Robert Pimm hits the footpath and discovers timeless, unspoiled beauty over each worn stile
Financial Times, January 29 2005
The ruins of the priory are spectacular. Sharp-edged stonework soars from pastures perforated by ancient tombs. We climb alongside the river Wharfe, the warm wood of the stiles and kissing-gates worn smooth by countless hands. Beech and ash cast dappled shadows across the chocolate-coloured water. Beneath the trees, the boulders by the river are grey and cool. Beyond, the stone of the farm buildings climbing the dales on either side glows in the sunlight.
By the time we reach Burnsall village and relax in the sophisticated haven of the Glebe Barn bed and breakfast, we’ve walked our first 14 miles, deep into the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Another 67 miles of pleasure lie ahead.
Widespread belief holds that a stunning holiday must involve an exotic destination or an exorbitant price tag. As falling airfares wash up new tides of would-be adventurers on ever more distant shores, yesterday’s exclusive locations have become today’s bargain basement specials. But if the idea of giving your brain and body a workout on vacation doesn’t strike you as a contradiction in terms, that spectacular holiday sits on your doorstep.
In each of the last two summers, our family has walked a long-distance footpath in England. These excursions reveal a forgotten country: where trains run on time, people are friendly, beer is delicious and villages have barely changed for centuries. It isn’t so much an England that’s vanished, but an England most of us – both within and outside the UK – are too busy to see.
The Dales Way, from Ilkley in Yorkshire to Bowness in Cumbria, is the ideal walk for beginners. The 81-mile track climbs gently along the valley of the Wharfe through the Yorkshire Dales to the vast horizons of Oughtershaw Moor, the watershed between the North Sea and the Irish Sea. Then it follows the Dee, the Rawthey and the Lune in a steady descent to Bowness. This is top-of-the-world walking: open landscapes, dramatic gorges and isolated farmsteads.
The South West Coast Path is tougher and darker: a corrugated concatenation of cliffs, coves, beaches and bays with the silver sea forever at your side: edge-of-the-world walking. The whole footpath is 630 miles long: we walked the first 76 miles along the coast of North Somerset and Devon from Minehead to Instow.
What these walks have in common is the astonishing quality of experience. You’re in charge of your day, responsible for picking a path through some of the most luscious scenery on the planet. Each farm gate is a different metal puzzle. Each fork in the route holds out the prospect of a catastrophic wrong turn or the satisfaction of finding your way. In the first mile of each day, tired muscles and aching feet remind you of the challenge. A warm bath or a round of refreshments in the evening triggers euphoria at what you’ve achieved and contentment that your holiday is healthy, cheap and ecologically impeccable.
The contrast between English towns and English countryside is hard to exaggerate. The countryside is breathtaking. Sometimes it’s spectacular, like the great granite mass of Exmoor, jutting to a halt against the sea in a cascade of cliffs, heather and dry-stone walls. Sometimes it’s sublime, like the gorges of lower Wharfedale with their mirror-smooth water and limestone curves reminiscent of the sculpted elegance of Henry Moore.
Man’s impact on the landscape has been mellowed by time. A single tree bears three Bradford City Anglers’ Association signs of increasing antiquity, each overgrown with bark and overrun with gum. At a wobbly pedestrian suspension crossing, a plaque commemorates “the centenary of the opening of the bridge, built by Hebden blacksmith William Bell, on September 26th 1885”. As we pause atop a rock knoll known as Conistone Pie to admire the view, the sun breaks through dark clouds to highlight swards of grass and limestone outcrops. Ahead lies the valley with a furrow heading north, then west. We’re walking across England.
The villages are beautiful, too. In the gardens of the thatched cottages of Bossington in Somerset, flowers spill in every direction. Goats loll in a yard stacked with bales of hay. Our farmhouse bed and breakfast is 420 years old. Behind it, a lane leads to the beach: a glistening curve of pebbles hemmed in by the bright green hills of Exmoor. Kettlewell, in Upper Wharfedale, was mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086. Now it’s home to a handful of pretty limestone dwellings, three pubs and an annual scarecrow festival. In the Blue Bell Inn, dating from 1680, we wait for the youth hostel to open by enjoying a pint of Theakston’s Old Peculier: one of those beers that is so dense you seem to eat it rather than drink it. The Village Store was built in 1876 from stone taken from an old mill. It looks as if it opened yesterday.
English towns, by contrast, seem designed to highlight the merits of the countryside. Minehead is tacky and resolutely suburban, with a giant Butlins at one end of a seafront that features an amusement arcade called Merlin and a fish-and-chip shop called Jaws. Kendal by night teems with tarty teenagers, spilling out of pubs beneath signs prohibiting drinking in the street. At the end of the Dales Way, Bowness is a caricature of bank holiday madness, crowds overflowing the pavements onto roads jammed with gridlocked traffic. We’re fascinated to see a procession of brightly turbanned, bagpipe-playing Sikhs escort a holy man in a wheelchair along the promenade at Lake Windermere, surrounded by a police escort and sari-clad acolytes. But the chaos all around makes me long for the solitude of the uplands.
Not that the countryside is perfect. West of Cam Fell, the Dales Way follows the path of the Cam High Road, built by the Romans in the 1st century AD at a time when brigands held sway over northern England. Now, four-wheel-drive enthusiasts desperate to demonstrate the size of their engines have gouged a deep furrow along the route. Isolated farmsteads, whether in Yorkshire or Devon, range from rundown junkyards to gentrified mansions. But for the independent tourist, the English countryside works like a dream. Buses arrive on schedule, bed and breakfasts are clean and friendly if expensive, and youth hostels provide massive meals (“anyone for more apple crumble?”) and warm welcomes.
You don’t have to be an Amazon or a he-man to walk 80 miles in six days. We took four children, aged eight to 15, on the Dales way and two, aged nine and 11, along the South West Coast Path, along with several not-particularly-fit adults. We feared rebellion and exhaustion. We got 80 miles of banter, songs, appalling playground humour and skimming stones. There’s only been one problem. The children enjoyed it so much they now want to walk the 268-mile Pennine Way.