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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Upcoming articles in Ernest journal

It’s been a quiet time on the blog recently. Partly it’s because work has picked up a bit, so some of the stuff I might have blogged about has found its way into print articles.

Outdoorsy sorts might have spotted me in the winter and spring issues of walk, the magazine of the Ramblers, and I’m currently working up a piece on coastal winter strolling for The Great Outdoors, which will hopefully be published later in the year.

One publication I’ve really been enjoying working for recently is Ernest, a hefty, beautifully-produced biannual journal full of wonderful articles for curious people like me. Subjects range from adventure and slow travel to history, craftsmanship and wild food. Issue 6 is due out soon, and contains not one but two articles from this lucky fellow.

The first deals with a lost Viking-influenced dialect found hidden deep in the North York Moors just 150 years ago (anyone who’s read my blogs on Canon Atkinson will be familiar with the rough story), and as part of the article I spent a couple of days roaming the lonely spots of Danby parish with a Cardiff-based photographer called Daniel Alford. He’s a remarkably talented fellow (as well as being grand company), and despite the thick Yorkshire hill-fog, he’s come up with some astonishing shots.

The other is a piece on a type of beer called Burton ale – a jacked-up Victorian brew once as popular as IPA is today, but now almost completely forgotten since it vanished off the face of the earth in the 1960s. The article is accompanied by lovely, characterful illustrations from artist Louise Logsdon, and as part of the gig I brewed up a batch of Burton in my cottage kitchen. At 7.5 per cent it does hit a bit hard, but the expenses are going to look brilliant on next year’s tax return.

Anyway, if you fancied supporting both me and a cracking indie publication then issue 6 of Ernest is available to pre-order now.

Burton-medium-res

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All I want for Christmas

I’ve been scribbling Christmas card designs recently, just for fun. I’m not mature or organised enough to actually send any out, but if I did, I think I would probably send this one.

dog_crop

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A million monkeys

monkeys

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Witch-wood at Fryup Head

The other day, while trying out a moorland walking route for TGO magazine, I found myself rounding the relatively remote dale end called Fryup Head, about four miles south of Danby village as the crow flies. It’s a fine spot – sparse, open moorland with the remnants of old mine workings pocking the heather on one side, and on the other a curious jumble of scrubby hummocks called the Hills, tumbling steeply into the deep, green trough of Fryup Dale (which itself is divided into Great and Little Fryup Dales by a great, flat-topped island rising lengthways down its middle).

Fryup-Dale Fryup-Hills

My mate Canon Atkinson (1814-1900) had plenty to say about the ‘wild solitudes’ of this little corner of the North York Moors. He called it ‘one of the most picturesque of all the picturesque dale-heads in this district’, and enjoyed strolling there ‘whether with my gun or with only my walking-stick for my companion’. He was fascinated by the geological origins of the Hills, and by the grinding graft of the miners, who would strip off their clothes and crawl into cramped, four-foot high pits to scratch out pitifully thin seams of ‘inferior and impure’ coal.

Most interestingly, though, in Forty Years in a Moorland Parish (1891) he tells a story recounted by a friend of his who, in his younger years, was once working in the fields up near the head of the dale. From a distance, this farmer spotted a woman called Hannah – with a bit of an oddball reputation – wandering around that remote place clutching a ‘gully’ or kitchen knife. To start with, he was concerned she might be planning to do away with herself, but having convinced himself that probably wasn’t the case, he put her out of mind and went on with his work. Later in the day, he encountered her once more, in the process of taking a very circuitous route back to her cottage. When pressed, she explained shyly that she’d been looking for ‘witch-wood’ to protect her household against the local crones*. Even back then, this was a bit quaint, and she went on to explain the particulars of the ritual, recounted here in Atkinson’s own words:

‘To be effectual, the requisite pieces of rowan tree […] must not only be cut on St. Helen’s day, but, in order to be quite fully efficacious, they must be cut with a household knife : they must be cut, moreover, from a tree which not only the cutter had never seen before, but of the very existence of which he must have had no previous knowledge or suspicion ; and that, on the tree having been found in this blindfold sort of way, and the requisite bough or boughs having been severed and secured, they must be carried home by any way save that by which the obtainer of them had gone forth on his quest.’

While the superstitions might have died out, I was intrigued to see that the descendants of those rowan trees are still there in Fryup Head more than 150 years later, clinging to the moor as it falls away into the dale. In fact there are loads of them, some quite gnarly, and I fancy old Hannah might have had at least some previous knowledge of the valuable resources hidden away in such an out-of-the-way spot, whatever she claimed. I daresay no-one has cut witch-wood there for well over a century, but if you ever find yourself suspecting that the old dear next door is transforming herself into a hare and suckling the milk out of your dairy cows after dark… well, you know what to do.

rowan-trees-fryup

*What she actually said was ‘Wheea, I was nobbut lating my witch-wood’, which I think you’ll agree is much better than the translation.

