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.


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.


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’.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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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.


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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.


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A million 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.


*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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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.


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.


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.


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.


*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.



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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