Many A Slip

Up and ready for my 7.30am breakfast, I look forward to the day. The early start helps me keep all options open. Fred isn’t up; he had confessed to being a last-minute riser even when doing the school taxi service, and at weekends he indulges himself with a serious lie-in. John and Kate are also making the most of their beds, but I see her father long enough to lend him my Pennine Way North Guidebook, which saves me carrying it home.

Mary and Fred’s sixteen-year-old son, Robert, is cleaning a trail bike, his transport to a part-time job in the pub. He tells me about being knocked off by a drunken motorist, an incident that damaged the machine and his pride. He has also bogged down his bike on the moor between home and Tan Hill, a predicament to which I readily relate.

The previous evening Fred was holding forth on the subject of trail bikes, saying they should be allowed to use the green lanes. I didn’t agree; so far as I was concerned, they were noisy and smelly. Fred thought mountain bikes far worse, because their thinner tyres cut into the ground and you can’t hear them approaching. None of us held any brief for mountain bikes, so we let the discussion lapse on that welcome point of agreement.

A brisk northwest wind blows me down the track towards the bridge over the River Swale, where the Pennine Way and Coast-to-Coast Walk briefly share a few yards of trail. It is hard to imagine a prettier junction, enlivened by the sounds of the rapids and the splashing waterfall, the dappling pattern of sunlight through ash leaves, but my peace is shattered by three middle-aged backpackers, marching across the bridge, conversing loudly. Their leader sees me and approaches.

‘Doing the Coast-to-Coast?’ he asks.
‘Pennine Way.’
‘No good,’ he says scornfully. ‘Coast-to-Coast’s the walk now. We’re doing a twelve-dayer.’ He pauses, allowing me space to express my wonder. I restrict my response to a smile.
‘We’re carrying thirty pound apiece.’
Thirty pounds! Whatever for?
‘The women,’ he sneers, ‘are struggling up the hills, though.’

I look at his companions, both of whom are decidedly male. Then down the path behind them come two female backpackers, chewing the fat with a diligent concentration that only women seem able to apply. When they see the three men they slow down and stop talking. The leader looks round and sees them.

‘Right! We’ve got to get on,’ he says to the two men. ‘Unlike some,’ he adds with a meaningful nod in my direction. He races away to the east, followed by his two acolytes.

I exchange hellos with the two women.

‘I gather you’re with those three,’ I say, nodding towards the retreating backsides.
‘You could say that,’ says one, and they swap raised eyebrows and half smiles.
‘You ought to keep up,’ I advise them. ‘Stick with the leader. You can’t be sure this weather will hold, and if it rains, you’ll both be able to shelter in his gob.’
‘That’s her husband!’ says the other, and they both laugh before resuming their important chatter as they head for Robin Hood’s Bay.

In contrast with the windy moor, the air in the valley is still. Slaving up Kisdon Hill, sweating profusely, I wonder if I’m going too fast too early on what could be a long day, so I stop to admire the view. The river shines opalescent, mother-of-pearl reflections of the patchwork sky. The unique valley-floor landscape of fields and barns stretches away eastwards for the ongoing pleasure of Coast-to-Coasters. Hillsides rise steeply through green pastures of bent and fescue which grow between sparse woods of ash and hawthorn rooted in scree long-fallen from pale grey limestone outcrops. Higher up the fells, differential erosion of successive bands of shale, sandstone and limestone has created a giant’s staircase carpeted by dull brown mat grass, culminating in peat and heather on the summit of Millstone Grit. It feels like a crime to hurry from such beauty, but I turn my back and drop down the hill towards the meadow flowers of Thwaite.

I’m too early to pause here for a mug tea: normal people are still having breakfast.

‘Well, Suzy,’ I say, passing the guest house where I’ve previously enjoyed a refreshing brew, ‘we might have a lot on today, so we’d better keep going.’

My heart is set on crossing Great Shunner Fell before stopping at Hawes for lunch.

