Friday, 2 November 2012

A Walk Up the Dragon's Spine

It's amazing how much jealousy one can feel, staring up and tiny figures silhouetted against the skyline. Especially, if those figures are people who are at the very top of a mountain that you are about  to climb.

It would be several hours before Phil and I would be where they were now.  The thought of it seemed to bother me more than Phil. My companion was a seasoned walker, who had  attempted the Yorkshire 3 Peaks Challenge two years earlier, but, foiled by severe knee pain, had to pull out on the descent of Whernside. He eyed the summit, now,with the grim determination of a man with a score to settle. He wasn't going to let the mountain beat him this time. Or was he?

For me, this was the first time I had attempted anything like this before and, with one climb  down, I was feeling fatigued from the excertion.

I think Phil picked up on this, as I must have started to drag my heels. "Try some of these". Phil handed me a couple of white pills. I looked at him suspiciously.

"What are they?" I asked.

"It's alright they're amino acids. They will help your body recover quicker."

"Really?" Ordinarily, I would not accept any pill from a bloke I'd only just known for a few hours. But in these circumstances, and in a relatively short time, I had built up a strong trust of Phil, based on... I don't know what, but it was profound and genuine.
So I popped the two pills.

I noticed Phil swallow another with a swig from the pipe that came out of his pack.

"Is that water?" I asked, noticing that, if it was water, it had a odd neon-glow about it.


"Why is it yellow... and glowing? " I persisted in my inquiry.

"It's got some extras in". He smiled across me, with a such a curious twinkle in his eye, that it had a twinkle it it's eye.

Phil had already produced a range of performance enhancing items, including super boost jelly beans,  caramelised glucose packs and brightly coloured shot-drinks, which looked like the peal-and-pour milk containers you find in hotel rooms.  Phil had already shown me on this trek that he had prepared for every eventuality. So, as far as managing his body intake went, it didn't surprise me that he'd brought with him all that latest discoveries that medical science had to offer, to ensure he was continuously fuelled-up, if not, altogether buzzing.

"You better hope that that you don't have to give a urine sample at the end of all this." I joked. Phil chortled.

However, I made a point of taking a banana from my pack and peeled it deliberately  in front of him. I took a large bite and said with bulging cheeks,  '"sh'e natrer'ral. "

"My stuff is natural too. Kind of! Anyway, I'm sure it works," He hurumphed, "and anyway, you'll feel better in the morning for it. It helps the body recover faster." He was sounding a little defensive.

 The topic of what is and isn't  good for the body became the subject for discussion for the next few miles. It eventually turned into discussion about food. Phil was a trained chef with his own catering business. So, soon were in deep discussion about foods that made our mouths water and bellies tingle; succulent steak dinners, and lamb recipes and a roast chicken dinners that he described cooking with attention to every delicious detail. Phil shared with me a secret sauce recipe, that works beautifully for both fish and meat dishes that I swore I will take to the grave. And so I will.

It was the most we'd spoken in the entire day and it certainly helped take our minds off things. The miles passed quickly, as we followed the babbling, brown waters of Little Dale Beck, which flows into the the River Doe. The track took us to the starting point at the north-east foot of Whernside.

To my great relief and some generous folk had at some point in the past had the foresight to build steps of large, regularly placed, flat square stones up the steady rise to the summit. From where I stood they looked like huge exposed vertebra, running along the back of a colossal, slumbering dragon. I fantasied that the footfalls from one hundred weary walkers, up it's spine,might awaken the beast and we'd all be thrown 100s of feet down into the dales of perhaps chargrilled by flames from it's nostrils, perhaps with a little of Phil's secret peppercorn sauce?

Our ascent brought us close to a walker, perhaps in his 50's who, by the sounds of his rasping breath, was well overdue a sit sown and, perhaps, a totals reconsider. He looked enough like Boris Johnston, to warrant a second glance, but if it were, indeed, the man himself, I feared that London might soon be requiring another mayor.

Red faced and sounding like he was making the most of a lifetime's supply of El Lung-Shredder cigars, I was honestly concerned for his condition. I considered the genuine possibility that our Boris had, only this morning, left a letter of fond-farewell for his wife on their kitchen table at home and was attempting to commit, what constituted, suicide-by-mountain.

To the man's credit he kept pace with us, sticking just behind Phil and I for a couple of miles, before Phil suggested we step things up a little. I think the constant sound, like someone continuously working bellows having attached party blowers to the end, was stating to grate on him. I agreed to moving on, but not without checking on the poor man's wellbeing  first. I couldn't bear to leave this man in the sate he was in, without saying something, " How you doing, mate? It's heavy going isn't it?"

With blood shot eyes, which were clearly struggling to focus on me, he gave me a yellow toothed grin. The dry, white patches, that bookended the corners of his mouth cracked audibly, as he spoke. " Arrghh.. beautiful isn't it?  Makes you feel lucky to be alive".

Lucky to be alive? I thought.  He would be lucky to be alive, if he made it off this mountain, without the need of a rescue helicopter. I bid him farewell and wished him the best of luck and meant every single word if it.

Close to the summit, we were rewarded with a most beautiful view of Winterscales Pasture and the dales beyond. Oh my God, but it was beautiful. Lush, green, wild and gloriously England. Down below we could see ant-like people, moving imperceptibly across the landscape, who were undoubtedly looking up and thinking , 'lucky bastards, up there,' just as we had done some hours earlier.

We were joined at of vantage point by Julie, from Liverpool,who had been separated from her colleagues. She had been persuaded to do the challenge by her work mates and had reluctantly agreed, but now she had been left behind as she was 'too slow'.

" I didn't even want to do this soddin' thing, but 'dey persuaded me, didn't dey? Now the buggers have pissed off and left me on me' own," she explained, in a wonderfully, broad Liverpudlian accent, which always makes me laugh, no matter how serious the subject matter. I can imagine courtrooms in Liverpool falling into chaos as defendants give their testimonies or witnesses recount harrowing details to rapturous laughter from the jury and perhaps even the judge.

 Julie joined us without invitation, as none was required on this sort of venture, because if you wanted the pleasure of someone's company, you simply took up pace with them and started a conversation, if not, you had the choice of stepping up the pace and leaving them behind or slowing down a touch and letting them pull away. Right now, it looked like Julie needed some company and despite Phil's grim expressions that suggested she might become a liability, or worse, very, very, annoying, we shared each others company in our approach to the summit.

Now, have you ever heard those who are familiar with the great outdoors, in particular those with experience with mountaineering say, something along the lines of, " The weather can change very quickly up there you know?"

Well, they are right and, what is more, it did.

Due to the shear height of Whernside, it had with it it's own micro climate, which was, at this very moment, a crown of thick, impenetrable cloud.  Combine this with the sudden drop in temperature and I knew this might be turning nasty. A large grey, stone wall ran alongside the track that we now followed. Right along the narrow ridge that defined the highest point.

In true British fashion, there were those who thought this might offer the perfect place to stop for a picnic. Several hardcore picnickers we're sat with their backs to the wall, Tupperware boxes propped precariously on their knees, tucking into soggy, cheese sandwiches and cups of luke-warm tea . Stoically, and to their great credit, they managed to smile and gave a very plausible impression that they were actually enjoying themselves. That was, until they pissed off the dragon through their provocatively, pious, picnicking and heavens really opened.

Without any warning it started to hail. I mean really hail. Nothing that I had ever experienced before prepared me for the ferocity of hail that travelled almost horizontally, as if it had been fired from a canon on the other side of the wall. People screamed and shrieked at the speed and violence of the downfall. With the hail, came an almighty wind which had everyone cowering for shelter in safety of the wall. So that's why the wall had been built . To stop people being blown off this thing.

The ice stones stung my hands and legs like a hundred razor nicks, but what was worse, what was much worse was the merciless cold. My body temperature seemed to plummet uncontrollably. All the walking and sweating I had done and now I was shivering, violently.

"We can't stop, we must keep going!" Phil shouted above the deafening crackle of the ice-fall.  He was right of course, as much as the natural impulse was to adopt the foetal position and pray, it made more sense to move.

I was suddenly aware of Julie's frame, curled up next to me, she grimaced and shouted something to me I couldn't make out

She tried again, this time at the top of her voice , "IS MY MASCARA RUNNING?"

I must have looked perplexed, but obliged honestly, "Yes, a little. Look we are going to push on are you coming?"

"No, fuking way," was her immediate and unambiguous answer, and despite the severity of the situation, because it was delivered in the unmistakable scouse accent, it still made me grin.

   So, to a rousing chorus of Four Seasons in One Day,  which some comic had started singing and it soon caught on, we descended the Peak.

The downward trek was to prove more dangerous than the last. There was no 'yellow brick road' going down that had been constructed for going up and it certainly took it"s toll. Shingle and scree gave way easily underfoot. Even embedded stones were slippery and the muddy parts were slick. All of which meant that almost no footfall was guaranteed to stick securely.  I saw several people fall heavily.  One notable misfortunate, having chosen to go slightly off track, suddenly found himself sliding rapidly down a steep gradient on his bottom, like a child on his sledge.  He must have travelled 30feet before a sharp pinnacle of rock stunted his progress, as it defused to yield to his crotch.

