Pub-quiz bores and professional explainers say things like “there’s over 100 words for snow in the Sami language” as if it is something remarkable, unbelievable, or ridiculous. Whereas, it seems about right to me.
There are at least as many ways for it to rain in northern England. Probably even more in Scotland. Just think of how many descriptions you use. Then there’s other factors, whether the wind is making the rain better or worse. Whether it’s somehow still warm, muggy, or whether you’re getting chilled to the bone, by barely-liquid ice.
This day had seen steady, drenching rain becoming lighter, swirling like mist by teatime. I was so glad I’d taken the trouble to fetch my backpack’s cover when the dale’s wind had tried to steal it earlier.
A life lesson I was rapidly relearning on this walk was that you can walk happily in the rain. We so often stay indoors, because it’s less than perfect weather. We admire the would-be soldier types yomping about on muddy moors for TV cameras. But it’s really not that bad if you’re wearing the right clothes. Especially if you’ve got the right attitude. Tattoos and hair gel? Optional, not useful.
For me, walking is mainly about the view and the visibility. It’s definitely less relaxing if you can’t see much, although it can be pretty exciting if you don’t really know whether there’s a metre drop alongside your path or a hundred. Or forever.
I knew that wasn’t going to be a worry here. I was down in the ‘flatlands’ after all. What had caught my eye was the river level. I’d not been here before but it seemed strange that the water was exactly level with the fields I walked through. The white caps of the water, I put down to the wind. The Swale seemed a pretty fast-flowing river though…
As I’d walked towards Reeth, the biodiversity of Swaledale’s meadows ebbed away. The traditional floriferous (I know) beauty of the heritage meadows with their single, annual ‘haytime’ had been swept aside by the need for production, most sharply after 1945. A Nobel prize was awarded back then, for developments in the chemistry of fodder.
We need fields for different reasons. Some grow grass for livestock to graze, and for cutting, to store for winter feed. The increased demand for grass on many but by no means all farms, has led to the widespread erasure of traditional meadows and their many dozens of plant species.
The early cut taken in late May removes the chance for many flowers to bloom and seed. It also removes the nesting habitat for birds that are missed by many or have even become locally extinct. But it allows grass to be cut at its most nutritious and for a further late summer cut to be taken too, for vital winter feed. We all need to eat.
I’m not judging. It’s a choice that hinges on payments, production, and on practicalities. In many fields, the widest biodiversity is found within venerable hedgerows which can be truly impressive, and occasionally in field margins which can be variable. By cutting grass more than once each year, many birds lose the time they need to evade predation and to fledge.
By needing to grow as much grass as possible, additional fertiliser is needed which ‘enrichens’ the soil with a diet that’s just too rich for most wildflowers. It’s a choice driven by the reality of post-war farming. Nitrogen fertiliser products have had the biggest effect on flowers, but are less commonly used on marginal less fertile land of hill farms and the uplands.
Of course, there are intermediate steps too. Organic farms that still use compost, manure, crops and plants like red clover to draw nitrogen from the air, down into their soil for them. Farms that stayed on the old ways, as much as they could, for as long as they could too.
I’m not judging it. I’m just walking through it.
So the colours disappeared one by one. First purple, then pink, blue, red, all gone. Yellow hangs on longest. But even their bright stars and spiky shapes start to vanish too. Leaving buttercups. Eventually the odd dandelion.
Which made a rainbow pebble stand out, left in an intriguing place. I vaguely knew there’s a thing now about pebbles, but wasn’t sure what it was. Take them? Leave them? ‘If in doubt, take a photo’ and move on. It looked fine where it was. I’m less sure about glitter. Haven’t used it for years since running an event in a Carlisle park and finding I’d got it stuck all over my face without realising, during the course of the day. Got some interesting looks on the way home.
As I walked on thinking about the chalk and cheese cafes of Gunnerside, the only real problem the rain caused me was with my mapbook, which I eventually stowed away to dry. Without it, I’d tried to cross a particularly wet field and ended up on the wrong side of a barbed wire fence, running partly through the shapeshifting waters and field. I’ve strong but short legs. I could probably straddle this barbed wire fence, couldn’t I? I really couldn’t be bothered retracing my steps through this wet mess.
Ordnance survey maps are pretty good at being used as impromptu crotch guards, especially the laminated ones. Out of habit, I opened the small, pocket mapbook I had, hinge-like across the wire and strode over, forgetting two important things. No, not those two.
One, the map book was less than half the size of an OS map. Two, I hadn’t hoiked my raintrousers up first…schoolboy error. I heard the spikes of the barbed wire pierce through the perineum of my waterproof trousers. I was snagged like a fish on a three-way hook, as my feet slowly sank in on either side of the fence, the barbs poking through into unknown space, possibly just a millimetre from a difficult discussion at A&E.
With a heavy backpack on and a walking pole in each hand, I stood there like a model for a health and safety advertisement for a little while, wondering when I’d last had a tetanus jab. It’s only the second complaint I’d have about that Cicerone mapbook. It just needs to be longer if you’re going to straddle some barbed wire with it. That extra page height would help if you got lost by more than a mile or so too.