The treadmill of the long and rocky walled lane, followed by paving slabs with occasional boardwalks, leads towards the final ascent over stone pitching to the summit. Halfway up, I spot two people descending, separated by a couple of hundred yards. I can tell from a distance, by the swing of the arms and the forward lean into the rucksack straps, that the leader is a woman. I stand off the path to take a breather and let her pass, but she stops so I ask where she’s heading.

‘Kirk Yetholm,’ she says after a trace of hesitation, because it’s hard to know whether to answer in respect of the day’s destination or the objective of the expedition. ‘Yourself?’

I explain my crazy venture and my feeling about walking home.

‘That’s really great,’ she says, adding, ‘we’re staying in Bowes tonight. We’ve booked accommodation all the way through.’

Hawes to Bowes is quite a hike. Most walkers would spread the miles over two days, but she’s young and athletic and exudes quiet confidence. I pass on information received in Kirk Yetholm, that the footpath on the Bowes Loop is badly overgrown.

‘Best to send him ahead to break a trail through the brambles and nettles,’ I say, nodding towards her companion who is just joining us.
‘Are you going to Horton tonight,’ she asks.
‘I think so,’ I say. ‘Hawes isn’t far enough. But I’m my own boss, and I’ll decide when I get there.’

She nods in a matter of fact way, as if she understands what’s in my mind. It seems certain she’ll finish the Way unless injury intervenes, and her companion’s effortless stride suggests he also is walking within his powers. Those who make it this far know what’s required and whether they can deliver.

Three hours after leaving Frith Lodge, I stand in bright sunlight on top of Great Shunner Fell, pleased with myself but slightly concerned that I might be pushing the pace. Around me loom the giants of the Yorkshire Dales, dark massifs glowering over each other’s shoulders under a summer sky. Looking into the sun, I see them as two-dimensional shapes without visible texture, but when you climb them, working your way up a shoulder or rib, you can still experience the joyous exertion of tackling and conquering an astonishing variety of underfoot conditions on a rarely trodden route. Reminders of youthful adventures in this matchless countryside, these hills silently invite me to stay for a week, a month, a season, to explore their sombre flanks and reticent side-valleys.

Pushing temptation aside, I step out on the long descent, passing uphill walkers with a wave and a nod but offering no conversation. To be fair, most are too busy to talk, looking very serious about marching to the summit, because today is Saturday and they are weekenders, obliged to cram seven days’ pleasure into a few short hours. I hammer on towards Hawes, looking forward to a pot of tea and a sandwich before finalising my plans for Horton or Ribblehead, when I gasp in pain as my left knee rebels and forces me to a sudden halt.

As John Lennon sang, ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’
So much for a twelve-day walk.
So much for a finish on foot.

Two days earlier, I felt my knee bend a little too far as I was descending Cauldron Snout. Now I fear the worst. Leaning on my poles, not daring to move my leg, I can’t tell the extent of the damage, or even exactly where it is centred. The pain comes from the right side of the left knee joint, but my knowledge of anatomy is limited and I can’t guess the implications. My first thought is that this is the end of the walk; instead of strutting to Horton in Ribblesdale, I’ll have to limp to Garsdale Head and catch a train home.

I rub the knee vigorously and then probe with my fingertips. There is a tender spot in the big muscle above the joint. I nervously straighten my leg and then flex it. It feels all right. I take a tentative step. That wasn’t too bad. I try a few short paces. It isn’t right, but I reckon I can walk on it.

‘Bugger it,’ I think. ‘I’ll try to get to Hawes and make my mind up there. If it seizes up while I’m having lunch, then that’s the end of that.’

I bind a broad crepe bandage tightly round my leg and set off shrouded in doubt, leaning heavily on my trekking poles to nurse the injury, and finally I reach the valley floor at Hardraw. When climbing stiles, I lead with the right leg, keeping the damaged limb as straight as possible, raising it to the level of the sound one before swivelling on top to dismount onto the left. I make the best pace I can to Hawes where, uncomfortable and concerned, I take a seat outside the café and order T4241 and a sandwich. If all else fails, like Napoleon’s army I’ll march on my stomach.