Worse, however, was the sight of one of the fell runners who had passed me on Pen-y-Ghent and had so impressed me. I had called them mountain goats and had gaped in awe at their sure-footed skips down the steep gradients. The girl of the pair had clearly fallen heavily and was sat on a boulder being comforted by her partner. Her face was a mess; a dash of blood, which, on seeing, took my breath away.  As I said, he was unfortunate.

Thankfully, a Marshall was there to administer first aid. It was Bridge and I immediately felt reassured. I thought, if I had an accident anywhere on this mountain, I would be comforted to think Bridge was about to help. I'd  hardly met the woman by she had air of assured experience that demanded confidence from those around her.

"This is where my knee gave in last time and I was forced to pull out?" Phil look more darkly grim than I had seen him before. This, of course,  was his ultimate ordeal and self-confirmation.

"How's you knee holding up, now?" I asked.

"It's burning like hell, " his face confirmed the discomfort he was clearly feeling. Don't forget, there is another peak to climb after this, was the reply I stopped myself speaking, but it now occurred to me that I might be finishing this venture on my own.

The descent down the south side seemed to last for ever. My knees, too, were aching by now and I had every sympathy for Phil, as these joints had always been his Achilles heel. I presumed his actual Achilles heels were holding up fine.

Very gradually, but mercifully, the gradient levelled out and once again were were walking on the flat.

I reflected on my sudden bout of shivering that had given me such a fright at the summit. I was to read later that as many people can suffer hypothermia in relatively mild temperatures, as do in the more extreme if conditions.   The words of Sir Ranalph Fiennes rang true; "There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad preparation".

Eventually, we reached the last check point and it was time for another change of socks for Phil, he certainly came from the Sir Ranalph school of preparation. He offered me a glucose sachet, which, on this occasion, I gratefully accepted as I was utterly bushed, operating on fumes and willing to try anything. Phil smiled.

"Don't have it all at once and keep drinking plenty of water. " he warned. " or it will dry your insides out! " Phil was now sitting on a rock and  airing his pale, white and wrinkled feet.

I squeezed a small, dark-brown, slug-looking amount into my mouth. It was like treacle; very thick and sweet. I searched for my water bottle in my pack and took a couple of glugs, with the slugs.

 "Take that would you?" Phil handed me a clear, bag of white powder. Now this was serious drugs-ville. Phil had brought with him an array of lotion, pills and potions but this looked just like a illicit substance.

I know it sounds bad, but I was so tired. No really; I would have chewed on a badgers scrotum, given me by a witch-doctor, had I thought it might have the slightest chance of perking me up a little.

The powder looked like sherbert and I was certain it would be glucosey-sweet, if nothing else, and would probably offer me the boost of energy I needed right now. So, with my back turned to any onlookers, I tapped out a small pile of powder into the  palm of my hand. I stuck my tongue into it. It tasted terrible and chalky. The vile and unexpected taste made me inhale a little of the powder which, in turn, triggered a involuntary, convulsive cough. The remaining powder in my hand exploded in a cloud on white, completely covering my face.

"Jesus Christ, Rich! " Phil exclaimed, " What the hell are you doing with my foot powder?"

Friday, 19 October 2012

Sir Ranulph Funnies

Ringing my socks out whilst sitting on a stone wall in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales can be a sobering moment for a man. A man who thought that in hiking, he'd found his new passion in life, a recent raison d'être, that also offered heath benefits and fundraising opportunities for charity as a reward for his immense toil.

"You must always try and change your socks, at least, every 10 miles," Phil scolded me, father-like, whilst unwrapping, from crinkly plastic, a brand new pair of fluffy, warm, mega-tog, woollen socks.

Phil was a seasoned walker and frankly, in comparison, I wasn't. He'd clearly enjoyed the angle of mentoring me through the art of hiking, whilst we tramped the first 9 miles of the three peaks challenge. And, until now, I'd felt I'd benefitted from his experience and learned a great deal. But right now, with cold, wet feet and the prospect of 16 more miles of squelchy hell in wet socks in front of me, I did not. His advice felt far too condescending for my liking.

Through gritted teeth, I asked, "Don't suppose you have a spare pair you can lend me?"

"I'd love to mate, but I need those for the last 10 miles. You can wear those if you want?" He pointed down at his recently discarded pair, that lay curled like grey, woollen snails, steaming in the cold air. The sight of them was too comical for words. We both laughed suddenly and heartily, after which I felt much better.

  Thank god we British can laugh at ourselves.  It's not a gift that's only associated with the British, of course, but we do it so well. Rarely are there times, when things are looking really dire and grim that a good one liner can't perk-up the spirits and turn everything on it's head. The British seem to have an innate ability to recognise the absurdity of a situation one finds oneself in and laugh hysterically about it and about themselves. It is a wonderful 'human' trait that sets us apart from the animal kingdom, the insects and Victoria Beckham.

I once met Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the 'worlds greatest living explorer', a title bestowed to him by the Guinness Book of Records. He was conducting a book signing, in Brighton. I was there for a conference and was enthralled by his pre-signing lecture when he gave a packed auditorium an awe-inspiring account of his adventures around the globe.  He beguiled the audience with an anecdote of his first venture across the arctic wastelands in the 1970s. He travelled with his friend and companion, 'Charlie'. Together they faced months of great hardships in the frozen tundra. By the time they had reached the South Pole Charlie had suffered the worst of it, losing all the skin on his fingers and feet to frost bite. Despite suffering excruciating and unrelenting pain, Charlie valiantly marched onwards.

Finally, Fiennes described the moment when, on hitting his head against a rock, Charlie's eyeballs filled with blood. On seeing yet another tragedy befall his calamitous comrade Sir Ranulph turned to him and said, "You're not going to start winging now are you?"    At this, the two off them, reportedly fell into hysterics - right there and then - in the middle of the South Pole and hundreds of miles away from another living soul.  

Is it just me, or is that not bloody marvellous? That's it, right there; humour and cahones personified. Can there be any greater qualities required in a world-class explorer? Qualities shared, no doubt, with histories greatest explorers; Sir Edmund Hillary, Roald Amundsen, James Cook and Amy Johnson...yes, even Amy Johnson had the sort of cahones that her husband could be proud of.

Yes, laughter would be a great weapon for me; my greatest weapon, in the face of disaster,  disheartenment, discomfort and any other words associated with the negativity of the dis-  prefix.  Perhaps, with the exception of the word 'disco'. That word is too fun and one which we must endeavour to take back into the light. Although, it's probably an abbreviation for 'discoordinated' and not, as many foolishly believe, 'discotheque'.  Let's face it, it sums up the standard of the majority of dancers that have ever gyrated like a demented jelly fish to anything by the Sissor Sisters, in a public place. Is it any wonder that every nightclub, planning on people actually turning up for a boogie,  insists on selling alcohol?

Anyway, I digress as I am prone to do. I fear it will soon take as long to read these blogs about my three peaks challenge trek, as it was to walk the bloody thing.

So back to our intrepid travellers who, after a short respite at check point two, were back on the Yorkshire trail.

The land had flattened out considerably and walking became easier as we followed walls and tracks to a most impressive feat of Victorian engineering; the Ribblehead viaduct.

The Ribblehead viaduct is undoubtedly the most impressive structure on the Settle-Carlisle Railway. Known affectionately, locally, as  Batty Moss viaduct, it boasts 24 massive stone arches, 104 feet above the moor. Tragically however, with its construction came atrocious loss of life. Hundreds of "navvies"(railway builders) lost their lives building the line, from a combination of accidents, fights, and smallpox outbreaks. So much so, in fact, that the railway paid for an expansion of the local graveyard.

Our paths took us parallel to the structure and gave us plenty of time to admire it's splendour. Several diesel trains passed along it's length and I pictured in my mind's eye what an illustrious sight it would be to see a steam engine, chuffing across its back, leaving a trail of plumes of billowy white.

Happily, lost in an antiquated railway fantasy we marched on until things suddenly became significantly darker. Looking up I could see the viaduct was now dwarfed by a much larger structure and one carved not by the hand of man, but by millions of years of grinding glaciers. Whernside stood tall and dark like a Goliath about us.

Phil must have noticed my slack-jawed gawk, as he said with a half-smile, "Yup. That's where we're going"

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Friday, 5 October 2012

Dangerous Derrière

Four hard hours in and one peak down, Phil and I maintained a steady jaunt into the wetlands that surrounded the grandest of the Yorkshire peaks.  

The spring of 2012 will go down in history as the wettest that the British people have ever had to endure and , believe me, we've had more than our fair share of seasonal washouts. April to June alone was the wettest since records began in 1910

The aftermath that this appalling spell of weather had had of this expanse of Yorkshire countryside was clear to see.   The terrain undulated markedly, with islands of spongy, mossy turf dispersed over a sea of sodden, peat soil.

Footfalls now had a audible squelch to them and in the worst places, to avoid our boots sinking into subaqueous depths, we had to pick out tufts of grass and skip between them like stepping stones.

