Coast to Coast – The Second Scheduled Rest Day

The Swaledale Valley at Reeth

The Swaledale Valley at Reeth

Chapter 10 – The second scheduled rest day – in Reeth

The rest day – with a bit of culture

The score: 8 days down, 2 rest days, and 5 more days to go.

I look at that line above and then compare it with the distance travelled (and more importantly the distance to go) and wonder what’s gone wrong. Surely I should have been well inside the second hundred by now. The back of the journey might now be broken but I will have to see if the rest of it doesn’t break me.

This is a rest day but a messy one. On reflection I made a bit of a mistake in the booking process with this one. Last night I was in the Black Bull pub/hotel in the centre of Reeth but tonight I’m in the Grinton Lodge YHA, which is about a mile or so from the pub. I did that in an effort to save on accommodation costs but as I realise how the day will have to develop that starts to seem like false economy.

One of the reasons for a day free from walking is also to have a day free from packing, free from moving on, free from carrying anything on my back, free to just sit at the computer, free to have a few drinks and then prepare for the next day’s trek. But I have to pack up, get out of the room earlier than I would have liked and at some time during the course of the day get myself a mile up the road (and I discovered that it was very much ‘up’) and settled into another location.

This wasn’t made any easier by the fact that, considering the building and its age, I had a good room (with a four-poster double bed, a view out over the main village square and a bath rather than a shower – I know it wastes water but I consider I had earned a bit of luxury) and not one that was merely a spare space that could be used for nothing else. But I didn’t know that until I was shown the room last night. That’s the problem of travelling alone when it comes to accommodation, you never know what to expect.

Even though I had to get out of the room early there was no problem in just sitting at a table in the bar, using the computer (at least until the battery ran out – that’s an issue that arises with modern electrical and old buildings, where’s the power to come from?), and having the occasional pint – although I felt proud of myself in that I waited until after midday before getting the first one.

Apart from the actual process of moving to another bed that was my original plan for the rest days, to catch up on my writing and had no other real plans for exploration. I hadn’t been long on the route before I realised that it was physically impossible to keep such an extensive ‘diary’ on a daily basis, I just couldn’t concentrate, so extra time was necessary and even with the rest days I fell quite seriously behind (hence the late postings now).

Weather wise the second rest day was almost a carbon copy of the first. In Reeth it was misty in the early morning and it looked as if it had rained overnight, but not seriously so, but by midday it had turned into a very pleasant early autumn day, warmish, sunny and bright, with a blue sky. Stuck inside the pub until about 4 o’clock I wasn’t really aware of that until I picked up my pack and walked.

Reeth is only a tiny village, the day before I was expecting to see it in the distance as I came along the path beside the River Swale but I arrived there before I knew it, a small place tucked away up the hill north of the river. And I’m sure it would have merited a short exploration but when I left the pub I headed straight for the path to Grinton and the YHA.

That’s one of the issues with these long distance walks – there’s no real time to explore the area you’re passing through. And this is especially the case on the east of the Pennines where there are a number of ancient sites with standing stones and burial mounds as well as relics of the industrial past of the region. But to have taken any time out for such visits would have made the days impossibly long. For example, there were some stone circles indicated just off the path on the long day across the moors from Shap to Kirkby Stephen but any diversion, even for the shortest of time, would have had a significant effect on the day. As it was that was my longest single day, not getting to my overnight stay until 18.15. Even a short ‘cultural’ visit would have made the day more of a struggle than it actually was.

But to have done justice to all the possibilities would have completely altered the structure and reason for the walk. Doubling the time would have made these diversions doable but I’m not sure if it would have been really worth it to combine the challenge of the long walk with an exploration into the history and culture of the areas you pass through. Perhaps best to do them as two separate excursions rather than squeeze them into one.

The Black Bull, Reeth

The Black Bull, Reeth

So at 16.00, more or less, I left the comfort of the pub, strode out into the sunshine – now without the addition of bandages (the tops of the feet that had been damaged in the Lake District had all but healed and the anti-inflammatory cream had worked wonders on the knee. I was still aware of the weakness in the joint whenever I came downhill but it wasn’t swelling as it did before and felt comfortable once I was either on the flat or going uphill.) and headed towards first the river and then the neighbouring village of Grinton.

After having said that there was no time for ‘cultural’ visits I did take a few minutes to visit the church at Grinton, just by the bridge at the bottom end of the village.

