At the start of my second week on the Coast to Coast, I was on my final Cumbrian stage of the route, starting at Shap school before going to Kirkby Stephen.
If you’ve stuck with me so far, you might recall I’d described the last part of it as a bland one – the tomato soup choice. In truth, it was the first time I’d struggled to remember things. I’m writing all this from memory and prompted by photos I took along the way. The relative absence of photos from that last stage had made me wonder if there just wasn’t that much to see or recommend.
The map I’d bought came with a book I’d skimmed through at the last minute, like cramming for an exam, just before I set off. I’d had a notion to read it along the way, which never really happened, so I’d stripped it down that weekend with a Stanley knife, having realised the importance to my feet, of travelling light.
I’ve just reread the chopped pages for the first time, to see if there’d really been as little of note on that previous section as I remember. The author, Terry Marsh tells a very different tale. And has something rather strong to say about people like me. Terry “has a particular interest in Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales” (well, he would. He lives in Lancashire). Here’s what he says:
“…a passage through time, extending over two, three, maybe four thousand years into the dawning of Man’s time in northern Britain. Opportunities to experience so much in so relatively short a distance are rare. Only a soulless, blinkered person could pass by without so much as a thought for our prehistory, and thankfully, very few of those have the spirit or imagination it takes to become long-distance walkers”…
Well that’s me told. Soulless AND blinkered. I noticed that Terry’s really into rubble and tends to be a bit dismissive of peat as something “for people who like that sort of thing”.
On the other hand, I’ve also watched the TV series of Tony Baldrick’s Coast to Coast. You can tell it wasn’t made by locals. It makes things even more confusing. Tony barely sets foot on today’s 20 mile route, and travelled over 100 miles between A & Z (sometimes by vintage bus or rescue vehicle). Perhaps those TV types had been even more “soulless” than me, as their route looks like varicose veins here (whilst my route/the C2C is shown in red).
Well, if you ever go, you’ll find out what you think. And whether you’ve a soul (according to Terry Marsh, at least). I’ve even been back and walked that Shap to Orton section again, with an explorer called Coco. I’ve still nothing to add. Other than meeting Coco was the best thing about that walk.
So, it’s down to me and my memories, writing this middle section, a year to the very day that I’d set off.
I’m now stood outside Shap school, ready to start week two. When I’d initially rung the schools, to ask about visiting, Shap had charmed my socks off. The headteacher herself had answered and said “I remember you. You visited my old school six years ago and left some fishhooks behind! Of course you can come to Shap”. Which boded well.
Funnily enough, I remembered that visit well. A boy called Thorn who gave me the impression he wasn’t always happy at school had really enjoyed learning about marine wildlife in Morecambe Bay. So much so, he’d written me a letter afterwards, asking for more details about how people measured basking sharks (we’d worked out one could just fit in the classroom, from corner to corner). I’d had to put some serious research in, to satisfy his enquiring mind.
Waiting at Shap, was my friend Kate, along with two teachers from Estonia who’d just driven up from Manchester airport on an Erasmus exchange scheme, (one of the many European things we’ll dearly miss, now that we’ve gone off in a sulk).
The children filed in, full of Monday enthusiasm. Mrs Maude had asked me to talk about resilience and the qualities needed to tough out a walk like the Coast to Coast. She said of the thousands who hiked through Shap each year, past the school’s front door, not one had ever asked about calling in to speak to the children about what they were doing or why.
So I’d need to pretend to be some sort of tough guy. I started by keeping my backpack on and trying to be a mucky-faced adventurer. All was going well until we played The Lost Words Blessing. After this, I usually asked children to tell me any of the Lost Words or wild words that they’d heard. They usually pick loads out as well as finding more in the song than you’d expect, or previously heard for yourself.
The last answer I took was from a small boy at the front, probably meaning he was in reception/year 1, perhaps aged five-ish, which would usually mean a simpler answer, like ‘forest’ or ‘water’.
“So what important thing did you hear in the song?” I asked brightly.
“Walk through the world with care, my love” he said, in his five year old voice.
My tough guy act was banjaxed. Cue a big intake of breath, eyes blinking as I turned round for a bit to ‘gather my kit’. More like gather my wits. Hell fire. Kids say the purest things don’t they? They certainly know how to tug your heartstrings.
As I’d already walked on to Orton the day before, (thanks partly to the boozy treasure chest I’d found at Shap Abbey), Kate and I drove back there now to begin our morning’s walk together before she went to work.
She was doing a brilliant job of building a Lost Words garden in Carlisle, for Cumbria Wildlife Trust alongside Susan’s Farm, an educational care farming charity. Kate had seen how The Lost Words worked with community groups and all ages, the many ways it opened up people’s memories, ideas and hopes.