In 1963, on the day the Hot Line between the White House and the Kremlin was established, we approached Hawes from Dentdale Youth Hostel. The hostel was off-route, but, in common with the travelling women at Greenhead, we didn’t have the funds or the imagination to go anywhere else. We numbered four, D’Artagnan having joined the Three Musketeers at Edale for the journey as far as Tan Hill.
We walked through heavy rain all morning, and by the time we reached Hawes we were soaked. We were also well ahead of time, and it made sense to wait in the town rather than outside Keld Youth Hostel; in those days, hostels did not provide access to any part of their interior before five o’clock. We sought out a café, took off our rucksacks, stripped to the waist to an accompaniment of giggles from the female clientele, fished in our packs for dry shirts - those old cotton rucksacks somehow kept out the weather before polythene bags became commonplace - and we ordered tea. After the tea, we decided it was still too wet and too early to leave, so we ordered fish and chips. When we finished, we lit up cigarettes and ordered more tea. Still the rain hammered down. After a while, the staff began to drop hints that we might be thinking of leaving. Our response was to order fish and chips again, and after that we ordered more tea. When at last the rain eased, we paid our bill for eight helpings of fish and chips and thirty-three cups of tea; it totalled thirty shillings (£1.50).
Finally we changed back into our wet shirts and anoraks and shuffled out into the damp market place. Following what was then conventional wisdom to bypass Great Shunner Fell in adverse weather, we walked over the misty Buttertubs Pass where we endured a drenching thunderstorm before decanting ourselves into the unheated drying room of Keld Youth Hostel, a facility which fell woefully short of meeting our demands that foul night. For dinner the warden provided fish and chips, and we ate our packed lunches in bed.

I like Hawes. The memories are all good, and it’s as bustling a place as you’ll find on the Way, with its mixture of real people and tourists. I just hope I won’t have to stay here.

Sharing my table are a man and woman with two small dogs. We exchange smiles and hellos. He has just retired, and they are looking forward to a life of leisure. This is their first escape from home on the Lincolnshire coast, and they are bowled over by the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales.

‘It looks like hard country for walking,’ she says.
‘There are some steep bits, some boggy lonely places, and you could get lost, but it’s great scenery.’
‘How far have you walked?’
I describe my trek and tell them how it all started.
‘Where’s your support vehicle?’ she asks.
‘I don’t have one.’
‘I suppose you could call for help on your mobile.’
‘It’s at home.’
‘Don’t you think it’s dangerous, what you’re doing?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe, if something goes wrong.’
Her husband stirs.
‘That’s the attraction,’ he says, ‘being self reliant and independent. Kids today are growing up tied to a bloody mobile phone. They’ll have no idea how to look after themselves, and then what sort of a nation will we have? The bloody Welfare State already has most of ‘em thinking the country owes ‘em a living.’

Although notable exceptions exist, like the two kids I dined with the night before, I share his pessimism for youth. The 1951 Ministerial Statement announcing the Pennine Way expressed the wish that ‘large numbers, particularly of the younger generations, will find fresh interest, enjoyment and physical fitness in these remote hills’. Maybe when school is out for summer more youngsters with boots and rucksacks will learn the pleasure and pain of life on the roof of England. But nearly everyone I meet on the Pennine Way is mature to middle-aged, and I hear of some who are downright ancient.

It’s Wainwright’s fault. Wainwright showed by example and in print that older people can enjoy fell walking. Interest in his meticulous script, painstaking sketches and gruff humour mushroomed during the eighties and nineties, when more leisure time became available. Some of that increase arose from the unwelcome agents of recession and redundancy, when large numbers withdrew involuntarily from the labour market. But many had been born late enough to benefit from post-war improvements to diet and living conditions. They had a greater awareness of health issues and were much fitter than their parents had been at the same age. As a consequence, more members of the older generations than ever before are out and about on the footpaths of Britain, members of an important pressure group in outdoor recreation: Codger Power.