Having no religious inclinations whatsoever I still visit churches if I have the chance, looking for those quirky aspects which are often there if you look for them. And there were a few in this church of St Andrew’s which traces its origins back to the 14/15th centuries.

St Andrew's Church, Grinton

St Andrew’s Church, Grinton

First I couldn’t find any specific reference to St Andrew although there was a definite reference to St George who stands in a stained glass window above the village war memorial directly opposite the entrance to the church. It may not be unique but I can’t think of many places I’ve visited where the memorial to those who dies in the First World War is actually situated within the church itself.

Also all the stained glass windows seemed to date from about 1880 to 1920. They have the look of Victorian/Edwardian design and are in very good condition. As the church is quite ancient I don’t know if that meant there was an element of vandalism by the rich so that they could guarantee their entrance into Heaven by paying for new windows. Anyway, apart from the structure itself (and a very early 14th century font which, for some reason, I didn’t photograph) there wasn’t any decoration I noticed that gave the impression of great age.

By chance I probably arrived at the ideal time to take pictures, the low sun, a couple of hours before sunset, providing good lighting conditions from the outside for the windows. Not perfect pictures by any account but not bad for a hand-held camera, I think.

Stained Glass Window, St Andrew's Church, Grinton

Stained Glass Window, St Andrew’s Church, Grinton

On leaving the church I ignored the pub across the road (making a mental note to perhaps visit it later that afternoon) to head to the youth hostel and a shock – it was a long way up a very steep hill and this was my rest day. This made the change of bed for the night an even less good idea in hindsight but I eventually got there and prepared my bed for the night – slightly different from the four-poster of the night before.

I can’t remember if I’ve said so before but one of the down sides of staying in cheapish hostels is that you have to make your own bed each night and are expected to strip it the following morning and after a while this gets quite tedious. Not as tedious as having to pitch and break camp but getting there. I’ll be glad when I get back home and stay in a bed where the sheets don’t get changed every day.

That’s only one down side, there are many others, which you live with for the convenience of the location and the price. I experienced another later that night. After having prepared my bed I went to the lounge to work on the computer and then had booked myself an evening meal. Coming up quite early – my going to bed time is getting earlier as the days roll on – I opened the door to be virtually assaulted by embrocation oil. In my absence 3 cyclists had arrived and had left their signature in the room. If that’s anything to go by you must be able to smell the Tour de France before you even see it.

Another aspect of the Grinton Lodge YHA which was different from all the others I had stayed in was its acceptance that visitors – this is not just the young, although for many young people they would rather lose an arm than their iPhone, but for older people as well – want to be able to charge their communication devices. If places don’t offer such a service many young people just won’t go there. Many of the older hostels were constructed when no-one walked around with something that needed regular access to electricity. Now more than 90% of people do. Grinton was the first place I’d visited that had recognised that and there was a three pin power socket and a little shelf at each bunk space so that everyone could charge their phone as they slept. In the other places I’d been to there was a queue to get to the only socket for a room of 10 or more people.

There was a school/college group staying on the night I arrived at the youth hostel and, coincidentally, I had also decided on an evening meal. During the evening meal and the breakfast the following morning I developed the theory that parents/teachers must be congenitally deaf. It wasn’t a big group, they were in their late teens and they weren’t particularly rowdy. However, the noise level went up exponentially once they were in a room but the teachers didn’t seem to be aware of this. This isn’t the first time I’ve considered that this must be a condition that affects millions of people around the world as I’ve come across similar situations in other countries.

Apart from Africa. There the children, in whatever concentration of numbers, were quiet in comparison to their British peers. Mind you, in Zimbabwe, I was told of a teacher who beat a young 10-year-old around the legs with a cricket stump when the boy got out of line, so that might account for the peace and quiet.

So on the afternoon of Friday 27th September it was still 109 miles down and 91 to go – even though I had moved a short distance east from the centre of Reeth by going to the YHA I had gone about the same south, so nothing gained or lost.

Practical Information:

Accommodation

Grinton Lodge YHA. Up a very steep hill from the river, a bit of a shock if you’re not expecting it (even though if I had looked at my map properly there would have been a shock but no surprise). £20.49 B+B. It’s based in what used to be a hunting lodge for some big landowner/aristocrat, can’t remember which, with all its Victorian pretensions as a crenellated castle. On the edge of one of the many Yorkshire moors that are still used for killing game birds – you can’t really call it hunting as it’s no more challenging that visiting a shooting range in a travelling fairground.

