September 2014


We’ve had an easy and beautiful day of walking along the valley of the Swale, to the pretty town of Richmond. Our worries about the weather turning have been proved unnecessary, as the forecast rain was moved to the evening, and we may get through the week without more daytime rain.

After the dramas of the Lakes, it’s peculiar how undramatic it has become, but no less beautiful in its own bucolic way. With lovely morning sun, it was very tempting to get the camera out at every turn, but I’m afraid that carrying the camera has been a bit of a penance and I’ve not really taken enough pictures to justify the pain of the extra weight. Still, I think there are some nice images stored away, and when the 6D eventually arrives, I think I will sell the 60D and buy something lightweight but still up to RAW images for travelling. 100 D?

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It’s nice to have the breath to walk along beside each other and talk, nice to stop under a shady tree and picnic, watched by curious cows.

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Interesting to see a different England, in a bigger town, with better equipped farms surrounding it and some obviously wealthy estates both new and old.

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So we wandered along and found ourselves in Richmond by 1 pm — unheard of! Lovely lunch in a cafe (wraps and salad), a little retail therapy, check the bank account, and toddle off to Bridgedown House. Bath, blog and soon to dinner. Tomorrow, by popular acclaim, a rest day. 37 km of dead flat dodging Catterick Army Base isn’t necessary. A day of tourism before the last three big days is a good idea.

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There are two roads to Reeth. One goes along the river Swale, sweeping down to celebrate the rural and domestic history of the dale; the other trudges and scrambles up the valleys to where the miners for two millenia extracted lead from the narrow seems in sides of the becks and rills. The Romans exploited it and the pioneers of industrial Britain worked it until nothing was left but eroded valleys and an extraordinary architecture deep and inaccessible in the moors.

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How they go up to these high places to mine and smelt I will never know. The whole economy tramped up stony paths and along pony tracks that are barely wide enough for two people; and the remains of the path we took out of Keld — ignoring the incoming Pennine Way — was a difficult and challenging scramble up one side of the valley, down into a deep vale with the ruins of a mine and a smelter, then up the other side, to the moor some 200 metres above us.

The technology used was ingenious, even if primitive. The ore was mined by damming and releasing water into the streams to wash away the soil and expose the seams, although later, adit and drives were used. Smelting was done using flues that were a combination of tubes, tunnels and chimneys running up the hillside, to cheat a draft to drive the smelters. Kids are sent into the flues when cold to collect condensates of lead and other minerals that were valuable to the companies — more valuable than the kids and the miners, because life expectancy in the area in the early nineteenth century was only 41 years, twenty less than in the rest of Britain at the time.

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We walked up to the crest of the moor, where lead mining followed by gravel crushing had left the area looking like a cold climate Lightning Ridge. It will take years if not centuries for the area to recover, so we kept going downhill, glad the scrambling was behind us. We picnicked beside the road once the grass started to thicken— our packed lunches have been great — and the sun started to break through at just the right time.

We walked past more of those incredible ruins and beautiful stone bridges and started to see the country change. No wonder, for we were leaving industrial Britain and entering James Herriot country, the land that Alf White made famous in his books (All Creatures Great and Small. First, however, we had to cross the grouse moors, and one had the feeling of being watched all the time — little heads with beady eyes sticking out of the heather and sedge, watching carefully until you got a bit close, and then exploding up with that amazing cry and scaring the bejesus out of us. Taking a slash was like and invasion of privacy. As for the ones that sat on the drystone walls and inspected us as we walked past, one wondered what would happen the next time the silly bird popped over to the area near the butts.

So down into Reeth, a long but lovely ramble along the river, past the four pubs around the village green, and down to our B and B. Becca’s family have lived in it for three generations and, like all our lovely hosts, offered us a cup of tea or a cold drink when we got in. England must be growing back on me, because I now say yes to tea — in fact, I enjoy it in the morning before walking, in preference to coffee, but I’m sure that I will get a hit of espresso in Richmond!

