Day 18 – Rocket Pants save lives

Lark illustration by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words

Sleights Moor brought me back down to earth with a squelch as I crossed more of the miserable grouse farms that I’d dearly hoped I’d left behind. Egton had been so pretty, with its woods, farmland and tipsy, happy people. Now it was just burnt heather, empty Red Bull cans and nothingness. Almost. A few skylarks flitted about in the strong breeze.

Just as ravens had marked my lakeland days, and meadow flowers and riverbank willows did the same for The Dales, skylarks had made a regular appearance through North Yorkshire, (except for the day of the dirge in Dawnay’s deadzone). I was reminded that Rob MacFarlane had been inspired by hearing lark song whilst feeling very low indeed. Their ever-climbing, disappearing act created his illusion of a little astronaut singing its heart out at all dark matter.

Lark poem by Rob MacFarlane from The Lost Words. Then reimagined & sung below by Spell Songs

The dark matter here was even more moor burning. It was less intensive now, but still enough to make me ‘wish I wasn’t here’. I looked down through a cattle grid. A conservation-minded person had installed a hedgehog ladder which made me smile.

The local phone box had fought the good fight, and still stood defiantly, reprieved four years after ‘the man’ had tried to take it away. I couldn’t think of anyone to ring in the middle of the day. I think I’d had too much sun. And too much steepness.

At Stray Head Banks nature reserve, the Woodland Trust’s cherries weren’t quite ready and their taste made me wince after Grosmont’s bright blue sweets. Down at the foot of the hill a track led to Littlebeck woods. Another nature reserve. Three days of godawful grouse moor, then finally, actual nature reserves and wildlife conservation that didn’t rely on shotguns.

Trees, cherries, painted lady butterflies and flowers. And as the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust sign proudly proclaimed “rich woodland mollusc fauna”. Slugs and snails to you and me. The stuff little boys are made of.

The route meant a couple of miles detour, but it also meant woodland instead of roadside, and was very welcome. I passed spoil heaps from old Alum mines (no, me neither. It turns out to be a valuable mineral that helped to fix colour dyes in posh folk’s garish clothing in the 17th century, among other things. It also polluted the rivers and coast, requiring much remedial work in the then-unforeseen, uncared-for future).

The Hermitage was a lovely woodland folly. I went in, sat down and found my mum’s name carved into its stone. You don’t see many Jeans about. I’d once bought Mum a keyring on my school trip to France solely because it said ‘Jean’ on it. The shopkeeper scraped the ‘Jean’ sticker off, with the kind of knife Frenchmen seemed to carry at the time. I’d panicked as I didn’t know how to say “leave it” and didn’t want to fall back on “Au Secours!” like Philippe Bertillon. Quel dommage.

Mum still has the keyring without her name, 30 odd years on. I wished I’d rung her from that phone box. If only to hear the peeps go when my money was running out. Was I finally getting homesick?

Further down by the river, below the Alum mines, a tearoom by Falling Foss was all rather posh. I sat by the river with my boots and socks off, drinking gin and tonic and eating a big scone, feeling as out of place as I believe it is possible to be.

I studied my map. Grosmont to Robin Hood’s bay was just eight miles. I’d already walked that far, on what is one of the most zig-zagged parts of the entire route and was only halfway there. I weighed up various short cuts, but none seemed a good idea. The local roads were busy and fast with no room for enraptured walkers. And enough roadside flowers sheathed in cellophane to remind me what that combination too often meant.

A notice at Midge Hall told the story of George, an evil old bastard who lived to kill wild things round there. Or a nice old countryman. You decide. (I’m having some cake).

The weather had picked up again, and I had no deadlines, on what was almost the longest day of the year, so I sat and slurped and ate for a long while, before reluctantly putting my socks back on. And my boots. And my backpack. Suncream. And a smile.

