My eldest daughter wanted to meet up, but as she lives in Lincolnshire, we decided to meet up halfway, at a suitable place where we could exercise the dogs too. Hackfall Woods ticked the box.
A couple of days before our trip, our area of the North West suffered heavy rainfall and so in consequence, several rivers broke their banks. Our planned route through Wensleydale seemed to be in jeopardy as the main valley road was flooded in several places and seemingly impassable – it would mean a longer journey to get there.
However, on the morning of the trip, we decided to risk that particular route and so youngest daughter and I shoved The Dog in the boot and set off over the tops to Hawes. It’s a great road, passing the infamous Ribbleshead Viaduct of the Settle Carlisle railway and over some quite remote countryside with the odd farmhouse dotted here and there. We dropped down into Hawes, a lovely little market town where Wensleydale cheese is made and which attracts hordes of visitors every year. We followed the road out and swallowed – between here and Hackfall Woods was the worst of the reported flooding. The road was still quite wet, but with the odd puddle huddling the verge – it seemed alright until we got further along and then the puddles stretched right across the road. I slowed right down and crawled through them – I didn’t know how deep they were and didn’t fancy aquaplaning into a solid dry stone wall. What was unsettling was the measuring posts along the verge indicating the depth of any flooding and nearby fields turned into temporary lakes. There was a lot of gasping in wonder in the car.
We safely made it to Masham and drove the final three miles to the little village of Grewelthorpe and parked at the back of The Crown Inn car park. A good marketing ploy here – let people park in your grounds and when they finish their walk, they’ll be wanting a quick pint or a meal and look where the car’s parked. Good for them! Thought it was a great idea, though sadly it was shut due to winter opening times and Covid 19 restrictions. Daughter and I were after a coffee and some cake of some description, so we wandered around this pretty little village, admiring the little cottages and houses and giving The Dog a stretch of her legs. We walked past the wonderful Community Hall, a rather grand building, stopping to read the parish notices and discovering with delight and then dismay that there was a cafe here – which was shut. We tried a door in hope, but to no avail. We slunked down towards the village pond where ducks swam and preened themselves by the side of the water and commented what a lovely sight it was. Signs warned motorists of crossing ducks which was equally lovely. Admittedly we were quite early (just in case of a watery diversion) and then Eldest Daughter had just texted to say she was running late. We were at very loose end, not too sure what to do. We wandered back towards the centre, hoping for a shop that sold chocolate or even wrapped sandwiches, but it wasn’t looking hopeful. We bumped into the local postwoman, swapping pleasantries and asking her about the chances of some form of refreshment in the village. She immediately advertised the Community Hall cafe; but it’s shut we wailed. With cheerful heartiness which is part of the job description of being a postie, she declared that it opened at 11 and with a synchronised check of our watches, we worked out we had a 25 minute wait. With Eldest not due for another 45 minutes, it would work.
There was a chill in the air, despite the sun popping out between the clouds, so we decided to sit back in the car and wait. A big black rain cloud came over and released its contents upon us which was quite dispiriting – this wasn’t in the forecast. We hoped it was a quick shower rather than in for the rest of the day! Dead on 11, we leapt out of the car just as the rain cloud decided to move on and waddled back to the cafe which was now definitely open. Two volunteers stood on duty as we asked if we could come in with the dog. The woman misconstrued my question and said that we couldn’t eat in because of Covid restrictions and we would have to sit outside. After a bit of prattling around, Daughter held The Dog while I ventured in (the woman didn’t invite us all in, so assumed dogs weren’t allowed after all). Behind the screen was a selection of wrapped cakes and a small menu of sandwiches and other refreshments – I tentatively ordered a decaf latte, half expecting a mug of Nescafe instant, but no, my request was granted and she set about making it as I drooled and dithered over cake. Daughter had had a lightbulb moment, had tied The Dog to the fence and wandered in too where we started making small talk. The two assistants were lovely, warming up to us and we commented how wonderful it was that this place was open. I asked for the loo, which ended up in a long “Covid dance” detour around and outside the building to the back door and being let in, to comply with the covid 19 rules. It was all a bit silly as we were the only ones there and a quick nip down the corridor would of sufficed, but it was that great British quality of following rules to the letter regardless.
