North and west of Mum’s place lie the Wolds – a long ridge of chalk running from the bird-covered cliffs at Flamborough Head to the Humber Bridge, and stretching on south through Lincolnshire. To get almost anywhere outside East Yorkshire, you have to cross these uplands, once medieval sheep pasture and now covered with arable fields, barley and oats parched and ready for harvest under a bleach-blue sky. I wonder vaguely why there are no ancient chalk figures here, as there are on the Downs; perhaps the tribes that inhabited this area held to different gods, perhaps there were fewer regiments to carve out military memorials as they have around Salisbury, perhaps the land proved too fertile to use in this way. I don’t know. The chalk lies very close to the surface; some fields, overploughed, are nothing but pale rubble wastelands. This used to be an open expanse of prairie fields, a result of ‘big is best ‘ in farming, but more enlightened farmers have restored the hedgerows and shelter belts, there are trees again. Roadsides are billows of blue meadow cranesbill and violet scabious; candy-striped convolvulus makes intricate mosaic patches on close cut turf. Vast purple-blue fields of borage, a new crop for the new millennium, punctuate the pale gold of the cereals.
Coming down into the flatlands of the Vale of Pickering, (an old lake bed) we can see the moors rising to the north. A haze of purple-brown, lush green in the folds and gullies, they lack the homeliness of the chalk. From a gold-grey stone that makes for picturesque villages full of coaches and tourists, the land changes; harsh grey drystane dykes trace possession across the hillside, marking inbye from outbye, home farm from common land. Winding narrow roads lead up to the tops, through dales rich with greenery, flourishing oak and ash by the sides of the stony, brown-water becks; bracken, an unwelcome green invader, spreads from mooredge to roadside, and provides concealment for the sudden sheep that materialise in our path. We search for ring ousels amongst the tumbled stone walls, but find nothing but straggly rows of young rooks, dotted along the fence lines, waiting for food, and numerous woodpigeons. Pigeons have an odd, and annoying, ability to look interesting – disguising themselves briefly as falcons, cuckoos, anything – before revealing themselves with a mocking clap of their wings.
The high tops are wide open spaces, ablaze with magenta bell heather, patterned with the dark scars of muirburn. The lurking hummocks of heather-clad shooting butts mirror the rounded forms of the tumuli on the ridges, ancient burial mounds linked by the network of old tracks over the moors. Standing stones and old carved crosses mark the crossing of these ways, tracks used still by long-distance walkers. My feet remember long days and nights, hiking these dusty, peaty, muddy, stony trails.
We turn for home. Far away towards the sea, the distant carious tooth of the Fylingdales early warning radar rises above the heather, its truncated pyramid a degree more sinister than its three round forerunners. On Egton High Moor, we stop the car and listen. A contented buzzing of bees, the ever-disgruntled bleating of sheep, the haunting whistle of curlew building to a wild crescendo – does someone have to come out every morning and wind them up? (Sorry, dear, can’t stop, have to go and reset the curlews…)
You can go back.