The Coast to Coast Walk – part two…

Kirkby Stephen to Robin Hood’s Bay

Off again, this time into the Pennines. We had sunshine and enthusiasm, reaching the Nine Standards – man-made cairns, visible for miles – in time for a coffee stop.

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One of the Nine Standards

Today was reputedly a boggy day, the area likened in the guide book to the Battle of the Somme. I wasn’t looking forward to this. Falling in a bog on Day 1 isn’t a good idea. But it was better – or less bad, anyway – than expected. As thunder started to rumble around us, we stopped at Ravenseat Farm for a cream tea and a rest. This place has become famous because of the shepherdess who lives there. We had not seen the programmes about her on television nor read her books but had heard of her and her large family. Welly-clad kids were everywhere. She welcomed us warmly, pregnant with her ninth child. Some lady! We arrived in Keld (mid-point of the whole walk) just ahead of a serious downpour.

The following day the guide book warned of a potential wrong route near the appropriately named Crackpot Hall. Don’t it said, take a narrow path with a precipitous drop but rather the higher, simpler route. Guess where we ended up? We survived to take another ‘difficult alternative’ by accident but arrived safely in Reeth. We fell in love with the little town with its grassy square, hills all around and evening sunlight. Perfect conditions for an evening drink outside the Buck Inn.

We then had a silly day. Tony lost his sunglasses (if you put them on top of your sunhat, and then remove the hat……), our flask of coffee turned out to be a flask of hot water (‘I thought you had put the coffee in …’) and we ended up climbing a barbed-wire fence after a slight mis-navigation.  It was also a day of stiles. These are annoying obstacles, stone-built and narrow to prevent sheep access. They also effectively prevent short people wearing rucksacks going through them.

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Wedged in a stile

It seemed something of a cheat to have a day off in Richmond after three days walking but it was a lovely place to stay. Not much of a rest as we visited the Georgian Theatre, the Green Howards Museum, the old railway station, the Richmondshire Museum and the castle. The ‘rest’ resulted in my having backache but good old ibuprofen and a French meal got me going again.

The next couple of days were flattish and easy with drizzly, miserable weather and lots of mud. We walked through fields of rapeseed nearly as high as me – you get totally soaked when the crops obscure the path and it’s a fight to get through them. But the sun finally came out and we were greeted at our next B & B with glasses of prosecco. How civilised!

The Yorkshire Moors beckoned us. We were looking forward to the views across to the North Sea. I’m sure you can see that far but all we saw was mist. It did bring, however, a certain eerie charm.  Lunch at a café at Lord Stones, a tasty bowl of soup, was a pleasant change from the usual sandwiches. We were now away from habitation and the landlord of the next B & B, the Buck Inn at Chop Gate, picked us up and returned us to the route. Had to dry my soggy boots with the hairdrier.

Sunshine the next day – we could see! Captain’s Cook’s Monument and Roseberry topping were in the distance – super memories of the time we lived near them in Great Ayton when the children were small. An easy day and we arrived early at the Lion Inn, a huge, old pub in the middle of nowhere (Blakey Ridge, actually). They serve the world’s largest helpings; do not even think about having a starter!

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Mist lifting on the Moors

Tony was getting excited about reaching Grosmont, home of a steam railway. We had to visit the engine yard and take multiple photos of trains arriving and leaving although I confess I left Tony there. Then suddenly it was our last day, the longest on this part of the walk at over 16 miles. It was also the muddiest. It was possibly the muddiest walk of my life. At times we had to leave the path when it became bog. Our GPS proved invaluable as signage across this part of the moors is poor. We arrived at Robin Hood’s Bay with some Australian walkers we’d met at various times on the walk. The tide was in so depositing our pebbles from the sea at St Bees was simple. We had a group hug, elated that we’d made it, then a drink in the Wainwright Bar at the Bay pub where we all signed our names in the Coast-to-Coast walkers’ book.

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We did it!

