The former American Ambassador, Philip Lader, wrote to me in 1998 and said:
‘Walking through the English Countryside has taught me far more than I could ever have dreamed about the people, history and culture of this wonderful island. My visits with the men and women of villages that I have visited are amongst my most treasured memories of my time in the United Kingdom. It has been a marvellous experience.’
These diaries record in a humorous manner my experiences of walking through the English and Welsh countryside over 26 years.
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The Secret Diaries of a Long-distance Walker
My Secret Diaries of the Brompton Cycling Family can also be found on Facebook or at the link:
Introduction (post 1)
Author (Penguin), walker and amateur photographer.
Nine out of ten men are genetically predisposed to middle-age spread. It is estimated that twenty-five to forty per cent of middle-aged men are affected by andropause, a form of male menopause. So what do you do when you’re hurtling to forty, have declining testosterone, dodgy knees, an expanding waist line, eyesight that is deteriorating, hair that is thinning and you’re still trying to keep the bank manager at bay? Well, by regularly putting one foot in front of the other in the wide open spaces of the countryside, it is possible to limit the size of your midriff, enrich your life in ways that could never have been imagined, experience happiness through ‘walking flow’ (a state of mind where you are so absorbed in the activity of walking that you lose yourself in the activity) and meet some very interesting and charming characters. Hill and long-distance walking gives you rosy cheeks, a bounce in your step, leaner legs and a brighter outlook on life. The hill on the horizon is the way to total fitness: it’s outdoors, it’s exhilarating, and the rolling highs and lows of the countryside will induce you to work harder than most other fitness routines. To walk in the country is to ‘touch’ that which is alive, to learn about yourself as well as your body, to clear your mind of life’s ‘baggage’ and to escape the routines of everyday life. Why long-distance walking? One study into the effects of walking compared three groups taking time off work for the following:
1) A long-distance walk
2) An ordinary holiday
3) Staying at home
The walkers showed a larger degree of mental restoration than the other groups (e.g. proof-reading) and were also a lot fitter at the end of their holiday. A long-distance walk requires a lot more planning than a day or a weekend walk in the country and, as a result, the rewards are so much greater.’
Research has shown that there has been an eighty per cent increase in the distances travelled by car and taxis since 1971, with sixty-six per cent of people driving to work and only thirteen per cent walking, the increased use of the car contributing to reduced levels of fitness. Simply getting off a bus or train a couple of stops earlier or walking rather than driving can make a difference to levels of fitness. It has been estimated that the average American walks just under 1½ miles per week; at that pace it would therefore take two and a half years to walk my 200-mile route, ‘On Foot from Coast to coast: The North of England Way’. However, the benefits of walking are substantial; 2 miles of walking burns off 122-180 calories and is better for you than the occasional game of squash, badminton or tennis. Therefore, a 200 mile long-distance walk should burn off up to 18,000 calories. Walking is one of the easiest, most enjoyable and effective ways to tone up and lose weight. Research has indicated that biochemical changes in the brain associated with exercise generates a real sense of achievement and sense of well-being. In addition, people over fifty who go walking are more sexually active than those that don’t. As far as I am aware there has been no research on the effects of walking on the sex life of those under fifty and I am certainly not going to comment on my own findings; this is not that sort of book and, if you are under fifty, you’ll have to find out yourself. It has also been calculated that over equal distances, nearly as much energy is expended on a walk as it is when running.
In fairly recent years, approximately twenty-five per cent of males and ten per cent of females aged under sixty-five who die do so from coronary heart disease, whilst four per cent of males and six per cent of females who die do so from strokes. If that is not bad enough, another five per cent of males and females who die do so from circulatory problems, which includes heart failure and diseases of the arteries. Vigorous walking makes the heart stronger, improves circulation, decreases the amount of fat in the bloodstream, normalizes blood pressure, diminishes the damaging effects of stress and lessens the chance of having a heart attack or a stroke. However, there are no written guarantees.
So who is this book aimed at? If you see yourself as the next ‘star’ adventurer such as Alan Hinkes:
Reinhold Messner, Chris Bonington or Nicholas Crane, then put it back on the shelf. My one attempt at real adventure, at the age of 17, consisted of climbing Idwal Slabs in Snowdonia, in the process clinging precariously onto thin ledges and hanging on at the end of a rope, but when my knees started to knock I decided climbing wasn’t for me. I enjoy living too much to risk falling off a lump of rock. Fell and long-distance walking does have its dangers but these are less inherent than in climbing.
Here are some pictures of the area, where rescues are fairly regular:
However, if you are aged between thirty and eighty and fed up of any of the following, then this is the book for you:-
Pumping at the gym
Watching your local football team
Television, especially soaps
Playing squash, tennis or badminton
Reading the newspapers
Sitting at a desk all day
Listening to bad news
Stressed at work and home.
Like the natural world and music, walking has rhythm, a distinguishing feature of life from death. When you learn to walk at pace over long distances you learn new rhythms of life, the seasons and the countryside. Nature is full of rhythms, after a period of drought, even trees have been found to emit rhythmic sounds from their cells. Walking, like making music, uses up energy, but also generates it; when I took up long-distance walking my energy increased.
Long-distance walking has been associated with pilgrimages. Each year several thousand people walk to Santiago’s cathedral in Spain on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrim route. However it is not necessary to go all the way to Spain, part of the pilgrim route can be found along the St Michael Way between St Ives and Penzance, to be be described later on.
This is my story of an attempt to stem the tide of middle-age, keep fit, regain lost youth and in the process discover the wonderful English countryside and the freedoms of long-distance walking away from the constraints of modern life; all this on a tight budget. The hardest part of long-distance walking is taking the first step; after that you will have much to remember. However, for me the biggest and most unexpected surprise was that walking resulted in me becoming an author, leading me along paths I could never have dreamed of some ten years earlier.
