Day 17 – Screaming & Steaming

Breakfast got me back on track though. A new day. The chef was clearly back in the kitchen.

Saw many more people than I expected, who must’ve all opted for an early night by the time I’d arrived at the inn. There was an atmosphere of very nervous toast scraping as everyone stared at their plates and quietly worked through mountains of food, to prepare for what looked like being June’s second worst day of weather. NO ONE wanted to go. But everyone had to.

That morning, the authentic inn felt 100% genuine – a place for exhausted travellers, passing through on the Coast to Coast’s conveyor. After the marathon breakfast, people clanked, zipped, velcro-ed and laced up, all around the bar. But still, no one set off. Who would be first?

Wearing almost everything meant a lighter backpack for me, so I squelched off along the misty, sodden roadside. I was relieved to think at least I wouldn’t have to retrace my way through that ecological dead zone of the charred moor…Things were bound to pick up again now, weren’t they?

I’d dressed my backpack with a hi-vis vest, trying to help the speeding traffic avoid me, as well as the gutter puddles alongside my route. I couldn’t wait to get off this foggy road, in a mile or two, due to the driving rain and dreadful visibility, but the moor only offered unwelcoming, waterlogged, longer shortcuts.

The symbol of that national park is a stone crucifix called Ralph. Make of that what you will. It struck me as being the least inclusive sign they could’ve picked, but I suppose “it was alright back in the 1970s”? There’s dozens of lonely stones up there, on the moors.

I figured Ralph must be prominent but couldn’t see more than fifty metres away. The guidebook said it was 300m off the route. The combination of fog and being really not bothered about seeing it, put paid to any idea of searching. And I’d found something more interesting to me anyway. A stone named ‘Frank Elgee’. Which became even better when I looked into its namesake later.

In memory of Frank Elgee

Frank was an archaeologist, geologist and naturalist who’d been expected to die at home after scarlet fever damaged his hearing, sight and health. He’d visit the moor by bathchair and later became President of the Cleveland Naturalist’s club. Frank was able to investigate the moors in summer, whilst in winter and bad weather he read and recorded his travels and investigations – what he called his ‘dry work’.

I wish I’d known. At the time I assumed he was just another bloody hunter so I didn’t look properly. If I had, I’d have seen the stone was also engraved Naturalist and Archaeologist on its two hidden faces. But I was in too much rain and too much hurry. My loss.

I had heard about Fat Betty though, a sister stone of stout proportions that felt more my style. When I got there, Betty was festooned with brightly coloured sweets and other offerings, well on their way to becoming litter.

I didn’t hang about to chat with her as I was keen to avoid being caught by the groups in the mist who’d set off just behind me, and were now making slow progress as they quietly fell out, huddled around their maps, and studiously avoiding any impression of following me. That’s one silver lining for solo travellers. It’s your map, your call. You still manage to fall out with yourself, mind.

To set a marching rhythm, I sang improvised instrumental songs, settling eventually on Northern Variety Club Brass, mixed with Pearl & Dean’s ‘Pah-Pah-Paaaah-Pah’ cinema tune. I visualised Morecambe & Wise making their musical breakfast. I was determined not to be put down like yesterday. I also had a date with a school seven miles away so my trumpets needed to be more Allegro than Adagio.

The music helped – I unexpectedly caught up with the lively woman from the night before. She was walking with two dogs for company, and so I dismissed my brass section and the two of us marched on together in the rain, chatting as we approached Glaisdale.

She asked if her dogs were an issue as the moor was littered with signs about dogs on leads. I said usually and anywhere else yes, but in this case, no. After all, the only things left up here were destined to be shot in a couple of months. Nothing could be worse than that short-term future. There was nothing much to see either. Here’s the highlights (which I’ve tried hard to forget):

She wasn’t the first person I’d met who alluded to walking as a means of escaping something, if only for a while. She’d been up to her thighs in peat bogs around Nine Standards so was glad to share stories, on this foul stretch of a Viscount’s moor. She’d meant to walk with a friend but something had gone wrong, so she’d come anyway and was enjoying her solo challenge.

She asked if I could slow down so I tried to explain my horn section. As we dropped down into Glaisdale, I needed some lunch and money. Went a bit mad in the post office and bought a massive pack of marshmallows, purely because it was £1. I’d intended to buy a proper lunch but this giant pink bag took up the only space left in my backpack, so that was that.

We’d come off-path early and passed by the school. I’d messed up my planning completely here, and realised at the last minute I couldn’t do the morning visit I’d intended. And they’d been such a great school when I first called, telling me stories of kingfishers in their local beck. It was a relief we’d been able to reschedule for ‘whenever I arrived’ in the afternoon.

