Angela Harker dreamed of being a fashion designer. Now happier in waterproofs, she tells Sarah Freeman why she wants more people to explore the Yorkshire Dales.
They say you don’t appreciate what you’ve got until it’s gone. It was certainly the case for Angela Harker.
Growing up in picturesque Nidderdale, surrounded by the rolling hills of the Yorkshire Dales and those whose lives are entwined in the landscape, Angela had just one ambition. She wanted to be a fashion designer and if that meant leaving behind rural North Yorkshire then so be it.
After A levels she secured a place on a design course at the University of South Wales in Newport. It wasn’t exactly a sprawling metropolis, but compared to the remote family home she had left behind, it felt crowded, claustrophobic even.
“This was my playground when I was growing up,” says 31-year-old Angela. We are standing in the grounds of How Stean Gorge. It’s a few miles from Pateley Bridge, passed the Michelin starred Yorke Arms and Gouthwaite reservoir. Even on a damp March morning it’s undeniably beautiful. “I guess I hadn’t realised it before, but when I was in Newport I suddenly had a real need to be outdoors and close to nature.
“That’s when I began to walk. When I wasn’t in college, I’d get my boots on and set off. For me it was a great way of clearing my head. I realised that what I missed about home was those big open spaces of my childhood.”
Angela stuck to her course escaping to the hills whenever she could. However, it was not long after graduating that she began to wonder whether there was a way of making a living from the outdoors. That was in 2005 and over the next few years she held down a number of jobs in retail and worked for a firm of intellectual property lawyers and for a while she suspected that her love of walking would have to be confined to weekends and holidays.
“There’s a saying ‘better a bad day on the hill than a good day in the office’, but it’s a real leap of faith to leave the security of a regular salary and a full-time job. The one thing you need is qualifications, but it’s quite expensive so while I was saving up I started to volunteer as a guide at Brimham Rocks. It’s one of my favourite places in the whole of Yorkshire and leading walks around there really confirmed that I wanted to do.”
Angela eventually managed to secure a six month apprenticeship with HLF Holidays. The walking holiday company celebrated its centenary last year and the role took her from the Dales to Northumberland and across to the Lake District, as wells as spells in Snowdonia, Exmoor and Dartmoor.
Having completed her Moorland Leader training at Plas y Brenin, the National Mountain Centre for Wales, Angela felt ready to go it alone and has just launched Feet in the Clouds. The name of the company came from a photograph she took of a group of walkers surrounded in mist while out on one of her walks and her mission is not just to get people out into the Dales, but to promote the history which lies beneath the rolling hills. The last few months, she says, has been an education.
“It’s easy to stand in any of the Dales and think, ‘well, that’s pretty’, but this is more than just a picture postcard place. It’s always been a working landscape and that’s what I really want to get across to people.
“As well as planning the routes I’ve had to do a lot of research about the area and there are some fascinating stories. Take Scar House Reservoir. If you go up there now, it’s almost deserted, but in the 1920s it was once home to a thriving village occupied by the men who built the Nidderdale dam. The reservoir, along with the one at Angram, was needed to supply water to Bradford, but it was a massive feat of engineering.”
A the peak of construction the worker’s village swelled with 2,000 men, women and children. Families travelled from across the country to find employment at the dam and while the work was tough and not particularly well-paid, most found themselves living in undreamed of luxury. While Britain’s cities were overcrowded with the working classes often resigned to slum conditions, at Scar House each house had an inside toilet, a bath with hot running water and in between the semi-detached bungalows and spacious houses, the village boasted its own butcher, newsagent and post office. Best of all it also had a 600-seat cinema.
When the project was completed in 1933, the village was dismantled. It wasn’t long before nature had reclaimed the site and now the only evidence of its past life is the concrete bases of the houses which line the approach to the dam.
“It’s incredible isn’t it?,” says Angela. “I really like going up there in the winter as I think it does have a very special atmosphere and those are the stories I want to tell, I want to show people a side to the Dales that they might otherwise miss.”
There’s certainly a market for it. While 80 per cent of visitors to the Dales say they go for the walking, for most that means a stroll along a well-trod path, close to one of the major hubs like Hawes or Malham. Angela is currently planning a series of walks ranging from six to 12 miles, but for those who want something a little different she will also available for hire as an individual guide.
“This time of year is great for me. When spring arrives you really do get a sense of the place coming to life again as the wildlife wakes up and you start to see lambs in the fields and oystercatchers in the rivers. This is a place where there is always something to see and it’s so distinctively Yorkshire.
“I’m terrible in that wherever I go I always compare it to back home and it never quite lives up to what we’ve got here. Even, the Lake District. Of course it’s beautiful and incredibly dramatic, but I think it’s much easier to lose yourself in the Dales. I think it also has a variety that you don’t get anywhere else. It takes a lot to beat standing say at the top of Ingleborough on a clear day when you can see all the way to Morecambe Bay.
“There’s a real sense of freedom in the hills, but I’m lucky because it’s also my home. I’ve got a real sense of pride in where I come from and that’s what I want to share with others.”
Angela reckons it’s more than seven years since she first thought about working outdoors. At times she wondered whether she’d ever achieve her dream, but a Feet in the Clouds prepares to welcome its first walking parties the hard work more than feels worth it.
“Sometimes scrapping everything for a new start pays off. I left a good job with a fantastic company to volunteer for a whole summer and gain qualifications. It doesn’t have to be that way though. There are small things you can do with a little bit of time here and there, the willingness to persevere, and being prepared to compromise. I’m so glad I kept pushing on. The worse thing in life is to have regrets.”
For details of sample walks go to www.feetintheclouds.weebly.com.