The Easter reset

A while ago, I was reading a fun article by Jeremy Anderberg on temporal landmarks, the basic idea being that there are ‘certain dates that naturally inspire us to turn over a new leaf’. Birthdays, for example, or New Year, or even just the beginning of the month. For the teachers I know, new terms, school years and holidays seem to be helpful punctuation, and I quite like Anna Hart’s idea of a post-summer reboot, since my life is always a bit of a shambles by the time I get to September.

For me, Easter is quite a big one. Churchgoing is something I’ve drifted back into as life has evolved, but even before I got into the habit of frequenting the pews on a Sunday morning, I still used to try and get to church on Easter Sunday. There’s something enormously compelling about the feelings of absolution and optimism around Easter, and while everyone takes different things away from the experience, for my part I think it’s quite uplifting to be in a room full of people all thinking about how they’ve fallen short of being their best selves over the previous year, accepting that they’re almost certainly going to do the same thing over the coming one, and enjoying the sensation of having a clean slate as they clutch at the ambition to be just a little bit better.

I imagine comparatively few of my fellows believe that they are literally washed clean of all their transgressions on an arbitrary Sunday morning somewhere around the spring equinox, but it’s the symbolism that’s important. A reset button means you’re not beaten before you’ve got started. I become increasingly convinced that living the kind of life you want is about ongoing incremental shifts as well as occasional upheavals, and I’ve always found smaller changes to be much harder to go through with than the almighty bridge-burnings.

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This year, the Easter holidays have been a reset button in other ways. The past fortnight’s been uncommonly full of opportunities for quality time with the best of people – long, boozy dinners with my mum and stepfather; lazy afternoons putting the world to rights with old schoolfriends, and tramps in the woods with buddies I made on South American adventures 15 years ago. I drove an hour and a half each way to meet a mate’s new baby daughter in a pub somewhere off the A19, took my 17-year-old French cousin to a Kris Drever gig, and stayed up ‘til 4am one night plotting with my brother over bottles of home brew. Solitude and companionship have both been essential parts of my adult life, but it’s been confirming and energising to have a glut of the latter.

So yes, Easter’s been especially fine this year for a variety of reasons, and I hope yours has too.

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Mead fit for a king

‘Turbulent old time, the 17th century. It was the age of characters like Cardinal Richelieu and the Duke of Buckingham; of Oliver Cromwell, Galileo and Guy Fawkes; of civil war, regicide and plague; where a volcanic compound of science, magic, politics and religion theatened to shatter the crucible of the Old World. And never far from the action was an Englishman called Sir Kenelm Digby…’

If you’re an enthusiastic producer of cottage-kitchen hooch like me, you might have encountered references here and there to a 17th-century kitchen manual called The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. It famously contains instructions for brewing up more than a hundred different kinds of mead, metheglin, cider, ale and wine, along with a dizzying array of decadent dishes from the courts of the Stuart kings. There are a few magic potions in there too, my favourite of which is a lotion that allegedly ‘beautifies and preserves the complexions of ladies’, and includes such ingredients as lead, borax, henna, and breadcrumbs soaked in milk.

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‘A man of vigorous spirits’

None of these recipes, however, are anywhere near as remarkable as the man who catalogued them. Kenelm Digby (1603-1665) was a courtier, privateer, diplomat, swordsman, theologian, alchemist, gourmand and incurable romantic, and he had a knack for getting tangled up in pretty much every scrape of his era.

His life story reads like the most impossible work of fiction, and since much of it comes from his own pen, perhaps there is a little embellishment here and there. But then there’s something of the Edward Bloom about Kenelm Digby, and I can’t help thinking about that line from Big Fish: ‘Most men, they’ll tell you a story straight through. It won’t be complicated, but it won’t be interesting either.’ Part of the joy of Kenelm’s story is in the swagger and romanticism of his own voice. Have a look at his Private Memoirs and you’ll see what I mean. Alternatively, for a brilliantly written, swashbuckling account of Digby’s younger years, I really recommend Joe Moshenska’s modern biography, A Stain in the Blood.