I decided ‘something must be done’ and went for a seriously Sumo-like leg move, making the appropriate noises.
R-r-r-i-i-p went the critical crossroads of my trousers. Twang went the fence. No screams or swearwords though. I’d been lucky. Perhaps I’d looked like a waterproof MC Hammer with the seat of my pants way lower than I knew. There was now a souvenir right-angled tear in them which would mean I wouldn’t be sitting on any wet benches or the ground from now on.
The path came to even wetter ground. I’ve learnt the hard way from wetland restoration workers how to cross marshes and bogs, and how to read the surface. This field was just a mess. The path seemed to lead up and along the top of a very wide wall, capped with flagstones. Thinking this is novel, as I strode on, realising I hadn’t actually checked if this was the path or if I’d just ended up walking along the top of a slightly too-high wall, like Rapunzel’s Dad.
The map had promised me stepping stones but by now, the weather had changed things on the ground. Well actually, the weather had submerged the ground. And a few of the stones. I looked at the remaining stepping stones, wondering how often they were wet. Whether they were greened up, nice and slippy, awaiting victims.
Distracted for a moment by the noise of a hundred drifting greylag geese and goslings on the river, I tried but failed to take any decent photos of this unexpected sight. My focus was full of raindrops.
When you’re already wet through, the prospect of falling in a river is less of a worry. I was more concerned about keeping my backpack’s contents dry. It was too far to throw the heavy pack and what if I did, then couldn’t cross anyway. It was too deep to be sure about stepping into the water, the current now so fast I couldn’t clearly see the river bed.
The odd submerged stone is less worrying when you’ve still a foot on dry ground, but here consecutive, adjacent stones were submerged. Way past the point of no return, I’d end up with both feet on stone which was underwater. Stone that I might skate across like a block of margarine.
I watched the greylag swim away. I think they expected me to fall in quite soon.
Nothing else for it.
Wet stone is weird with hiking boots. A geologist or boot maker probably knows why. I’ve only fallen fast and hard once in years of walking, and when I did it was because both my thoughtless feet had been on a single greasy wet stone, in a gateway on the Fairfield horseshoe. I’d landed fully flat on my side in deep mud, clueless as to what had put me down on the canvas and half-coated me along the length of my body in mud the colour of cheap chocolate. Thankful for the soft landing.
I’ve seen one bad accident in years of walking with others. Someone had stood up from a steep resting place and unknowingly placed their foot on a very wet stone, in a hidden mountainside flush. They fell so quickly, they had no idea what happened, sat up, then promptly fainted, partly from the shock and partly from the sight of blood which managed to get everywhere pretty quickly, whilst my first aid box slid down the slope.
I didn’t know then (but could’ve guessed) that flood alerts were being rushed out for the Swale and elsewhere that day. I think I’d just got used to the idea of being soaked by now.
But this time, the wet stone was kind.
I rejoined the far more dangerous rush-hour road as surprisingly fast traffic skimmed past me at speeds that meant they either didn’t care for visitors or couldn’t believe someone was out, flapping about in the rain that day.
Reeth has a mighty public ‘square’ but I’d arrived a bit too late for any shops and a bit too early for a pint. I suddenly realised I wasn’t sure where I was staying that night. I remembered booking an independent hostel by phone, speaking with a lovely guy called Stuart, who couldn’t do enough to help.
I’d avoided the YHA hostel as it was a way out of town, inconvenient for arriving or leaving, and certainly not handy for going up to the school high above Reeth for assembly the next morning. The independent hostel at the Dales Bike Centre warmly welcomes people on two feet or two wheels.
I’d assumed it would be easy to find in such a small place. But the weather meant there was no one to ask. The village is on a steep hill and I didn’t fancy zig-zagging up and down any more than was strictly necessary. God, I was wet.
I saw an older man, someone Mum would call ‘Gaffer Jarge’, possibly the guy Julia Bradbury had chatted to on a sunny bench when she’d filmed here. Maybe he’s always around. He certainly didn’t seem bothered by the weather, so we chatted too, in the grey, darkening downpour.
“Ah, you want Grinton” he said.
“Not Reeth? (thinking – where’s Grinton?! #x@@*)…have I passed it?”.
“No, I’m just wondering whether you’re best along the road or path today”. He looked at my saturated clothes. “I’m not sure which is shortest and the field will be a bit wet now. They’re both the same way I just can’t remember which is shortest, young man”.
There was just a couple of hundred yards in it, so I stuck to the road. I was cross with myself for thinking all day I only had to get to Reeth. You tend to use your fuel up when you think you’re nearly at the finish line. Just ANOTHER mile or so in the greyness of dusk. Stuart had told me there’d be instructions left if I arrived late, after they’d closed the office.
I walked on and found the hostel deserted. It was all very swish. I gained access to a laundry room, where I could hang everything to dry. I decided to run some already soggy clothes through a washing machine mainly for some electronic fun, then followed Stu’s instructions until I found my way to my appropriately named room, which perfectly summed up this day.