Notes from an author: Nuala Ellwood on the wilds of the Yorkshire Dales

In the wilds of the Yorkshire Dales, there’s catharsis to be found in childhood memories of family outings and the calming, invigorating presence of nature.

By Nuala Ellwood
Published 15 Nov 2020, 08:00 GMT
Author Nuala Ellwood reflects on the landscapes of her childhood and how they intersect with the ...

Author Nuala Ellwood reflects on the landscapes of her childhood and how they intersect with the present.

Photograph by Betina La Plante

The Yorkshire Dales have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Much of this is down to my father, the TV journalist Luke Casey, whose award-winning ITV series, The Dales Diary, documented the lives of numerous locals over the years.

Fresh air and long walks were Dad’s answer to almost every ill, so when, at the age of 11, I was struck with chronic insomnia, Dad sprang into action and took me on a series of bracing walks — or ‘sleep inducers’ as I liked to call them. We trounced across sparse, heather-covered moors, trying to avoid the ever-present cattle grids. 

One day Dad drove us to Wensleydale, so we could walk the Circular Route to Aysgarth Falls. It was a perfect spring morning and I remember being mesmerised by the three waterfalls on the route. I don’t know whether it was chance, the change of air quality or just sheer exhaustion, but that night I slept soundly, much to my parents’ relief.

The insomnia that plagued me when I was a child never returned and I took it for granted that it would stay away. However, in 2018, it came back with a vengeance.

It corresponded with a period of intense change in my life: my marriage had ended and I’d left my home, a riverside house in York where I’d go to sleep listening to the water bubbling outside my window.  

Determined to nip the insomnia in the bud, I found myself, one clear June day, going back to Aysgarth Falls in search of clarity and sleep.

Starting at the Aysgarth Falls National Park Centre, I passed through Freeholders’ Wood. I knew I was on the right track as there, looming ahead, was the reassuring bulk of Bolton Castle, where Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned in 1568. When I reached the end of the open field, I felt the air moistening. Then I heard it: a faint murmur of water. 

Lower Falls, the first waterfall walkers encounter on this route, is gentle and unassuming. As I approached, memories of sitting on the rocks with my dad came tumbling forth: unwrapping cheese and tomato sandwiches and sipping milky coffee from a flask. I remember Dad chuckling as he handed me the coffee. “This isn’t going to help the insomnia, is it?”

As I stood looking out at the waterfall, I wondered why the insomnia had returned all these years later. And I realised that it was change, or to be more specific, the fear of change, that had made my body go into hyper-alert mode. At 11, it was the fear of moving from primary to secondary school and now it was the fear of starting again. As I rejoined the path to Middle Falls, I smiled as I recalled one of the biggest hits of 1990, my first year of sleeplessness: Pavarotti’s Nessun dorma.

Middle Falls is less accessible than its smaller sibling and can only be viewed from an observation area that gets quite crowded during high season. Still, it’s worth braving the crush to behold the beauty of this waterfall. As I stood watching the white foam frothing over the rocks, I thought about the River Ure’s course, how it would go east from here, and then south, where it would transform into the Ouse as it passed through York, and I realised that it was these same shape-shifting waters that had lulled me to sleep at night in my old house.

The observation deck soon filled with walkers jostling for selfies, so I slipped away and took the path back to Freeholders’ Wood and the car park where my journey had begun.

The walk was almost over, but there was one last sight to see: Upper Falls, the third, and most formidable of the waterfalls.

Following the path down to Yore Bridge, from which the cascade can be viewed, I felt the air change once again. This time, however, it was a more dramatic shift, and the wind whipped around my face as I stood looking down at the water rushing across the rocks.

The expression ‘a force of nature’ is a rather overused one, but this waterfall, which explodes from the midst of a tranquil, woodland-enclosed piece of the Yorkshire Dales, is truly that. Watching it, something shifted inside me. Like a patient who’s been given CPR, I felt myself surging back to life.

Later, as I headed back to the Wheatsheaf Inn, where I was staying for the night, I felt both reinvigorated and exhausted. One thing seemed certain: I’d sleep tonight.

The House on the Lake by Nuala Ellwood is published by Penguin, RRP: £7.99

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