31 May Backbone? My foot! Crossing the Pennines
They call this the backbone of England, here, just east of Kirkby Stephen, where our C2C route crosses the great watershed of England, the west/east divide, the Pennines. Hmmm – this is one soft, spongy, spine. England’s backbone is a great big bog. Believe me, I’m a Scot, and we know a thing or two about bogs.
Today, unlike previous crossings on our last two C2C odysseys, England’s bog was benign, yielding but not soggy, a soothingly springy pathway that was mostly a delight underfoot after days of hard core stone trails. We took the high route, climbing up to the Nine Standards Rigg, a hilltop series of nine towers, irregularly shaped and seemingly without purpose. Who knows why they’re there or who put them there, but there they are, so up we climbed. A north wind blew its brutish blast mostly into our faces, so we didn’t linger long to contemplate these strange cairn-like structures. Long enough, however, to see a couple of the runners (yes, I do mean runners) pass us on their way in the C2C race. The leader started out at St Bee’s at 10 am yesterday morning. And now, a mere 24 hours later, as we trudged up to the Rigg on our Day 8, he had already passed us! This is beyond imagining physically, let alone mentally. Superhuman and completely bonkers – you’d have to be both.
Once you’ve done wondering what on earth the Nine Standards are, given up on the idea and decided to move on, it’s a long, long hike down from their windswept summit but it was surprisingly easy today given the conditions underfoot. This high route is not to be missed; the real highlight is not those nine trumped up cairns at all! It’s the descent, the slow, steady walk across England’s great emptiness. Up there, you have a sense of aloneness and desolation that overpowers. It’s the kind of place you love to have to yourself for a while, but you would hate to be out there on your own. Bleak beyond bleak. Even the sheep don’t come here; the tufts of coarse grass that blow horizontally in the whipping wind and the bog asphodel that waves its fluffy white beard are all that’s on offer. It’s magnificent in its spareness, its featureless-ness, especially on a day like today when the grey sky seemed to loom so heavy and so close to the land.
This was Day 8. 16 miles walked today and our journey is about halfway done. The aches and the anxieties have subsided and we’re in the rhythm that this glorious walk instils in you. Each day holds the pleasure of reaching our next destination and the regret that we’ve left the last. So many mixed emotions.
We’ve reached Muker, a tiny village in one of the most beautiful sections of the route, fabulous Swaledale – whence, more soon. We have the landlady from heaven in Sheila, who has seized our laundry and whisked it through the machine, hung it out to dry and installed us in a fabulous room with a view to the meadows, the river and some of Swaledale’s extraordinary shepherds’ huts. Bliss does not come better than this.