Sneaton Moor was back to the grind, more of the same. An expanse of confused and disappearing trods. I tried a mapping phone app for only the second and last time on the whole 200 mile trip. I was two or three hundred metres off the path shown on my map but it all looked the same and I just wanted to get away from it all, to be honest.

I found what might have been the intake lane and thought bugger it. Let’s do this. It was really overgrown for June and I’m really not that tall. Thought about Ladybird book princes battling through brambles and briars. These last miles were still tricky and harder than you’d think. I’d not seen any other walkers at all this day. Daytrippers and cuppas.  But oddly, no one walking anywhere.

Wainwright deliberately designed a dog-leg of a path to take you away from your final destination and prolong your joy/misery (delete as appropriate) by following the cliff’s edge to Robin Hood’s Bay. If it’d been a bad day, I’d have already got there. But to honour and humour Alfred’s idea, I stuck at it and headed on towards High Hawsker where a pub symbol on my map, served as a tracking beacon.

I passed a parked car which had a window sticker that made me stop. Yep. That was the moment I knew I’d become homesick. I love it too.

I passed one or two secluded properties surrounded by piles of scrapped cars, cargo containers and heavy plant hidden behind the thick hedgerows, which made me think of Boys from the Blackstuff. This was a working place rather than a walking place. More gravel than gore-tex. The village was slightly forgettable which sounds unfair, but I’d blame my wavering mood for that. I decided to find the pub and charge all of my batteries.

The teatime drinkers were embedded on their barstools discussing their respective workdays, both on and off the books. Once I sat down I realised it was going to be hard to leave. And I stayed two bags of peanuts too long, eavesdropping on the kind of conversation you’ve to be pretty cool-headed about.

“Well, you can’t go anyway, can you?”

“No, not now, seeing as they’ve confiscated my passport”

“Aye. You having another pint, then?”

They’d left me in peace whilst I’d sat sweatily with my quiet thoughts but as I got up to go, they bade me a really friendly farewell. They will have known where I’d been and where I was going. I don’t know why passports get confiscated but they were perfectly pleasant to me.

The route crosses a posh caravan park which had done a lot for wildlife, and had great signs explaining their habitats, meadows and ponds.

When I’d caravanned on this coast as a kid, it was all about BMX bikes and canvas trampolines that smelt of other kids’ feet and gave you friction burns whenever you landed on your face. I’d been too young but the others came back late from the campsite cabaret singing a song about Superman (complete with actions) and saying they’d had the best night ever, listening to a band from Ossett.

Walking cliff paths is not what you expect. They’re more like a rocky rollercoaster than Poldark on a pony. It was a beautiful, still evening and Wainwright’s detour finally made sense. I forgot about the burnt moorland, the gullies filled with empty energy drink cans. I forgot about the brambles and getting a bit lost.

I wasn’t the only one. I met a homing pigeon that’d got lost too and was looking for help. A few years earlier I’d spent a whole weekend trying to help one back at home. Throwing a coat around the garden like a gladiator’s net, trying to catch it safely as it didn’t seem strong enough to fly anywhere. I used binoculars to read its leg-ring and traced its owner’s association. Thinking there might be a reward (there wasn’t).

“If you can catch it and let it out by a motorway, it’ll find its way home”

After two days of failing to catch it, it was much less exhausted and had started to live on my roof instead of the lawn. I don’t know what happened after that. The local sparrowhawks have nothing to say on this matter.

Whilst up high, I rang ahead to Boggle Hole youth hostel, where I’d pre-booked a bed for the night before I set off. I’d never been and always wanted to, even if it was just to say I had. It was usually sold out. What a marvellous name for a place. The friendly receptionist had told me when the kitchen closed (beanburgers tonight!) and when the front doors would be locked. I said I’d make the latter but maybe not the former, as the path wasn’t anywhere near as flat as the map.

On Old Lance Cliff, above Dungeon Hole, an odd looking distraction caught my eye. A National Trust place sign announced I was in “Rocket Post Field”. Some really weird stuff has happened out on the east coast over the years but this one was new on me. Life-saving rocket pants.