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Kenelm, meet Ernest

In my latest piece for Ernest journal, I give a whistlestop tour of Digby’s life, with a focus on his famous booze manual. And should you be tempted to try one of his brews for yourself, I’ve adapted one so that pretty much anyone can make it at home. It’s a kind of hopped-up, floral mead, and Kenelm claimed to have got the recipe from Webbe, who was the royal brewer for Charles II. I’ve been telling people flippantly that it’s somewhere between retsina and Calpol, but in fact it’s a curiously appealing mix of mead and ale flavours that I’ve never found anywhere else.

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Writing for Ernest is a joy – if you haven’t encountered it before then it’s a beautifully-designed, 160-page indie journal full of wonderful writing and imagery. Publications like these are hugely expensive and hard work to produce, and it’s a remarkable labour of love for the team behind it. The latest issue features pieces on East Anglian and Scottish adventures, baking in space, the women hidden in Antarctic maps, and the history of forgotten pies, plus loads more. It’s available here, and I’d love it if you’d consider supporting independent publishing by ordering a copy.

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No place like home

I’ve fluked some grand assignments in my time, but there’s nothing quite like writing about home.

I moved up to North Yorkshire full-time three and a half years ago, but I’ve been coming here regularly my whole life. In fact, my parents bought the cottage I now live in a few years before I was born. Among the Kodacolor memories of childhood, our long summers swimming off Sandsend beach, climbing trees in Mulgrave Woods or dressing up in cardboard armour for a trip to Whitby Abbey are among the warmest of all. At Sunnyside Cottage there are spidery drawings hidden at the bottoms of drawers, fossils on the mantelpiece that we found scratting around on the beach 25 years ago, and probably a good deal of sand from little feet still stamped into the carpet. On those inevitable occasions that I’m far from home and things aren’t going my way, it’s an armchair by the fire at Sunnyside that I dream of, so perhaps – for all my bravado and Indiana Jones hats – I’m a hobbit when it comes down to it.

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It’s not always an easy spot to live, and the solitude can creep up on me sometimes after so long living in central London, but I’ve still never felt so comfortable in a place. Every evening I stroll the cliffs, beaches and woods around my home, and on days off there are more than 550 square miles of national park to stretch my boots across. Beauty in its various forms never fails to lift me, and this part of North Yorkshire has a rugged, occasionally haunting quality all of its own, misty with the ghosts of lost stories. Passing great barrows on the moorland ridges, I can’t help thinking that the forgotten men inside them have probably lain there since before the sack of Troy. As I watch barn owls hunt at dusk among the curious hummocks of Sandsend Ness, I think of the broken pipes and buttons of alum miners hidden in the fine shale under my boot heels, and as I cross the graveyard on my way to church, I know there are Norsemen in the earth. Some of their words still survive in local dialect, and their distinctive ‘hogback’ gravestones are displayed at the back of the church (one of which displays a scene that looks suspiciously like Ragnarok).

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For the latest (April) issue of The Great Outdoors magazine, Emily was indulgent enough to commission a feature that let me walk the England Coast Path from Middlesbrough down to Filey. South of Staithes, it’s mostly familiar territory, but to my shame I’d never tackled the more northerly stretches. In particular, the section starting out from Boro is intriguing – strange and sad in its way, and quite different from the rest of the route. Passing the Dorman Long tower, you can’t help thinking that it was steel from here that built the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Ozymandias, take note.

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Anyway, it was a rather lovely way to spend five days, and as you can imagine, my difficulty wasn’t so much in what to include as what to miss out. the latest issue of The Great Outdoors is available here, and if the feature goes online in the future then I’ll update this post with a link.

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Faces from the past

When I moved north, most of the stuff from my London flat went into a lockup in Scarborough. It was a temporary measure to begin with, but life developments since have made it a more permanent state of affairs, and I rather enjoy the ability to live an uncluttered life without actually scrapping all my belongings then buying them over again when I need them. Items of adventuring equipment like my six tents, four sleeping bags and arctic winter kit are all very useful, but not strictly essential for day-to-day life. In spring, the winter clothes go back in the lockup, and come autumn it’s the same story for the palm-tree shirts.

One of the loveliest things about the lockup – apart from the sense that I might be a resistance operative tooling up for a secret mission – is the ability to visit the past without having to live with it. There are a lot of memories in there, and I always seem to come across something interesting.

This time round, I found a box of drawings from my undistinguished sideline as an illustrator, and among them was a picture I drew when my former colleague, Rose, left her job at the Scouts. They wanted a picture of her surrounded by all her workmates, though I can’t recall whose idea it was to stick us all on a pirate ship. I remember it being a time consuming but lovely task, especially since I was quite fond of many of the people I was drawing.