To read the secret diaries of a long-distance walker is to embark on a journey of many miles from Hadrian’s Wall to Land’s End and from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, encountering some of the best views in England, from magnificent mountains to deep dales, inspiring coastline to large waterfalls, and secluded locations to tourist honey-pots. I also meet some unusual characters, attend some unusual events, from tattoo gatherings to christening and hen parties, and Magician’s performances to Morris dancing. I visit cafés of character from the Pen-y-Ghent café to the Naked Man café, enter intriguing inns from the highest in England to one of the smallest. places of worship will be visited, from a unique 1,000 year old underground crypt to the magnificent ruins of Rievaulx Abbey. En route there is hardship and humour, but, be warned, long-distance walking is addictive; once tried it is difficult to give it up.
To the middle-aged man (or women) developing a paunch and who has become a TV and newspaper couch potato, long-distance walking is the means of getting a new lease of life and refreshing worn out parts previously thought beyond rejuvenation.
When, in May 1997, I thought about doing a photographic book of my first long-distance walking guide, On Foot from Coast to Coast – The North of England Way, I was advised that this could be difficult given the state of book publishing at the time; colour photographs are expensive. One ambition was put on hold. Despite all the modern technology of computers, desk top publishing, design software, laser printers, and scanning of maps, it would appear colour photos are out for now. At this rate, writers of walking books will have to revert to hand writing and drawing as per the guru of all walkers, Alfred Wainwright (known affectionately by all his fans as AW). For anyone who has been living on a different planet for the last forty years and doesn’t know who AW is, I better mention that he is England’s most celebrated author of walking books with over fifty to his credit. He sold millions of books, making a small fortune, which he then used to set up an animal sanctuary. He established that millionaire walkers get more pleasure from standing on top of some windswept mountain than spending money around shops. What is even more incredible is that AW hand-wrote and hand-drew nearly all of his books. The fact that without our word processors no modern author, including myself, can even write his name in a legible fashion may prove a handicap. I had spent over ten years mapping routes, stiles, gates, rivers, fields, fences, walls, pubs, mountains, waterfalls, paths, and roads, in the process walking thousands of miles. Fortunately, I had also kept hand-written diaries of my early long-distance walks; Wainwright would have been proud.
On 22 February 1997, I woke up at 5.00am and ran to the computer to begin typing up my diaries. My qualifications for writing this book are that I’ve worn out numerous pairs of walking boots taking dogs for a walk in the morning and whilst hiking around the English countryside. In addition, I have walked forty three long-distance paths, including amongst the first:
1) 1990: The Dales Way. According to the signs at the start and finish of the walk, 81 from Bowness-on-Windermere to Ilkley, 73 from Ilkley to Bowness-on-Windermere. Work that one out! With diversions I walked 85 miles.
2) 1991: Alfred Wainwright’s classic, A Coast to Coast Walk. 190 miles from St Bees to Robin Hood Bay.
3) 1992: The Cumbria Way. 70 miles from Ulverston to Carlisle.
4) 1993: On Foot from Coast to Coast – The North of England Way. 200 miles from Ravenglass to Scarborough.
5) 1994: The Cumberland Way. 80 miles from Ravenglass to Appleby-in-Westmorland.
6) 1995: The Staveley to Foxfield Horseshoe. 78 miles from Staveley to Foxfield.
7) 1997: On Foot from Settle to Hadrian’s Wall – Hadrian’s Way. 130 miles from Settle to Hadrian’s Wall.
8) 1998: On Foot to Land’s End – The Penwith Way. A circular 59 miles from Penzance, around the Land’s End Peninsula.
However, the most significant attribute for writing a book about walking is an allergy to soaps, in particular EastEnders. Whilst the rest of my family and seventeen million other TV addicts watched EastEnders, I was stirred from a wanton wish to doze, caused by a long day at the office, to disappear to my study and PC and maps. I was quickly transferred to a world of rivers, waterfalls, wilderness, moors, mountains, bridleways, paths and other memories, of walks completed or walks to be attempted.
Over a number of years I have walked in snow, rain, hail, sleet, seventy mph winds, and skin burning sun, indicating that most walkers must be eccentric. To keep a diary of many of these walks proves a certain level of eccentricity. However, I can’t be that mad as walking is regarded as Britain’s foremost participation activity; it is estimated that some twenty million people are regular walkers. Long-distance walkers just happen to walk a little further.
I used to think of walking and writing walking books as a hobby, until I read that there are men who have hobbies and there are men who have lives. Walking certainly gives you a life and therefore can’t be a hobby. Having a hobby is usually about sitting down, such as stamp collecting or making model trains – definitely not long-distance walking. Perhaps walking is a sport? A sport is about competing, moving, and getting exercise. Long-distance walking meets some of these criteria, but is not normally competitive. Therefore, I would describe long-distance walking as an activity, but my wife would say it is an obsession; I think we are both right.
Some of the people I have walked with or met include (so that I don’t get sued the names have been changed!):
Craig: does very little walking, but is popular with the ladies – not featured much in this book as an early decision was made as to which activity he preferred.
Penelope: An energetic female who climbs mountains, does long-distance walks and partakes in martial arts, such as taekwondo. For many years remained single and independent from male commitments. A truly gregarious person, who enjoys the company of animals and frequently talks to them, but rarely gets a response. An international character who has lived in many countries of the world, speaks several languages, including Japanese and sheep-talk. She eventually met and married an Australian and moved there with him, presumably so she could talk to more sheep? On a walk she will incessantly ask questions about aspects of countryside that you have always taken for granted. For example:
‘Why are those stones called the Bridestones?’