They’re not on the map and not in my guidebook. I’d gone right off Terry Marsh and his guidebook. He’d had almost nothing to say about this last leg and I’d never really forgiven him for calling me names, for not enjoying his favourite bit of the route, all the way back at (boring old) Oddendale.

Rocket pants should be on everyone’s radar though.

When a ship was in distress, a rocket was used to fire out an “endless” rope. This was then used to drag out a larger rope, in turn enabling a massive cork with a huge pair of breeches to be hauled out, for sailors to wear and be dragged ashore in. As horribly tragic as this must have been, I can’t help but laugh as I type about this. The rocket post was for target practice, to resemble the crow’s nest of a ship. Now THIS is the sort of history that should be taught in schools.

I walked on towards the bay, without rushing, taking over a hundred photos even though I knew they’d not look anything like it did just then. I received a message from Harry Whinney asking which pub I’d be in. I didn’t know there was a choice.

Harry had led the Lost Words for Lincolnshire crowdfunding campaign and drawn this marvellous gold map showing all the places the book would be provided to by the activists, musicians, doctors, conservationists, artists, booksellers, bus drivers, scientists, cyclists and miscellaneous people like me. He’d also made me into a coast to coast cartoon with a curlew soundtrack as a surprise. A really inspiring gift just as I’d set off. We’ve still never met. But we will. I still need to thank him.

Harry Whinney’s golden map by Gorsebush Murals (as of Oct 2019).

When I got to the top of the hill. I remembered the first time I ever heard about the Coast to Coast, just over ten years before. I’d been driven down to Robin Hood’s Bay from Durham and the first thing we saw were some alarmingly red-faced, knackered looking people rolling down this hill, stumbling on with grim determination and panting breath. “How far away had they parked?” I wondered.

A shop window filled with t-shirts emblazoned with ‘coast to coast’ answered my query. I’d not dared ask any of them as I wasn’t first aid trained back then. What’s all that about then? I’d thought. Now it was my turn. I was suntanned rather than heatstroke red. I’d lost a little bit of weight. My trousers needed a wash but I thought I was doing remarkably well in comparison to the blistered souls I’d seen there that day.

When I reached the seafront slipway that evening, it was high tide. I’d carried the gilded riverstone that Jackie Morris had given me to place along the route, the whole way as I hadn’t wanted to leave it behind just yet. I placed it in the seawater with the simple intention to photograph it. I was feeling really tired now, so when a small wave took the stone away down the fishermen’s cobbles I nearly let it go.

I snatched it back as it scraped away over the stones. I tried so hard to get a photograph of that last moment. My phone had reached “leave me alone” mode. “Memory full”. “Send more money”. I put my rucksack down and faffed about on the water’s hypnotic edge, staring down at my feet and the ground and then out to sea. Failing to take a photo at the last hurdle. Stood alone in saltwater.

My brothers had said they’d all have loved to be there but couldn’t make it on a school night (it’s a really long way – and that was fine with me). I couldn’t decide what photos to delete to make room for the last one I wanted to take. I wanted a crooked mirror of the sea, to reflect the one I’d taken weeks ago off the west coast in St Bees. Oh god, I felt ready to stop now.

“Excuse me? Have you…have you just walked the coast to coast?”

A very pretty woman had come down to the sea to talk to me.

“Yes”…I then tried to tell her about it all. The whole thing. Several thousand pounds, The Lost Words, thousands of children, bumblebees, wildlife crime, ravens, the lad and his mum on Helvellyn, The Autistic Society, Princess Kate, worn out boots… It didn’t seem to put her off but eventually her husband came down to see what we were up to in the surf.

“We’d love to do that. We’re just here for the day from Bingley”. She offered to take a photo.

“I know it. I used to cycle across the Bronte moors and up round there when I was young”.

“People should know about what you’ve just done”.

I’ll tell them, I said.