Hawes to Keld
Updated: Jan 28, 2020
Pennine Way - Day 8 - 13.9 miles - 'Water'
Dear British Weather,
I had not expected warm, sunny days for the whole of my LeJog trip. Nor had I expected to be wearing five layers, thermal pants, waterproof tops and bottoms, gloves and hat and still be freezing cold in the last week of June.
Could you please send me some traditional “summer weather" that I’m sure I remember from the "good old days"?
PS I did , however, really appreciate the week-and-a-bit's worth of sunshine down in Cornwall, so thanks for that.
If you had wanted sun and blue skies for 10 weeks over the English summer during your indulgent midlife crisis, sorry, I mean '40th birthday', perhaps you should have gone somewhere known for those conditions, like, say, Dubai.
The British Weather.
PS. Only last week you were wishing the moors were a bit more moorish. Perhaps that was, in reflection, a mistake.
I can confidently say that was the longest 13 miles I’ve walked so far on LeJog.
It was also the highest walk of my LeJog, and the coldest, windiest and wettest, with the rain persisting from the moment I pulled my boots on to the moment they came off again, sodden, at journey's end.
And though it was not without its highlights, I'm delighted to have arrived at my resting place in Keld, a scattered collection of cottages high on the moor that feels like it hasn't changed in centuries and which, as I write, is still being battered by rain.
There's an impressive waterfall just down the valley that on other days I would have made a point of visiting. But today – no chance. I’m knackered, cold and I’ve seen more water in the past 48 hours than I did during my entire time in Cornwall. And I’m including the sea in that.
To say the day started with high hopes would be an exaggeration.
Instead an ominous quiet hung over the breakfast room as the various tables of Pennine Way walkers looked anxiously at the rain-spattered windows and looming Great Shunner Fell - the mountain over which we’d pass today.
Even so, I was quietly confident. Thirteen miles, I thought, as I ate my veggie sausage with side order of Wensleydale, was child’s play for a LeJog veteran like me. The Pennine Wayers might quake at the distance, but I’ve done double that in a day. I’d be in Keld for a late lunch.
Little did I know.
There’s a strict morning ritual for many Pennine Way walkers.
I’m in a minority carrying my own pack. Most on the trail are supported by one of a number of ‘packhorse’-style companies that book your accommodation and transfer your luggage between stopping points so that by the time you arrive at your night’s stopover point your clothes are ready and waiting for you – warm and dry.
It might not be my thing, but it’s a legit way of doing the trail, and having spent a few days on LeJog without my main pack, I know how much easier and more enjoyable it can be.
But it does add a certain amount of pressure each day.
Because the baggage companies have a huge number of bags and suitcases to deliver all over the Dales, they have a necessarily tight schedule. Which means tempers can – and do – fray if a bag isn’t ready to be picked up on time. It’s less of a problem this year, our B&B owner told the breakfast assemblage, but in the past Wayers with relaxed timekeeping have almost come to blows with stressed-out baggage hauliers.
Which sounded like a fight worth seeing over one's granola.
Today’s walk was mainly about crossing 2,349ft Great Shunner Fell. (If you’d asked me this morning, I would have said the day was all about crossing Great Shunner Fell – but I was to be proved very wrong about that.)
Great Shunner Fell, like so many of these Pennine fells, is huge: an upended whale of a hill sprawling for 20 square miles that makes plenty of Nuttalls look like minnows.
And while it’s hardly a demanding climb – the gradient is so gentle you could probably push a shopping trolley full of Wensleydale cheese up it if you so wished – it's a long one.
Wainwright has this to say about Great Shunner Fell: "If favoured with fine weather... the ascent can be quite delectable and not a step too long. In rain and mist it will seem endless."
Wainwright, as I’ve discovered, is pretty down generally on the Pennine Way. To the extent that I’ve started taking much of his commentary with a healthy dose of scepticism. But his description of Shunner is spot on. In the driving rain and blasting Pennine wind, the climb felt like it wouldn’t end.
It’s not one of those frustrating fells with a dozen false summits. It’s even worse. You can pretty much see the top from the valley. It’s just bloody miles away. And when the wind is forcing you back with each step, and the rain’s finding microscopic weaknesses in your waterproofs, and the temperature drops further with every hundred feet climbed, and the going turns from firm to soggy – then to full on rivers underfoot, what might have been an easy enough ascent turned into a mission.