‘Haven’t a clue, does it matter?’
However, soon after visiting the Bridestones with me, she did find a husband; so there’s a clue.
Sarah: the English equivalent of Penelope, Sarah is in her mid-twenties, with long blond hair, exceedingly attractive and fit. She is a fell-walker and climber, keeping herself in tip-top condition with two hundred sit-ups and a mile of swimming a day as well as three visits to the gym each week. After being married for six months, her formerly active fell-walking husband had to retire from trips to the countryside, worn out with exhaustion and bad knees. So instead, she takes her energetic mother to youth hostels, climbing such tricky fells as Crinkle Crags and scrambling up Jack’s Rake. Her ambition is to complete the notoriously difficult traverse of the Cuillin Ridge on Skye. She always tends to have a posse of men around her in the pub. However, her greatest attraction is that she can tell her Pathfinder maps from her Explorer maps.
Gary: I could write a book about this person alone, but at this point just to say he has masochistic walking tendencies and goes for the jugular each time. Never takes advice from anyone else, then, after a few pints, despite having suffered intensely on a walk, forgets the hardships to become desperate to do the Pennine Way backwards in two days. He is a ‘shaper’, setting hares running which others chase, never paying attention to such detail as planning the route or how to use a compass in thick mist. Whereas happiness from ‘walking flow’ should result from losing yourself in the activity, Gary simply loses himself in the countryside. On New Year’s Eve, against the advice of relatives and friends, has been known to walk 4 miles in dark Arctic conditions, along isolated paths, just to get a Chinese takeaway. If given the choice between a safe route along a cliff coastal path and a route along a beach which gets cut off at high tide, he will always choose the latter. His track record on long-distance walks is poor, Dales Way – sick for six months afterwards, Offa’s Dyke – retired due to leg injury, West Highland Way – retired due to ankle injury, Herriot Way – rescued by two females, Pennine Way – on first day went in a complete circuit to end back at the start. However, much to everyone’s surprise, he did eventually complete the Pennine Way, solo! When making steep ascents, he frequently claim his old rugby injury is sending spasms of excrutiating pain to the base of his spine; this is simply an excuse to have a rest whilst lying on his back. After half-a-bottle of Australian Chardonnay and a few pints of Guinness the pain miraculously disappears. Prone to losing his car keys, not putting oil in his car so the engine blows and picking up his daughter’s washing instead of his boots. Once reversed his car into a scrap lorry on the way to a walk and had to be rescued by yours truly who was having a day off from walking in order to watch the World Cup (football). Dogs have been known to pee on his boots. Other aggressive dogs recognise an innate fear and head for him rather than other walkers. His trail name of ‘Death or Glory Walker’ is well earned.
Dan: when on a walk has an obsessive interest in food and eating places. Will not enter any food or drink establishment without doing a long-distance walk around it to check it out. If the windows aren’t spotlessly clean he refuses to enter. If they pass the inspection, he then gives the owner the fourth degree on their culinary skills. As well as a passion for food, he also has an addiction to fresh air, frequently leaving windows open at night so that other walkers wake up suffering from hypothermia, or worse, never wake up again. Has yet to be convicted of manslaughter, but has come close on a number of occasions. In his senior years it has been necessary to appoint a carer on his walks as he is prone to falling over. Has a tendency to look back too much at past conquests, such as climbing Kilimanjaro, Everest base camp and Mont Blanc.
Alan: not short of a penny or two and widely travelled. Although he enjoys walking, he has a long lost urge to take up climbing and risk his life. He attends winter mountain courses in the Lake District, enjoys digging snow holes and sliding down hillsides in order to try out his ice-axe techniques. His biggest problem is finding someone who will risk life and limb with him on a venture. He will actively seek out the narrow ridge or scramble down a scree slope. In a fit of frustration he will go to his local sports centre to ascend the climbing wall fifty times; not quite a head banging session, but close. Although he has some similar traits to Gary, unlike the latter he does take precautions and make plans to avoid dangerous situations.
Alf: someone who takes the weather with them on a walk, usually rain. Needs to sing ‘always look on the bright side of life’ a bit more on walks.
Mike: will sometimes turn out for charity walks or challenge walks or maybe a long-distance walk. Usually enrols for such walks in a moment of weakness, after a pint or two in the pub. Has been known to turn up in trainers for a 24-mile mountain challenge walk.
Fred: usually has a job involving physical fitness such as a PE teacher, Army PE instructor, member of the Paras or University Sports Administrator. Despite being superbly fit, he is still prone to blisters (see later for the only solution for blisters).
Archie: tends to be rather quiet and reserved, following where others lead. However, after a pint or two can entertain a whole pub and is quite capable of appearing on ‘Opportunity Knocks’, ‘Strictly Dancing’, Game for a Laugh’ and ‘New Faces’ at the same time. Despite having aches and pains on a walk, rarely complains.
Bill: Spends most of his time trying to work out where the next pub will be and discussing the finer points of Theakstons, Bass, Black Sheep, Ansells, Beamish, to name but a few. He carries a hip flask for emergencies, this being when he hasn’t found a pub for ten miles.
Dave: carries everything that could ever be required in his rucksack including, for 11 months of the year, a survival bag. He also carries survival bags for all the more care-free members of the group. No matter what incident or emergency occurs he has a remedy in his rucksack. In order to keep his rucksack weight down to the minimum, he has all the latest high-tech equipment. Plans for every eventuality.
Theresa: apart from school parties, the other dread when staying at youth hostels is to come across Theresa. Having left the classroom behind, old habits die hard so that Theresa goes round all other hostellers telling them what the best gear is, what the weather will be, what the best route is, where the best food is and so on. Unfortunately, has been known to get it wrong.