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Century-old life advice

I came across an interesting object while I was ferreting through a box of memorabilia just now. It’s a letter, sent exactly 99 years ago, by my great-grandfather to his only son, who was at boarding school in the south.

My great-grandfather, John Henry ‘Harry’ Braime was the JH in TF & JH Braime Steel Pressings – a familiar sight to anyone coming into Leeds from the south, and one of the last surviving Yorkshire steel pressing factories (my uncle and cousins still run it successfully today). Harry was supposed to follow his father into the veterinary profession, but he was shrewd enough to spot that the age of the horse was on the way out, so he threw in his lot with the age of steel instead and joined his big brother’s new pressings business.

The Braime brothers were industrialists of the old school, and the wars and the burgeoning motor trade gave them plenty to get their teeth into. There’s a story that one of them was offered an OBE for inventing a new method of rifling shells in WW1, but he turned it down on the principle that they both got one or neither did. Quite possibly you have one of their old push-button oil cans in your garage (and in fact I may adapt the slogan on this 1960s ad for my own editorial business).

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When Harry died in 1930, at the comparatively young age of 62, a strange anonymous note appeared in the Yorkshire Observer, stating that ‘Leeds has lost, by his death, a greater son than is generally realised. Though Mr Braime’s greatest achievements were for industrial purposes, there is no doubt that his very considerable gifts were unwearyingly and very effectively used to assist his country in her hour of need in the Great War. I also have reasons for knowing that in private life he was generous to a fault, but in a way that did not let the right hand know what the left hand did.’

His letter to my grandfather is a curious mix of the profound and the matter-of-fact – the buying of school books, the death of a workman at the factory, and a bit of life advice thrown in – but it obviously made an impression, because my grandfather (who went on to have plenty of adventures of his own) received it on his fifteenth birthday and kept it until the day he died, 74 years later.

Hunslet, Feb 28, 1919

My dear Ronnie,

Many Happy Returns of your Birthday – is my feeling for you with this note.

You will no doubt have seen your mother & Auntie Aggie today. I hope they had a good journey and found you in the best of health and spirits, and that you will have a good time together.

As regards those books, it is a good plan of yours to try to get them second-hand if in good condition. The money saved would doubtless buy you something else of service later on.

You need not trouble to go through those papers I sent with your mother whilst she is at Cheltenham – but of course if you have an opportunity, send them back with her on her return.

I am having a nerve-wracking time getting the motor people going with their new pressings, but hope to survive. You will be sorry to hear that Luckwoods – the man who sang those comic songs – died this morning from a haemorrhage of blood on the brain.

Now, I want you to read and retain on the pages of your brain the following words, as being the advice of your dad on the occasion of your fifteenth birthday, and with his loving thoughts of you. As I expect to pass through this world but once – if there is any good thing which I can do, or any kindness I can show any fellow-man, let me do it now. Let me not defer it, nor neglect it, for I may not pass this way again.

Trusting you will live to carry the above into effect through a long and happy life.

Your Dad

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The Zillertal Alps with Peter Habeler

The Ramblers always give me the best jobs. First there was Bavaria, then the Dolomites, then Matt, the editor, got in touch asking if I might fancy going to the Zillertal Alps for a spot of walking with mountaineering legend, Peter Habeler. As usual, I had to think long and hard.

If you’re not familiar with the Zillertal, then I can heartily recommend you become so. It’s in Austria, on the Italian border, and it feels wonderfully unspoiled. That’s mainly because they’ve compartmentalised their mountains. Skiers get a big area to play in, but there’s also a massive chunk of mountain that’s protected from development.

Tribalism is one of the worst qualities of walkers in general, and I feel like I should be clear that I don’t think hikers or climbers have any more right to outdoor fun than anyone else. Obviously skiing is a huge boon to European mountain communities, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone the ability to enjoy the mountains in their own way, but all the same, there’s something about the lifts and bars and spa hotels and the general homogenous nature of many ski resorts that I think robs mountains of some of their dignity. I’d rather look out on scrubby hillsides and the occasional scruffy cabin or ramshackle village than smooth slopes, elegant chalets and gondolas bolted to the mountain like chains. This is entirely my own irrational preference, but it is what it is. Like I say, each to their own. The important thing is that in the Zillertal you can have both, and I reckon that’s grand.

