A Pebble in My Pocket

PART TWO: THE YORKSHIRE DALES NATIONAL PARK

It is the fifth day. We leave Shap behind, crossing a footbridge over the motorway, passing the quarry and the steel factory spewing forth clouds of smoke. Three hours of mole-hills, moorland and broad horizons later, we reach Orton in record time. After that, things go astray, as we join new friends Claire and Gabriel on an inventive route along an old railway track that crosses a splendid stone viaduct. Supposedly, it will lead straight into Kirby Stephen, our next destination. It doesn’t. But we laugh a lot and the the extra six or seven miles is almost worth it for such smooth, steady walking. Nonetheless, my knees are struggling to support me, and my humour is long gone by the time we finally reach Kirby Stephen. We discover a B&B at the Old Courthouse and are welcomed with open arms. Our kind hostess even does my washing, bless her.

Hot showers, a brief rest, and then its time to go out for fish ‘n’ chips, a nut sundae and a quick drink at the pub with our new walking buddies. Later, I hobble home, somewhat bruised. I had decided, in my infinite wisdom, to hurdle a fence that promptly collapsed beneath me. I recover with a cup of tea and an episode of ‘Floyd Down Under.’

*

Fortunately for my bruised backside and blistered feet, day six is only twelve miles to Thwaite, and I have posted home half my heavy load, and packed a smaller, leaner rucksack. The first stretch to Nateby is a joy – and my burden decidedly lighter. But the moorland stretch to Keld is dull and dreary, the scenery unvaried and swamped with sheep. I loathe Keld before we even get there. It is one of those annoying towns that keeps disappearing behind another hill or around another bend just as you think it’s within reach. My blistered toes are less than impressed and my knees groan with despair, but on we trudge, chewing Opal Fruits to the tune of my whining. I drag myself wearily and tearily into Thwaite, only to find every B&B is fully booked. Collapsing feebly over tea and scones, I generously allow my gallant One & Only to scouts around for accommodation. Eventually, one sweet lady, recognizing his desperation, kindly offers her sofa bed, about 2½ miles down the road. Somehow I get there, feeling thoroughly martyred and miserable – and doubtless a heavier burden for my long-suffering boyfriend than any backpack. But even the floor feels like a feather bed tonight…

*

Day seven, and we are back on the road by 8am, after a quick, light breakfast. There’s an icy wind that makes us look like plucked chickens, but blue skies bode well for another glorious day. The path to Reeth lies beside the River Swale, through fields strewn with buttercups and daisies, pheasants and rabbits. Pretty stone bridges arch over the river at irregular intervals, and the riverbank flutters with pink campions and baby-blue forget-me-knots. Gunnerside, like many of the Yorkshire Dale villages, could almost be a Cotswold town, dressed in it’s honey-coloured stone. The sun shines and the cold wind flees as we pause for a tea break at The Punch Bowl Inn in Low Row.

Reeth High Street seems to topple down a steep hill, and provides amazing views across the Dales. The bakery here is fabulous, the baker and his wife creating many inventive and delicious variations on the ordinary loaf. We pass natty little souvenir shops and at least three pubs. And we find a terrific attic room at Hackney House, next to the newsagent, overlooking a meadow full of bright yellow buttercups, a goat and a couple of donkeys. After cleaning off the mud, we sit by the fire and relax, before joining Gabriel and Claire for a drink on the common in front of the Black Bull. Then it’s off to dinner at a local restaurant. In the land of pub meals – egg‘n’chips / chicken‘n’chips / fish‘n’chips / sausages’n’mash washed down with beer or cider –  steak and red wine is a novel treat.

*

The eighth day, and it is raining as we set out for Richmond. Snuggled into our waterproofs, we barely notice the weather, except that our hoods and the drizzle both blinker our vision somewhat. It is too wet to bother stopping for a break, so we reach Richmond after four hours of solid walking. And despite the rain, the walk is delightful: lush, green meadows choc-a-block with Mogwai-faced lambs and their handle-bar ears; wildflowers galore in field and hedgerow; stone farmhouses and pretty hamlets; a field of horses and their lanky foals. Misty clouds cling to the hillside along the Swale and sticky mud clings to our boots.

Richmond is really attractive. We have lunch at one of the many pubs here, then meander through town to find the castle. Alan Rufus began building this castle in the 1070s only a few years after fighting – and winning – the Battle of Hastings with his mate, William the Conqueror. Although it claims to be the best-preserved Norman castle in England, it was derelict by the early 16th century and  remained in ruins for 300 years. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, many artists – including the remarkable J.M.W. Turner – were inspired to paint it.

Today, the views from the keep help us to get our bearings in this higgledy-piggledy town. We locate the marketplace and go on a tour of the only remaining Georgian theatre in the world. It looks like an old barn on the outside, but the inside has been beautifully restored. It is fascinating, especially where several panels have been left to show off the original paintwork. The theatre seats only 220 people, so everyone sits close to the stage. What a shame there is no play on tonight. Instead, we splurge on takeaway curry that we scoff in front of the TV, and gather our strength for the last four days of hiking. Bliss.

*With thanks yet again to my wonderful One & Only for his photography skills!

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