Dick: having been born and bred in the Yorkshire Dales he has a passion for the countryside, but always makes the mistake of thinking that the best views in the world, the best rivers, the best mountains and the best pubs are in the Yorkshire Dales.
John also known as Jonah: is grossly overweight, does little walking, forgets to take a compass, carries a huge pack well beyond his fitness, brings the wrong maps, and generally has a pretty bad time on a walk.
Richard: just as you get car drivers that speed recklessly, there are walkers that do the same. They are usually in the younger age bracket sixteen to twenty-one, having just passed a ‘walking test’ by completing a bronze Duke of Edinburgh award and now think they can conquer the world in two days flat. No forethought is given before starting a long-distance walk, then, like reckless drivers, they normally end up with a disaster on their hands.
Pete: have you ever seen walkers spotlessly clean, no mud on their boots, and with the latest immaculate, expensive gear? If so, they will almost certainly be Pete. Their favourite haunt is the pub where they try to chat up the local girls.
Wendy: instead of listening to the sounds of the countryside they must have the comforts of their normal life, whether listening to the news, which is invariably bad, pop music, classical music, radio 4 or whatever takes their fancy. They tend to be rather anti-social preferring to listen to their Ipod rather than other ramblers.
Clint: in his youth he will have climbed routes classed as ‘difficult’ and ‘very difficult.’ As he gets older he becomes more cautious, until climbing is no longer an option, preferring ‘life’ to falling off a mountain on the end of a rope. However, he can’t give up his yearnings for the outdoors and therefore takes up fell-walking and occasionally long-distance walks.
Reg: unlike most teenagers he actually enjoys walking and does not see it as a ‘sad’ activity. He can drag himself away from computer games and the television, being known to successfully enter a number of challenge walks including the ‘Three Peaks of Yorkshire’, The Lyke Wake Walk and the annual Boxing Day village walk. The only time he gets caught out is when he trips up on leaving a pub, this inability to put one foot in front of the other being caused by his inexperience in the consumption of alcohol.
Fay: a rare variety of walker, who just happens to be a professional magician. If you come across anyone dressed all in black with a coloured neckerchief, it could be Fay. She is guaranteed to entertain a whole pub with her tricks, including making bottles pass through wooden tables. Anyone who can do that is impressive, as I have trouble getting an empty bottle into a bin, especially if I’ve drunk the contents. Watch out for the walking stick that is reversible, can be folded to a quarter of its size, and may even be used to hit members of the audience who are not paying attention.
Phil: a common type of walker who will usually have been a walker most of his life, although may not become really enthusiastic until over forty. They tend to hoard together in groups for safety then, after a day’s walking, will regard a slide show or half-a-pint of lager as an exciting night out. The long-distance walkers amongst them tend to be retired joggers or fell-runners who simply can’t stop; they just slow down. With today’s youngsters getting less and less active it could be that the Phil and his sort will become an endangered species in the 21st century.
Sid the Yorkshireman: having spent his life looking after pigs, this true Yorkshireman came to walking relative late in life in his 50s. Had a tendency to put pigs before women but has now adjusted and puts walking at the top of his list and has completed many long-distance walks. Being a true Yorkshireman he will drive miles to avoid paying parking charges. Whilst generally responsible for outside catering on walks, to get a pint of beer or ice-cream out of him is a minor miracle. Is more likely to get excited about seeing an old Ford tractor than an attractive blonde and can be found foraging around old barns or farmyards to find some old farming equipment. Will go into raptures if he finds a 1930s rusty old combine harvester. However, he is a true Yorkshireman and knows that North Yorkshire is ‘God’s own country’ and arguably the best place on the planet.
This book is a long-distance walker’s survival guide, based on years of experience, which will provide you with most of what you need to know if attempting a long-distance walk. It will also help you to develop a survival strategy, whilst undertaking regular forays to the countryside and spending hours drooling over maps and walking books. As Chairman of the long-distance walkers’ ‘Ethics ’ Committee, it is important I point out that, in the unlikely event that anyone is inspired by this book to attempt a long-distance walk, they should do it in the proper manner and according to the best traditions of long-distance walkers (see later ). Walking is a noble activity that must have noble aims and objectives.
The Formative Years
21 January 1952 – 1958: the beginning, aged 0 to 6.
On arrival in the world my walking progress was rather slow as, for the first year, I was a bottom ‘shuffler’, that is I found my bottom far better for getting about on than my legs. This defect was obviously genetic as my son, some thirty years later, had the same defect. I am convinced that, if it hadn’t been for this early set back, I would have beaten Sir Ranulph Fiennes in the first unassisted crossing of Antarctica and been the first person to reach the top of Everest without oxygen.
1958 -1970: sowing the seeds, aged 6 to 18.
Having just about learnt to walk and talk, I discovered that in 1947 my father was a founder member of the Wolverhampton Countrywide Holiday Association (CHA). Surviving the war, he had to find something to do apart from starting the baby boom, the latter of which my brother and myself were the result. The then CHA (now Holiday Fellowship) is now a large organisation which, apart from walking, encourages members to participate in other activities such as dancing. All I can manage in the evening after a day’s walk is a visit to the pub. In those days my father was deemed eccentric in walking for pleasure in the countryside. Men and women walking in the Lake District in the pre-Wainwright era were regarded as somewhat odd, whereas now it is an acceptable and very popular activity.
As a child, I was an avid reader of the Eagle comic, which gave excellent advice for walkers being chased by wolves. In the example given you do have a gun with one bullet in it. The advice is that, in order to survive, you should shoot the leading wolf and the others then stop to eat it, while you make your get-away. I have never forgotten that advice but have yet to put it into practice. You don’t see many wolves in the Lake District or Yorkshire Dales.