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As for my walking companions, I was out there with a game little gang of journalists and PRs. Our local guide, Florian, was an enthusiast of the best sort, and with it being a press trip, there was an extra treat in the form of Peter Habeler, who met us up in the mountains at the Berliner Hutte. Peter and his climbing partner, Reinhold Messner, made history in 1978 by making the first ascent of Everest without using bottled oxygen, and at 75 he’s still ferociously fit. He was a wonderful, sparkling, sort of birdlike little man, full of life and character, and it was a real privilege to spend even just a short amount of time with him. Much of my job as a freelance writer/editor is tedious, solitary grind, cooped up and hunched over a laptop, but if anything makes the whole gig seem worth it, it’s experiences like sitting round in a mountain lodge with the snow coming down outside, drinking schnapps and listening to Peter Habeler’s stories of adventure.

The article featured in the winter issue of walk magazine, and you can read it here.

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The Pennine Way

The reason we had trouble finding the entrance to our campsite was because you had to go through a working scrapyard. As you emerged from the piles of crumpled Mondeos and rotting Land Cruisers with puddled tyres, the first caravan you saw was perched at a jaunty angle on top of a spoil heap, like a lost Hanjin shipping container beached up on the Skeleton Coast. The ablutions facilities were, in fact, the old bog block from a long-defunct foundry – largely unaltered since the 1940s, and accessed through a tunnel constructed out of the rusting belly of an old milk tanker.

‘It’s like a cross between Mad Max and Hostel,’ breathed Christian in delight.

This summer I traipsed the length of the Pennine Way with my brother and dog. I wasn’t going to blog about it because I spend a decent portion of my life writing about walking and sometimes it’s nice just to do one without the post-mortem, but I find I can’t resist. Every walk is distinctive for different reasons – particularly the long tramps – but what marks the Pennine Way out is its sheer strength of character. Whether it’s the people, the places, the landscapes or the routes, everything is larger than life.

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The short of it

The Pennine Way runs from Edale in the Derbyshire Peak District up to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders (or the other way, obviously), a distance of around 270 miles. One of the UK’s flagship trails, I don’t think there’s any other long-distance route in England that compares in terms of height and wildness. Standard practice is to carve it up into 16 stages, mostly 25-35km (16-22 miles), and though some whippety ultralighters will want to hit it harder than that, this quite old-fashioned formula of long days at an easy pace suited us beautifully. We used Damian Hall’s guidebook (Aurum, 2012), and he was a grand, unfailingly cheerful companion along the road.

The Pennine Way’s got an unfriendly reputation, partly thanks to Wainwright (the ‘crabby wanderer’ – as Hall calls him – seems to have hated most of it) and partly because when my parents’ generation walked it in the 70s there genuinely were long stretches of punishing moorland bogtrot. But the trail’s more than 50 years old now, and generations of volunteers and rangers have patched over the soggiest terrain with flagstones, pinned the route away from the most eroded ground, and marked even the most trackless stretches with little white acorn posts. Make no mistake, it’s still a fairly tough undertaking, but I’m willing to bet it’s easier than it’s ever been.

If further proof were needed of this, consider that my five-year-old miniature poodle made it all the way. Charlie is a game little devil, but he is also a soppy lapdog somewhat shorter than a wellington boot.

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How far is too far?

Anyone expecting the Pennine Way to take a strict line along the length of the Pennines will be in for a surprise, but hopefully not a disappointment. It’s a whimsical old route, taking frequent, worthwhile detours to visit interesting things. One day, on a path that’s supposed to point north, you unexpectedly veer off more than 20 miles to the south west, ending up further from your destination than you started. The payoffs, though, are the Teesdale waterfalls and the spectacular cleft of High Cup Nick. I can guarantee no-one finishes up that evening in Dufton saying, ‘well that was a wasted day’.