Our precarious descent from Pen y Gent had required careful foot placement to avoid slips on loose scree and slippery mud. Now, concentration was heightened as we selected firm, foot-sized, patches of ground to step on and, as a result, all chatter soon ceased. This was my first experience of serious marshland. This was Horton Moor.

Suddenly, Phil's wide brimmed hat popped up and he interrogated the area around us with squinting eyes.
"This wasn't the way we came last time I was here". He looked puzzled.
"Are you certain? It all looks the bloody same to me," I suggested.
" Yeah, I'm sure." He raised a walking stick and pointed away to the north. " We went that way, toward Plover Hill then east, to High Bickwith. It was all like this; really nasty, boggy stuff!"

"We've changed the route," came an eloquent voice from behind. It had more than a trace of authority about it that commanded our attention.

It was a marshall dressed in a bright, yellow jacket, with matching pack cover. A tall, well built woman in her late 40's strode up beside us. "We usually run it to the north of here and then round to the Cam Fell, but the ground is treacherous over there. We couldn't risk it.

The lady had a regimental, almost officer-like, air about her and I guessed she must have served in the forces. " The landowner has lost three cows in the last two weeks".

"Where did they go?" I asked naively.

She threw me a sideways look. "Straight down! They were sucked down into the bog."

"Bridge is the name", Phil and I introduced ourselves and forgo the need for handshakes. This was a probably a blessing, as I could imagine that Bridge, had a vicelike crushing grip, which would have left me whimpering like a big girl's blouse. I guessed 'Bridge' was short for Bridget, but it might have easily been a nickname, perhaps earned during her army days, for her formidable reputation and robust stature. Or, perhaps it was her unique ability to straddle deep crevasses and allow articulated lorries and tanks to ride over her back.

She was not attractive, in the classic sense. She wore a black bandana, pulled tight over greying, dark, shoulder-length hair. Under this a deep, scar forked down her forehead and created a flash of white in her left eyebrow.

With a long, loping gait, Bridge pulled ahead of me. Despite a sizeable burden, of what I assumed was medical and /or first aid supplies, by the green cross emblem on the back. Head held high, back straight, her arms swung rhythmically in pseudo parade style, I had to work hard to keep up with her. However, my eyes were, suddenly, distracted by motions further south.

Black, lightweight trousers covered her long legs and, above, the focus of my attention, was a prodigious, immense posterior. Like two undulating medicine balls, her imposing buttocks moved majestically under the stretched, black fabric. In my meagre defence, it was simply arresting.

It immediately occurred to me, as my mind works in such ways, that Phil and I might have eaten well, for the next mile or so, simply by tossing an assortment of nuts into the vice-like, crack-percussions and catching the debris that would be expelled. It would, not only, be a fun and nutritious game, but it would help break the monotony of our marshy march.

Seriously now, the movement was absorbing, captivating, almost hypnotic. The remarkable rump morphed into alternating yIng and yang shapes, come the ying again...and now, the yang...

So, it served me right, that at that precise moment, that I be dispatched a very important lesson, which might be remembered, from that day forth with the wise words,  a distracting derriere precedes a fall, or, perhaps, fear the rear if thou should see not what is near ,which, just about sums it up. As whilst my attention was taken on that dynamic display, my feet had blundered their way, knee-deep , into a quagmire.

Phil guffawed with amusement. "You were too busy looking at her arse weren't you?"

"I was not!" I protested, feebly and reassured myself, that Bridge was already well out of ear-shot, or my embarrassment would be been augmented ten-fold.

"SEE YOU AT GROUSE BUTTS!" Bridge called out without looking back.

Buts?? Oh my God, now I am mortified!

"This is why I wear gaiters." Clearly enjoying the moment, Phil leaned sideways against his walking sticks. "And I always carry spare pair of socks".

"Is there anything you don't have in your bloody pack?" I couldn't help but be spiky with him.

"Yeah, I had to leave half my kit back at home", he said, as if it had been a difficult decision making process. I imagine he would have completed several risk assessment documents in the process.

"It must have pained you to leave behind your flare gun." I gibed, sarcastically.

"No, I've packed that". If he was joking, his face didn't give it away.

"Come on, mate! We need to crack on. " He offered me his hand to me and with a raspy suck-slurp we managed to extract my clay-clad feet from the mire.

My feet and shins were saturated and, for the next half an hour, each step brought with it a discernible squelching of water between my toes. Mercifully, Bridge and her rear distractions had now disappeared over the next fold in the land.

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Thursday, 27 September 2012

Mountain Goats on Speed

 A panorama like none other I'd seen before. A long sweeping, lush green valley with a small scattering of buildings like discarded Lego bricks. An immense, brooding sky crowned the view, with billowy, grey clouds that looked like the heavy brush strokes of an em-passionate painter. The sheer space. The air. The land. It was awe inspiring.

"Good innit?"  It was Phil, stopping alongside me to share the vista.

"Wow!" was all I could say, but it seemed to some it all up.

Isn't it great that we have so many small words we can draw upon, like 'Wow! ' , 'Oh my God', 'Yes!' and 'Geronimo' to sum up our most mighty feelings of awe, thrill and sheer ecstasy! Who the hell was Geronimo anyway and why does my wife hate it so much when I yell it when we are in the throws of passion?

Phil interjected again, "But this is nothing to views on top of Whernside.  Now that's something you want to see!"

There's better to come? Bring it on, I thought.

Over and between huge, dark, clammy boulders we trudged up to the top of Pen y Ghent. It was a tough couple of hours of plod, plod, plod, before the terrain, mercifully, flattened out toward the summit. Phil and I were able to march side by side and as soon as we were able to catch our breath we got chatting.

It turned out that my latest, ramble-buddy was a chef by trade, with his own catering business. For Phil, walking was his escape from the stresses of the kitchen. His excursions from his home, just outside Hull, often took in the wilds of Yorkshire, darkest Derbyshire and the romance of the splendour of the Lake District.
It was a family business that he ran with his wife, with whom he had a young daughter.

"Pick up a stone!" Phil surprisingly instructed. The hint of urgency in his voice intrigued me  enough to stoop for fist-sized, grey pebble. Phil had a similar rock in his hand. Surely we weren't going to take a pot-shot at the nearest rabbit or grazing sheep? Was Phil looking to impressive me with a demonstration of his cookings skills out in the wild. I pictured him whipping a gas stove out of his pack,then felling, skinning and braising a rabbit with fast, skilled hands, before tearing handfuls of natural, green herbs from the greenery at our feet and shredding it on top.
So it was, with equal amounts of relief and disappointment, that I saw him he toss his stone onto a man-sized pile that stood at the side of the path.

'Go on then!' He indicated for me to follow suit. So I did, hoping to God that I would not be made to endure 9 hours of pick up stone, put down stone, with 'fun-guy' Phil. Did he really think that is was a good way to pass the time?

I had to ask,"So, what did we do that for?"

He told me that the pile of stones was a Cairn. It was a marker, like a waypoint for hikers. "If everyone who passes a cairn adds one stone it maintains  it. When it snows they poke out and guide walkers," Phill added. I was impressed. Later I was to discover that Cairns have been around for 1,000s of year and are found, not just here, but in North America and Northern Europe. At regular intervals, a series of cairns can be used to indicate a path across stony or barren terrain, even across glaciers.

Phil enjoyed passing on his knowledge to one as green as I, just as much as I enjoyed learning from him.

"If the trail is unclear, it shows people the way and sometimes there're used to warn people  of a danger spot. "
"How can you tell the difference between a come here! one and a don't come here! one?" I asked.
"You can't. You just have to be careful" Phil shrugged.
The thought of  some poor bastard, staggering his way, blindly, through a blizzard, following the cairn's direction, only to find himself plummeting down an unseen drop, made me shudder.

An hour later we had signed in a the first check point and were greeted warmly by some Macmillan volunteers, who were acting as marshals for the day. Many fellow walkers took the opportunity to take a break, but Phil insisted we push on. "We'll take a break at the second check point, before we reach Whernside."
He'd clearly been planning this for months. My feet and legs felt strong, so I was happy to keep going.

"Try some of these". From one of his many zipped pouches in his back-pack he produce a small, plastic pot of, what looked like, multicoloured pills. Phil must have read the concerned look of my face. " It's alright, they're jellybean's, but they've got extra glucose and shit in them, so they'll keep you going." I tried some. They were sugary sweet.

Phil washed his down with a slurp from a clear pipe that clipped into his shoulder strap and the back into his pack. "Time saver". I must say, i was increasingly impressed with his gear.

Coming down from Pen y Gent was tough on the body. It's amazing how the muscles we use to walk down a steep descent feel entirely different to those we use to climb up.

"Argh!" Phil yawped, " This is the first real test for my knees".

Trying to pick out firm footings on the embedded stone islands that poked through the slippery wet mud and loose scree, took focussed concentration. The strain of slowing ones downward  momentum to a steady and manageable pace, plus the inevitable frequent foot slips, made my knees burn. I sympathised with Phil.

