A few years ago, when we walked St Giles Way in southern France, we stayed overnight in a Chambres d’hote and the next day our host gave us a lift to the start of the day’s walk. He was keen to improve his English, so when he wished us a ‘good journey’ we tried to explain that we wouldn’t use the word ‘journey’ for a day’s walk. And yet ‘journey’ seems the obvious term for a day’s occupation coming, as it does, from the French ‘jour’ and having the same root as ‘journeyman’, which originally meant someone who was paid by the day. When walking a long distance, the day’s occupation is to walk to that night’s destination: it is a journey in a very simple sense. Yet now ‘journey’ seems to suggest a trip of some length and with an objective or destination in sight. It has become an overused metaphor: every minor celebrity is now ‘going on a journey’ as they encounter some difficulty or obstacle in the desired direction of their life.
Alfred Wainwright used the term ‘journey’ for a long walk he took in September 1938, from Settle in North Yorkshire, through the Dales and Northumberland to Hadrian’s Wall and then south along the western flanks of the Pennines back to Settle. A journey without a destination other than to return back where he had started. Now known as ‘Wainwright’s Pennine Journey’ it has become a long-distance path, marked on recent OS maps and with a guide book written by David and Heather Pitt. It does not exactly follow Wainwright’s route (the quiet roads and green lanes he took are often metalled and busy with tourists now) but makes use of footpaths, including other long-distance ones unknown then: the Dales Way, the Pennine Way, Hadrian’s Wall and Lady Anne’s Way, named after the redoubtable 17th century Lady Anne Clifford.
For us it could be considered a journey in the popular metaphorical sense – an experience which tested us and helped us learn more about ourselves – but it was also a journey through some of the most spectacular scenery in the north of England (I would consider it the ultimate northern-English walk) and, in a variety of ways, a journey back in time.
We were aware that we were (approximately at least) recreating Wainwright’s walk of over 75 years ago. But it was only when we were home and I read the beginning of Wainwright’s own account, written in the winter months after the walk, that I realised there was something similar in the times in which we were walking. Wainwright saw his walk as a ‘blissful interlude of freedom’ which he relived as he recounted his experiences on paper: the freedom from care that comes with walking, when your only concern is to reach your bed for the night and find a meal, is a common enough experience. But Wainwright felt the freedom from care in the gathering gloom of 1938 particularly acutely. As he wrote in the first chapter:
Well now, what Adolf Hitler said and did in September 1938 gave me and many others disquieting pains in the stomach. He frightened us. He made us feel sick. . . . The newspaper heading appeared in larger and larger and blacker and blacker type; their effect was to stun you so that you read on in a state of torpor, which in turn gave way to extreme nervous debility; you couldn’t get things in proper perspective at all with those screaming headlines searing into your brain. . . . Same with the wireless: you didn’t want to listen; you were weary of hearing the same things time after time, but you couldn’t resist. . . . You wanted badly to go to a quiet room, or out on a hillside, and forget for a while.
While the vote to leave the EU is not heralding a world war, it has left a sense of discomfort, of fear and anxiety. The world is changing and we don’t like the direction it is moving in.
There is something settled and, apparently, unchanging in the hills. They themselves haven’t changed for thousands of years – a short time for a geologist or palaeontologist but long in the history of human society. But even so reading Wainwright’s account it is clear that there have been profound changes. He didn’t meet another walker; one thing that pleased us about doing the Pennine Journey is that, being relatively unknown still, we only met one other walker undertaking it and often passed most of a day without seeing anyone else at all. Parts of the walk – passing through the Dales, over Cross Fell or Ingleborough – were popular and we met other walkers but not so many that it made the walking difficult. And there were advantages – we had comfortable lodging booked every night and our luggage carried for us, while Wainwright described arriving in Buckden after dark and knocking on the only house in which he could see a glimmer of light to ask for a bed for the night.
Buckden is in Wensleydale and is on the now popular Dales Way. We passed through on our second day, having walked over from Ribblesdale. We had passed our first night in Horton-in Ribblesdale: we climbed steeply out of Settle and looked back on the small town we wouldn’t see again for three weeks.
We climbed the green hills of the dales, enjoying the sunshine and stretching our legs. It has occurred to me that while the Alps are like obstreperous teenagers, likely to throw a temper tantrum without warning, the Pennines, especially the ancient Cheviots, are grumpy old men. The Dales, however, though mature are still vigorous, fertile and beautiful in their verdancy: strapping men and women in their prime.