Having a father and mother who were keen walkers meant days out in the countryside. As there was little other entertainment in those days, apart from watching Aston Villa play (was that entertainment?) or playing chess, it didn’t seem too much of a hardship. The worst thing was travelling in the car along long, winding lanes, and, on one occasion, whilst playing chess, I was travel sick and deposited my lunch on the floor of the car. I admit it was an unusual way of escaping from a losing position, but it worked and at the same time made me feel a lot better.
We frequently went walking on Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Here I played hide and seek with friends amongst the silver birch and oak trees. I watched the TV programme 999, revealing that on the Chase there are lots of hidden holes in the ground and a boy, having fallen in one, was lucky to be alive. If you watch programmes like 999 too often it makes you scared to even go out of the doors, let alone venture onto the hills. As well as hidden holes, which I never knew existed, I was lucky to survive the summer midges which regarded me as tasty meat. Have you ever swotted midges for three hours with bracken? If you haven’t, take it from me, it is soul destroying and in the end the midges win.
Teenage years are not really for walking as there are other distractions, not least the opposite sex. My teenage children said on numerous occasions that walking is a ‘sad’ activity. After ‘A’-levels, I was more interested in parties and the opposite sex and for three months I managed to go out every night, financing the evenings by taking bottles back from the parties the night before so as to get refunds. In 1970, it was still a world where nothing could be disposed of; hence people paid you for taking empty bottles back. This was profitable enough to give me sufficient funds to go to the pub the following evening. The advent of bottle banks, where you dispose of bottles but get nothing in return, seems a backward step. Why call it a bottle bank when it fails to dispense cash? I did keep fit as Captain of the school basketball team and also playing football for the school team.
However, my brother was in the 99 climbing club which had a little cottage in Wales near Snowdonia, Actually it was a wreck of a cottage and they put bunk beds and a roof on it.
They also used to go climbing in Derbyshire and while they climbed Ilam Rock in the meantime I walked lovely Dovedale.
Night time was spent in the nearby cave with drip drips all night
1970 to 1973: The Hour of Thoughtless Youth, aged 18 to 21.
To understand what I mean by the hour of thoughtless youth you have to read William Wordsworth’s poem Lines, composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey when he revisited the banks of the River Wye during a tour on 13 July 1798.
.’…For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing often times
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense of sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore I am still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
Got it? If not, read it again and try to remember what you were like when you were aged 18 to 21, pretty thoughtless about the countryside?
In 1970, I went to the University of Wales Swansea, having decided to go there after a school geography field trip on the nearby beautiful Gower Peninsula. After regular walking practice, 100 yards across the campus to the University bar, Mike and myself decided to spend a week during our summer vacation walking part of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. This National Trail starts at Ambroth, near Saundersfoot, finishing some 180 miles further on at St Dogmaels, near Cardigan. I am told it is a fine walk along dramatic coastline, with rugged cliff tops and sandy beaches. However, at the tender age of 19, I was very much in the ‘Hour of Thoughtless Youth’ and can only recall singing outside a youth hostel with a group of Germans, drinking in pubs, then reaching Fishguard, the premature end of our walk. The walk didn’t impress Mike either as, seeing him after 26 years, he indicated that he had not done a long-distance walk since, having developed an aversion to any form of walking, unless it was less than one hundred yards to a pub.
1973 – 1976: The honeymoon, aged 21 to 24.
In 1973 I married Celia. Or did Celia marry me?
in 1975, we moved to the St Just on the Land’s End Peninsula; if you don’t become interested in walking in such a dramatic and beautiful landscape then you never will. Although the peninsula is quite small, being less than 15 miles in length and less than 10 miles in width, it is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with the best part of the South West Peninsula Coastal path circumventing it. This delightful long-distance walk starts in Minehead, Somerset, finishing some 560 miles later at Poole Harbour, Dorset. About five weeks holiday is required in order to complete the walk in one go, therefore excluding most people apart from Royalty and teachers. It is the longest of all the British National Trails, but for a newly married couple it didn’t seem the best venture to embark upon. We therefore settled for walking the Land’s End Peninsula section, enjoying every mile. As the age of 23 was my pinnacle of fitness, I do not recall the effort required to ascend and descend the coastal footpaths of the peninsula. It was some twenty-two years later that I started to notice that walking the coastal footpath of Cornwall is as hard as walking in the Lake District or other northern fells. Apart from dramatic cliffs near Land’s End, there are magnificent beaches and coves, secluded and delightful valleys, breath-taking sunsets, ferocious storms, all against the backdrop of the ever changing Atlantic rollers. There are also wild daffodils in February, palm trees in Penzance, and the little known plant, Echium Pinana, which grows from seed to over twenty feet in two years; this peninsula feels like an island despite being attached to the mainland of Britain. The light in the area is renown, attracting many artists and photographers, particularly to St Ives. St Just is where my wife once wished to retire to, despite the thirty gales a year, sea mist and salt spray that stunts the growth of trees so that they grow parallel with the horizon.
After four memorable and relaxing years in Cornwall it was time to develop my career by moving to Oxford Brookes University. This may have been a good career move, but it was not particularly good for developing an interest in walking. Oxfordshire is very flat and much of the countryside is in private ownership. The honeymoon was not completely over, all was not lost; in between having two children we did manage walks around the delightful grounds of Blenheim Palace and sample some of the delights of the Chilterns. In order to stem an expanding waistline, I joined the fitness freaks and took up jogging and fun runs. I still can’t see the fun of running completely breathless for 6 to 10 miles, seeing little of the countryside and risking all sorts of knee and ankle injuries. In the absence of any other exercise at the time, apart from changing nappies, it seemed the only way of putting off a heart attack.
