Retirement: Snippets From Recent Years

I took the golden handshake on 30th April 1997, and three days later I set off from Ilkley on the Dales Way, camping gear on my back. The sun shone, the day was hot, and my path past Bolton Abbey was littered with families, paddling at the stepping stones and lounging on the grass. I camped at Burnsall that night and left the tent pitched next morning while I walked to Grassington. The rain started as I was returning, and for the next thirty-six hours it didn’t stop. I retreated to the pub and read the papers. The forecast for the week was grim: rain followed by snow and gales. The tent seemed less comfortable by the hour.

Next morning I decided to call it a day. I pulled on my waterproofs, packed up, and began retracing my steps. The River Wharfe raced along, brown and foaming, snatching at the bank top. Beyond Appletreewick I had to paddle through flood water, and I began to consider diverting to the road.

The Strid was a roaring torrent twenty yards wide, and there I saw my first walker of the day. He reminded me of Foggy Dewhurst from ‘Last of the Summer Wine’.

‘Lousy day,’ I opined.
He stopped and stared at me as if I was a new life form. His mouth opened and closed soundlessly, and then he spoke.
‘They’ve cancelled Ilkley Carnival,’ he said. ‘Cancelled it!’

I wasn’t surprised. I pressed on to the Cavendish Pavilion, where I was one of only half a dozen customers. A big dish of beef stew and potatoes restored me, and then I negotiated patches of flood water most of the way to Bolton Bridge, where I encountered wading depth. That decided me to divert onto higher ground to reach Addingham, and I finally splashed into a sodden Ilkley and headed straight for the railway station to get changed. Three hours later I was back home in Peterborough, starting the process of drying out. I had the rest of my life to walk the Dales Way. Why press on when saturation was guaranteed?

In June 1997 Anne and I holidayed in America, and I hiked to the top of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls. When we came home she went into hospital for a hysterectomy, which was followed by chemotherapy, but in October she insisted I take a break from nursing support. I spent a couple of days around Malham and Kettlewell, not doing any serious hiking but, for the first time, absorbing the beauty of the land for its own sake.

The following month she gave me a couple of days off to go to Robin Hoods Bay. It was my first overnight stay since about 1960, and I walked all the familiar footpaths from my childhood holidays. I seemed to feel the presence of grandparents, and also Mum and Dad, in their younger personages.

Many changes had taken place in six months, so maybe that’s why I saw the old places in such a different light. It felt like a new phase, but the following year I started to regress to my old habits of hard days on the hills.

In July 1998 Anne’s health was looking up, and I set off again on the Pennine Way. As planned, I made it as far as Thornton in Craven before returning home for a family party. The experience confirmed how time had moved on: the energetic boy had become the older man, obliged to nurse a hernia and a recent knee injury over the rough ground with the aid of newly acquired trekking poles, the kind of affectation I’d previously disdained. Despite that, once the first day across Kinder Scout and Bleaklow was in the bag, I skipped along much better than I could have hoped. This mini-expedition prompted me to write a short story titled ‘The Pursuit’.

Early in 1999 we moved to Derbyshire, and that summer I picked up the trail again at Thornton in Craven.

‘Are you going to go right to the end this time?’ Anne asked.
‘I don’t know. Probably. I’m taking all the maps.’

In the event I walked only as far as Dufton. There I turned about to make an in-depth exploration of upper Teesdale, which seemed more worthwhile than completing the Pennine Way. I felt no compulsion to race for the tape. There would be another time.

In June 2000 I restarted at Dufton and walked to Kirk Yetholm. I teamed up with an ex-RAF man called Gary, and we cooperated on provisions and catering at the Youth Hostels. We walked together only on the final day across the Cheviots from Byrness, which was easier than we’d expected because the wettest sections had been paved. Next morning I bussed to Edinburgh and booked into a hotel – I’d had enough of Youth Hostel bunks – but within thirty-six hours I was back at Kirk Yetholm, preparing for an early start on my return south.

I was fifty-three years old, fit as a flea, and ready to roll. The miles quickly fell behind me, and by the time I’d reached Hadrian’s Wall I felt sure I could make it to Edale in thirteen days, the same duration as our 1963 hike. Twenty-four hours later I’d decided to go for a twelve day finish, and my race against myself and the Pennine Way was on. Not even a muscle strain on Great Shunner Fell could stop me, and I thundered along like a man possessed. To put it another way, I charged south like the young idiot who’d raced north thirty-seven years earlier, but this time the magnet of home drew me on, and I finished in twelve days.

In one of the Youth Hostels I picked up a newsletter of the Pennine Way Association. I hadn’t known there was such an organisation. I sent in a membership form and a report on my trip, and I attended its annual meeting in 2001, the year when foot and mouth disease descended upon us like a biblical plague. It was the grimmest of times (not the meeting, the foot and mouth, though the meeting was bad enough!).

I couldn’t walk in my own country that spring, so I went to Scotland and hiked the West Highland Way. It felt so good to be out in the countryside again. A few weeks later Anne went to Chicago with some of her friends, and I headed north to the Arrochar Alps and had another couple of days in Scotland’s wonderful scenery.

By October the foot and mouth restrictions had been lifted almost everywhere, so I walked from home to a Pennine Way Association meeting near Littleborough in Lancashire. Eccentric behaviour? Well, unusual perhaps, but to a long distance walker with time on his hands it seemed quite natural.

I followed the Derwent valley to Hathersage and stayed in the Youth Hostel, and next day walked in heavy rain to Glossop where I got a bed in a pub. The wet weather had prompted me to squeeze three days’ walking into two, so I rode into Manchester by train and spent a day round the excellent museums. A train to Stalybridge and an easy tramp along the canal bank to Saddleworth filled the following day, and next morning I joined Association members for a walk from Standedge to Stoodley Pike, a dinner and a gossip.

