Friday, 4 June 2010

Up Hill and Down Dale

Every year, during the week of the May bank holiday half-term, my Dad and three friends go on a walking holiday. This year was to be their fifth as a group, and the Dales Way, running from Ilkley in North Yorkshire to Bowness by Lake Windermere, was the route selected. Unfortunately, with a month to go and accommodation booked, one of them was forced to pull out leaving a space. Thus, earlier this week I caught a train up into the Yorkshire Dales to join them for a couple of days of their week long journey.

Tuesday 1st June

The first day of the British Summer was one of steady rain, landing me in somewhat of a predicament as I searched in vain for my waterproof. Obviously before returning to York for the summer term I had dismissed the waterproof as surplus to requirements, meaning as I set off on my journey I was also setting off on an examination of the rain-resilience of a recently purchase
d tennis top. I'm happy to report that it did its job.

I caught the 13.58 train from York changing at Leeds onto the train heading for Carlisle. The train stopped at several industrial satellite towns, places like Shipley, Keighley and Shipton, before coming to Settle. Here, the transition from the urban, post-industrial settlements of Yorkshire to its idyllic rurality, was marked by the boarding of, amongst others, one man and his dog. The smell of the dog's damp coat permeated the carriage, letting the nose know what the eyes were already witnessing, the start of the Dales.

Settle marks the start of the Settle-Carlisle railway, a hugely impressive stretch of line both historically and scenically. It may sound slightly geeky to rave about the merits of a rail line but for someone all-to-used to trips up and down the East Coast mainline, Settle-Carlisle was something special. Field upon field stretched out away from the window, each a lush green, separated by the great divider of the countryside, the dry stone wall. Cattle sat, resigned to the soaking they were being subjected to, whilst occasionally one could spy a group of walkers tramping undeterred through fields and over stiles. The landscape would roll away gently from the train window, before gradually ramping up to a far-off horizon, the hills striving upwards as the clouds descended, both seemingly attempting, and in some cases able to, make contact.

I alighted at Dent Station about halfway al
ong the route at 4.15. Eerily I was the only one to leave the train and was greeted by the only two souls on the platform, my Dad and Dave, a fellow member of the walking group. At an altitude of 1,150 feet Dent is the highest station on the National Rail network and a clue to the lack of other passengers joining me in disembarking there is the fact that it lies a good four and a half miles from the village of Dent itself.

Rejoining the Dales Way, and with the rain, after a temporary intermission, rejoining us, we
made our way through damp meadows and cleared woodlands, arriving in Dent at 6.30. Though small, the dire conditions meant that little time was spared in exploring the village as we headed straight to our accommodation, The Sun Inn. The Inn was an established local pub with a few standard bedrooms upstairs that shared bathroom facilities. Though the sign outside promising 'the best ale under the sun' proved to be a predictably hyperbolic claim, the food was good quality pub cuisine and the atmosphere was warm, a happy balance of regulars and passing walkers. The day's activity had been but a gentle warm-up, but having caught up with the news and who had and hadn't made it into Capello's squad, bed was a welcome conclusion.

Wednesday 2 June

Wednesday was scheduled to be a short day, so before setting off for Sedbergh we were able to have a quick look round Dent. This did not take very long as the village is made up of mainly just one cobbled road that curves through the centre, the independent local amenities of a village shop, a couple of tea shops and three pubs, creating a pleasant country atmosphere. On the main road there is erected a large granite memorial stone for Dent's most famous son, Adam Sedgwick. Sedgwick, born in 1785, was the son of the then Vicar of Dent. He studied locally before attending Cambridge University, and then in 1818, despite no prior knowledge of the subject, was made Woodwardian Professor of Geology. He preceded to more than brush up his knowledge of all things rocks, and is now recognised as a founder of modern Geology. During his time in Cambridge he also guided a young Charles Darwin, though in later years was to strongly
oppose Darwin's theory of evolution. His legacy lives on in the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, on Downing Street in Cambridge.

