Waking up to rain that didn’t matter, I watched the moorland birds circling and calling around my hut. I’d tried to be a good guest offering to fit round what must be a phenomenally busy time of morning for the family, children heading off to two or three schools by village buses, animals to check on, and some weirdo like me, tiptoeing round the yard with his toiletries, whilst looking out for rogue roller skates. I suppose that’s just a normal morning for them though.
A young woman called Raven answered the door as a couple of her little sisters circled her legs, inspecting today’s stranger. “Dad’s doing the breakfast he’ll be right there”. “I just thought I best pay, so I didn’t forget”. They looked surprised, probably a mixture of dealing with honest folk and knowing it’d be very hard to do a runner from Ravenseat, as I’d find out later that morning when I reluctantly left.
As I packed, zipped and repacked my gear, the farmer came down with breakfast on a tray. I could see where the mini-concierges had got their manners. Two little girls brought down my book, as the dog watched on. “We’ve not had a lot time to look last night, but you’ll have met my eldest, Raven, and you’re at Ravenseat. And I’ve recently been told my family name would be signified by ravens. So I reckon, ravens should be our favourite. I’ll let you get your breakfast”. What a nice bloke.
And what a breakfast! The best so far – it would turn out to be the best of the entire trip. I was living on proper breakfasts, as I’d still not much space for packed lunches or seemingly, any time to sort them out enroute. I must have really enjoyed it as I ate it before thinking to take a photo.
As I sat in the hut watching the rain and the waterfall I realised there was no sense in rushing off, but it was another day with appointments to keep, so with bandaged foot and heavy heart, I shouldered my backpack and prepared to push off across the soggy peatlands.
As I left, a curly-haired girl the size of a doll led a little horse past me, speaking kindly to it. The horse wasn’t keen on going that way. I stopped partly to check the route (nothing worse than going the wrong way like a twit, right in front of your hosts, as you leave) and partly to see what happened next.
It didn’t look like she needed any help or would welcome it. A neighbour had called and came over “Clemmie, that ‘oss is just trying to go back t’its friends, you’d best come back wi’ it”. Clemmie had decided she’d had enough and was stood with her arms folded and a face like four year old thunder. “It won’t do as it’s told” she said. I’d let the neighbour sort that out.
I started to climb out and away from the farm. There’d been a great deal of rain and it looked like it was going to keep on raining heavily for the next two days. Even the sheep looked fed up. Work was underway to help with the track creating one of the oddest, but most welcome roadworks I’ve ever seen. A mile from any road.
There was no school nearby, but with a bit of planning, I’d realised I could walk past one before the end of the day, at Gunnerside, so I’d need to crack on to reach today’s assembly. I’d asked Sidney and his brother which school they went to, but they’d said it depended which day it was. I thought they’d been pulling my leg.
There are a few routes in the area which create spaghetti-junction signs as the various logos, bodies and paths jostle for pride of place. When I’d booked my hut, the farmer had said – “the meadows will be lovely around then” – and she was of course, right.
In fact, I’d timed my whole walk for the wildflowers as much as the birdsong. I’d be passing Swaledale’s renowned meadows around midday and just hoped the rain and wind hadn’t flattened them.
I came down past Currack and Catrake Force waterfalls, bypassing Keld (an ace place to stop for icecreams on a better day) as I was still fully powered by my perfect farm breakfast. At Kisdon Force, I stopped for a while to watch the water. I think it’s impressive. It’s definitely ‘a bit peaty’. As I walked, I imagined a meeting of the local tourist board, some PR pretender trying to come up with a ad campaign to market the impressive natural wonder.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, behold the gravy torrent of Swaledale”. Nay, that’s not right, lad.
“Our swollen river of brown!” No, no, no. Next.
“The rusty deluge of the Dales!” hmmm…not quite what we’re looking fer, ad-man.
Well, this is the sort of silliness that made me laugh, as I walked on and on in the drizzle.
Then this. What fresh hell was this?