We left Kirkby Stephen along the Eden river, walking through the little woodland to the hamlet of Hartley — strange how the names reoccur as we walk — and then the long pull past the quarry and up onto the moor. The guidebook, optimistic as always, described the climb as “not too steep” but our legs and lungs certainly felt it. We fell in with the nice couple taking their dog on the last part of their C to C — they are in the photo from the Shap day, climbing out of Patterdale. Chatting breathlessly, they dragged us up the hill until the paths branched, the lower for winter and the upper taking you across the Pennine ridge and the Nine Standards.

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We thought about toiling up the high path to see these dry stone monuments — supposedly constructed to act as decoys to worry the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie — but decided the view from a distance was enough. In any case, we were in a world that kept switching between Wuthering Heights and Gosford Park, as ruined farmhouses and barns were interspersed with very expensive cars driving up the tracks to the moor.

Yes, it’s was grouse shooting time, and the vehicles were filled with Bungalow Bills paying 800 quid each to shoot grouse, dressed in their ritual uniform of tweed jacket or shooting jacket, London cords and a nice little hat. Add dogs and shotguns and Oscar would have had a field day. The great irony lay in the fact that we saw grouse by the hundreds, including a couple wandering across the path — but always where the shooters weren’t.

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It took some navigation to find our way down to the moorland road, but a pair of parasailers enjoying the freshening wind marked our way, and even though the sunny morning gave way to grey mist, we rambled along and ate our picnic on a soft spot by the path.

We were lucky that September has been quite dry, so the bogs have not been a problem. In a wet year, you can sink thigh deep, which is not an enticing prospect we you have to plod your way home. The grouse were abundant, mostly black grouse up here, so our plod down into Keld was accompanied by the sound of guns and the cautious cack-cack-cack of the males hiding from the men and dogs.

The walk off the moor and into Keld was gorgeous, with the sun favouring us for the afternoon and an early shower allowing some down time. Butt House is run by Jackie and Chris, who have only had the place since May, but if the cooking stays as good as it was tonight, then they are bound to be successful. Because Keld is such a tiny town (although once upon a time it was a headquarters for the lead mines), they hold a communal meal for their guests; so we had a gregarious evening with two couples who were day walking, and a couple of English blokes we had met earlier on the track, who both come from Nottinghamshire. One’s a teacher who had done exchange in Albury, and both were members of the Barmy Army in recent years. Great fun, high quality food (Chris does a mean roast spud) and a refreshing sleep.

Tomorrow, we walk out of the high moors and the Pennines and across the old lead mines and workings. Well, that is the plan, because there is a voice saying that the river walk would be nicer. Me, I’d like to see lead mines that were used in Roman times and were a centre of the early Industrial Revolution… sic transit gloria and all that.

It’s nice to be here and not having to deal with the moral consequences of some of the Islamophobia that Rupert and his minions are putting around and the Tories in both countries are cheerfully exploiting. So much easier to bomb an unstable sect in the Middle East that to deal with refugees, Putin and climate change. Come on, Billy Bragg, we need another angry chorus of “No power without accountability” … all you fascists are bound to lose!

Trackless is a lie, but the band of travellers isn’t. For the longest day, we had wonderful company in the form of a mum in her seventies partnered by her forty-ish son. The irony is that we got to know Edward’s name, but we never asked Mrs Cairns hers! Well, after all, Edward always called her mum! When we split up at the end of the day, walking into Kirkby Stephen, Paula and I looked at each other and laughed and what we had forgotten to do.

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It was an auspicious time to get together, because the navigation down into Orton was a bit of a test. The route today was long — 32 kms — but not very hilly, so it was just a question of making sure that one foot went in front of the other for nine hours. We left the wonderful Brookfields House, with all of Margaret’s hospitality (Paula especially admired the lovely china and homely touches around the lounge and breakfast room) and departed Shap for Kirkby Stephen.

