First Steps

As long ago as I can remember, Dad took me and my sister walking.

We were lucky enough to live on the outskirts of Otley, a small manufacturing-cum-market town in mid-Wharfedale. Opposite our front door the valley side rose and the countryside began. Every weekend we climbed slowly up the steep old lane with cattle-grazed pastures to each side, branching off onto footpaths that led us into scrubby woods of oak, birch and sycamore, where we scrambled over the tumbled stones of ancient field walls to forge ever higher, parting the pale-green stems of bracken, its dewy summer fronds brushing the town grime from our faces, until we reached the windswept boulders of Millstone Grit on the heather-covered crest of The Chevin, seven hundred breathless feet above our home. Such were the wild playgrounds of our childhood.

Dad’s walks were pure theatre. He never cared about completing a pre-ordained number of miles. At home he abandoned the boiler suit of a printer’s engineer to become an entertainer, and we were his rapt audience. When autumn mists filled the hollows and water droplets condensed on bare branches, Dad never failed to conjure a rainbow of excitement out of the fallen leaves. As we walked he made up stories in which he cast us in fantasy roles to fight improbable battles against impossible odds. From behind a rock, the evil Doctor Fu Manchu materialised and declaimed his intent to rule the world. Ahead of us, the hillside heaved, and a fire-breathing monster emerged, shrugging huge boulders and soil from its armoured flanks. We alone, with hazel bows and willow arrows, makeshift wooden swords and puny strength, could save the town, the Queen, the country, the Earth! Running over grassy hummocks on our urgent missions, kicking through decades of leaf-mould, climbing rocks and skinning our knees, dodging between goat willow and silver birch, skilfully directed by Dad in our struggle against malicious forces, we were blissfully unaware of the regular workouts that were building up our muscles for even more serious ventures in the years ahead.

From our hilltop, the view south took in the sullen woollen towns and cities slumped in the valley of the River Aire. Hundreds of mill chimneys puffed black smoke from coal-fired furnaces, obscuring the western skyline where the cultural tectonic plate of Yorkshire clashes against that of Lancashire on the Pennine watershed.

‘It’s awful over that way, all smoke and muck,’ Dad told us, feeding us peppermints dredged from the tobacco-tainted depths of his jacket pockets. ‘Now turn round.’

He pointed to the north and told us that beyond Wharfedale the purple moors that formed the skyline hid valley after valley with stonewalled green pastures and small villages in a sequence that repeated itself all the way to the Scottish border.

‘Lovely country, that,’ Dad said to me. ‘When you’re bigger, I’ll take you over there. We’ll do some long walks.’

And we did. One Saturday when I was eight or nine, Mum made sandwiches and filled a flask with tea, then Dad and I walked north over the hill and out of Wharfedale. On the way he showed me the military camp where soldiers had been based in World War II and pointed out the gates of Farnley Hall, home of the Fawkes family who had sponsored the painter JMW Turner. In what seemed no time at all we’d crossed the watershed and descended into the narrow confines of the Washburn valley. I found myself in a land of steep slopes, grassy fields, scattered farms, conifer plantations, and what to me were enormous reservoirs. I’d never seen anything like it, except for pictures in an encyclopaedia. I was sure none of my friends had either; the valley was ill served by public transport, and nobody we knew ran a car; if you went there at all, you cycled or you walked.

Dad and I hiked beside a reservoir, where we sat on his raincoat among the larch trees to eat our sandwiches. We saw a great crested grebe on the water. We walked alongside a millstream, where speckled trout waved their tails in the clear flow, and we stopped to marvel at the splashing water wheel as it turned its groaning machinery, shaking the earth and emitting a deep rumble, releasing sweet-smelling dust and stone-ground animal feed. We then followed the little river to its confluence with our River Wharfe and hiked back up the valley and through the town. I was tired, but I’d visited a new world, and I loved it. When we got home, Dad said I’d done well and was a good walker.

Glowing from his praise, I told my mates what I’d done. They were open-mouthed. It wasn’t long before Dad had a growing retinue that included my pals Michael Hardy, Peter Hopper and Robert Ledger following him on our Saturday outings, wearing school caps and raincoats, carrying duffel bags stuffed with drinks and sandwiches. Dad took on a range of duties and responsibilities, including route finding, entertainment, blister repair and crowd control. Until we outgrew what he could do for us, he served us like a rare cross between the Pied Piper, Roald Dahl, Doctor Kildare and Dixon of Dock Green.

Along with most of my contemporaries I joined the Scouts. We were taken camping, where we learned how to pitch tents, make ourselves comfortable and safe, and cook on open fires. We picked up a new vocabulary that you won’t find in Baden Powell’s writings and found ourselves sharply corrected when we tried it out at home.

