Day 15 – Signs

It had been a great ‘family’ breakfast time with kind people at Danby Wiske. Doreen and Frank handed out lunches they’d made in aid for the air ambulance, (if I’d known, I’d have bought one) and I began a 12-mile day genuinely full of cheer.

About an hour later, the mixed reception that walkers seemed to be receiving around here, brought me down to earth with some of the worst bits of path and signage on the whole route. Yet, it was interspersed with some of the best. Reassuringly quirky signs of the locals who welcomed walkers and visitors to their place.

Whenever we think about walking in the countryside, we seem to get stuck reflecting back on the Kinder Trespass, but there’s been a constant struggle ever since, with new legislation being passed as recently as 20 years ago, and much more work still to be done. So much resentment surrounds access to open spaces. So many odd people involved in blocking it, sometimes illegally.

Some bird decoys caught my eye – shooting? – but I think they were actually there to help people recognise what they were likely to see along the way. It reminded me of Mike, the farmer at Stanhowe yesterday, who’d really gone the extra mile to make visitors welcome and in doing so, created the goodwill that makes for better visitors and better places.

Yellowhammer – yes! No mention of witches though.

I caught up with a couple on Lovesome Hill who’d been listening to the birds. We listened to yellowhammers, farmland birds that have declined by half in my lifetime, due to lack of seeds to eat on crop fields and perhaps their tendency for late summer nesting in hedges. A surprisingly acid-bright yellow bird I’d only seen once before amongst Buttermere bracken, but is known to many for its Ladybird book call, a rushed syllabic song of ‘a-lit-tle-bread-and-no-cheeeeese’.

As we walked on together for a while, we saw a really odd sign. A little later a fridge freezer dumped in the middle of a field, some way from anywhere. Which was even more odd.

Perhaps emboldened (as there were three of us now), I opened the fridge. It was full of cold drinks. Another opened the freezer – packed with ice lollies! We had a great laugh about this, and left money in the honesty box we found. As usual, when you most need an ice lolly, half of it broke off from the stick in the humid heat, and fell to the ground.

The farm which had initially looked a bit random, with too many cars and bits around to make you feel comfortable or that all was as it should be, must have actually been inhabited by someone with a great sense of humour. We shouldn’t judge a farm by its clutter. I’m guessing the fridge ran from a hidden cable or battery somewhere. The drinks were perfectly cool.

Closing the fridge and leaving the farm took us to a large stile, decorated with spooky witchery. A skeletal spider, a skull, an owl, rat and more. When I stepped on the stile the voice of Margaret Hamilton straight out of Oz (or Kansas), cried out “I’ll get you my pretty!, I’ll get you and your little doggy too!!!” followed by mad cackling, then our own relieved laughter.

An interactive stile, on a spooky farm. I was just glad it wasn’t dark.

I walked on past plastic-covered maize, pacing to work out just how many hundred square metres of plastic that one field held. Farm plastic has run into some serious trouble. I’d seen a TV programme about a farmer who’d diversified to run a farm plastic recycling business but something (I now forget) had changed and made their eco-work impossible. It might have been the export of our plastic. They’d started stockpiling huge piles they weren’t sure what to do about, which in turn, reminded me of the washing machine mountains in China. (This photo is actually from Manchester though).

Photo by Phil Noble/Press Association. Manchester (not China).

There are some innovative recycling firms that turn this plastic into benches, hen coops and sheep pens but I wondered how much of it actually degrades and what into? It couldn’t turn into nothing. It must still be something. Just before we left, I’d seen many of Jersey’s 7000 acres of potato fields covered in plastic, in order to get an extra round of spuds, out of the more traditional season. I know nothing about it, really. But I wonder about it a lot.

I’d packed a handful of emergency sweets for low moments like these. I’ve never been able to ration or discipline myself with sweets but these were forgotten about most days, tucked away in a fold of the rucksack. It’s name means Little Lobster but it isn’t seafood flavoured. A single boiled sweet when you’ve not got much left, is a godsend.

Lobster is another Lost Word on the longlist, I think. Jackie Morris talked to me about lobster, how children always paint them in their pink, cooked, dead colour due to the depiction of them singing in cartoons and laid out on cooking shows. No way of knowing their natural, living shades.

