England’s Last Wilderness, England’s Highest Pub, The Magician and/or Oliver the Dispatch Driver, The Great Comet of 1997.

Post 143: 9 April 1997: Day 5 – Keld Youth Hostel to Cotherstone – 17½ miles

Again we woke up to bright sunshine. There is no doubt that global warming is on its way. If any scientist needs proof they only have to read these diaries. Remember the rain and cold on Wainwright’s Coast to Coast in 1991 and the rain, cold, snow and sleet on the Cumbria Way in 1992? Yet here we were, another day when we would be stripped down to our T-shirts, something I never managed in nearly 300 miles of walking in 1991/2.

Soon after passing East Gill Force, we left the area enclosed by drystone walls to enter what can only be described as ‘England’s Last Wilderness’, the bleak Black Moor.

P1060652It looked like a greeny-brown moon landscape with nothing, as far as the eye can see, apart from moorland and blue horizon. Now what makes people walk into such a landscape? Is it the isolation, the stark beauty of barrenness, the fresh air, sounds of the skylark or lapwing. Don’t be daft; leaving North Yorkshire and the Yorkshire Dales National Park to enter County Durham, we arrived at the highest pub in England, the Tan Hill Inn.


We were now at 1732 feet, suffering from altitude sickness, and a drink or two was the only remedy. Some Pennine Wayfarers have been known to have camped here for days. Many famous people have commented on the roaring fires in the pub, including Alfred Wainwright, Mike Harding and Hannah Hauxwell. There is always a warm welcome at this pub, one of the most isolated and loneliest habited places in England; it is adorned with postcards sent from visitors from all around the world.

The big 50_6760

In the past the pub has had associations with mining, packhorse trails and sheep fairs. The Tan Hill Show, held annually near the pub, is an opportunity to meet local farmers and to see Tups, the ram or male species of the Swaledale sheep, being judged; some sheep fetch over £30,000 at auction. Personally I’d rather have sports car for that price to replace my fourteen-year-old Volvo (update – my Volvos are not so old now!).

We eventually dragged ourselves away from the pub taking the route along Coal Gill Sike and Frumming Beck where the sense of remoteness is complete and in bad weather it can be a very serious stretch of walking requiring good navigation skills. In good weather it still saps the energy as you hop and wind over, around and through peat bogs; this is true ‘Pennine Way country.’ The isolated but welcome Sleightholme Farm was reached, then, after crossing Sleightholme Beck and Wytham Moor, easier walking alongside the River Greta led to Bowes.

Bowes became an important coaching centre with the coming of a good turnpike road. Now that the A66 by-passes the village it is a quiet backwater, although a visit to the pub, the Ancient Unicorn, a former coaching inn, and the church of St Giles is recommended. The church is of medieval origins with late Norman north and south doorways. The south porch, added at the bequest of Thomas Woodcock, has a weathered sculpture of the Crucifixion. The church has two early fonts, one of the 13th century resting on a Roman altar and an earlier one having zig-zag decoration. A stone from a Roman building has an inscription to Emperor Septimus Severus. The Romans built their fort of Lavatrae here and the basic grassy ramparts can still be traced. The masonry was incorporated into Bowes Castle – a Norman watchtower or keep constructed in the 12th century to guard the Stainmore Pass.

In the 19th century Dotheboys Hall was a school where the pupils were treated to a life of misery being beaten from time to time, receiving a bad education and invariably having poor health. When I was a child I thought all schools gave pupils a life of misery. Actually that’s not true, although being at school does have its ups and downs. Boarders from Dotheboys could be sent to farms and their earnings given to the Headmaster. The grave of 19 year-old George Ashton Taylor, a pupil of Dotheboys Hall School, was the inspiration for the character of Smike in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and the hall was also used in the novel. Some of Dickens’ information was obtained from the bar of the pub but also from William Shaw, Headmaster of the school, who is also buried in the church graveyard. Part of Dotheboys Hall has been demolished and what is left remains part of a number of private houses.

