Compared with most outdoor enthusiasts, my introduction to the great outdoors came relatively late in life. Ours was an essentially urban family with no real aspirations towards the rural way of life and although there were family trips to Scotland visiting distant relatives with baffling accents and occasional Sunday afternoon picnics on the River Wharfe at Barden, “the countryside” remained to me, a mythical place somewhere between Skipton and Aberdeen.
It was at the age of 15 that I was let off the leash and allowed to sample the undiscovered delights of the Yorkshire Dales, 4 school friends replacing my parents as holiday companions. Our destination and home for that seminal week in the school holidays was a little known, quiet camping and caravan site at Hawkswick Cote in Littondale. Thereafter I would visit several times a year, Winter and Summer all through my teenage years.
The old name for Littondale was ‘Amerdale’ which is where the TV series ‘Emmerdale Farm’ got its name and there are still references to Amerdale in the area. Arncliffe village in Littondale used to appear on millions of TV screens 2 or 3 times a week and consequently almost disappeared under a clutter of tourists, cars and coaches. Prior to all the razzmatazz, travelling to Littondale was the equivalent of travelling to Uganda. I’d never heard of Littondale and had no idea how to get there. It was somewhere in “the countryside”. With its village green and quaint, inviting pub, the ‘Falcon’, we would walk the 2 or 3 miles from the caravan site to Arncliffe to sample some of the landlord’s finest refreshment, poured from a barrel into a large jug and then sloshed from a great height, relinquishing all pretence of sparkle and froth, into a pint glass where it would sit warm and flat challenging you to take a slurp. A real-ale lover’s dream!
Cairns looking toward Birks Fell
In the opposite direction, the ‘pre trout farm’ Tennant Arms at Kilnsey was a little known country pub in those days, far removed from the popular tourist spot it has since become. It was the first pub I remember which did meals in a basket! I remember thinking that soup may present a major problem for such an innovative concept. A few years after my first foray to Littondale, I spent my birthday sitting at the candlelit bar in the Tennant. It was the year of power cuts and the landlord (Geoff I think) had had the foresight to pull several buckets of ale for his customers. Unfortunately for his bottom line profit, he and 2 of us lads were the sole occupants of the pub that night if you exclude the black Labrador sprawled in front of the roaring log fire, but we had a marvellous time in the cosy surroundings celebrating and toasting me on my birthday.
As a troupe of teenage boys, we stayed in a little 4 berth Sprite Musketeer caravan which nestled neatly amongst another 15 or so small caravans and a few small tents in a lush, well mown field which was part of a farm owned by Farmer Fell and his family. By way of a “site recreational centre” there was an old barn with an unhealthy layer of pigeon droppings adorning the floor. Inside was a black and white TV which, despite our gymnastic efforts with the indoor ariel, refused to display any meaningful picture. There was a table tennis table which sloped at a jaunty angle, a cracked ping-pong ball and one functional bat. But it never seemed to rain and we never once got bored so we didn’t take advantage of those “amenities”.
Hawkswick Clowder, looking across to Birks Fell
Protected by the limestone flanks of Littondale, unaffected by the hurly burly of downtown Grassington and Kettlewell, this was a wonderful camping and caravan site.
I fell in love with Littondale. Nowadays whenever I smell hay I’m 15 again, standing in the hot morning sunshine outside the caravan looking up the dale towards Arncliffe and Litton. The distant bleating of sheep, the bright clear light on the verdant hillsides raked with outcrops of white and grey limestone, the strong smell of freshly mown grass, all these assaults on the senses are as clear now as they were then. The world stood still in that bygone time of perfect, peaceful summer Yorkshire beauty.
Last Light in Littondale
The caravan site was an ideal base for exploring the surrounding countryside and there was no shortage of interesting places to explore. From there, we would walk up the tumbling stream of Cote Gill past a large natural pool intriguingly named Doctor White’s Pool, in which we used to swim on hot days. Then onto the weathered limestone pavement of Hawkswick Clowder; not as vast as Malham’s famous pavement but guaranteed yours for the day with no other visitors apart from the odd rabbit (It pretty much still is). In Summer, I remember the short grass amongst the limestone was dotted with the lovely delicately coloured mountain pansy (Viola Lutea) which is still common amongst the limestone uplands of the Yorkshire Dales. There are also caves up there. We once explored Dowkabottom Cave with nothing more illuminating than a failing pen torch between the 4 of us. Reckless and irresponsible some would call it. A great afternoon adventure into the unknown is what I’d call it. Not for us the zombied worship of the Playstation or the slavish admiration of ‘celebrities’. No Siree! Not when you’ve got some genuine limestone upland and an honest to goodness cave to explore. Neolithic, Bronze Age and Romano British artefacts have been found in Dowkabottom Cave. We couldn’t really see much with our pen torch but I’m sure it was all jolly interesting in there and it was as far away from Butlins at Filey as you could ever get.
From the window of the caravan one could look out on the hillside on the North side of the dale, Old Cote Moor rising to a lofty 2000 feet at its highest point. Over the hill lay the fleshpots of Kettlewell and deepest darkest Upper Wharfedale. On occasion we would walk over to Kettlewell village just for the hell of it. I’ve been up there many times since and stared down in sadness at the ever-expanding campsite. That’s progress I suppose.
Cairns looking toward Birks Fell
Those Summers spent in Littondale were unforgettable. Things have changed now with the average teenager more likely to board a jet to Malaga or Benidorm for the Summer holidays. The climate has changed too though and we are no longer blessed with what seemed like weeks of endless warm sunshine. But I feel privileged to have known that lovely corner of Yorkshire as a carefree lad on holiday with his mates.
Text and photographs © Peter Black
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