I’d been warned about having to cross a dual carriageway shortly, so dug out my neon green hi-vis vest to use as a white flag. I always carry one after a particularly cautious (and equally considerate) walking companion had once said – they make it much easier for the rescuers to find you. Or your body.

I’d not seen a busy road since crossing the M6 at Shap, a week ago, so had that “Country Mouse/Town Mouse” feeling I get. Since moving back north, and away from cities, I’ve become pretty jumpy around traffic. A trip to today’s Leeds had really thrown me when I saw signs that warned of the wind blowing people into the busy road. (Don’t laugh! Turns out it’s actually happened, due to the thoughtless modern development that’s created lethal wind tunnels for pedestrians).

But here, 10,000 people and more cross every year – c’mon North Yorkshire, sort out a footbridge, you stingy devils. Seeing the squashed rat didn’t do me any good either. They’re meant to be smarter than us. On the other side, I saw a message I could have done with, before crossing that bloody road. I was in good time for a nice-sounding pub in the village but again, the signs were not good.

At first. As I turned back I saw two signs which rather changed things.

The Joiners Shop café has to be another joint favourite on the Coast to Coast. I sat out in their secret garden, mainly so I could take my boots off and change my socks in private. I rarely photograph food, but Yorkshire had got me in the habit for all kinds of good and bad reasons. This time it was one of the better reasons, and would serve to reassure everyone via Twitter, that all was well.

My route was taking me south-east, round and into the national park. I knew it was the national park as I started to see shooting posts and traps again.

There’s some jockeying for position about the National route of the Cleveland Way (what? where?) and the unofficial (yet world famous) Coast to Coast. I’ve just checked as I wasn’t sure at the time…Cleveland stopped being a place 24 years ago. Which will be why Ohio comes up if you search for it online. Anyway…

Badges and names

A slippery field path alongside an impressively laid-back oak, led down towards Osmotherly, where I’d arranged to meet a police officer, Sergeant Stuart Grainger who’s been a key part of the team investigating wildlife crime in the area, particularly the persecution of wild birds of prey, through the major initiative Operation Owl.

I’d also arranged to meet another local, Mark, which had unexpectedly created the opportunity for the three of us to go to a pub. (Stuart was off-duty, Guv). So I got a move on.

Osmotherly looked absolutely charming. A memorial bench made me chuckle inappropriately, and think of someone Jim Dale might’ve played in the Carry On films. As I sat on the bench, (trying to laugh like Sid James), James Herriot drove past in a little car. What was this place?

A small dogleg detour uphill to Osmotherly hostel at the watermill was well worth it. A large group of children were involved in outdoor activities there and having a whale of a time which added to my happiness.

I took the chance to run a laundry load then left a lot of wet gear to dry whilst I went down to the village, to see who else had shown up from 1970’s TV. Ghost signs added to the village’s magnetic attraction of times past.

Mark met me by Peelers Cottage (should’ve been PC Stuart stood outside there really) and we sat and watched the village pass by, until he arrived. We talked about his police work and the importance of walkers, birdwatchers and visitors being aware of spotting signs of crime out on the moors. I asked Stuart to take a look at The Lost Words and pick a favourite. He chose Heather but in particular for the Hen Harrier, Jackie had painted nestling there. One of heather’s treasures.

Heather’s treasure…Hen Harrier. Sergeant Grainger’s favourite. Check out #OperationOwl

As I see it, (just my view), there’s two key things about moorland wildlife crime, besides it being a crime. One is that the legal defence is often clearly financed by wealthy backers, to prevent further reputational damage. They even put out PR spin, astroturfing over their well-documented, damaging practices with green-sounding spokespeople and groups. It’s a rotten business.

Various methods are being trialled to deal with this, such as licensing grouse moors and shooting, and vicarious liability for the employers of gamekeepers and estate workers. The investigations run by the RPSB, Wild Justice are becoming more and more determined and expert at exposing the harm and lies.

North Yorkshire Police arresting a Cumbrian gamekeeper, later found guilty of killing owls on Whernside estate. Photo by Guy Shorrock at RSPB.

