Herriot Way 2019 – Day 3
20th April 2019: Keld to Reeth – 12m
I slept like a log (an expression that has always baffled me), that is to say I slept soundly. Soft pillows helped immensely of course as did not having to listen to a neighbour’s TV all night. I stirred about 5am and drifted in and out until about 7am when nature forced me to move. My feet were sore, the left one in particular, so I applied Compeed to the two blisters and a toe tube and tape to the little toe and limped down to breakfast.
I have fond memories of Butt House from when I walked the Pennine Way back in 2010, even though it was under different management at the time. Breakfast is served in the same way though, everyone sitting round the same large dining table. I had an enjoyable time chatting with my fellow guests and had an excellent breakfast of sausage, bacon and eggs. I expected it would set me up for the day, at least!
Today’s walk was about 11 miles, over the high route into Reeth. This is the traditional Coast to Coast route too, passing many of the old lead mining remains at the head of Gunnerside Beck and along Old Gang Beck. It’s a barren and desolate walk in many ways, very few mature trees, lots of spoil heaps and huge man-made scars, called hushes, running down into the valley where lead seams were exposed by damming water and then releasing it in a rush. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love it. It’s an industrial wasteland and the environmental laws of today would never allow it, but I still love the place.
If I haven’t already mentioned it, the weather has been unseasonably warm this Easter. Easter is almost a month later than last year, but it’s still ridiculously warm and sunny for the middle of April. I was glad to be able to ditch all my gear and just carry water, lunch and first aid kit today. At many points I wish I’d brought my water filter for this walk, which would give me access to the many streams I crossed and walked beside, as a source of cold water.
I set out about 9.30, wishing it were an hour earlier. It was already warm as I walked past the waterfalls and up the fellside track towards Crackpot Hall. The view down the head of Swaledale is normally spectacular from this old farmstead, but today it was a little too hazy and indistinct, so I didn’t linger and pushed on up the hill.
Swinner Gill is the next breath-taking section of this walk, in both ways! I huffed and puffed up the steep, narrow valley with the incredible scenery, a series of waterfalls running beside the track are delightful, but also seemed to be mocking me as I sucked increasingly warm water. I was already rationing the 2 litres I had and I was only a couple of miles into the walk. The path up the Gill is much easier since they added a paved path last year. I get the impression it’s only a minority of Coast to Coast walkers who come this way now (most prefer to walk through Swaledale into Reeth I think), but it’s still a popular path and had become badly eroded. After rain it was a bit of a boggy mess, especially at the top near the four-wheel drive track.
I passed 2 or 3 individuals coming down Swinner Gill, and I guessed they must have wild camped somewhere up on the moors, perhaps at the Blakethwaite ruins where Chris Pilgrim and I camped a couple of years ago. It was certainly too early for them to have walked from Reeth. The gradient eased as I reached the 4WD track and I was able to stride easier. I soon left the track and picked up a narrow path through the heather, that quickly descended steeply over some badly eroded sections, before reaching the arched remains of the peat store and the other buildings at Blakethwaite.
The smelt mill at a lead mine burned coal (if they could get it) and peat for the most part. This would be cut from the surrounding hills and stored in long, open-fronted buildings, the peat stores, to dry out. The one at Blakethwaite was about 80-100 feet long and most of the arches remain intact. The one above Old Gang Mill, further along today’s walk was over 100 yards in length and had 40 arches!
I stopped for a few minutes to enjoy the atmosphere and wished once more for a water filter. The descent into Gunnerside Gill was steep and hard on the knees and the ascent out of it was just as steep, but harder on the calves. I sweated up a steep switchback to a grassy track and then followed a long dog-leg curve up to the ridge and another 4WD track. I tried not to look completely winded as I crested the top and found three cyclists admiring the view. I got a glimpse of a lone backpacker ahead of me on the track and wondered if they were doing the C2C or Herriot Way.
As I descended towards Old Gang Beck I came upon the backpacker, sitting on the bank beside the path. I stopped to say hello and discovered it was a girl I’d chatted to on Twitter a couple of days earlier (JasminGoesForAWalk) and she was reading a well thumbed copy of my guide book! I got a lovely compliment about the quality of the route notes, which kinda makes the whole thing worth while. Jasmin later tweeted about the book!