In two flashes, one of neon pink and the other green, two fell runners skipped between Phil and I. With the sure footing of mountain goats on speed, the young couple bounded down the steep incline. I stood in utter awe and admiration and watched a long, brunet ponytail, pulled through the back of a cap, dance snake-like over the next lip and out of sight.
I was overcome by the display of balance, agility, fitness and plain-old, balls-out, thrill-seeking bravery, that I had just witnessed.

Unkindly and unfairly, however, it suddenly left me feeling aged, feeble and rather faint hearted . But I wasn't having any of it! I gritted my teeth and picked up the pace, passing between  a group of walkers we'd had been tracking for sometime. Unsurprisingly, Phil was doing exactly the same.

Friday, 21 September 2012

The Shell-Endowed Turtle

Like brightly coloured beads on a string necklace, dropped carelessly by some Yorkshire Colossus, the walkers snaked their way up the craggy faces of Pen y Ghent. Like sheep, we followed, one by one, or in my case two by two as I now had a walking buddy.

'I'll bloody do it today, or break my arse trying", Phil Smith was steely and determined. He had attempted the three peaks two years earlier with his father-in-law. Only to fall at the final peak when severe pains in his knee had become unbearable.

"It's not the going up that does it", he told me. "It's the going down. Yer knees take all the impact".

He was certainly dressed like he meant business ; waterproof coat, lightweight trousers, gaiters and two telescopic walking sticks ( although I'm sure they must have a sexier name) and a rucksack that, by the looks of it, contained crampons, ice axes and a life raft (just in case, like).

In comparison, I looked like I'd popped out to the corner shop for the Radio Times and a packet of Digestive Hob-Knobs. His must of thought of me as a bit of a novice, though he was probably too polite to say so.

"So I take it you're a bit of a novice to this sort of lark are you?"
I knew it!
"Is it that obvious?" I replied.
"A bit".
"Do you think I'm lacking a bit of kit?" I nodded at his backpack. Packed to the gills, it made him look like a shell-endowed turtle.

"Well, the gear is only part of the preparation." He countered and suddenly went all distant and wise, like a father instructing his son, " Yeh, your body can let you down alright, but it's in here you got to be strong". He tapped the side of his head and fixed me with a glare.

At times like this Phil looked a lot older than his 34 years. His weathered features and stocky build added to his robust air. If I was going to make this journey to the end there was no better person to be hooked up with, I thought. This trek was no laughing matter. It would be hard and gruelling. Now, I had the experienced guidance of a man who had given it his all...and failed. Now he was back. Arnie-style.  And fixated on nothing but success. One way or another we would reach the end together, whether it was him carrying me or .... Well, it would probably have to be him carrying me, to be honest.

We started the clamber up east side of Pen y Ghent. So many walkers made it seem almost as if it were people climbing people. Perhaps a scene from a Hollywood blockbuster, where flood waters are rising and hundreds of survivors are desperately,trying to scrabble up to higher ground.

It would prove, for me, a wake up call for what i'd let myself in for. But for some it was proving a little too much already.

Two ladies with Macmillan T-shirts stretched tightly over their significant frames, like ceiling netting straining to holding back balloons at New Year's Eve party, were leaning against the side a huge boulder, red-faced and blowing hard.

 It was probably Brenda and Sue from the office, I guessed, who were  coaxed into coming along by their work colleagues, without being told, or fully appreciating, exactly what they were letting themselves in for.

"Where're the rest of them, Bren?" one puffed.
"They've gone on ahead, Sooz,"came the unsurprising news.
"Blimey, I could do with a ciggie, Bren"
"Me too!" Sue pulled out a pack and offered her friend a fag. Both keen to get some smoke down them, before anymore of that fresh air crap got in.

I was blowing a little, too and hot enough to take my coat off. It was clear that the first climb of the day would filter out the Brendas and Sues of this world, but soon I was to realise that the challenge was about to take no prisoners.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The Ribble Runs

Settle station was opened in 1876 and is one of the Derby Gothic Style station types and at this unholy hour of the morning, it was all mine. So peaceful. I could have curled up on one of it's benches and fallen straight back to sleep. To dream, perhaps of a blueberry mountain and a huge, bald-headed falcon perched on its summit, staring scornfully down, ready to swoop on any poor, unsuspecting lost sheep (reference to previous posts). ' That would be me, ' I found myself saying audibly, not that anyone as around to hear it.
The distant clacketty-clack was the early signal of a train's approach and soon I was one of the handful of bleary-eyed passengers making their was along a very significant track line.

The Settle to Carlisle line, spans 72 mile of the most picturesque and stunning Yorkshire countryside. This journey was only made possible by the guile and expertise of the Victorians engineers. In all, on this amazing journey, the train descends through 14 tunnels and travels over 17 major viaducts spanning ravines, making the train the perfect place from which to admire views of a rich variance of stunning landscape.
However, for me, on this particular day, I would not have the opportunity to see this as, at the very next stop, I was off. Horton-in-Ribblesdale and don't you just love the name?

I was late for my rendezvous with 300 mad, macmillan charity walkers. It couldn't be helped, I had caught the first train of the day.

From a high vantage point, at the station gates, I look down into the small, sleeping village. A cluster of cars parked at the edge of a field and the muffled, fractured sounds of a man speaking on a tanoy system told me where I needed to be.

As I approached the field a stream of wired walkers were filing out. Feeling like a salmon, trying to make it's way up stream and against the flow, I navigated my way into a small marquee, just inside the stone gateway. Tea, coffee and a crate load of bananas, piled high on tables filled one corner and in the other was a cheerful-looking man sporting sporty shades and a tuft of gel-spiked hair on a severely, receding hair line.

Why do some guys do this? There comes a time when most men have to accept that the bountiful, bouffant of hair they once cherished, sculptured and preened is waving goodbye to them.   One has to admire the dogged, no nonsense chaps who will would rather shave the whole lot off, rather than have it slowly, sinking over the horizon of their northern hemisphere.

However, there are a few disillusioned blokes who will stubbornly stick to their old styles. Some are determined to keep it long despite having so little. Now they have a choice, either comb it over, or create Terry Nutkins-like mullet (front side for business, back for partying). This, in my humble... looks ridiculous.

The chap before me had a similar thing going on. His philosophy was clear; no matter how far back my hair retreats goes, I will still look cool! Yes, the hair is going, but if I keep it long and gel it so it sticks right up, I will still be able to see it when I look in the mirror. The only flaw in his plan is, so will everyone else!
God, I'm such a bitch. Sorry.
Like I said, he welcomed me,' Dude, your just in time. Do you have your declaration form?'
I gave him the form and signed the register. He gave me a tag on a lime-green ribbon, ' you need to fill this in and hang it round your neck. Keep it with you at all times'.
'What is it ?' I asked.
It's your next of kin details. If we find you at the bottom of a cliff face or down a pothole. We know who to call. ' He grinned, white and wide. He'd probably used the same line for all the other walkers who had asked the same question. I wondered if the colour had drained from my face any quicker than theirs.

 I accepted the invitation to take a couple of bananas for the journey, but I was keen to get going.

I joined the long line of walkers. Keen groups of people talked excitedly about the challenges to come and what they thought their chances would be of making it all the way.

We walked over a large stone bridge which spanned the treacle-coloured waters of the River Ribble, which churned in white flashes. Crossing at The Golden Lion we passed a beautiful little primary school. All grey stone of course. And then we were up and over a wall and off-road.

I' d only just noticed the chap walking in front of me with a large-brimmed, navy hat, and bulging rucksack when he suddenly turned to face me and held out an open hand. ' Are you walking on your own?'
'Yes' I replied.
' Do you want to walk together. It' ll be much easier'.
I hadn't counted on taking on this challenge with anyone else, but Lady Fortune had deemed that Phil Smith, from Hull, and I, would be facing all the grim challenges of the Yorkshire Peaks, together.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

But Chef's Upstairs

A little later, and several jars to the better, I felt brave enough to request some long awaited food. I tried asking the waitress first, but sheepishly she told me that, although they were still serving food, I'd better check with the manage first. So I did.

He blew out his cheeks with exasperated breath, "But...but chef's upstairs!."

Oh my God, I thought, the man is a total fruitcake! With extra blueberries!

After a passable steak meal inside me, I returned to my room. I,enjoyed an ultra hot bath and set my alarm clock for an early morning start.

It would have been a restful night, as the bed was comfortable, had it not been spoilt by the nightmares I suffered in the early hours ; dreams of missing my train to Horton and not being able to find any other means of getting there .   I woke in cold sweat and 5.30am.  I lay there for a few moments wondering whether I should stay in bed and catch as much rest as I could. I even toyed with the unforgivable scheme to have a really lazy day enjoying the delights (and drinking establishments) of Settle town and go back home pretending that I had completed the challenge. It was tempting for sure.

Still in the drowsy fog of my nightmare, with a surge of adrenaline I summoned from who-knows-where, I was up and preparing to leave.