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Coast to Coast – Keld to Reeth

Swaledale Valley

Swaledale Valley

Chapter 9 – Keld to Reeth

The day by the river

Although one of the cheapest of the places I have stayed in so far the so-called bunkhouse at Keld was probably the most luxurious, more by chance than anything else. What is called the bunkhouse is basically an annex, attached to the main farm building, that’s been converted into a separate two storey house. In 2 of the 3 bedrooms there are bunks which means that it can be used as a place for a self-contained group or for individuals such as myself. On the ground floor there’s a kitchen cum dining room cum lounge. What made the place luxurious was that I was there by myself. (Well, not exactly. A couple came after I had gone to bed and occupied the downstairs bedroom but I had the place to myself when I was moving around.)

If it was good to get an early finish the day before I gave myself an added bonus with a late start today – not leaving until 10.20, the latest start on the whole of the trip. The walk to Reeth was only 11 miles or so and I had also decided to take the route that would follow a stretch of the River Swale before going up to the moors again before descending down to Reeth. It was a grey day, again, but at least the rain, more like persistent drizzle, that had fallen just before it got dark hadn’t remained and it didn’t look like the weather would turn for the worse. If I had gone on the higher route there would have been sections of boggy land where I would have been up to my ankles in mud and the views would have been non-existent so I thought there was little point of the additional effort. And anyway, going the lower route I would pass through, or close to, a couple of small hamlets and thought of having a midday pint in one of the pubs.

From the table I was sitting at for breakfast I was looking out over a small waterfall behind the house and across from that 3 or 4 pheasants were searching for food. I had come across the occasional game bird over the previous couple of days, but only individuals, and would start to see many more from now on. The route was starting to enter the Yorkshire moors that were specifically managed for the hunting of both pheasant and grouse.

I don’t think I’d got so close to a grouse before this expedition. They’re not very good flyers and the first one was ‘trapped’ as I came across it along a lane, just at the place there was a gate and when there was a wall on either side of the lane. The only escape route would have been the direction I had come but the grouse’s instinct is to fly away from perceived danger, not towards it even if that was the best escape route. So I don’t think they are the most intelligent of birds (and probably accounts why the not most intelligent of people can shoot so many of them). They panic as they run around but I was able to get a few, reasonably close, pictures of them. These were the red grouse.

Red Grouse

Red Grouse

The place I was staying was to the west of Keld, just before entering the village proper, and due to the drizzle, and the fact that I was quite warm and comfortable sitting alone in the house, I decided against going to the local pub. There might well have been a few people I had met on previous days there but laziness got the better of me. That worked out well as the pub was a lot further than I was given to expect so had no regrets when I realised the effort that would have been needed the previous night – I’m doing enough walking without adding any additional miles.

It seems that each part of the country has its peculiarities and little traps to catch out the unwary walker, and in Yorkshire that local joke are the stiles cum gates that are built into the dry stone walls. These are very narrow openings in the walls that often have a gate on a tight spring at one side and a flat, upright stone that prevents any sizeable animal from getting through. Not always, but very often, there are a couple of stone steps on either side of the opening so there’s a certain skill and dexterity to negotiate these obstacles. They tend to be narrower at the bottom, opening out higher up, as they would have been built so that there’s enough room for the feet but then allowing that most people are normally fatter at the waist. But when I say ‘room for the feet’ I really mean room for a foot, as few of these allow you to stand with your feet side by side.

So you have to imagine the situation. You arrive at one of these stiles and open the gate towards you as you step up to the gap in the wall. There’s only enough room for one foot so you have one leg trailing as you use one hand to keep hold of the wall and the other to keep the gate from swinging back and propelling you into space. Now you have a problem. What do you move first? Probably the best bet is to shuffle forward on the foot in the gap until you get to a situation where you can place both feet on the wall behind each other. Now it may be possible to release the gate BUT you have to bear in mind that you have a rucksack which effectively makes your body much bigger. If successful the weight of the gate and its spring presses against the rucksack but not in such a way that it pushes you forward. Now you have the use of two hands. Using them to lift your body you tentatively move forward so that you can squeeze through the narrow gap caused by the flat, upright stone. Then with a supreme effort you launch yourself forward, step through the gap on to the step on the other side, drag your bag through behind you, scraping the sides of the gap as you do so and you are through. If lucky in one piece.