And soon we saw that fertility in astonishing beauty – meadows of wild flowers: buttercups, red clover and daisies – and then, as we climbed higher over the limestone country beyond Lower Winskill, orchids, rock roses and geums.
We dropped into the village of Stainforth – a typical Dales village with narrow stoney lanes between pretty houses: an ageless place. We continued on paths that themselves had existed for ages then over empty, rounded hills. Walking along Long Lane Penyghent came ‘grandly into view ahead’, as Wainwright wrote.
We could have soon cut down to Horton in Ribblesdale, but continued until just the final steep ascent to the summit of Penyghent was ahead of us:
at this point we descended to the small village with its old church, and enjoyed the view of the peak in the against the dying light of the evening sky.
The next day we started seriously walking – and I noted in my diary that it was an ‘excellent walk’. After the approach to Penyghent, which we left to the east as we continued northwards, we didn’t see anyone until we descended into Wharfedale. We looked briefly into the depths of Hull Pot and then continued mostly on ancient tracks over soft short grass; the walk alongside Plover Hill as Foxup and Halton Gill came into view in the valley below was particularly good going. We then climbed steeply up to Horse Head pass, a signpost pointing our way to Yockenthwaite,
and looked back to Penyghent and Plover Hill, with glimpses of what was probably Ingleborough beyond.
The attraction of this dale is not only in its natural beauty: the squat little church at Hubberholme,
a village (hardly even a village) described by J. B. Priestley as ‘one of the smallest and pleasantest places in the world’, has a delightfully medieval interior with its rood loft, enhanced by wreaths of white flowers glinting in the dusky dimness.
We continued along the river Wharfe, following the Dalesway, to Buckden, where Wainwright describes groping his way among the cottages in the pitch dark until he found one with a glimmer of light from an oil lamp and was able to ask for help, eventually finding accommodation at a nearby house. Wainwright sang the praises of an oil lamp: it has ‘power to soothe’ and is friendly, in contrast to the light of electricity. Wainwright’s sense of comfort was no doubt enhanced by the uncertainty of finding anywhere to stay the night. We had no such worries: not only was all our accommodation booked in advance, but our luggage was carried for us. We were assured not only of a bed but even of an ensuite bathroom – a luxury that would not even have occurred to Wainwright. But even so, we had to walk to our accommodation if we were to claim that bed and even when we were in Buckden we were not yet home and dry. With only a mile or so to go, we put on waterproof jackets since the weather was changing fast, with thunder rolling around the hills, and climbed out of the village along Buckden Rake, a stony Roman road. Then the hail came. Fast and furious it fell. We were soon soaked, having not had time to put on our waterproof trousers and gaiters. Soaked to the skin and barely able to look up through the continuing onslaught we continued the long mile. We passed through a gate to come face to face with a bull, looking as wet and miserable as we felt. We looked at each other with equal disinterest. We continued, leaving the bull as impassive as a statue clambered down from the path through sodden fields and over stepping stones that were soon to be covered by the stream to reach the inn at Cray. We were, I’m sure, as grateful and relieved as Wainwright when he found lodging at Buckden.
Wainwright described the path that runs over Kidstones Fell and Stake Moss as ‘a wide, grassy lane’ and ‘a walkers’ way par excellence’. It is now mostly stoney rather than grassy and the low cloud meant we didn’t enjoy the open panoramas that Wainwright revelled in. The loneliness and slightly sinister atmosphere with strange outcrops of rocks and open pools was enhanced by warning signs (ignored by the sheep) indicating some unspecified danger (unexploded ordinance?) left behind after this high, flat plateau was used by the army. But then the walking opened up, and the clouds parted and all was delightful. We joined High Lane and Bob Lane – more of the ancients paths and lanes that hint at the past still present – which took us down into the very pretty village of Stalling Busk. We then followed the river Bain into Bainbridge, which we’d visited many years ago but seemed unchanged, and on along a fairly uninteresting path to Askrigg. Wainwright was not impressed, in 1938 at least, by Wensleydale, and we didn’t stay long, treking up a long and steep road over into Swaledale. At the top, Oxnop Pass, we veered off the road onto a track that was metalled at first and took us down into the valley past old farmhouses with simple old names, Hill Top and Gill Head. We saw wild pansies which, our landlady at Oxnop Hall told me, flower there every year. I was sorry not to have photographed them in their abundance, but I did see a few later when we were walking by the Tees.
