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.



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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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.


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…’



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Home, James


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A return to Kielder

‘Isn’t it just a massive conifer forest?’

Well, yes, I suppose it is. But that’s doing Kielder Forest a bit of a disservice. Last month I took a long weekend to have a second nose around England’s largest man-made forest, following an earlier visit in October. I was feeling a bit beaten-down what with one thing and another, and there’s nothing gives you a lift like a few days slinking around somewhere unfamiliar with a map and a backpack.


Secrets of the forest

Once again, Kielder didn’t disappoint. It’s just so full of interest. In the course of a single day I came across a giant decapitated wooden head hidden in the trees; relics of a long-gone railway track, including a towering, slightly eerie viaduct; a striking modern observatory high on a hill, and one of James Turrell’s famous Skyspaces, which for the uninitiated is a sort of oversized, upside-down celestial version of those underwater viewers you used to make out of plastic bottles. During a brief brush with other humans, I sat with mid-morning coffee in the caff at Kielder Castle, watching a live video feed of the recently-arrived migrant ospreys pulling strips of sushi off rainbow trout from the reservoir [they have a good blog, if you’re interested].


There are moorland hilltops hidden in the forest too, and since it’s access land (and you can thus wander more or less wherever you like), I indulged in a little afternoon yomp on a compass bearing across rough, trackless heather to the trig point at Purdom Pikes. There are plenty more tops around, including a couple of Marilyns that I quite like the look of.


It’s a place where you get used to expecting the unexpected, and it is in the nature of a working forestry concern that your maps are out of date almost as soon as they’re printed. Wholesale felling can mean you get wide-reaching views when you were expecting to be hemmed in by lofty spruces, and the route you might have planned to take may well have been planted over.

Paths, tracks, and the sticky question of walking on bike trails

There is a downside to all this, in that the footpaths are frequently very ropey, if you can find them at all. The circuit round the reservoir is superb (and wheelchair-friendly, I believe), but otherwise your choice is often between sticking to the Forestry Commission vehicle tracks or toiling through clawing scrub, trees and bog with your compass out, occasionally reassured by a mouldering bridleway sign sticking wonkily out of the side of a tree. But you can’t have your cake and eat it, and in some ways it’s all part of the fun – you just have to enjoy the place for what it is. If you want to make quick progress, take the Forestry Commission tracks, and if you want an adventure, get your compass out and have a play in the woods. There are enough landmarks that it’s hard to get really lost.

In fact there’s a third option, but it’s a bit of a tricky call to make. You see, there’s actually an excellent network of tracks in Kielder Forest that most likely won’t appear on your map. They’re well-maintained, and access many beautiful and hard-to-reach areas of the forest. The snag is that they’re for mountain bikers, and have been lovingly built with a great deal of time and effort by volunteers from the Kielder Trail Reavers.

Of course you’re not going to do the trails any harm with your boots, and bikers use footpaths all the time, but equally part of the fun of downhill biking is being able to hoon down a track without slamming the brakes on to negotiate walkers. On bridleways I would take the view that bikers should expect to share the path (and indeed they do), but when they’ve gone to the considerable trouble of creating a network of purpose-built routes, I feel like they’ve probably earned the right to enjoy them freely. Mountain bikers are among the most likeable groups of outdoorsmen, and it would be a shame to interfere with their fun.

I was curious enough about the question that I emailed the forest rangers, and their response was eminently sensible. They say it’s access land, so you can go where you like, but they’d prefer walkers to avoid the bike tracks for safety reasons. According to the ranger I spoke to, ‘I think generally we would discourage pedestrians from walking on dedicated mountain bike singletrack trails, as riders may be moving at considerable speed and not expecting to encounter people on foot’.

I didn’t plan to use the bike trails, but I did occasionally explore them if they went the right way and there wasn’t any other way of getting there. I kept eyes and ears open, ready to get out of the way quickly, though in fact in the whole weekend I only saw two bikers (which probably says more about the extensive nature of the network than it does about the area’s popularity). Ultimately it’s your decision, but if you do decide to take the bike tracks, it’s worth making sure you respect the priority of the users for whom they were built.

A night in the woods

Another fine feather in Kielder’s cap is that it’s one of the few places in England where wild camping is permitted to some extent. There are twelve ‘backpacking sites’, on top of a few bothies that also lurk in the woods. It’s worth being absolutely clear that these are not ‘campsites’ with toilets and taps. They’re just little corners of forest, usually in pretty places, where you’re allowed to wild camp. There are streams nearby for water, but you’ll need to filter, sterilise or boil it. And if nature calls, you can slide off into the trees and commune with it directly.