Aren’t memories strange? If asked, I’d have said I didn’t visit a school that day. But now, as I think back I remember me and Miss Lively-Dogs reluctantly parting company around here but couldn’t think why. It was me dropping into the school to drip-dry for a while. She was off to the pub.

Struggling to get restarted, even after the lovely assembly at the school, I decided to call in at the pub too, half a mile later, feeling pleased with myself and with my marshmallows. And there was wifi! Of course, once I heard from the outside world, everything began to slowly unravel…

Susie Moss from BBC Cumbria had been in touch to see about a follow-up interview and how things were going. Vodafone was useless here, so I suggested we try a landline at my accommodation, at ‘the Horseshoe near Egton’. Susie said “I’ll make the arrangements” which felt very flattering and rather nice. Just like Susie.

Until she texted back to say, ‘they’ve never heard of you and have no booking’. It turned out there were two places near Egton, and they’d both unhelpfully been called the Horseshoe at one time or other. Ah, so it must be the other one, I said. But it wasn’t. Neither had a booking for me or my drenched gear.

I decided to stay put in the pub and see what I could do by email, text message and a borrowed phone, on a network that worked in Yorkshire.

Luckily for me, an absolute gem of a barman called Jim answered the phone and said he’d sort me out. The owner was away and HE was in charge. “Leave it with me. Just get yourself here in time for your tea…the Horseshoe near Egton” which felt worryingly like déjà vu to me.

I’d been saved by Susie and the BBC. I bet Simon Reeve often feels like that. I really didn’t fancy sleeping in a hedge with twenty miles still to go. Now I felt like celebrating so stopped in that pub for ages.

As the serious walkers all moved on, I stayed for a late lunch and thought some more. Got chatting with the barman about homelessness, royalty and shooting. He’d once been berated for donating some booze to a street beggar in Whitby, and had turned on the tutting crowd saying “I’m a teenager in Whitby, I only spend my money on drugs or booze anyway”.

I was still deep in shooting territory. A friend of his had once served as loader for a shooting party of one. A young prince accompanied by a personal security detail. He wasn’t sure what the form was. Especially when the young royal drew a massive spliff from his pocket, sparked up and started smoking it, in front of the protection officers. The prince knew how to safely hold the shotgun at the same time, so the loader wasn’t worried about that lighting up, at least.

The barman showed me a nice shortcut behind the pub and I set my sights on one of the Egtons and one of the Horseshoes for the night. It’s not a usual stop, as most walkers carry on to Grosmont, but I’d opted for a shorter day as my guide book promised Egton Bridge was one of Yorkshire’s prettiest villages.

Sun came out on arrival…

It was. But it was its recent history that blew me away. From giant gooseberries to Catholic saints, the sublime to the ridiculous (you can decide which is which).

But before getting into that, at the Horseshoe Inn I finally met Jim. He said that once the BBC lady had said I was supporting the Autistic Society he wanted to help. That he meets hundreds of fundraising walkers on their way through here but no one who’d ever bothered with Autism. But like most folk I met that month, Jim knew someone, and something about it. And said he was glad I was fundraising for it.

The room was great, and the beer garden even better. I took my big book for a walk round the village later to see if I could get a photo with it, and found myself resting in a surprisingly large church, for such a small place. The early evening light made the colours of the windows incredibly vivid.

One window particularly caught my eye. A story I’d never heard but then, I’m not a Catholic. About a priest called Nicholas Postgate who preached to wealthy families, whilst disguised as a travelling gardener, with a chalice that collapsed into pieces like oe of James Bond’s gadgets. Walking across moors that must have looked so different four centuries ago.

Tax did for him in the end. But not like Al Capone.

He’s credited with introducing the wild daffodil he called the ‘Lenten lily’ to the moors. Nicholas was hung, drawn and quartered for high treason at Knavesmire, aged 82, after a tax man called Reeves turned him in, for £20.

A little school next door was dwarfed by this church. It wasn’t the one I’d arranged to visit but gave me the idea to ask if they’d perhaps like an assembly too, before I left the next day. Social media makes some good things happen out of office hours. And it was all arranged in two swipes of a phone screen.

I can only think of ‘Renton’ when I see this now. By the door of the primary school.

When I’d made my plans, I’d failed to realise just as there were seemingly two Egtons and two Horseshoes, there were also two schools. I remembered how the last thing the first school I’d called had said was: “we’re the one up the really big hill”. We’ll come back to that.

A little further on, I found the most photogenic railway station I’ve ever seen. And I’d grown up near Bernard Cribbins’ station, where Jenny Agutter waved her underwear around and snuck off to nightclubs in Sally Thomsett’s sports car.