We took our food outside, now supplemented by two free bags of out of date cheese and onion crisps, kindly offered and kindly accepted. The coffee was really nice and the homemade fruit cake delicious. You just can’t beat a bit of homemade village fruit cake. We ate slowly, looking out for Eldest, ready to flag her down, but now we looked suspicious as we lurked by the fence, looking left and right. Finally, I decided to get her food too and re-entered the cafe. In the middle of the transaction, I get a yell that Eldest has arrived and we greet her with a cup of tea, a slice of fruitcake and three more free bags of cheese and onion crisps. Should of just given us the box, it would of been easier.
We changed our shoes for walking boots and wellies, introduced the dogs – one boisterous 18 month old Labrador and our 12 year old grumpy girl is not a good combination really. We walked down the track by the side of the pub and followed the signs along a muddy footpath, before dropping into Hackfall Woods. Well that was relatively easy. The Dog is let off leash and with a little persuasion, the Labrador is launched too. Luckily he knows our hound’s folibles and keeps his distance, though one or two of his headlong charges bring him into our dog’s short tolerance orbit and gets a resounding wuff in his passing ear as a response. We all relax once the dog’s have found their equilibrium and are happily running through the undergrowth and up and down the banking. We are on a high narrow path with a steep slope slithering down to the river below and can just about see across the tops of the trees to distance views. The sun has come out and brought out those fabulous autumnal colours in the trees. It’s just gorgeous.
Hackfall appears today to be a natural wood, a ‘beautiful wilderness’. In fact, it is very much a landscape moulded by people. Famous landscaper John Aislabie bought Hackfall in 1731. His son William set about transforming Hackfall into an ornamental landscape that would appear completely natural to the visitor.The design was developed around views of both the built features and the natural features. Several scenes even featured on a dinner service, known as the Green Frog service, which was commissioned by Catherine the Great from Wedgwood and Bentley for one of her palaces.Hackfall then went through a long period of decline, and in 1932 was sold to a timber merchant who clear felled it. A period of general neglect followed, resulting in the gradual decay of the buildings; while flooding eroded the water features.
We came across one of the follies that dot Hackfall, built for no reason apart from the owners were so rich they could build pointless, but beautiful buildings. It wouldn’t happen today. This one allowed us to see across the countryside with its high point across the treetops. We trotted down the steps back onto the path and followed it as it dropped down to the river. The dogs were itching to get in, but it was fast flowing from the recent rains and we called them away – this was the River Ure that had flooded Wensleydale a few days before and they would of been swept to Ripon before you could say Hackfall Woods.
We kept to the lower path, past workmen clearing brash, shrubs and unwanted invasive plants. The path was muddy and slippery. At one point, us humans had to stop and pause – a side stream was in full spate and any stepping stones were under water. The three of us looked for a way over while the dogs looked on bemused on the other side. Youngest had wellies on, probably the most sensible footwear and got over, while Eldest and I dilly dallied. We finally found a spot narrow enough to hop over and with a helping hand from Youngest, leapt over and fought our way back to the path, much to the delight of the dogs. We must of walked for over two hours in the woods and with The Dog showing weariness and the sun dropping, we headed back to the cars. It was a lovely pretty woodland of deciduous trees, and we had walked only a little part of it and hadn’t found all of its hidden treasures. It was certainly a place to explore more.
We decided that tea and cake isn’t much sustenance for woodland walking and headed to Masham to a little cafe for a very late lunch. We parked the cars in the handsome square (parking charge – an honesty box with a suggested fee of £1 – I just love that, so we emptied our purses of spare coinage which probably was more than a £1, but every little helps). We wandered across to the Johnny Baghdad cafe in the corner, windows and doors painted yellow and read the Covid instructions. No dogs allowed, so we were consigned to outdoors where there were little tables across the pavement with umbrellas. So we sat down and ordered hot coffees and paninis and enjoyed each other’s company. The dogs looked knackered after their non stop running through the woods and we agreed that it was the perfect halfway point for the family – a perfect place for getting a picnic, walking for miles, exploring and investigating , and when everything is back to reasonably normal and the pubs are open properly, a pint in The Crown!
The light was now starting to fade and rain had started to fall again. The shops were shutting up and it was getting cold. Time to head home. With great reluctance, we said goodbye to each other, noting how time seems to whizz by and jumped into our cars, waving furiously at each other. Daughter, Dog and I retraced our steps up through Wensleydale again as night took over the hulking hills of the Dales and we headed home for tea.