True to his word, the slightly deranged hotel manager had left the elements that constituted my breakfast on a small table in the saloon bar. Two small tables were set up like this and, on discovering that one of the tables had no less than three blueberry muffins included, I presumed this was set for my, yet to meet, fellow charity walker. What favouritism.

I was halfway through my Muesli and milk, that had been left 'on ice'. When the door creaked open. It was now that I was joined by Jeff. He seemed surprised to see that his breakfast time would be shared by a bloke who looked, at this early hour, more zombie than man. He managed a courteous nod and smile of recognition, and took no time in tucking into his breakfast. I can be as anti social as the next man, especially at this unholy hour, but I was not prepared to sit this one out in silence. Especially, if it meant that I could cadge a lift off this bloke to Horton. I launched into some friendly charity-walker chat and It wasn't too long before I discovered that  Jeff actually loved to talk. Yes, especially about his favourite subject , namely, himself. Jeff was looking forward to the walk as he'd been preparing for it for months, with work colleagues from Siemens. He was tall and well built chap with implausibly white teeth and a closely shaved head and was probably late 40's. He lived and worked in Faulkland, in Scotland. A group of 30 colleagues had trained hard for this event. "Only last week, " he boasted,  " I completed a 4 mile run, 7 mile cycle and 10k cycle. My mates said I could n't beat their times, but I showed them. "

"I plan on a walking 4, maybe 5 miles and hour. That should get me round in good time. I am determined to enjoy it today, I don't want to suffer."

I was, immediately, reminded of the possibility. No, the absolute certainty, that I would be suffering today and there was a good chance, too,  that I would not enjoy it one bit.
And as much as I needed a car-share this morning, I was not about to ask to join Super-Jeff, with his All-Star, super hero friends in their A-Team van. A van, that is, unless they weren't planning to be helicoptered into Horton, or maybe parachuting in?

I wrapped my banana and a croissant in the cling film and exchanged, with Jeff, some brief wishes of good fortune for the walk. As I left the room I heard him exclaim.

'Jesus, what am I supposed to do with three muffins?'

Swinging on Caligula's Nipples

A handwritten sign at the bar door promised a 'selection of traditional cask ales'. Perfect. Surely a belly full of real beer tonight would not spoil my strict training regime? Mainly, because I didn't have a training regime, strict or otherwise. No tonight it was a case of no bars held on the drinking front. Especially if there we're local cask ales available to sample.

I love to try new, rare and interesting sounding ales and no name could be too ridiculous to stop me giving them a try. Brewers droop, Old Leg Over, Dragon's Crag, Hobgoblin or Holy Grail ale, I would be happy to try a sample of any. My only prerequisite was that it must pass the three fundamental Golden Standards. Firstly, that, on first tasting, my vision should not be immediately impaired and there should be no sudden attacks of paralysis or instant retching, and if all was well on these three points, I'd be certain to give it a go.

The Falcon bar was small, but wonderfully olde England. Lots more of that of dark wood panelling, decorated with old photos of the house and town of Settle, with images of it's long-since departed inhabitants. A selection of once-beloved drinking tankards hung from the ceiling and a beautiful, long, brass yard measure held pride of place over the large hearth, which, on this warm evening, remained unlit.

In addition to the three Toby mugs seated on stools at the bar, there were only a handful of couples eating quietly at tables in the room leading from the bar. A young waitress was attending to one of the couples. Looking good on the food front, I thought.

There was a spare high stool at the end of the bar, so, not wanting to be antisocial, I joined the three regulars who were already perched there.  The men, all in their late  60s or early 70s ,I guessed, were painfully thin and I could tell they were regulars as they weren't saying much to each other and all had made little more effort with their clothing, which hung off their shoulders like damp tea towels on wire coat hangers. If the three of them were manacled to the walls of an ancient Roman dungeon, they wouldn't have looked at all out of place. The most painfully gaunt of the line was talking in hushed, gravelled tones, through a severely tobacco-stained, yellow-grey beard. He seemed to be complaining about something and , from the words I could make out, his language was nothing short of obscene. In front of him a phone, the size of a house brick, suddenly bleeped into life. " Ah f****." he burped. "Hold up a second", he now let out a vile, phlegm-cough, which instantly turned my stomach.

He picked up the phone with an orange-coloured, skeletal hand. "Front desk, can I help you ?.. Yes madam....Yes, I believe the concert starts tomorrow evening at quarter passed seven, at Gigglewick Academy."

My God, with one magical, bronchial hack, he's turned from a foul mouthed old sea dog into Sir John Guildgood.

"Will that be all madam?...Of course, madam.. Have a lovely evening."

He put the phone down and noticed I had been listening with interest.

"Look's like you needs a beer mate," he glanced over my shoulder and returned news that the barman was on his way.

"That would be me", it was the Hotel manager again.  "What can I get you, Sir?" So as to not waste any time he was already wiping a pint glass, with the sort of cloth that I imagined  would be used for miscellaneous purposes behind the bar.

"Well I am interested in your cask ales?"

 "Right." he said, " Pint of Tetley coming up."

 "Oh do you have any others? " I enquired politely.

"It's Tetley Sir?" he gave me that astonished look again and, for a split second, I could have sworn that his big shiny head turned, just for a brief moment, into a huge blueBerry muffin, I shook my head to remove the image. Head back to normal, he was still staring at me, glass in one hand, other hand poised over the Tetley tap.

"But your sign the door mentioned a variety of cask ales?  Plural." The four old dungeon folk looked imploringly at me. They obviously knew this unhinged hotelier far better than I. It was clear that they considered what I was doing equated to dancing into the lion's den, at the Roman colosseum. Possibly even dressed as Ronald MacDonald and carrying an armful of cheese burgers.

"PLURAL?" his eye twitched briefly.

" Yeah, more than one? " I smiled broadly at him and down the bar hoping to induce some levity into an unnecessarily awkward and uncomfortable interaction. He blinked hard at me and shot a look along the faces at the bar. Three pairs of eyes immediately looked down into their Tetley dregs.

His glare returned to me. "We DO have more than one, Sir...", he spat the words at me. Now I felt I was back in colosseum territory with this mad man and, by the looks of things, this time I was swinging on Caligula 's nipples singing 'ding dong the king is dead' .

"....WE HAVE TETLEY SMOOTH", I thought he might finish this revelation with announcing 'check mate!' but he resisted.

There was a long and heavy pause.

 "Oh lovely" I said, summoning every ounce of sincerity I could muster, "I'll have that then, please."

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Blueberry Muffins for Breakfast?

The Falcon Hotel was a solidly built, Grade II listed building. Constructed in 1841, it was, on first impressions, both imposing and impressive and the same time. The reception area was tastefully furnished with dark wooden panelling and impressive paintings depicting timeless scenes of rural farming on the dales and perhaps less tastefully were the stag and ram heads which headed the doorways leading out of the room. With staring out with cold, glass eyes they maintained little of the robust-horned magnificence they enjoyed in life. Despite this the country house seemed warm and friendly. Then I rang the little, golden bell on the desk.

 A bulbous, shiny head appeared from underneath the desk. It was a man in his late forties with a light blue cotton shirt that was open at the neck. On his chest was a badge of some description, but as it hung at right angles to it's intended position, I could not make out what it said.

"Good afternoon sir, room is it?" the hotel manager introduced himself. He was a bustling and edgy chap, who gave me the impression that he was tormented by an endless list of vital things that must be done, immediately, if not sooner. The responsibility of management clearly hung heavily around this man's neck. This was exemplified by his reluctance to help me with my transport issues in the morning. Once I had explained my desire to be in Horton by 7:30am, he puffed his cheeks and tossed me train timetable. 'You'll have to get the 7:12am train, but you'll be up too early for breakfast. No one will be up'.

He clearly wanted to get on with the job of taking my details and sticking to procedure so I didn't pursue it further. He clicked furiously at some unseen mouse and monitor under the desk.
"Would you like a paper in the morning, Sir?"
"Will I get it before I leave?" I hazarded.
"No sir, no one will be up at that hour." he looked at me witheringly. I was certain that I heard the stag head above the door snigger.

"In that case, no thank you."
Click, click, click on the mouse.

"Would you like an like early morning call? Remember, no one will be up. " Now I was confused. There was a short, but uncomfortable pause.

"No, thank you." I conceded.

Clearly the right response.
Click, click, click.

"Now sir, your room is outside the main building, so I will give you a key to let yourself in, quietly, in the morning. Your breakfast will be on ice. " He'd glanced up to make eye contact on the word 'quietly'. I wasn't sure what a 'breakfast on ice' was, but he was about to make this clear.

"Now would you like Muesli or cereals?"

"Muesli, please", he smiled thinly, more frantic clicking.


"Oh, yes please,"
Click, click, click.

"Orange juice, grapefruit or apple?"

"Orange please." More smiling and more clicking. He was enjoying himself and I was playing my part it seemed.

"Piece of fruit? Apple, banana or pear?"

"Banana.  " He seemed approving of my choices, so far, but that was about to change.

"Blueberry muffin?"

Now,I don't know why but, for me,  it was an unexpected breakfast option.