I’d noticed the suggested C2C route misses out one of the best parts of this area (never mind your rockpiles, Terry), the huge limestone pavements of Asby Scar, so I’d decided to walk a circuit there with Kate, after making time to admire the roadside verges.
Verges can be considered as the leftovers of meadows, the printer’s trimmed edges outside field walls, protected from what had gone on inside. They often reflect what fields could have looked like, before intensive farming took hold after World War Two, in the rush for food production, survival and ‘efficiency’.
Here, these precious strips of botanical history are classified as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. There are also a handful of local meadows in the Westmorland Dales that avoided destruction and quite a few that have undergone restoration, thanks to environmental grants and an awful lot of hard work by charities and farmers.
What it must have looked like and buzzed like, just seventy years ago…
Nowadays, every June across the country, social media is set alight as local, town and county councils and agencies wreck their roadsides by strimmer, herbicides and general ignorance. Spending cutbacks contribute to this, as so few have in-house ecological knowledge or priorities now.
Contractors undercut each other’s tenders by providing the most basic ‘landscaping’ activities. Pressure of work means they cut what they shouldn’t, when they shouldn’t. No orchid, hedgehog, lizard or bee nest is spared.
But around Orton, things still look like this. Largely due to the immense effort of a woman called Judy and a committed group of volunteer surveyors.
As Kate and I walked our circuit, we saw path markers confirming that we’d rejoined the Coast to Coast. And some people walking towards us, as they headed east. I recognised someone from Honister – the guy who’d helped that knackered Netherlander seek sanctuary at the hostel, during the downpour that had ended my boots.
I mischievously said “hello!” and saw his eyebrows raise as I kept walking, knowing it would throw him to see me now walking 180′ in the opposite direction. That’d have him checking his maps, keep him on his toes.
The limestone landscape of Asby, the floriferous verges, the materials that built that walls and barns all indicated a very different place, and that a watershed in landscape terms at least, had been passed just after Shap’s granite, even if the true watershed still lay further ahead on my horizon, up at Nine Standards Rigg.
Kate and I talked about the healing power of nature and how so few people took advantage of it, despite the richness of their surroundings. I feel we’ve skipped a generation, and that today’s adults don’t quite know how to reconnect. Education services have been cut, centres have been closed down after decades of school visits. How we both loved trying to reverse this trend.
I was due to meet someone who’d worked in one of these centres. Dick Arrowsmith had offered to meet me at Tarn Sike nature reserve, where he was now volunteering as the honorary manager, and to walk from there into Kirkby Stephen with me that afternoon.
We’d met before and he’d offered to help me promote my walk and visit in Kirkby Stephen, where I’d be staging a community talk about the Lost Words that evening. As I looked down from top of the scar I could see him half a mile away. He’s a strapping guy. A much better candidate for advertising resilience and grit to schoolchildren, than a blubbering wreck like me.
Tarn Sike is criss-crossed with wet flushes. Which meant meeting there became a maze-like process of seeing where I might cross the stream and marshes, without taking a plunge. I’d clearly come down the wrong line. We kept walking to various points to discover a too-wide or too-deep stretch of water.
“It’s like a thwarted romance, Richard!” I called.
“No, it’s most definitely not” he firmly replied.
Although once we were reunited, he recited a verse from Hopkins’ poem, Inversnaid to me, so I think he knew where I was coming from:
“What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”
Yeah. That’s right! You heard! Just two men, wandering about looking for pansies and reciting poems. Nothing romantic to see here…
We walked a quick pace (damn, he’s got long legs) as Richard showed me a great way to cut out an unnecessary dog-leg of path. I do wonder sometimes, if Wainwright carried a hip-flask. Whether his deviations were all deliberate or just a bit of tipsy meandering amongst the weeds, wet and wildness.
Richard pointed out some of the rather special flowers of his local area. We were going to deviate from the route again to travel via Smardale Gill and Waitby Greenriggs Nature reserves – totalling three absolute jewels of Upper Eden and Cumbria in one glorious June afternoon.
Smardale is spectacular, the most panoramic nature reserve I’ve visited in Britain. Waitby Greenriggs is the complete opposite, being pocket sized in comparison. Like Smardale as a scale model, it remains spectacular due to the treasure trove of wildflowers and butterflies found there.
Usually coast to coasters skip most of Smardale and go over the Giant’s Graves (most likely old rabbit warrens), but the reserve is one of Cumbria’s strongholds for red squirrels and follows the trackbed of a disused railway, across a huge hundred feet high viaduct, where ravens now nest in lofty arches.
