I’d avoided as much advance information as possible. I always do when I’m on any trip. What’s the fun in looking at things you’ve seen on guidebook covers? Where’s the surprises? The discoveries?
I’d usually walked alone, except for the times people had joined me. Not on a solo walk, but because I’m fine on my own. As my least-favourite grandma used to say: “He’s not right, Jean. Playing quietly on his own like that. The lad’s not right”.
But you pick up people and things in passing. One opinion that came up a few times overheard or read, was that east of Richmond, the Coast to Coast all went downhill. Not in a map sense. It was nothing like what I’d crossed, and looked pretty flat. Downhill in the sense of less spectacular, less challenging, less varied. Well, I’d no idea. I’d never ever been out that way before. I’d stuck mainly to West Yorkshire whilst growing up. So all I thought I knew, was that North Yorkshire’s a bit posh, South Yorkshire’s a bit rough and East Yorkshire’s not really sure if it’s a place. I’d just have to go and see it for myself.
One thing that changed immediately was the countryside. The farmland had no animals. I don’t think I’d ever walked through crops before. I’m not sure why Theresa May got so excited by it. Maybe it used to be different back then.
The paths were almost always too narrow, often on slippery clay, occasionally plastic-covered. The biggest surprise was how wet it still made you, as crops held the rain long after it had stopped falling, which then wet you up to your waistband as you brushed past on foot–wide strips that I assumed could only have been left for people who were either one-legged, on stilts or using a unicycle.
In the rare place I saw animals, it was usually only as their ring feeders had been plonked right next to, or even across the path. Or where no stiles meant sharing a gate. Making them laughably unwalkable. I became aware that some farmers were fabulously welcoming and some were not. Some made extra signs to help. Some hoped you’d just get lost.
I’d seen a motorway on the map. It turned out I’d go under it, which was fine but not a view you’d expect on the Coast to Coast.
As I passed north of Catterick, strange ideas and ingenuity were shown in the increasingly bizarre stiles, made of farmyard bric-a-brac, likely collected with that infamous sentence of “keep hod o’ that Mary, I’ll need it for summat one day”.
A plaque told me that Catterick had a claim to fame in its name ‘Cataractonium’ a rare example of a pre-Roman name living on, as it remained an accurate description of the ever-rushing waters of the Swale. It had been a Roman supply depot and still was in a way being Europe’s biggest army barracks. A busy place, noisy with traffic as I scraped its outskirts.
I’d decided on a detour that day to take in a nature reserve at Brompton-on-Swale. Nature reserves are always good for something. Not always what they were intended for. Sometimes it’s teenage boozing. Or motorbike scrambling. Often it’s remarkably rare flora and fauna.
When the sun finally got up after its long lie-in, the fields looked bright. Spotting single poppies kept me amused. The symbol of World War One trenches and Remembrance, now often seen as modern artwork installations, yarn bomber projects and more. I rarely see the actual poppies in Cumbria, as they seem to go along with arable fields, albeit in the rather judgmental category of “arable weeds”.
People who love flowers are as varied as the flowers they love. Some get quite upset about flowers being ‘the right flower in the right place’. Some get really cross about photogenic technicolour patches of annual wildflowers. “Oh no, they’re not” cry the angry botanist faction. Some just get wound up over the mis-naming of things.
The word meadow has been particularly marmalised, partly by marketing muppets and to some extent by wildlife voices that should know better. There’s no such word as “Haymeadow” – stop it now. It’s a meadow. You can take hay from it. It’s still a meadow.
It’s not the worst I’ve seen. That award goes to a developer’s sign I saw in Bristol, just before the city gave me a penalty fine for following a traffic jam in an unfamiliar bus lane. It’s very nice Bristol. But I’ve not been back, after that particular piece of local authority pickpocketing. I lost my photo of their ad hoarding but here’s a grab from their shameless website…
Along my detour, I walked through something industrial and deserted, of far more beauty and value to wildlife than Bristol’s sky meadow. A sand and gravel pit. Red poppies had taken over the spoil heaps. I scrambled past the many signs warning me of instant, certain death in a range of ways, to try and photograph it, but sometimes…well, you just can’t capture what you really see. Or feel.
The approach to the reserve stirred a recognisably awkward feeling of unexpectedly going down a Lovers’ Lane (or more possibly to a fly-tippers’ dump). But there were no reasons for me to avert my eyes, (ask me about Piazza Michelangelo, if we ever meet) or stinking piles of rubbish to avoid. The reserve looked well and I sat down in an open bird hide. I spread out my few bits of clothing to dry along the bench, took off my boots and watched the birds for a while.