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The Pennine Way also doesn’t stop when the Pennines run out just beyond Alston, in Cumbria. You can just imagine Tom Stephenson and the other tweedy visionaries who brought the walk into being, all sitting round and saying, ‘well, since we’ve come this far, we might as well go a little bit further and see Hadrian’s Wall.’ Then some other bloke takes a pensive suckle on his pipe and says, ‘if you’re going to walk along Hadrian’s Wall, it seems a shame not to go a bit further and see the Cheviots.’ ‘How about Scotland?’ says another, his eyes lighting up under brows like birds’ nests. ‘Plenty of good stuff up there.’ But then they all realise it’s got out of hand so they decide to knock it on the head at the first village across the Scottish border, a sweet little place no-one’s heard of called Kirk Yetholm.

The old boys also didn’t believe in prioritising comfort over an adventure. One of the days involves crawling over Cross Fell – a strong contender for the country’s least hospitable hill. This rock-strewn plateau seems to be permanently blanketed in fog, and features the only wind in the country savage enough to have a name, plus the lowest temperatures and strongest gusts ever recorded in England. When we came over, the wind was so powerful that Charlie literally couldn’t stand up, and was obliged to hitch a ride inside Christian’s coat. All the same, Cross Fell is the highest peak in the Pennines, and it would be a shame to salute it from afar when you could get bashed about on the summit.

That’s not to say the route will suit everyone. I’m a firm believer in taking whatever line you care to on a long walk (if you want to stick religiously to a track, take a train). Some of our fellow hikers did a lot of road walking to cut out some of the more challenging stretches and make faster progress, and while Christian and I didn’t fancy the tarmac, we did take some detours of our own. Speaking selfishly, one of my least favourite kinds of walking is field paths, where you spend hours zig-zagging along the edges of gloopy pastures, circling round cattle and hauling yourself over innumerable pinstiles. Inevitably there are days that feature quite a bit of this as you cross some of the lowland corridors, but we came across some very enjoyable alternatives, courtesy of our industrial forebears. The great men behind the Pennine Way might have railed at the notion of taking a canal towpath and a cinder track rather than slithering around in cow shite all day, but we loved the variation.

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The thin green line

We spent most nights snuggled up in our little silnylon tipi, partly to keep our costs down but mainly for the flexibility. When you’ve got a tent strapped to your back, you can kip wherever you end up at sundown, and the only time pressure is that of trying to get into your sleeping bag before the dog does. Wild camping is illegal, of course, but in practice, most of the Pennine Way is so remote that no-one’s going to kick off if you play nice about it (ie, arrive late, leave early, and leave nothing behind).

Actually, though, we rarely slept wild. The Pennine Way passes through a long string of settlements that are often eccentric and charismatic in equal measure. At one stop, we found the campsite owner sharing tots of whisky with the punters and trundling around the site in an ancient Austin Seven; at another, we hid from the rain in a wooden summer house, on a lovely site that was unmistakably a retired builder’s back garden. One damp evening up in Kielder Forest we sat round with pints in the conservatory at the back of the village inn, listening to stories of the proprietors’ years running a merchant navy boarding house in South Shields. Then, of course, there was the scrapyard site. It would have seemed a shame to miss out on all that.

There were some uncommonly welcoming farmers about too. We came across tuck shops in upcycled henhouses, and handwritten signs pointing us off to spring water taps. One family had even furnished an outbuilding with sagging old sofas and stocked it with snacks and drinks for weary walkers. ‘Pit stop –>’, declared a sign scrawled in marker pen on an old bucket lid.

More colour came courtesy of our fellow Pennine Wayers. There was C, who attempts the Pennine Way every year as a sort of 250-mile pub crawl, and knows the location of every boozer, off-licence and shortcut along the route; and J, a gentle chemical engineer whose lap Charlie elected to occupy for the evening up at the legendary Tan Hill Inn, Britain’s highest pub. Then there was M, the friendly German lightweighter, whose gossamer-weight kit contrasted starkly with that of my brother (proudly sporting my dad’s old walking boots with gaping holes in the leather, and a precariously bodged-together 1990s Karrimor rucksack that got mullered by Indian baggage handlers nearly a decade ago). Some friends we brought with us, like Christian’s boss, T, who turned up with dog chews and pork pies at Horton-in-Ribblesdale and waved us goodbye at the Ribblehead viaduct, or my mates M and E who joined us for a whole weekend just south of the Dales. I even managed an afternoon pint with some old schoolmates and their families in a ropey chain pub in Gargrave.

