The road to Dent in the northwestern corner of the Yorkshire Dales (but actually in Cumbria) follows the line of the river Dee, its waters low this early June due to an exceptionally arid May. The secretive valley beyond is a blaze of yellow – the meadows blooming buttercups by the thousand, drowning out the rarer and rather more subtle colours of meadowsweet, eyebright and red clover. Parts of the roadside vegetation are festooned in spidery webs made by hundreds of caterpillars as a protective shield from would-be predators. Scattered along the road – and along every navigable route throughout the Yorkshire Dales – are farmhouses: centuries-old white-washed homesteads joined directly to grey limestone barns. Fanning out from these farmhouses in every direction are the dry limestone walls, built to enclose the sheep and cattle that have grazed here since at least the 10th century, and extending over the steep contours of the landscape into a vast network of rich grasslands and bleak moorlands that have been exploited and carefully managed for centuries. Now part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, created in 1954, this seeming unchanging way of life has become mostly a sign of heritage, the marks of the industrial revolution that crept into the area in the 19th century now obliterated or sanitised as tourist attractions.
Dent is the only significant village in the Dale, a tightly-packed network of narrow cobbled streets and whitewashed buildings that has the feel of a seaside fishing village stranded far inland. Despite having its own railway station, at four miles away this modern incursion hardly affects life in the village, which carries on at a pre-industrial pace in peaceful isolation. Even the Dent Village Heritage Centre, created to attract tourists from distant locales, was designed and built entirely by local labour on the site of a redundant petrol station. Testifying to the darker effects of the village’s geographical isolation is the story of George Hodgeson, the so-called Dent vampire. Buried in Dent churchyard in 1715, rumours began to circulate after his death that he drank sheep’s blood as a tonic and was able to turn himself into a black hare, a creature of the devil. Eventually, the decision was taken to exhume Hodgeson’s body, whereupon it was discovered that he was indeed dead. Even so, just to make sure, a brass stake was driven through his corpse and a new grave dug.
There’s a delicate beauty to places like Dent and its namesake dale. Any incursion (even by foot) risks spoiling the very quality that makes them prized places. Yet, as places now dependent on tourism, that isolation must not be too pronounced or else a bygone way of life will slide into decrepitude. But well-established connections are already embedded into the landscape, ones that are centuries old and which define a pattern of life that nearly everyone still participates in, even if the purposeful exclusion of modernity really comes from the world outside. It’s a way of living that is enmeshed in the hills and valleys: a form of inhabitation that has in fact created that landscape in the process of its becoming. The limestone walls that mark the boundaries of fields, barns and farmhouses may appear to be immobile elements in the landscape – as natural as the trees and moorland – but they are ways of asserting human dominance, markers of ownership and control that determine what the landscape is and will become.
Unlike the chaotic connections that define towns and cities, and the overwhelming dominance of the human-built environment in these places, the Yorkshire Dales offer the vision of simpler entanglements of the human and non-human. It’s not as if nature has been left to herself, as we might suppose: just the opposite in fact. It’s not called a National Park without reason; it’s a place where we not only meet nature, but also mould it to our own ends, even in our imaginations. That this moulding produces such beauty in places like the Yorkshire Dales suggests that it’s the quality of that moulding which is important, namely, how humans give and take from the non-human world of which they are a part. On the road to Dent, it feels as if the non-human is given as much respect as the human even as it is brought firmly under the heel of the latter.