To Muker

Homemade jams, fresh-baked wholemeal bread, strong brown tea and a seriously good fry-up, served at a large table in the all-male company of hikers and sightseers, gets me off to a good start. The morning is grey and dry, and Nine Standards Rigg, highpoint of the day, hides in low cloud.

ewsagents stand surrounded by massive Sunday papers, whilst customers shuffle about in the fuzzy aftermath of last night’s beer. Fresher air beckons, but the first stop is for sandwiches at the Co-op.

y route strolls through the park and onto a lane that climbs steeply past a quarry. Where the surface deteriorates I catch up with Terry and Pauline. We discuss last night’s lodgings with predictable results – Terry has yet to express satisfaction on this trip – before moving on to options for crossing the watershed into Swaledale. There are three routes, and each one is advised for specific months, the aim being to minimise erosion of the soft, peaty surface.

e stop for a brief rest where the high level route begins. April isn’t an approved month for that choice, but the ground is so dry we should cause no damage. A father and son catch up with us and announce that they are going over the top regardless, and they race away. With mixed feelings I follow them into the mist: my inclination is to avoid road walking, but I’m not much taken by the idea of climbing a hill on a day without a view.

he mist thickens to a heavy drizzle: time for my coat. The others go ahead, and I find them again at Nine Standards. The stone men stand tall but look surprisingly fragile. The southwest wind blows strong and cold.

Father and son vanish into the gloom. Visibility is no better than thirty metres. I pull out my compass and route card and soon catch up with Terry and Pauline. We plod along together, getting wet from the driven drizzle but feeling glad the bogs are letting us off lightly.

A trodden bank of peat to the east marks one of the ways into Whitsundale, but I’ve already decided on a middle route: in worsening weather it still leaves me the option of aiming even further south and escaping by road. Terry and Pauline drop behind, but they’ll find their way now because we’ve descended below the cloud. Broad expanses of brown fell stretch far ahead, and Birkdale Tarns come into view. This is bleak but wonderful country. I just wish the day were clear.

Nearly a mile in front, the father and son are setting a hot pace towards the road. A left fork takes me to a tributary of the Swale, and I settle down for lunch by a streamside grouse butt. The drizzle has stopped, the route ahead is clear, and there’s plenty of spare time. Terry and Pauline stop about four grouse butts away. I hope they don’t feel deprived of a conversation about ailments. Father and son march by looking sheepish. Maybe that’s not the best word, because up here sheep probably always know where they’re going.

A grey day at the head of the dale might send some rushing to the nearest gas oven. The isolation of the sheep farms in upper Whitsundale is exceptional in our small and crowded land. There is nothing of the prettified rural ‘des res’ about these houses, and no sound of human activity early this Sunday afternoon. I pass quietly by up the path and down a stony lane that finally takes me to the road into Keld.

For the first time since Patterdale, there’s the chance of an afternoon cuppa. At this busy crossroads of Coast to Coast and Pennine Way, the challenge of finding somewhere to stay raises its head again. The former Youth Hostel has changed into a lodge with a restaurant, but for many the village will forever be associated with bed and breakfast at Butt House, where the legendary Doreen Whitehead is preparing for retirement. Never mind: the tearoom is doing a brisk trade, and that’s all I need.

Day walkers and families sit outside in the cool, moist air, like smokers outside a Scottish café, a scene that is more than two months away from being legally enforced in England. After a couple of days in which I’ve seen few other hikers – as distinct from people in towns and villages – I amuse myself observing my fellow men and women and their dogs. The humans seem to be over-equipped with gaiters and protective clothing. How much gear does one really need for comfort and safety?

Onwards to Muker, down the delightful valley path through small stone-walled meadows, where a sharp shower soaks me for my arrival at the Village Stores and Tea Rooms. The young owners are busy serving their weekend customers, but I couldn’t hope for a warmer welcome, nor could I have a better equipped room. After a complimentary pot of tea I take a leisurely shower and shave, sort out my gear, and make my way next door to the pub.

As the day trippers and weekenders thin out, locals enter in ones and twos. I guess most of them are incomers, but they are permanent residents and therefore members of the community. Black Sheep ale flows steadily, and a warm glow spreads through the room.

Dinner arrives: a home made steak pie with potatoes and vegetables. Every last morsel disappears into my eager gullet. My cheeks glow after a day in the elements and an hour in the bar.

‘Another pint?’
‘ Why not! And treacle sponge sounds good.’
‘Do you want that with custard, cream or ice cream.’
‘Custard, please.’
Five minutes later I’m eating the Food of the Gods. The lightest sponge I’ve ever tasted fills my mouth, its texture beyond compare, its sweetness capping a fine feast.
‘Who made that pudding?’ I ask the landlord.
‘Ey? I don’t know. Either Mary or Alice, I should think.’
‘You want to keep an eye on them. Either they’re in league with the angels, or they’ve sold their souls to the Devil.’

                                                                                                                                                                           To Reeth >>