1976 – 1988: A new beginning, aged 24 to 36.
In 1976, a colleague said, ‘There is a job at the University of York you would like,’ obviously wishing to get rid of me. Long-distance walkers with no decent walks available are miserable colleagues and acquaintances.
‘Where exactly is York?’ I replied, having never previously been there and forgotten my ‘A’-level Geography.
‘It’s in the north-east,’ she replied, ‘near Hull.’
I got the maps out and began reading about the area. The Yorkshire Wolds, Yorkshire Moors, Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District were all within striking distance; this suggested a well-situated City. It also had lots of historical attractions and museums and the job sounded interesting. I applied and was invited for interview. The train arrived at Sheffield, then Doncaster, and with every industrial eyesore next to the railway line I thought, ‘big mistake this coming north.’ However, suddenly, the industrial waste turned to green and my heart lifted. I then came out of the railway station, saw York Minster, and thought this is the place for me; luckily, so did the University of York. It took two years to get my house moving sorted out. I then had some spare time and the opportunity to start exploring the surrounding countryside….. Life begins towards forty.
October 1988: A first adventure, aged 36.
Walked with Craig from the Stainforth/ Halton Gill road, in the Yorkshire Dales to the top of Pen-y-ghent, one of the famous ‘Three-peaks of Yorkshire.’ It was misty on the top and there were no views other than Craig covered in mud. This walk obviously left Craig with such a memorable impression, he has hardly been seen on a walk since. He clearly decided that ladies were more interesting and exciting than the top of Pen-y-ghent, concentrating on the former ever since – who can blame him? When I tell him about my latest conquest (e.g Skiddaw, Snowdon, Ingleborough, the Cheviot, Great Gable, The North of England Way , Wainwright’s Coast to Coast) he tells me about the latest lady in his life.
16 July 1989: Getting serious
Walk with Alan, starting at 10.00am from Ingleton in the Yorkshire Dales, to the top of Ingleborough, another of the ‘Three-peaks’ of Yorkshire. Descended to Ribblehead viaduct, then climbed Whernside, a second ‘Three-peaker.’ Developed blisters on the top of Whernside. It was a warm day and we were short of drinks. It seemed very strenuous and we only finished walking at 7.30pm. However, if I could walk 22 miles with little preparation then what could I walk with preparation? This walk changed my life and from that day forward I convinced myself I was Superman and the world was my oyster waiting to be walked over. I clearly got a little carried away as I didn’t go out of the country until 2005 (except to a conference in Limerick – which also changed my life as I discovered Guinness). I also temporarily ‘forgot’ I had a wife, two children, a job, a mortgage and an overdraft. The Yorkshire Dales, Lake District and North York Moors were soon to offer their delights to me……
15 October 1989: The big challenge, aged 37.
In a casual conversation with a friend, like me a middle-aged walker trying to fight off the ravages of age and life, I said, ‘Have you walked the ‘Three Peaks’ of Yorkshire?’
‘No, I haven’t,’ he replied.
‘It’s three peaks over 2,000 feet and involves 24 miles of walking. Have you done any serious walking?’
‘Oh yes, I’ve done the 40-mile Lyke Wake Walk.’ (The one across the North York Moors, where you get a coffin badge at the end, or you end up in a coffin).
‘Great, next weekend we’ll get up at 5.00am, drive the two and a half hours to Horton-in Ribblesdale and do the walk.’ Insanity was starting to creep into my life.
The ‘Three-Peaks’ of Yorkshire route was first completed by the Yorkshire Rambling Club in 1897, and takes in the first, second and seventh highest summits in North Yorkshire, namely Whernside (2419 feet), Ingleborough (2373 feet), and Pen-y-ghent (2273 feet) and, along with the Lyke Wake Walk, is one of the most popular challenge walks in the country.
We started walking the ‘Three Peak’s’ at 8.00am, having clocked into the famous Pen-y-ghent café with the promise that if we did not return that night the mountain rescue team would be sent out for us. Legends are made of such things. What was I doing here at this unearthly hour embarking on a marathon walk with Gary, Ollie, and Fred as company. To my horror Gary shot towards Pen-y-ghent quicker than Linford Christie doing the one hundred metres. He was followed by Ollie in trainers, who was to regret this footwear later on when we were submerged in peat bogs. Help, had I made an awful mistake? I clearly wasn’t fit enough to do this challenge and would never keep up the pace. I desperately tried to increase my speed, but I had enough food in my rucksack to have a picnic at the Henley Regatta and the weight forced me deeper into the bogs. Fortunately, Fred was also lagging behind so that at least I was not left in a peat bog on my own. We eventually rounded a bend at the base of the magnificent mountain to find Gary bent double, depositing his breakfast all over the mountainside.
‘What’s up Gary?’ I said.
‘I feel sick,’ he replied painfully.
‘Well I can see that!’ I said, trying to look away from a pitiful sight.
‘I’ll be alright. Carry on and I’ll catch you up.’ He proceeded to add another layer on the limestone rock that had been there for millions of years. No doubt some geologist in the future will be mystified by the porridge like rock, deposited in 1989. A survey showed that peoples’ biggest fears were death, spiders and seeing someone being sick. There is a chance on a long walk that you will encounter all of these fears, but only remember the last two; perhaps long-distance walks are not for the faint-hearted? However, many walkers are sick on hills after a ‘good’ night out, and so don’t be too sympathetic, I’m not.