Yorkshire Stile

Yorkshire Stile

I’m not that big and my rucksack, although big enough for me, not as large as someone who might be camping. How some other people get through is beyond me, very much like contracting the body as an octopus does to go through impossibly small openings.

Once you’ve got though and congratulated yourself on your self-preservation you look up and see there’s another one less than 20 metres away and there were a lot on this walk, through the fields and meadows alongside the River Swale.

After having seen the pathetic sight of the unfortunate rabbit the day before perhaps it was fitting that this morning I passed by a huge rabbit warren indicating that the rabbit population, in general, in the area seemed to be healthy enough. I have to take the guide-book writer’s word that it was rabbits as the entrance tunnels seemed very big to me but then I must admit I’m not really an expert on native British mammal’s underground construction sites. Also it seemed too low, the land sloped away quite quickly at this point to some hills behind, and too close to the river in the event of a flood – but then, again, I assume the rabbits know more what they’re doing than me.

The idea of a pub crawl fell apart quite quickly. The first opportunity would have meant a slight diversion to the hamlet of Muker. There’s supposed to be a pub there but I decided against the diversion for a couple of reasons. It was still relatively early. Although I had left later than usual I was at this point before midday and there was no guarantee that the pub would have been open at that time during this time of year, not quite the closed season but definitely on the point of closing down.

This is one of the negative consequences of the changes in the pub licensing hours that happened way back in the late 90s. When pubs had fixed opening times you could guarantee that a pub would be open during certain times of the day. If my memory serves me right they had to, as part of their license, coming as it did from the days when pubs were obliged to provide a service to travellers. I welcomed the change in the opening hours but learnt very quickly that this change was a doubled-edged sword and what we gained from the change was far outweighed by what we lost.

Stay behind pubs lost out as their regular customers would remain local rather than travel to a place they knew would stay open illegally. That meant that after years of knowing where someone might be at a particular time, especially on a Saturday, with the changes you couldn’t. One of the consequences of this was that when the pubs could more or less chose their opening hours that the pubs that used to stay open all afternoon stopped doing so as it wasn’t worth the effort if they didn’t have a sufficient number of people who were prepared to ‘break the law’. As things have developed in subsequent years it means that if you turn up at a relatively isolated country pub you have no idea whether it will be open or not.

A lesson in being careful what you wish for.

So I left out Muker and thought of the pint I would have in Gunnerside, another that the guide-book had recommended. On arriving at this village I found the pub shut, but not for the reason above but for the fact that it couldn’t pay its way and had closed some time ago, as have so many throughout the country. Among other things this exposes the limitations of guide books. However well there is an attempt to keep information up to date things can change very quickly and if you are going to actually depend upon such information it would be best to make a telephone call to confirm that the business was still running. This would be highly recommended if your plan was not to just drink but eat in such a place. Turning up on spec would not be a good idea in the present (and foreseeable) economic climate. I was told that this pub had been closed for some time, although looking through the windows it didn’t seem like that long ago.

But this made me think of the plight of pubs along routes such as the Coast to Coast. During the course of the year thousands of people must do this walk. Now, not every one of them will be a drinker but it is not unknown for alcohol to be associated with walking and those pubs that provide food will also be attracting more custom. But now the struggling pubs have a new problem in the fact that the infrastructure of accommodation that has built up to service this growing number of visitors is actually hammering another nail in the coffin of the ‘local’.

At one time British B+Bs were notorious, not for what they offered but for what they didn’t. They didn’t offer en suite; they didn’t offer all day access; they didn’t offer a friendly and welcoming atmosphere; they didn’t offer a home from home more a remand home from home; and they didn’t offer alcohol. Now, many things have changed, including the last. More and more places, with very limited accommodation, I’m not necessarily talking about anything that borders on a hotel, have acquired a drinks license and that is bound to have an impact on the pubs in these small country villages.

In the long distant past when I did any of these long distance walks, or even a strenuous day in the hills, it was almost obligatory to end the evening in the pub. Now you can get your alcohol fix without leaving your B+B, or even camping site. I’ve done this myself in a few places I’ve stayed in so far, even those places where there was a choice. To the best of my knowledge all hostels of the YHA are now licensed, at least I haven’t come across one that wasn’t, so that means even in the most isolated locations you don’t need to leave the front door for the fix. When I was in Shap, after a long and tiring day I wanted a drink but when I knew they served in the place I was staying any inclination to go out and walk again before the next morning just evaporated away. The same in Keld, even though I thought the pub was closer than it really was. And I’m sure I’m not the only one that has followed that pattern.