The second is that the crimes are effectively organised crime. Meticulous, carefully planned, routine work for some. There are also those criminals away from the moors, who treat it as a hobby. Betting on badger baiting and dog fights, demonstrating violent dogs bringing down wild deer and so on. These people don’t just stop there. Crimes surround them. Which is why some Police forces are taking it so seriously. Due to those really nasty people, further up the chain.

I walked up to Osmotherly reservoir to clear my head. It had been recommended to me by Zach Haynes, a local birder. It was a lovely evening of peace and quiet to think about what Stuart, Mark and I had discussed. I stayed so late I missed out on a parmo. Perhaps that was for the best? I had to cover over 20 miles tomorrow.

In the morning, as I went down to the school, I saw the Coast to Coast caterpillar assembling as all the other C2C walkers were scheduled to meet their sherpabus luggage service. I can definitely see the attraction of travelling light, and the necessity for some, but I really wouldn’t have enjoyed walking in accordance with a bus timetable. I loved that I could divert, delay and digress. Dilly and dally.

Sparrows were having a brawl on the cobbles. It’s always strange to see birds fighting, pinning each other down. I think it can seem much worse than it is, as it comes as such a shock. But it seems to do the trick in quickly seeing off interlopers. (I saw a swallow chasing away a sparrowhawk this week. I wasn’t expecting that).

More signs. These told me of a rather quirky village life. Some very cool film choices by their cinema (I still haven’t seen The Death of Stalin), and some enterprising youngsters. They’d been given £5 to see what they could turn it into. The three muesli toasters were doing well. But when I asked at the school who was winning, it looked like the kids behind some elderflower cordial hustle might steal the show. (The teacher said everyone had discovered it went beautifully with gin).

Whilst I waited for the assembly to come in, I looked around the walls and saw some of the most fascinating things were happening in this little village. Bird boxes, hot dogs and hot tubs. Philosophy club (YES!) – most problems are caused by poor thinking, so Philosophy, practicing thinking has got to be a part of sorting out the sorry state we’re in.

Some brilliant questions were asked weekly, and responses collected. These are incredibly poignant, looking at them again, in August 2020 as I type. And their poetry… What a place! What a school!

The assembly was another uniquely brilliant chance to listen to children. We listened to Heartwood and talked about Sheffield’s Trees. And The Blessing by Spell Songs, then their local wildlife. Here as elsewhere, children recognised their own or friend’s names including Fern and Willow. Imagine finding out your name had been thrown out of the dictionary!

I told the children I’d met the police and showed them Stuart’s favourite picture of heather. One indignant voice quickly called out “there’s no grouse in that picture!”. That’s not happened before or since, anywhere. I said. “Ah yes. Do you know what Sergeant Stuart’s favourite bird is though?”. No-one answered. So I told them of skydancing hen harriers.

After the assembly, a few children always steal a moment to tell or ask me things which can be marvellously random, but vital to them. It makes me feel like Norris McWhirter at times. Just regarding his knowledge. Not his politics.

This time, quietly, one boy came and said…my grandad’s taken me to see one of them hen harriers before”. I thanked him for sharing that with me. I thought he’d checked I was the only one who heard. Maybe he knew it should be kept quiet.

After the children had left for class, someone said “I’m so glad you talked about that. The relationship between the estate and the village, and the school has changed so much in recent years”. I didn’t know then but the estate’s name came up far more after I’d left the area. I’d misheard it (or the accent) as Snarlsworth. But it’s actually Snilesworth. And it turned out to be quite an infamous place.

But back to that morning. And buoyed up as ever by the kindness of children, I sat down in the playground to put my muddy boots on. The preschoolers were playing out and one came to check me out.

“Have you got plenty of water?”

“Yes, two bottles, look”

“Which way are you going?”

“I’m not sure, I have to check my map”

“Well, if you go that way you’ll be grey. But that way you’ll be alwight”

I looked up to where the four year old forecaster had pointed. To the west the sky was filled with thick grey clouds. But to the east, where I was going, white sunlight was just breaking through. I’d misheard him. He’d said “all white”…clear skies.

I smiled and turned to say thanks, but he’d already run off to help someone else.