It didn’t help that I kept coming across dead animals.
I didn't think much of it when I passed the first rabbit corpse.
And seeing dead sheep is par for the course on the fells.
But when I passed a bird, then another rabbit, then an unidentifiable rodent thing, then a few more birds the rutted track took on a murky, windswept Stephen King vibe. I felt like I was on some cursed upland highway on which animals and birds simply keeled over and made their peace instead of pressing on through the cold and wind and rain.
Fortunately there were – so far – no Pennine Wayers, wrapped up for Himalayan weather on this fine June day, which gave me enough hope to trudge on over the watery flagstones for one more mile to the bleak summit of Great Shunner Fell.
By the time I got down to Thwaite – a perfect Dales hamlet in a perfect Dales valley – I was winding down. The village was just three miles from my end point of Keld, so I stopped in the tearooms and ordered soup. Anything to warm my hands up.
I wasn’t the only one. In the half hour I was sat there they sold more gloves than coffee cake, and they were doing pretty well with the cake.
As ever, there was plenty of camaraderie among Pennine Way survivors. Moaning about the cold. And the rain. The numb fingers. The cold. The rain. Etc.
The group sat next to me – three retired friends – walk long distance paths in sections whenever they get the chance. Three or four times a year they book a week away and continue a trail. At the moment it’s the Pennine Way (for the second time), but they’ve done the Offa’s Dyke Way, the West Highland Way, the Great Glen Way.
They don’t rush these walks. They complete a few miles a day. The rest of the time they chat, eat and drink. I’ve no idea if I’ll do another long-distance trail after this one, but if I do, this more leisurely approach sounds quite wonderful.
With a soupy spring in my step I pulled my wet waterproofs back on and set off for what I thought was going to be an easy stroll to the B&B.
A few minutes later I couldn't help noticing that the path which I thought headed gently along the river was, in fact, climbing steeply uphill.
A few minutes after that I couldn't help noticing that the trail waymarks were pointing west, not north.
And a few minutes after that I couldn't help noticing I had made a Penn-y-ghent-scale navigational blunder.
Keld wasn’t the village I had seen at the head of the valley just a short, level stroll away. It was, instead, in an entirely different valley that required a high-level terrace scramble over slippery rock to get to.
The Pennine Way, I realised as I properly investigated the map, throws a switchback curveball into the route that for some reason I’d missed during my two-minute breakfast time planning exercise.
I was trying my best to get grumpy – at the weather, the walk, the map, myself – anything really – but Swaledale made it impossible.
Great Shunner Fell may be a long boggy slog, but Swaledale is a valley that lifts even the heaviest of trail-battered hearts.
All thoughts of warm fires, electric blankets and hot chocolate were forgotten as the high-up terrace path turned a bend and the view opened below of a steep, traffic-free Alpine valley cloaked with woods, crags and waterfalls that tumbled into the wide River Swale. Even the mine workings on Ivelet moor opposite did nothing to detract from the rare beauty of this shy, special place.
A walk has to pull something out the hat to make the miles and misery of the weather take second place, but Swaledale did it, and all too soon I was walking between the stone cottages of tiny Keld – the highest village in the Yorkshire Dales – to my rest place for the night, Keld Lodge.
Wainwright wrote that Keld hadn’t changed in generations.
Ironically it was probably him who changed it the most. It’s now a high-level walkers’ spaghetti junction, with three major trails – the Pennine Way, The Coast to Coast Walk and the Pennine Journey – converging like leylines on this tiny hillside hamlet.
It means the hotel (just the one) is set up for walkers. There's a drying room, early breakfast, and hefty portioned dinners.
As I look outside at the still driving rain I’m delighted I didn’t opt for the AirBnb alternative down the valley i’d been considering: a yurt.
A yurt! In Yorkshire! In the rain! Ha ha ha!
I check into the hotel to a little Yorkshire humour.
"Where's the drying room?" I ask.
“Top of the stairs, sir.”
“Will I find it easily?”
“I’d think so, sir, plenty of signs. Certainly, if you don’t find the drying room I think you’ll struggle with John o’ Groats.”
Which was fair.