A Journey into Scotland Part 67
From Osmotherley to Malton
Fancy there being two Osmotherleys in the north of England. The first is an area in the Furness Fells where I spent the happiest period of my childhood. The only people I ever heard refer to it as Osmotherley were my mother and a police inspector investigating a murder there. The other Osmotherley is better known for its key position in Britain’s network of long-distance footpaths. (Today actually marks the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the very first one: The Pennine Way). Osmotherley is the setting off point or destination (and sometimes both) for the Lyke Wake Walk: the only one of the long distance paths that has to be completed against the clock. The forty miles of North York Moorland between there and Ravenscar, on the coast, has to be covered in less than 24 hours. I’ve done it once, and it’s a fair challenge.
About eight of us set out on a winter’s night in 1981. Half of these (and I’m afraid I was one of them) had spent the day drinking in The Spotted Cow in Malton and we were almost certainly in no condition. The landlord was so convinced that we’d fail that he said that if we made it back into the pub before closing time the next day the drinks were on the house. We had transport and back-up from one hostel warden while the other joined us on the walk.
A strange bunch we made. Experienced mountain leaders, enthusiastic hikers, occasional dog-walkers, a lighthouse keeper and a member of staff’s boy-friend who dressed like a nineteenth century preacher apart from his plimsolls. Oh, and a bearded collie called Hermit. At first it was chilly, then icy. We marched up steps that had been constructed to stop the footpath eroding the moor. It felt like cheating until it kept on going up and up and up.
Streams were frozen enough to make getting over them fairly straight-forward. It was the scrambling up the shiny icy bank on the far side that took all the effort. By moonlight the countryside was magical. The beer continued to serve for bravado and fuel as the night progressed and the footpath followed a long stretch of disused mineral railway. With dawn came the cold and the first of the cramps. We kept going. That’s the way to do the Lyke Wake. Pain is temporary: achievement is permanent. The two strongest walkers were among the previous day’s boozers which was something of a leveller. We kept to a steady pace.
With daylight came warmth. Not a great amount of it but enough to melt the frost and open up the bogs. There were well-equipped walkers in 1981 but we weren’t among them. There were some fleece jackets, an occasional Helly Hanson label but we were of the pull-your-socks-over-your-Levis and put on a thick pullover school of walkers. The distracted preacher had never done anything like this before but used his spiritual gifts to glide effortlessly over boggy ground that had the rest of us floundering. His flimsy plimsolls more than a match for the stoutest walking boot.
There were a few fallings out. A male walker (not me) questioned a female walker’s endurance and found she still had the energy to leave him counting his blessings. I suffered the savagest attack of cramp, in my living memory, on a rest stop somewhere near Wheeldale that had me muttering invective against the idiots who had suggested this walk. (I think I was one of them as well).
The huge early warning system golf balls of the American base on Fylingdales Moor were greeted as the beginning of the end. “The last moor,” someone said. It was a bloody long last moor if it was indeed the last. I remember a hillside that jarred every muscle in my, by then, very tired body. It descended to a beck called Jugger Howe and it managed the clever trick of throwing you down while sinking you in marsh and reeds at the same time. The lighthouse keeper just kept on smiling in his Trinity House issue jacket and shoes. The preacher looked like he was walking across a carpet. Everybody’s legs had become coated in every stain of soil between Goathland and Brown Hill Wood. Except that is, the preacher whose white football socks still looked like they’d just been used in a Daz advertisement.
We reached the end as dusk fell. Tempers recovered. Some of us slept in the mini-bus and some of us just didn’t feel like talking.
There was still a good couple of hours’ supping time as we entered the Spotted Cow and the landlord was as good as his word: called us silly buggers but poured out glasses of ale. The serious walkers (and drinkers) tucked in. I had nothing left. My pint took nearly an hour after which I walked home and slept for the next fourteen.
Osmotherley was about to have the same effect upon me six years later. I arrived from a gentle cycle across the floodplain of the Tees. I was fit and I had about forty miles of my journey to go. As in 1981 my ultimate destination was to get to Malton. As in 1981 I had under-estimated the challenge of the North York Moors. I got to Malton but it took an awful lot more effort than I had anticipated.
There are no high peaks on the North York Moors. The highest point is less than 1500 feet above sea level. By the same token, there are very few flat sections. The Lyke Wake has a long stretch of disused railway but most of the time you find that, for every half hour you spend grunting up a steep slope, (and the slopes are very steep indeed – many North York roads are of a much steeper gradient than the Alpine slopes you see cyclists struggle up annually on the Tour de France), you know that before long you are going to be down at valley level again. Until, that is, you get out onto the moors proper. These can stretch for miles of heather and gorse and bog.
The day was running out of light and I had the choice of keeping right on to the town where I’d spent a happy year, or to settle for stopping at the next Bed and Breakfast. To be fair it was a challenge I was enjoying. There is something glorious about reaching a state of tiredness where you simply don’t want to stop.
The light, the silence and the solitude around Hawnby was something I will always remember. I may have been weary but I wasn’t immune to the staggering beauty of the place. I’ve spent a great deal of time in most of England’s National Parks and the Moors are my favourite.
Helmsley was getting ready for a quiet night in. I’d cycled between there and Malton on many occasions. But somehow the distance between the towns had grown. I was basically following the River Rye to the Derwent (yet another Derwent!). It should, by the laws of rivers, be mostly downhill. It didn’t feel that way. Through Hovingham and skirting the grounds of Castle Howard as dusk descended. I had no lights and nowhere else I could stop. Instead of wanting to keep going it had changed to having to keep going.
It was good to see my friend Grat again. The hostel was looking a deal sprucer than in my day and was busy with walkers and fellow cyclists. I rated the warden as the best in the region. I’d been the area relief and had divided my time between being based here and being based in Haworth. I’d seen how all the other hostels were run and this was the best one there was. For the night I was there it was like old times. I had my old room back. I ate heartily and we even ended up having a pint or two in the Spotted Cow. Some folk looked exactly the same. Others had changed from leather jacketed rockers to be-suited executives. The beer was still the best in the county.
I’d completed a tour of most of the first twenty-five years of my life. I’d begun near the house where I was born and pedalled up to the very north of Scotland to where I started school. Malton was the last place I’d worked before going off to university as a mature student. The only place on my map of the north I still had to visit was Huddersfield and that was on the agenda for tomorrow.