If the pubs could have survived with the walkers coming in during the day time as they passed through a village and then had those staying locally bolstering the takings in the evening they are now finding that one of their income strands is disappearing. If there might be opposition from pubs to the granting of these licenses when the pub exists the argument of the B+Bs gets stronger if the pub should close. In those circumstances, unless there is a local community group prepared to go through all the hassle of re-opening the local as a community run pub, as was the case in Ennerdale Bridge, then that village will never have a pub again. So even an increase in tourism and overnight visitors is not, necessarily, a recipe for success for the unique British institution. Things don’t look too promising in this region of the country and I came across a similar situation in some villages when I did the Hadrian’s Wall walk a couple of years ago.

Today was probably the day I reached my psychological low.

There were a couple of reasons for that.

Today is my 8th walking day and I’ve only just passed the half way point. That means there’s still a lot of miles to go and in only 5 days. So even if the final stages don’t have any major ascents during the course of the day each one will be long. That’s a problem but not the most serious one.

That is the rucksack. I’ve never liked carrying a big load and when you have to pick it up and then walk a not inconsiderable number of miles my enthusiasm wanes considerably. It’s not heavy heavy, roughly 12,837 grammes (that’s 28 lb 4.8119 oz, more or less). But today it felt uncomfortable from the off and not just becoming so towards the end of the day. I’m glad I got a more modern bag as my old one was inadequate for the Hadrian’s Wall walk and would have been totally unsuitable for the Coast to Coast. The new bags adapt to each individual’s size and preferences. Carrying it for a couple of days, as I did when I made my short expedition to the Lake District earlier in the year, was no problem at all. It starts to become a problem when it seems that you will have to carry it forever.

I haven’t been carrying the heaviest bag of those I seen along my way so far but certainly heavier than most. Of those I’ve got to know slightly most have their main luggage picked up each morning and dropped off at their next nights accommodation so they carry a minimum needed for a day’s walk in the mountains. A few companies have developed to cater for this wish and they probably make a nice enough profit from it as they are far from cheap. I didn’t even consider investigating these companies but, I must admit, there were a few minutes during the course of today when I wondered if that might not have been the best choice.

I’d pared things to the bone and considered that I had brought what was necessary to cope with any adverse weather conditions I might encounter at this time of year but it was still more than I would have liked. (But then I would have liked to have carried virtually nothing as my preferred walking environment is Mediterranean spring or autumn, or even the summer, which requires no wet/cold weather gear or, at least, it didn’t until climate change also made the weather uncertain in that part of the world as well.) The other issue is that the computer and camera (together with all the bits and pieces needed to keep them operational) weighed in at 7 lb 7.8692 oz (or 3399 grammes), just over a quarter of the weight.

Although these thoughts did have a tendency of making the day a little harder and longer than it actually was (and the lack of an alcohol anaesthetic due to closed pubs unavailable to mitigate such feelings and thoughts) the weather did improve as the day wore on and there was pleasant sunshine as I again came to walk along close to the River Swale on approaching the village of Reeth, my overnight stop.

And the next day was the second scheduled rest day!

So at 16.10 on Thursday 26th September it was 109 miles down and 91 to go

Now over the half way mark but it’s taken 8 walking days to get there – however the distances should start to roll by as length of walks becomes more pertinent than height (at least I hope so).

Practical Information:

Accommodation:

Black Bull Hotel, £40 for a single B+B. Surprised when I was taken to a room, overlooking the green in the centre of the village, with a big, double, four-poster bed. And another surprise when I looked in the bathroom, no shower but a big bath. So the first treat in Reeth was a long soak in deep, hot water (with bubbles provided by the hand soap lotion). It’s important when you arrive at a place with baths (rather than showers) that you take advantage of the hot water when it exists. Only the most modern hotels and guest houses will have such powerful boilers they can provide hot water on demand when so many people arrive at the same time. I heard members of the group (of 9 I’ve come across a few times and who are now staying at the same place) complaining about the lack of hot water but if your priority after a days walking is a cup of tea – which I know is the case with some – then you have to get used to cold showers.

