PYW - In search of Black Sheep in Wensleydale

Thanks to Debbie’s excellent organisation, 14 members of PYW found themselves in Hawes, Wensleydale on Good Friday 2007 eagerly anticipating the 52 miles of the rectangular Herriot Way that lay in front of us.  Her order for good weather came up trumps and a collection of white winter legs were uncovered for the first sunshine of spring. 

Our first day saw us walking 13 miles from Hawes to Aysgarth on the (easy) “Valley Day” leg of the trip.  Heading straight to the falls at Hardraw Force, our first short sharp incline followed, always a shock for hardened fenland walkers.  The path wended its way across numerous stiles (or narrow gaps in the stone walls) that became more interesting to negotiate as the day went on.  The ahh factor of all the new born lambs could be heard ringing through the group and we wondered how long it would take for us not to notice them anymore - we wouldn’t know until later that the lambs got cuter as the weekend progressed.  We even came across a new born lamb that was just taking its first steps and desperately trying to find the milk from its mum with a lot of assistance. 

After a short lunch stop at the waterfall at Mill Gill, we wandered down into the luxurious team rooms of Askrigg, although some of the group wisely diverted to the pub that was the setting for All Creatures Grunt and Smell, sorry that should be Great and Small.  John “2 Scones” Rose made the most of the homemade selection providing strong competition for our resident cake addict, Gordon.  The afternoon was an easy walk along the river valley to the evening stop at Aysgarth.  Mind you there should be a handbook for new ramblers on how to check out their rest spots, as Kirsty managed to upset a red ant’s nest who defended their carefully chosen patch well and resulted in the first call on Dr John’s talents!

The final steep hill of the day required a quick watering stop at the pub for the evening, the George and Dragon, until half of the group were transported by Chris Ewebank (the sheep theme continues) aka Colin MacRae in his Subaru Impreza estate, to his bed and breakfast 2 miles away.   Whilst the meal was lovely the puddings were amazing, with the Crème Brulee declared as the best ever by Louise who wasn’t willing to share any of it with her new found friends.   Note 2 for handbook: never get between a PYW and a nice pudding or cake!

On Saturday we woke up to yet more sunshine (surely this can’t be Yorkshire in April) to start the 12 miles from Aysgarth to Grinton Youth Hostel with morning stops at Aysgarth Falls and Bolton Castle before heading up on to the moors.  It was easy to see why this was called “History Day” in the guide books from the domineering castle which could be seen from our starting point off into the distance to the industrial lead working relics high on the moors.   We crossed dangerous fords - well there were warning signs but with the dry winter it didn’t even reach our ankles.  In the meantime, Kirsty and Roger had to back track slightly when Kirsty noticed that she was without the trekking pole that was in her hands as we passed a field of highland cattle a couple of miles back.  Note 3 for handbook: always check rest stops for left luggage.

The first real climb up on to the moors soon burnt off the ice creams and cakes of Bolton Castle but the views on a sunny day were more than worth it.  A lunch stop near a stream meant that Roger and Brian couldn’t wait to strip their shoes and socks off to lose the feeling in their feet in the freezing water while everyone else watched and laughed. 

Our afternoon horseshoe walk involved us in bog-tramping when the walk guide advised us to turn right at a line of grouse butts but with no discernable path to be found.  Mind you the official referee map-reader, Jane, made sure we were on track at all times.  The long walk back towards Grinton was like the search for Brigadoon after a tiring, hot day with everyone hoping the next village would be ours.  So under these circumstances why on earth would I accept the challenge from Stephen to race to the top of the next hill - yeah you tell me!  I think the rest of the group behind us thought we’d gone mad from the sun.  Allegedly some of our group even lost their sense of humour when they realised the five villages they could see weren’t anywhere near the one we needed to get to - ok so it wasn’t some of the group - Stephen said I should name and shame Kirsty!

Finally the well hidden youth hostel came into sight and even better was all down hill at the end of the day.  Yet again in a bid to quench our thirst we emptied reception of their collection of local horse named ales - mind you when Paul said he was a Stallion, the receptionist thought he was more of a Stud!  Following a chaotic but tasty meal, boys v girls on Trivial Pursuit was the entertainment for the evening.  You can see why Sarah and Stephen had a competitive games evening for their wedding reception as opposing captains.  The only reason the boys won was because of their honorary boy knowing most of the answers - but we’ll keep that quiet.  All rumours of a party taking place in one of the girl’s dormitories later on in the evening really weren’t true.

Note 4 for handbook: always make sure you hand the hotel/hostel room key back on departure - the culprits know who they are!   

Easter Sunday started bright and early with a short walk into the shops of Reeth which we emptied of food and newspapers as well as the ubiquitous toilet stop before heading back-country on the way to Keld, 14 miles away on the “Water Day”.  The uncovered legs of the start were soon back in their long trousers as the head wind took its toll, but our seasoned long distance walkers Brian and Karen kept the faith all the way with their wind lashed knees. 

After spending some time looking for an “unusual niche” in the dry stone wall (whatever that might be!) we found a lovely sunny spot where Louise’s Easter bunny found us and delivered eggs.  If only we’d known that shortly afterwards we were going extreme with a path teetering on the edge of a long drop with fallen trees to be scrambled over.  Our route took us from the lush valley up on to the lunar landscape of the moor tops.  When the guide book stated as “no path down a steep descent”, Jane’s research on the Internet had advised finding an alternative route.  So never ones to be deterred, we took the unmarked extreme route of scree scrambling, but once you start you know you just can’t stop.  Our resident knight in shining armour, Sir Roger, escorted our knee-damaged damsel in distress down the strenuous drop.  Brian’s hip flask full of sloe gin was the main reason for the rest of us racing down. 

Note 5 for handbook: always ask the Coast to Coast experts within the group about their previous dodgy experience on the same section of path before you decide what route to take, especially with lots of sore knees! 

The final slog of the day up and down valleys ended up at the beautiful waterfalls at Keld and the newly refurbished ex-Youth Hostel where Whale and Chips seemed to be the choice of the evening. 

So up and at it for the final 13 miles back to Hawes on the View Day (ha ha).  Unfortunately we lost 2 of the group to supposed stomach problems, but I think they’d had a sneaky look at the highest ascent we’d be tackling during the trip and the dodgy weather heading our way.  The easy start over to morning tea at Thwaite would be the last luxury we would see for the day.  

The slow climb up Great Shunner Fell started well but with a mile to go to the top the cloud descended and the wind speed increased so we looked like a little bunch of huddled penguins at 716 metres for the traditional photo shoot, not that you can see who anyone is.  It’s the first time we’ve sat in a peat ditch for lunch and had speed stops for food just to keep out of the weather.   Whilst there weren’t any views over the moors, the wildlife provided interest along the way.  The bogs at the top were full of toads which had a habit of jumping on the stone path when you least expected it.  Finally, as we dropped out of the cloud, the view over Hawes valley was a really welcome sight.  The problem is no matter how long the walk, it’s the last few miles that always seem the longest.  As there had been a vague mention of some refreshment at the end of the walk as a reward, all that could be heard from the back of the group is “Where is the ****** pub?”

So after 52 miles and not a minute too late, we finally found the Black Sheep we’d been looking for rather than the cute little lambs that had been with us all the way.  With glass safely in hand we raised a toast to a brilliant weekend of walking in stunning scenery and very un-Yorkshire like weather.  Thanks Debs for yet another cracking PYW Grand Day (or Four) Out.  Pass the Wensleydale cheese Grommit….