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Travels with Charlie

Reactions to the filthy, cat-like little creature capering around at our heels generally ranged between delight, incredulity, and horror that we would inflict such a long walk on such a small animal. I don’t doubt that for some dogs this might have been justified, but mine loves long days outdoors with his mates, and it would not have been the act of a friend to leave him behind.

That said, it was Charlie’s first long-distance trail, so I did take some precautions. I’ve spent the past year building up his walking distances, and have compensated for the fact that I don’t know anything about dogs by talking to people who do. I mentioned my plans offhand to the vet a while back, and her complete lack of scepticism was quite encouraging. She checked him over thoroughly the week before we left, gave me plenty of advice on battlefield first-aid­­, and cobbled me together a little canine medical kit that was substantially better than my human one. As a final precaution, I had my mum poised to parachute him out if it got too much.

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As it turned out, he did splendidly. Early on, he was uncharacteristically quiet in the evenings, and there were two nights where he was a bit stiff after longer days, but every morning found him lithe as ever, ricocheting impatiently round the tent in his eagerness to get cracking. He ate at least double his usual amount (plus the inevitable titbits from pub landladies, shop owners etc along the way), and despite getting quite lean, it was fascinating to see how much more quickly his fitness improved than ours. By the end, he was almost as bouncy in the evenings as he was in the mornings. Remarkable little beasts, poodles.

As with my own kit, there are some adjustments I’d make to Charlie’s gear next time out. I won’t go into it here, but if you’re interested, drop me a message or a comment below.

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Highlights

The joy of a long route (or at least, one of them), is its endless variation. Some walkers will love the chocolate-box, Olde-England qualities of the Dales, the murky bleakness of the Peaks, or the epic sights of big-hitters like Malham Cove, Pen-y-Ghent, High Cup Nick and Hadrian’s Wall. All of those things were grand, but when I think back, it’s the Cheviots that stole my heart.

I’d never been to this wild old range of hills up on the Scottish border before, but I can’t wait to return. They’re empty, rugged and capricious, and you feel a million miles from anywhere, despite the distant boom of army ordinance from the nearby training grounds. High up on the tops you come across older military installations – the sprawling earthworks of Chew Green Roman camp, and the long, ancient highway of Dere Street. You can almost hear the clanking echoes of the Ninth Legion marching to (academically disputed) oblivion.

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The Cheviots blessed us with warm sun and wide views, then pounded us with wind and rain, but I don’t like them any less for it. We spent our last night hunkered down in Auchope mountain refuge hut. Our friend E, leaving us reluctantly nearly 200 miles south to return to the office, had entrusted us with her collapsible wine flask, and fortunately we’d had the foresight to fill it with Rioja in Bellingham. As the wind howled outside, we sat with bowls of hot pasta and mugs of booze, our soaked clothes strung up on paracord lines above our heads, and Charlie snoozing on my spare shirt. I’m always sorry to see the end of the road creeping into view, but it wasn’t a bad way to see it out.

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Destination: Dolomites

A few months back I was lucky enough to be thrown a last-minute gig by Matt at walk magazine, writing about a week-long walking holiday in the Italian Dolomites. It was a pretty busy time with work, and I only had about four days’ notice, but funnily enough I managed to make the trip. Can’t think why.

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I was tagging along with an HF Holidays trip, based out of the village of Selva in Val Gardena. Selva itself is nice enough (though I can’t help thinking it might have had a bit more character before quite so much ski money turned up), but the Dolomites themselves were genuinely, staggeringly spectacular. My Grandpa Braime nursed a lifelong love of these jagged limestone mountains, and now I can understand it.

Anyway, I had a grand time, and you can read all about it in the link below if you like. The group that got saddled with my company were a warm, game bunch, the weather was glorious, and those four-course dinners at the Hotel Malleier kept body and soul together. These are the sorts of freelance jobs I could get used to.

The magazine hit doormats last week, and you can read an online version here.

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Sunset raids on the North Sea

It’s been an unusual summer. Apart from a couple of wonderful weeks tramping the Pennine Way with the brother and the dog (more of that to come), I seem to have been shackled to my desk for most of it. This is in stark contrast to the past few summers where work seems to have tailed off completely, and I can’t make up my mind whether 2017 is just an oddity, or whether after years of being fully freelance I’m finally starting to get a reliable flow of work through. Anyway, it’s no bad thing, and I’ve been making hay while the sun shines.

