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  • Dave

Cowling to Kirkby Malham

Updated: Jan 28, 2020

Pennine Way - Day 5 - 17.5 miles - 'Wish'

You should be careful what you wish for, of course.

Yesterday I said to Barrie I’d welcome a few gloomy days to properly appreciate the moors. It felt wrong strolling the heights day after day in sunshine, like we were missing out on the essential character of the landscape.

It was passing the non-Brontë house that did it.

Brontë country shouldn’t be blue skies, buttercups and skylarks; it should be brooding skies and haggard heather. I couldn't get into the mood with all the sun. If it had been like this in Emily's day Heathcliff would have found himself under a parasol in Bermuda shorts asking Catherine for another jug of Pimms, please.

Anyway, I got what I said I wanted. It rained.

It was gunmetal grey when I woke and by the time I hit the road it was raining.

That rain kept up, on and off, for most of the day, in all its many Pennine guises: mizzle, drizzle, rain, deluge – all blown horizontal by a persistent cold wind. Everything was soaked through: the meadow grass, bracken, sedge, so that ten minutes out of Cowling boots and socks were waterlogged. 

It’s crazy to think the south’s been sizzling. It's cold up here. Properly cold. Pair of waterproof-gloves cold. And it's not just walkers on the trail thinking that. Chimneys in the villages were smoking, people tucked up for the day inside. In the Kirkby Malham pub I’m in this evening there's a blazing fire. In my B&B the Aga's on full blast. To think I was struggling through the heat on Kinder Scout at the start of the week.

This is more like it, though. If the ghosts of Cathy and Heathcliff still haunt the moors, these are the conditions spotters need. Or, as the B&B host put it while assessing the scudding skies: "This is better: normal summer weather."

Those hosts, Susan and Sandy, have an interesting story.

They’re long distance walkers too.

Walked the Pennine Way a decade or so back.

While walking they found a gap in accommodation. And hence a gap in the market. There was nowhere to stay in Cowling, or any of the nearby villages, meaning Pennine Wayers had a stopover deficit for nigh-on 25 miles. So they moved house and opened their little 4-room B&B, and have been serving up a warm welcome and big breakfasts to walkers ever since.

A public service of sorts.

It's strange to me that in the era of AirBnB and Holiday Lettings more locals aren't taking advantage of the steady stream of long distance walkers who wander daily through these backwater villages. But in almost all stopping points the accommodation is the same as it has been for decades. AirBnB brings up a big fat Pennine Way blank 95% of the time.

Susan and Sandy had news from the trail. The guy who I met in the Old House on Monday night who’d left his sun-stricken friend on day one to surge north with a punishing 20+ mile-a-day schedule has also fallen by the wayside – also with sunstroke. He managed just three days.

It’s an unforgiving trail the Pennine Way: more demanding than its daily distances would suggest.

It made for mealtime gossip with Barrie and Ash. For the first time since we left Edale we’d all booked into the same B&B. Which meant a night bemoaning the varied trials of cows in fields, miles of paving slabs and moorland navigation, washed down by a couple of beers. The company was a rare treat.

Still standing: Barrie (left), Ash (middle) and me. I need to shave at some point or I might start attracting charitable donations on street corners.

It’s a transition walk today. The bleak millstone grit moors of the South Pennines are behind us and the limestone uplands of the Yorkshire Dales ahead. In the middle is Aire Gap, the big geological corridor furrowed through the backbone of England just north of the Craven Fault. The Gap is a lowland mix of hilly humps and pastoral grazing land – or "muck and manure" as Wainwright describes it. But throw in a riverside walk, a stretch of canal, some heath and a couple of break-out-smiling views and it wasn't a bad day. Not a stand-out ten, but points for variety.

A few misfires: a descent into a canyoned stream channel, crumbling stones underfoot and thinking this wasn’t typical of the Pennine Way; then an enforced detour through a sodden bracken thicket to avoid too-close-for-comfort cows; and a few degrees out in a huge hay meadow, path lost in bent-down grass, which meant a long tactical retreat. 

What’s becoming clear is that some sections of the Way receive far more traffic than others. The Peak District sections are veritable walkers’ highways – even the parts that didn’t feel overly spectacular. But the last couple of days have shown that there are quiet legs too, where the path is sketchy, the paving slabs sparser. And lots more cows.

Muck and manure.

One way to save gardening costs in Cowling churchyard.
Looking back towards Cowling from Cowling Hill.
There are so many beautiful abandoned barns and houses in this area. Good for swallows, though, and barn owls.

Lothersdale. A curious fact about it: no house in the village is connected to either mains gas or water. Which means the residents are all smelly and cold.