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Hardangervidda

To my shame, it’s over a month since my brother and I slithered down off Hardangervidda, in south-central Norway, and I’m only just getting down to writing about it. Our four-day walk was a sort of warm-down after a week crossing Jotunheimen (which I’ve blogged about elsewhere), and Hardangervidda provided a fine counterpoint to its flashier cousin.

Officially, the boundaries of Norway’s biggest national park enclose three and a half thousand square kilometres of the vast Hardangervidda mountain plateau, but the area itself is much bigger. If you’ve ever been to Norway, chances are you’ve probably seen Hardangervidda without realising it. The famous Bergen-Oslo train line* slides along its northern edge (there’s a distinct musk of sweat and woodsmoke emanating from the windswept outdoorsy types boarding in Finse and Geilo), as does the gorgeous Highway 7.

Hardangervidda-1

As with our Jotunheimen trip, Christian and I followed a route from Connie Roos’s Cicerone guide to Walking in Norway. Roos rates the western part of Hardangervidda much more highly than its centre (which she describes as having ‘a certain monotony of character’), so we took her at her word. Starting out at Fossli, we headed almost directly south then looped back up to the north west, eventually descending steeply past a string of spectacular waterfalls along the river Kinso to finish up in Kinsarvik. For much of the journey we had tantalising views of Harteigen – a celebrated mountain allegedly shaped like a stovepipe hat – even if the clouds never cleared enough for us to see the top. Along the way we passed the DNT huts of Hadlaskard, Torehytten and Stavali (along with independent Hedlo), though in the event we ended up camping out each night. According to my GPS, the route came in at 79km, and took us four days including travel time.

We got to the trail via an early train from Bergen to Geilo then a bus to Fossli, where we had a bit of trouble finding the trailhead – forgivable since it involved slinking down the hard shoulder of a busy highway then clambering over a barrier by a smear of red paint. As for getting out at the end, it was a slightly convoluted (but actually very conveniently joined-up) chain of two ferries (Kinsarvik-Utne-Kvanndal), a bus to Voss and a train to Oslo. We hit Kinsarvik mid-afternoon and by half midnight we were showered and tucked up in a hotel in central Oslo, which isn’t bad going really.

Hardangervidda-3

As Christian observed at the time, Hardangervidda feels somehow more familiar than Jotunheimen, perhaps because in places there are visual echoes of Scotland or North Wales. For me there were other reasons it felt familiar too, since the self-service huts, the open spaces, and the occasional cameos from cheery young German drifters or stately Norwegian pensioners with knives on their belts were all much more akin to my previous experiences of rough Scandi tramping than the Alpinist bustle of Jotunheimen. Despite its more modest gradients and more understated nature (‘understated’ being a VERY relative term in this context), Hardangervidda felt somehow wilder. The terrain was characterful and varied, with rushing rivers, occasional snow fields, and sweet berries growing abundantly by the paths.

Hardangervidda-2

It was also rather wet and surprisingly cold, and watching my brother wading barefoot across a perishingly icy stream first thing in the morning was a pleasure that almost compensated for having to do it myself. The soft, springy ground was sometimes only just dry enough to pitch a tent on, and one night at a high camp we sipped hot coffee in our damp clothes, watching the ever-present cloud swirling silkily through the valleys below. Rain can become a bit demoralising if you get too much of it, but luck was on our side, and the only evening we got a real soaking was followed by a morning of bright sunshine that dried our gear out again. In fact, during the whole fortnight – both in Hardangervidda and Jotunheimen – weather and circumstance treated us pretty kindly, and it was somehow inevitable that calamity should catch up with us sooner or later.

Which it did as we descended over steep, slimy rock towards the Kinso river and our road out. Christian slipped, and we reckoned afterwards that the way his bag shifted on his back must have made him go down hard on his hand. There was a nice audible crack, and though he didn’t make much of a fuss about it, there was no doubt it was the sort of injury that, had it occurred earlier in the trip, would have sent us home. As it was, we were a few hours from journey’s end anyway, and later that night, sitting in the buffet car on the 17.45 train to Oslo, filthy and cheerful, we poured out a couple of anaesthetising beers and toasted our guidebook writer and our adventure of two strikingly different but equally wonderful halves. Norway never disappoints.

Hardangervidda-4

*I was delighted to learn recently that Netflix is now streaming the full 7.5-hour video of this pretty journey, along with several other Norwegian ‘slow-TV’ classics, including 12 hours cruising the Telemark Canal, 24 hours of a salmon river, and a lot of knitting.

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Canon Atkinson’s Yorkshire lexicon

In 1847, When Essex-born John Christopher Atkinson put it about that he’d been asked to become vicar of the remote North Yorkshire village of Danby, one wag declared: ‘Why, Danby was not found out when they sent Bonaparte to St Helena; or else they never would have taken the trouble to send him all the way there!’

