When I was younger, my mother would take me and my sister on walks through the woods of Harrow Weald Common. I enjoyed it for two reasons. The first was the sense of adventure that came from exploring the twisting paths and tracks and looking for birds and squirrels in the trees. And the second reason was the ice-cream van in the car park that served lemon sorbet ice cream in twin cones with raspberry sauce.
Since moving to the Dales in 2003, most of my walking has been up and down hills, enjoying the views and, occasionally, the weather. Don’t misunderstand me; I love climbing the hills and looking over the countryside of my adopted home. But, I’ve always been a sucker for a woodland walk and so, looking at the OS map on my phone, I was delighted to discover Grass Woods just outside Grassington.
The town lies about half an hour’s drive down Wharfedale on the banks of the river Wharfe. It’s a pretty little town that hosts a music and arts festival once a year – I hadn’t noticed that the day I had planned for my walk was slap in the middle of said festival and it was lucky that I got there early or parking would have been a nightmare. As it happens, I found a space in the pay and display car park just down from the town market place.
The sky was overcast as I set out. The main road skirts round a tight bend just below the entrance to the market place and I stopped just long enough to buy a couple of bottles of water from one of the local shops before heading West towards the river. The road slopes downhill until it crosses the Wharfe on a bridge of pale stone dirtied and weathered by the passing decades.
The footpath runs down through grassy fields that line the banks of the Wharfe along most of the its length through the dale. It had been raining the night before and my boots and trouserlegs were soaked through before long. There wasn’t a breath of wind as I walked along, listening to the Wharfe flowing quietly to my left. A family of ducks slid off the bank and into the water as I approached, though I couldn’t get close enough to take a decent photo. Walking the footpath doesn’t really require a map. There are no other paths to confuse you and, as long as you head straight with the river on your left, it’s hard to go wrong.
As I walked I began to wish I’d brought along something to tell me about the different plants and flowers I was seeing along the river bank. There were different kinds of grasses (rather apt, considering name of certain locations on the walk) and bushes and trees that I thought were beautiful, but couldn’t put a name to. Perhaps if I do this walk again, I’ll have something to help me with names and species.
After the path went between a wall and a line of bushes, blocking the river from view, I emerged into a huge meadow carpeted with wildflowers and moss-covered rocks that had become the playground of sheep and their lambs. I walked through a small copse of trees, some growing around the rocks and others growing up between them. It was a peaceful place and the perfect spot for a picnic – had I thought of bringing a picnic, of course.
On the other side of the trees the path followed the river again and I met the only other people on the walk.
“Morning,” I said with a smile.
The family of three stared at their shoes and barked at the black labrador that was proving friendlier than its owners.
The land along the river at this point was mostly flat grass that ran down to pebbles and shingle on the water’s edge. Birds flitted close to the water, snatching insects in their beaks and darting back to their nests and perches. Finally I came to a dry stone wall with a stile and a sign announcing that this was, indeed, Grass Wood. Looking back over my shoulder I could see a battered metal sign warning that camping was prohibited on that section of the river.
The path climbed up a steep incline and I put my camera back in its bag whilst I scrabbled and scrambled and slipped my way towards the top of the path. The incline eased off and I could walk without fear of slipping on wet stones and making an undignified descent. I took my camera out of the bag again and turned to look the way I had come. Through a gap in the trees I could see across the dale to the hills opposite, the sky still overcast, but showing signs of clearing. Indeed, as I walked the sun occasionally poked its head out and shone through the branches and illuminated the path with dappled light.
The path took me through patches of fern and bracken towards the main road that runs from Grassington, through the woods, and on to Coniston on the opposite bank of the Wharfe to Kilnsey and Kilnsey Crag. There was a single car parked in a layby, but no other signs of human life anywhere. I assumed the car belonged to the people I had met down by the river.
I’m still no expert on the wildlife of the Yorkshire Dales (I suppose living in an area dominated by sheep farms doesn’t count), but I had looked online for information about the woods and discovered that it is a nature reserve home to several species of butterfly that I made up my mind to try to photograph. I don’t usually have the patience for wildlife photography – not to mention my lens simply isn’t long enough (you can stop laughing at the back) – but I reckoned a butterfly or two wouldn’t be a tall order.
And, if all else failed, I could always take some nice photos of trees…
Like the woods of Harrow Weald Common, Grass Woods lacks a defined footpath to follow. Numerous tracks and trails lead into the trees and up and down slopes of varying steepness. I’ve marked out my own route as accurately as possible on the map, but if you visit the woods yourself, I recommend just picking paths at random and seeing where they go. That was what I did and I was certainly rewarded, as shall become apparent.
There are, in fact, two different woods – Grass Woods and Bastow Woods – though you can’t see the join as Eric Morecambe would say.
I’ve no idea how long I walked through the trees, practicing low-light photography and trying to find interesting angles to shoot from – not easy when you’ve only got trees to shoot. I could hear birds and animals in the branches and in the undergrowth, but I didn’t go hunting for them. This was partly to avoid scaring them away, but mostly for the afore-mentioned lens deficiency.