Our landlady – Annie – must have been in her seventies, with a grown-up grandson recently married, but in the breakfast room there was a photograph of her in her prime, probably taken forty years ago, in which she was sewing a cheese into its muslin covering. She told us that there was no longer any cheese made in Swaledale (there was a cheese marketed as Swaledale, but there were no longer any dairy herds in the dale) and she missed the crumbly cheese – proper farmhouse cheese should be crumbly, she insisted.
It occurred to me that the photograph, now showing a past and lost time, was still in the future when Wainwright passed this way, and he himself was aware of the passing of time and the changes it brought with it. Time was moving relentlessly on, but also circling round. As we continued we saw the ruins of past industry on the banks of the river Swale, but the pansies still flowered on the pass; and there was a lovely meadow of bluebells and other flowers close to the farm, which return every year.
Wainwright mentioned a ‘flowery Alpine village’ and the flowery meadows we saw reminded me of the meadows we passed last year when we were walking round Mont Blanc.
We left the next morning on what promised to be a beautiful morning, the low clouds dissolving from the hills.
We followed the River Swale, the paths created for the lead industry remaining while the buildings were ruins, diverting from the path to admire Kitson Force (though our view was obscured by the abundance of vegetation), then on to Keld, which we had last visited when walking the Coast to Coast path, but which I remembered from walking most of the Pennine Way over forty years ago.
The Pennine Way
The Pennine Journey is a journey of geography and history – but was also a personal journey into my own past. Keld is a crossroads of paths and of pasts, of water and walk.
The walk up from Keld was hot and sunny, but good walking, the path mostly easy to follow and soft underfoot. And the views were our reward for the effort and the heat, but we also saw gathering clouds. There is a beauty to clouds, even grey ones, with their variety in colour and texture and, although I rarely took photographs of the view, knowing that I could not capture the expanse and majesty, or the sense of one’s own place in the landscape in a photograph, those I did take were enhanced by a cloudy sky. Usually for an effective landscape photo one needs a focal point, something for contrast, such as the Tan Hill Inn, appearing at last in the distance – though this photo makes the distance seems greater and the track more relentless that was the reality.
From here we crossed the bleak Sleightholme Moor – grateful that the weather remained clear enough for us to see the direction we needed to take, even when some of the marker posts were missing.
I wished I were able to see again what I had seen 44 years ago – how much had the paths changed? What was it like to walk over these moors as a young teenager, walking with friends, free from (almost all) constraints? But the short diary I kept notes mostly my burgeoning relationship with a French boy – the pen pal of one of my brother’s friends who was also walking with us. Of walking over Tan Hill from Keld I note: ‘We climbed steeply at first, but then quite easy. Stopped at Tan Hill Inn (1732′). P. L. D. & me had a drink [presumably non-alcoholic!]. Waited 2 hours at God’s Bridge for John, but Dom & I didn’t mind! B&B at Bows, where Mark found a piano.’
I made no comment on Sleightholme Moor, or Bowes Moor, crossing which this time we found a long slog. There were clear tracks, and these moors in Durham aren’t unmarked by human hand, but they have been called ‘the last wilderness’: there was a vastness of space and our sense of insignificance was increased when we were caught in a heavy shower and struggled with waterproofs, and then were frustrated when we went through the wrong gate. As before, we were taking the ‘Bowes Loop’, but we didn’t take the diversion to God’s Bridge. The final part of the walk along the river Greta was pleasant, but we were tired by then, and noted the imposing bulk of Bowes castle without caring to investigate further.
We stayed at the Ancient Unicorn (Wainwright called it the ‘Unicorn Inn’ and suggested that, having been featured by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby, it was the only thing of interest in the main street of the village – but he continued to Middleton for the night). While waiting for supper in the dining room I made some notes on birds: ‘Curlews have been almost our constant companions, whirling overhead with their plaintive cry. But also lapwings, larks often unseen but heard high above, little ‘bj’s we don’t recognise – though occasionally one stays still long enough and close enough to be recognised as a stonechat.’ But we were confused by a ‘distinctive black and white bird with a bright red bill’: it looked like the oystercatcher we were used to seeing on the flat mud estuaries of Essex. And it was the same bird, but now searching for invertebrates among the mud of the highlands of the north country. I also noted a bird which looked rather like ‘a smaller cousin’, with ‘same shape and markings but grey rather than black and dark orange beak.’ A sandpiper according to a book in the sitting room of our Middleton guest house, where we chatted with our new companion – Graham – after an excellent dinner. (This guesthouse was one of my favourites – the bedroom and bathroom were tiny, but had everything you could want!) It clearly annoyed the lapwings – presumably they saw it as a threat to their young. They were breeding – we saw a lapwing chick, lying very still by the path, pretending to be a fluffy stone until we’d passed by.
