21st April 2019: Keld to Aysgarth – 14.5m
When I set out this morning I had every intention of walking from Keld to Reeth along the new low route, beside the River Swale, that I’m adding to the fourth edition of the guide book. As it turned out, I ended up walking to Aysgarth instead. But as someone once said…
“Knowing when to abandon a plan is just as important as having one in the first place.”Stuart W. Greig, via Twitter, April 2019
But, more on that in a moment. Let’s get back to where we left off. We’d left our hero sleeping peacefully for a second night at Butt House, a lovely establishment set in the idyllic hamlet of Keld. Jacqui and Chris also provide a great service to Herriot Way walkers, by offering free secure parking for the duration of your walk if you stay with them either before you leave, or as you finish the walk. Peace of mind as well as wonderful accommodation – what more could you want?
I’d requested an earlier breakfast today, with a view to getting out earlier, in the hope of getting a cooler start to the day. I was joined by the west-bound Coast to Coasters and shortly after, by the more traditional east-bound Americans. We chatted as we ate, but I didn’t want to linger, so I made my excuses and headed upstairs to pack. I would be fully laden today, having to carry all my gear instead of being able to leave most of it in my room. I also added as much water as I could carry, on the basis that the pub in Gunnerside would probably not be open when I breezed through in a couple of hours time. So I was groaning under my pack weight when I set out into another absolutely wonderful day in the Yorkshire Dales.
I retraced the first couple of hundred yards of my walk yesterday, but instead of dropping down to cross the Swale, I kept high and followed a lovely path that snakes around the lower slope of Kisdon before dropping down to walk through the pastures on the south side of the Swale. There were a lot of pheasants flapping about; a new ‘crop’ waiting to be harvested later in the year. The views improved as I dropped closer to the Swale and progressed around the base of Kisdon on approach to Muker. There was very little water in the river, which is unsurprising I guess, but it almost makes the valley look bare; Swaledale without the Swale.
The stones in the river bed brought to mind Neddy Dick, a local character I discovered when researching the Swale Way guide book I did a couple of years ago.
When we look at the river, we tend to focus on the water, but Neddy Dick looked at the river and saw music. Neddy’s real name was Richard Alderson and he was born in 1845, just outside Muker. Many people were known by nicknames at the time, due to so many folk having the same family name and the number of Richard Aldersons was probably confusing.
Neddy became quite a local character, a farmer who was obsessed with music, he collected stones from the Swale and turned them into a lithophone; similar to a xylophone, but made with rocks. He mounted his limestone lithophone on a cart and travelled to local fairs and gatherings playing the strange instrument, no doubt to the astonishment of his audiences. He made other strange instruments too, including a harmonium, a type of reed organ, incorporating more than a dozen bells recovered from old clocks which could be played with a stick. His local celebrity inspired a popular folk song, The Ballad of Neddy Dick, which is still sung today. Sadly, after his death in 1926, his lithophone was abandoned in an outbuilding and eventually the stones were thrown back into the river from where they came.The Swale Way, Stuart W. Greig
As I approached the bridge at Ramps Holme I passed a guy carrying a large silver-coated umbrella, not above his head as a parasol (which is what I guess it was), but down by his side, still fully opened though – which I thought was odd.
I crossed the bridge and turned right beside the Swale, passing through empty pasture, devoid of all livestock except a couple of old horses in one paddock. These are hay meadows, which will soon be filled with lush grass and millions of brightly coloured wild flowers. The flower-enriched grass will be cut at least once later in the year to provide winter feed for the livestock. Many of the pastures have signs asking people to walk in single file through the meadows, to reduce the amount of feed lost. At the moment though the fields looked a bit drab; no sheep, dull green grass and not a flower in sight anywhere.
I took a rest on a handy stile in the little patch of woodland beside the Swale below Calvert Houses, it was shady and the stile is (bizarrely) perfectly proportioned to my behind. My feet were on fire. I had three blisters on my left foot and one on my right. I’d treated them all with my dwindling supply of Compeed, but they were still complaining. I’m at a loss with my feet, I just can’t rely on them the way I used to. I think it’s because I don’t do anything like as much walking as I did a few years ago and my feet just get too used to the inactivity, so when I do 3 or 4 days at a time they get blistered.
Even at this point I was still considering ways to cut short the walk tomorrow, so I could have some time at home and give my aching feet a rest. I was still set in my “the plan’s the plan” mindset. I had a room booked in the Buck Inn in Reeth tonight and tomorrow was another day. I planned to ring round all the local taxi companies when I got to Reeth this afternoon and try and persuade one of them to run me to Aysgarth in the morning. A Bank Holiday taxi ride that could cost anything from £20 to £50 I guessed. I fixed £50 as the upper limit I would be prepared to pay, anything more and I’d bloody walk it.