One morning at Scotch Knowe (so called because it sits right on the border), after I’d taken the decision to wait out some persistent rain in the warmth of my tent, a passing ranger hollered over just to check I was ok. He said many of the sites were rarely used, and I think that’s a bit of a shame. True, some of them are boggy or difficult to find, but they’re there, and that’s the important thing. The forest covers a very large area, and having places to stay dotted around brings more of it within reach. You don’t have to get back to the car by the end of the day, and you can enjoy being deep in the heart of the forest at dusk and dawn.


If you want to wild camp in Kielder, you’ll need to contact the Forestry Commission at Kielder Castle for a list of sites and locations, then you just have to give them a rough itinerary in advance (they mainly just want to make sure they don’t double-book the smaller, single-pitch sites). It’s easy and they’re very flexible. Oh, and if you’re only going to try one, make it Needs Hill, on the north side of the reservoir. It’s pretty magical.

Some final thoughts

As a walker, you’re often used to being tolerated rather than welcomed, but in Kielder you get a very different feeling. The forest is full of things for you to find, spots for you to camp, and interesting routes for you to take. It’s all open access so you can roam wherever you like, and there are baited lures to hook in various tribes of outdoor enthusiasts, whether they be hikers, bikers, runners, twitchers, anglers, or stargazers. There are even tracks suitable for wheelchair users. They’re working very hard to make adventures in the outdoors more accessible and appealing for as wide a group of people as possible, and I think that’s something to be commended.

Kielder is a real playground, and I for one will definitely be back.



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Mend Our Mountains campaign extended

I noticed lately that the British Mountaineering Council’s ‘Mend Our Mountains‘ crowdfunding campaign has been extended.

It’s a nice idea to help fund repairs to our hill paths, many of which are in a bit of a bad way. Various gear and outdoor companies, national parks and even celebrities have given prizes that you can redeem in exchange for donations. People can choose to fund individual projects or to contribute towards a bigger general pot.

I donated towards one of my own local paths, the Lyke Wake Walk, on the North York Moors, and I think it’s interesting that the park rangers have chosen this particular route to improve.

The Lyke Wake Walk path

The Three Peaks Challenge of its 1970s heyday, the Lyke Wake Walk is a once wildly popular 40-mile challenge route that has rather fallen out of fashion in more recent years. But the scars across the landscape remain, and there have been so many different tracks carved out that it’s often impossible to work out which one was the original. It also doesn’t help that it crosses some very boggy terrain which doesn’t cope well with heavy footfall. In short, it’s greatly in need of some love.

It might seem odd to invest in a challenge route that’s on the wane (even though plenty of people still walk it), but there’s a lot more to the Lyke Wake than a 24-hour crusade. It covers some of the best walking on the North York Moors, and in his excellent Cicerone Guide to the area, Paddy Dillon includes it as a four-day walk, reasoning that it’s worth enjoying it for the glorious path it is rather than ‘struggling through the hours of darkness on some godforsaken moorland grind’. He writes:

‘Traditionalists may pour scorn on the notion of covering the Lyke Wake Walk in stages, but the aim is to enjoy the route and its wilderness surroundings, rather than suffer for the sake of meeting a deadline, walking through the night and seeing little of the remarkable moorland scenery.’

The original premise of the Lyke Wake was to cross the whole national park without leaving the moors – a notion which is even more valuable on a slow long-distance walk than it is on a high-mileage challenge. There’s no messing around winding through conifer plantations or dodging shirty cattle and loose dogs round the valley farms, just gorgeous, exposed moorland bimbling with stand-out views and some of the big sights of the North York Moors. You get the soaring vistas north into the Tees Valley from the moors above Great Broughton; the jutting dinosaurs’ teeth of the Wainstones; the lonely old railway track across the high moors to the isolated Lion Inn at Blakey; the Wheeldale Roman Road, and the ancient look-outs at Shunner Howe and Simon Howe. You cross heritage railways and nature reserves, tread old moorland causeways, and pass countless antique boundary stones and monuments, including the famous Lilla Cross and mysterious Blue Man i’ the Moss.

I’m firmly in camp Dillon on this one. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was walking the section that crosses Fylingdales Moor from Eller Beck Bridge. If I’d been doing the challenge proper I’d have been about 30 miles in by then, and I daresay my enjoyment of the occasion – splashing across the boggy moor then lounging under Lilla Cross in the sunshine, gazing out towards the coast with a flask of coffee and a custard doughnut – might have been considerably less pronounced. I reckon it’s definitely time we redefined the Lyke Wake as a long-distance walking path, appreciating it for the classic moorland route it is, and giving it the time and the TLC it deserves.

If anyone fancies donating a few quid to keep it nice, you can do so here.