The walking the next day was easier, but marred by the low cloud. Looking back as we climbed steeply out of Bowes, the castle was scarcely visible, nor could we see the ‘spectacular views’ (according to the guide book) of the reservoirs from Goldsborough. We didn’t see any other walkers – but at the guest house in Middleton we met up with the other walker we’d talked to before who was also walking the Pennine Journey.
The next day I noted the walking as ‘interesting’. It started off easy and pleasant along the Tees Valley, past the dramatic Low Force and High Force, then into more open country, climbing up through juniper bushes to open moorland fell. We descended through a rocky cleft I would once have managed with a hop, skip and jump.
Once we’d crossed the river at Langdon Beck our route diverged from the Pennine Way and became more difficult as we traversed fields and passed white farmhouses. It wasn’t always clear which farmhouse, or which gate, was intended in the guide and we went wrong a couple of times, but managed to get back on track. Graham caught us up (having made a detour to stop at the pub at Langdon Beck) at the last farm and together we climbed up towards Black Law and Dora’s Seat – and into thick mist. Together, we stumbled across bog, crossing becks and ditches (I envied Graham his long legs!) following compasses (which were made twitchy by the iron in the ground) to keep walking north-east. There is an unspoken fear that you may never see again anything as solid as a road or a wall; as Wainwright said, ‘Yes, it is good to walk in a mist now and again and know your limitations, and be scared by your helplessness.’ It also means you can focus on what can be seen – the tiny green stars of sphagnum moss and a frog hopping away. Maybe because there were three of us we were able to support each other and not give in to the fear of being lost on trackless moor.
It took us an hour to walk about a mile, but amazingly we came out on the road at Swinhope Head only fifty yards from the footpath sign. Wainwright noted that at 1992′ above the sea this was his highest point northward. He took a short cut on the way down and found himself ‘floundering knee-deep in slimy peat’ before he regained ‘the honest green road’. For us it was three miles down a tarmac’d road, but our reward was great – the luxurious Westgate Manor, where we’d been upgraded to a room that had a four-poster bed and both bath and shower. Good dinner too!
Westgate is in Weardale: ‘a comparatively unknown expanse of hills, moorland and hidden valleys’ according to the guide book, and called ‘secretive’ in Godfrey and Turnbull’s Complete Northumbria. It must once have been busier – it is still littered with the remains of its industrial past and some of the walk followed an old tramway and then the railway track of Bolt’s Law Incline, where trains were pulled up by a standing engine. We found Rookhope an attractive village, in which the villagers obviously take pride, but Wainwright noted that the days of prosperity were over and in the village ‘only the hideous scars remain’.
Over the moor at the top we navigated by tall chimneys, the remnants of some past factory: nature soon reclaims her territory. Descending from the moor we went wrong and while returning to the correct path I felt a twinge of pain in my thigh. As we continued the walk – now relatively easy – I felt as though something was tearing and soon any descent at all was agony. I was very pleased to reach the pretty village of Blanchland – and to find it so little changed since we were last there. Another journey into the past; Wainwright suggested that you were stepping into the medieval past. The village square is clearly based on the outline of the monastic buildings of the abbey that once stood here.
It was a Premonstratensian foundation: the original house at Premontre in Picardy was founded by Norbert of Xanten in the early-twelfth century following an adaptation of the Rule of St Augustine. More austere than the black Augustinian canons, they were known as white canons and, like the Cistercians, sought remote places for their houses. (For more, see Janet Burton, Monastic and Religious Orders in Britain, 1000-1300)
The footprint of the past remains and for a while we can fit our feet to them. While I enjoyed Blanchland for its history, it also represented an important moment in our personal history: Wainwright claimed it is ‘a place for a honeymoon’ and, indeed, it is where we spent our honeymoon, now more than thirty years ago. As then, we stayed at the Lord Crewe Arms, though not in the tower room with the four-poster bed! We dined (an excellent meal) in the same dining-room, but the dark red decor and formal settings had been replaced by rustic charm and young, helpful staff in jeans.
After an excellent breakfast, we set off to climb out of Blanchland’s valley: I was feeling much better and full of hope. We speculated on the meaning of Pennypie House and started to cross Blanchland Moor. There is a point at which you are advised to admire the view – and Wainwright delighted in the view from the top of the ridge as the sun went down and the sky was marvellously coloured.
