavalier splendour.

Passenger trains along the Settle/Carlisle railway, on the opposite side of the valley, now provide a more comfortable way to travel but when the line was being constructed from 1869 to 1875, between Dent and Kirkby Stephen, a work force of six thousand navvies suffered appalling hardship and deprivation.  It’s difficult to imagine the sprawling shanty towns, built to accommodate the workers and their families, and the devastating impact they had on the local farming community in what had previously been, and is now again, such a remote and tranquil valley.