Blue-Man-i-the-MossCarlton moor view

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Trappers and the quiet ways

The other day, taking advantage of a pocket of sunshine and a light workload, I went out for a bit of an explore. I recently got hold of the Harvey Mountain Map for the North York Moors, and it’s got some paths on it that the OS map doesn’t, so I fancied investigating. In particular, there was a snicket marked winding up through the woods from the ruin of Carter House, and it proved to be a lovely way, leading up to a grassy, neglected forest ride which in turn took me out onto a spectacular moorland track along the rim of unspoiled North Dale. The muntjacs were bold and noisy, letting me get within a few metres of them before they bounced off white-tailed, barking out their ugly alarm cries.

It was a good day. The sun beat down hot and the wind blew cold as I hooked up with the wide scar of the Lyke Wake Walk heading towards Eller Beck Bridge, followed it across swampy Fylingdales Moor to the ancient Saxon grave of Lilla Cross, then struck back across the moor, hopping the A169 and strolling down through the heather to Goathland Station. After a cuppa at the station caff, I took a 15-minute steam train ride to the shady platform at Newton Dale Halt – a request stop deep in the woods – then climbed out of the dale and back to the car. Between you and I, I may have had a little snooze on a rock by Hudson’s Cross.

At one stage during my day, crossing a fairly quiet stretch of moor, I happened upon a couple of sets of fox snares, and a Larsen crow trap with a big black bait bird bristling angrily inside. Subject to certain regulations these are perfectly legal, but you don’t often come across them – usually only at certain times of year when the gamekeepers are trying to keep the predators off the baby birds. They were an interesting reminder that these tracks I so enjoy wandering are part of a working landscape, and have been one way or another for many hundreds or even thousands of years. In a single day I walked old pony causeways, military access tracks, and paths carved out by gamekeepers, foresters and farmers (and occasionally just sheep). I passed broken-down field barns and cottages, paths that no longer lead anywhere, and stiles to tracks that have ceased to exist.

Traps aren’t a particularly attractive thing to come across, (and I recognise that many people will find the idea of them unpleasant), but they bring a sense of reality to the place which has an odd appeal. The notion that the ground you’re travelling through isn’t an archive of something that once was, but an evolving landscape full of life and death, growth and decay. Home to people and creatures who know some of its secrets.

All the same, if you’re out and about, I’d keep your dogs close.


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My Green Ribbon 2015 video

I finally got round to stitching together the GoPro footage of my two-month hike through the Swedish mountains in summer 2015.

The Green Ribbon (or ‘Gröna Bandet’) is a long-distance challenge where you walk the length of the Scandinavian mountain range, travelling in either direction between Grövelsjön in the south and Treriksröset in the north. If you do it in the winter then it’s known as the White Ribbon. In total it took me 56 days, and the distance came in at around 1395km. If you’re interested, you can find lots more stuff under the Green Ribbon category tag.

Clearly I have not missed my vocation as a cameraman (or a video editor, for that matter), but the mountains are pretty and you can enjoy the spectacle of me transforming slowly into an increasingly deranged-looking ginger Brian Blessed.


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Blencathra, and some thoughts on fells

Last week my brother and I conducted a quick raid on the Lake District. Our window of opportunity was short (only one full day), but the north eastern area of the Lakes is actually pretty accessible from the east coast. Once you’ve put Scotch Corner in your mirrors, it’s a joyful leap across the expansive North Pennines on the A66, and as you start to see the Lakeland fells cresting in the distance you already feel better about life.

Christian fancied a potter up Blencathra, so I’d booked us into Gill Head Farm campsite near Troutbeck for a couple of nights. The camping field looked out squarely on our target, with tantalising views across its severe cliffs, the rocky gills burrowing up its face, and a ridge to take your breath away. I hadn’t walked up it since a sunny day on a scout camp in the summer of 1999.

Fish and chips from a van and a few pints of Cumberland Ale in the Troutbeck Inn, then an early bed, with the rain and wind battering the old two-man hike tent that I’ve had since I was sixteen. Spring may have arrived, but apparently no-one has told Cumbria, and I wriggled from my sleeping bag in the morning to find the flysheet frozen stiff, the cars covered with ice, and Blencathra up above us smeared white with fresh snowfall. I love icy early mornings, and once I’d got the Trangia stoves lit, I sat out in a heavy overshirt, sipping scalding hot tea and heating a couple of tins of that slightly obscene, luminous orange ‘all-day breakfast’ that always reminds me of our winter Coast to Coast crossing back in late 2007. The game is to see if you can find the one or two tiny mushrooms hidden among the powdery sausages and the bizarre yet savoury clumps of oats and egg.

We started with a muddy tramp across the valley in half-hearted rain, then a steep, breathless climb up a narrow track past a sign that said ‘NO PATH’ in weathered, long-ignored letters, pausing momentarily for me to get grouchy about some hikers in the distance who didn’t bother putting their dog on a lead even after it started chasing the fell sheep. Before we knew it we were up in the snow, with the cloud swirling around us, occasionally clearing to reveal the sunshine breaking across the valley below as the rain slunk off to bother someone else. Up on the top of the fell, there was a sense of elation among the few other walkers we ran into, all of whom had set out on a relatively grim morning and found themselves climbing into what might as well have been a completely different day.