This is another quaint old building where the floors are uneven, I have to sit still in bed otherwise I’ll spill my tea on the bedside table; the door is a strange shaped piece of wood which fits the doorway – just; and like the place in Shap, even though the walls are thick you can hear voices from other rooms. There’s a certain smell about these buildings which is quite unique. It’s not of dirt but of a kind of ‘lived in’ smell, not the sterile, clinical atmosphere that seems to pervade modern housing – even the likes of my flat which is in a building close to a couple of hundred years old. I suppose the change came when they decided that the straight line was important in house construction.

But, now I’m here, it’s not as good an idea that I’m in the YHA for the second night. That’s a walk of about a kilometre away but, at least, it’s in the right direction for when I start to walk on Saturday. I don’t get the full benefit of a day off having to get out of the room in the morning and pack all my things. But after a late(ish) breakfast I plan to sit in the bar and use the computer until mid afternoon and then head up to the YHA.

Free wifi in the bar area only – blackbull1680 (due to the structure of the building and the fact that it dates back more than 300 years).

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Coast to Coast – Kirkby Stephen to Keld

Window

Window

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 summit allowing for a good view of the pillars if not with a bright background. As with most of these types of structures (and there have been an increasing number of various combinations and incidences of standing stones since leaving the Lake District behind) no-one can say definitively why or when they were constructed and allows for any explanation from the mundane to the fanciful. The mundane: boundary markers – although that’s a lot of work to established a line, especially when so close together. The fanciful: built to frighten the Scots that they would have to fight giants if they came any closer. Of the two I prefer the second.

If I thought I had got away with the water before reaching the stone pillars that belief was shattered over the course of the next hour or so. This had already been signalled by the fact that there are three routes to get to the east past Nine Standards Rigg and each one is recommended at certain times of the year. This is both in an attempt to prevent erosion but also, I assume, to allow people to get through without having to swim through a sea of mud (or really liquid peat).

The route for most people this day was the Blue Route, recommended from August to November, i.e., the driest months. It’s also the most direct and maintains a high viewpoint, the best one on clear days. But it wasn’t easy by any means.

These peat moorlands are very vulnerable and once they get damaged water will start to flow through the little gullies making them wider and deeper as time goes on. Why no attempt had been made to prevent this situation from getting as bad as it is, and only getting worse in the future, is a mystery. Well, not really. It’s all about money and no government has been, and for the foreseeable future, would invest the small amount it would take to both protect and improve this piece of moorland as a public amenity. There may be unspecified billions for the controversial high-speed train line but not a few hundred thousand for such socially and ecologically beneficial projects throughout the country.

It can’t be beyond engineers to come up with a simple, long-lasting and non-invasive solution. After all in 1829 George Stephenson came up with a solution of crossing Chat Moss over which he wanted to constrict the first line between Liverpool and Manchester. This stretch of railway, still in constant use to this day, ‘floats’ on a bed of bundles of heather and branches, bound together and covered in tar and, as far as I’m aware, has never needed to be repaired since as the chemicals in the peat bog prevent the vegetation from rotting down. Surely a scaled down version of that engineering technique could easily be adapted to footpaths on the Yorkshire (as well as other) moors?

As it was the get along you had to clamber as carefully as possible down into a ditch and then get up the other side without disappearing up to your knees in mud and water. Slowly you learn that the best way to get through is to tread as softly and carefully as possible. Using the walking poles you then need to pull yourself up from the ditch, in the process trying not to put too much downward pressure on your feet – but that’s easier said than done. I think that by the time the ground became firmer as height was slowly lost I was better than I was at the beginning, nonetheless it was a stretch that required concentration and not an inconsiderable amount of effort.

I couldn’t have done that section without the poles, or at least not without arriving at the valley bottom without looking as if you had spent an active and wild afternoon in one of those god-awful mud-wrestling pubs that appeared like a plague in the 1970s. At the same time the poles only add to the problems of erosion. When you stick the tip of the pole into the ground and it sinks a couple of feet, without a great deal of effort, you can understand how fragile this terrain and environment really is. Over time, using poles to get out of these small ravines the edges will be gradually pulled away as the poles tear the structure of threads that holds the peat together. You come up with one solution but that then causes another problem!

This terrain is going to dominate second half of the journey so it will be interesting to see how it feels to be walking along the paths of these high moorland areas of Yorkshire.

For that is where I arrived this day, out of Cumbria and into Yorkshire. Getting close to the half way mark – which seems to have taken a long time to arrive – and now crossing a watershed, literally. After Nine Standards Rigg all the water that I plough through or washes over me will be heading to the North rather than the Irish Sea.

