The term Empty Quarter is usually applied to a vast Arabian desert which spills its grains over the borders of Saudi, Oman, the UAE and Yemen. Well I recently found a very English equivalent – minus the sand-dunes of course, but in relative terms for this tightly squeezed island of ours, a pretty impressive emptiness.
Look at a map of England, and you’ll see a tight web of roads, towns, sprawling cities, tiny villages and the odd contour of hills. Spool northwards, beyond Leeds up through the Yorkshire moors and dales, to reach the fells of the northern Pennines. Here, squeezed between the Lake District to the west and Tyne and Wear to the east, abutting Hadrian’s Wall to the north, is a great chunk of nothingness. That’s it! Nothing – nada – nyet!
This is the northernmost tip of the hilly backbone of England, wild and undulating over an area of 2,000 square km. Bliss. Moors carpeted in heather, peat-rich heath, bleak fells, emerald-green meadows, dales crossed by twinkling streams, pristine woods and the odd hamlet of granite houses – the whole seductive area has rightly been declared an “area of outstanding natural beauty”. Sheep abound, as do grouse (apparently this area is home to 80% of England’s black grouse), while the night skies are scintillating thanks to the near-absence of habitation.
In fact on one of the nights we were there, an alert was out for the Aurora Borealis, so after dinner we headed for a hilltop to await the spectacle. But, again, it was a nyet as no technicolour lights were visible, only thin cloud shifted silently above us. In contrast the sounds were a knock-out – for about 20 minutes there was total silence, finally broken by a distant baaa-aaa.
Sheep turned out to be a bit of a hazard – as seen above in an ambush of our car.
Water is omnipresent from gurgling streams to rushing rivers, as well as waterfalls like England’s biggest, High Force. We never made it there, but instead traipsed across fields and through deserted woods to see Low Force, lesser but possibly equally beautiful. A suspended bridge led the way, always good for a rocking thrill.
Low Force tumbles over stepped rocks which it seems were formed 295 million years ago – leaving a stricking geometry of rock structure (below). Even the plants are special as they include rare Arctic Alpine specimens that have survived since the last Ice Age. Brrrrr.
In a tiny hamlet of the magnificent Swaledale, wedged between luminously green hills, I chatted to a spectacularly bearded old boy who was watching the river intently. He filled me in on a few facts, namely that in winter this section of dale is virtually cut off – snow ploughs only clear the eastern end, leaving the higher west to the mercy of the elements. And this year, he told me, water levels are as low as rain has been rare. The dale is also home to the highest pub in Britain, Tan Hill Inn – allegedly a great stop for a beer or a bed.
It turns out that this remote region is also England’s coldest, where temperatures plunge below zero in winter, so I would strongly advise sticking to summer or autumn for a visit (spring being pretty wet). Hikers are plentiful, but you still get entire hillsides to yourself, maybe with a sheep or two – and maybe, if you’re lucky, a sighting of the magical Northern Lights.
Suggested place to stay – Rose & Crown, an 18th century inn at Romaldkirk