After some road walking, then passing Crag Hill and Crag Pond, there is a gradual descent to Teesdale and the quiet, attractive, village of Cotherstone, where we called into the post office to try some soft and crumbly Cotherstone cheese. This delightful village stands high above the confluence of the Rivers Balder and Tees. The 12th-century castle on Hallgarth Hill is now just a steep mound with some broken stones. Cotherstone was established as an agricultural community from Anglo-Saxon times and during the 19th century developed more as a commuter and holiday settlement with the arrival of the Tees Valley Railway. The railway closed in 1964 and the village has grown little since then, although it is a popular place to live in. It is one of the most attractive villages in Teesdale and has been designated as a Conservation Area in order to preserve its beauty. The fine church of St. Cuthbert was built in 1881, in the early English style by C. Purdon Clarke.

Hannah Hauxwell lived in Cotherstone. She had television fame when previously living in isolation at Low Birk Hatt Farm, one of the remotest farms in the country.

A substantial meal in the Fox and Hounds Inn replenished tired bodies, and as we sat in the lounge afterwards with our pints we thought we were in for a quiet evening. In the 1998 AA guide to Top Ten pub names, the Fox and Hounds came eighth.

There were three young men at the bar and a striking blonde lady, on her own, dressed somewhat unusually in black, with a colourful scarf around her neck. It didn’t look as though she had been to a funeral as she had walking maps in front of her. Needless to say our conversation got round to walking. Now blondes don’t normally come over to us; we are ordinary middle-aged guys that women briefly look at and then look away as though we weren’t there. To our astonishment this one came over to introduce herself as a walker and professional magician; she was immediately nicknamed Magician Walker. She had a deep voice, prominent jaw and firm wrists.

‘I can see you don’t believe I am a magician,’ she said, ‘would you like a performance?’

‘Err…………. sure.’ we all said disbelievingly, looking at each other and smiling in faint amusement.

‘Can I have an assistant?’

Alan jumped up, clearly out to impress.

‘Has anyone a £10 note?’

There was silence.

‘Come on, one of you must have a note?’

Everyone looked at Alan who relented under pressure to produce a £10 note, handing it over as though his life depended on getting it back.

She put the £10 note in a glass, rubbed her hands over it and then showed us an empty glass. Alan looked devastated.

At that she proceeded to run through a whole host of tricks, making bottles go through wooden tables, cards appear on the pub ceiling, and burnt paper re-appear. She eventually made a £10 note re-appear in the glass. At the end of about an hour’s performance we burst into spontaneous applause. It was tremendous.

It wasn’t until the following June that this performer was mentioned in the Times. The correspondent said two magicians were performing after a dinner at the Waldorf for a company called Financial Objects plc. As he went in there were loud bangs and claps, playing cards slapping on tables, peals of laughter. He saw a huge upturned hat. The magicians were working the room just as Magician Walker had worked us at the Fox and Hounds. The two of them were holding the tables spellbound just as we had been. They did an unbelievable rope trick, then performed a card trick which ended with a card selected by a random diner being discovered thumb-tacked to the ceiling twenty feet above. Like us they did not know how she did it. Magician Walker was described as rather beautiful with a husky voice, generous cleavage, big hands and a prominent Adam’s apple – strangely, ambiguously sexy. It dawned on the correspondent as it did me that she had changed her gender. She used to be Oliver, a motorcycle dispatch rider.

That’s magic!

 As we walked back to our bed and breakfast, the evening entertainment was concluded with spectacular views towards the dark skies of the comet ‘Hale-Bopp’, much brighter with us being away from City lights. It was the brightest comet for five hundred years and it is estimated that another one so bright would not be seen for another two thousand and three hundred years. It was formed some ten thousand years previously and was part of the left overs from the development of the solar system. This was indeed a memorable sight

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