One Saturday we went hiking. The day was hot, and we youngsters found it hard. Some whined and moaned, but the older ones chivvied us on. I remember plugging away at the hill we were climbing, refusing to give in to my aching calves and breathlessness. All of a sudden the gradient eased and I stood alone on the summit, and when I looked back the others were still sweating and panting far below, staring up with expressions of envy. I’ll always remember that moment. For the first time, I could forget my dismal performance with a cricket bat and my mediocrity on the soccer field. I’d found something I was good at. Better than that, I was the best, and everyone knew it.

Each summer we joined forces with another Scout Group for a week’s camp at the seaside. That’s how I met Neil and Obie. They were skilled at cooking on wood fires, and were capable of feeding more than twenty boys at a time. They could tie all the knots and knew how to build aerial runways through the trees. They were five years older than me, responsible citizens aged sixteen. It can’t be all that long ago, for goodness’ sake: Cliff Richard was in the charts with ‘Living Doll’!

I joined their Youth Club and played table tennis and snooker, smoked cigarettes and danced with girls. Neil was the Club leader. Tall and lean, good-looking and quick to laughter, a real ladies’ man, Neil organised Sunday hikes and even hired a coach to visit places like Malham, where we saw our first Pennine Way sign. One Easter he organised a youth hostelling weekend in the Lake District. We found that pretty tough, with some long days and hard climbs, much more arduous than the Yorkshire Dales, but the social side was brilliant: free from parental supervision, we sneaked illicit drinks of cider and shandy and encountered groups like ours from the far-flung towns of Lancashire. We made repeat visits to the Lakes in the following two years, growing stronger and fitter each time.

I suppose I was fifteen or sixteen when I contracted Pennine Way Virus. It was my parents’ fault: they bought me the book. Written by Kenneth Oldham, it was called ‘The Pennine Way’. I read and re-read it, fascinated by every word, map and picture. Kenneth took his readers to foreign-sounding places such as Kinder Scout and distant hills like the Cheviots, linking them with Malham Cove and Penyghent, my familiar favourites. He brought to life an outstanding adventure, and whilst the quoted distance of two hundred and fifty miles far exceeded anything I’d attempted, his photographs of hikers negotiating alien uplands showed lads who looked no older than me. I wanted to do the walk, but I feared ridicule from my peers so I kept my mouth shut. It became my Secret Dream.

At Easter 1963, while peace campaigners rioted outside the Aldermaston nuclear weapons site, our Youth Club completed its planned traverse of Lake District peaks and passes with time and energy to spare. On the train home, I asked Neil if he’d heard of the Pennine Way.

‘Course I’ve heard of it,’ he yelled, so loudly no one could fail to hear. ‘Hey, I know! We’ll do the Pennine Way next!’ Then, looking at me, he asked, ‘You coming?’
Was I ever!
‘Who else, do you think?’ he asked, looking round. ‘What about you, Obie?’

Obie was Neil’s opposite: solid and reliable, he sat in the corner of the railway carriage behind his shy, slow smile. Everyone called him Obie, but only four people ever knew why. I wasn’t one of them.

That was how we formed our team: Athos, Porthos and Aramis, except when we were Larry, Curly and Mo. Everyone becomes another person on the Pennine Way.

We held what might be described somewhat pretentiously as a Planning Meeting, at which my copy of Kenneth Oldham’s book provided the only hard information. Neil grabbed the jobs of acquiring the Ramblers’ Association booklet on the route and the booking of beds and meals at the youth hostels. Obie and I tacitly accepted that was Neil’s natural role. Thereafter, filled more with optimism than with realism, we sat back as world events unfolded: the Profumo scandal shocked Britain; Cooper floored Clay; JFK mispronounced ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’; Viscount Stangate became Tony Benn; the Great Train Robbers pinched £2.6 million. We, untouched by such trivia, waited for our departure date, the twenty-fourth of August, nineteen-sixty-three.

Neil detailed his mother, who worked for the county library service, to obtain Ordnance Survey maps on extended loan. I took it for granted that my parents would help, so Dad was coerced into transporting us south along the A61 in our recently-acquired 1949 Dormobile. We trundled through the centres of Leeds, Wakefield, Barnsley and Sheffield – there was no M1 motorway in those days - and he dropped us at Ladybower Reservoir, taking our photographs before we set off on a warm-up over the hill to Edale. If he or Mum were concerned, they never mentioned it to me. Mum restricted herself to saying ‘Conduct yourself properly’, which was her standard admonition whenever I left the house. I suppose she felt I’d be safe with Neil and Obie. So did I, until Neil announced at Edale Youth Hostel that his mother had been unable to procure all the maps, a notable omission being the sheet which covered Cross Fell, the highest point on the Pennine Way.

Next Page >>