I noticed no one was claiming ownership, whereas there were badges and logos on everything else I’d seen that day. It was a bizarrely improvised gate and stile, that looked like it belonged on “It’s A Knockout”. Wet feet, two posts, some bent nails, a squeeze then a thick rubber bum-whacking flap to negotiate… I reckon someone had cleared out some ‘useful stuff’ they’d hung on to ‘just in case’, in building this. Or perhaps it had just been designed by a kinky devil.
In getting involved with twitter, just before I left, to try and publicise my fundraising, I’d seen someone who posted messages about stiles. So I took a picture and sent it to them. Was pretty sure it was one of a kind. I hope so. I’ve got a thing about access, and this was shockingly bad.
A father and son asked me for directions and I confidently told them I’d been on this path before. It was OK provided you didn’t slither down to Kisdon Force (someone had left a knotted rope to climb back up if you did).
They let me press on first as I was moving more quickly. Later on in Rukin Wood I came to a slippery strip of path that I either didn’t remember, or recognise, or that had perhaps been washed away. I felt sorry I’d recommended this route. I didn’t fancy the older chap’s chances here. Or mine that much, for that matter.
Just before Muker the rain stopped briefly, just long enough for the wind to really get going. It pushed its fingers underneath the raincover of my backpack and peeled it off with the sound of a tent blowing away. I watched it travel the length of a field through the air before disappearing. I’d need that. The bag wasn’t as waterproof as it should have been. I’d got it in a sale but had assumed it was waterproof. My mistake.
I used my binoculars to see where it had gone. It was caught on some rushes, so I clambered down the steep field slope to fetch it, feeling pretty sure it’d blow away again just as I reached it, like one of those tiny pieces of litter that refuse to go in the bin or to let you pick them up again.
I finally caught up with it and covered my backpack, tightening the straps like some kind of medieval punishment. As I reached Muker’s meadows I enjoyed familiar views anew even though I’d visited most summers over the past decade. Like most people, I’d only walked through those closest to the village. They actually continue in either direction and I’d recommend roaming further if you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself there.
I went into Muker village to visit the shop and look at the mighty miniature buildings erected in Victorian times of self-improvement. This postage stamp of a village had a literary institute filled with 600 books including the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a parish church (so coffins no longer had to be carried or sledded 12 miles for burial), three inns (one remains) and a school, due to the lead deep in its hills.
Mining successes are reflected in nearby villages too, somewhat enigmatically as visitors today would be hard pressed to work out why these mighty hamlets have such civic dignity. Only the buildings are in miniature. The immense pride of place is there for all to see.
I read the busy notice boards as I enjoyed my short break from walking and the rain. Yoga and yurts mixed with famous folk musicians and festivals. All kinds of things continue to bind these communities, from the veteran silver band that practices across the road to the quizzes, lectures and hobbyists. I’d an ambition to attend Muker Show one day to hear their silver band, soon to celebrate their 125th anniversary. Their five times-silver jubilee.
Thinking of all that local music, brought Neddy Dick to mind. (What do you mean, Neddy who?). Neddy is my favourite local character. And there’s tough competition, from folk like the Kearton brothers, famed for early nature photography, born in the next village and schooled here. Cherry Kearton took the first ever photo of eggs in a birds’ nest, with his brother’s help, judging by this picture.
I’m much more interested in Neddy. He’d noticed how some riverstones contained musical notes, and used them to build a lithophone over 100 years ago. Someone who knew him had once said:
“He wer a queer un. He wer brought up to farming: but his mind wer always running on music. He neglected ‘isself badly and though he had money he didn’t know how to use it. Lots o’ fowk came to hear him play on t’ stones he had fished up out o’ t’ beck”.
“By the reaches of the river, where otter is the king,
Neddy sat upon the bank to hear the waters sing.
The music of the stones was ringing in his head;
He braved the stream to pull them out from the river’s bed…
On the day that Neddy died, they took his precious stones –
Broke them into little bits and scattered them with his bones.
Neddy only smiled and sadly shook his head,
“If that’s the best that they can do, I’m far off better dead.”
Extract – song by Bob Pegg
Rejoining the coast to coast took me back across the river to meadows I’d never visited when wearing a daytripper’s blinkers.
These fields were equally lovely. Signs were still bonkers though.
