Levelling The Score

Slowly I drift from the profoundest depths, rising lazily towards the plane of consciousness like a fish to the mirror-like surface of a Sunday morning millpond. Sunbeams smile on the bedroom wall, heralding another glorious day. Lying immobile, stretched out on my back, I take a long, deep breath. I feel weightless, paper-thin, experiencing the sensation of total relaxation one feels when emerging from a general anaesthetic. A glance at the bedside clock shows I have slept for ten hours.

Remaining motionless, I run a quick mental check on my body.

How do I feel?
What about the leg?
I don’t know yet.

Nervous as a kid opening his exam results, I risk a gentle movement of my left leg. There is no discomfort, and a cautious optimism edges its way into my thoughts. Could it be that I have cleared two barriers: my longest southbound day, and the injury that threatened to end my adventure?

Tentatively I ease myself out of bed and stand up, all the time anticipating pain. But nothing hurts, and despite uncertainties about how my knee will perform on the hill, I begin to feel like a new man.

Breakfast proves to be a Kafkaesque experience. My only contact is with the powerfully built, nameless man, who deals efficiently and silently with my needs: cereal, milk, sugar, tea, toast and cooked breakfast. Behind the closed door to the kitchen I hear voices but fail to distinguish words or emotions or even the gender of the speakers. My landlord takes payment and brings my change, but he never engages me in any conversation beyond the minimum essential to our transactions. He has provided a clean and delightfully furnished room in a lovely house with a beautiful view, but he is right to charge one of the cheapest rates along the Pennine Way because, uniquely amongst all my hosts, he has offered me no share of himself or his family.

I am preparing to leave the breakfast table when a movement in the hall distracts me. Out through the conservatory, joining the butterflies as they dance around buddleias in the early sun, floats a young woman with long auburn hair. She is the fantasy masseuse from my foot-aching slog of the previous afternoon. I rush after her, but by the time I reach the door she has vanished.

I sigh and tie my boots before walking to the Penyghent Café, where I dump my rucksack on the pile by the door and sign the Pennine Way logbook before flicking back through recent entries. Gary’s comment from late June reads, ‘Finding some parts hard.’ No surprise there. Gary had carried his tent from East Marton the day he wrote that. I wonder how far I’ll get by the day’s end.

I buy chocolate and explain my lunatic enterprise to the café owner. He must have heard about all manner of daft expeditions but is polite enough to show interest. When I go to retrieve my rucksack from the pile outside the door, a young woman is about to lean hers against mine, so we swap positions and I ask where she is heading.

‘To Hawes, on the Pennine Way.’
‘I’m going south. I’ve gone north for thirty-seven years, and now I’m walking home.’
She laughs. Her teeth flash perfect and white.
‘You’re a nutter,’ she says.
‘I am,’ I reply. ‘And I hope when you’re my age you have time to be a nutter too.’

The Way takes me up a walled track, but after only two hundred yards I feel physically weak and take a rest on an incongruously located but very welcome park-bench. Five minutes later, after a Chunky KitKat and water fortified with rehydration powder in anticipation of a hot day, I suggest to my body that we try again, and away we go. The moral must be, ‘If someone places a park-bench on the Pennine Way, make use of it.’ I begin the long haul up the stony lane towards Penyghent, rejecting my previous night’s thought of cutting across Brackenbottom to bypass the summit. I’ll do it the hard way!

Many a Wayfarer remembers the rough road between Horton and Penyghent as tough on the body when descending at the end of a northbound day, but it provides me with a wonderful start. The views into the pretty limestone valley on my right, with cliffs and dry waterfalls and occasional spring flows, are a pleasure missed by most who are en route to Kirk Yetholm, because they do not stop and turn round to take in the scenery when their minds and feet sense the closeness of that night’s destination.

Penyghent’s magnificent profile is one of the finest panoramas in England. No wonder the Three Peaks are such an attraction. This Sunday morning, early starters are already striding or running from their first summit en route to Whernside and Ingleborough. They span all ages and cut every shape and size of figure; fell-walking is not reserved for the slim and anorexic. Some look distinctly bulky, built more for comfort than for speed, but they make a respectable pace and look at ease on the downhill segments. I think, ‘I’ll have to come back and walk the Three Peaks again,’ but when I question myself, I can’t think why such a challenge matters.