As I climbed another sloping path, I came to a fork and chose to go right for no other reason than I felt like it. On the corner of the path there was a tree that caught my eye. It’s bark appeared to be moving until I came too close and a horde of butterflies took to the air leaving a few stragglers behind. I’ve never seen anything like it and cursed myself because, once again, I had put my camera in my bag whilst I climbed a steep slope. There were still a few butterflies on the tree and I took my camera out and took as many photos as I could before they, too, flew away into the trees.
I have no idea how long I spent with the butterflies, but I have never taken such rewarding photos. Not only that, but it provided an in-depth lesson on low-light and macro photography. I’ll admit that I let the camera do most of the work – I put the camera in Tv or Shutter-Priority mode and set the shutter speed whilst letting the camera work the rest out for itself. There are some photographers who say you should only ever use manual mode so that you have complete control over the exposure. However, when working with wildlife, particularly wildlife that moves as quickly and as suddenly as these butterflies did, it pays to use a certain amount of automation so that you can capture these fleeting moments clearly.
After the butterflies had gone, I walked on and followed the path wherever it led. To my left the trees climbed steep slopes up to a formation known as Fort Gregory. This is a set of prehistoric enclosures on top of a ridge that, in the nineteenth century, was thought to be an iron age fortification built to protect the local tribes against the Roman invaders. The scholars at the time seem to have overlooked the fact that there’s a higher, more prominant ridge above the ‘fort’ that would have been a far better defensive position.
I didn’t climb up to the fort for the simple reason that my stomach was rumbling and I hadn’t brought anything to eat with me. I filed the fort away for a return visit and headed towards the Grassington end of the woods. The path wound along a ridge and, through regular breaks in the trees and bushes, I could see just how close to the edge the path was taking me. This certainly didn’t do my vertigo any good.
But I persevered. After all, I was hungry and it would have taken twice as long to go back the way I had come, not to mention be fairly disappointing from a photographic point of view. Who knew what I might miss if I gave in and went back?
As I walked I heard something flapping overhead and looked up. Through the branches I saw a shadow and the wing of a large brown bird, too big for the blackbirds and starlings that I had seen in the woods. I thought that it might be a bird of prey, but there was no way to be sure.
I went on until the path began to descend once more and I passed an old metal sign mentioning a prehistoric settlement. I assumed that this was a different settlement to Fort Gregory – the sign didn’t mention the latter at all.
The ferns and bushes had grown so thick that were it not for the sign, I would never have known what I was walking over. I followed the path alongside the settlement, occasionally spotting bits of rock that might had been ancient walls and noticing for the first time the slopes around the edge.
At last the path reached the edge of the woods where a dry stone wall runs along the tree line. There were still stretches of grey in the sky, but the clouds were clearing and the sun was shining. As much as I enjoyed walking amongst the trees, it felt good to see the open countryside again. It was like waking up on a sunny morning after a particularly good night’s sleep and feeling refreshed and ready for whatever the day might throw at you.
There was a family of swallows sitting on a length of barbed wire stretched along the top of the wall. I crept along the path as quietly as I could, my camera held ready. I was just about to give up, realising how rediculous I probably looked, when the birds stretched out their wings and got ready to take flight. I snapped off a burst of photos, assuming that they would probably all be useless. One, however, came out well after a bit of cropping and tweeking on the computer.
I climbed over a stile and into the field next to the woods. It was hot out in the open and, as usually happens, I wished I’d left my raincoat in the van and brought my sunglasses instead. Not that I’m one to complain, of course.
Across the field I tugged an iron gate open and walked down a farm track towards the town. By this time the sky had clouded over again and I began to wonder if I might be glad of my raincoat after all. Such thoughts were put to the back of my mind, however, when I glanced to my left and saw a cave in the hillside. I’ve always liked going to show caves – White Scar and Ingleborough caves near Ingleton, Clearwell Caves in the Forest of Dean – and started eagerly looking for a footpath that might take me up the hill. Sadly, I was to be disappointed, though it ws probably for the best. I’ve never been caving or pot-holing and it was probably best not to risk it.
It was now a simple matter of following the track back towards the road into Grassington. The fields either side of the track held cows basking in what little sunlight was breaking through the clouds. As I approached the gate of one field, a farmer was coming the other way. As he approached, the cows got up and began to crowd around the gate whilst he pulled the bolt back and opened it.
“Do you want me to wait?” I asked, thinking he’d probably prefer it if I didn’t get in the way.
“No, you’re fine,” he said, “They won’t do anything to you if you keep going.”
And so I walked ahead of the cows until they turned and made their own way into another part of the farm. I waved at the farmer as I turned back and followed the track down to the main road. He waved back and then shouted at the slower cows to get moving.
The track joined a single-lane road heading towards the town between fields and meadows. Swallows darted overhead and in one field a pair of horses trotted over to say hello. At a T-junction, the single lane joined Grass Woods Lane, the road I had crossed as I entered the main body of Grass Woods. Across the road was a metal gate and the final footpath to take me back into town via the bridge across the river.
Near the bridge I came across a small enclosure. On the other side of the wall I could hear quacking and looked over at the largest ducks I had ever seen. Was it one of those I had seen through the trees? They certainly looked big enough and I doubted they were enclined to stay in their enclosure on a permenant basis.
With the day’s big mystery probably solved, I followed the path down to the bridge and into town, my stomach reminding me that I hadn’t eaten all day.