And we Codgers, especially those who remember the condition of parts of the Pennine Way in the nineteen-eighties, appreciate a bit of paving. We know that many of the half-hidden cobbled causeys in Pennine valleys stem from long ago, when industrial imperatives forced men and women to abandon their traditional lifestyles and hasten down to the mills. Our Yellow Brick Road across the peat will peep through future encroachments of vegetation and tell generations yet to be born how, at the end of the second millennium, we in turn responded to socio-economic change in our Third Age and hurried instead up to the hills.

After a restful forty-five minutes I stand up and cross the road to secure further supplies of Compeed, doubting I will encounter another opportunity without diverting from the Way. My leg is no more troublesome than when I sat down, so I take a deep breath and phone for a bed at Horton in Ribblesdale. Finally, I stock up on Chunky KitKats for the fourteen-mile afternoon walk.

Leaving Hawes by the side of the church, the Pennine Way instantly abandons the busy street in favour of green pastures, and after passing through the meadows above Gayle begins its steady climb to Ten End. My leg muscle plays up, and I pause to lean on my sticks every few steps as I contemplate whether to go on. My conversation with the couple in Hawes returns to haunt me.

Trial and error teach me to keep the injured leg as straight as possible, so I seek a route where my left foot limps in a tractor rut while my right holds to a slightly higher line. I turn and stare at the Wensleydale view whenever walkers come towards me; most look like morning departures from Horton’s bed and breakfast houses, making their final approach to Hawes and no doubt looking forward to a brew and a bath and a nap. I don’t want them to see me struggling, particularly those who look like wiseacres eager to breathe gloom and doom about the fate awaiting an injured hiker on the fells. Nor do I wish them to know I am walking two days’ allocation in one; nobody appreciates a smart-arse, especially a wounded one who behaves as if he is crazy, and I have no desire to confirm to them what I said somewhat indelicately to the woman from Styal Prison, that they haven’t got us all locked up yet.

Nursing my knee and ignoring the pain, I drag myself to the level ground at Ten End, after which a cart track across the flank of Dodd Fell provides useful ruts for the left boot and smooth soft grass for the right. I take my last look at the broad green basin of Upper Wensleydale and the now distant brown sentinel of Great Shunner Fell before stumping along towards Kidhow Gate.

Northbound campers, mostly lone and middle-aged, plod by. Few team up. Theirs is a solitary pursuit, played out in surly silence. Would it really hurt them to extend a cheery greeting? Might it brighten them inside while enhancing my day? I’ll never know. But if they don’t care, neither do I, because I also don’t want to talk. The Pennine Way, and more immediately my survival as far as Horton, has taken me over.

The midges, however, are anything but reticent in the still air. They endow me with love-bites as I plough on, especially when I pause to take in the glorious three hundred and sixty degree panorama of peaks, now repositioned in relation to each other since my initial sighting four hours earlier from Great Shunner Fell. I allow myself the added satisfaction of seeing the far-away Lake District recede over my right shoulder, yet another measure of my southward progress into the late afternoon.

The walk between Hawes and Horton is easy. Some find it lonely, but I am untroubled by isolation. Groups of trail bikers pass me, and on each occasion they approach slowly and quietly, the front rider glancing round and raising a hand as he passes.

‘What do you think to that, Suzy?’ I say. ‘Fred was right. They’re not so bad, are they?’

A farmer waves as he drives his Range Rover up from Cam Houses.

Heading north late into the day come other walkers, any of whom will take a message should I need help.
I stop to adjust my bandage before heading along the downhill gradient of Cam High Road, where my stone-beaten feet seek out the roadside grass. In a scenic climax to a great day, late afternoon light casts subtleties of shade and colour across Ingleborough and Penyghent. Whernside looms to my right, its shadowy east face brooding over the farms at Gearstones and the inn at Ribblehead. Long distances separate the three summits, and an extensive field of sun-brushed whale-backed drumlins, remnants of the Ice Age, presents an energy-sapping obstacle course for Three-Peakers between their high-spirited descent from Penyghent and a steep climb up Whernside. The immensity of the landscape dwarfs even the massive viaduct on the Settle-Carlisle railway. Sun reflects from cars travelling the faraway, thin, metalled ribbon between Ingleton and Hawes, but apart from the baas of sheep and the tak-tak of trekking poles, all is silent.