A lone woman arrived who might have quite understandably seen me as a problem. My clothes were hung everywhere. But we got along well, chatting about what we could see, and I lent her my binoculars as she’d forgotten hers. Bird hides bring out the oddest behaviour in some people. I think this backless hide removed inhibitions (I’d taken my socks off too) and prevented the grumpiness usually found in the sheds, among older furrowed brows and the endless camera-clicks.
As well as the poppies, the bright flowers of viper’s bugloss were offering food for painted ladies, one of which turned up for their afternoon shift on the reserve.
After the quiet of the arable fields, the village of Brompton-on Swale had been a delight of birdsong, garden colours and lovely old buildings. I was glad I doubled back, rather than missing it altogether. If I was to walk this way again, I’d have stopped there for a while as a treat.
The daily dial marked ‘picturesque’ was being turned down slowly, as I walked on. The sights grew more alarming, judging by the carving of a terrified rabbit I saw, and bizarre lost property – a sledgehammer which wouldn’t have been out of place in a Stephen King story.
The same same-iness and a lack of proper signage made me misjudge where I was. I walked up a track which turned out to be for Laylands farm, as I’d seen a woman I could ask for directions. Suddenly a sweating, middle-age man in competitive coloured lycra, cycled past shouting something that made no sense. But I heard “you’re going the wrong way!”. How would he know where I was going? I might have been off to meet that woman.
I’d seen some signage for a bike race which must have attracted the MAMILs (middle-aged men in lycra) and figured he’d done badly, judging by the state of him and his mood. As I asked the horsey woman to show me the bridleway, he circled back huffing and puffing, shouting “I’ve already told him!!”. Ah, he’s the husband. Or maybe the brother?
The woman was equally upset to be confronted with a quiet, kind-looking traveller like me, so I figured they were a well-suited couple. They’d be a whole lot happier if they replaced the missing signs or at least dabbed some yellow paint on their fence. They’d be left undisturbed, to enjoy their mutually-assured unhappiness together.
It was fair to say, that so far, east of Richmond had been a pick & mix bag of sweets. Some of which you liked and some that you’d offer to your least-favourite grandma.
A near-neighbouring farm rescued the area’s reputation. It was the complete opposite to the moody blow-ins I’d just met at Laylands. A home-made interactive information and feedback point was one of the things I remember most happily from this leg of my journey. A small noticeboard with a notebook in a waterproof wall-mounted lunchbox, with a map of the farm and paths. Brilliantly simple.
I’d have loved to meet the farmer responsible, but I’m sure they were double-busy, looking at all the work they’d got involved with: pond reclamation, bridge-building, a 2km footpath, 3 acres of bird cover, millennium trees, hedgelaying and all without government grants. Hugely appreciated, yet often overlooked.
It reminded me of a nearby farmer back home, and all the additional work they take on to continue the traditions of stone walls and stoats, streams and otters, hedgerows and berries, meadows and flowers, woodland and owls…all alongside the demanding business of producing our food. Three generations are still grafting there, as I type today.
The comments book for Stanhowe Farm was filled with so many positive comments and ‘thank you’s to the farmer (plus my negative review of his miserable neighbours, which I accepted was entirely out of his control, but ‘could he have a word’?). The good path provided meant no disturbance to his land, that people passed through and felt supportive, “in it together”, rather than the “them & us” that crops up in some discussions of the countryside and ‘its ways’…
I’m interested in how our farms may have become cut off from communities over time, since smaller farms have merged, fewer people have worked on them, fewer communities drawn on to help seasonally and fewer products are sold recognisably and/or locally.
There’s some poor PR messaging around being “guardians of the land” which only builds walls in my view. I see farming as being done by those entrusted with the great responsibilities of caring for huge areas of everyone’s land, which is a huge difference to being a self-appointed guardian. It’s no surprise that a farmer can end up feeling isolated if they work alone, struggle alone, live defensively or even worse, wrongly assume some kind of protected status.
The links which are disappearing need replacing with new partnerships and outward-looking perspectives. Of course, many farmers have always had them anyway and probably can’t see what all the fuss is about. Or why some folk fall out. They’re too busy for all that.
Skies thickened, growing greyer as the route went off to Red House and White House farms, modern but lonely-looking places that brought thoughts of survival bunkers and those Stephen King horror stories (again) back to me. So I took another route to shake this odd mood. The last fields leading down into Danby needed waterproof trousers. I’d learnt that lesson twice. You’re soaked in seconds if you ignore it. And I’d only just dried out.
Striding into the neat and tidy little village of Danby Wiske, I’d got quite a pace up and felt glad to be there. I remembered booking by phone a few weeks ago, due to a remarkably genial pair of hosts I’d spoken to, who’d asked me about my trip and what I was up to, genuinely interested in my school visits and everything really.