Slow, dead slow, sweating my way up the steep track, I find what I crave at the top - a cool breeze and a few moments’ solitude - while I gaze south and southwest across Craven to the distant hazy moors and Pendle Hill. As I prepare to leave, the next waves of the Sunday multitudes appear as if from nowhere and swarm up six abreast over the rock ledges, radiating a fanatical zeal in their race for the triangulation pillar. My short-lived moment of summit peace was precious indeed.

Where the path from Brackenbottom climbs a dry stone wall and joins the Way, a large group of teenage girls rest amongst heavy rucksacks while their adult male leaders stand discussing progress. The sight reminds me of youth club expeditions in hired buses to these very hills. I stride on across the boardwalks that float on quaking ground so wet in 1963, then march along the hard track to Dale Head Farm and onto the minor road beyond, turning over my memories.

Where the Way strikes off up the beautifully named Fountains Fell, another detachment of girls receive counselling from the same leaders, who passed me along the road in their support vehicle. The girls are hearing that once they reach the top it will be all downhill to Malham. It seems to me that a huge gulf separates the leaders and the led, who sit in silence, heads bowed, faces expressionless, looking for all the world like well-equipped refugees. The males stand with arms folded, expounding the virtues of a good hard walk with a heavy rucksack. I leave with the distinct impression that the backpacking weekend is the idea of the jolly-looking men from the van, and the last thing the pedestrian participants want is a hot climb of Fountains Fell.

As I fall into a steady rhythm the warmth of the midday sun trickles sweat down my cheeks and neck, but the exquisite scenery more than compensates for any discomfort and at the same time dispels my fear of the previous evening that I was departing too quickly from the Yorkshire Dales. The exhilaration I felt on top of Great Shunner Fell floods back to raise my spirits; in scenery such as this no target is beyond my range. I am entranced by the intricate quilt of subdued tones on the endless flanks of the broad dale between Penyghent and Fountains Fell: heather and bilberry atop peat hags; reeds and mat grass; fescue and bent grass and limestone pavement; farm houses with a handful of ash and sycamore trees; dry-stone walls, climbing improbably over every texture from the dale to the highest windswept crests. Thank goodness for this dogleg, which leads the Way over such a bleakly beautiful a landscape.

From the top of Fountains Fell, sun reflects off the polished shield of Malham Tarn, signalling to me through the heat haze. The hard-surfaced track that leads south has transformed the route since 1963, but a residual peat hag beside this new broad highway is a reminder of the fun and games once unavoidable here and on the last two southbound days. But Fountains Fell is much more than millions of tonnes of cold wet rock, soil, peat and poor vegetation; it is also a romantic place. Climbing towards me come a boy and girl with heavy rucksacks. They look about seventeen.

‘How far are you going?’ I ask.
‘Kirk Yetholm,’ he replies.
‘Good for you. I’ve just come from there. You’ve got plenty to carry.’
‘It’s all right,’ he says. ‘I’ve got a packhorse.’

Then, realising what he has done, he puts his arm round her shoulders and tenderly kisses the top of her head. She doesn’t react, and he probably thinks he has got away with his blunder. He is too young to imagine how carefully she will store the fall-out from his failed witticism, too innocent to realise it will be turned against him one day in the distant future when he thought it long forgotten.

Ah, romance! A few weeks after my 1963 walk I attended a residential course for A-level Geography students at Malham Tarn Field Centre. On our second day we were led up Fountains Fell, a large group straggling across the hillside. I became aware of Sarah walking beside me. Sarah came from a girls’ school in York. We hadn’t spoken before, but we looked across at each other and reached out and held hands. That signalled the start of three evenings of passionate snogging, followed by weeks of intense letter writing. And that’s where it ended.

I have no time for such nonsense now and stop only to fill my bottles at a gushing stream before racing down to the green grass that marks the Great Scar Limestone, the foundation of Malham’s outstanding geomorphology. Where the Way crosses the road near Tennant Gill Farm, I sit on a fallen wall, take off my boots, and spread my socks to dry in the hot sun, while Mary Pepper’s delicious cakes, held over from the previous day, top off my lunch break. Then I am back to my duty, charging through the landscape of green and white, where cattle and sheep browse the sweet pastures, and ancient stone walls bow and bend and lean crazily to the point of collapse. Again the downhill race is on!