We have actually walked across England – an excellent experience. I believe Tony is plotting the next one…

 

 

 

 

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The Coast to Coast Walk – the story so far…

St Bees to Kirkby Stephen

Walking from the west coast of England to the east coast is a great idea but it does need the cooperation of mind, legs and weather. Weather is weather but we decided that setting ourselves up to fail was silly so split the walk into two. St Bees in Cumbria to Kirkby Stephen was the 2015 project with the remaining, longer walk to Robin Hood’s Bay on the east coast deferred to 2016.

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Setting off

Tradition says you must pick up a pebble from the sea at St Bees and deposit it in the sea on the other side. It was our bad luck that the tide was out, so we walked past the ‘official’ start of the walk and then passed it again half an hour later with pebbles. At least it wasn’t raining! A mixture of cloud, sun and wind took us to Ennerdale Bridge where we spent the first night.

Our second day was more eventful, the ‘accident’ day. Several hours in, Tony dropped the all-important guide book into a stream. I was impressed by his fishing skills as he retrieved it. Turning soggy pages is difficult and we happened to be at a critical point. The book did dry out and the pages remain readable, if wavy. High winds made the going difficult and we had a steep climb to negotiate. I was leading when I lost my balance and fell backwards. It wasn’t in the plan for the pair of us to roll off the path and fall around three metres down a bank, stopping just short of a stream – we could have fallen in a more dangerous place. All limbs were intact although my left knee had met a rock and I could feel my leg swelling and getting stiff as I moved. I dosed myself with ibuprofen and marched on. The remaining five or six miles became a blur. I was scared to look at my knee; when I did, it wasn’t a pretty sight.

By the morning, my leg was assorted shades of purple and the swelling was spreading. More ibuprofen, paracetamol and bloody-mindedness kept me going. In spite of my problems, we chose to take the higher – and more difficult – route for the views. It was worth it. Arrived in Grasmere where we would have a break – our ‘rest day’. Tony had a sore throat. We needed to stop.

We headed for Patterdale the following day with renewed vigour. Leg stiff and colourful but moving; Tony still rough. Nevertheless, we decided on the more demanding but more picturesque route via St Sunday’s Crag.  (‘This is our only chance’ sentiment.) It was steeper than expected. We then realised why. We had taken the wrong path and gone up Fairfield adding an additional peak and not a small amount of time to our route. The signage was non-existent. But we could clearly see a path along the ridge in the right direction. What we didn’t know was that Cofa’s Pike lay in our way. This is a rocky outcrop, a real challenge to climb.  But the thought of retracing our steps was too depressing. The elation we experienced after succeeding was worth the initial fear. Nothing like a few difficulties to focus the mind and make knees and throats insignificant. A guy went past us on a bike. We were obviously doing it the easy way.

With our destination almost in sight, we had just one descent (steep, according to the guidebook) to do. This was a shock. It was narrow with an overhang so severe that our only way down was on our bottoms, passing our rucksacks between us so they didn’t push us over the edge. We debated whether it was actually possible. We should have turned and sought an alternative route as further down we looked back and saw the correct path. We were not the only ones to go wrong as we saw others having similar – and worse – problems. Again, lack of signs hadn’t helped. But we had been foolish.

We had the ‘Big Day’ ahead of us.  Fortified by an enormous breakfast and carrying almost our weight in packed lunches, we were walking by 8.20am. Kidsty Pike was our first target, the highest point on the walk. We ate lunch there along with many other, now familiar faces. It was sunny and hot – lucky us – and the views were magnificent.

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Looking back at Kidsty Pike

The descent required hands as well as feet at times, slow progress but we got to Hawes water. It is a long lake. It is a seemingly endless lake. The path beside it is up and down and tiring. This was the worst part of the walk. I was exhausted when a passer-by told us to cheer up as we only had about an hour to go to Shap. An hour! We plodded on. I tried to phone ahead to our B & B to say we would be late – we didn’t want the emergency services alerted because we hadn’t arrived. But I had no phone signal. Tony started to have back troubles. With huge relief we reached Shap only to find our B & B was at the far end, a further mile away. We arrived at 7.05 – some day! We didn’t have the energy to walk back along the road to the pub for dinner. There was enough left in our packed lunches to satisfy us, together with a beer and a glass of wine kindly provided by the owner, Margaret, a lady renowned for her hospitality.