But we were not so fortunate: our view was totally obscured by the low cloud.
Descending down through Slaley Forest my leg started to hurt again, and I endured five miles of purgatory. If there was a particular sin I was paying penance for, I could only speculate that it was the sin of pride: pride that I could walk anywhere, that I would always reach where I was going. By the time we reached the road it was clear that I could not continue and we slowly limped to the Travellers Rest from where I was able to phone for a taxi to take me to Hexham.
Fortunately, we had arranged for a day off in Hexham, and while I waited at the B&B for Tim to arrive (he continued walking) I was able to book an appointment with a physiotherapist for the next day. That was quite exciting – I had laser treatment! My thigh (apparently it was the hamstring that I had torn) was feeling better, but I was afraid that if it didn’t mend properly I would do long lasting damage.
But I still couldn’t spend the rest of the day with my feet up, and we visited the abbey – where I particularly liked the painted panels in the choir depicting the Dance of Death – no matter how grand you are, he’s always at your shoulder! The museum in the old jail was a reminder of the nasty brutishness of life. But we enjoyed an excellent meal at a French bistro. In the sunshine, life seemed good!
Romans and Reivers
Over the next few days, however, as I gave up walking for catching buses I began to feel very miserable. I picked up a book on Hadrian’s Wall at the B&B in Hexham and one on the Borders at the B&B at Gilsland – both by Alistair Moffat – and spent some time reading about Romans and Reivers. Neither were very nice; they resorted to violence, not only to get what they wanted, but to prove their superiority in someway: to assert their control and authority. Violence as a form of governance. For the reivers it was arguably born of necessity; they lived in a world far removed from the government of London or Edinburgh and cared little for either nation. The living was poor and what mattered was loyalty to your family, and the honour of your name: a way of life glamourised and romanticised in the nineteenth century by writers like Walter Scott, as later the mafia were glamourised in The Godfather. Nevertheless, I was quite pleased to discover that my mother’s mother’s maiden name – Dodd – is a border name. Moffat comments on the pride of the Border people: ‘Borderers are proud men and women because they know they come from nothing small.’
Moffat starts by writing about the landscape. This is clearly a country he belongs to and I can understand that, while being unable to share in the feeling. If I belong anywhere, it would be in the Peak District, but I don’t think I can return to the place I knew. It is the place of childhood, which is long gone and one cannot return to it any more than one can step in the same river. But walking in the open hills and moors of the Pennines, I do feel that this is my country – that the granite is in my bones.
In order to visit Vindolanda on a journey from Housesteads to Gilsland, further west along Hadrian’s Wall, I had to catch four buses, spending about 45 minutes on the first as I went back and forth (or, rather, forth and back) before the bus took the side road to Vindolanda. But the bus drivers were very pleasant and helpful and I enjoyed the ride and the views. And sitting somewhere warm – the temperature didn’t rise above the mid-teens and the chilly day didn’t help me feel any better.
Wainwright thought walking the Wall from coast to coast would be ‘a fascinating way of spending a holiday’ – and many others, especially from American and Australia, seem to think so too, enjoying a walk through wild countryside that is also a walk into the past. Tim was quite pleased he was walking east to west, and so against the tide. The constant ‘up and down’ though became wearing – it was a part of our Journey I probably least regretted missing.
The history of Vindolanda is, no doubt, fascinating and I was particularly interested in the wooden tablets that contain notes and letters, including the famous birthday invitation which is signed by a woman and the earliest known example of a woman’s handwriting in (I think) Europe.
But I was feeling sick with disappointment. On this, the third day since I tore the muscle, I was able to walk steeply down hill at Vindolanda without a problem, but after I met Tim at Gilsland and walked across fields with him, I could feel the ache returning. We had a good evening and night at Bush Nook – chatting with other walkers, mostly from Australia doing either Hadrian’s Wall or the Pennine Way – and had excellent trout, caught that afternoon, for supper. But I decided to have one more day on the buses, and having been given a lift to Haltwhistle caught a bus to Alston. From there I walked back along the old narrow gauge railway line (now occasionally used by steam trains and forming part of the South Tyne trail) while Tim walked over open and rather bleak moorland – he reported bogs akin to those on Sleighthome moor – then dropped down to meet me on the railway line. It drizzled most of the day, so maybe I didn’t miss much.
