To Kill Van Kull

There are days when I want to walk so far that the mind is consumed by everything and nothing. Just the pleasures of walking down pavements, noticing life as it has become. A still painting.

Because we live in a post-industrial waterfront town of which we know nothing beyond traipsing around the picturesque park we are used to, one of these days when the skies are thick with swollen clouds, I walk to the other end of town which spills onto the tidal channel of the Kill Van Kull (Dutch for “channel from the pass”). Our waterway link with Staten Island and New York.

The road to Kill Van Kull is long, spanning quite a number of blocks, but the walk is not tedious. The pavements might not be lined with examples of flamboyant architecture, but a medley of styles, so that the mind is constantly engaged in noting the variety of architectural details thrown up along the way.

First, the unexpectedly attractive facade of the high school. Gothic Renaissance. Improved upon by the presence of trees bursting with magnolias.

Then, pretty row houses, community buildings worse for the wear, humdrum box buildings (the infamous Bayonne Boxes built in the wake of WWII — the architects who conceived them must have fallen asleep halfway through, bored by the results of their own efforts), part-brick part-clapboard houses, Victorian facades, skinny houses. Wrought-iron balconies, front porches, fire escapes climbing down big somber houses.  Sandwiched in between these is a tall building complex from the ’70s, stacked one upon the other.  Little boxes bring little joy to the eye.

However, as I near my destination, the houses begin to transform in character. These are surprisingly pleasing to the eye. Sprawling Mock Tudor houses, big clapboard houses that look like they must have been built when Bayonne started to get its first clutch of residents, elegant redstone houses with manicured lawns, wrought-iron garden chairs and tables, one of the houses with decorated carving and a small signage above the entryway stating that it was built in 1887… did anyone even live here in 1887, I think to myself.

Turns out the first person to set eyes upon the shores of Bayonne was a Florentine  named Jean de Verrazzano, as early as the 1500s. An explorer in the service of Francis I, King of France, Verrazzano had sailed into New York harbour at the time. They named the bridge connecting Staten Island with Brooklyn after the worthy Italian.

A journal entry from Henry Hudson, sometime in 1609, describes shores he came upon during his sailings upon the Hudson. He wrote about the shores, that they were “pleasant with Grasse, and Flowers, and goodly Trees”. “Sweet smells came from them.” He was referring to Kill Van Kull, which I am bound for. It is also where his party was attacked by a group of Native Americans.

A network of roads wind above me, part of the highway that leads to New York City, and as I continue walking, the scene starts veering towards industrial. A 19th century brass foundry, which once supplied brass parts to the U.S. Navy during WWI, now converted to house a dollar store. A stretch of railroad tracks, probably disused. Geese droppings on the tracks. Old factories and warehouses in tatters. Large white tanks. And an atmosphere of haunting desolation typical to industrial quarters.

The wind has turned sharp as I sight the behemoth arch of the Bayonne Bridge spanning the Kill Van Kull and dominating the skyline. These very paths I roam was once covered in dense forests. Wild animals had the run of the place. Bears and panthers, wild cats and wolves, beavers, red deer, rattlesnakes, squirrels, and foxes. The only human presence here would have been of the Sanrikan Indians, of the Delaware tribe. When there would have been no bridge, no park, no houses, but just a small village. What would the Native Americans have thought of this transformation of their place? Who knows. They have long gone and what remains is this land. With a whole lot of houses stretching along the blocks, a couple of them formerly home to author George R.R. Martin. Them, a strip of a park, the bridge, Staten Island across the waters. And a gaggle of wild geese roaming about the greens, clucking and complaining. You are in the way.

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How To Turn One of Britain’s Best Walks Into An Adventure

I sat at my writing desk yesterday, staring at the snow gathering fast and thick before the eyes, coating the world outside with a thick layer of icing, rather assiduously. But I found myself thinking of Malham Dales. We were there last year around this time. It is a powerful memory, the kinds that stick with every iota of detail lodged into the cells, for our walk there had gathered momentum, assumed a life of its own. Now, this is a walk that has recently been declared by ITV to be amongst the top three in its list of a hundred ‘rambles, scrambles and ambles’ in Britain and North Ireland. But we did not know then of its upcoming celebrity status as one of Britain’s best walks (do watch the link at the end of the post, it is loaded with the most scenic walks in the British countryside).

Malham is a quiet village in the Yorkshire Dales, dotted with stone cottages, warm country pubs and ancient stone bridges traversed by packhorses once. The road to Malham, for us, was paved by 10 random stops because I had decided to change my blog host from WordPress to Siteground. That was all in vain. I ended up making the change this year, and keeping in mind the association, I could not help slipping in that photo of the limestone pavement of Malham in my earlier post.

A strange lunar landscape and a solitary tree sticking out of it. That is the draw of Malham.

But I am not a woman of few words and to let you go just like that would be monstrously unfair on my partiality towards chattering more than I should. Adi bemoans that I take five lines where he makes do with one. Usually that word is ‘nice’. I have naturally developed an antipathy to ‘nice’.

We stopped for a spot of Sunday brunch at a country inn where to the tune of hoppy ale, roast meat and Yorkshire puds, we were subjected to friendly interjections from a bald guy in a leather jacket, his girlfriend, and their hound who sat underfoot, throwing a hissy fit when another of his kind invaded his territory. Adi clammed up as he does when he is feeling particularly unsocial, so it was left upon me to be the picture of amiability. Frequent smiles and aching jaws.

