I thought you might like to see this short video I made of this amazing place.
I thought you might like to see this short video I made of this amazing place.
Listen to part of the Last Hillwalker where John and his companions trek across the Scottish Highlands, find a lake that isn’t there and lose a biscuit that is.
I don’t normally write about my feet. I’m quite fond of them but I don’t expect my readers to share my interest in them. This blog is different. My feet get a major role.
Enter the feet:
I never expected blisters on this walk. I knew my legs would ache and my back would be sore and even my hands, tired from holding walking poles, would suffer, but I never thought I’d get blisters. I walk regularly and haven’t had even the sign of a blister for over twenty years. I don’t even carry plasters, the staple blister treatment for all walkers, because I never have problems.
But my feet are a sorry sight this morning. The heals are red and bleeding, a testimony to the miles Martin and I have covered over the last three days. I have the worst blisters I’ve ever had in my life on each heel and look at them with a mixture of puzzlement and pride. I can’t understand why I am in this condition, given how much walking I do.
My boots are two years old and well broken in, they have remained dry over the three days, so there has been no explanation of why my feet are disintegrating. So, what’s the difference? Why are my feet in such trouble? Perhaps it’s the tendency for so much of the Pennine Way to be either tarmac or paving slabs which lies at the root of the problem. When I walk in the Highlands of Scotland I am mainly walking on grass, peaty moorlands or rocky outcrops. Perhaps this kind of walking causes a different sort of impact than I have experienced over the last three days. Maybe the even, hard terrain of the Pennine Way, which is frequently an artificial surface, aimed at stopping walkers from sinking knee deep into the black peat bog below, had caused my heels to strike harder than normal and perhaps in a more even way which had caused damage to the skin of my heels.
We took a day off, in the tiny village of Cowling, to allow my feet twenty-four hours to heal. My legs were tired too, after the three long days of walking and the days respite was a welcome break. I spent it reading, eating and dozing in the warm sun.
My mate Joe, who is acting as our driver is an expert on treating blisters. He spent several years sending young people out on Duke of Edinburgh Award walks. Being unused to boots, these young folk suffered the tortures of the damned and Joe became skilled at patching them up.
‘I’ve seen worse,’ he said, on being presented with my ripped ankles. ‘Although, not much worse to be honest.’ Then he sucked air through his teeth, like a car mechanics do as they peer under the steaming bonnet of your car and are about to explain that you will be paying for him and the Mrs next two weeks in Marbella.
With Melolin applied to the bleeding skin and held in place with sticky elasticated tape I am able to put on a pair of trainers and walk. It’s uncomfortable but I am not in agony and Marin and I set off once more on our trek to Kirk Yetholm. Now the way weaves through a patchwork of green fields and we are sheltered in the farmland from the incessant east wind. At times it’s almost pleasant.
After a few miles we pass through the little village of Lothersdale marooned amongst the rolling sea of hills with the single chimney of its old mill standing like a beacon. None of the houses in Lothersdale have a mains water supply and have to rely on ancient springs for their water. A fact that often leads to long standing wrangles in the area as to who owns what trickle of water. Apparently the mill boasts one of the largest indoor waterwheels in the world, at 45 feet.
Sadly, we have to pass the pub, still closed in the early morning. It looks idyllic and I make a mental note to return one day and spend an hour or two in its snug sipping Old Peculiar and writing fantastic tales.
As the path leaves the village we encounter the smallest gate on the Pennine way. It’s like something out of the Hobbit and I imagine goblins passing through the gate late at night when all the villagers are in the pub and only the cows see them. Grumpy little men, muttering to themselves as they hurry up the path.
The village of Gargrave brings a welcome respite. Martin, who has an intimate knowledge of every pub, restaurant, tea shop and café the length and breadth of Britain, guides me to a delightful little tea shop brimming with delightful cakes, sweets and fancies. We sit down and the waitress brings us a steaming pot of tea which tastes like liquid nectar. I think I must have glanced out of the window while enjoying my first cup of tea because when I turned to pour a second cup the pot was empty.
‘Oh, did you not have a second cup?’ Martin asks innocently as he sips what looks suspiciously like his third mug of brew. I make a mental note, hill walking doesn’t always bring the best out in people, and scowl out of the window. Outside the café there is sign post pointing back the way we have come. We are both pleased to read ‘EDALE 70 MILES.’ We have come a long way but have much further to go.