One of those Pennine Way gifts again. Rising a grassy crest on Elslack Moor and seeing the landscape transition from pasture to Dale. A change in scale: from lowlands to looming heights, cloaked in mist and prodding with drama. Fountains Fell, Pen-y-ghent. Names I know. Fells I’ve driven past. And now I’m reaching them on foot. I can’t help smiling, even as the rain hammers down. 

These sudden surprising vistas are one of the features of the Pennine Way I’m enjoying most of all. The trail puts up a constant guessing game. Which dale will you be led to next? Which heights will you scale? You’re almost always wrong, the crazy paving slabs pulling off a last-minute switchback to send you a different direction and into pastures new. 

There were plenty of these wooden walkways today to take you over the marshy bogs.

I love the different variants of the wall crossing. This one – the stone block plus Hobbit gate combo – I find endearingly weird. What is the point of the gate? Surely the cows can't climb the steps?

Then a LeJog first I’ve been looking forward to for 600 miles.

Meeting my first LeJoggers!

A couple from Wales who set off from John o’Groats at about the same time I left Land’s End.

They’re camping and they’re loving it. 

We exchange route tips, eating place recommendations, high points and low points. Their main advice: forget the A99 into John o’Groats and pick up the John o’Groats Trail along the coast instead. They couldn’t be more positive about it, even though it’s a foundling trail.

I still hadn't made a decision about those last few days  – if I get that far – but they’ve sold it to me. 

Then an awkward moment. “We passed the halfway point earlier in the week,” they say.

“So did I,” I reply. 

Laughter on both sides.

As Mark Knopfler sings in Dire Straits’ Industrial Disease: “Two men say they’re Jesus, one of them must be wrong.”

And while it is technically possible we’re both right, I’ve got a feeling they’re more right than me (on the basis, mainly, that they’re campers, and anyone who is willing to up the ante on LeJog (JoGle in their case) by camping out all the way south is probably better at calculating distances than I am). AND they travelled south via the east coast of Scotland, cutting off the West Highland Way dogleg.

Anyway, we wish each other well for the weeks ahead and squelch on.

Into Thornton-in-Craven. The old bridge, pictured, once carried trains on the Skipton to Colne line.
If you've still not got your moorland fix from the Peak District heights, there were still a few stretches to enjoy today.

Thornton-in-Craven. There were plenty of smoking chimneypots here.
The Leeds & Liverpool Canal. It's the longest canal in Britain built as a single waterway.

Meadows. Lots of wet meadows.

Into my B&B for the night. It was a last-minute emergency choice – summer weekends in these little Dales villages is not something you should leave to the eleventh hour. 

But it's a gorgeous stone cottage in the equally gorgeous hamlet of Kirkby Malham – so gorgeous Bill Bryson set up home in one of its 20 or so houses and said of the valley: "I won't know for sure if Malhamdale is the finest place there is," he wrote, "until I have died and seen heaven (assuming they let me at least have a glance), but until that day comes, it will certainly do." 

My host has taken it upon herself to dry my boots on the Aga – pointing out: a) that there is an inner sole that can be removed (and replaced); and b) the boots have a large hole in them. Useful to discover a new feature about the boots on the same day they need replacing.

My fellow guests are a retired couple from Oz. They’re on a three month tour of Scotland and the north of England. The Dales. Moors. Derbyshire. The Lakes. Then a road trip up the west coast. And all in a car. Sounds like bliss. 

So, I ordered the 'Oven-roasted mediterranean veg and halloumi sandwich." What I hadn't realised was it meant an oven-roasted Yorkshire take on the Hoxton favourite. Which meant peas, carrots and a few courgettes with the halloumi. I was half expecting to see a few ribbons of Yorkshire Pud in there too. I think it's the first time I've eaten a pea sandwich. Not sure if it'll take off among the good folk of Hoxton.
Big panorama: the Dales approach.
The latter part of the walk followed the River Aire north.

My host tells me the local pub isn’t all that.

I can’t walk any further for an alternative so I give it a go. 

It’s great. The fire's blazing like it's autumn and in the buzzy front room everyone knows each other – in a good way. 

A big sign over the bar says: Peter and Paul welcome you to The Victoria.

Peter and Paul are a young couple who've worked in pubs for a few years. They've recently taken over and seem to have the Midas touch. They're out front chatting with the punters and working magic in the kitchens out back.

It's probably easy to get lazy in these tourist-assured honeypot villages, but the care and passion they're putting in makes for a proper Yorkshire welcome.  

I tuck into the big crusty pie, dry and warm for the first time all day, and think about the mountains ahead.

Then I wish for sun again.

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