The other week, as I stood atop Simon Howe on a clear, sunny morning, I looked across at the distinct hump of Blakey Topping in the distance and thought ‘that will be my next target’. Somehow this translated into a moderately uncomfortable misadventure in thick fog and drizzle last Saturday, but the most enjoyable escapades in life aren’t always the most successful.
The trouble with Blakey Topping is that, despite the flat-topped mound being clearly visible from miles around, it’s a bit of a devil to get to*. When you look at it on the OS map, there’s only really one track that goes anywhere near it, and even that seems to skirt round its foot rather than going up onto the top.
On the ground, this is compounded by the fact that the paths in the area east of Hazelhead Moor are not perhaps as excellently maintained and signposted as those in other areas of the national park, and in fact you won’t find any signs to Blakey Topping at all.
As an additional warning, the farmers at Newgate Foot do not appear to be massive fans of walkers. The first public footpath I tried to follow was blocked by bulls, and when I finally did find my way down a bracken-choked trail to what I thought was the right path, I bumped into the farmers themselves. I asked them if it was the right way to Blakey Topping (I could see that it was, but it wasn’t signposted and it went through their farmyard, so I was really only asking out of courtesy), and they looked at me suspiciously then mumbled sourly that they didn’t know.
Then again, it doesn’t do to pass judgement too quickly. If we’re going to share the countryside then there are responsibilities on all sides. It must be frustrating trying to make your living from the land when there are strangers tramping round on it all the time, and a few minutes later, as I climbed the other side of the valley, I heard the distant sound of the farmer screaming and swearing (I’m pretty sure I caught the magnificent phrase ‘what fuck yer doin’, yer flash bastard’). Looking down, I saw another hiker strolling nonchalantly through a sloping meadow full of stock to the west of the farm, while his dog, inexplicably off the lead, tore around the field chasing the sheep. I guess if they have to deal with this calibre of fool on a regular basis then you can hardly blame them for not rolling out the red carpet.
Blakey Topping is owned by the National Trust, but it seems like they’ve forgotten it’s there. When I arrived at the boundary fence, there was a welcoming sign, but the gate was stuck shut. Nevertheless, there was a clear track up through the bracken, and I finally made it to the top just in time to take in the views before the fog began to smudge them out.
The rest of the afternoon was similarly disjointed, and I spent a lot of time getting lost, but with the security of a GPS to get me back on track if I needed it, I actually had a lot of fun. Langdale Forest was hauntingly still and beautiful in the damp, and by the time I emerged onto the moors again at the colourful, somehow otherworldly-looking wetlands of May Moss Marsh, the fog had closed in thick and impenetrable.
So long as you can navigate and make yourself suitably warm and waterproof, the moors hold no demons in weather like this, and though you lack the views, the fact that your world is reduced to a matter of metres seems to heighten your ability to observe the detail of your immediate surroundings. Your other senses feel sharpened too, and you feel like you can tell how the invisible land lies around you by the way the wind comes colder or stronger from one direction or another, the distant sounds of roads or the humming servers at Fylingdales air base, or the faintest of shadows up ahead in the whiteness.
Apart from anything else, it’s a rare day when you can see better without your specs than you can with them on. We four-eyed fellows have to enjoy these opportunities when we can.
*Appropriate enough, since legend says Blakey Topping was created by the devil himself. According to my book of Yorkshire folklore (Kai Roberts, 2013), the devil scooped up a big handful of earth, creating the Hole of Horcum in the process, and took aim to throw it at Scarborough. At just the wrong moment, he was dazzled by the light glinting off the ancient stone cross at Lilla Howe, and dropped his vast clod of soil, which became Blakey Topping.