"A muffin?" It was out before I could stop it, "for Breakfast?"

"Yes, yes, blueberry!"

I think he had already started clicking and now had to declick.

" No, thank you!"

His shiny head shot up and he was now looking at me straight in the eye. "Buebaerry". As if I hadn't heard him already.

"No, thank you!" I repeated, taken aback slightly at his over reaction.

"But... "he shook his head clicking several times more before reaching behind him for a key. He made a noise of exasperated, disbelief and slapped the key on the desk infont of me. He turned to leave, but I stopped him with a final question. It was clear that I had pissed on his chips, on the blubbery muffin front and nothing short of getting a blueberry muffin tattooed on my arse was going to win back his affections.
" Will I be able to get something to eat this evening?"

He looked seriously, put out again. Guests? Wanting food? How very dare they!  "Well chef's upstairs and the moment, but if you come to the bar area in an hour, we will be serving food for a short while." Then he was off like a shot, to see to the next pressing emergency on his list, no doubt.

"I find the way to my room myself then," I feebly called after him.

The ram's head chortled as I passed under him. I looked up and gave him a reproachful glare and turned to give the stag 'a stern look' for good measure.

Settled in

One of my favourite travel writers Bill Bryson, in his book, Notes from a Small Island, wrote about pulling into Settle station at the end of his tour of Britain.   To step in his footsteps now was, indeed, a big deal for me. When I disembarked on the quiet Yorkshire platform, with a handful of other travellers, and made my way up the foot bridge over the track, I paused to take things in.

The view from the footbridge was magnificent. Numerous grey stone buildings dotted about in all directions over the lush, green landscape. Some of the buildings seemed to stand out, most notable of the features were the Giggleswick Chapel, the original Midland Railway workers houses and the Town Hall which now houses the Tourist Information Centre. Far in the the distance, I could clearly make out the monumental silhouette of Pen-y-ghent, the first of the Peaks I was to attempt climbing in the morning. With it's summit obscured by cloud, it gave a foreboding air and I was only too pleased to leave my rendezvous with the colossus to the morning. Right now, I was feeling weary and was looking forward to finding my lodgings for the night, so I made my way down, off the bridge and into the town.

I was truly in Last of the Summer Wine country and it was beautiful.

The modest main road  had none of the big high street names that so spoil the ambience of other towns (despite being annoyingly convenient). The other surprising thing was the apparent lack of inhabitants. It was early evening and streets of this market town were largely deserted and only a handful of cars passed by. 

Using my trusty GPS app, on my phone, for the last time, I identified the general direction I should take as my signal was immediately lost. " It's because of her",  a passerby; a blonde lady in a smart navy suit, indicated towards the huge, swell of grass and rock that, up to know I had missed. White dots of sheep adjourned its sides and 'she' was criss-crossed by grey, stone walls.

Clearly giving all the signs of a slack-jawed tourist, she felt obliged to elaborate, ' She's called Castleberg. It's the largest outcrop of limestone in Britain. No signal for anyone this side of the railway line. So what is it walking, cliffs, potholes or caves?'

"Sorry? What?" I responded, reinforcing the lost-without-a-licence image. I was having no problem with the broad accent and her genuine warmth was apparent. It occurred to me that you wouldn't see this sort of interaction between two absolute strangers in a Southern town or city? ' I'm dong a charity walk, tomorrow for Macmillan?'

"Oh, three Peaks is it?" I nodded. "Not easy that, so I hear. I've always wanted to do it, but you know how it is when you live somewhere? Where you stopping then?"

"Er, the Falcon?" I recalled.

" Oh?" her eye brows raised slightly. "Good luck with that," she smiled, knowingly. "It's straight down that road, till you get to the edge of town. It's on the left, " She then slapped me on the shoulder, which was heart-felt and genuine. However, I didn't realise at the time that she was referring to my choice of lodgings when wishing me luck and not my 26 mile challenge.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Starting my Three Peaks Challenge

Volatile and oppressive cloud surrounded the dozen souls huddled against the face of the rough, stone wall. Freezing wind beat against us, carrying with it ice cold hail stones, which flicked at our face and legs like one hundred blunt razor blades. I crouched too and looked across at the girl next to me, who cuddled her legs and had her collar pulled up over her red cheeks. She was clearly sobbing. Only half way through the Three Peaks Challenge and with a body temperature that was falling faster than pebbles of ice around me, there was only one thing on my mind; why the hell am I putting myself through this? And,  if I was to be brutally honest with myself, I didn't really have an answer.

Things were a lot more comfortable 20 hours earlier, when I managed to secure an early seat on the 17:52 from Leeds to Settle. It was to prove a stroke of luck, as the train was soon packed to the gills with dozens of city workers, eager to start their weekend break.

As the swelling carriage became standing room only, a British Rail attendant came through and paused at a table where two very well dressed, middle aged ladies, were deep in conversation. They sat either side of the table, window side; a large burly lady and her petite friend.

"Excuse me ladies," said the attendant in gruff Yorkshire tones.
The ladies looked up, seeming slightly bewildered.
"Please can you put your bags on the rack?" the man indicated two large bags that sat on the two only available aisle seats . Standing passengers listened with interest, although they pretended not to,  as the prospect of a more comfortable journey home presented itself to a lucky few.
"No, I can't! " exclaimed the smaller woman. "I can't reach, I'm too weak."
"I can put it up for you",suggested the man and reached for the nearest bag, but he was stopped immediately.
"No! You see? But I won't be able to get it down again. I'm too tired and my arms are too short."
The attendant adjusted his hat and frowned disapprovingly, but before he could counter with any more of his annoying common sense, she continued, "Don't worry  dear. I won't stop people sitting here if that's what that want to do. I've been travelling on this train for 50 years. I've had a really busy week and it's Friday evening." It was delivered imploringly, but dripping with aggression.

Clearly taken aback by this, the official could only return, "Well, I'd hate to meet you on a Monday morning!" This he left as his parting remark, much to the general disappointment of those around him.
The lady turned to her friend opposite her and was clearly in need of some reassurances. "Was that alright? Was I being fair?" she bleated.
"Perfectly so, dear" said Lady Burly, "We have every right to have have bags there."
They proceeded to make each other a series of comforting noises, back and forth.
Like a game of 'Hmm' tennis, both seemingly ignorant to the glares from the poor people left standing in the aisles, propped up against seats, who were too English, or too tired, to do anything about it. For the duration of the journey the work weary travellers, at the end of a long week, looked on enviously at the bloated, leathery bags on the seats that were left to travel in comfort, and the luggage they both refused to move.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Sit Down Protest

The ice, cold, nectar that was the pint of cider, I enjoyed like none other before. Sitting alone in the shade of a tree in the beer garden of The Raven, I placed the pint down infont of me. I leaned forward, so my face was but touching distance from it and savoured the  moment.

With my loving finger I tracked a line down through the droplets of condensation to the bottom of the glass. Then clasping it slowly in my clammy right hand, I lifted in ceremonially to my cracked and dry lips and sensually sipped.  

THIS ADVERTISEMENT HAS BEEN BROUGHT TO YOU BY OUR SPONSORS, SHEPHERD'S DRY SACK CIDER. THE DRINK OF CHOICE FOR ALL DISILLUSIONED, MIDDLE-AGED MEN, OVER EXERTING THEMSELVES IN THE SEARCH FOR SOME FORGOTTEN... Something or other. I forget. But, suffice to say the pint and rest were lovely. So much so in fact, that my feet protested when it was time to stand. For once my legs were unsupportive of me.

It was time for plan B. From my shoulder bag I took out my map and plotted two further pubs that were conveniently on the trail between here and home. After some negotiation with the lower half half of my body,  with my torso, which had so enjoyed the cider, acting as mediator, the feet and legs finally agreed to all conditions and once again we were back on the road.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Thou Shalt Find a Way

Thwarted in my attempt to reach a refuge of salvation, at this crucial point on my epic trek across the Wilds of deepest Hertfordshire, I awaited a Miracle.

Ok guys, bear with me, it was a field of in-traversable rape seed and I was trying to get to a pub. For the benefits of this blog I invite you to show a robust willingness to suspended your disbelief. And you will need it if you are going to believe this next bit, but i assure you it is all absolutely true. Staring around me at this expanse of slowly undulating, green and yellow field, I saw my Saviour. The capital letter is no typo.

Here I was rejoined by same follicley-blessed Nature Guru who thought it prudent to sidestep my companionship no more than a couple of hours earlier. He stood at the side of the field, a stones throw away, staring intently across to the other side. His quaff of shaggy, greying hair and wise-long beard swayed in harmony with field. Slowly, and with great ceremony, the Journeyman raised his arms high above his head, palms held outwards. His beard moved and looked like he was mouthing some words. At that moment, I-kid-you-not, the wind picked-up very suddenly. I was buffeted by strong gusts which made me check my footing. Out on the field, a dozen, turbulent swirls danced about, as the wind grew ever stronger. On a journey that had been, up to now, wind-free, I was astonished at this spontaneous phenomenon that was now whipping about me, but not as astonished as I was to see The Guru stepping purposefully forwards, into the field. I could only see his head and arms, now, above the height of the crop. How was it possible that he was able to do this? Did he possess Moses-like powers that allowed him to part the field at His will.