Sunday visitors to Malham Tarn who are paddling, strolling, sitting and cycling in idyllic weather must wonder if my pants have caught fire. Ignoring the ice cream van on the road at Water Sinks, where tourists are enjoying flasks and sandwiches, I race across the close-cropped turf and slide downhill over shiny foot-smoothed limestone into the narrowing confines where pale grey cliffs mark the junction of two dry valleys. The route here is safer and less interesting than it was in the nineteen-sixties, when it clung narrow and uneven to the cliff face, but even today it is tough and slippery enough. I descend the rocky defile in grimacing discomfort before heading south down Watlowes dry valley, beneath a grass and limestone skyline rough-chewed by nature, towards the final unavoidable obstacle, the clints and grikes above the huge cliff of Malham Cove.

A multitude negotiates the weathered blocks and narrow channels, and I join them in putting safety before speed. Plants and invertebrates living in the grikes - the channels between the clints, or limestone blocks - must puzzle over the daily invasion of bipeds, who squeak and squeal, shout and laugh, stagger and stumble, expressing wonder and fear at experiences and views such canyon-dwellers can never comprehend. Once I have cleared the natural obstacles I keep going, denying myself a few minutes’ time to gaze once more on a panorama I believe to be amongst Britain’s finest: the airiness; the sense of space and exposure; lynchets above the stone-built village; trees in the valley bottom to the south, coarse grasses on the hilltops; distant views of the South Pennine moors. I must be mad to hurry on.

Injury is taking its toll on my left knee. I lean heavily on the trekking poles, depending on them as if they were crutches, and hop stiff-legged down the steps beside the Cove. Hundreds are relaxing in the hot sun but I don’t linger; my next objective is more important. I press on to the tea garden at Beck Hall and sit in Mediterranean-like sunshine, a whitewashed wall at my back, T4241 and a sandwich on the table, resting my leg, watching residents and casual callers arrive and depart, listening to the decision-making process as families consider the menu, smiling at their efforts to avoid the sun, and admiring the wrinkle-free legs and arms of younger walkers. Eventually I pay up and move on, but only because I’ve decided I will finish the walk within three days.

Malham of my memories, first discovered in the torrential downpour of a Scouts’ hike. Malham, where I saw my first Pennine Way sign. Malham, revisited time and again with the youth club. Malham, our most familiar youth hostel destination on the 1963 expedition, where we each devoured three soups, two main courses and three puddings in a campaign of gluttony which only the young long-distance walker can achieve or understand. Malham, where Sarah and I spent an evening in the bar of the Lister’s Arms, before marching the hard miles to the Field Centre beside the Tarn under a starry sky.

How sad I am that Malham now disappoints me. Its old life has gone. Its shop no longer stocks provisions. It seems little more than a tourist trap.

Only its magnificent scenery is unchanged.

I’ll be back.

I leave behind the non-walking majority and hit the footpath to Gargrave. Last year this walk felt surprisingly hard, even for a first day out, but today I am cruising; my pack seems weightless, the gradients easy. I steam into the village in late sunlight as Sunday evening traffic returns nose to tail to the towns and cities of West Yorkshire.

Gargrave has been prettified since I first knew it. It contains too many holiday homes and commuter dwellings, and it provides insufficient local employment. I realise I’d been wrong the previous evening to conclude that the quarry at Horton should be closed. When we shut down the industries in National Parks, we kill local communities.

I ask about bed and breakfast and am not sorry to draw a blank. My options therefore are to go to Skipton for the night and get a bus back next day, or walk to Thornton in Craven before doing the same. The evening is beautiful, I am feeling good, and a few extra miles under my belt will be a huge psychological boost. I decide to put my best foot forward. I cross the river, passing the spot where in 1963 we made jam sandwiches for lunch on the day Martin Luther King declaimed ‘I have a dream’, but my interests now exclude ethics, politics, statesmanship, even nourishment; I care about nothing but my own southbound progress. I hammer on over the fields to the canal and eventually, after twenty-six miles, into Thornton. There I call Talking Pages, ring for a taxi, and ride into Skipton, where I find a bed. Enough is enough; I can do no more without rest and food. I have brought my goal within reach. The Twelve-Day Pennine Way has me by the throat, but the battle is now even; I’ve grabbed a big handful of its short hairs, and I won’t be letting go!

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