A rainy day

Prevouisly, this weblog might have given the impression of a cavalier attitude toward preparation. This is probably the dregs of teenage suspicion against anything looking too much like ‘effort’. And, you know, the fact there are no pictures of Lou Reed, David Bowie or Kanye West in waterproofs.

Which is fine until you’re dealing with the rain. Throughout Saturday’s walk on the Pennine way we dodged the showers. Yesterday, the downpour started as we stopped for lunch and pretty much continued until the day’s end.

The rain soaked my trousers as I’d not had chance to put on waterproofs. Slowly my boots became sodden, every footstep squelchy and gross. And my poncho kept getting whipped away by the wind. 

I’m more of a fan of rain in theory than practise. Take Madonna’s song, which compares rain to love; this couldn’t be further from my experience of continual showers and drizzle. Listening back to Rain, I can tell Madonna hasn’t faced a wet day on the Pennine way. She is not someone who owns waterproof trousers.

As we approached Pen-y-ghent, the mountain was invisible. We never saw more than about 50-100 metres in front of us. We had no idea how far we had to climb until we reached the path at the summit. I have no idea what this mountain looks like.

The ascent was more challenging than we’d expected, with a little scrambling over rocks while high up. As there was a break in the rain I took off the poncho to stop it blowing about. We kept going, excited about the summit, and what the guidebook described as a “sublime shelter”. This turned out to be two sets of benches, well designed so that one set would always be out of the wind. It gave us somewhere to rest and eat, but to be called sublime, a shelter really needs a roof.

The views from the top of Pen-y-ghent were disappointing.

During the first day walking the Pennine way, David and I met two women who’d done it done years back. They told us they had seen only one afternoon of rain the whole time. An enviable experience, but it gives them little to talk about when the conversation turns to the Pennine Way’s reputation for bad weather.

The experience of waterlogged boots and clothing was unpleasant. But it was never dangerous, since we had a warm place to stay at the end. The weather could well have been worse – it was warm, at least. And I found myself enjoying the challenge, knowing that I could endure everything that the rain was throwing at me. I was content, maybe even happy. There were few places I would have rather been.

Lying in bed now, a little after 6, I can hear rain lashing the windows. My car is a little way off in Hawes. I’m not looking forward to setting out, but I’ll make the best of it.

Too lazy for amazing things

Time after time, I run into this same problem. It’s mid-afternoon and I’m somewhere amazing; any other day I’d kill to be there. It might even be somewhere I’m unlikely to return to. But I’m worn out and can’t summon the energy to explore further.

This happens to me a lot when I’m being a tourist. I spend the morning seeing a place’s main sites; by the afternoon I’ve had enough of beauty, and desire rest more than amazement. (A friend told me that students at the Sorbonne are told to spend no more than two hours at a time in the Louvre to avoid this sort of problem).

The most recent time I dodged something wonderful was when walking the Ridgeway. For me, one of the route’s highlights was the Uffington horse. We arrived there late on a long, hot afternoon. I could have spent hours exploring the landscape – if I’d not been walking all day. Instead I had a quick look at the horse, took some photos, then we carried on walking.

(See that flat-topped hill with a chalky patch? No grass grows there because it’s where at George killed the dragon. Allegedly)

The problem with travel and hiking is that they’re tiring. Yesterday’s trip on the Pennine way was hard work. We saw some amazing landscapes and some odd places, but my pack was a little too heavy.

We’d also been dodging rain all day. There was a shower times just before we left the canal and could hide under a bridge. Long rainy spells came and went as we lazed about in Gargrave’s excellent Dalesman café.

We arrived in Malham tired and damp. I knew that Gordale Scar was about three miles away, but that seemed too much for two weary hikers. As we checked into our home for the night, I asked whether it really was worth the extra walk just to see another amazing view, particularly after a day of them. We were told it was.

I pointed out that the weather looked shifty – was this worth seeing in the rain? We were told it was especially worth seeing in the rain. So somehow we summoned the energy for a last few miles’ walk. The initial omens were good:

We passed Janet’s Foss, said to be the home of a fairy queen. Pretty nice.

Finally we walked along a small ravine. Pleasant.

And then we turned the corner. The photo doesn’t quite do justice to the scale of the looming rocks and the sound of the water. Sheep ate grass at the very edges of the drops. We’d seen some great views but this was the best of the day.

On the way back, we found rotting fallen trees into which people had hammered copper coins.

This reminded me of something similar in Kathmandu – a block of wood which people nailed coins to. According to the guidebook, it was to ward off toothache.

I don’t always summon the energy to go exploring and that’s a shame. Sometimes it really pays off.

On poor planning and a fantastic train station

​When I go on holiday, I tend to plan the whole thing in detail – maybe too much detail. My hiking plans tend to be looser. I book the places to stay in advance, but the rest is an undignified scramble.

Sometimes, like my trip to the devil’s punchbowl, this works out well. Others, like not buying walking boots for the South Downs Way, can be more painful. And I always end up carrying a heavy pack with too much food. I’ve got a bag of nuts with me on the Pennine way that I’ve walked 200 miles with, simply because I never check ahead and see there are more than enough places to buy hot food on the way.

Books on hiking recommend some practice hikes to get an idea of how far you can walk. I initially based my distances on accounts of WW2 POWs. I mean, if they could walk 16-20 miles a day after years of malnourishment, I could follow the twenty mile a day schedule in the south downs way book.