It’s a very different terrain in a number of ways. Still lots and lots of sheep but also a growing amount of farm land, both arable and livestock. But an area that has also gone though many changes over the years. On this day’s walk I became very much aware of the number of abandoned houses that line the valley – as the end of this walk, Keld, is at the beginning of the Swaledale River course. At one time many more people would have lived in this area, an area that tourists and visitors might consider idyllic but to the people who would have been forced to live there in the past the area would have been harsh and life hard – not that far from a road but still a long way anywhere of any size in terms of population. Changes in agricultural practices would have reduced the numbers working in the fields – and I don’t think I saw anyone other than another walker on the hills all day. And for the young this place would have virtually nothing to offer. Lots of good filming locations which involve isolated buildings in a dramatic environment.

The other notable event of the day, and that was very near the end as I was coming down an old farm track to the minor road running parallel to the river, was an ‘encounter’ with a dying rabbit. I haven’t seen many rabbits along the route, not least as when they are out to play I’ve either not started the walk for the day or have already finished, but the ones I had seen looked relatively healthy. The one I saw this afternoon was far from that.

I had heard or read some time ago, can’t remember when or where, that myxomatosis was still claiming victims amongst the rabbit population. This afternoon I saw first hand the consequences.

Myxomatosis was introduced, accidentally or on purpose is still open to question, into the UK in September 1953 and soon was showing what damage it could do to the rabbit population. It is estimated that by the end of 1955 95% of all rabbits were dead, a virulence that must hold some sort of record. Those that survived did so by luck and by building up resistance so in subsequent years the population has bounced back and until I heard that it was showing itself recently I had assumed that it was a thing of the past. Like smallpox in the human population, when you reach a certain level of immunity it can be considered to be no longer a problem.

Unfortunately for the rabbit this is not the case. When at school I remember reading a poem from one of the ‘modern’ poets of his reaction to walking in the countryside (it must have been 1954/5) and coming across these pathetic creatures almost rotting alive. The disease seems to one of those that basically eats away at the body until multiple organ failure leads to death. Through the wonders of the internet I’ve been able to learn that this was a poem called ‘Myxomatosis’ by Philip Larkin. I remember how shocked he was on seeing these animals in their sad state but until I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye this afternoon had never had personal experience of the issue.

This was the middle of the afternoon, about 15.00, and the rabbit was beside the path, frightened by my presence but too weak to do anything meaningful about it. I had learnt, 40 odd years ago or more recently I can’t remember, that one of the outward signs of the infection was a swelling around the eyes so was fairly certain of the cause for its distress when I saw that. Added to its sluggish movement it was covered by a small swarm of flies, starting to get their meal before the host was dead. It wouldn’t have survived the night, I’m sure, but wonder if I should have done the humane thing and put it out of its misery. I didn’t, thinking I might have regretted that more than walking on by. A distressing sight.

Rabbit dying of Myxomatosis

Rabbit dying of Myxomatosis

Strangely hare’s don’t get suffer from myxomatosis although they can be a vector as the disease is spread by fleas (in the same way that the bubonic plague was spread by fleas from rats). I’m sure the brave scientists at Porton Down would love to have discovered the secret of the selectivity of myxomatosis when they were developing their chemical and biological weaponry.

The final stretch along the road to Keld should have allowed me to witness some of the waterfalls (forces) that exist along this stretch of water but the low water levels at the time meant they were nothing like usual, the pros and cons of a dry summer and still rain free days. And it was certainly pleasant to be arriving at my overnight accommodation a good couple of hours before 18.00.

So at 15.30 on Wednesday 25th September it was 98 miles down and 102 to go

Practical Information:

Accommodation

Keld BunkBarn

Tel: 01748 886549

The place has a mixture of accommodation, from camping to the bunkhouse. Don’t think they do the traditional B+B. And as it says in the web address they have yurts, two of them in the entrance drive way where the camping is based.

In the bunkhouse, £21 per night per bed – with a help yourself to cereal and toast type of Continental breakfast. Will do an egg and bacon baguette in the morning for £3.50. Evening meals about £8. Has an alcohol licence but there are only cans available. Takes payment with card or cash.

(I apologise for the delay in publishing this post  – after surviving the mud on Nine Standards Rigg I got caught  up in a metaphorical mud.)

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