The auspices were not favourable. The church was said to be at least a mile from the nearest villagers, and the local landowner, Viscount Downe, expressed some reservations about the incumbent clergyman, noting that the man was not ‘famed for strength of body, nor energy of mind and purpose’. This turned out to be something of an understatement. On arrival, the 33-year-old Atkinson found the church rotting from the inside out. The woodworm-pocked altar doubled up as a picnic table for the Sunday school teachers, the font was a ‘paltry slop-basin’, and the place reeked of baccy since the parish clerk liked to perch in the alcove by the west window and smoke his pipe. As for the minister, his attendance at church was rather poorer than that of his meagre flock, and he confided peevishly in Atkinson that his parishioners had ‘not been very thoughtful or considerate about me’, on account of their incessant requests for him to baptize and christen their children.

More than half a century later, Canon Atkinson died at Danby vicarage, having carved out a remarkable life for himself in his unpromising moorland patch. A renaissance man to his core, he was an archaeologist, a philologist, a naturalist, a geologist, a historian and a folklorist. Most significantly, he assiduously documented the customs, rituals, language and mythology of a folk culture which was even then in terminal decline, and wrote several books, of which Forty Years in a Moorland Parish (1891) is the most famous.

It’s out of print, but the text is available online, and a while back I tracked down a handsome and dilapidated old leather-bound copy, once the property of Liverpool College*. It’s a July 1891 special edition with maps and photo plates by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, and the colour of the leather stains your hands as you read. As an object, it is most pleasing, but the text itself is even more enjoyable. It’s written with an endearing lightness, humour and enthusiasm, and Atkinson’s affection for rural Yorkshire and its people is infectious. What’s more, his geographical descriptions and maps are very precise, to such an extent that I’ve already been able to plot some Atkinson walks out on the moors.

One of his great passions was language (back in 1868 he’d published A Glossary of the Cleveland Dialect), and Forty Years in a Moorland Parish contains all kinds of delicious old words that have long since fallen out of use. Indeed, many of them had disappeared by the time the book was published, so Atkinson helpfully provides translations. Here are some of my favourites:

Arvel – an adjective referring to a specific celebration (much like the word ‘bridal’). In this case it relates to a celebration of  inheritance. ‘At arvel … feasts … when heirs drank themselves into their fathers’ lands, there was great mirth and jollity, and much eating and hard drinking of mead and fresh-brewed ale.’

Backbearaways – bats

Gabble-ratchet – a yelping sound at night, like the baying of hounds. Probably just caused by flocks of geese flying overhead, but generally interpreted as an omen of impending death.

Gam’some – frolicsome, often used of ‘kitlins’ (kittens).

Gorpins – fledglings

Moudiwarps – moles

Pricky-back otchins – hedgehogs

Swipple – a lovely onomatopoeic word for the striking part of a flail, used for threshing.

Warsle – wrestle

Yabble – well-to-do

There are undoubtedly more blog posts to be had out of Canon Atkinson, and in the next couple of weeks I’m hoping to have a snoop around some of the places mentioned in his book. It’s been over a century, but North Yorkshire hasn’t changed all that much, as you can see from this side-by-side comparison of Atkinson’s map and my modern Harvey one. The Ship Inn may have disappeared, but the Fairy Cross Plain where children used to run round the fairy rings (though never nine times, so as not to give the fairies the power to steal them away) is still there, awaiting my inspection.

atkinson-comparison

 

Sadly, when I pass Danby Beacon I’m unlikely to marvel at the sight of a white-tailed eagle, as he did, since they’ve been extinct in England for a century.

*Some former – presumably long-dead – student at this institution has folded over the page corner to mark a passage detailing an old wedding ritual, in which drunken male wedding guests competed in a race from the churchyard to the bride’s front door. The winner was awarded not only the bride’s garter, but also the privilege of removing it. I’d love to know why this was of interest.

 

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Buffering

buffering-crop

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Jotunheimen jaunting

It’s becoming apparent that I am something of a Jonah when it comes to mountain trips. For the second summer in a row, my hiking companion has brought home a broken bone as a souvenir. Admittedly my brother’s paggered hand this time round was not nearly as catastrophic as Gustav’s arm last year, and you can’t fault his timing, breaking it as he did on our last morning of walking, but all the same, I shouldn’t imagine there’ll be many volunteers sticking their heads over the parapet next time I ask for some company on the trail.

Calamity aside, Christian and I have just got back from a thoroughly wonderful trip to Norway, visiting areas that were equally new to both of us, with a sneaky bit of R&R in Bergen in the middle. For this first blog, I’ll focus on the initial week in Jotunheimen, before tackling our time in Hardangervidda in a separate post.