A short walk on the following day – then it was our final trek to Kirkby Stephen, a sunny, easy day made all the better by the vision of the champagne we would drink at the end. It felt strange to stop when some of our walking companions were completing the whole distance. But we’d done it and were on a high!  And we were sure we would complete the second part: the challenge for 2016.

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End of Part 1 for us

An Alternative to Barcelona

When we were invited to a wedding in Spain – in Girona, around 100 km north-east of Barcelona – we were delighted although knew nothing about the city. What a treat! The old part is a jumble of cobbled streets surrounded by the old – and well preserved – city walls. We walked along them enjoying views over the pinkish-beige tiled roofs, across Catalan separatist flags and cypresses reminiscent of Tuscany to the Cathedral, proudly dominating the skyline. In the distance we could see snow on the Pyrenees. Another day, we walked by the River Onyar bordered with buildings in pastel shades.

Rooftops of Girona from the city walls
Rooftops of Girona from the city walls
River Onyar at Girona
Houses along the River Onyar

Nestled into the city walls are the Arab baths dating from the twelfth century, costing just a couple of euros to visit. Further on is the well-preserved medieval Jewish quarter, a feature of the city with its own museum. We had to make a visit to the lioness of Girona, a small sculpture, and kiss her bottom to become ‘good citizens’. Tradition also says the kiss guarantees a return to the town.

Kissing the lioness's bottom
Kissing the lioness’s bottom

 

Girona Cathedral
Girona Cathedral

The cathedral with its wide nave – the widest in Europe – was the perfect setting for the wedding. Getting there was challenging. The date coincided with the annual flower festival, the Temps de Flors, which takes over the whole city. Imaginative floral decorations were everywhere – filling alleyways, running up steps and strung across roads. Everyone had something to decorate, from a simple chair to the cloisters of the cathedral.  Our progress was limited by the pace of the crowd and how many photographs we took. Driving was not an option! We sensibly carried our smart, high-heeled shoes and walked the uneven cobbles in trainers!

Flowers as blood down the steps from a stabbing dagger
Flowers as blood down the steps from a stabbing dagger

On another day, we drove north to Figueres where Salvador Dali was born. He conceived and designed the theatre-museum there as a window into his strange and unique world. From the painting of a naked woman which becomes a portrait of Abraham Lincoln when viewed through a camera lens, to Dali’s own moustache as a work of art, there is always something to amaze. It is worth the inevitable queue to get in.

Most people visiting this part of Spain go to Barcelona and enjoy the works of Gaudi. We’ve done that and loved it but Girona is an unexpected surprise and an alternative – or additional – destination. With Dali thrown in as an extra!

One day, 35 lifts, 4 tired legs

What gives you a thrill in the snow? Making fresh tracks in deep powder? Being the first down a perfectly groomed piste in the sunshine? Building a stylish snowman? Maybe all of them. But there’s a different kind of challenge, one needing stamina and planning rather than bravado or skill.

We decided – for the fourth time – to see if we could ski all the lifts in the Méribel valley in a day. We’ve succeeded twice before but we’re older now! We set the criteria first – which lifts were in scope and which weren’t. Cheating, do I hear you say? Well, not really. We eliminated a couple of beginners’ ‘magic carpets’ and the transport lift from Brides les Bains. It still left 35 lifts – enough to challenge us.  A mid-March, sunny day when most lifts are open until 5pm chose itself.

My husband, Tony, planned the route carefully. The total descent is fixed by the lifts;the distance – and the time – across the snow isn’t.  We aimed to do five lifts per hour, giving us some contingency for mishaps. But not all lifts are equal, nor are the routes down.