Alston is an attractive small town – the highest market town in the country is its proud boast. One imagines it is popular with makers of period dramas for television; it is another place visited by Dickens while researching the ‘Yorkshire schools’ for Nicholas Nickleby. Happy to be setting off to walk, and with the sun shining, we started off on the delightful riverside walk along the Tyne to Garrigill. We were now heading south, though, and there was a certain sadness that we were on the return journey.
From Garrigill we took the dauntingly named Corpse Road. When Garrigill did not have a parish church, bodies were transported to the church at Kirkland, in the next valley, by this path. Parishes in the north of England were large, many villages having only a chapel of ease, so corpse roads and coffin roads are relatively common. The path is well-used but not by funeral parties; it now forms part of the Pennine Way. As well as walkers, some fell runners passed us, and a mountain bike rider – mad fools!
It is stony so not always easy to walk but climbs steadily through magnificent open countryside. Even here there are signs of the industrial past, with the stones from Black Gut mine lying around the path as we climbed yet another false col.
Eventually we reached the high point of the track – indeed the high point of the whole journey at 2575′, and a couple of Pennine Way walkers took a photograph of us.
We could have climbed up to the summit of Cross Fell, but instead parted company with the Pennine Way and crossed the pass between Cross Fell and Skirwith Fell, which also formed the watershed between the Tyne and the Eden. I read in my 1972 diary that then the weather was ‘terrible’ and, having climbed to Great Dun Fell, we didn’t continue over Cross Fell. Bad weather prevented Wainwright from ascending it too; clearly I will have to tackle it some time.
The Eden valley seemed aptly named as in hazy sunshine it opened in front of us, lush and green, the pale blue hills of the Lake District on the horizon beyond. A wonderful prospect, but I knew that, with a steep descent, I was now facing the test of my hamstring. The walking was over soft turf and though the path was no longer always clear, our destination in the valley below was obvious. Fortunately my right leg (strapped up like a mummy) held up well, though my left knee, taking the strain, complained a bit. We arrived in the small village of Kirkland – there was little there but the church –
and waited patiently on a convenient bench, playing I-Spy – for our taxi to take us to Penrith and our night’s lodging.
At Penrith we had dinner with old friends – friends of my parents and ten years younger than they would have been, but now getting older themselves. I appreciated being able to talk openly about my parents with people who had known them so well. My mother and I stayed with John and Adela when I took her to a literary festival in Keswick, on one of the little holidays I arranged for us after my father’s death. I felt closer to her, a solace as I continue to grieve.
The taxi returned us to Kirkland in the morning so we could continue the walk. It was rather different this day – lowland fields, lots of becks and some woodland, including Dufton Ghyll Wood, which runs through a steep-sided, rocky and wooded valley: rather gloomy, especially as the weather was very cloudy. But the walk was not without its attractions.
I took photographs of the famous green with its maypole in Milburn and we stopped at the Stag at Dufton, where, since it was lunch time on Father’s Day, I bought Tim a pint – the only time we stopped for a drink during the day. It was a pleasant and popular pub; we almost regretted having bought food for lunch in Penrith.
We had met some pugnacious looking sheep and a gang of over-curious heifers who pursued us to the stile we were making for, breathing down our necks. And then during the last couple of miles it started to rain heavily, and we arrived in Appleby very wet and rather miserable. Our room felt cold, with the window open, but the landlady, having only recently taken over the guesthouse, was determined to make it suitable for walkers and brought us an electric heater and a rack to hang our wet clothes on.
We walked round the outer walls of the castle, without seeing the castle itself, and down to the river where there was a weir originally constructed by the Romans. We kept close to the river Eden most of the day following it upstream (it flows north to the Solway Firth), often through fields of cows. Graham, who had long since gone ahead of us, had sent us emails with advice about the walk for which we were very grateful – at a number of places it was surprisingly easy to go wrong. We had good views of the Pennines to the east, under a cloud-patterned sky
and then of Brough Castle as we approached the village.
We continued along the river to Kirkby Stephen where we spent two nights. Kirkby Stephen’s whole economy seems to be based on walking – mostly catering for walkers of the Coast-to-Coast. There was a party of six staying overnight at our B&B (tea and scones when we arrived – gold star!) before starting the walk the next day. We couldn’t help thinking what a difference the weather makes – now, despite some recent rain, the ground is pretty dry and those going over Nine Standards shouldn’t have the problems we had with the peat hags six years ago (or the hurricane-strong winds in the Lake District!)