When we got out of that warm pub with its flagstone floors and roaring fireplace, we were greeted by a sharp wind. Cowering into our jackets we set off into the pastures, past the beck that tripped over stones and gurgled its way into pre-historic woodlands where ancient ash trees were sheathed in moss. Upon barbed wires of dry stone walls, fluttered clumps of fleece in the wind — the aftereffects of scabby sheep having enjoyed a real good scratch. *whispers – I have a bit of that wool tucked into my box of souvenirs. Past bee libraries (I am not on crack), which are book nests transformed into dwellings for solitary bees in ash trees, we came in view of a startling sight. Janet’s Foss. The waterfall of Janet, the fairy queen. She is said to dwell in a cave screened by a waterfall which gushes into a pool that glows the colour of magic.

Till then it was a walk, which by its very nature, is suggestive of a slow pace. It stretches your body gently, lets the mind wander as you saunter, coaxes cobwebs out and generally paves the way to a beatific state of mind. Why, it soothed Adi’s frown away.

Soon we found ourselves in the middle of a limestone amphitheatre, along with a herd of grazing sheep. The beck flowed by, a river of honey gold glinting in the soft light of the sun, for it had emerged at some point to dispel the gloom of the day. Our jaws dropped as we turned around and surveyed this sheer display of nature’s power over us, tiny humans. A limestone landscape fashioned by the relentlessness of ice and water during the last Ice Age. We turned a corner and there lay Gordale Scar, a cave system that had collapsed and gouged the cliffs to reveal a gorge, that was at once intimidating and deliciously alluring.

We mused. Should we risk a climb? This is the part where I admit that we were wearing plain old walking shoes. The boulders were slimy, and the water gushing down it did nothing to bolster our confidence. As we walked away from that gorge, I simultaneously started whinging about not doing the one thing I had set out to do: see the limestone pavement. It was up there, you see, above the cliffs.

So my darling boy decided he would take me up. Up cliffs that were fenced off. Vast stretches of the inclines were varnished with jagged, grey limestone. As a reward, at the outset, Adi’s trousers caught at a snag in the fence. They ripped *whispers — at the crotch. But this did not thwart him. Oh no. He carried on and convinced me to follow him.

‘This should be easy,’ I said to myself as we started climbing. I had bypassed Adi when he called me from behind. ‘Look at the view, Nessie,’ he said. I turned, clinging to the long grass. And I froze. ‘This is what it feels when you reach the point of no return then,’ I thought, and a strange form of gut-liquefying panic gripped me. The bed of rocks below taunted me.

I started climbing then, and boy, I did not stop except to ride out the rushes of wind that whipped the grass. Oh that wind, it did not susurrate, it keened. What would have been music to my ears in a field, threatened to make me wilt on the steep inclines. After that there was no stopping. I have never felt more like a nimble goat in my life as I did then.

At one point, I called out to Adi. There was no reply. I would not dare to look down. It was too steep for comfort. My heart beating, with the rat-a-tat of a thousand Hitchcockian birds clamouring against window panes. After a short interval, but what seemed like eternity at that point of time, I heard Adi say faintly from somewhere below, ‘I am trying to climb a boulder.’ My imagination, already ripe with horror, had a whole tableau playing out. Of us desperately waving to speck-like people below for help. Perchance, they would arrange for an air ambulance for the foolish people up there, or would they rather nod their heads in contempt, and opine, ‘Odd folks. What did they think the fence is for? Let them stay up there.’

The relief that washed over me when I spotted my husband’s head pop up. I started back on my single-minded scramble to reach the top, which looked deliciously near. A final heave – thank heavens for my loose pair of trousers – and I was up on the edge of the cliff. I lay there, eyes shut, arms unclenching from clinging on to the grass for dear life, heart beating, legs trembling like jelly, sweat gathering beneath my jacket, the tee shirt demanding a gulp of air. Even today, I cannot believe that we made it to the top. The cliffs had been fenced off for good reason. Later, much later, I read a news story about a father and daughter who were out on a hike in Scotland. They went rogue like us, climbing a fenced mountain. It was a chance loose footing, but the father never made it back.

By this point, you might ask me to bugger off, because hey, you do not want adventures of this kind, do ya? But well, some hare-brained schemes once acted upon lead to spectacular landscapes as limestone pavements, where you too can get your trousers ripped.

Before I quit gabbing, I wanted to leave a note about the other rewards for this harum-scarum deed: It lies in the winding lanes that descend sedately to reveal the surreal beauty of the British countryside, for surreal is what it is and nothing less; in a pint of chilled ale at The Buck Inn; and, in the innocent faces of a dozen calves with yellow ear tags, who come lumbering around the corner to catch a sight of loud humans with ripped trousers.

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Our leathered-up friend was insistent about clicking at least one shot
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Sunday Roast lunch at the pub. Those Yorkshire puds are nothing less than gems.
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Malham Beck. ‘Beck’ and ‘Foss’ are Norse words, letting you know that the Vikings were here.
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Across the stone bridges of Malham
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Drystone walls and farm sheds
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A walk through farm land 
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And into the woods around Malham
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What did I tell you?

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The ancient woodlands around Malham

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Janet’s Foss
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The way to Gordale Scar
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Gordale Scar
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The part where I had climbed and turned back to behold this sheath of rocks
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See those tiny figures atop the cliffs. That is the point where we scrambled up.
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The ancient landscape that is the Malham Dales
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The limestone pavement of Malham, a natural karst landform scoured by glaciers as they receded, leaving behind grykes (fissures) and clints (limestone slabs).
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Award winning shot: Sheep poo and lonely tree
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Malham Dales
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Would you just look at that?
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Baby girls