We carried our water and food – sandwiches, chocolate and chewy bars. Calories don’t count on a challenge day. Lunch would be in a cabin – chair lifts make you drop anything not attached to you. We started at the earliest opening lift. No-one queues properly, of course; only the English know how to do that.

The gremlins are always out to get you. Lifts will open late, some will stop. The person in front you will have a non-working ski-pass. There will be queues. Having a Plan B is useful. Trouble is, you don’t know what it looks like until something goes wrong. ‘That’s going to bugger us up!’ is a much-heard expression.

We always felt we were running late, mainly because we kept losing track of how many lifts we’d done. Counting to 35 can be difficult!

Crud and slush at the end of the day is inevitable. We couldn’t avoid skiing into Méribel five times – there are five lifts from there – and conditions deteriorated with each descent. However, the rumours of trench foot from leaking boots are widely exaggerated.

When a ten-year-old French boy on a snowboard cuts you up, he will mutter ‘Merde!’ when you complain.

We skied the most economical way using minimum effort. There are no points for style (do we have any, anyway?) And we always chose the easiest slopes if there was more than one way down. There was one well-pisted and tempting black but we were sensible and saved our legs. We synchronised loo visits (whether you need to go or not is irrelevant). Things got really bad around lift 28 when the legs screamed and the knees belonged to someone else. Tony went quiet. When I asked him what he was thinking about, he replied, ‘Our sofa’. I focussed on a glass of Sancerre and a couple of ibuprofen. It takes superhuman strength to resist the allure of a deckchair. We gave in to a hard wooden bench for ten minutes.

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Tony unable to resist the lovely wooden bench

We didn’t expect to enjoy it all – but we did enjoy most of it. Especially the victory photo at the end! We congratulated ourselves on the fact that we had skied down a total height of 12,500m. That’s nearly 1.5 Everests and about 9 x Ben Nevis! And with forty-five minutes to spare. Not bad for Oldies.

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Celebrating the finish!

Keeping Young?

Keep your brain and body active. Do something outside your comfort zone. These things, they say, ward off dementia and keep you young. But now I’m not so sure.

We were on a family skiing holiday recently in Norway, at Hafjell, where some of the events of the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympic Games took place. The bob-sleigh run is still there and open to the public. My two grandchildren were keen to have a go so we went along to watch. At 11 and 12, they were too young for the ‘taxi-bob’ – a piloted, proper bob-sleigh – but could ride in a ‘raft’. This was a rectangular, padded box able to carry a pilot and up to five additional passengers.

A short ride in a van to the top of the run – the actual top, no cheating here – a few instructions (sit up straight, face forwards), helmets on and they and their mother were away. We took the appropriate photos as they flew past us at around 80km/hr, angled at 90 degrees to horizontal, wooden runners rattling. They were elated when they got out, wishing they were older and making our daughter promise to take them back when they were sixteen, old enough for the taxi-bob.

My husband, Tony, looked at me with his eyes gleaming. ‘I’d love to do that.’ What he meant, of course, was that he’d love me to go with him. ‘Come on, it’s probably the only time in our lives we’ll have the chance to go on an Olympic bob-sleigh run.’

Correct.

Not matching his enthusiasm, I agreed to the raft. The taxi-bob was a ride too far. I was definitely outside my comfort zone.

‘You can have a stiff drink afterwards.’

We packed ourselves into the raft, legs apart, bum to crotch with strangers. Tony attempted an apology in Norwegian to the woman he was pressed against. Fruitless, as she was Russian. I clutched the flimsy grips inside our lidless coffin and tried to ignore the boot that was pressing into my leg. We gathered speed at an alarming rate and the positional changes bombarded us: upright, sideways, upright,sideways. Our pilot tried to steer a straight course through the sixteen turns but we still ricocheted off the sides of the run. There were no controls. Around 15 seconds into the run, my stomach made itself felt. I am a poor traveller so I should have expected this.  Closing my eyes made it worse, although with them open all I could see was the back of the pilot. A run of 1.7 km and it was over. Everyone cheered and jumped around with delight at the experience. Tony was ecstatic; I held my stomach and attempted a grin.