On our day off we visited Stenkrith – a place on the river where the water falls over and among some strange rock formations and pools – and Frank’s Bridge where the river is placid close to the town centre.
In the afternoon of a lazy day we visited the church at Kirkby Stephen, which was much more interesting than I expected. Although the present church dates from the thirteenth century, there is a collection of earlier carved stones (there has been a church here since the Anglo-Saxon period) including one of Loki chained, looking like a prototype of the later popular image of the horned Devil.
The next day we continued walking up the Eden valley. I was beginning to find valley walking tedious, but after Wharton (where there was an old manor house, partly in ruins, that looked as though it belonged in a romantic novel – as is indubitably the case with Pendragon Castle, which we passed later that day) the path took a broad grassy track along the hillside – perfect walking.
We passed the ruins of Lammerside Castle before crossing the Eden and climbing the other side of the valley on The High Way, the main route from Hawes to Kirkby Stephen until the turnpike road (now the B6529) was opened in the 1820s and now used as the Pennine Bridleway and Lady Anne’s Way. I wondered whether this was once a busier place, worthy of stone fortifications. The land seemed rich and fertile: had The High Way been busy with travellers and traders, herdsmen and their animals going to market? How often did Lady Anne and her entourage pass this way as she travelled between her castles, repairing and expanding them? The past history remains marked on the landscape, while the present makes its own additions;
by offering a new focus for perception, the view is changed.
Wild Boar Fell across the valley, with the Settle-Carlisle railway improbably running along its flanks, looked an inviting prospect; although we wouldn’t climb it, the next day we would walk over the other side. Meanwhile we left the Eden and, crossing numerous narrow, steep-sided becks – including Hell Gill – we started to descend into the valley of the River Ure, Wensleydale again. We had passed from an river travelling north-west to the Solway Firth to one bound ultimately for the North Sea to the east.
Fells and Peaks
We spent that night at a guest house next to the Moorcock Inn – a remote hostelry but once an important one on the old route from Hawes to Sedbergh. It was Sedbergh we were headed for, but over near-trackless fells. We were back in the fells not the valleys – and had two of the three Yorkshire Peaks to climb. The Three Yorkshire Peaks has become a popular challenge – the 26 mile route climbing them all to be completed in twelve hours. Horton in Ribblesdale is the usual starting point for the challenge and while there we became aware that local people held different views about the walkers. In one of the pubs the landlady complained that the walkers were rude and that they left litter on the hills; but she wasn’t very welcoming to them: no boots, no eating your own food in the pub grounds and no, they didn’t do tea in the afternoon. The owner of the B&B where we stayed happily pointed out that the economy of the village depended on the Three Peaks and a number of local businesses sponsored the challenge. He was himself a walker and celebrated the challenge. In the windows of some of the small houses along the main (only) street of the village there were notices asking walkers not to park their cars outside their houses – the carpark only cost a couple of pounds (which went to the maintenance of the paths) so it seemed mean not to pay it. There were notices on some gates on the trek giving a website where you could donate for its upkeep – I hope walkers were generous.
A lot of those ‘doing’ the Three Peaks were young, in their twenties and thirties – an age which is all about meeting challenges. No doubt accomplishing the walk (which is undoubtedly physically very challenging) does make them feel better about themselves – especially if they can persuade their friends to make donations to charity on their behalf. In our present age, when there are great pressures and burdens on young people and suicide is the most common cause of death among young men, anything that makes them feel better about themselves has to be a good thing – but it is a pre-formed idea of themselves that they are feeling better about (the idea that you have to be physically fit, have enough friends to raise money and support you, be ‘up for’ a challenge). And it is usually a group activity. Walking long distance paths as we do – and we were among the younger of those who undertake such paths – can allow you to explore who you are, especially if you are walking alone or with one well-known companion with whom you can happily walk in silence.
When we left the Moorcock Inn, we started by climbed out of the valley and crossed the railway line; at the top,
above Grisedale we looked south-east for a magnificent view, the railway continuing over viaducts. As we crossed into the next valley, a very different kind of engineering made its presence felt as jet fighters roared over the fells. But they were soon gone, and it felt as though we had the bare fells – even the whole world – to ourselves. For miles there was no-one to see and little sign of habitation, just the occasional half-broken wall or barn. The track wasn’t always easy to follow and often boggy, but on a clear day – as this was – it was good walking. We kept parallel to the Rawthey Gill below us, following it from its beginning in the hills and later keeping it company on the lower slopes of a green dale, among trees and farms. I lost count of the number of becks and gills we crossed, tumbling over rocky falls, through narrow gullies. They all fed the Rawthey, so eventually we followed a broad, shallow river into Sedbergh – a very attractive town, where we stayed in an excellent B&B and enjoyed dinner in the Dalesman.