Thing is, the sun’s been shining outdoors too, so I’ve been trying to make the most of it without completely sabotaging my deadlines. One of the loveliest things about living on the outskirts of Whitby is that you can slink down to the beach when every other bugger has gone home for the day. Long summer evenings have a charm all of their own, and I’m down there most nights, punting tennis balls for the dog, reading my book on a bench or just daydreaming and gazing out to sea. I’ve also been taking the paddleboard down sometimes, sweeping sedately around the bay like a Pacific islander on his way out to trade trinkets with Captain Cook.

Of course there are times I miss London and all the friends I left behind there, but after three years up here, I still wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

 

 

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A quick jaunt up to Weardale

Among the ever-expanding collection of schemes scrawled into my notebook in the past year, one was to become better acquainted with the North Pennines. It’s an area that’s intrigued me for a while – on the few occasions when I’ve driven through it, I’ve been impressed by its size, ruggedness and emptiness, yet the far north of England often seems a little overlooked by the walking press, or perhaps just the walking public in general. People get that far and they either veer off west into the Lake District or keep heading up to Scotland. I’m guilty of it myself.

Pennine-peat1

Unlike so many of my other disordered ambitions, I’ve lately been making a modest amount of progress on the Pennine plan. Christian and I have booked in dates to walk the Pennine Way in the summer, and last week I managed to carve out a few days for a quick trip up to Weardale. Motivations were twofold. Firstly, there was the simple desire to explore a new area (carefully picked to avoid anywhere we’ll be passing through on the Pennine Way), but the trip also formed part of my dog Charlie’s fierce training regime.

For anyone who has not encountered Charlie, I invite you to conjure up your own mental image of a sturdy, intrepid hill-dog striding with great dignity at its master’s side up hill and down dale. Now imagine the exact opposite, and you have Charlie. He is a five-year-old miniature poodle (distinctly on the small side even for his pint-sized breed), frequently totters around circus-style on his hind legs, and spends as much of his life as possible curled up like a tabby in any lap that will have him. A lady with a fat Labrador once described him as ‘a cat on a lead’, and his appearance is not made any more macho by the good collection of natty little coats that keep him warm in the cold weather.

All the same, I defy you to find a better companion for a walking Englishman. He will cheerfully trot upwards of 30km in a day without flagging, handles steep ascents with a good deal less trouble than I do, and sleeps beautifully in a tent. The Pennine Way will be Charlie’s first long-distance route, so the Weardale trip was an opportunity to get some more camping experience in, and to practice negotiating steeper, tougher terrain than the stuff we tend to come across in our rambles around the North York Moors.

Charlie

And it was a real pleasure. I stayed a couple of nights at a gorgeous, welcoming campsite called Pennine Lodge, complete with resident alpacas, a lush, sheltered camping field and a pretty waterfall. The further you drive up Weardale, the prettier and more timeless it becomes. Little one-street villages with pocket-sized pubs; fields full of sheep stretching steeply up the dalesides, criss-crossed by old, walled footpaths; tough stone farmhouses clinging to the high edges of the valley, and the high, peaty moors rolling away above.

Of course it was the last of these that I was most interested in. The campsite was just outside St John’s Chapel, and on one of my days I took in a walk from the Cicerone Guide to Walking in the North Pennines (by the prolific and ever-reliable Paddy Dillon), climbing up to Chapelfell Top. At a shade over 700 metres it was a decent pull up, and most of the route spanned trackless access land. It was a a clear, hot day with a cold wind, and in decent weather I love this kind of walking – working off compass bearings, taking your time, negotiating crumbling, cliff-like hags and deep, damp groughs in the peat. Slow progress but interesting and satisfying, with vast views opening up to the north and west. The dales disappear behind the slope of the fell and there’s no other bugger in sight. Part way up there’s a bench-shaped rock where Dillon reckons John Wesley might have paused to enjoy the view in the late 1700s. It’s a bit of a fanciful theory, but I hope he did. Because I did, and it was quite a sight.

Dillon’s route conveniently handrails off a fence line between Chapelfell Top and Noon Hill to the West, and as I picked my way through the groughs, I came across the front end of a skeletal sheep sticking out of the peat bog. The open access land of the North Pennines is a glorious place to be alive, but apparently not everyone makes it out that way.

Pennine-sheep Pennine-peat2 Pennine-Weardale

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