What made the navigation interesting today was the path, which was no longer a public pathway but what they now call Permissive; so it was a green path across lowland pasture and, ironically, quite easy to miss. The Cairns were using a twenty-year old map – from when Mrs Cairns had done it last time, fourteen years ago, for the second time — so the new map and book cam in handy.

We the sense to grab some lunch in Oddendale and walked across the moorland, starting with limestone country and far too many stone circles and things of archeological interest, and then walking across green fields. Gently rolling countryside allowed us to walk at pace, and the weather was glorious. We walked past history spurious (Robin Hood’s grave) and glorious (Victorian railway architecture at its finest) and are constantly amazed by the drystone walls and buildings.

We had weary legs and the last part of the day was very long, but walking down those last fields, under the railway and into the long valley leading to Kirkby Stephen, at the afternoon’s most golden, was glorious in a kind of painful way. We are lucky to have seen this part of England, so beautiful, so old, and yet full of very nice people. Well, subtitles would help sometimes!

The Manor House gave us a great welcome, another cheerful and helpful hostess in Jean. Nothing was too much trouble and we got advice on a great meal and some good conversation — and our washing done, dried over the Aga. But, Lord, were we sore.

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Last night I was just too bushed to string a sentence together, such was the exhaustion we both felt at the end of the thirty kilometres we had climbed, scrambled, slipped, plodded and crawled over during the nine hours we were walking.

If you look at the map, you will understand the challenge. The walk out of the Lakes District takes you over Kidsty Pike, at 780 metres the highest point in the walk. If it were not still misty this morning, we would be able to see it behind us for the next couple of days. To get past the Pike, requires a steep climb out of glorious Patterdale, followed by some interesting navigating across the fells.

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The nice couple in the picture are taking their dog for three days on the route, and we have kept meeting them along the way. The dog loves it.

We walked past tarns and lakes, and enjoyed the view all the way out to the dales, until the mist came rolling in. This made life interesting, as navigation became critical. As we walked at high level across the narrow pass of the Straits of Rigdale, following the Roman road, we were on a track ten metres across that plunged on each side.

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The steep climbs, two hours into the walk were a bit much, but we were ok until the downhill started. It’s hard to explain how much energy it requires to go downhill, especially if you don’t want to injure yourself. With all our care, Paula and I both came away with sore joints from slips on the fifty degree slope.

The it was lunch, the five kilometres along Hawkeswater, and the long walk to Shap.

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Those last kilometres nearly finished us. We briefly glanced at the ruins of the Abbey, but it was only the enterprise of the local farm kids, leaving an esky of soft drink with an honesty box to raise money for African children, that really got us over the line.

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Thirty five kms and then a two km walk down the main drag of Shap to find our lovely BnB was the last house in the town. Very tired and weary, we were asleep by nine! What a walk, and tomorrow is longer— but perhaps on gradients that were less insane.

I should have mentioned that when the marvellous Margaret at Brookefields House saw Paula, her first reaction was to ask her if she wanted a good cup of tea (poor dear); and then didn’t recognise her when she had brushed up and had had a shower!

We had a wonderful night’s sleep after one of the best meals we have ever eaten: Stonethwaite is a tiny hamlet, but its one pub put on a friendly welcome and food that a two-hat restaurant would be proud of. Paula had seabass, on kumara chips, which was simple and beautifully cooked. I had a chorizo, chicken and leek pie, all local, rich with thyme — but how could such a tiny spot in Borrowdale have such great food.

Sleep was easy, although I stayed awake for an hour turning socks on the radiator. We wanted an early start, because we had a demanding walk to Grasmere, which we thought would take three hours, followed by another three or four to Patterdale.

The first hour was a glorious but not impossible gradient out of Borrowdale, following the beck. It was tempting to look over our shoulders at the glorious views, initially of the dale, but eventually right back over Derwent Water to the north. We admired the white-faced, black sheep — they were all over the fells, even at the highest points. We spotted soaring eagles and heard the roar of RAF jets screaming down the valleys, Tornados occasionally spotted flashing across the sky. We slogged and scrambled to the top, quite pleased with ourselves, but the downhill broke our hearts.