We had a wonderful crossing of that territory in 1963. Starting from Malham Youth Hostel, Neil sacrificed forty-five minutes above Malham Cove chatting up two girls from the Isle of Man, then we legged it past the Tarn and over Fountains Fell, swooping down to Dale Head and up Penyghent, where the sun glared through air so still that the match we used to light our cigarettes burned without flickering, before we finished with a late chase across the drumlins to Dentdale Youth Hostel. None of the paths were as good as they are today, but we had found our walking legs by then and felt in control for the first time since leaving Edale.
We arrived just in time for the evening meal, but a party of youngsters had already emptied the hot water tank so it was a cold wash for us. As we sat squeezing the last dregs from the after-dinner teapot, one of the kids asked, ‘Aren’t you men (at sixteen, I was flattered) going to the pub?’
‘Don’t be cheeky. There is no pub,’ we said.
‘There’s one just down the road,’ he retorted, wiping the table and swiping our cups.
We looked at each other and then at him.
‘If you’re lying,’ Neil said, ‘we’ll skin you alive when we get back.’
We rebooted (which in those days had nothing to do with computers) and set off down the hill. About a mile away, its designation obscured under a worn crease in our much-used map, we discovered the Sportsman’s Inn, where we drank until we’d covered a round table with empty bottles of Younger’s Double Century Ale. What an unexpected treat! The pub was a real novelty to us, its walls and shelves shining with brass and copper. The landlord agreed that we could have free lunchtime drinking if we returned next day to polish all his metal ware. Instead we splashed our way north to Keld.

As I walk south in the harsh reality of year 2000, the pale grey limestone pavement west of Horton is underscored by the brash white smear of the quarry. The recumbent lions of Ingleborough and Penyghent have been sleeping on the job! Beyond, the greenery of the Craven lowlands expands into a broad vista entirely different from any other part of the Way, a source of either disappointment or relief for the southbound traveller, signalling as it does the forthcoming end of the deep creases of the Yorkshire Dales and the start of a gentler interlude. In the far distance, tabular moors, one distinguishable from the other only by subtle tones in blue and grey, mark the mosses of the South Pennines.

I feel dismay on three counts: firstly, I really think something should be done about the quarry; secondly, the way ahead is looking too wide and easy, compared with the rough tough stuff behind me; and finally, the horrible dark dome to the left of Pendle Hill, ominous and hideous, full of bogs and malice, with snares of heather and misleading sheep tracks, could that be Ickornshaw Moor?

Underfoot, it seems that stones of every irregular shape and awkward size have been transported from the quarry at Horton and placed, pointed end up, on the undulating track over the drumlins. The soles of my feet and the ends of my toes complain that they’ve done their share for the day. I answer back that they’ll be sorry if they don’t press on, because there is no food, no shower and no shelter up here. It is incumbent on them to tolerate the underlying going, no matter how hard it might be. I tell them I appreciate their efforts and that, if today’s fantasy comes true, my landlady will be a kind and sympathetic soul who will run a hot bath, scented with oils and overflowing with bubbles. My feet will enjoy a prolonged soak, while she takes pity on my stomach by warming up some leftovers - I have in mind a tasty chicken casserole, perhaps with a baked potato or some French bread and salad - to save my legs walking to the Golden Lion. Then she’ll ask if my knee is hurting, and I’ll bravely say it is a little painful, but I think I can manage. She’ll smile and suggest a little light massage. She’s just gone to get the oil and change into something more comfortable when a posse of trail bikes farts by, breaking the spell.

At that point I turn uphill for the last short climb of the day, away from the drumlins and onto Birkwith Moor, then totally alone I descend the long walled lane across the limestone pastures, leading eventually to the Crown Inn and Horton. It is 7.00pm on a glorious evening when I reach the village. I have walked twenty-seven miles and as a matter of pride I maintain my gait amongst tired finishers of the Three Peaks Walk and march to meet my fantasy landlady.