I quickly made my way to the place where I saw him enter the field. For the life of me I could not see a gap in the wall of green. Looking up I could only see his mop like head, like a dark, shark fin moving stealthily though water. I looked closely, again, at the mass of green. Then I saw it. There was an area of bare earth beneath a section of the field, which meant that here you could get a firm footing. This must have been how he did it. In a similar fashion to he, but with various, profanities as my spellbinding-words, I raised my forearms into a snow plough style, with hands clasped together in prayer and plunged forward into field. The thick crop resisted, but, mercifully, gave way as I pushed my way through. Using his distant Afro as a direction point, I continued to push my way forward through the field, along this slightly less-dense strip. In this way, and with great relief, I eventually emerged out the other end. Exhausted and entirely alone.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Ooh my John Bunyans

Beneath goal posts, in the very centre of empty playing field, I rested. I thought that being as far away from human contact as possible would allow me to take stock of my journey so far. I had been walking for a good 6 hours. I eased myself slowly onto the grass feeling about 10 years older and removed my boots. My legs and feet were certainly starting to ache. Sitting alongside my steaming boots I ate the rest of my wife's meatballs, why does that sound so odd? I wiped my hands and face with kitchen roll and some water and took out my mobile. The phone was dead and, so with it, went gps app, that had proven so useful so far. There was nothing left to do but to get out the good, old fashioned map and compass. If I was ever going to make it as a true, authentic, traveller, worth his salt, I was going to have to get re-aquatinted with traditional methods. I was not too concerned, as I had had a spell in the territorial army during my college years and quickly recalled how to orientate myself. I was, I estimated, halfway through my journey and at the furthest point I was going to reach this day. My swelling feet were in entire agreement that it was time to think about heading home. I was keen to take a different route back, if only just to see some new sights along the way. My spirits were still high, despite my terrifying, recent brush with the bush and feeling reinvigorated by my wife's meatballs ( what the..?!) I was determined to enjoy the rest of my trek, to the max. I discovered a trail on the map called the John Bunyan Trail that headed in generally the direction I wanted to go. I was later to discover why it was given this odd name. Yes, that's right. I have finally given the outcome of my journey away, by revealing that I did, indeed, make it back safely home and did not meet any sticky end, like being dragged into a bunny hole by a rabid, were-rabbit. It was not possible to keep you in suspenders forever. The John Bunyan Trail was created by a Bedfordshire Group to celebrate the Ramblers Association's Diamond Jubilee and is dedicated to the memory of John Bunyan, the Puritan Evangelist and author of the book 'Pilgrim's Progress'. The route passes through a number of attractive villages and scenic countryside, taking in many places of historic interest connected with Bunyan. Following the route closely would take me though the villages of Hexton and Pirton and eventually bring me back to Hitchin at its east side . Walking at a steadier pace now I followed a path that ran parallel to the B655, or the Hexton Road, that becomes the Barton Road, that becomes the Hitchin Road depending on whereabouts you are on it. It was about half a mile away. The fields on this side of the road were flat and spoilt slightly by the pylons that seemed to surround it. Thus far, I had travelled on my own, but now behind me there seemed to be someone walking my way that I thought it would be worth getting to know. He was a man in his 50s, I guessed, and he had bright but well lived-in eyes. To be fair I was making assumptions as there were the only identifiable features I could see of his face. Most of it was obscured by long, course and bushy, dark and greying hair that seemed to grow, in abundance, from every follicle that it might be possible to grow hair from. My spider-sense was tingling in a positive way. It was telling me at here was a man who had turned his hairy nose up at a conventional, 9 to 5, urban life and had chosen to spend as many of his waking hours as possible being in and around and, by the looks of him, possibly under, Nature. He had well worn walking boots, long camo-print shorts and an, only slightly offensive, mustard coloured long sleeve top. Around his neck hung a small pair of binoculars. My spider-sense was not telling me 'serial killer', although, to be fair, it had been wrong in the past. No, clearly, here was a travelling-Pro. One of life's Journeymen, with countless tales, no doubt, of a life on the trail. A companion of nature, with many a yarn and tale of long journeys, in all weathers, to all places and, today, the perfect traveling companion to share the next few miles with. With a greeting ready on my lips, something original, on the lines of ,'Are you going my way', I turned to see him stepping off the track and into the next field. Gutted. He had clearly smelt Green-horn, Newbie and was not interested in sharing his special time in nature with a chattering Padawan. I understood, yes it stung, but I understood. Oddly, the two of us spent the next couple of hour or so walking side by side, but on parallel paths, perhaps 500 meters apart. After an hour or so, a man and his son, who was perhaps 14, cycled past me on the path. It was another hour before I saw them again at the edge of a huge field of rape seed. I checked my map and discovered that the John Bunyan trail followed the outside edge of this field and it was from this direction that I saw the man and his son, again, pushing their bikes. As they approached the man called to me. 'There's no way through that way, mate'. He was out of breath and paused briefly in front of me. 'We came this way two months ago and it was no problem. The rape was low then, but now it's over-grown the entire path'. The rape seed was indeed incredibly dense stuff. Nothing like the illusion of fluffy, yellow fields we see from the roadside. The seeds themselves looked like thin, green chilli peppers clinging to tall creeping stalks, which, when knitted together, were entirely impassable, and would have resisted a stampede of elephants ; no matter how hard you pushed into it, it only gave so much and then sprung right back at you. I tried this a couple or times, as the forlorn figures of the two cyclists cycled slowly away back down the path path we had both travelled on . Looking around me, it was clear that the field was immense, in order to circumnavigate all this they would need to go for a mile, or so, i was sure. Easier to do on a bike, but my feet and calves were now really aching and i was in serious need of a sit down, and, if the map was true to it's key of symbols, that cold pint! The thought of an extra trek, off the beaten track, in search of a way around all this, that i may, or may not, find, filled me with despair. What made things worse was that looking across the field, which was a sea of green, I could make out a small group of buildings. I was convinced that the largest of the buildings was pub shaped. So near and yet so far. I was in need of divine inspiration. On a day that I felt that I had bared my soul and challenged my spirit, in the full glare of all nature, I felt it just, that a morsel of divine inspiration was granted me... and then it arrived. And on biblical proportions.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Dangerous descent

After some glorious views of the Barton Hills I descended down them through a wood area which did not allow for any further views of the beautiful vistas. This disappointed me somewhat. The path was gradual and my progress was slowed. Too gradual and too slow for my newly discovered spirit of adventure, so I decided it might be a good idea to go off-road and head straight down the hillside, you know , as time saver?

 At the edge of the path there were two large bushes with feathery leaves. The gap between them look navigable and I was sure that I was almost at the bottom. Carefully, I stepped off the path walking side ways down the steep, but manageable, gradient. I moved through the bushes and discovered a wall of dense-looking foliage a little way down. I decided this was not such a good idea after all and attempted to make my way back up the bank, but, try as I might, I could not reverse my momentum, which was inescapably, downwards.

With the soft, muddy underfoot offering little in the way of traction, gravity was having the best of it and I was being pulled, tractor-beam like, down into the wall of bushes. It was then that I had my second bad idea of the day. I have always found that , like buses, they often come in twos for me. And this one would prove to be a doosie!

It was time to think rationally about the whole situation. To allow common sense and instinct to guide me. Thinking that a little speed might help me break through this barrier that faced me, but with the bushes offering enough resistance to exit the other side at a crawl, I picked a soft looking spot in the undergrowth and threw myself forward... The sound of snapping twigs sounded loudly around my ears as the foliage gave way. I ungracefully exited the other side of the bush at a tremendous speed and, now, I was on on my bottom. Walking boots and grasping hands proved unless at slowing me down, try as I might , and hurtled down the steepening muddy bank. With frantic curses my only means of protection, I plummeted through several groups of thickets where thorns and twigs tore at my clothes and scratched at my face. Entirely unable now to control the rate of my decent, I slip-slid my way downward, on and on. It was a white knuckle, brown-trousered decent from hell and, probably, to hell, for all I knew and an experience I would never want to repeat again.

With one final, foul-mouthed, shout-curse to all of Mother Nature and her doing's and the evil forces of Brian Cox and his gravity ideas, which had, thus far in my journey, pretended to be my companion, only to betray me now, I came to an abrupt stop!

 I opened my eyes to see a young boy of eight, or so , and a younger girl, who I presumed to be his sister, both holding small fishing nets on long sticks. They were wellied and standing in a small river. Their faces looked surprised to see me, but that was nothing to how the lady standing with them was looking me. They must have all bared witness to the human avalanche that had just crashed, snapped and cursed his used way down the hillside right at them. Now this filthy creature, for her face told me that she thought of me as nothing more, was sitting in a heap infront of them, covered head to toe in mud, leaves and blood.

