Kirkby Stephen proved to be the perfect rest stop and, fully charged with fine Indian food, we set off towards the halfway point on the Coast to Coast with springs in our respective steps. We were blessed with another stirringly fine day and an appreciative audience of sheep as we left the town behind us. At least I think they were appreciative. Hard to tell with sheep.
Before the halfway point we would cross England’s watershed, where rain is denied the option of running off towards the delights of the Atlantic, and is instead pointed firmly Eastwards and the altogether chillier prospect of the North Sea. That part of the spine of England is marked with these:
No-one really knows where the Nine Standards came from, why or when. The stone cairns have been there since at least 1509, but they feel a whole lot older and probably are. The atmosphere is of an ancient, prehistoric place, with cairns marking something significant in the landscape. Few things could have been more important to the farmers of old than a knowledge of how and where the water flows.
They used to mark an ancient county boundary, but you can get too bogged down in trying to work out the facts about the Nine Standards. Far better to simply savour this grand spot and listen to the breeze whistling between the stones and the birds tweeting and swooping around them. Besides, there was plenty of scope to get bogged down in the next bit.
The route maps for the Coast to Coast give a number of options at this point to minimise the likelihood of being sucked into the quagmire which forms the next part of the walk. To be honest, we were all a little apprehensive about this bit as the guidebooks make clear that once the boardwalk runs out, its every hiker for themselves. The bog is almost completely impassable in the wettest parts of the year, and not straightforward when it’s dry either.
Thankfully it was probably as dry as it would ever get, which was still pretty boggy and had us leaping from one slightly raised grassy tuft to the next in a prolonged game of hopscotch with water-filled boots the prize for getting it wrong. At a couple of points the only option was a squelchy long-jump in which the backpacks went first.
It was actually a whole lot more fun that it might have been, and after an hour or so we were heading off the highest point of the moor and, along with all that water, further east across the Pennines towards the North Sea, now a little over ninety miles away.
After the patchwork of fields and walls and gates and sheep, this open moorland felt like a different country; all big skies and rippling grassland.
Whitsun Dale feels mostly untamed. It’s home to curlews and golden plover which peeped like smoke alarms as we passed. Eventually though we reached the first of a series of stone barns; lonely farming outposts from days gone by.
Near Ravenseat the farms began to take hold and once again we were being watched by sheep.
The River Swale emerged somewhere beside us, heralding our arrival in Swaledale which is one of the prettiest – and loneliest – regions on this walk. The first settlement is Keld; a name from the old Norse for “a place by the river”. As we walked along the narrow road, untroubled by any vehicles, there seemed little to it.
But turning off onto a dead-end road, we found its heart in a cluster of stone houses hidden in a small valley and dominated by a large farm selling – oh joy – ice-creams and cold drinks. We sat and slurped In the sunshine as we waited for a taxi to take us to Richmond. Keld may have embraced us Coast-to-Coasters, but it has hardly any places to stay, so we would be back here to resume the hike tomorrow.