Bleak moorland, a chill wind and never ending tracks. Ancient boundary stones and tumuli. Grouse with their chicks who don’t yet know about the Glorious Twelfth. Deep thought, a sad memorial, leaving a wish and enjoying a warm tomb.
At Breakfast, I read this extract from my Cicerone guidebook : “This is the most remote part of the Cleveland Way, traversing the highest part of the North York Moors, with no easy access to facilities of any kind… Walkers need to keep a keen eye on their maps… a wrong turning could involve a huge detour.”
Added to that, a board on Bransdale Moor lists all the things that may bring you harm, with helpful but rather alarming illustrations: “Beware of poisonous Adders, Sheep Ticks, Bogs and Extreme Fire Risk”. Kind of them to remind me isn’t it? They could have added “Grouse may alarm you with their weird calls which sound like a combination of a small dog-yap, a duck and a turkey; you may become dispirited when the tracks have no apparent end and Just Be Careful Out There!”
But despite the initial trepidation, today turns out to be one of the most memorable of my trip even though landmarks are few and far between, mostly comprising ancient boundary stones, grouse butts and low tumuli nestling in the dark heather with a couple of interesting hollow stones that would be called ‘ballauns’ in Ireland. The dry, sandy tracks do seem never-ending in places, often vanishing over the far horizon of the gently sloping moorland. There is a damp haze in the air and a cold wind blows in from the North East, chilling my bones whenever I pause for rest but the desolate, brooding moorland soon lulls me into deep thought, punctuated regularly by a sharp turn at a crossing of the tracks or by startled grouse who frantically flap up from the heather. I try to warn them that they may live longer if they learn not to do that but they don’t listen.
Memories of my hikes are difficult to describe. Today’s are a series of feelings and images on a mental map the colour of the dark heather: a deep sienna that somehow contains the essence of the purple that will bloom later in the year, crossed by ochre lines of the sandy tracks. I think about how the moor embodies that presence of natural vastness that really doesn’t care about us; how we ignore its dangers at our peril and how much we desperately need to keep and protect it and how much we need to experience these wild places. Of course, one of the reasons the moors are preserved is the financial gain from grouse shooting and I wonder about the rationale of that too.
There are a few interesting waymarks. The ‘Guide Stone’: a column with directions to nearby towns and a hollow in its top where people leave coins and where I too pay for a wish; the highest point on the moor and on the whole of the Cleveland Way which is a concrete trig point insensitively stuck on top of a Bronze Age barrow at 454 metres; ‘Jenney Bradley’s Cross’ which is not a cross and, apparently, has nothing to do with Jenney Bradley but is a possible corruption of ‘Broad Ley’ and is actually a tall 19th Century boundary stone next to a smaller, but much older one. There are sunken, stone-built grouse butts along the way and I read about linear earthworks but don’t notice them.
After Urra Moor, Cockayne Head, Bloworth Crossing (the bed of an old railway used for mining); Greenhow Moor; Greenhow Bank; Ingleby Moor; Tidy Brown Hill and Battersby Moor, the moorland track ends quite suddenly at a gate with a cattle grid and a tarmacked road rising up the gentle curve of Warren Moor before passing a sad memorial to four airmen who crashed nearby in a burning bomber in January 1941. They survived the crash but died of exposure before they could be rescued, the oldest only 27, the youngest 21.
It has taken nearly three-and-a-half hours to cross the moors and now the dark heather gives way to slopes covered in bright green pillows of bilberry and the road drops down into the lush valley of Kildale with lapwing flapping noisily over the pastureland and the air slowly warming.
I look across the wide valley and, there, through the haze, is Captain Cook’s Monument at the end of a high spur. It’s near today’s destination but looks an awfully long way away and I wonder if I have mis-timed the route.
Kildale is a pretty village where John Wesley preached and a café that’s closed today so I head for the ‘Kil’ of the ‘dale’ and find St Gregory’s Church over a bridge across the railway station where a train has just pulled in without any passengers. The churchyard is quiet and sunny but there are no seats so I commandeer a flat tomb for my picnic table and, feeling a little guilty for some inexplicable reason, apologise to the occupant who has been dead for at least 200 years so probably doesn’t mind me eating on top of him anyway. I hope not, because I change my socks too. John Wesley would surely have given me a hellfire rant for my sins.
After Kildale the route takes me steeply up through mixed farmland, and more gently up through woodland and the scrubland plantation of Coate Moor. I must have been in a daze because, before I know it, there is Captain Cook’s monument rising up right there before me and I have made it across the valley that looked so far away before. After the monument, which is not exactly beautiful close up, I only have a short descent to Gribdale and after a phone call I am picked up to be taken to The Royal Oak in Great Ayton.
Great Ayton is a larger village and has several shops, including a pharmacy and a supermarket where I stock up with essential supplies. It also has a bright scarlet pissoir: a preserved Victorian urinal “moved to its present location known as Waterfall Park, given to the village in May 1955 by Robert Alcock”: a gem of ironic provenance? Unfortunately it can’t be used.
The village green sports a statue of its famous resident: the young, shirtless James Cook which, I think, makes him look rather effeminate and apparently bound to a post by his drooping braces which is only a sculptural support on closer inspection.
The Royal Oak is friendly but the room has the pokiest bathroom imaginable and the place is very busy as it’s Friday night but I don’t notice the noise and fall asleep without a bother.
11.5 miles (18.5km) in about 4.75 hours, although it seemed longer!