Coast to Coast: Day 6 – Kirkby Stephen to Keld

(20th March 2013 – 14½ miles)

Today’s route climbs up to the curious stone cairns of Nine Standards Rigg, before descending again across long tracts of peat bog to the village of Keld.

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Depending on the time of year, there is a choice of three paths over the moors:

Red – May to July

Blue – August to November

Green – December to April

The past few days on the C2C had been tough and relentless and we were both tired.  Today I was going to take it easy.  Pat concurred and we therefore decided to eschew the Nine Standards altogether and follow the B6270 road to Keld – especially as more snow was forecast.  (This is what Mr Wainwright suggests if visibility is poor).

But then.  Oh, but then, during breakfast, my B&B owner (at the very comfortable Old Croft – great breakfast, great packed lunch,

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room perhaps a little too Gothic Princess) told me that the Blue route, rather than the more obvious Green, would be perfectly do-able.  And shortly after setting off, we chatted to a friendly local who gave the same advice.  Against our better judgement we decided to ditch the easy day plan and climb up and over the moors.  I’m very glad that we did; today was to be one of the most memorable of the trip.  But easy it was not.

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As soon as we began the long 2172 ft climb we were hit full on by that wind.  It was a slow plod, pushing against the cold easterly which we were to battle against all the way to Robin Hood’s Bay.

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I don’t know the Pennines particularly well but I do love their brutal, don’t-give-a-damn-what-anyone-else-might-think good looks.  But I haven’t yet decided whether I’m in love with them enough to tackle the 270 mile Pennine Way.

After an hour’s climb we were back up into the snow line.

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We met no-one on today’s walk.  Pat was the only person I saw crawling through that tundra landscape

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Pat’s photo

with me puffing along behind.

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At this stage way-finding wasn’t too much of a problem.  The path was visible but as we couldn’t see very far ahead we did wonder whether it was the correct path and that we were actually heading for the cairns.

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But then, suddenly, there they were – ghostly and indistinct, looming out of the mist and cloud.  If you Google Nine Standards Rigg you’ll see photos of them in clear, bright sunlight; a memory of them I certainly don’t have.

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The wind up here was ferocious – there was no higher ground on the C2C between us and the east coast; nothing to deflect the gusts

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which whipped snow and ice up into our ruddy faces.

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No one knows how old the cairns are (they certainly appear on C18th maps but some of them are much older, possibly prehistoric) or why they were built.  My favourite theory is that, from a distance, they resemble an encamped English army and so acted as a deterrent to any marauding Scots in the valleys below.  It is a nice idea but these piles of rocks were almost certainly boundary markers: the old county line between Westmorland and Yorkshire cuts through here.

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“Gee, Ma. I sure is having fun”

Whatever their original purpose, today they acted as excellent shelter from the howling, icy blast.  As we took photos, barely able to make ourselves heard above the roar of the wind (in a landscape so inhospitable it made me giggle) Pat and I were at the watershed: behind us all the trickles, streams and rivers flow into the Irish Sea; in front they all empty into the North Sea.

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With no views, freezing cold and a long, uncertain walk ahead of us, we smiled ruefully at our plan to use the Rigg as a lunch-stop and hurriedly started the descent.

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Visibility was poor (even when we could bear to look up into stinging, icy flecks) but we found the above sign and behind it a line of half-buried posts marking the Blue route leading off to the east.

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The summit had been wind-scoured rock but soon we were wading across deeper snow,

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peering ahead and trying to make out the posts.

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Still lagging behind – Pat’s photo.

Actually, the snow proved helpful; it kept us several inches above sopping peat bog.

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Pat’s photo

After an hour or two, we dipped below the cloud, the snow thinned under our feet and Whitsundale and the way to Keld lay below us.

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I thought that our pace would quicken now, following the beck as it meandered across the flat valley bottom.  But the path was mostly invisible as we slid and stumbled over tussocky grass, moss, sedge and rocks; skirting pools and mires and streams.

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With no deep snow to protect us against the bog and stones, this was slow, finicky going.

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Whitsundale Beck seemed cruelly long, with every bend in the valley proving false hope that we had reached its end.

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Arguably, though it may not look it from these photos, this stretch of ‘path’ was one of the most arduous of the 12 days.

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Finally, we reached signs of habitation

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and Ravenseat Farm tea garden.  I had my heart set on a mug of hot tea and a slab of carrot cake but it looked decidedly closed – we scurried on.

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I happily admit to ‘cheating’ at this point.  We abandoned the proper path when it followed the beck across country on the far side of the valley and instead we tramped along a tarmac lane to join the B6270 for the last couple of miles.

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Upper Swaledale

As Pat had further to go than me (he was meeting Sue a couple of miles beyond Keld), I bid him farewell till the morning and watched him surge ahead.

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Wainwath Force

I changed down a gear and paused to admire my first visit to Swaledale.

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The outskirts of Keld with The Keld Lodge directly ahead

My home for the night was The Keld Lodge and Matt, the manager, made me very welcome.  Though I had pre-booked he was sure I would cancel and when I did finally arrive, he was quite astonished that anyone would have advised us to cross the moors in such weather.  I was the only guest at the Lodge and the first Coast to Coaster of 2013.  He told me that there were 18 people and 11 dogs in Keld that night … and me.

Later, over a fish pie and several pints of excellent Black Sheep bitter, I chatted to Matt and a young couple who were staying in a yurt a couple of miles up the valley.   Keld marks the half-way point on the C2C and I felt a little smug as I supped my beer and laughed in the bar.  I had planned on an early night but the company was good fun and the beer kept on coming.  It isn’t often that I enjoy a warm, relaxed evening amongst strangers.   Wainwright’s walk had already proved the most challenging and exhilarating of ‘my’ long distance walks.  And sheesh – the weather!  March 2013 was the coldest since 1962; behind me snow-drifts up to 20 feet deep were blocking roads, cutting off communities, closing schools and killing thousands of sheep across north-western Britain.  (Four days later Matt emailed me – Keld had seven-foot drifts and 70 mph winds)!  Family and friends, worried at the scenes they were watching on TV, began to call or text asking if I was OK.  Had I started out from St Bees just a few days later, the Lakeland passes would have been impassable, the walk impossible.

I felt privileged and a little amazed, that I was able to continue, one step ahead of fearsome storms and yet still in conditions that were exciting, a little dangerous and beautiful to behold.  I didn’t want it to end.

4 thoughts on “Coast to Coast: Day 6 – Kirkby Stephen to Keld

  1. On a pleasant September day it’s hard to fathom that such cold, wet, windy weather is even possible. Brr. What amazing countryside, though — I like that kind of wild and woolly landscape without a lot of trees getting in the way of… I was going to say the view. Sorry. Glad you had such pleasant company and good beer at the end there. Good dog-to-people ratio in Keld.

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    • Hi Stacy, I didn’t mind the weather really. As nice as it is to stroll along in spring sunlight, snow and ice made it all the more er, interesting. I heard of an American couple who, having planned the walk for many years, did the entire path in fog and mist – no views whatsoever. The poor lady was in tears when they arrived at Robin Hood’s Bay. I guess, compared to that, I was very lucky. D

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