Seeing someone else suffer I again felt like superman and my spirits lifted. Don’t believe the ‘comradeship’ bit on the mountains. When you are knackered but your mate is more knackered, it keeps your spirits up and keeps you going. What usually happens is that you are both knackered, but at different times, so the one who is least knackered continues ahead suitably encouraged, whilst the other follows behind swearing and cursing. The roles are then reversed so that the walk continues at an unabated pace. A sort of ‘comradeship’ based on mutual hatred starts to develop.
After a never ending trudge, we reached the summit of the second peak, Whernside, to find, not Arcadia, but instead cold and mist. We had a picnic, balancing our buttocks on stones to avoid the quagmire, whilst desperately trying to avoid drips from our noses landing on our sandwiches. There was a deathly silence caused by our complete exhaustion. Soon we started to chill down and it was time to start moving again; at least it was downhill, until the next peak.
‘How do you feel Gary?’ I said, as we found the descending path off Whernside.
‘Not too good – I won’t make Ingleborough,’ he replied, his face pale and ashen.
‘Of course you will – a pint and a rest in the pub at the bottom and you’ll be okay.’
At that Gary left a deposit resembling a packed lunch that had just been put through a food processor. Geologists in the millennium will be fascinated by bread, butter and ham rock formations, such a short distance from the porridge-like rock formations.
‘Mm…. perhaps not,’ I said alarmed, proceeding to increase my speed of descent in case the wind changed direction towards me. I had never seen anything quite like this and I began to wonder if he was seriously ill. There was no time to get anxious as we had to get to the pub at Chapel-le-Dale before closing time. If he really was ill an ambulance could be called from there.
The ‘Three-Peaks’ walk is very much a case of survival of the fittest, the first one at the pub getting the longer rest before attempting the third peak. I sped on to get the first drinks in, Gary and the others followed about twenty minutes later. After half-an-hour in the pub, Gary started to get some colour back. I wondered whether all this sickness was a ploy so he could have a lazy afternoon in the pub? I will never know for sure, but, dropping out of the ascent of the third peak, he had a long walk along the road to the car and so I doubted it.
The rest of us started toiling up Ingleborough and either the alcohol or the length of the walk was starting to take its toll. This was before the National Park Authorities had put down duckboards floating on the top of the bogs to ease the awful path erosion. Suddenly we reached the base of a steep section of Ingleborough, at which point the muscles in the top of my legs suddenly went on strike. The only way to get up the slope was to walk sidewards. This was the location where, after a fall, someone had recently been taken off by helicopter. Any minute now my legs would crumble and I would plummet to my death. Arriving at the summit we celebrated knowing that from now it was all downhill.
‘Huh, three mountains over 2000 feet and 24 miles walking is not that hard.’ I hear you say. However, if you spend a minimum of thirty-seven hours a week stuck at a desk whilst hurtling towards 40, you would appreciate the sense of achievement. I had been told of the jogger descending from Ingleborough who had gone off the path in mist and died of hypothermia. The top of Ingleborough was like pea soup and to find the correct path off was like looking for a needle in a haystack. This was a time for a cool head and a compass. Just as I was getting my compass out a sylph-like young lady came running up alongside. Was I suffering from hypothermia? Was this a guardian angel?
‘Are you doing the ‘Three Peaks’?’ I asked, delighted to see this beautiful mirage coming out of the mist. After 20-miles of walking, every female you meet resembles a combination of Bridget Bardot, Marilyn Monroe, the Spice Girls, and Naomi Campbell.
‘Yes, I started at 10.30am,’ she said smiling, clad in little else than thin lycra revealing the taught muscles of a body I was convinced belonged to Superwoman. She made Sally Gunnell look positively unfit, or was six hours of deprivation from normal civilisation having an effect on me? Having made up two and a half hours on us, Superwoman had put our achievement into perspective.
‘The path is this way,’ she said, jogging into the mist as quickly as she had appeared. Had I been twenty years younger, not had a wife and children at home, and not been wearing walking boots, I would have been tempted to jog after her – well that’s my excuse.
Having been pointed in the right direction and in the faint hope of catching her up, we rapidly descended Ingleborough through endless limestone rocks. Eventually Horton-in Ribblesdale was reached, then at 5.00pm sanctuary was found in the Pen-y-ghent café. Forget the most famous tea shops in the world, Bettys, Taylors, Fortnam and Mason to name a few, the Pen-y-ghent café is the ultimate – a pint mug of tea with bacon sandwiches that instantly make you forget 24-miles of blisters, aches and pains. Gary was already ‘high’ on the tea having hitched a lift from the pub and consumed gallons of the stuff.
‘When did you do the Lyke Wake walk?’ I asked.
‘Oh, when I was seventeen’ he replied ‘nearly thirty-years ago.’ This was the beginning of long and interesting friendship. Gary provided the entertainment while I arranged the walks.
My advice is that if you are now contemplating walking the ‘Three Peaks’ do one first, then two and then three on successive walks. Don’t train by doing the Lyke Wake Walk one year and then doing the ‘Three-Peaks’ thirty years later. I did the ‘Three-Peaks’ over the next two years, once again anti-clockwise, then clockwise. In order to retire from this tortuous activity I used the excuse that I was adding to the erosion of the footpaths. Gary successfully did the ‘Three-Peaks’ the following year, on this occasion only leaving deposits on Whernside.
Don’t be put off by Gary’s experience. I have never been sick on a walk and as long as you get your priorities right you will be okay. The choice is between a good night out, then regretting it on the next day, or a quiet night followed by a trouble free walk. I prefer the latter, early to bed, early to rise as my father used to say.
22 October 1989: Get equipped, aged 37.
Seathwaite in the Lake District is the wettest place in England. By a strange logic this is regarded by many as the most sensible place to begin the ascent of Scafell Pike, at 3208 feet, the highest mountain in England.
