What a perfect day. Last night the wispy cirrus view from the large windows of Keld Youth Hostel hinted that today might be pleasant, and it most certainly was; the sun shone all day, the clouds were few and far between and the wind never rose above a gentle breeze. As far as English summer days go, today was the business.
But beautiful weather isn't always what you want. If you're stuck in an office with no air conditioning then hot weather is a nightmare, and it's the same for walking; perfect walking weather is slightly overcast with a gentle breeze and clear views, and sunny weather is far from ideal. There's a serious risk of sunburn, you have to carry a large amount of water with you, and the heat makes climbing those hills just that little bit more exhausting. Beautiful summer days might be fantastic for lazing by the river and having picnics, but they're not that great for long hauls across the moors.
Then again, good weather beats rain every time, so don't think I'm complaining that much...
If my memory serves me correctly, the Pennine Way gets interesting for a little while after Middleton-in-Teesdale, but Middleton is still a couple of days away and the price to pay is a pretty boring passage from Swaledale to Teesdale. Last time I did this section in one day and it was too much of a strain to be any fun, so today I walked from Keld to the Youth Hostel at Baldersdale and tomorrow I've got a short hop to Middleton, a village which I remember being worth exploring.
I hated this section when I tackled it in 2000, and although I didn't hate it this time, it didn't exactly light my fire. After the really stunning scenery that started back in Malham, the trek out of Keld is disappointing. Why? Well, it's another tedious and long walk through moor, moor and more moor, and I've already had enough moor to last me a lifetime. Thankfully in weather like this, semidry moor is relatively easy to cross, though it still taxes the soul.
Last time it was very wet indeed, and I remember setting out from Tan Hill in a murky mist that sent shivers down my spine. Tan Hill is a great little pub about four miles from Keld that sports a huge wood fire and the kind of double-glazing that makes you glad it's raining on the other side of the glass. Tan Hill boasts that at 526m above sea level it is the highest pub in Great Britain, but the price it pays for this statistic is one of the most miserable settings I've ever seen in a rural pub. Sleightholme Moor stretches out to the east, a featureless and godforsaken stretch of unloved land that, of course, carries the Pennine Way away from the cosy lights of the pub, and the approach to the pub from the south crosses Black Moor and Stonesdale Moor, which are as exciting and comforting as they sound. To the north is High Greygrits, another accurately named dirge, and to the west are Wygill Rigg and Kaber Fell, more places where you're unlikely to find sane people. Tan Hill might be the highest pub in Britain, but it's also one of the loneliest.
These moors are a disaster area in wet weather but in late June they're much easier to cross. There's an alternative 'bad weather' Pennine Way route that avoids Sleightholme Moor and follows a road, and I took it back in the rainy mists of 2000. Today I stuck to the Way proper and had a hoot, because for miles on end I felt as if I was walking on a sea of sponge.
It was quite relaxing, despite the large numbers of low-flying jets shooting overhead, practising their manoeuvres among the hills of what is now County Durham (Tan Hill lies just on the Yorkshire side of the county border while Sleightholme Moor is in Durham). Noisy warplanes are a fact of life round here and they've been shooting overhead for the last few days; all I can say is that if I was a pilot and something went wrong, I'd fly my plane straight into Sleightholme Moor. I'm sure it would bounce.
Sometimes, though, there's a price to pay for miles of bouncy-castle entertainment. The moor is springy and spongy because it's still got an awful lot of moisture in there, and every now and then you come across a quagmire to test your nerves. Is that clod of mossy green grass going to hold the weight of a man with a backpack? And is that damp-looking soil actually a pit of molasses, just waiting to suck your boot off? In the lottery of the moors nothing is guaranteed, but that's where trekking sticks have transformed my bog-trotting technique. Not only are they a godsend for my weak knees when trudging uphill and careering down again – not to mention a useful way of shooing chickens away from your sandwiches – but they're perfect for poking swampy bits of marsh to see what they're made of. Sometimes the sticks come out dripping with black ooze and sometimes they don't go in at all, and on top of this early warning system you can use the sticks as jumping aids, holding them like crutches to hop over inconveniently wide rivers of boggy grot. I highly recommend them; I now think of mine as close friends.
Up and Down
Just for variety, the rest of the journey to Baldersdale crosses plenty more heathery grouse moor. After dithering around Sleightholme Beck for a while the Way crosses the River Greta at God's Bridge, a natural stone bridge that's far more impressive when there's more than a dribble in the riverbed, which is all there is in this dry summer we're having; and after God's Bridge the Way dives under the A66 before heading into North Moor and Cotherstone Moor. By this time of year the ground has hardened up and it's back to dreary, endless heather as far as the eye can see.
Not only that, but the path keeps climbing over hills and dipping into valleys before climbing over more hills and dipping into more valleys. The four miles from the A66 to Baldersdale are long and tedious and it's a huge relief to come over the top of Cotherstone Moor into Baldersdale, which is home to two large reservoirs, a smattering of buildings and some refreshingly pleasant grassland.
So I spent the afternoon relaxing in the sun at Baldersdale Youth Hostel, safe in the knowledge that the only way I'll ever return to Sleightholme and Cotherstone Moors is if I get lost during my escape from the asylum. What a relaxing thought.