Trains once took a million tons of coke a year from Durham’s pits to Cumbria’s iron and steel furnaces.
This is where history really takes off, passing prehistoric villages at Severals; retracing Scottish drovers’ routes; visiting the hideout of seventeenth century plotters who sought to overthrow royalty and seeing incredible fossils locked within the limestone walls.
Oh, and this. A reminder of the utter stupidity of some people. Lost balloons. Miles from home.
To be fair, at least this party shop puts its contact details on its litter, so please feel free to contact them and tell them they’re probably killing cows. And definitely killing wildlife.
Placing that mini-rage aside, (along with the accidental arsonist’s kit of sky lanterns and single-use barbecues), the whole experience of the walk had really soared back up to as good as it ever gets, walking from Orton to here, in June, with good company. The dullness of yesterday’s tedious M6-straddling miles were already forgotten.
Richard had invited me for a pint with the red squirrels that visit his garden. They were only a couple of minutes late.
He mentioned the video Cain had made of me in Ennerdale had received over 1000 views in a day or so. He pretended to be deflated (I may have got this bit wrong, Richard, for which I’m sorry, but you know, there were red squirrels everywhere!), as a video of him playing the tuba whilst sat in an outdoor toilet (I think) was lagging someway behind. Strange place, the internet.
I’ve really tried to find this clip of Richard to show you, but the internet search terms I was using were all a bit risky, so I gave up. By the way, Cain’s Ennerdale film of me now appears to have been viewed over 7000 times (at time of typing)…
We had a lovely tea together until I made the ultimate faux pas of thinking it was polite to say I’d skip cake, which horrified Felicity, Richard’s phenomenally charming wife. She’d made a competition-winning showstopper of a cake, (possibly in honour of my visit, but I may well be flattering myself to think that).
What was I thinking? “Oh, go on then” I quickly relented. Crisis averted. (I am very fond of Felicity, who is one of the nicest women in a town that seems to be filled with them, but I tend to keep this to myself).
They’d generously offered me a place to stay as well as arranging the venue and publicity for my talk. They’re involved in all kinds of wonderful things locally. From music to cakes to wildlife to art, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to find the Friends’ Meeting House was packed. Terry Marsh had described Kirkby Stephen as a culture shock. He was half right there. What a great place!
In the crowd, I saw a teenager called Isaac and his family, who’d recently spent his work experience week with me and my colleagues. He’d be a brilliant conservationist. Or anything he chooses to be. He’d helped me when we got lost, led university students in meadow planting ‘I did ten times as many as that daft lot managed’ and told me how his contractor dad had mixed his cement by hand for weeks after once finding a bird nesting in his mixer.
Also in the audience that night were my wife and two friends, Corrie and John (the John you’ve heard much of before, in this blog) who’d both been so supportive, lending me gear, providing inspiration and advice, probably making sure I went and did this at all.
It felt like a homecoming gig, without having really left home.
At the back of my mind, I’d been trying to arrange something for the next day. On paper, Tuesday was a short but steep walk over the top into Yorkshire with an early finish to stop overnight on a remote hill farm. It’d had been planned as a treat for myself, a stay in a peaceful shepherd’s hut in the middle of ‘nowhere’, rather than crashing muddily down into the dale.
I was really looking forward to this farmstay, after the random nights at home and in hostels. And I’d really hoped to have time to meet the farming family, to see what they thought of The Lost Words. But at the same time. it’d had also become the day I wasn’t allowed to discuss, when I was due back west, in the Lakes first thing, to help Beth & Steve Pipe with their royal visitors at Patterdale school.
I’d assumed something would come along and it’d somehow all work out. Life usually does. It’s only 25 miles as the raven flies, but nearly twice that far and awkward by car, due to the multiple mountain ridges in the way. So it hadn’t quite worked itself out yet…
Then after the talk, when I finally got a quiet moment to speak to my wife, a bombshell dropped. She’d been due to lead an outdoor activity walk for her work that day, aimed at promoting healthy employees and workplaces.
I’d helped her choose a route and wondered how it’d all gone. It hadn’t. One of her colleagues had suddenly died, tragically young, that very morning before setting off to work. Bea was still in shock. And I’d had no idea at all, whilst I’d been out gawping at pansies and drinking ale with red squirrels.
You forget life goes on, when you’re enjoying an adventure. Things happen elsewhere. Things you’d never expected.
“I’ll come back home with you” I said.
As we drove away, I silently realised that I’d now need to find a way to be down south at home with Bea, up north near Ullswater with a duchess and out east on the moors searching for a shepherdess, all within the next 24 hours.