I remember walking this route forty years ago. When I passed this way all those years ago, Martin had taken the day off, exhausted by his encounters with the peat bogs over the last three days. The route to Malham has no huge hills and so I had expected an easy day’s solo walk. This was not to be. The days of rain in 1974 had turned the path to liquid mud and each step was hard won as I had to drag my feet through the sticky mud. With the previous three days walking having taken their toll Malham seemed a long way distant as I fought through each mile. I vividly remember sitting on a bridge, some three miles from the village of Malham, my legs trembling uncontrollably, wondering if I could make it.
I had plodded on and staggered exhausted, meeting Martin waiting for me where the path enters the village. On the verge of collapse we had eaten a meal in the YHA kitchen before I finally slumped into bed and slept like the dead until roused for the next day’s ordeal.
Forty years on I am only in a slightly better state as Martin and I walk the last few miles into the village. Here we make a fatal error and call in to the village pub on the way to the campsite. The warmth and a couple of pints send me into a state of euphoric sleepiness. After I have sat in the little pub for an hour I decide that I never want to move again and will remain here forever, dozing beside the fire.
There’s still time to win a copy of my book The Last Hillwalker. See my previous post for a chance to win https://www.johndburns.com/win-a-signed-copy-of-the-last-hillwalker/
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Really delighted to have captured this amazing sight on video. Baby eels in a Highland stream.
Here’s a great blog about eel fishing on the Dee. https://riverdeechildhood.wordpress.com/2015/07/09/eel-fishing-on-the-dee/
Books are dead. In the future no one will read paperbacks, e-books will rule and the only place for paper books will be found will be in a museum.
A couple of years ago I read that statement and felt sure that it was true. I was sad that the books that had given me so much fun as a child would soon be no more. My special favourite was an old battered copy of The Wind in the Willows. It was handed down to me and had passed through the grubby hands of many children before I came to it. At first my father would read me these stories as I lay in bed and I would drift off to sleep as Ratty, bobbing in his little boat, as he rowed down the river.
When I could read myself, I would follow Toad’s adventures with a secret glee, always anxious that poor short-sighted Mole would stumble into some awful trap and be set upon by the creatures of the wild wood. My favourite character of all was Badger. Remember that scene when Ratty and Mole, lost in the dead of night in the wild wood, beset by snow drifts and pursued be weasels, trip over the boot scrapper outside Badger’s house. In minutes, they are beside a roaring fire and eating hot toast and drinking tea.
I would imagine myself, sitting beside that same fire with the kindly old badger, wrapped in his tweed jacket, toes warming in his slippers. There was something magical about that battered old book, with its wrinkled cover and yellowing pages. I can remember its smell, like it was old and mouldy and had sat too long on the window ledge when the rain got in.
I’m glad to say that the truth is that traditional paper books are far from dead. The e-book is here to stay but the paper book is still alive and well. For the first time this year paperbacks outsold e-books. Hopefully the two technologies, the old and the new, can happily co-exist. After all, you can’t wrap up an e-book in paper, peppered with sleigh bells and chubby Santas, and sit it beneath the Christmas tree.
As the paperback lives on so, I hope, its natural home, the bookshop, will prosper. There is a great joy in discovering a little bookshop, tucked away in a village square, where you can wander amongst shelves crammed with romance, adventure. Books full of pirates, jostle with vampires and hard-bitten detectives, all trying to get you attention. All hoping you will pick up their book, open their pages and, for just a few solitary hours, let them live again in your imagination. In bookshops, empires fall only to rise again from the dust, here you can watch a Martian Sunrise or ride with the Mongol Hordes across the plains of Asia.
Now, as writer myself, it’s immensely satisfying to see my book sitting amongst its brothers on the shelves of my local bookshop. You never know who will pick it up and follow the adventures inside. I write a great deal in digital media and love the freedom it gives me but there is something very ethereal about the Internet writing, it lacks the permanence of the real thing, the paper book.
Bookends of Cumbria are now carrying stocks of The Last Hillwalker. Pop in and have a browse. There might even be coffee and cake. What better way to spend an hour.
THE PAIN AND THE GLORY
The Victorian’s were very fond of big pointy things. So fond, in fact, that they have littered the English countryside with them. Not content with the hills around them the Victorians made many of them higher by sticking a pointy thing on top of them. Often they made them memorials to some war or other but that’s not the real reason they are there. The Victorians built them just because they could. Often it was the landed gentry who put them there. Mainly so that, after dinner during brandy and cigars, they could gesture across the landscape and explain that they were responsible for pointy thing on the horizon.
My legs are startled. They have just walked two, consecutive long days, and fancy a lie in and a read of the papers. Unfortunately, that’s not what they get, they are woken, rather rudely, and forced into boots again. Soon they are climbing the little path that leads out of the village of Mankinholes and up to Stoodly Pike where Martin and I staggered from the Pennine way late last night. The path up from the valley is quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. It is paved and the paving stones gently curve into each other so they have a kind of natural fit. It’s almost pleasant to walk on and doesn’t jar with the landscape as so many paved paths do.