Jotunheimen has a reputation as Norway’s flagship mountain realm, with a concentration of high peaks and glaciers pretty much unrivalled in northern Europe. It feels old, and grand, and powerful, and a little bit desolate. It’s not actually all that large, but the steepness of the terrain means you get good value out of your miles.

Dragonstone

Christian and I tramped the classic east-west crossing, as set out in Connie Roos’s excellent Cicerone guide to Walking in Norway. According to my GPS, the route was about 110km, and took us five and a half days. We set out from the popular tourist station at Gjendesheim, scrambling along the Besseggen Ridge before descending to lake Russvattnet. Over the next ridge to the lodge at Glitterheim, then up Glittertind, which at 2,465m is Norway’s second highest mountain (and well over a thousand metres taller than Ben Nevis). Descending on the other side, we wound through valleys and passes, encountering three mountain lodges – Spiterstulen, Leirvassbu and Skogadalsbøen – before finally dropping down into the valley at Vetti, and picking up a bus back to the real world at Hjelle.

First, the good; and there was a great deal of it. I for one have never seen views like those in Jotunheimen, (and I have seen quite a lot of views at one time or another). The photo from the Besseggen ridge, showing the strikingly different-coloured lakes Gjende and Bessvattnet, must be the second most famous shot in Norway (I reckon star jumping on Trolltunga probably pips it to the top spot), and the scramble along the ridge is most exhilarating. Our guidebook writer reassured us that ‘the dangers of this ridge are often exaggerated’, but a quick google reveals that Connie Roos was tragically killed by a lightning strike in 1999 while working on a guide to the formidable GR20 in Corsica, so perhaps she may have been a bit edgier than your average upland bimbler. At any rate, with a big unwieldy backpack on, and drizzle greasing the rocks, the Besseggen scramble is enough to get your heart going nicely.

Besseggen-2 Besseggen-1

Each day had its own distinct character, and the joy of the route was how well these stages dovetailed. The ascent of Glittertind, for example, was punishing and rewarding in equal measure, with horizontal snow and biting winds as we crossed the eternal snowfields blanketing its top. It’s the kind of excitement these sorts of trips are all about, your jacket frosted with ice as you snatch glimpses of the tiny world below you through the swirling snow clouds, stopping only for the briefest of photos on the summit before making a dash down to comparative shelter.

Glittertind-2 Glittertind-1

The next day, by comparison, was a long, gentle climb through the valley between Spiterstulen and Leirvassbu. Soft, comfortable walking where you could recuperate from the previous day’s exertions and dawdle as you enjoyed the views of mythological-looking peaks like Kyrkja – ‘the church steeple’ – the cloud flowing round its pointed summit cartoonishly, like dry ice.

The social side of the Norwegian mountains was a pleasure too, and nowhere was this more enjoyable than at Skogadalsbøen. Given that most of the other mountain lodges have road access (Leirvassbu and Gjendesheim even have regular bus services from Oslo via Fagernes), as a multi-day walker you can sometimes find yourself in the minority. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – and we mostly camped out anyway rather than using the lodges – but it’s always fun to swap stories with folk having the same sorts of adventures you are, and you can feel a little self-conscious when everyone around you looks immaculate on account of their suitcase full of clothes, while your own idea of ‘scrubbing up’ is to wear sandals instead of boots and a t-shirt that only has two days of wear instead of four. There are no such concerns at Skogadalsbøen. Everyone has got there on their own two feet – usually via somewhere interesting – and in the evenings you sit at long, communal tables, filling up on hearty platefuls of roasted meat and fish as you trade tales with fellow pack ponies. Rather charmingly, there was a small delay in serving the main course on the rainy night we stayed in their lovely old bunkhouse, so one of the girls who worked in the kitchen came out and gave us all a little flute recital by way of apology. Not something you see every day.

There is only one downside to Jotunheimen, and it is the inevitable one, which is that the world and his wife are all there. Footfall is heavy on all the main trails, and the pervasive road access means you never really feel like you’re getting into the back country. That said, it was only Besseggen where the crowds were really noticeable, along with the inevitable detritus of thousands of humans – plastic packets weighted down under stones, half-buried beer cans, disintegrating bog roll plastering the rock around more or less any little nook hidden from the wind, and old sanitary towels billowing ethereally in the shallows of Bessvattnet. Away from Besseggen though, the people quickly thinned out and got friendlier, and as we pitched camp the next evening, a moustachioed shepherd stopped to pass the time of day. His equipment was bodged and patched, and we could see his old brown teepee in the distance down by the edge of Russvattnet. His English vocabulary was sparse, but on learning our nationality, he was in no doubt as to the correct way to proceed.

‘You watch football? I am a Manchester United fan…’

Bessvattnet

 

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Home, James

Home-James-crop

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