Pepper and Co.

‘We’re right by the Pennine Way, up above Keld,’ Fred Pepper told me on the phone. ‘As you come south from Tan Hill you’ll see High Frith - it’s all boarded up - and we’re further along at Frith Lodge, up on your left.’

Hoofing it towards your bed, you hope your destination will be all that you visualise. But at the back of your mind lurks the thought that the room has been double-booked, or the landlady has forgotten you and gone away for the weekend, leaving you in the middle of nowhere with no transport bar Shanks’s Pony.

Happily for me, Frith Lodge flies a welcoming banner of smoke from its chimney, and in the yard at the top of the rutted access track Fred is working on his van. I shout hello and introduce myself, and he breaks off from his task and takes me to the back door of the house.

‘Mary,’ he calls, ‘one of our guests has arrived.’

Mary appears, wiping her hands on a cloth. She looks a typical farmer’s wife, which shows how wrong you can be: Fred operates a taxi business while Mary runs the accommodation at Frith Lodge and the administration for the Sherpa Van Project, which conveys kit and, if necessary, people along the routes of the National Trails.

‘Bring your boots inside and put them behind the door,’ she says. ‘There’s a pot of tea coming up.’

In the dining room we chat about Mary’s collection of ‘Greenwheat’ pottery, which was made near my home, then she tells me about her family, how she used to run her guest-house further down the dale, how she trained her helpers, and how the Sherpa Van Project works. She keeps withdrawing to the kitchen to make sure dinner is progressing; although I’d seen smoke as I walked up the track, the Rayburn had gone out earlier.

‘Dinner will be about half-past seven,’ she says. ‘Is that all right?’

I assure her it is, and we both laugh. I’m unlikely to go anywhere else. Frith Lodge is miles from alternative sources of refreshment; I’d have to walk to Muker or Tan Hill, and neither prospect appeals.

I wash my clothes in an old stone sink under the dining-room window. The disused black cooking range tells me this used to be the kitchen.

‘When I came here my friend told me I ought to have that sink out, but I knew there’d be people arriving filthy from the moors, and it’s less embarrassing to them if they can clean up before going up the stairs.’
She puts my clothes in her washer to rinse and spin, and when I come down from a soak in the bath I find her hanging them outside on the line. I tell her she doesn’t need to run round after me, but she says it‘s nothing and that they’ll dry off over the airer when Fred lights the fire before dinner.

‘Who else is coming tonight?’
‘Two people who are walking the Pennine Way, and someone who’s joining them for the weekend.’

The nice thing about facing the prevailing traffic is that you meet different people each day. The disadvantage is that you never become well acquainted. But Keld has never let me down.

In the lounge I watch the television news. Even allowing for the fact that we’re in the Silly Season, it seems surprisingly irrelevant. I switch off and concentrate on my route. Will it be twenty-seven miles to Horton in Ribblesdale next day, rather than the safe and standard thirteen to Hawes? A compromise would be to walk to Ribblehead, if I can find a bed there. My decision, whichever way it goes, will exercise a huge influence over the rest of my walk: Hawes to Malham sounds tough, whereas Horton to Gargrave, or Ribblehead to Malham, both seem reasonable. Either way, by most walkers’ standards I’ll be condensing three days into two. Assuming I reach Gargrave in two days, I’ll then have a short day if I am to stay at Ponden House, which I dearly want to do. That, however, will leave me two really hard days at the end. I feel I can finish inside twelve days; my legs are going well; feet and boots are singing in harmony thanks to the Compeed bought at Middleton in Teesdale. I still haven’t clarified matters in my mind, and I have yet to explain to myself why twelve days are better than thirteen, when I hear youthful voices.

‘We’re sorry we’re late. It was further than we expected. We thought you were actually in Keld village. Then we went the wrong way.’

Mary assures them it’s all right, and I stick my head round the door. A boy and a girl stand ruddy-cheeked and tired beside the dining table where Mary has placed a fresh pot of tea. They don’t look much above fourteen years old and five feet tall. Whatever are their parents thinking, letting them out?

