Day 16 – Dirge of the Dead Zone

(Warning: feel free to skip this one. Misery ahead).

Taking one last lap of the village as I retraced my way back to the route, I thought about the words I’d heard at school. The child who thought moors were only for grouse. The grown-ups who’d lamented the unusual lack of traditional support from the local estate, for their community. The gamekeeper who was now helping with Forest School activities. And the one who’d been convicted for wildlife crimes.

As I retraced my way past two sparrows fighting to death on the cobbles and up past the twisted oak, I wondered why the main path was already a quagmire in June, partly the torrential weather but mainly due to a lazily-placed ring feeder. I appreciated that I’d never been anywhere near this part of Yorkshire before. There were clearly lots of shotguns involved. But the cartridge-decorated clothing and handbags had surprised me.

I didn’t know what to expect, or how it would feel. I avoid researching places in advance, after once staring into some thermal pools in New Zealand that I’d already ‘seen’ on a Rough Guide book cover, thinking, “they looked far better in the photograph”…

So I prefer to see things from scratch, to take time to explore and think things through as I go, and afterwards. I took the fewest photos of the entire trip that day and now find it hard to remember. There was so very little to see. An awful lot to think about though.

It was one of the longest stetches. 20 miles on top of the two I’d done for the morning’s school visit. I put off writing about this day for over two months, as I simply didn’t want to go through it again.

My phone rang, for the first time in a fortnight as it had somehow found a rare signal. My surprised “hello?” scared a kestrel up into the air, from behind the wall, just two metres away, so my next line was pretty much “woah! A kestrel! Hello! Have you ever seen a kestrel? The colours! There was a kestrel! Who is it, please?”

It was Rob, who I’d met back on Helvellyn. Bushby gets about.  He’d met a Chinese film crew who wanted to join me if possible. Teased me that if I’d no photo of the kestrel, no-one would believe it had happened. I said I didn’t know how to take a photo when someone was on the phone. So it was all his fault really.

Whilst thinking about that I noticed a large lizard resting by my feet. Sent Rob a photo of it later. I don’t make these things up. Like I’ve said before, I don’t need to. The world’s pretty surprising on its own, if you look and listen. And give it time.

Most of the route and the next few hours were visible from this high point, up near a mast. Perhaps that’s how the call reached me. It was a novelty to use a phone and chat with a friendly voice.

After all that early kestrel and lizard excitement, the wildlife seemed to slowly slip away. All except for millipedes.

Millipedes are vegetarian and take their time too. What struck me was they were all I could find. Which seemed odd. Was there nothing up here that ate them? No birds, beetles, spiders, toads? When all you can see is just one thing, it usually means something is not quite right. Out of kilter.

It was all a bit unsettling. Especially when, whilst changing my socks later, I inadvertently squashed some with my bare feet.

I noticed a stone by Clain Wood that remembers Bill Cowley. I’ve just looked him up now as I write. Bill’s long dead, but he’ll not mind me saying so. I don’t think much fazed Bill.

Clain Wood. An all-too brief , cheery interval. Between the dirges.

In 1955 Bill and his friends were the first to attempt the Lyke Wake Walk – a 24 hour, 40 mile challenge to cross these moors. They sang the Lyke Wake funeral dirge to ‘keep their spirits up’, a C17th song that suggests crossing the moors after death. Good souls make it whilst the bad are lost in the bogs. I can understand their dirge’s inspiration, as I recall those feelings of being surrounded by miles of heartbroken terrain.

Among other things, Bill was ‘allus thrang’ (always busy). He’d been part of a Yorkshire Himalayan expedition; set up the local search and rescue operations; and was a key part of the Yorkshire Dialect Society. Those who completed the walk were known as Witchers or Dirgers. Which made sense to me. It was relentlessly grim up on those empty moors. But I bet Bill was anything but gloomy.

