There's more to garsdale than stunning scenery, as Yvette Huddleston and Walter Swan discovered.
On a day of dramatically changeable weather – hail, rain and bright sunshine in quick succession – there was tranquillity on the A684. It runs through Garsdale from Sedbergh to Hawes and there can be few main roads in the country quite as quiet as this.
It allows you to enjoy magnificent scenery at the same time as delving into a fascinating, sometimes tragic, history. An oddity of the journey is that between the two towns there's only one watering-hole. There's no caf, pub, shop or restaurant for most of the 16-mile stretch other than the Moorcock Inn at the junction of Garsdale Head and Mallerstang, the valley that leads you north to Kirkby Stephen. You'd be well-advised to call in here anyway for the warmth of the welcome offered by Simon Tijou and his partner Caz Field. The couple moved up from the south two and half years ago and, having decided they would like to run a pub together, they started looking in the area. Then the Moorcock Inn came up as a freehold property. "As soon as we walked in, we knew we wanted to run this place," says Simon. Their customers are made up of walkers, holidaymakers and locals.
"It's surprising the number of people who live within two or three miles of here," says Simon. "There isn't a definite centre to Garsdale – it is quite spread out, but there is still a community feeling about it." And the homely, welcoming pub itself plays an important part in that sense of community. The present building dates back to the 1740s, although one section has been replaced after a fire in 1975 in which the then owners died. A framed newspaper article on the wall tells the story and although the subsequent investigation was inconclusive, the locals have their own theories. Has Simon seen any ghosts in the pub? He is hesitant in his reply ("I don't really believe in that kind of thing, but…") and then relates a couple of "weird things that have happened". Getting up after their first night at the pub, Simon and Caz noticed that furniture had been moved around in the bar. On another occasion, Simon decided to get all the fire extinguishers replaced. "When the guy arrived and announced who he was and where he was from, the framed newspaper article fell off the wall and the glass smashed. I don't know if it was just a coincidence, but it freaked me out for a couple of days."
When the St Pancras to Glasgow express collided with a pair of light engines on Christmas Eve 1910 near the Dandy Mire viaduct just behind the inn, the bodies of the 12 victims were stored in the pub's cellar. The dead were later buried in the small churchyard at Hawes. Doesn't Simon ever feel nervous about going down into the cellar? "No, never. It always feels really warm and friendly here. If there are any ghosts around, they are nice ones."
Much of the history of this part of Yorkshire is linked with the railways. Garsdale Head was known as Hawes Junction because of the branch line from the Settle-Carlisle line which extended along Wensleydale. There's regular rail traffic passing through Garsdale on England's most scenic stretch of track. It inspired the Rev W Awdry of Thomas the Tank Engine fame, and his son is a patron of the Wensleydale Railway Association which is hoping to re-instate the track between Redmire and Garsdale. Garsdale Head station and its neighbouring cottages were built by the Midland Railway Company in 1876, the year that the Settle-Carlisle line opened. Many of the cottages are now holiday lets. There are several passenger trains a day to Carlisle, Settle, Skipton and Leeds along with plenty of goods traffic – enough to keep signalman Dave Repton busy. "This is my favourite signal box," says Dave who is part of the relief team based in Appleby and does regular shifts at Garsdale. "On a nice day up here, you can't really beat the place. You are in the middle of nowhere and you can see for miles." The signal box at Garsdale was first built in the 1800s but was replaced in 1913. "All the equipment we use dates back to that time," says Dave who has been doing the job for 18 years since he left school, and hopes to do it for the rest of his working life. "The sad thing is that with new technology, these boxes may become a thing of the past."
From the station we drove west to what is known locally as "The Street" but which has been signposted by the authorities as "Garsdale". The reality is, though, that Garsdale folk prefer to think of the name as referring to the whole community of some 200 properties spread over several miles, not just this central row of houses running parallel to the River Clough.
The Street Chapel dates back to 1841, and nearby is a tiny, disused petrol station which suggests that commercial ventures other than farming don't always seem to thrive here. Towards the end of the row of houses, but on the other side of the road, on a dangerous bend, is a rambling old derelict property that captures the imagination – we believe it was called Garsdale Hall. With walls several feet thick and a barn attached, it still has a stately air about it. It has stood in that spot for several centuries and, with a little attention, could stand for several more. It seems sad that it may just slowly crumble. The nearby church of St John the Baptist is still in use and, unusually in our recent experience, unlocked.
Dating back to 1861, the church was built on the site of a mediaeval chapel that was demolished in the same year. Little is known of the old church, but in 1799 it was described by Wordsworth – in a letter to Coleridge about a walk he took through Garsdale with his sister Dorothy – as "a lowly house of prayer in a charming little valley".
Driving on with milestones regularly announcing how much closer we were to Sedbergh, it felt like we were now in Garsdale proper. The steep valley sides sparkled with rivulets and waterfalls gushing down to the westward flow of the River Clough. Up on the hill tops of
Baugh Fell there was snow, while down
in the valley the daffodils were in full bloom and rain and sunshine combined to create spectacular overarching rainbows.
Our next stop was the viewing point at Langstone Fell. The vista northwards to the Howgill Fells is worth the trip alone and, from here, Sedbergh is in clear view. We embarked on a lovely return journey by taking the Sedgwick Trail Loop Road (named after the famous local geologist) which winds down to the delightful Danny Bridge, past Hole House Farm, over a ford and on towards Lindsey Fold Farm.
All along this single-track route there are gates to open (and close) which provide the passenger with an interesting intellectual as well as physical challenge – each latch is different and some of the gates are quite heavy, providing a good workout. Coming back down onto the main road, heading eastwards, you pass a picture-perfect cottage called Badger Dub and an appealing looking B&B, The Old Joinery. While for many Garsdale may be a through road to Sedbergh or Hawes, or perhaps part of a route north via Mallerstang, this peaceful little dale
is best appreciated from its valley sides or its secret lanes, with promises of delightful discoveries to be made at every turn.
The Moorcock Inn, Garsdale Head, Sedbergh, Cumbria LA10 5PU.
Tel 01969 667488. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Bed and breakfast also available.
Holiday cottages at Garsdale Head station. Holiday cottage to let, tel 01702 478846. Cottage number Five, tel 0114 269 6008, www.5railwaycottages.co.uk
The Old Joinery Bed and Breakfast, Tel 015396 20309.
Garsdale Station, Garsdale Head, Nr Sedbergh, Cumbria LA10 5PQ. For further details, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Wensleydale Railway, www.wensleydalerailway.com
Whitbeck Cottage and Barn,
Tel 01772 617518 or 01202
848012. Email email@example.com