The rain came back like it had never been away. Lost property started to crop up again, with my favourite find of the day being a very nice hat in a tree. Jeez. They must have been seven foot tall to have had their hat snagged like that, I thought.
The same dilemma. Did the giant lose it heading east or west? Do I take it with me or does that mean it’s going further away from whoever lost it? Best just leave it there. I’ll just take a photo (don’t ask me why, it just felt like being helpful at the time). Then walk on. A little later I saw a very tall, hatless smurf, complete with beard, walking towards me.
He wore a bright blue theme park-raincoat/binliner like you might be given on the log flume ride. He’d been out in this weather dressed like that? The weather that had drenched me and blown my backpack off?
He came and asked “Hev you seen a haat?”. “Yes, in a tree”. He looked confused. I didn’t help much by then saying, “I’ve taken a photo of it”. He checked my photo. “That’s mine!”. “Ah. It’s about fifteen minutes that way, ten minutes with your legs” I said. “OK. Please tell my friends!” he strode away.
As I came down to Ivelet bridge, despite the best efforts of the signposts to confuse matters, I saw a couple who seemed surprised to see me rather than the tall guy in a blue binliner.
I explained what had happened. Showed them my photo of the hat. An awkward pause. By way of conversation I said “have you enjoyed the walk and the wildlife today?”…
“WHAT WILDLIFE?!” exclaimed the man. I have only seen one pheasant and one sheep!”. I spoke before remembering that I’d gone off route to see them: “What about the lovely meadows?”
“What meadows? We have many meadows in Austria. I have not seen such meadows!”. Something led us to chat about the madness of modern-day hunting in this country. The wildlife crimes recently committed by a gamekeeper, caught stamping on owls by the RSPB and Police . “We do not have this problem in Austria” he asserted.
“Yes, people like that just go to Hungary, and shoot whatever they want for the right price. Whatever you want”…
I decided to walk across Ivelet Bridge, just to bring this dark conversation to an end. It’s an ancient packhorse route. Steeply angled so you can’t see the other side. It does look a bit special. Terry Marsh called it “shapely” in his guidebook. But we’ve already realised Terry’s a bit odd.
I’d wrongly given the couple the impression I’d left, as when I then returned less than a minute later, the man was only wearing his trousers. You can’t really change direction mid-way across a 500 year old bridge. An embarrassed English wave and off I went. I didn’t see any of them again.
Preserving the look and history of Swaledale means that fields have been kept small, as was, before machines and consolidation changed the face of our countryside. The next two miles involved a little bit of road and no less than 22 fields all with gates, stiles and gaps. The map looks like crazy paving but the reality is a beautiful patchwork quilt, even in the pouring rain.
Eventually, you pop out into a small housing estate named Flatlands which made me laugh after my nine days of hills. I’d made it with an hour to spare but didn’t feel like waiting in the rain…best knock on the school door and hope they’ll be as welcoming as the rest of Swaledale. (They were).
A sparkling school secretary made me feel better straight away. Let me get changed out of everything (it had been wet that day) and camp out in the office whilst my clothes steamed up the school. I’d been contacted for some radio interviews that she helped me patch together through using my phone’s voice recorder, the school switchboard and some internet. Well, it was all for charity.
No one had told me but once you leave Cumbria, Vodafone is worse than useless. No signal. Anywhere. Seriously, if you’re Coast to Coast-ing, I’d take a look into this. No contact, mountain rescue, or streaming videos of cats playing pianos.
The assembly was a real highlight. I told the children about my journey and my superb Swaledale breakfast. Some of the children blushed/looked proud/were surprised. Of course! Their dad had cooked it for me. No sign of Sidney, who’d looked after me and my forks though. He was at another school further down the valley that day.
The headteacher was really grateful for my visit and offered to donate to my campaign which was unexpectedly kind but very welcome. Schools in North Yorkshire had received copies of the book during an earlier crowdfunding campaign, spearheaded by science writer and naturalist Amy –Jane Beer, and the Head could see the worth of this effort. The value of the outdoors in education.
I left the school feeling as uplifted as ever, even though there was still six or seven miles of rain to go before the next stop in Reeth. I’d just been inside, under a roof for a blissful hour or so. As I left the school I suddenly wanted to stop, whilst I was for now, temporarily dry. Or at least, drier.