I relinquished my ‘seat’ and continued on along the Swale, passing through rougher pasture land now, that had lots of sheep and lambs, the former busy eating and the latter busy exploring the world and enjoying the sun. As I approached Ivelet Bridge I recalled a lovely bench and promised myself a sit down. It was at this point that I had a blinding flash of inspiration. I’d walked this exact path in June last year and at Ivelet Bridge I’d turned south, heading over Oxnop Common on the quiet tarmac track and down into Askrigg. I realised I could exactly the same today, but instead of stopping in Askrigg I’d just continue along the Ure to Aysgarth. I would solve my taxi problem tomorrow and be home a full day early, probably missing all the Monday traffic to boot.
I stopped on the bench and sipped tentatively at my warm water, making some rough calculations on the distances. I reckoned it would only be 2-3 miles longer than if I continued along the Swale into Reeth. It would cost me the price of tonight’s room, but save me the cost of a taxi. The only fly in the ointment was that my head had been set on a low level walk today and now I was asking it to change gear and prepare for a 1000 foot climb over the hills to the next valley. Ho hum. Get with the program head, or get stuffed!
I crossed the bridge and the road beyond and climbed steeply through the pastures at Heugh up to meet the old tarmac track that supports the remote farms above Oxnop Beck. The road climbs for a good distance, more gently now, but still hard work in the heat and my feet didn’t appreciate the switch from grass to tarmac. I stopped for another break and forced myself to eat a couple of Tunnocks Caramel Wafer biscuits and some of the juice I was carrying. I spotted four people walking along the road towards me.
It was a while before we crossed paths; they were two older couples, Australian by their accents, walking from Askrigg to Reeth. The older of the two women called the next section ‘boring’ because she’d done it before, but I patiently explained no section of walking through Swaledale could possibly be called boring, not ever! I left them to their walk and soon met the motor road proper. I stuck my thumb out for a couple of the cars that weren’t packed with families, but had no luck and resigned myself to the long, steep descent on tarmac.
I consulted the map as I walked and looked at options to cut the corner, bypassing Askrigg, and found a reasonable option that didn’t involve too much road walking. I figured a shorter walk would be preferable to visiting the shop in the village. I had enough water to reach Aysgarth, it just wasn’t very refreshing. The land to either side of the road is Open Access, and I briefly considered cutting the corner completely, but it would involve crossing a beck that sat in a steep little gill and I had no idea how easy or difficult it would be to cross, so I played it safe and stuck to the road. I passed through Newbiggin and found a lovely secluded path beside the tarmac road that took me nearly all the way to Nappa Hall.
From there I found a footpath down to the abandoned railway bed at Nappa Mill and I was back on the Herriot Way. I still had four miles to go, but it was easy going, no more height gain and nearly all grassy paths. I was back in Wensleydale and once again the soundtrack of the afternoon was provided by high-powered motorcycles; the almost incessant scream of their engines drowning out every other sound.
I was tempted to plug in my headphones and drown everything out, but I couldn’t be bothered stopping. From Nappa Mill I didn’t stop walking until I reached my car. I plodded out the distance, sweating in the heat of the early afternoon and trying not to suck my Platypus dry before I got there.
I got back to my car about 2pm, the car park was jammed. I dropped my pack beside my car and fished out my key. I had a 2 litre bottle of water in the boot that was actually not that warm and I drenched my head, face and neck, luxuriating in the feeling, then drank about half the remaining bottle. I popped into the cafe to say thanks to Liz for letting me park there. She said the car park had been filled by 11am and the attendant had been playing Tetris with vehicles all morning.
I was crying out for something cold to drink, so I stopped in the garage in Aysgarth and found empty shelves, empty cooler and empty freezer – he’d sold out of almost everything! I resolved to get something on the way home. In the end I didn’t bother to stop, and I had an easy drive home, with very little traffic on the road. About 10 miles from home I used the drive-thru at a McDonald’s and bought a large Banana Milkshake and a Flurry and basically inhaled them both. I stopped again at the McDonald’s closest to home and bought Flurries for everyone, as an excuse for me to have another one!
Despite my feet problems I had an excellent weekend – the weather may have been warm for walking, but it was brilliant, an Easter walk to remember fondly for many years I think. I will have to return and finish the legs I missed for the re-write of the book, but that’s fine.