Coast to Coast – Kirkby Stephen to Keld



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Chapter 8 – Kirkby Stephen – Keld

The day of the mud

According to the guide-book this could well be the wettest day of the trip, not from the sky but underfoot. At the same time it would have to go some to beat the days when I was walking in the Lake District.

The day dawned, and remained as such for most of the day, with the same conditions I have gotten to expect. Dull, overcast, low cloud but not so low that the tops were in the mist, quite still (so there was little chance of a change) yet surprisingly warm. And dry, that is without rain. I was beginning to realise that during my time of doing this walk the prevailing weather was coming from the east and basically keeping any wet, Atlantic weather well out to sea.

After an indifferent (to say the least) breakfast I left the hostel which, so far, is the worst of the places I’ve stayed in. I’m also starting to get fed up with asking for ‘the full English’ when referring to breakfast. I need to have a fairly substantial meal at least once a day but a full fry-up ceases to have its attractions when it comes nine days in a row. Travelling away from home you tend to implicitly give up the opportunity of choice (so loved in this country at present – and against which I’m in constant battle), the variations on the theme being minimal. That growing lack of enthusiasm wasn’t helped this morning by one of the poorer offerings as the ‘main meal of the day’.

Before even leaving Kirkby Stephen I had (or more accurately wanted) to take a picture of a road sign. People who stand at the end of railway platforms and take pictures of the passing trains are looked down in our society (although it’s an innocent enough pastime) but don’t know how derisory the recording of direction signs would be considered.

But this was slightly different and there can’t be many of them in the country. These are old signs that record the distance to another town or village in miles and furlongs. Furlongs were still mentioned when I was at school but must seem as meaningful as the groat to those brought up under a metric system of calculation. For those who can’t remember, or never knew in the first place, a furlong is 220 yards, 660 feet, 40 rods or 10 chains (although we’re getting far too esoteric to talk about the last two). The furlong is a measure that developed from the strip farming of the Anglo-Saxon and mediaeval period, right up to time of early capitalist agriculture, and a hang over from feudalism. The name itself is derived from a furrow, the line of ploughed ground. Probably the only place you come across that in any regularity nowadays is in horse racing where the part miles are broken down into furlongs (I assume that’s still the case, I can’t remember the last time I watched a horse race).

And on some old road signs. I don’t know if they still exist but there was a series of books when I was younger, the ‘I spy’ series where such signs were a prize if seen on any journey. Don’t know if the series still exists, or even if there is a modern equivalent. But just in case you’ve never seen one I reproduce it below. For those in search of relics of the past it’s on the town side of the chicane controlled by traffic lights as you come into Kirkby Stephen from the west, on the same side of the road as, and just before, the Kirkby Stephen Hostel.

Road sign marked in Miles and Furlongs

Road sign marked in Miles and Furlongs

Although I’d taken my first scheduled rest day in Patterdale on the previous Sunday I expected to meet up with others I’d met on previous days as they were moving forward in shorter stages so today we would all come together again. I was still happy with my planned routine. But each to their own on this one. I just liked the idea of being able to wake up in the morning knowing that I didn’t have to go far. Others wanted the continuous routine, but they tended to be the ones who were only doing a section of the walk and anyone doing the full length, unless they were racing against some personal clock, would turn the challenge into a chore if they didn’t allow some sort of time off for good behaviour.

Along the route I only came into contact with one largish group who were aiming to complete the full walk, and that was a group of 9 from Leicester. Doing it for charity and sponsorship and (I later got to know) 2013 was the 8th year that the same organisation (a hospice) had arranged such a trip. They had stayed at the same place in Shap and had their own support vehicle and driver so they tended to move faster than me so I only rarely came into contact with them on the walk.

What I did learn from that minimal contact was the extra time it takes with a group. From Kirkby Stephen we left at more or less the same time and they overtook me as I was stripping off from being over-dressed due to the unexpectedly high temperature. But I soon overtook them as they were at a non-existent junction (as far as I was concerned) consulting a map. It seems they were using maps rather than one of the guide books and that seemed to be making things difficult for no real gain. I can see the idea of trying to navigate using traditional methods but I don’t think that it goes together with a long-distance walk. Some of the days were long enough without adding more time out on the hills discussing which path to take, when the guide books (at least the one I was using) gave a good field by field, gate by gate, stile by stile, description of the route. Use the two together but not just the maps. I’d already realised the advantages of travelling alone, seeing this group – who managed all the stages that they wanted – hanging around and wasting valuable minutes only convinced me more of the correctness of taking on the challenge solo.

Apart from conditions under foot this wasn’t supposed to be a particularly hard day and the greatest effort needed being the ascent to the summit of Nine Standards Rigg, which started just after leaving Kirkby Stephen. The first part of the climb takes place on a quiet country road and then a relatively wide track when the tarmac runs out. From this point it’s possible to see, in the distance, the nine stone pillars which give the hill its name.

Although wet as the path got narrower and steeper it wasn’t as bad as I’d experienced earlier in the walk and that was mainly due to the warm summer. I don’t think the summer of 2013 in the north-west was in any way exceptional, just not as bad as the ones of the recent past, and the colour of the vegetation and the amount of water in the hills seemed to confirm that up to Shap and the moors that led to Kirkby Stephen. Then we came under the influence of the east of the country and by talking to people who were local I got the impression that it had been much drier there than in the west. The streams were not as full and generally the water leaching from the hills was merely a trickle.

Although plagued by low cloud Nine Standards Rigg is only a couple of thousand feet high and was lower than