Fearing for the safety of her young, she pulled the two children towards her and away from me. I can't of helped matters as I stood up and, feeling pains shooting through the muscles in both legs, I let out an unearthly groan. They visibly recoiled . I immediately tried make amends by offering some kind of explanation to them but, probably due to the trauma I was suffering after my dangerous decent, I could only make a series of incompressible grunts and gurgles with an outstretched, pleading hand that was disfigured by soiled leaves, a large spider and a centipede.

It must have been hideous for the poor family that stood, huddled, trembling in silence, to witness this gruffaloick monster retreating heavily away, into the trees, embarrassed and hampered by two huge, round clods of dark-brown clay encasing each of his feet.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Zippedee Doo Dar

I was soon surrounded by fields, following a track and feeling, all at once, one with nature. There were rabbits playing in the path in front of me, startled pheasants darting around in the fields to the side of me and sweetly singing birds all around me. My God, but I swear I had Bing Crosby walking along side me singing Zippedee Doo Dar. It was euphoric.

 The miles went by and my pace and smile didn't slacken. I saw wild deer standing alert in the centre of a field. Big ones, not the small Monk Jacks I was used to seeing in and around the towns. They eyed me cautiously as I wandered by.

Less beautiful, but no less fascinating was a skull and backbone of an small animal laying on the path. There was no evidence that it been dinner for some predator, but it had been cleanly stripped of any fur and tissue. The bones were pinky white, intact and totally fly-free. I stopped briefly and examined them closely. In fact, I take it back, it was beautiful in a, ' isn't Mother Nature bloody awesome?' kind of a way.

 The feeling of being entirely humbled by nature continued strongly in me. There were fields bursting with wild daisies, dazzlingly bright, yellow, rape-seed fields, huge old gnarly trees, that you just know have been standing for hundred's of years, as centennials watching over the slowly evolving landscape. If they could only talk ,eh?

 I started to pass by some early-morning dog walkers and some out doing what I was doing, dog-free. It is amazing how friendly people are out in the countryside. I shared a few heart-felt pleasantries with them like, 'Glorious isn't it?' and 'Beautiful day ' and a simple, but no less pleasant, ' Morning'. Why do we feel at ease being so cheery out here when people are generally ignorant of each other on the street? When we pass people, sometimes it's people we see quite regularly from time to time, we act like they don't even exist? The endorphins have something to do with it out here, of course, but really, how sad.

 I eventually reached my goal, not that I had planned my journey carefully, but I knew I was heading to a glorious bit of the local countryside, the Barton Hills. Hertfordshire is generally not known for it's bumpy bits, which is probably fair as it is generally flat as a table, but the grassy undulations of the Barton Hills are well worth experiencing.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

I J and the Temple of Brood

I woke just before the alarm went and switched it off. I skulked around the house desperate to be as quiet as possible in case I woke the kids.

 In a small ruck sack I packed the bare essentials; water, a some food, a compass, a map, a little money and my iphone. With my cap on my head, walking boots on my feet, in the semi darkness of my hallway, I opened the front door, as delicately as a Indiana Jones navigating the very last booby trap in the Temple of Brood. And, in the next moment, that might have been directed by Speilberg himself using all the best special effects in the world, my halfway filled with the most beautiful golden light and I stepped, with heart racing, out of the door.

 After days and days of rain, I think June 2012 will go down as one of the wettest ever, I was astonished to be starting my walk in the most glorious of weather. There was not a breath of wind, the morning light sang and, at just after 6pm on a Sunday, there was not a soul around, but me. It was bliss. Utter bliss. I was greeted by a robin on the very corner of my road. He seemed intrigued to see someone up this early. I slowed as I approached him and, to my surprise, he allowed me to stop in touching distant of him. I think we shared a brief moment, more than that I could not say. He stayed and tweeted at me and it was I, smilimg, who moved on. I strolled through deserted streets, drinking in the air.

I felt great; my legs felt strong and my feet felt comfortable. my foot falls beat out the rhythm and in a short while I had crossed several roads, climb over a bridge and along a back road, passed through a copse of trees and I stood on the edge of a field. The view was glorious. So many greens; patchwork fields, billowy dark green trees, and light and shade.

 I brought out my iPhone and snapped away at the scene, something I would do regularly on my walk. I also used the swanky new app I had downloaded. I was a gps thing. It told you exactly where you were on a map to the nearest 3 meters. This gizmo was amazing. I plotted my direction, picked out a landmark and set off.

Monday, 25 June 2012

The Brighton to Brighton Stroll

With terrifying prospect of having to walk 26 miles, across rugged Yorkshire terrain and up and down the 3 tallest peaks the County has to offer, a wise man ( or woman) would suggest that an element of preparation might be a good idea.

Cycling to and from work each day was , I ought , a good start, and it probably is for basic fitness, but putting some miles into my walking boots was the thing. The Macmillan 'Thank You for Suffering for Us' preparation pack, which came through the door was little help.

Ok, it suggested i do a 12 week training regime, which sounded sensible, but it started at walking 5 minutes a day for a week or 2. This built up to 10 minutes a day for several more weeks. Eventually the hardened rambler would reach the heady heights of a full 60 minutes at the end of the 12 weeks.

 How, I thought, is that going to prepare me for a 12 hours slog! It might be good training for the Brighton to the still in Brighton, but with a different view of the pier, charity stroll event, but not for the hardcore foot challenge I faced.

To hell with the book, I thought. Tomorrow it's Sunday and I will get up early, say 6 am, and start walking and walk and walk and walk. No slow build up, no easing the boots in, let's see what these legs can do.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Live by Example

Approaching the big 40 gets-one-a-thinking ( it's amazing how carefree one can be with one's English on a Blog) to doing those things we always wanted. I believe the trick is not to let the opportunity pass us by. Waiting for retirement before starting to explore our dreams is a bad idea. Let every quote about life's regrets speak loudly in our ears. Not only that, take a look around you. I knew of a head teacher who worked for years in Letchworth and was a decent man. Fun, outgoing and generous. He always spoke of the plans he had made for when he retired. The car he would buy, the holidays he would have, the hobbies he would begin. You, of course know, where this is going. At 59 he announced to his closet friends that he was fighting cancer, 6 months later he was given the all clear, one month after that he was dead. Devastating. Poignant.

Lessons on not leaving it too late can be found even closer to home. Take my dear old dad. Just makes sure he comes back exactly as you find him. He of the bandy legs, which he was kind enough to pass on to me, through an unfortunate genetic blue-printing error. I am sure I would be an inch taller if my legs didn't have to travel outwards in brackets formation ( ) ,easy demo opp there, in elongated curves before meeting my ankles.

Any hoo, dad is enjoying retirement,I think, however,since retiring I have never heard him stop complaining about suffering constant aches and pains in joints all around his body, including his infamous pins. What's to say I won't inherit the same pains as he , I have certinly inherited the samw body shape. What's to say that the fate of my head teacher friend does not await me, as I approach the false dawn that is retirement.

 No friends, the time to act is now. Live your dreams, do the things you always wanted to do before it 's too late. You owe it to the younger version of you, the you-child playing in the garden, who ever thrilled at the thought of going on great adventures. To let that-you down would be a tragedy, wouldn't it? And what an example to give to our own children. Let's not create ceiling limits for them, too. Come, come! Lead by example, yes, but we must also ensure that we live by example too.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Oh to Drop into Booby Dingle

Sitting at a lap top, alone, for a man, could lead to anything, or is it that it leads to one thing. Well, whichever it is, on a quiet saturday evening, wife a work , kinds in bed, I found myself searching for good walking sites, yes that isn't a typo. I became a member of Walking World and for a modest subscription was allowed access to 100's of walks around Britain. I loved looking at these maps of walks that, if I was totally honest with myself, i would never do. Of course I was not being honest with myself, I was lost in a fantasy of spending weeks, perhaps months, exploring weird and wonderful places around the British Isles. I thought Shagg in Dorset might be worth a visit, Booby Dingle in Herefordshire sounded intriguing and Cocklick End, in Lancashire, was definitely not one to miss. Seriously though, the maps were thrilling for me and in my mind I planned to undertake my first walk as soon as possible. Only a week went by before I received a letter from a charity asking me to do a walk to raise money from them. This was all the opportunity , or excuse , that I needed.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Hobbit's Wandering Feet

I recently read, if listening to audio books counts as reading as it's all the reading I do at the moment, that ' if you don't watch your feet, when you step outside your door, there is no knowing where they might lead you'. Some may recognise these words as coming from Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit? I mix them up quite often and only really listen to them for their sleep inducing qualities. However, that line really stuck with me. Orcs, dwarfs and Ogres aside, the stories for me as a fantastic travel story. The characters, some of whom are small, big-footed gentle Hobbits and not at all heroic, walk for miles and miles in these stories, over grassy hills, through deep forests and over snow-capped mountains. The level of detail is staggering and not to everyone's taste. It's a thorough travel log and , if you are prepared to persevere with the slow pace of the story line, which plods along every bit as steadily as the Hobbit's huge feet, it can leave you spellbound. And I was. If there was something I was determined to do more of, in my 40th year, it was to walk. Regularly and far.

Sunday, 17 June 2012