Mr K over at Gardening at the Edge thought me quite mad to go walking at this time of year. Harsh, I thought – but fair. I see his point; I would have preferred to have gone in late March (as I did last year see ‘And Back Again’) – it’s generally warmer, early flowers are out and spring is upon us. But I didn’t have that option this year and besides, walking in January and February (as I have done several times now) definitely has its benefits.
I had no problems, for example, in booking accommodation and, furthermore, as they weren’t busy, three hotels upgraded me, free of charge, from single rooms to larger en-suite doubles. In addition, the paths and wild places were emptier (I met no-one ‘doing’ the Dales Way), it is much easier carrying a thirty pound rucksack in the cold than in, say, June and surprisingly often (so far!) I have been blessed with some beautifully bright, sunny days.
Tha Dales Way is primarily a river-side path and on its first two days it doesn’t stray far from the banks of the River Wharfe.
But on those two days the path, for long stretches, was icy and treacherous. Days-old snow had been flattened by walkers (this stretch is very popular with day-trippers) and then frozen – hard, smooth and glistening. Like this:
Impossible to walk on and I saw several people fall over like first-time skaters – despite wearing good walking boots. Thankfully, deep in my rucksack, I had my – drumroll -
Yaktrax! They were a Christmas present and quite honestly, I don’t know what I would have done without them. Gone home probably. But with my YT’s I was able to stroll past careering, wind-milling figures and wave cheerfully at people as they slid past.
On the second day, the path left the Wharfe in order to climb up onto the limestone country between Grassington and Kettlewell.
The snow here was less trodden and so the going was easier.
The scenery was glorious and exhilarating but soon, after a few miles, I was returned to the tranquility of the river (and a rather excellent pub lunch), where I saw more dippers in a couple of hours than I have seen in my lifetime.
There were so many, I was tripping up over them. I spent ages watching their watery antics and though they are shy, I was able to creep up quite close and get some snaps. And if I did scare one-off, another soon came along.
On finally leaving the Wharfe behind, I started the long climb to the highest point of the Way up on the Pennines. Wheezing through snow …
… I staggered past the far and remote Cam Houses farm; surely the remotest farm in England?
I had a little nosey (as you do) and nodded to Mr Herriot as he lay on cold,wet cobbles; scrabbling about in the filth and still struggling to re-insert a calf-bed after several hours, while a taciturn Dales farmer looked dolefully on.
Just past Cam Houses (at Cam High Road – 520m), the Dales Way coincides with the Pennine Way (Britain’s first and longest long distance footpath).
Despite the snow being several days old, there were virtually no footprints; I had the glory all to myself.
The Pennine Way, at about 270 miles, has been added to my ‘to do’ list!
Not all the beauty of the Dales Way is natural,
with many beautiful bridges,
villages, churches, and
farms. Though the living to be eked out on some of the lonelier farms must be a harsh, unremitting struggle. EU grants or no.
Eventually on my fifth day, I got my first glimpse of the Lakeland Fells and a sad sign that the ‘Way was coming to an end. Frankly I found the 80 miles of the Dales Way just too damn short; I had been getting into my stride, enjoying the sense of freedom from the mundane and immersed in the simple pleasures of walking from one hot bath to the next, but now the walk was almost over. Thankfully (and indulgently) I had added another four days of walking through the Lake District.
My first day in the Lakes involved a walk from Langdale to Wasdale and, with the weather better than expected, I eschewed the straightforward climb up Rhosset’s Gyhll (which I’ve laboured up several times) for the more exciting climb up ‘The Band’ to Three Tarns and an ascent of two mountains: Bowfell and Esk Pike. Big mistake – huge.
As I climbed up out of Langdale (with my heavy rucksack) the unmistakable peak of Pike o’ Stickle kept me company to my right, while behind me …
… Langdale coyly widened. Puffing up on high, the weather deteriorated; cloud and mist obscured visibility sharply, it rained, the wind got up and I found myself wading through knee-deep snow and across wind-burnished ice-covered rock. The higher I got, the worse it was and, dear reader, were you to have been following in my footsteps you would, I fear, have heard the most shocking and innovative language; carried on the wind like the cry of the curlew. If anything though, I am a true wimp and I was extraordinarily careful (I’ve read too many mountain rescue ‘sites to be anything but). With no views to enjoy from the summits, I hurried down to Sty Head Tarn and, eventually, singing Disney songs, descended ALIVE into Wasdale. I met only one couple the whole day; who having climbed to a relatively low ridge were anxious to scurry back down.
The fells of the Lake District are, in my opinion, beyond compare. Sure, they are not as majestic as the Alps, nor as rugged as the Rockies and patently not as lofty as the Himalya. But in the combination of verdant valleys (farmed for thousands of years), and lofty rugged peaks, lakes, innumerable becks, tarns and waterfalls I think they know no equal. As the great Alfred Wainwright said ““Surely there is no other place in this whole wonderful world quite like Lakeland…no other so exquisitely lovely, no other so charming, no other that calls so insistently across a gulf of distance. All who truly love Lakeland are exiles when away from it.”
My final day dawned better than I could have dared to hope. I had foreseen low scudding, squalling rain-clouds and a long tedious squelch into Keswick. But no, the Lakes played its ace card. A winter’s day, that is almost a hindrance to walking. So beautiful that you can’t help but stop and gaze about you. And then stop and gaze again.
I climbed slowly out of pretty Borrowdale and
joined the path along the eastern arm of a favourite walk of mine; the Newlands Round.
Surrounded by stunning views and the great fells of Lakeland (Helvellyn, Great Gable, Scafell Pike, Blencathra, Skiddaw, Bowfell), I fairly bounced along.
The closer I got to Keswick (and the end of my walk) the sadder I got. Also, it was a Sunday and so I no longer had the fells wholly to myself. Intruders!
And then, finally. There it was: Keswick. The end of my walk. Sob. But hey, I had a marvellous walk and I’ve already started planning next year’s trip and I certainly won’t be a “Lakeland Exile” for long. Indeed, I’m going back up for a further week’s walking in few days time!
You can read my account of walking Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Path - here.