We’d talked about the recent closure of their nearest primary school and they’d suggested a special group I could visit elsewhere. Their sincere friendliness reminded me of the couple running the Cloggers at Ennerdale right back on day one of my walk.
On the way into the village I saw a smartly dressed, older man gardening – if you do it right, you don’t need to be as threadbare as Monty Don. He greeted me as I strode past and on reaching the pub I realised I’d completely overshot The Old School and my room for the night.
Turning back took me straight back to the dapper gardener, waiting with a smile. “I thought it might be you but I was expecting some kind of Bear Grylls” he said cheerfully, adding “Boots off at the door. We’ll get them dry and all your clothes out on the washing line”. What a splendid welcome!
After I’d washed and switched to my evening wear (my Autistic Society t-shirt), the gardener (Frank) and his wife Doreen said I’d best get straight to the pub if I wanted any supper. “But I’m not sure I’m hungry?”…
“Doesn’t matter – go and tell them you’re here”. So I did as I was told, although I was still a bit confused and really not sure I was hungry anyway.
There were a few people split across several tables, sharing increasingly jolly C2C stories. I sat at the bar and asked a resolutely silent, 1970s heavy metal barman for a pint, whilst I tried to work out what was meant to happen next. Next to me, a lady was propped up on the bar, resting her elbow on a pile of several leather-look menus. “What time do you do food until?” I asked, unwisely. The barman shrugged.
The lady said “are you eating? You’re not in our book” I said I’d be surprised if I was, as I hadn’t known myself that I’d even be sat in this pub right now. It had all gone a bit Twilight Zone.
“Could I see a menu?” I tried.
“There’s no menu” she said. So I looked again, at the pile of menus, under her arm, for quite a while.
She then said “We’re not a restaurant. We don’t do food. When would you like to eat? Are you staying at the guesthouse? What would you like?” I didn’t know which part of that to address first. Or in what order.
“I don’t know…I’ve still…not seen the menu?”…(was there some sort of password involved?)
I suggested a few mealtimes in a Krypton Factor guessing game, whilst she looked in the book (that I wasn’t in) and kept saying no, we can’t do that. “Why don’t you tell me when you’d like me to eat?”. Something clicked. I’d opened the Ark of the Covenant.
I managed to get hold of a menu. The effort it took made me think I’d gone too far, to ever turn back. I’d have to order something now. I just hope it’s cheap and good. Or one of those. No-one else was eating, so it was hard to judge by other people’s plates or leftovers.
“Bangers and mash please” (usually a safe bet).
“Would you like potatoes with that?”…
“I hope so”. I ordered another drink, whilst wondering what they made their mash out of. “This local beer’s nice, is it a local micro-brewery?”. The barman looked baffled by my question and couldn’t decide.
The lady showed me to a table in the next room, where I sat alone, looking back into the happy side of the pub. Well, I wasn’t in the book I suppose. When she walked away I noticed she had a painful looking limp and felt bad – she’d been using that pile of menus to support herself and take the weight off her leg, I thought.
As my food arrived, mash plus a generous side of potatoes, the chef ran out of the kitchen said “Can I take your car?” to the mute barman (who shrugged) then left. The young waitress cried after him “what are we going to do about the puddings? I’ve only started here today”. Time for bed.
Back at the guesthouse, I told Frank & Doreen about my meal. There’d been some local fete that day and it sounded like everyone in the village but them had got roaring drunk. Frank & Doreen used to run the pub and had sold up, but come back out of retirement to open their lovely little guesthouse as they so enjoyed meeting and hosting the passing travellers. And loved their village. They said the pub had changed quite a bit since, and then drew a diplomatic veil over it all, whilst chuckling their slippers off at my Fawlty Towers meal ordeal.
At breakfast I met the other two guests, a woman walking east and an old American miner walking west. He was struggling with his guidebook as he had to read it all in reverse. It’s assumed everyone goes east. I saw him leave and come back having fallen at the first hurdle of deciphering the directions and the missing signs. I warned him about trying to ask for directions at Laylands.
Whilst Frank and Doreen prepared packed lunches for us all (they give all the money they charge for them to the Air Ambulance). We shared great breakfast stories of walking. I tried to show off about meeting Princess Kate & Prince William in Patterdale.
Doreen said “oh, we know William and his Dad. He came here as a kid for the Hunt. When I took them all a brandy before they set off, William said ‘I better not, madam, please can I have an orange juice instead?’ as he was still underage. Oh, we did laugh! All life passes through Danby Wiske!”
It’d take more than my stories to surprise someone like Doreen.
NB not my reviews. But I can see how they might have been.