I was alright in time for dinner a couple of hours later, although I declined the stiff drink (a bucket was more appropriate). I don’t know about keeping myself young; I think this trip might have aged me ten years. In a strange way I enjoyed it but I won’t be back for more!

 

 

A is for Agatha

I’m a collector of Agathas.

I met my first, an elderly lady, when we were stranded by snow at Chicago airport. My business ticket gained me a hotel room. She tagged along and although her economy ticket (not cheap, she protested, she’d saved a year for it) won her nothing, she ended up as my companion. I took her to dinner, then breakfast and escorted her back to England. I thought I’d have to take her home as no-one met her but a steward took pity on us both.

The next was in New Zealand.  She drowned me in information at a Bed and Breakfast. ‘Call me Aggie,’ she said but as I barely uttered a word, I had no occasion to call her anything. ‘So lovely to chat. So interesting.’ My husband had quietly disappeared, insisting I was better than he with overwhelming women.

The Agatha syndrome struck again in Madeira. We were having a pre-dinner drink when a dowdy couple came into the hotel lounge. Being Brits, we’d spread out to avoid the invisible barriers we’d all erected around ourselves. I nodded towards the newcomers and she shuffled delightedly towards me. I heard about her purchases, her favourite designers and saw her new shoes. When I said I was dreadful at buying clothes, she offered to take me in hand; and, by the way, her name was Agatha. I never found time to shop with her.

The following evening we went to a concert. The loud enthusiast beside me told me it was her eighth visit to the island and she always attended this event. I could have left immediately, I learned so much about it. Afterwards, her husband said, ‘Good as ever, Jean.’

Jean? Had I misheard? She had to be called Agatha.

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This was published in the Mar/Apr/May 2016 issue of Mslexia

The Curse of the Sprout

 

It was the first and only time we’d taken a sprout skiing.

Why? Well, there’s a story.

It was a clear, sunny day and as we tightened our boot clips at the top of the Pas du Lac ski lift before descending into Courchevel, I heard laughter. Looking around, the cause was obvious. Three ‘ladies’ were entertaining the crowd. Dressed in flowery dresses and coats, headscarves tied tightly over fluffy hair, they clasped their handbags and adjusted their sunglasses. They preened themselves and stretched their lipsticked mouths.

‘Going to the post-office to collect our pensions.’

‘Do you know where the post-office is?’

Then some advice. ‘You take care. Make the most of being young!’

One of them handed a card to Siân: ‘The skiing Nana’s’ (with unnecessary apostrophe – author’s note).

Their repartee was well-practised in a (pseudo?) Brummie accent. These ‘Nanas’ have a strong Facebook following, where their odd underwear and odder anatomical parts are on display.  They cavort around the ski resorts for no obvious reason other than amusement.

As they prepared to set off on their short skis (the sort that need no ski poles; poles would clearly get in the way of the handbags), one of them handed something that looked like an old-fashioned gobstopper to Siân.

‘Have a sweet, dear.’

Ten minutes later, on an almost empty slope, a wild skier decided he needed Siân’s bit of piste, falling over and causing her to fall, too.  Siân never falls. She hurt her hand, not seriously, but she is a pianist.

We headed for a drink at a local chalet and Siân put a sprout on the table. We looked at her and stared at it. What kind of fetish was this?  It was the ‘sweet’ from one of the Nanas.  Well-formed, a tight little bundle, it was a sweet sprout. It accompanied us for the rest of the day.

When Siân fell getting off a chair-lift, a bruising fall, we began to think something was up. Was this the curse of the sprout? We were worried about a third fall – not that we are superstitious – so stopped for a vin chaud to calm our nerves. The sprout sat on the table again, greenly giving us the evil eye.

That evening, we decided there needed to be a ceremonial discarding of the sprout. One day was enough. We hoped it took its curse with it. The following day, Peter, Siân’s husband, was hit by a snowboarder. The third event – or did he have sprout remains in his pocket? Who knows?

The moral is – don’t accept sweets from strange ladies!