As Martin and I crest the ridge the wind meets us head on. It’s been waiting for us all night and now tries, with all its vigour, to push us back to Edale. Soon we are sheltering in one of the little alcoves in the memorial at the top of Stoodly Pike. The memorial is one of the pointy things I mentioned before. It is possible to climb the steps inside it and gain an even higher elevation but neither Martin nor I feel like adding unnecessary ascent as we already have a great deal of climbing ahead of us. The memorial was built in 1814 by public subscription. About thirty years later wind, rain and a fair clout of lightening demolished it. The Victorian’s, nothing if not determined, built it back up again only this time they had the bright idea of putting a lightening conductor in it and so it stands here today.
From there we trek across the paved moorland as the wind whips the rolling grass into a frenzy. We are lucky with the weather. The wind is tiring and a nuisance, but it is no more that. Both Martin and I know from bitter experience how wet this place can be and we are both grateful that we are not having to force our way through clouds of rain. As we descend towards the small bridge in the hamlet of Callis, near Hebden Bridge, I begin to be aware of a painful rubbing sensation at the back of my heels.
By the time we stop beside the little canal it’s clear I am developing the scourge of all long disctance walkers, blisters. I’m a regular walker and have been for years and I haven’t experienced these annoyingly painful injuries for many years. There must be something in the walking we are doing that is different from the Highland hill walking I’m used to.#
The path leaving the canal bridge is closer to a rock climb than a walk and both Martin and I can feel the ache in our legs as we wind our way up through picturesque stone cottages that seem to grow out of the hillside. Eventually the climb subsides and we emerge on to farmland, at an easier gradient.
‘There’s a shop just here,’ Martin announces.
At first I think he’s imagining things as all I can see is rolling fields but soon a sign appears to a shop oddly called Aladdin’s Cave
This little oasis offers us pies, tea and ice cream and an opportunity to cool off my feet and try and ward off the inevitable bleeding feet.
After this little respite we head over moorland as the farmland gives way to the moorland which is typical of the country covered by the way. We cross miles of flagged path ways, circumvent a reservoir and eventually find ourselves at Top Withens.
This is a ruin situated high on the exposed moorlands. It’s a windy place, where a few stone walls still stand against the pitiless weather, made famous by the fact that it is allegedly the inspiration for the Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I had a quick look around but Heathcliff wasn’t in, all though he must be a hardy soul if he can stand to live in this place. Perhaps he’d just popped out to the shops which would take a little while from here. I doubt if Tesco would deliver.
Eventually we pass over yet another hill and descend towards the tiny village of Cowling where we will camp for the night. There is a friendly campsite there, Squirrel Wood.
By this time my heels have disintegrated and my ability to walk further on the Pennine Way is in doubt. All I can do is limp to my tent, curl up in my sleeping bag and see if my heels can stand another day.
Then: Forty years ago we descended late, it was after 9.00 pm before we had our make-shift tent erected in a farmer’s field. Martin, whose has an ability to sniff out a café in the most unlikely places, spotted a sign at the farm house. It read ‘Evening Meals.’ and drew him to it like a magnet. A little later we are sitting in the farm kitchen, the farmer sleeping at the fire, his dog at his feet, as his wife cooked us sausage and chips. In a scene from the Famous Five Go Mad on the Pennine Way, she brought us endless plates of jam sandwiches which we devoured gratefully.
Endless Health and Safety regulations would have prevented such reckless behaviour today. The very thought of cooking a meal with a dog asleep in the kitchen would be enough to send the men from the Ministry into apoplexy. That evening it was sent by god and it was one of the few days when we managed to get an evening meal.
The route of this section passes close to the village of Hebden Bridge which is a useful stopping off place for people who want http://www.hebdenbridge.co.uk/
I have been walking for a long, long time. The past life I have has faded into oblivion. I have become a simple organism. All I do is walk. I no longer think, thought has become an inconvenience. I just move my legs and strike the ground with my trekking poles in a perpetual rhythm that drives me ever onwards. Martin and I have been walking for almost twelve hours now. Twenty miles lay behind us now since we set off just after 8.00 am from the paradise of our campsite in Crowden. Maybe this walk will never end. Perhaps, like some cursed ghost walkers, we are condemned to roam the Pennine moorland for ever.