I walked up the Alternative Pennine Way in March 2002 to attend the Annual General Meeting in Leeds, where I was appointed Secretary – as in most organisations, there was no competition for the job – but when I got home Anne broke the news that she needed to visit the doctor. Within six months she had died from breast cancer that spread into her nervous system.

In 2003 an acquaintance named Bill Button, who I’d met through the Pennine Way Association, asked me if I’d walk the Pennine Way with him. I said I would, and we fixed dates for April. John Goodall, another Associate who runs a small B&B in Marsden, asked if he could join us for the first two days.

Bill met me in Edale looking like a townie out for a Sunday stroll. When I mentioned this, he said he wanted to look smart in the evenings. I could see that, sartorially speaking, I was beaten before we started. John arrived next morning, and the walk went well as far as Malham. By that time Bill was exhausted, largely because of the weight of his ungainly old rucksack. Next day he struggled up Fountains Fell and then announced that he was on the point of giving up. He headed for Horton in Ribblesdale via Brackenbottom, saying that not only was he whacked but the rocky ascent of Pen-y-ghent would bring on his vertigo, so he waited at the café while I walked over the summit.

We carried on to Hawes, where he acquired several bin-liners to wrap most of his kit and clothing, which he sent home via the Royal Mail. He progressed much better thereafter, though he’d so enthusiastically depleted his load that he regularly had to borrow items from me. His navigation was quirky, and on the one occasion we relied on it he took us the wrong way on the Bowes Loop, which he’d assured me he knew well.

Despite all that, we were going along fine, and it seemed certain that we’d complete the walk. Then between Middleton in Teesdale and Dufton I developed foot trouble. I’ve heard the complaint described as ‘Postman’s Heel’. There’s nothing visible: the only symptom is severe pain when walking, but that’s more than too much for a hiker! I tried various forms of ring bandage to reduce the pressure, and I climbed without difficulty to Knock Old Man, because the steep ascent kept me, quite literally, on my toes. Unfortunately, as soon as I began walking on level ground towards Little Dun Fell I was in agony. When we got to the metalled road I told Bill I was going to walk down to the village and head home. He walked on to Garrigill and phoned his daughter for a lift back to Newcastle. It took weeks for my physical pain to disappear, and that was my last encounter – to date – with the Pennine Way as an end-to-end expedition.

The next big hiking adventures came in 2005. I took a lightweight tent to Minehead and hiked the South West Coast Path as far as Tintagel. It was one of the hardest walks I’ve done. The climbs and descents are brutal when you have a full rucksack, but it’s a great trail. I found places of natural solitude and peace only a hundred yards from busy tourist spots. The scenery was stunning, and the weather mostly kind.

A few weeks later I went by train to Scotland, caught ferries to Arran, Kintyre, Islay and Jura, and camped for a few days in each of those successively more remote outposts, in the company of millions of midges. On Jura I bumped into someone – I think his name is Alastair Sharpe – who was born and bred in Otley and who had attended my junior school.

I said, ‘I was there when Vernon Barritt became head master.’
‘I was there when he retired,’ he answered.
Alastair told me he was a Methodist minister in Rawmarsh, near Rotherham.
‘Fancy,’ I said. ‘I know a bloke from there. Used to work with him. Name of Nigel Fawthrop.’
‘Never!’ he gasped. ‘Sheffield Wednesday supporter. Cricketer. I’m a friend of his father!’

I’ve said it earlier, and I’ll say it again. It’s a small world.

Jura marked a turning point for me: I had to acknowledge that my body was no longer going to carry full kit across rough and steep ground. I accepted this reluctantly but with a sense of realism, and when I came back to Derbyshire I turned my attention to a new life style with Julia. We bought a house that September, and here we are, two years on.

But I had the nagging thought a year later that I might still be able to carry the tent and stove and sleeping bag up a hill, so I went to Malham, scene of so many adventures.

The short answer was: I couldn’t do it. My left knee didn’t like the extra weight of a rucksack. I resigned myself to a future in which I’d camp near the car, and if I hiked a long distance trail I’d pay for my kit to be carried. Which, when you think about it, doesn’t sound too bad.

In April 2007 I walked Wainwright’s Coast to Coast, using Sherpavan’s baggage transfer service. I enjoyed the walk, apart from the long drag across the Vale of York, and I met two codgers from Leeds who knew John Churchman, whose mother used to keep the Royal White Horse. They also know a guy called John Ainley who lives (or lived) on Westgate. We kept meeting up without arranging to walk together, and the same thing happened with a couple from Rotherham who were on a similar schedule. These encounters gave us frequent opportunities to compare ailments and remedies, which seems to be an unavoidable accompaniment to hiking in one’s sixties. At the finish in my childhood wonderland of Robin Hoods Bay, Mary and Julia were waiting for me, and we tested the ale in the Bay Hotel throughout the afternoon.

My final entry in this catalogue of events dates from September 2007, when I hiked the Kintyre Way, a strange trail in southwest Scotland with the most delightful views and friendly locals. Kintyre also offers great opportunities for what I feel might become one of my future activities, which I shall call ‘Not-Walking’. It will include island-hopping, sailing, whisky-tasting, and sitting on a beach, and I recommend it to those notable ‘non-walkers’ John P and Vowlesy, as well as to the ageing stalwarts of my first Pennine Way, Neil and John T.

I’m delighted to say I’m in touch with a hard core of the personalities who appear in this narrative. I met several of them as recently as November 2007, and Alec Marsden (now a naturalised Australian) and I plan to walk the Tour de Mont Blanc in 2008. Small world indeed!

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