Mid-stream in an alfresco laboratory

Horton-in-Ribblesdale, Yorkshire We used to collect white-clawed crayfish in jam jars to study, but now, like my old school, they are a species in need of protection

Out of once-familiar fear I glance up to check Doukghyll beck. As a child playing outside the village school I was once bowled over by this diminutive Severn-type bore, which can suddenly, but thankfully rarely, belch from the bowels of Doukghyll Cave. That day, the caves in the limestone rock were brimful after deluges on Penyghent crouching above; the “mountain lion” of Yorkshire’s Three Peaks country.

Back in our “Just William” days the beck was an alfresco lab for us school kids. How it all returns as I stand, wellie-shod, in mid-stream, stirring slippery beck-bottom stones with my trekking poles.

Silvery minnows flit away. Turning a rock over I spot a bullhead lurking like a giant tadpole with large gills, only its tail flickering, under cover as I gently return the stone just so.

Caddisfly grubs can be spotted churning up specks of gravel and sand as they build their protective housing. But where are the white-clawed crayfish that preyed on them? We used to collect them in jam jars to study, then release them, but now they are a species in need of protection. Two small brown trout appear. No tickling them today, my previous dexterity long gone.

By the school on the bank above, and now 70-odd years older, the fiery autumnal horse chestnut tree has sprinkled shiny brown conkers on the road, some still protected inside their partly split spiky shells, like Pokémon Go monsters grinning from ear to ear.

When I was a pupil at Horton-in-Ribblesdale primary school during the second world war, we worried about stray bombs. Now this seat of learning, which also functions as a dale-head village hub, is again under threat.

North Yorkshire county council plans to close it next year, and the pupils will then be bussed to schools up to six miles away along narrow flood-prone roads. The governors have asked for more time to find a new head teacher. Otherwise, it will be farewell to the alma mater of countless Dales children, whose families worked on farms, in quarries and along the Settle-Carlisle railway, next to the end of the line. Quite literally.

Follow Country diary on Twitter: @gdncountrydiary

• The picture caption was amended on 30 November 2016 to make clear which beck was illustrated.


Tony Greenbank

The GuardianTramp

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