( 11th February 2012 – 14 miles)
My B&B owner looked at me with a mixture of curiosity, pity and condolence as I tackled a big breakfast the following morning. She couldn’t understand why anyone would undertake the Dales Way in winter. And later, as I hefted my rucksack (and belly) and stepped outside to begin my walk to the Lake District, I was inclined to agree with her. The day was overcast, grey and perishingly cold.
I could barely have imagined a bleaker, more Breughel-landscape. Old snow, flattened by countless feet, had frozen hard into smooth, treacherous ice and for long stretches, fearful of falling over, I took tiny, hesitant steps. I wondered how on Earth I would cover fourteen miles.
I know it doesn’t look much of an obstacle but this little footbridge at Addingham was fiendishly difficult to cross. It reduced me to giggles because I simply couldn’t walk across it. However hard I tried, my boots gained no purchase and I just slid back down its little humpback. Eventually, I surrendered and crawled across on all fours. With my rucksack I must have looked like a black-clad tortoise – only less dignified. Thankfully there was no-one about to witness my buffoonery.
The Dales Way follows the River Wharfe for all of day one: it is a pretty walk, easy-going and full of interest. Though it was a Saturday morning there weren’t many people about – until I arrived at Bolton Priory (which sits in the village of Bolton Abbey – obviously).
Though I managed to keep them out of my photos there were dozens of people here. And understandably too – it is a beautiful site. The Priory dates from 1154 and amongst others, captivated : Ruskin, Wordsworth, Landseer and
Turner who painted this watercolour in 1798.
Not a huge change in over 200 years, eh? During the dissolution of the monasteries, the leaded roofs were stripped and the building left open to the skies. In time stone too was filched for building works up and down the valley. But the Priory has aged well – you couldn’t have designed a fairer, more handsome ruin.
As I left the Priory behind and continued my walk along the Wharfe, I passed this tree trunk.
Someone had hammered coins into it. I wondered why. But only a little.
As the path climbed above the river, walking became nigh on impossible. I’d already seen several people go down like bowling pins despite wearing decent boots. The frozen paths were like glass and it was now that I played my ace card.
If I’d carried a bugle, I would have blown a toot as I pulled a pair of Yaktrax from my rucksack. They saved the day. Actually, no. They saved the walk. I was to rely on them many, many times over the next three days and where other walkers gave up or else slid past me with looks of bewilderment or panic, I waved and cheerfully strode on. I savoured their looks of envy at my wondrous feet.
I found a non-snow-covered tree log to sit on for lunch: but ended up giving half of my M&S sandwich to the starving bird life of Strid Woods.
The Wharfe runs through a narrow gorge here called the Strid (or Stride). Stride because of the narrowness of the water – you can supposedly step across it. But the swift running water has gouged deep channels and underwater caverns into the rock. The force of water will almost certainly hold and drown anyone who falls in; so if I were you I wouldn’t bother trying to cross it. People still try; people still drown.
I continued my walk though the grey-white light
always with the Wharfe close-by; clucking and chuckling over rocks.
Often, especially near roads, farms or cottages, the path was pressed smooth and dangerous again and I once more donned my Yaktrax.
I still hoped that the sun might burn off the cloud to treat me to clear skies and warmth. But nope.
The path crossed several bridges near the village of Appletreewick – like this one designed by a skinny person; a skinny person not carrying a fat rucksack. It was here I met a couple who were terrifically excited that I was walking the DW in winter. They went out of their way to shake my hand and slap me on the arm. I felt a little bad that their enthusiasm seemingly outshone my own.
All too quickly I looked down on Burnsall, my halt for the night. The village was originally a Viking settlement and its name possibly derives from Bjorn’s Hall. Or it might come from ‘the hall by the burn’ (stream). But I’m plumping for Bjorn the Viking Chief’s Hall. If ever there was Viking country in England here it was. (I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t see a vaulted, wooden mead hall, full of warriors with a vast open fire at its heart). As I climbed up and over Burnsall’s five arched bridge, I noticed that ‘The Red Lion Inn’ was open and softly calling to me. Softly but insistently. As there was no mead hall, I settled on the pub instead.
My day’s walk along the River Wharfe had kept me warm but nevertheless I was grateful for a pint in front of an open fire. After booking into my B&B (Wharfe View Farmhouse), I showered, changed into my evening attire and hurried back to the pub for a couple more pints and an excellent pigeon breast supper.
As I sat in front of the fire, one hand rested on my prodigious, contented stomach, one clasping a pint of bitter, I foresaw a problem with the Dales Way. It was too darn short. Day one done and only four and half left.