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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe … Part 14

The pace of the day is just right. I couldn’t go any faster if I tried. Eight hours to do thirty five miles would be reasonably impressive if I were on foot. On a bicycle it is pedestrian.

It’s the gentle workout to get the stiffness out of my legs, it’s the consolidation of yesterday’s overdone effort and it is a very strong case for starting quietly and building up slowly rather than destroying yourself on the first day and suffering for the next three.


The compensation is the scenery. It is beyond wonderful and the slower pace allows more time to enjoy it. I’ve always come down on the side of the North York Moors as my favourite northern national park but Upper Wharfedale in late July puts a strong case for perfection. The almost perfect river valley, the limestone outcrops, the scattered villages, the dry stone walls, the flanks of the hills, the cloud shadow patterns, the sheep and the cars. Ah yes, that’s what keeps the scene mortal. Walkers and canoeists would have the better of it. A more unspoilt landscape, but this isn’t the place to wander lonely. There’s another queue of North Face  and Goretex and Zamberlan and Karrimor up ahead in the startling colours of hikers. There might be more peace on the tops, but down here the footpaths are not short of feet. Hikers were the original country rebels, organising mass trespasses of Kinder Scout wearing old corduroys and a jumper knitted by Auntie Flo. Stout footwear was called for in the fifties. It didn’t have to be branded, it didn’t matter much if it were boot or shoe, the important thing is that it were stout. This was the only adjective allowed for walking gear. It was also “stout’s” only etymological venture beyond tubby people and dark ale.


These trail blazers wouldn’t be seen dead spending a day’s wage on an anorak, certainly not in green and purple, and would scoff at putting on boots and a pair of gaiters to walk a few miles across dry fields in summer. I can’t imagine what they’d say if they saw a group of kitted out ramblers sashaying towards them with double walking sticks. In my own view; if you want to walk that fast and see that little use a treadmill in the gym and leave a little more peace and quiet for those of a more sedate pace.


Having missed out on Appletreewick, I have no intention of missing Grassington. I’d planned a camping holiday up here with a group of friends after taking O levels in 1975. I’d also borrowed and crashed a car. I was somewhat shaken by the experience, given that I couldn’t drive and it had taken me fifteen miles to find a wall I couldn’t avoid. The car was a write-off. While my friends enjoyed the bucolic pleasures of the dales, the hit and miss success at being served in pubs and the equally hit and miss attempts to practice courtship, I spent my summer selling petrol and filling a post office book with the cost of a mini. This was my chance to make up for it.

It’s downright lovely to look at. The architects of the old days knew how to build to suit the area. Thick walls and narrow windows keep out the cold, hold out the heat of summer and stand the test of time. The school is achingly perfect. Laurie Lee could have gone here if only it were in Gloucestershire. They even have netball poles rather than the obligatory basketball court. I imagine they play hop scotch and boys chase each other in those pointless chasing games that boys play and girls do complex clapping games with words that turn out to be a good deal ruder than you’d expect.


I prop my bicycle up in what seems to be the square, buy my second ice cream of the day at the Post Office and sit for half an hour on a bench under a sycamore. It’s busy, it’s touristy, but it’s coping quite nicely.

The local grey stone gives the place its signature. The absence of PVC doors and windows gives it a grace and beauty that respects previous generations who had the sense to establish a settlement here. If I’d lived fifty years earlier, I could happily have settled myself.

As I close in on Kettlewell I begin to recognise places. This was my very last job as relief warden for the YHA. I’d got myself a place to study English and Philosophy at Manchester and handed in my notice. I had to work a full month and was happy to do so. The regional secretary did some sums, worked out that because I was owed days off in lieu for working through weekends and bank holidays, I only had a week left to work. She said, take three weeks off and then go to Kettlewell for a week. I enjoyed the three weeks thoroughly but enjoyed the week in Kettlewell even more.

Kilnsey Crag is almost too spectacular. You take it as a fine cliff face until you begin to cycle under it at which point you realise just how massive it is. There are a few tiny rock climbers up there. There are always rock climbers on Kilnsey Crag. They let you sense the overwhelming size of it. Wordsworth walked up Wharfedale. It was sights like this monstrous rock that allowed him and his nature loving pals to define the idea of the sublime where beauty and fear come together to give an insight into the truth.

The last section into the village of Kettlewell is the first bit of downhill I can remember since dropping off the edge of Ilkley Moor. I’ve come far enough.


It’s one of those memory games. For thirty years I haven’t thought much of the layout of the village. My memories are all of people. But, as soon as I turn right, I not only recognise the street, but also know what I’m going to see as I go around each corner. The youth hostel is smaller than I remember it. It also has a large party of squawky young people outside. The man behind the counter, which now doubles as a post office tells me he’s got one bed left in a big dormitory. I contemplate the boastful and inconsiderate noises coming from the correctly attired youth outside and decline. He tells me that Hawes is also full. This is immaterial. I know the hill between Kettlewell and Hawes and if they’d been offering free bed and board with Penelope Cruz I wouldn’t have been interested.

I call in at The King’s Head. It’s peaceful and friendly and local. They do bed and breakfast. A girl shows me the rooms. At £65 for a couple with breakfast, it’s probably the going rate. To charge a single the same is a little mean, I think. I don’t have much energy for haggling, and being in desperate need of rest, have little bargaining power. I accept and let the landlord lock my bicycle up in a shed across the road. The room has a reasonable shower. I stand under it for a while. It doesn’t feel too special. If only they’d had a bath, I would have found the £65 a bargain.