Much as it’s always exciting to go where the path doesn’t, it can also be bloody hard work. As you struggle through thick, chest-high bracken, sticky ropes of goosegrass tangle round your legs and waist, brambles tear at your exposed forearms, and your boots disappear suddenly into hidden gullies and old rabbit holes. Finally you crash through the wall of green back onto the forest-edge track, only to come face-to-face with a large adder, coiled in a heap and hissing in an unfriendly manner.
Of course I wasn’t in any real danger of being bitten (and for someone of my age and size it wouldn’t be the end of the world anyway), but I did feel a bit nervous as I considered how many of his mates I might have just come uncomfortably close to standing on.
I’ve written before about the ruined buildings I’ve stumbled across in Newtondale, but the other day I went looking for one in particular. It’s called Carter’s House, and you can see it from the North York Moors Railway on the right-hand side between Goathland station and Newtondale Halt. I have no idea who lived there or what they did, but I’ve seen it fleetingly so many times and always fancied poking around it properly.
Getting to within sight of Carter’s House is not too difficult. It’s marked on the OS map, and a wide track leads up the eastern edge of the forested Wilden Moor, petering out within about twenty-five metres of the ruin. Actually getting to it from there is the tricky bit.
There will be those who wonder how difficult it can really be to cross a short distance across broadly level ground, but these folk will be unfamiliar with the almost impenetrable expanses of bracken that love to colonise places where people aren’t. Someone once told me that the rhizomes of bracken thickets can go down more than a metre underground, like icebergs of the moorland world, and with their stems full of slicing silicon fibres, their arsenal of carcinogenic and allelopathic toxins and their generally prehistoric looks, they seem to me about as close to triffids as you’re likely to encounter in everyday life.
As I contemplated the dense wall of tall ferns, I wished I’d brought a billhook with me. I know, I know, cutting things in nature is naughty, but no conservation officer or national park warden in their right mind is going to object to some modest bracken hacking. In truth, I suspect I could have slashed at it all morning and no-one would have noticed the difference.
I ended up looping round the edge of the thicket to the north, skirting the edge of a pretty little marsh and coming back down between the far edge of the bracken and the railway track. I had to feel my way through the long grass with the tip of my stick to avoid twisting an ankle in the hidden dips, and I was glad I’d worn long trousers, even before I saw the snake.
The building itself, when I got there, was half buried in nettles and other greenery. Only one gable end still stood, its rough stones crested with tufts of yellowed grass, but I think it must have been a much bigger site in its day. Even quite a distance from the remaining walls I could feel blocks of stone underfoot, and see the occasional terracotta edge of a roof tile poking through the foliage.
Most surprisingly, among the morass of wild flowers swamping what looked like it had once been a kitchen, I spotted the familiar form of a blackcurrant. My copy of Richard Mabey’s classic Food for Free says they’re supposed to grow in damp woodland all over Europe, but I’ve never seen them in the wild in this part of the country (or even in the UK, actually), and I wondered whether this particular plant might have been a descendant of one from the old cottage garden. It reminded me of finding the remains of a privet hedge in Leaf Yard Wood (on the edge of Regent’s Park in London), tangled round the rusty gatepost of a cottage that was destroyed by a bomb in the Second World War; or the sour little apple trees that my mum came across growing in the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy. I quite like it when plants still cling to a place long after the people have moved on.
I decided to take a more direct route back to the path, and regretted it even before I came across the adder (there was another on the way back to the car, too). Still, up ahead, beyond where the forest-edge track ended, I saw a faint path leading across a couple of tumbledown stiles and into the remote valley of North Dale. The way isn’t on the map, but it’s there all the same, and it’s an adventure for another day.