I think we now understand that it’s terrain, not distance or gradient, that governs your future, especially when you’re not at your fittest. The downhill demanded all our concentration — rock-strewn, sometimes boggy, slippery, winding and often quad-bendingly steep, we both ended up with sore joints from slips and twists. At Grasmere, amidst the beauty of the village and the hills, and the noise of the tourists, we called it quits, we just couldn’t do it all again to get to Patterdale safely or happily.

Decision made, we could relax and buy replacement poles for Paula. And then, one of the miracles that puts the lie to that version of the human story promulgated but extremists and bigots: Chris, the manager at the Cotswolds store did more than offer to ring a taxi. He offered to drive us over to Patterdale. We didn’t accept his offer, so generous we were embarrassed, but I was left feeling that all we could do was to resolve to pass that gift on to someone we met who needed a hand. France’s Spufforth’s short hand for original sin is “the human propensity to fuck up”. Well, here was evidence that Augustine may have not always been right. Chevalier says, ‘it is by the heart we are something.’ Too true.

A taxi across the “Struggle” brought us to the Old Water View, better than a B’n’B, or a restaurant, or a pub. Ian, the owner, dreamt of turning a private house into a proper pub, and then discovered that it had a century of history as a guest house, including a record of Mr Wainwright staying here (and Churchill amongst others). A good host, and some nice company over dinner. We will conquer tomorrow — because, once started, there is on going back.

Oddly, we are not downcast. Ian, our host, explained that 80% of coasters arrive by taxi. Better to enjoy the adventure, I think!

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This will not be an entry which is suitable for children, not withstanding the amazing meal we have had at the pub in a hamlet of ten houses. God bless Stonethwaite, a jewel in the fells.No, not even the ‘Old Peculiar’ that I’m currently imbibing before a glass of truly excellent Rioja can dull the obscenities I am about to spew forth.

It’s just that I can’t help but channel Billy Connolly after today! We made it, but my Lord, nothing on the Camino got close. I have well and truly sold Paula a bill of goods!

There is this whisper that old man Wainwright was a bit of a joker, after all. I have this sense that he’s up there, with the Big Fella himself, just explaining how you perform a really good practical joke. You know, you just need a whole bunch of feckin’ holiday makers, no matter where from. Then you tell them it’s the best walk in the world: too easy!

So you start them out with the full f#*ing English breakfast, no worries; and send them along the lake so they think they can walk on bloody water. Take them up to the most remote YHA in the whole UK: you’re just lulling them to f*#*in’ sleep. So they leave after a nice rest and walk across a kilometre of bog, and then you doing the surprise. 380 metres straight ‘ up. I just laugh!

Then comes the piece de resistance. They arrive at the top absolutely knackered, so you give them Lakeland weather at its best. For the wary, misery; for the unwary, hypothermia. My whole life’s work summed up in a afternoon. And then there are those last ten kilometres!

God Bless Wainwright, and may he rest in peace — or pieces, given that his ashes are strewn somewhere on the fells. It is stunning, and even on a day like today, beating that horrendous climb is a big achievement, but we piked the last five kilometres and took the bus down from the quarries. The rain made it utter misery, and we still want to have fun amidst all the sweat and tears!

Oh, to have seen Ennerdale in the sunshine, or looked across to Derwent Water without driving rain! But tomorrow is another day and a different weather forecast, and even though Thursday doesn’t look promising, our last day in the high fells promises to be warm and sunny. We’ll bust our guts on the climbs, but we’ll see Wordsworth’s house and the Brothers’ Stone, where he farewelled his brother for the last time. We’re all mad, and the English are completely crackers, but I’ve never seen country like this, even in the South Island, and such lovely, lovely people. Hospitality without peer. God bless England.

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