I needed to try and let home know all was well. I saw a small cafe with a very busy sign, promising phone charging, wi-fi and all sorts. I stood in the doorway, to first check if they were about to close as it was getting late in the cafe-day.
A big man in a little pinny was having very cross words with his four customers. Three were sat at one table with one sat opposite them at another. The rest of the place was deserted.
“You have to sit together!”
“Why? We just wanted to spread out a bit”
“I might have more customers!”
“You have lots of empty chairs?”
“Excuse me?”, I tried to break whatever cycle they seemed to be stuck in.
“Sit together!” he pointed.
The older chap moved across to the small, cramped table with his friends, making the noises such moments call for.
“Yes?” barked the bully.
“I was just wondering if you were about to close..?”, I tried.
“No!”. The big lad in a pinny walked away.
I took a breath. Bugger this, I thought. I’m off. No idea what’s happening there. There was a lovely free picnic area behind the village WCs. But I’d nothing to eat. Not even a jelly snake.
Around the corner was another cafe. As I came in, a lady was cleaning the curtain rails, as if they were closing down for the season.
“Are you about to close?” I asked.
“Yes, but come in there’s always time for tea and cake”
“You won’t shout at me?”
“Ah. You’ve been in, down the road then” she said.
“Yes. Just a hot chocolate please”.
“There’s always time for cake. I recommend the tiramisu cake”.
Go on then. I’d lived in Italy for a year. Tiramisu is kind of a big thing there. Good food is kind of a big thing. Me and my adoptive compagnia had once driven for hours to buy what turned out to be just salty bread. Which seemed a bit much to me. But I’d always agree that tiramisu is worth a look.
“This cake is lovely, do you buy it in?”
“Oooh, no, my husband makes it, of course”.
A smartly dressed man came and stood to watch me enjoy his fantastic cake. Told me about how he’d learned to cook in the forces fifty years ago. “You won’t get cake like that down the road”. He was right.
“He’s met his-nibs” said his wife. “Oh, we don’t like to talk about him really” said the man. “But he’s no cook. It all blew up when one of the second-home owners came to their holiday cottage in the village and found their wheelie bins filled to the brim with loads of empty soup tins”.
“Yes, he was using their bins when they were away. Turned out his “home-made soup of the day” came from Aldi. And he didn’t want to pay business rates for a bin. Not really fair on those businesses who do, mind”, he chuckled, whilst tidying the spotless counter.
It made me realise that on these coin-flip decisions of where to stop, which place to visit on your route, you can have a really great half-hour, with delicious cake and proper hosts or something equally memorable but for all the wrong reasons, something horrible, out of a tin served by an ogre. It totally changes your day, your walk, your mood, the whole thing. Just a coin-flip.
I’d worked in a cafe for my first post-paper round job. It was owned by a poet and a potter. They were the most mercenary bastards I’ve ever met. And I used to run a casino.
Even worse than the grumpy Aldi-chef, our exotically named “soup of the day” was served in a beautifully crafted pot, made and fired on the premises. But the contents were Bachelor’s Cup-A-Soups. I used to cringe when tourists, chilled by moorland winds and the uphill struggle from their steam train, clawed their way up the cobbles to our half-way cafe, and sought sanctuary with us.
I’d pull faces, twitch and wink as much as I could trying to convince them not to ask for the soup, wary I was being watched from the kitchen in the reflection of the window panes. The customers must have thought I was some unfortunate local child, stricken with Bronte-land afflictions.
Watching tourists try to eat cup-a -soup with a spoon was horrible. Telling them the toilet was actually back down the cobbles, and across the road in the park didn’t help matters either. “We’ll have another tea and home-made biscuit please”. (Served on a lovely plate. It was a Blue Riband with the wrapper removed).
The poet used to be in charge of the washing-up, the “Burco” water boiler and the choice of records being played. I first came to know jazz as ‘washing-up music’. I’ve always liked striking up conversations but once made the mistake of asking him “so how long does it take to write a poem then?”. (Don’t ask poets that).
The weather wasn’t improving, but it was time to move on. Still had to get to Reeth. Or so I thought.