The door is opened by a powerfully built young man who looks as if he massages bulls for recreation. As part of his training, he has either dispensed with airs and graces or chosen to acquire none. He brusquely shows me to a delightful room with a double bed and a view of Penyghent, points out the bathroom and lavatory, enquires if I’d like fresh milk for tea and coffee, asks what time I want breakfast, then he ends the audience by saying he’ll see me in the morning. No frills: I know all I need to know, including the certainty that I no longer fancy a massage.

I tip the contents of my rucksack onto the floor and spread my sweaty clothes over the furniture to dry. I unwind the crepe bandage from my thigh, peel off my plasters and then fill the bath. I luxuriate under the soapy scum until the water feels cool, and finally I clean the muck from the sides. Since the coq au vin is obviously not coming to me, I’d better drag myself to the pub.

Eight o’clock on Saturday, and the Golden Lion is warming up. Between the beer pumps stand laminated bills of fare, with separate pages for starter, main and dessert courses. I pick them up and make my choice, then I try replacing them, but one sheet starts to slip behind the bar just as the barman turns to serve me. Everything then happens as if in slow motion. I try to catch the falling menu at the same time as apologising for appearing to throw it at him. In doing so I send the remaining sheets after the first. With an unavailing second snatch, I dislodge two electric beer pumps from the bar, spilling the slop trays. I try to grab the hardware but miss, and the whole shooting match is left swinging bar-side, suspended by wires and plastic pipes.

The barman grins tolerantly at my inept display. As I make my second apology, he begins the reinstatement of his dripping empire. From behind me a loud voice calls, ‘Ey, lad. If tha dun’t mek a complete mess o’ things t’ first time, keep goin’ ‘til tha does.’

I turn to face my judge and see the whole room smirking at my clumsiness. Shrugging my shoulders, holding out my hands palms upwards, I appeal to them.

‘Give me a break, folks,’ I say. ‘I might look as if I’ve had one too many, but I haven’t touched a drop all day. Honest.’

I place my food order and carefully carry my shandy to a table, where I sit amongst sunburnt and thirsty walkers, rehydrating after their day out. Horton is a popular starting and finishing point for the Three Peaks Walk, and every weekend people come here to test themselves against the circuit within the twelve-hour time limit.

Four men on the next table have ordered soup. The young waitress puts down the steaming bowls and hands over their eating irons, which are wrapped in paper napkins. Before she can leave the room, one of the diners shouts after her.

‘Excuse me, luv, but is this soup very thick?’
‘What?’ she snaps.
‘I asked if it wa’ thick, cos yer’ve left us knives and forks ter eat it wi’.’

She flounces away and returns with spoons, which she flings onto the table before stamping back to the kitchen. The four look at each other. After a moment’s silence the oldest shakes his head and says in a world-weary voice, ‘Now yer’ve done it. She’ll gob on t’ main course, yer knaw.’

Two young men to my left are served with burgers and chips and garnish, plus two extra side orders of chips. The table creaks under the weight. At first I think there has been a mistake with the order, but they seem unfazed by the abundance and set about lathering everything with salt and vinegar. All around me people are consuming enormous quantities of food, washed down by pint after pint of beer, but I want to sleep all night rather than pee, so I stick with one pint of shandy. That decision also sits comfortably with my latest risk management strategy: it keeps me away from my danger zone at the bar.

A party of twenty young women arrives, dressed to kill, and one look at their determined faces suggests they could easily achieve such a result in unarmed combat. The SAS would think twice about taking on that lot. They are shepherded into a function room for their hen party, and I feel relieved that I won’t be around by the time they get into their cups - or out of them. Meanwhile the local guys and gals are meeting up at the bar. I watch them playing out their strange mixture of flirting and competing while simultaneously bonding against society beyond. Are any two of them an item? I can’t tell.

Deciding to call it a day, I step carefully from the enclosed world of the Golden Lion, past the campsite where youngsters are cooking dinner or killing time before retiring, through the late low sun which gilds the shoulder of Penyghent, and into my room. I undress and lie on my back. A burning sensation spreads upwards from the soles of my feet, through my calves, past my knees and into my thighs. My last thought as I sink gently into sleep is whether I’ll have the power in my legs to continue south to Malham.

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