‘Hello,’ I say.
‘Hello,’ they sigh back, as Mary leads them upstairs. When she comes down she says, ‘Dinner’s going to be served soon. Just give them five minutes for a wash.’

We sit round the dining table. They are John and Kate, and they are actually sixteen years old.

‘Ah,’ say I, ‘I was sixteen when I first did the Pennine Way.’

They look blank. They may be wondering how long ago that was and whether the Pennine Way really existed at that time, which, strictly speaking, it didn’t.

‘How are you finding it?’
‘Hard,’ says Kate. ‘I took a day off yesterday while John walked from Horton to Hawes.’

John looks proud.

‘My leg was hurting,’ she explains. ‘I’ve got a knee problem, and I thought it was best to give it a rest.’
‘Wise move,’ I nod. ‘No point aggravating an injury.’

They are cousins, keen hikers and campers. Both are involved in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. They are picking off the Pennine Way in a series of short attacks, inserted between other activities including family weddings, school exams, and backpacking weekends.

‘That’s great,’ I say. ‘Believe me, you’ll never forget this. But just in case, keep a diary for when you’re older.’
‘Yes,’ they both agree, ‘we’re writing it all up.’
‘Who’s joining you tonight?’
‘My Dad,’ Kate says. ‘He’s driving up here now from Derby.’
‘Is that where you live?’
‘No, I live in Mansfield.’
‘Then you and I are almost neighbours. I live in Crich.’
‘Really? I go there. To The Briars. Do you know Christopher?’

I do.

Keld and the Pennine Way have done it again.

First time through in 1963, I met a man in the hostel who knew a farming neighbour and other local characters from my hometown. Last year I shared a dormitory with a hiker who took a contemporary of mine under his wing when he joined Wolverhampton Wanderers as a football apprentice in the nineteen-sixties. Now, a couple of miles from the busy pedestrian crossroads where the Pennine Way crosses the Coast to Coast, I’m sharing a table with a girl who works part-time at a Roman Catholic training centre in my own village and knows someone with whom I have a nodding acquaintance.

Mary brings the soup. It’s hot and thick and delicious, and I attack it ravenously. Kate makes a fair effort and gets halfway through, but John barely samples his. What can be wrong with them? When I was their age, I’d have consumed three bowls of soup, given half a chance. In fact, it became a point of honour in youth hostels to eat everything fast and never refuse an extra helping.

Fred comes to collect the bowls. ‘Finished?’ he asks.
‘Yes, thank you,’ the lad answers, adding, ‘I’m not much of a soup person.’

Mary carries in the roast turkey. I get stuck in, and when I finish I notice they’ve stopped eating with most of the food left untouched.

‘We ate a lot of Mars Bars and some Penguins as we were coming up the last hill,’ Kate explains apologetically.

I’d cheerfully empty their plates if I knew them better, a sentiment telepathically transferred to them by the time pudding arrives, because when they can’t finish their jam roly-poly they tentatively offer it to me and I demolish the lot. I hardly dare think what they’ll write in those journals.

Kate’s Dad still hasn’t arrived by the time we start drinking tea.

‘I hope he’ll be here soon,’ she says, looking towards the window. ‘I want him to get a stamp from Keld Youth Hostel and do some washing and meet us at Tan Hill for a drink and take our gear to Baldersdale in the car and lend me some money because when I hurt my knee I spent all mine on a trekking pole.’
‘That’s what Dads are for,’ I confirm, thinking the poor guy looks like spending one hell of a weekend.

Then he arrives, looking youthful in denim jacket and jeans, pleased to see daughter and nephew and hear their news. The four of us chat and drink tea for an hour or more, and when the combined efforts of father and daughter defeat John and me at Scrabble, I wish them well and trundle off to bed as the full moon traverses a cloudless sky above Great Shunner Fell.

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