Standing high on a mountain ridge never gets old, and being up on Blencathra reminded me of a passage from Travels with Charley, where old Steinbeck discovers that he’s driven too far and too fast.

‘And I sat in the seat and faced what I had concealed from myself. I was driving myself, pounding out the miles because I was no longer hearing or seeing. I had passed my limit of taking in or, like a man who goes on stuffing in food after he is filled, I felt helpless to assimilate what was fed in through my eyes. Each hill looked like the one just passed. I have felt this way in the Prado in Madrid after looking at a hundred paintings – the stuffed and helpless inability to see more.’

Thing is, this doesn’t happen when you’ve got your boots on. It’s a feeling we’ve all had at one time or another, but in all the years crossing fells and moors, I’ve never experienced it when I’ve been out walking. The novelty has never worn off, and maybe it’s because the sights and sensations don’t come easily. It’s not a question of taking three steps to the next painting, or sitting with your foot on the floor while the road spools ahead of you. Mountain walking in particular is a sort of crescendo. As you climb, the views get more spectacular each time you stop and look, until finally you’re up high on the ridge and there’s nothing more to do but to take your time and enjoy it. The effort of getting there makes it all the sweeter once you do.

As Christian and I are fond of saying to one another, ‘let us not be worms’.


blencathra-2 blencathra-3 blencathra-4


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Nelly Ayre Foss

A few weeks ago, while I was catting around on the internet for information about Biggersdale Hole, I came across a mention of a waterfall near Goathland called Nelly Ayre Foss.

A former spa village, Goathland is perennially popular thanks to its alter ego as Aidensfield in blue-rinse classic, Heartbeat, and its railway station’s cameo as Hogsmeade in the Harry Potter films. In terms of waterfalls, it’s well known for the tumbling waters of Mallyan Spout, and to a lesser extent Thomason Foss in the charismatic little hamlet of Beck Hole. But I’d never heard of Nelly Ayre.

My mum was visiting last weekend, and with the sun shining, we set out on Sunday morning to see if we could track Nelly down. Our timing wasn’t brilliant, since the narrow lanes of the Esk Valley were choked with trippers hoping to get a photo of the legendary Flying Scotsman as it plied the North York Moors Railway for a few days. Not that you could blame anyone for wanting to take themselves somewhere pretty on such a glorious morning, and in fact the crowds were all clustered around the railway and the pubs, leaving the moors themselves fairly quiet.

Turns out Nelly Ayre Foss is not the most accessible of places, but in many ways that adds to its charm. I reckon the best way is to head south-west out of Goathland past the Mallyan Spout Hotel, then at the roundabout take the track that goes straight on (not the one up over the hill), skirting the edge of the moor parallel to Hunt House Road. Of course you could just take the road (in which case you would go right at the roundabout, then take the left fork at Hunt House Road, being careful not to go too far – if you pass Hunt House itself then you’ve overshot it), but it’s nice to get a bit of a view over towards Castle Hill and evocatively-named Murk Mire Moor. When you’re a short way past the road switchback and buildings at New Wath, you can then cut down to your right, crossing Hunt House Road and making for the wall of a sheepfold. It doesn’t much matter where you hit the wall, since you just turn left and follow it to its end, then turn the corner down towards the valley floor. By now you should be able to hear the foss (which, by the way, is a corruption of ‘force’, and is a pretty standard local term for a waterfall).

From there it’s a little bit of a scramble, with a steep bank to slither down whichever way you elect to come at it. A massive stick might help (or not).


Your reward, however, is a thoroughly lovely spot – secluded, airy and beautiful. A relatively wide, gentle foss with good ledges for sitting and swinging your legs as you tackle a cup of coffee and a piece of shortbread. What’s especially nice is to compare an 1872 drawing of Nelly Ayre Foss by Edmund Marriner Gill (courtesy of the British Museum) to the pictures I took last weekend. The trees have grown a bit, and it looks like he had a bit more water coming over than we did, but in a changing world, Nelly Ayre is more or less as he left it 140 years ago.



nelly-ayre-foss-3[Note: A good way to see the waterfalls round Goathland is to put together a circuit taking in Nelly Ayre, Mallyan Spout and Thomason Foss, with obligatory refreshments at the wonderful Birch Hall Inn. Be warned however that the beckside path between New Wath and Mallyan Spout is very eroded, to the point where it can be quite difficult going. The local authorities have provided an alternative path which runs a little higher up the side of the valley, and if you’re at all unsteady on your pins (or not wearing stout boots) then this might be a better option.]

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