Archie and myself started out on a bright and sunny day to do the Scafell traverse, but when we got near Esk Hause the weather was so horrendous the rain went straight through my cheap nylon waterproof trousers. Neither is it wise to walk in the Lake District dressed in denim jeans so that I soon found the weight of water dragging them around my knees, even seeping through my Marks and Spencer underwear to my private parts. This was very serious as I had heard of hypothermia, the rumour being that it could shrink vital equipment so small it could not be seen, then the bits could drop off. I was later to learn that hypothermia is less serious than this and can only kill you, which is far better than losing your private parts. In a tight spot you need a reliable companion. Not only was the weather prone to change but so was my companion. Walking with Archie is a risky business as when it rains, due to his spectacles, he can’t see his hands, let alone his feet. I put my back to the horizontal wind and rain, looked at Archie, then made a life saving decision to rapidly descend to Borrowdale.
We followed the path down, now a raging stream. In an incongruous retreat Alan stumbled over rocks, while I desperately held onto my denims lest the weight of water remove them completely to expose my privates to the elements. I was completely soaked by the time we arrived back at the car, was suffering from mild hypothermia, and vowed there and then to ‘splash’ out next day on a pair of decent waterproof trousers and never again wear denim on the hills. Don’t believe the adverts by wearing fashionable denim, unless you can carry a portable spin-dryer with you and are prepared to strip off on a regular basis. Visit your local outdoor shop to purchase some high-tech trousers which, when wet, do not significantly increase in weight; also raid a bank and buy some decent waterproof over-trousers.
April 1990: The Dales Way – A learning experience, aged 38.
The Dales Way marches from Ilkley in West Yorkshire to Bowness-on-Windermere in Cumbria and is probably the best first long-distance walk that you can do. It is mainly flat walking along pleasant rivers, with lots of pubs en route to take your mind off any aches and pains that might develop. It gives a marvellous introduction to the Yorkshire Dales and, towards the end, gives glimpses of Lakeland, enticing you to do further walks.
According to the sign at Bowness-on-Windermere, the Dales Way is 81 miles to Ilkley, whereas the sign at Ilkley says it is 73 miles to Bowness-on-Windermere; take your pick. Anyone who has used a map measurer will know that it takes two or three measures before a reliable mileage can be claimed. I have four map measurers all which seem to give a different reading. The first one has never been used and was found in Gary’s desk at work, presumably by someone who never returned from a walk on the fells. I have kept this in the hope that one day I will be able to take it to the Antiques Road Show to be told that it belonged to Gerard Mercator, the sixteenth-century map maker, mathematician and instrument-maker, that it will be sold at auction for thousands of pounds, and that it should be insured for twice that amount. My second map-measurer proved to be inaccurate and meant that when writing The North of England Way (see later) I had to re-measure all 200-miles. The third map measurer is the one used most but the first two readings are always different. A fourth map-measurer by the Automobile Association was given to me as a Christmas gift. I am hoping that this means that if my boots need repairing or the laces need replacing on a long-distance walk I will be able to call out the fourth emergency service. However, whichever map measurer I use, a mile on the map always seems far less than a mile on the ground.
I had planned on walking the Dales Way as a practice long-distance walk for Alfred Wainwright’s more strenuous Coast to Coast Walk. Normally the walk is done over six days but, as I was fairly fit and a fast walker, I felt that five days would suffice. Gary, who would be joining me on the walk, had other ideas.
‘I think we can do it in four days,’ he said.
‘With accommodation stops, that would involve mileage of 24, 21, 24 and 16 with a train to catch on the last day?’
‘Well we’ve done 20-mile day walks before and in any case I can only get four days off work,’ he said, oozing in confidence.
‘Oh well, I suppose we haven’t got much choice then,’ I said, thinking to myself that there was still a couple of months in order to get fully fit.
One dark Friday night, as I was jogging around my local village in order to get fit, I bumped into Gary.
‘Are you also training for the Dales Way?’ I asked, breathing heavily in the cold Spring air.
‘No, don’t be daft I’m off to the pub,’ he replied, before heading in the direction of the local.
The alternative to jogging as a means of keeping fit is to have a dog. When, on a cold dark morning, you are warm and snug in bed, a dog requiring his walk at 6.30am in the morning is a marvellous incentive to get you up. Dogs expect to be walked whatever the weather and your feline friend will not accept any excuses. Dogs are held in high esteem. A survey by Pedigree Chum showed that many people would prefer to spend St Valentine’s day with their dog than their partner. This could apply to cats too.
Forty per cent of those questioned admitting to getting on better with their four-legged friend than anyone else. It gets worse as we get older. Sixty-four per cent of fifty-five to sixty-four year-olds said they would actually end a relationship if their dog and partner didn’t get on, compared to just seven per cent of sixteen to twenty-four year-olds. Thirty-eight per cent of female dog owners said they would feed the dog first before any member of the family. Forty-two per cent of owners admitted to letting their dog sleep in the bedroom. However, one thing I will never do is take a dog on a long-distance walk – just occasionally it’s good to have a break from dog-walking duties.
They also tend to attract boisterous cows and bullocks. Cattle are Britain’s most dangerous large animal, killing 74 people in the past 15 years according to the Health and Safety Executive. 18 of those killed were ramblers and 56 farmers. All but 1 of the ramblers had a dog with them.
Continued on new separate posts…………….
5 thoughts on “The Secret Diaries of a Long-Distance Walker”
Great stuff! Enjoyed it all Noreen
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Glad you are enjoying it Noreen. We are looking forward to seeing Dublin and yourself in December.
Banana, banana, banana, banana XXXXXXX
Great ruck sac feature!
Nice to hear from you Banana!