Last Updated on 9th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
Or it could be the other way round. Son of Britain and I had often considered meandering through Swaledale between the small villages of Keld and Muker. Once, we had even chanced, equipped with boots and all the trimmings, as far as the car park in Keld. But it had been a day when the rain, beginning as an untrustworthy fine mist, morphed into a driving, almost, horizontal force. There’s no pleasure walking on slippery ground when you can’t see anything, so we repaired to the nearby town Kirkby Stephen in search of coffee. In retrospect, this could be described as a joint venture: we surprised a group of pale youths smoking dope in the church porch. Clearly, Kirkby Stephen is a happening kind of place – and it’s a reminder that Canada doesn’t have a monopoly on tolerance.
The Yorkshire Dales reveal a great deal about Britain’s long love affair with the free movement of people. The place names in these parts are overwhelmingly Scandinavian in origin, donated by the Dane and Norse warriors we call Vikings, who arrived in the 8th and 9th centuries and decided to stay awhile. It must have been so much nicer here than with all those fabulous, but foggy, fjords, moody mountains and troublesome trolls. The Scandinavian influence virtually supplanted the Anglo-Saxon invaders of a couple of centuries earlier and who, in their turn, had assimilated or driven out the resident Celts who, having survived the Romans, had possibly replaced whoever had been there before them – if anyone. Whew!
So ‘Muker’ (Meuhaker in 1274) derives from the Old Scandinavian meaning a ‘narrow cultivated plot’. The village perches, picture-postcard-like, alongside the Straw Beck, a tributary of the Swale, its stone buildings largely products of the 18th and 19th centuries when it was a centre for lead miners and hand knitters. St Mary’s church in its current form dates from the 16th century, during the reign of Elizabeth I, but was much restored in the late Victorian period.
Keld, at the other end of our ramble, comes from the Old Scandinavian for ‘spring’, kelda. In 1301, it was known as Appeltrekelde – ‘the spring by the apple tree’. Somehow, Keld has a kind of medieval feel to it, though its buildings are generally not that old. It too was once a centre for the lead mining industry, when it is said to have had a population of around 6,000 at its height in the 19th century, compared with about 100 now. The remains of lead mines – the Romans mined for lead in Swaledale – can be found on the fells. The village is also home to the Keld Resource Centre, a charity busy restoring buildings in the village and generally promoting the area.
Having wittered on about old Viking place names, it seems the River Swale itself is Old English – that is, Anglo-Saxon – in origin, from swalwe, meaning ‘rushing water’. Which it does; the River Swale has a reputation for being one of the fastest rising flood rivers in England.
The walk between Muker and Keld (or vice versa) is not at all taxing and about 3 miles each way. The paths are easy to follow, with no clambering, and follow part of the routes of two national trails, the 268-mile Pennine Way between Derbyshire and the Scottish Borders, and Alfred Wainwright’s 190-mile Coast to Coast Walk between St Bees on the Irish Sea and Robin Hood’s Bay on the North Sea.
We happened to begin at Muker, which is famed for its meadows – best seen, apparently, in the spring, when they are full of wild flowers. Another feature of the area is the number stone barns, or laithes, which are dotted all over the landscape, mostly in various stages of decay. These field barns, set on their own away from main farm buildings, provided both winter fodder storage and shelter for cattle. The manure from the cattle was spread over the meadows to enrich the next crop of hay. We didn’t see any cattle, but there were plenty of sheep – the Swaledale ram is used as the logo of the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
A little over half way from Muker to Keld is a limestone ravine, Swinner Gill. Gill can mean both a ravine or a stream, though the latter often creates the former. Anyway, Swinner has both features and the water splashes down past old ruined buildings associated with lead mining – possibly smelting. It’s an interesting, attractive, spot. There are several rather nice waterfalls near Keld; we spent some time messing about around Kisdon Force. Force, or foss, is another Norse word.
At Swinner, you can take a diversion to a lonely ruin, Crackpot Hall. It is a wonderfully atmospheric and photogenic spot. There is a report of the farmer’s daughter in the 1920s, a child called Alice, who, with her “mocking, chuckling laugh”, visitors felt had the “madness of the moors about her”. Some say the name ‘Crackpot’ might be derived from the Norse kraka for crow and old English pot for cave. I don’t know how true that is and, in any case, remoter parts of Britain maintained older dialects for centuries (and still do in places) – so the name may not be that old. If anyone reading this knows for sure, do let me know.
Finally, my erudite reader will point out that there’s another Keld, across the border in Cumbria.