If I hadn’t been inappropriately dressed, today would have been pretty much perfect. Even the fact that I’m nowhere near fit and I’m carrying too much weight around my midriff couldn’t turn today into anything other than awesome.
I parked the car high on the moors above Kirkby Stephen last night, preferring a night in the passenger seat rather than a ridiculously early start from home. I had a fair nights sleep, being woken by the buzz of the morning rush hour around 5.30. I say buzz, but it was actually bleating, as around 40 sheep headed down the road towards better grazing, investigating the car as they passed, talking loudly to each other as they did. A few seconds later the alarm went off and I was up and out, getting walking kit on, brushing my teeth and trying to decide what to wear for the day. The low cloud, cold wind and drizzle didn’t bode well for the day, so I opted for over trousers over no trousers, short sleeved baselayer and my thick Lowe Alpine, soft shell rather than my summer weight soft shell smock. The weather forecast I’d seen the previous afternoon suggested at least 3 days of mixed weather, showers between sunny spells, but no wind to speak of and temps around 15C. That also lent weight to my gear selection. We were both wrong!
I made the short drive down to Kirkby Stephen station, parking in their car park and catching the first train of the day towards Leeds. An hour later and I alighted in Skipton. It will take me 4 days to cover the distance back!
I’d asked Twitter to recommend a cafe for an early breakfast, but based on Internet information, none of them seem to open until about 9am. So I settled for Morissons cafe, which opened at 8am, and had a full English with extra toast and tea for about £6, so not too bad in the end. I bought some lunch and headed off through the town. The sun was shining and it was already too warm for the soft shell I’d selected.
The first 3 or 4 miles of the walk were along the roads and lanes, through the town, past Skipton castle, through Embsay and onto a bridleway leading to open country. Even from a distance I could see the hills were purple with the flowering heather and looking very inviting in the sun. My lack of fitness made the initial ascent somewhat sweaty with lots of stops to look back on the valley below me. I was soon knee deep in the heather though, following a thin path towards one of the many shooting access roads that cover the moor.
The heat soon had me stripping off the soft shell, walking in just my baselayer with my overtrousers vented to the knee.
I took a break on a handy boulder, with views across the sea of purple heather and the valley below me. I realised suddenly how much I’ve missed the silence, the solitude and the peace the hills can bring. I tried to think where else in my life I can sit and hear nothing but the buzz of insects, the song of the birds and the stir of the wind. The answer is nowhere. I live a life surrounded by noise, by the intrusions of modern life and silence is a rare commodity. Even sitting in my back garden of an evening, I’m surrounded by my neighbours, their dogs, their lawn mowers, their voices. I live in a fairly quiet town, but the noise of sirens is never far away, the distant roar of jet engines, the sound of vehicles. In the house there’s the sound of equipment, the noisy motor in the fridge freezer, the high pitched whine of the TV. I have no silence in my life other than when I escape to the hills and I’ve missed it.
I don’t know if it’s the onset of old age, or perhaps it’s a medical problem, but in the past few weeks I’ve become very sensitive to noise and increasingly intolerant of it. I’ve been experiencing head aches at the end of the day, probably psychosomatic, but they feel nasty and I think it’s down to noise and my increased awareness of it. I felt all this slide away from me as I sat on my boulder, surrounded by silence. I soon began to notice the bees buzzing in the heather flowers, the occasional bird singing nearby, the clacking cry of the grouse across the moor. This isn’t noise though, this is the sound of the hills, the sound of silence, the sound of peace.
I was in absolutely no rush today, I could take as long as I liked to cover the 12 miles into Grassington and I sat and savoured the feeling of being alone, in a beautiful location, with nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other. I didn’t remember feeling this way on the Southern Upland Way in May, I must have been doing something wrong.
I eventually left my rocky perch and continued to ascend towards Brown Bank, one of those annoying 400m TUMPs that now get included in the hill lists. From the little scramble to the top of the biggest boulder on the hill, I saw my only other person of the day here, a cyclist in the distance on the bridleway.
I was now on a stony 4WD track, but it had a green strip down the middle which saved my feet from the abuse you can take on those uncompromising surfaces. I made a couple of minor diversions from the path, into the heather, to bag a couple of new OS squares, but other than that it was easy going all the way down to Upper Barden Reservoir. The rocky track continued around until I could see down into Wharfedale, which prompted another extended break on another handy flat boulder. I stripped off my boots, socks and knee braces and unzipped my overtrousers all the way to the thigh. That’s one advantage of them over regular trousers! My feet appreciated the break I think. What little walking I’ve been doing this summer, has been done in trail shoes, but I’d decided sensible boots were in order for this walk and my feet were unused to them. The 15 minutes or so of fresh air made a huge difference and they felt refreshed and ready to continue when I put them back in my boots.
There’s a shooting hut at the head of Thorpe Fell, right beside the track and I diverted across to it in the hope of a bench in the sun to sit and enjoy my lunch. The hut itself is locked up tight as a bank, but there’s a barn with an open door beside it and I stepped in for a minute to have a look inside. I was startled by a high pitched cry and a whirr of feathers by my head and a tiny owl flew around the inside of the shelter and darted out the gap between my head and the door frame. It passed no more than 10 inches from my head, I could almost see myself reflected in its wide eyes as it whipped past me to freedom. I’m not sure who was more startled but I think I came away the more pleased with the encounter. I have no idea what sort of owl it was, except it was little, had no visible ears and was living in a barn. Which means it could have been any one of a Little, Short-eared or Barn owl ☺
I’d lost the sun by the time I’d finished my lunch, it was hidden behind some very impressive fluffy clouds that seemed to be boiling up from nowhere. The descent across Thorpe Fell was excellent and the grassy track was a nice change. I eventually met the tarmac drive that took me into Thorpe village and from there I followed footpaths across fields to the very impressive waterfalls at Linton. The clouds were now grey and threatening and for the only time of the day I was pleased I’d selected my overtrousers and a thicker soft shell. It was touch and go as to whether I’d make it into Grassington without getting a soaking.
I could see a plane in the distance, doing aerobatics, climbing high with smoke pouring from the back, stalling and then plummeting down, spiralling the smoke behind him. It repeated this for about 15 minutes before flying off. I thought it was a bit odd to be doing this on what is basically a work day, a strange day to hold an air display. I heard and saw no other planes, so it wasn’t much of an air show either!
I joined the Dales Way proper at Linton Falls and followed the green path to the main road and then along that into Grassington village. I’m not a huge fan of Grassington, it’s very, very touristy and gives me the impression of being a long way up its own arse. Countless tea shops, three pubs, a bank, a Spar and more gift shops than you could ever want, line cobbled streets. The buildings are beautifully built out of local stone and there are hundreds of people, enjoying the ‘Dales experience’. It’s like Grasmere or Ambleside in the Lakes, or like Reeth further north in the Dales. I stopped in the first pub and ordered a Diet Coke and killed some time trying to get on their pathetic WiFi. While I sat there It rained for a few minutes and then stopped. I gave up on the WiFi and headed out into the village again.
I found the Foresters, where I’m booked in, had a shower, and then went in search of some decent WiFi, which I found in the Devonshire. It’s nice in here, they’re playing a never-ending Blues selection on the jukebox and the Black Sheep is excellent.