A small sign told me about the most important day in their year – the Egton Gooseberry Show. One of only two in England. The sign said “upholding this tradition is of the utmost priority in Egton Bridge”. It really is. It’s been on TV (Gardeners’ World I think). There’s a clip here from their johnny-come-lately rivals down south in Cheshire. Serious stuff, nonetheless…

The one, true show – now in its third century.

I went in to the station pub and overheard the tail end of a conversation unlikely to have a happy ending “….ah, but we moved back here, after all that trouble with the Mau-Mau”…What the hell had I walked into? I’d already ordered a drink so thought I’d just drink up sharpish.

A woman who held court with the air of Annie Walker and who’d known the Mau-Mau asked me about my book. She was not what I expected at all. We had a great time looking at it together and talking about nature and also, once more, our connections with autism. The barmaid took this great photo of us, one of only a handful I have with me in it, from the trip, (so I’m sticking it in here).

She wanted to go and see Jackie’s exhibition in Danby and buy the book as soon as she could. Her son ran the pub now and was asleep upstairs. She wanted to wake him to show him, and couldn’t stop stroking the pages (which is a much more common reaction among people than you’d think).

A steam train absolutely thundered past outside. “Ah, they’re letting rip” said a fellow with a barstool attached to his trousers. “At this time of night, they’re allowed to go as fast as they can for practice, but really it’s just for fun. No speed limits. They’ll be back soon”.

I wished I’d been outside to see the Egton Thunderbolt. These steam trains are often saved by volunteers and sustained by tourism that trickles trade through their surrounding area. And they thrive here. In this area, redundant engineers from Teesside were now back at work performing miracles in rehabilitating old locomotives.

Back at the Horseshoe, the weekday late night custom were a good-natured bunch, wearing farmer tans. One who spoke to me (perhaps as the others avoided him), had such a dialect/skinful I found it really hard to follow, although every fourth word seemed to be “fuggin”. Time for bed. As I dozed off I wondered what the doorbell in the middle of the opposite wall was for…(but didn’t press it).

The next morning I was due up at the school. The one a mile away ‘up the hill’…

And what a hill it was. ‘First Discovery’ that day. Big hills round here are the equal of anywhere else up north. That walk up to the top school was so steep I’d kept slipping out of my sandals (my boots were still back in the room, drying).

The school reception was manned by a dog. I sat and admired the positive messages on the walls and the work of the local children. On the way back down Egton’s Eiger, St Hedda’s had proved to be a very happy school as well, and handily, was just opposite the private estate road I was due to follow, as I finally left this wonderful little village.

I was making a pretty late start to an 18 mile day, what with two assemblies and one last visit to that spectacular church, but I’d rashly assumed it’d all be downhill to the sea from here. (It’s really not).

As I walked along the estate road, a van drove cautiously towards me. Another man with an accent so local I think it only applied to that particular lane, was asking me “are you ‘im?”. I wasn’t sure. “I’ve some money for ‘im.” I still wasn’t sure but the money sounded good.

Then he asked me why I had boots on, and I suddenly clicked. The woman with blistered feet that I’d met way back on the York moors had told me about Paul Suggitt, who was walking coast to coast barefoot, raising money for Middlesbrough hospital. Paul had told her he’d nearly got frostbite on the moors, as I don’t think he’d packed bedsocks either.

This wild camping minimalist did have a hi-tech online tracker to tell people where he was though. I guessed Paul was the ‘im that the man in the van needed, checked my phone and saw Paul was just 2 miles behind me, if the guy could wait.

Even death is no escape from taxes…(but you can save money with a horse and cart).

I thought about waiting to meet Paul too but had the feeling he’d leave me in his barefoot dust. More than that, when you feel you’ve had an ordeal by walking 180 miles, it probably takes something away from your own triumph if you meet someone else doing it with no shoes on. Just as fast as you.

Well…he wasn’t carrying a bloody big book though, was he? So that was that. Off I went. (He never caught up with me, either).

Grosmont train station screamed with swifts and steamed with trains. I bought a quarter of chewy sweets that were a borderline-legal shade of blue, from an olde sweet shoppe and watched the crowds (but mainly the birds) for a while, before I made my ‘Second Discovery’ of the day. 

Checking the map. It’s not that way next, is it?

Grosmont. A name that obviously meant ‘massive hill’…Gros-Mont. My schoolboy French had long been forgotten. I could see the climb from here and a few olde swearwords ran through my mind as those sweets turned my tongue electric blue too.

On leaving the Horseshoe, Jim had wished me well and said – “you’ll be alright after the long pull up Sleights”. Third discovery – I wasn’t. It was boiling hot, with no shade to be had, slogging up the tarmac, and little else to do than count the high energy drink cans littering these moorsides. I’m not sure I’ve seen 33% gradients anywhere else.

And all I could think of was the guy behind me, doing all this in his bare feet.

This is becoming a bad habit…