I didn’t want to intrude on Jasmin’s walk too much so I made my excuses and headed down to Old Gang Mill to look for somewhere shady to eat lunch.
At Level House Bridge I passed a family group with a small boy in a white shirt, flapping his arms like crazy in an attempt to rid himself of the cloud of black flies that had attached themselves to him. I hadn’t noticed them until then, but I was dressed mostly in black and they seemed to be most interested in white clothing! I found a seat inside one of the old smelting hearths in Old Gang, shaded and cool and forced myself to eat lunch. I picked up a trick from Matt King a couple of years ago and use Robinsons Squash’d to flavour water. It’s super concentrated squash that you can carry in a tiny dispenser and a little squirt transforms your water into juice – it makes a change from water when you’re hiking. I only managed half the flapjack and couldn’t face the sausage roll.
My lunch spot was a small enclosed space in the rambling ruins of Old Gang and I scared the shit out of a couple of kids as they ran into the little space and found me sitting there. I apologised to their father who’d heard them scream and came running. Jasmin passed me as I ate lunch, and a few minutes later I set out again. As I reached Surrender Bridge I passed her, sitting on the bank beside the path. She’d got a phone signal and was calling home.
Surrender Mill marks the end of the lead mining section and once I crossed Bleaberry Gill the path became soft and springy. I almost bent and kissed it. My feet were feeling very sore, especially the left one and the blisters were singing nicely. The descent into Reeth was uneventful, but felt longer than it should have. I was low on water and what I had was warm and although it may be hydrating me it certainly wasn’t refreshing. I was relieved when I finally walked into the village and was instantly shocked at the crowds of people!
I made a bee-line for the nearest pub and bought a pint of Diet Coke, and then another. I had plenty of time before the bus arrived to take me back to Keld so I sat in the pub, out of the sun and relished the ice in the bottom of the glasses as I emptied them. At about 3.30 I headed out in search of ice cream and some supplies for lunch tomorrow. Reeth was heaving, every bench was full, every green space covered in people, every car parking space filled. I hated it.
I got an ice cream and went to sit in the bus shelter – the only seat I could find and the shade it provided was welcome. I looked ahead to the next couple of days. The weather was forecast to be hotter again tomorrow and the same again on Monday. I considered ways to cut Monday short, in order to get home and put my poor feet up for a bit, before work on Tuesday, but also to avoid the inevitable motorway traffic. There’s no bus from Reeth to Aysgarth, especially not on a Bank Holiday and a taxi would be horrendously expensive, even if I could find one planning to work. In the end I decided to set out really early from Reeth, at dawn maybe, which would avoid the heat and get me to Aysgarth early and have the afternoon at home. Sorted!
When the bus was 5 minutes late I began to fret! Maybe it wasn’t running. It was Saturday, so it should be, but maybe it didn’t run on a Bank Holiday weekend? When it was 10 minutes late I began to panic! How the hell was I going to get back to Keld? Then I spotted it. It was dropping folk off further down the village, so I wandered down to meet it. I tried not to look as relieved as I felt as I stepped on and paid my fare.
The Little White Bus is a 16-seater mini bus that serves local folk wanting to go to Richmond for shopping and the driver stopped right outside one lady’s house and helped her with about 10 bags of groceries before continuing to Keld. There was just me and another lady, who got out at Gunnerside. The driver predicted we would have a rush at Muker, with people leaving the pub and not wanting to walk back to Keld – and he was right! 17 people got on the bus at Muker, 2 had to sit in the aisle!
I ate at Butt House, around the communal table and chatted for ages with an American couple from Seattle doing the Coast to Coast and another couple from the UK also Coast to Coasting, but going East to West. I swapped experiences of my C2C crossings with them both. The food was excellent and the company rounded off a cracking day. As with many long distance walkers, people drifted off to bed early and I ended up chatting for a while with the proprietors, Jacqui and Chris, mostly about the Herriot Way and ways it could be marketed to B&B owners along the route. When I went to bed I dropped off almost instantly.