Now in his own afterlife, you can still hear from Bill. I recommend his reading of ‘Sheep i t’ chochyard’ for this moorland stretch, though I prefer ‘The Enthusiast’ accent, which I’d left miles behind in Wensleydale:

Walking with millipedes, I slowly climbed into estate moors seemingly stricken with alopecia. Random bald patches dotted about. I was never more than a few steps from their brittle blackness that day. Dark shapes of scorched, dead vegetation I’d seen elsewhere, up north before.

Wild lives lost. Heather burnt.

The very first time was thirty years earlier in Bronte Country, a mile or two from where one of the extraordinary Bronte sisters caught her all too ordinary death of Victorian cold. The heather’s ashes had fascinated me then. I naively thought it might have been lightning. But it was the very opposite. Just darkness. Now I know more about the burning and its extreme overuse, it just horrifies me.

For the past two years, various influential voices have condemned this harmful practice of moorburn. Government ministers, peers, conservationists, locals. All for so many reasons. The wildlife that burns with it, the damage to underlying peat, the smoke pollution, the flooding, the climate damage and the sheer bloody-mindedness of it all. They’ve done nothing about it yet though.

Those who burn heather with ‘traditional’ flamethrowers, do so to inflate the number of grouse on the moor, providing fresh green shoots for birds to eat, before their killers’ lead shot catches up with them.

If it didn’t exist, no one would invent it. Driven grouse shooting is the pastime of the unjustifiably wealthy, a faux-tradition with almost nothing in common with those who once stalked their prey and took home what they caught for the pot. It’s now a selfish world of helicopters, absent landlords, international status seekers and folk too lazy to walk. Underwritten by wildlife crime and purchased privilege.

So I walked these miserable moors, thinking over the comic titles Bill had invented for those who completed the Lyke Wake Walk more than once – Mistress of Misery, Doctor of Dolefulness…titles that felt appropriate in a whole new, tragic way. I think Bill would have been appalled if he was ‘oop theer’ today.

A small sign near a collapsed cairn made me look around. The pile of rubble was seemingly very significant. Well, it was the only thing I’d seen that wasn’t a millipede or burnt remains. An old lad leaning on his stick pointed at the pile proudly. I unwittingly let out a mocking laugh, at what looked to me, more like the contents of a spilt wheelbarrow, rather than an ancient ‘round barrow’.

The sign reminded me I was still carrying the gilded stone Jackie had sent me. That sign’s official instruction to ‘leave stones be’ was the kind of red rag that makes me want to mess around. So I did. As I said, there really wasn’t much else to do for miles.

You might think I’m exaggerating but this is what these miles look like from the air…the regular pale scars are the wildlife-free wheals of torched heather.

And later, from the ground…

The Toast to Toast route. North York Moors National Park.

If the burning gets underground, into the deep peat, it’s phenomenally difficult to put out. Because it’s not a healthy, natural, wet habitat. When Saddleworth Moor burned in 2018 it was classed as the largest wildfire in living memory. There were over 79 fires that year alone. The following year those moors had 96 fires. Only the RSPB nature reserve in the thick of it suffered slightly less, as it was almost as wet as nature intends these places to be.

Enough dirging. Perhaps we should try to move on, eh?

But the very next noticeable thing was another waymarker for the Samaritan Way, set up by the charity of that name, that works around the clock to prevent distress, self-harm and suicide. Try as I might, the day wasn’t feeling any happier although its wording tried its very best to improve things.

I was already running out of water. On top of Gold Hill, two locals I’d met somewhere days before, told me about Lordstones, a campsite hidden in the next dip, and in doing so probably saved me from getting into some serious trouble later that day. They pointed out the landmarks of Roseberry Topping and Teeside’s petrochemical flares in the distance.

I was so thankful they’d told me about this place, hidden next to the Coast to Coast path, and strangely unmarked on my map despite the great farmshop, pub and very posh loos (where I surreptitiously changed into my fresh set of clothes).

On top of everything else, it’d been punishingly hot that morning. I’d met a group of young women, one who’d been let down by their boots. They’d arranged for some to be posted to their next stop, but I wasn’t sure their feet would make it that far, judging by their shuffling, grimacing progress.