Most of my planning goes on clearing the decks so I can disappear for a few days. I’d planned to buy waterproofs and a new rucksack before the next Pennine way stage. Instead I squandered the preparation time writing work emails. I was quite lucky on my first Pennine way sections as I read the Rambling Man guide beforehand and realised it was a slightly more challenging path than the ones in Sussex. I bought maps, although not proper waterproofs. And then, the night before setting off, I realised I’d not packed suitable trousers, and had to drive to a 24 tescos megastore.

As my current walk approached I found myself rushing through a to-do list. I wonder if I should maybe take my laptop or not go at all. I had a horrendous drive up the M1 the night before, and the drive to Hawes was grim – my car started bleeding in a service station car park.

But the stress soon vanishes. For me it was when I found myself at Garsdale station. It wasn’t just the amazing setting:

No, the station had a cosy waiting room. And, to make it even better, a complete set of the Encyclopedia Brittannica.

I read the entry on Varanasi. “The sacred city is bounded by a road known as Panchakosi; every devout Hindi hopes to walk this road”. While I’m not religious, this is the hike I’d most like to do.

Another great thing about Garsdale station was the statue of a dog. Ruswarp was the mascot of the campaign to keep this station, and had even legally signed the petition, the pawprint accepted since he was a paying customer. 

Ruswarp’s companion Graham Nuttall died in a mountaineering accident in 1990. Ruswarp stayed with his body for eleven weeks in the depths of winter. The world would be a better place if there were more statues of doggos and fewer of generals.

While I was in the waiting room, someone on the other platform called to me. They said that, in six minutes time, a lumber train would be coming through from Wales. I came out to see it, pressed myself against the wall as the train hurtled through.

As the air filled with the scent of timber, I wondered what type of trees these were. I daydreamed about changing careers, to become an FBI agent investigating crimes in quiet places like this. Life is good.

The Ridgeway Days 3 and 4

Something I’ve experienced in both hiking and tourism is that the most incredible places seem unappealing when you’re tired. By three o’clock on a long day, a diversion that would seem exciting most other times is just too much trouble.

This leg featured amazing sights that were hurried through and hurried past so as not to extend the day; including the Uffington Horse, one of the most incredible landscapes I’ve ever visited.

The Uffington Horse was one of the highlights of the trip, but it is probably best not encountered towards the end of a long day travelling. The landscape nearby, shown below, is stunning. The small hill with a bare patch is where St George fought the dragon. This is proved by the exposed chalk on the place where the dragon bled out: nothing has grown there since. One of the downsides of this route is that the view of the horse from the hilltop is not the best. But we were too tired for any diversion. Hiking is a good way of seeing landscapes, but not so good for visiting particular things.

I briefly ducked below the fence to place my hand on the chalk.

We made time for a couple of places, Wayland Smithy and a huge fort, because they were right on the path, and perfectly timed for a long break.

One of the great things about this walk was meeting some interesting people. In a valley we met someone flying a drone. He was taking thousands of photos that could then be used in making CGI models for an upcoming Hollywood film (he told us what it was, but said he wasn’t supposed to).

As Summer fades, it’s harder to summon the memories of the ferocious heat. The weather continued to brutal, meaning hats, sun-cream and lots of water. On day 4 we had the last water-stop 5-7 miles from the end. I’m so used to taking water for granted, particularly on hikes around the Sussex Downs.

We also had a water-stop near a beautiful mansion. The gardener stopped to talk and showed us to the taps. There were peacocks in the grounds, and he explained how he had to hunt for the eggs. He told us that passers-by would often ask who the house belonged to, but he would never say. I wanted to ask as well, but forced myself not to. We were told to check out the roses as we passed them; they were indeed impressive.

On the hilltop, sunny day, we passed some abandoned kit on a monument. It was only some time later I realised someone had just left it there for a run to save carrying it around.

While the curry houses on the North Downs Way have been nothing special, I loved the ones along the Ridgeway. We went to a couple that were under new management (judging by their reputation, the previous owners had run them into the ground). They were both now excellent, despite seeming to be in the middle of nowhere. I wonder why some areas have much better Indian Restaurants than others?

On this section, we passed the halfway point. Signs showing the full distance travelled are always encouraging.

Walking the Ridgeway (Days 1 and 2)

Back in June, to celebrate my 41st birthday, I set off with a friend to walk the Ridgeway. This is one of Britain’s oldest paths, going from Avebury to Aylesbury – or you can walk it the other way round, which is what we did. This meant we ended in the amazing landscape of Avebury, although the scenery on that last stage was less exciting than (what was for us) the opening stages.

The Ridgeway was adopted as a national trail in 1972, and the route is 87 miles. Adding in the journeys to and from the accommodation, this worked out as pretty much 100 miles over 5 days. As well as the Avebury complex, the route takes in amazing locations including the Uffington White Horse, the grave at Wayland Smithy and several hill forts, supposedly built to protect this ancient trading route.

Unlike the South Downs Way, there’s a real feeling of following a path, with the trail unwinding relentlessly in front of you.

On the first day, the track crossed the driveway of Chequers,the Prime Minister’s country house. We were walking a few weeks after the election, when Teresa May had admitted the naughtiest thing she had done as a child: running cornfields. The cornfields around Chequers contained imposing warning signs, but I’m not sure if they were there to warn walkers, or to warn off the Prime Minster.

The month I picked to walk with Dan turned out to be the hottest June since the year I was born – a year sometimes referred to as the ladybird summer, since the hot conditions caused a plagues of them. I found my thoughts straying a lot to politics – the new Queen’s Speech was voted on while we were hiking. Out here, in the English countryside, I felt the presence of the upheavals ahead for the country.

The other great thing about the Ridgeway is that it is a chalk path. Most of my walking has been done around the South Downs, so I feel at home on chalk.