We were stunned and dismayed the next morning by the Brexit vote – but the long walk we faced that day diverted our attention and energy. The walking was good, though the weather changeable and the wind over Whernside brought rain and sunshine in close succession. We missed the riverside path to Dent and ended up following the lane – which was annoying but not disastrous. Then we embarked on the long climb to Whernside, looking over to a viaduct below lowering clouds. By the time we reached the summit, the clouds were too low to afford views but the climb was worth it for the sense of accomplishment. The descent down narrow stone-pitched steps was very hard on knees and thighs.
When we left the route of the Three Peaks we again had the way to ourselves and followed an ancient path, Kirkby Gate, across a curious landscape of limestone pavement. Obeying our guidebook, we headed for a ‘definite nick in the skyline ahead’; the track passed through this nick before heading down the slope on the other side. It wasn’t clear whether this was a natural feature of the landscape or whether it had been carved out to allow the passage of the track. Again, we were placing our feet in the footsteps of those who had gone long before us. The original journey took in the waterfalls on the river Doe, but one now has to pay to take the waterfalls path and we were too tired to care much, so continued down the road to Ingleton.
Staying the night at the same guest house as us were a group of young (to us! celebrating a 40th birthday) people who were tackling the Three Peaks the next day. We had just one to do – Ingleborough – but over the three weeks we would have climbed all of them, even if we didn’t reach the summit of Penyghent, just with a 220 mile detour to Hadrian’s Wall in the middle.
From Ingleton it is a steady climb up to the top of Ingleborough along a clear and well-used track. We passed a number of other walkers – all but one younger than us! – as we made the ascent. Despite having to miss a few days’ walking, I had still walked about 200 miles and was feeling fit – I could maintain an easy, steady rhythm. The trick is not to stop – starting again, especially if you have sat down, is so difficult, but as we kept thinking we were nearing the top only to face yet another steep, rocky climb a short rest was tempting. Eventually we emerged onto the flat plateau at the top of Ingleborough. The morning was sunny and the view of peaks and fells stretching away for miles was tremendous – but in the photograph I took the stony ground below and gathering clouds above dominate, creating an almost threatening scene that didn’t capture the sense of relief and achievement – or the joy as we took in the view.
Despite the numbers of walkers, I was again amazed at the vast scope of empty land – in all the shades of green from distant blue to russet hues. A crowded island, maybe, but a spacious landscape. We climbed down pitched steps that were nowhere near so bad as those coming down Whernside on to a flat open limestone land cut through by streams. We had lunch beside Gaping Gill – very attractive in the sunshine but it would probably have been more impressive if there had been more water flowing through. We continued on walking over a rocky path and through Trow Gill, which was a scramble down through a cleft in the rocks that looked like something out of a film set. After that the walk was fairly simple through typical Yorkshire scenery. As we walked down Long Lane – one of the many walled tracks passing over this landscape and still being used as they must have been for centuries – we looked back to see a large black cloud advancing on us. We got waterproofs on just in them, but an hour or so later, by the side of a small ford on another narrow bridleway, we had to take them off (and, typically, just then a few parties of walkers – and two horse riders! – came past). And so continued our final climb over a grassy hill in sunshine.
The guidebook notes that the end of AW’s Pennine Journey ‘was marked by a double rainbow with “a brilliant array of dazzling colours” through which he saw “the roofs of Settle”.’ No such heavenly welcome awaited us – and we were disappointed by our guesthouse – but we had a good meal at the Lion and congratulated each other. I have been strangely reluctant to write up the final day and so bring this account of the journey to an end – as I was sad when the journey itself finished, while also being relieved and pleased to have accomplished it. We are not facing a world war (we hope!) as Wainwright was, but we knew we were returning to a confused and divided world. Racism and xenophobia was emerging in England, and violence and hatred increasing abroad. Walking each day when the only problem was finding the way and reaching your bed for the night was simple and we kept to a comforting routine when we just had to decide whether to have eggs or bacon for breakfast, ham or cheese in our sandwich for lunch. Maybe there should be more meaning to life than walking each day, a destination be more than a bed for the night, but sometimes the journey is sufficient.