I found out it’s all a bit awkward nowadays, when a stranger with bandages, offers to look at your feet, (even if the Bible says it’s fine). We walked on in quietly English embarrassment until they thankfully turned off to their overnight stop at a remote farm down the valley.

The Wainstones I climbed through reminded me of where I’d grown up, learnt to climb and entered my first and only mountain bike race around moors and up and down disused quarries of millstone grit.  The state of my bike at the end of the race led me to believe the bike shop had only arranged the race as they knew they’d sell a truckload of spare parts as a result. I’d even managed to break my saddle. No idea how. I was fine of course, for back then, I was a teenager and therefore, invincible.

A couple were stood looking at a bedraggled sheep, moulting its fleece and looking badly. I think such fleece is more commonly encouraged now, as the pennies fetched by small-scale shearing are often not worth the effort. They were from Switzerland and had many questions, mainly about sheep.

The chap asked with blunt efficiency “what is the point of this?”…before I could try to answer he said “I can’t even find a place anywhere that will make me even a lamb chop!”.

“Well, I think such small numbers of sheep (in single figures that day) are a bit of a token effort, maybe to comply with some land payments. To show farming’s not been entirely abandoned? It does look pretty rough though. They’re also misused as ‘tick mops’, mooching round collecting ticks from the vegetation. I think it’s eating the green heather shoots meant for the grouse as its revenge”.

“It is very strange” he said. Then I told them about driven grouse shooting. And pheasants. So the sad sheep seemed slightly less strange in this altogether odd environment.

We parted at Clay Bank Top, where I finally sat down after seven hours spent slogging through the deadzone, smiling at the name on the memorial bench I’d found. “Meadows”. I could see some through my binoculars. Anything worth seeing, seemed to be many miles away that day.

Sitting down
Looking back

I still had 8 miles to go. I don’t think I was tired. It was more like being very mildly depressed. Whilst it was still trying to be sunny it seemed perfectly reasonable to keep going. I’d be joining an old railway track so at least it’d be pretty flat. But it would also be extremely hardwearing on the feet. Whilst the view turned out to be equally hardwearing on my spirits.

Ex-railway. Now a quad & shotgun highway.

Miles of drudgery. Even more intensive burning. Even more medicated grit. Someone had summed up the sheer misery I felt, with a collection of white stones, spelling out the word ‘JOY’. It wasn’t that it was hard. It was the sense of being in purgatory, but worse, knowing there was no heavenly end in sight.

I walked on for another three hours, following the course of a long-gone railway retasked now as an expressway for four wheel drives, loaded with lead shot and lunatics. I saw a mirage of a rooftop…could it…could it be the inn?

A kind of mirage. Still miles away.

The railway frustratingly snaked a convoluted way around the contours of dry land which mentally added miles to this bloody day’s journey. As the crow flies was not an option (of course, no crows are allowed to survive round here)…

Two hours later, when I posted a photo of my poor feet and a bowl full of gin and tonic, a social media stranger who had no idea what I’d been through, simply replied “ok boomer”.

I didn’t know what that meant. But I’m told the appropriate reaction is to say “calm down, snowflake”.

The pub was magnificent, with a photographic archive of eccentrics that kept me entertained for a few more drinks. A lively young woman admired my feet and bowl of gin, then said goodnight in a way that confused me.

I hobbled around barefoot, enjoying the cooling flagstones and deep pile of proper pub carpet. I didn’t have the energy to ask about the characters in the photographs from 1939, 1947, 1961…

I loved the signed, seventies lock-in LP which the landlord and curry genius/barman had released, promising an end to monstrous muzak, no flash solos and no category. Imagine, being miles from anywhere and locked in with a monster soundsystem. Now that’s what I call wildlife.

That night’s food told me it was the chef’s night off. A ketchup-covered carpet tile of lasagne and a (rashly ordered) Yorkshire pudding filled with something very salty put me into a calorie-induced coma that night.

So I didn’t notice the ticks I’d mopped up on those scabby, blistered moors. Neat circles of blood on my bedsheet the next morning gave them away, when I drew the curtains. It was raining so hard I couldn’t see out of the window.

Ticked off