Janet’s Cove

Adapted slightly (mainly cutting out dialect words!) from Moorman, “More tales from the Ridings”, a story based in a gorgeous bit of countryside near Malham.

A limestone cliff with a beck flowing beneath it, Malham Cove.

Well, I reckon I’ve told this story before, Grannie began, but when I was a lass I lived up Malham way. My father had a farm close by Gordale Scar, and it’s a strange country around there. Great rocks on all sides where only goats can climb, becks flowing underground and then bubbling up in the fields.

On the other side of our steading, was a cove that folks called Janet’s Cove. They told all sorts of tales about it and reckoned it was plagued by boggarts. But they couldn’t keep me away from it, it was the prettiest spot in the dale, and I never got bored wandering around by the water and among the rowans. There was a waterfall in the cove, with a dark cave behind it, and it was overhung with ash and hazel trees.

One night I was sitting up for my father until 4 o’clock in the morning. It was the day before Easter Sunday and my father was desperately busy with lambing. He hadn’t taken his shoes and socks off for a week! He’d doze a little by the fire, and then wake up, light the lantern, and go out to check on the sheep. He let me wait up for him, so I could warm him a spot of tea over the fire. But when the clock struck 4, he said I must go to bed. He’d take a turn around the croft, then set off to the barn, to milk the cows.

But I didn’t want to go to bed, I’d been dozing off and on all night, and I wasn’t feeling a little bit tired. So when my father had set off, I went to the door and looked outside. My, it was a grand night! The moon had just turned full, and was lighting up the stones in the meadow, the becks were like sliver, and the old yew-trees that grow on the face of the scar had long shadows as black as pitch. I stood there on the threshold for maybe five minutes, and then said to myself, “I’ll just run down as far as Janet’s Cove before I go to bed.”

It was only two or three minutes walk, and before long I was sat amongst the rocks, and the moon was glistening through the ash trees and onto the water. I must have dropped off to sleep for best part of an hour, because before I knew it the moon was setting, and I could see that dawn wasn’t far off. I reckoned I’d better get back to my bed, but just then I saw something moving on the far side of the beck. At first, I thought it was just a sheep, but when I looked closer I saw I was wrong, it was a lass about the same size as myself.

Strangest thing about the lass was that she was naked, as naked as a hens egg, and that at five o’clock on a frosty April morning! It made me shiver to see her standing there with not even a shawl to warm her back. Well, I crept close to a large stone and kept my eye on her. First of all, she moved down to the water and stood in it, then started splashing water all over herself, like a bird washing itself in the beck. The she climbed to the waterfall and let the water flow all over her face and shoulders. I could see her body shining through the water and her yellow hair streaming out on both sides of her head. After a while she climbed onto a rock in the middle of the beck and grabbed hold of the branch of an ash. She broke off a stick, shaped it into a sort of wand, and started waving it in the air.

Now, up to that point, everything in the cove was a silent as the grave. I could hear the cockerels crowing up at our house, but all the wild birds were still roosting and asleep. But no sooner did this lass start waving her wand, than the larks started singing. The fields had been full of sleeping larks, and they’d all taken flight above our heads, singing their hearts out. She then pointed her wand at the moors, and the curlews started singing. When she heard them, she started laughing, and splashing the water with her foot.

All the while, she kept beating time to the bird song with her wand. Sometimes she pointed it to the curlews on the moor, sometimes to fields, and then, suddenly, to the hazels and rowan bushes by the beck-side. Before I knew what was happening, the blackbirds woke up and started whistling like mad. It sounded like there must be a blackbird for every bush along the beck. The birds kept at it for several minutes, then the lass made a fresh movement with her wand, and the robins began to try and drown out the songs of the blackbirds.

She always seemed to know whose turn was next, and where every type of bird was roosting. One minute she pointed her wand to the top of the trees and I heard “caw, caw”, the next she pointed towards the mossy roots of the trees near the beck and a Jenny wren hopped out and sang as though it was fit to burst.

All the while, it was getting lighter, and lighter, and I could see that the sun was shining on the cliffs above Malham, even though the cove was still in shade. I knew my mother would soon by looking for me in bed, and I started wondering what she’d say when she found it empty. I was a tad afraid when I thought that, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the lass with the wand. I was fair bewitched by her, and I reckon that if she pointed at me, I would have started singing!

However, she never clapped eyes on me sat behind the stone, she was far too busy with the birds, and getting more excited every minute. By now the birdsong was deafening, I’d never heard anything like it before or since.

The sun cleared the top of the fell, and shone down into the cove. Janet saw it, and when it was shining like a great golden ball at the top of the hill, she pointed her wand at it. I looked at her, and looked at the sun too, and was amazed to see the sun was dancing too! I rubbed my eyes to see if I’d made a mistake, but sure enough, there was the little naked lass making the sun dance with her like mad. Then, all of a sudden, I remembered that it was Easter Sunday, and I’d heard tell that the sun always dances on Easter morning.

When she’d danced with the sun a while, she seemed to forget about the birds. She let her wand drop and climbed down the waterfall. Then she sat herself on a rock behind the fall, and clapped her hands together and laughed. I looked at her and I saw the prettiest sight I’d ever set eyes on.

By now the sun was high in the sky, and was shining straight up the beck onto the waterfall. Water was spraying up as it fell onto the rocks, and a rainbow formed across the fall. There, plain as life, was Janet sat on a rock right in the middle of the rainbow, with all the colours shining on her hair.

I fair lost track of time, sat there, wrapped in my shawl, staring at Janet, at the sun, at the waterfall, until I heard someone calling me. It was my father, and then I knew that folks had missed me up at the farm and were looking for me. When I realised that, I shot off like a rabbit, straight to my father who was stood between the cove and our house, shouting for me as loud as he could.