The walk from Dent to Sedbergh was just six miles and with the fine weather we were able to make good progress. Despite only leaving after 11, by lunchtime we were sitting on a hill side overlooking our destination. Sedbergh sits like an untied shoelace at the foot of the Howgills and as we ate lunch, on the hills above the town the shadow of the clouds dotted across the sky crept slowly over the hills like a slide show. We made our way into the town passing the many cricket pitches of the prestigious boarding school, Sedbergh School, before reaching the centre that consisted of a narrow main street walled with pubs, tea shops and book shops.

Since 2006, Sedbergh has been the Book Town for England, official recognition for its diverse
selection of second-hand bookshops. There's a bookshop for those interested in textiles, for those
interested in topography and for those interested in transport. For those just generally interested in books, Westwood Books provides the best selection of subjects, though the claim of coffee and a seating area is in reality a coffee machine with a single seat next to it.

In the evening we ate at The Bull Hotel where we learned of the day's tragic events just to the west of us in Cumbria. When we returned to the B&B we sat in stunned silence watching the 10 o'clock news, an activity normally only undertaken on these walking trips for the weather forecast that follows it. Whilst the whole country would have been shocked by what happened, over the next day or so it was noticeable how the people of Cumbria were particularly affected by the events occurring so close to them. The next day, a farmer who had been following the massacre unfold online mentioned how he had feared for walkers as the gunman's whereabouts had briefly become unknown. We had been completely oblivious to what was going on, as would anyone else who was out on the hills, but for those who had been aware of events as they preceded, the angst remained etched on their usually cheerful faces into Thursday and likely beyond.

Thursday 3 June

Thursday involved a 17 mile journey from Sedbergh to Burneside, a village just outside of Kendal, so an early start was made, setting off at 9.15. The morning consisted of three 90 minute bursts, during which we passed some grand unused viaducts, relics of the now disused west coast rail line, as well as crossing the M6 and the new West Coast Mainline, the two modern arteries of North-West England. We lunched after about 9 miles before setting out into the now sweltering afternoon heat for the last 8.

Just after three we passed a farmer who, on hearing of our destination, commented in the soft, jolly, northern fashion specific to Cumbria: 'Burneside. That'll take ye another four hours. S'only five minutes by car.' Despite the obvious jest in his tone, his point resonated somewhat with me. I'm no great fan of car travel, indeed I've never even been in control of one, but when travelling day-to-day from place-to-place, I prefer something a bit more time-efficient. It's just a bit depressing that in a day of seven hours of walking you cover the same amount of distance through your own power on a bike in two. You may be restricted to the route dictated by the roads, but you still move slowly enough to take in the scenery but fast enough to feel like you're actually getting somewhere.

Despite my quibble, I'm not going to deny there was a decent sense of achievement when we reached our accommodation. The Gateway Inn lies a mile up the hill out the other side of Burneside from the Dales Way, but to be honest it didn't look like we were missing out on much from not being down in the village. The evening's food was excellent, and the beer, though I stuck to the safe option of lager this time, was relished.

Friday 4 June

On Friday, as the rest of the group set off on the last leg of their trip up to Bowness, I caught the train back to York. Burneside has a tiny train station, to the extent that it is a request stop. This meant that as the train approached from Windemere, myself and the other guy on the platform were required to step out to the edge of the platform to hail the train down the way you would a taxi. The train took me down to Preston where I changed to head across the Pennines back To York. The journey provided mixed scenery, passing some impressive scenery basking in the summer sun, as well as some of the more grim Lancashire industrial towns.

I arrived back into York at about 2.30 in the afternoon. The two days away had proven welcome relief from the growing monotony of post-exam uni life, especially as a lot of people are only just finishing in the next few days, meaning last week I'd have been pretty secluded. For someone who hadn't been to the Dales before I was very impressed. The landscape is a lot more gentle than the more mountainous Lake District, and thus retains more of a rural serenity. This is also aided by the fact that the places we passed through were not yet buzzing with tourists to the extent places like Windermere and Ambleside are. The legs I walked toook us from the very north of Yorkshire into the South Lakes. In future, as I gradually grow to consider myself a part-time Yorkshireman, I intend to explore the Dales further south into the county.

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