The rough-shod path was so steep, it compressed our bodies into our feet and tried to haul us back downhill, like we had gained twenty stones overnight. We moved stiffly in our coats and hats and gloves, passing little trails of snow that persisted among the tussocky grass and in the northern shadows of the dry-stone walls. A low mist had drained the shine from the weak February sun, which sat sadly in the sky like a little pale outline, a shadow of itself. Climbing higher and breathing harder still, we left the sigh of the road behind, striking out in earnest for the silent hills above the Yorkshire village of Stainforth towards a hidden waterfall: Catrigg Force.
Our adventure began two miles south in Settle market place, with lunch at the intriguingly named ‘Ye Olde Naked Man Cafe’ – one of the finest places to eat in the entire Yorkshire Dales. Its etymology is clothed in uncertainty, and must be a hot topic of debate around the firesides of Settle. Driving north up the Ribble valley to Stainforth, I watched a buzzard circling like an airliner waiting to land, its feathered form stretching and shrinking and melting in the air as it sized up its own meal far below. Tectonics and the North Craven Fault gave the village two powerful waterfalls; Catrigg and Stainforth Force. Last autumn we spent several balmy afternoons here, reclining by the river, watching bare-chested daredevils leaping into the pool and the fine spray wafting up like barbecue smoke from the lip of the falls.
In the hills, the warmth of summer was replaced by the clamminess of winter clothing, but the going eased as the track levelled out onto a broad ridge (rigg in old English). The mist had erased the highest peaks, directing our focus onward to a submerged copse of oak and pine from where the noise of the waterfall rose like a distant wind in the trees, drowning out the crows and the clucking of the upland birds. Four years ago, Catrigg was sold for the rather arbitrary sum of £30,000, with the potential to utilise its six-metre drop to generate hydroelectric power. But could anybody ever really own a waterfall? Or be merely its custodian for posterity?
Descending the steep slate steps, past a split boulder where a local miscreant had carved their name, ‘Bailey’ on the unblemished stone – we landed beside the beck where a mini-glacier flowed into the stream between two waterfalls. A photographer was balancing on a rock, trying not to drown his expensive camera while arranging the perfect ‘slow shutter’. I tiptoed across the beck, wobbling between rocks and hugging hold of dramatic boulders upholstered in thick green moss. Despite the recent rains and snow, the pool was calm yet the cascade fell like a snowstorm between the opposing masses of rock and icicles hung from the top like the star on a Christmas tree. The water was clear and untainted by the peaty residue found in many Yorkshire rivers. I stood awhile in the frigid northern air, as the composer Edward Elgar did when he plucked crochets and quavers from this tumbling mêlée, before following my wet footprints back onto the sunlit moors. Tripping lightly downhill, we were overtaken by an ensemble of farm dogs, who barked a symphony into the mist of wood-smoke that was settling on the rooftops of the village.