That morning had been pleasant enough as we climbed up the path that winds its way gently out of Crowden. The breeze had been gentle and the sun warming as we left the little wooded valley behind us and headed out on to the rolling moorland. My legs were sleepy at first. They remembered our walk the previous day from Edale and had decided that they would just have a lay in and spend the day bumbling about and resting, like I usually do after a long walk. Today, however, there is to be no rest and it takes my legs a couple of miles to lose the ache of the previous day and realise they are supposed to keep moving.
At first we climb gently, through the heather and the sheep pastures, until the path begins to steepen and we head upwards towards Laddow Rocks. The rocks are really a short cliff perhaps a mile in length. The cliffs were popular amongst rock climbers in the early years of the sport but now stand deserted as we pass above them. Here the wind picks up and, as the mass of air is driven against the cliff wall it funnels up towards the path making it difficult to stand and, at times, threatening to hurl us over the precipice.
Then: It’s forty since Martin and I walked up past Laddow rocks and on towards the summit of Black Hill. Then we walked through a mist of rain and sank over and over again in saturated black oozing peat. Black Hill may be the least imaginative name give to any hill but it is, no doubt the most accurate. In 1974 the summit was a dreadful place. At just over 1,900 ft, in old money, it got the worst of the weather and the triangulation post, which marked the top, was defended on all sides by the blackest bog either of had ever seen. If our feet had not already become saturated the ordeal of reaching this high point would have been unbearable. As we were already wet we simply shrugged and headed away into the swirling mist hoping that, at some point, the ordeal of the peat would end.
Now: Martin and I walk to the top of the hill without even getting mud on our boots. By some Herculean feat a slabbed walk way has been built right across the bog and no one need suffer the indignity of wet feet on Black Hill again.
We head on across the vast empty moorlands crossing with relative ease the dreaded Whitemoss and Blackmoss, both of which featureless bogs have been tamed by paved paths rendering these beasts of the moors mere gentle lambs.
Then: From somewhere out in the mist we hear a voice calling. Neither of us can make out what is being said, the cries don’t sound like English, but they are clearly calls for help. We soon find their origin. A man is stuck in the peat. The bog has him up to his thighs and we watched, horrified as he slowly begins to sink. His companion stands a few yards away, watching helplessly. He is German or Dutch but his nationality does not matter, he is being devoured by the bog monster.
I try to get to him, but each time I approach the bog tries to suck me in too. Looking around I find a plank, it’s the remains of an old sign that once stood vertically but that has long since given up hope and resigned itself to the Black Death.
I stand on the sign, grab the unfortunate man by the armpits, and haul him unceremoniously from the jaws of the monster. Once out he complains I have stretched his back.
Now: Beyond Blackmoss we arrive at the house that was once a pub known as The Floating Light. 40 years ago, Martin and I had speculated that the name must come from the fact that, at night, with no other lights around in this lonely place, the lights of the pub must have appeared to float above the bog. Plausible as this explanation is it is in fact, totally inaccurate. The old pub was situated on Saddleworth Moor beneath which there was a canal tunnel. During construction of the tunnel, workmen would like their labours by floating a light on a small boat. Hence the origin of the name floating light.
The Pennines are cut by roads running from East to West in a number of places but no such crossing is as spectacular and surreal as the crossing of the M62 motorway which meets the Pennine Way at a remote junction. The Way crosses the Motorway on a thin pedestrian bridge. You walk across mile after mile of remote moorland where the only sounds are the singing of birds and the wind bustling through the heather. Places where the hand of man seems almost absent. Suddenly, great articulated lorries roar 30 metres beneath your feet, as the bridge swings alarmingly beneath you. The motorway is a disconcerting reminder that, for all the apparent remoteness of the moorland route of the Way, the bustle of modern life is never far away.
After climbing along the broken line of rocks that is Blackstone Edge which forms the boundary between west Yorkshire and Greater Manchester and offers commanding views over the patchwork of farmland below.
‘The next Five miles are the easiest on the Pennine Way,’ Martin had prophesied earlier. Now, as we limp past The Whitehouse pub on the windy edge of the moors it’s hard to conceive that any 5 miles could be easy.
The constant wind blows against us and the wide expanses of the three reservoirs, who’s dams we must cross, offer no resistance to the ceaseless east wind as it pushes against our every step. We have walked 19 miles across the high moorland and the remaining 5 bring aching knees as the wind blasts our faces. A little before 8.00 pm, after 12 hours of walking, we finally descend towards the village of Mankinholes. That night, sitting in the pub, sipping a well-earned pint I can only think of how far there is to go, and wonder how, 40 years ago, we fought our way through the rain and the bog to this very spot against odds that now seem impossible.
More information on Mankinholes village pub and hostel
Listen to the first in the series of our podcasts on the Pennine way revisited. Here is day one.