This is a walk published in the Darlington and Stockton Times a few weeks ago. We do NOT recommend it in its entirety unless you are an experienced walker and adept at reading maps. We are both experienced walkers with excellent map reading skills but still found the last third challenging, it is ‘off-piste’, very rough and boggy with no discernible track. If you do decide to tackle it then choose a good day, leave plenty of time and leave details of your route with a friend and agree a time when you’ll contact them to tell them you’re off the hilltops – there is very little or no reception for most of the walk.
The weather forecast implies a warm and settled day but the elements have other thoughts. I’m picking up Chris and the sun is shining with no impediments from fluffy white obstacles that tend to scurry across an autumn sky. As we make our way to Keld the heavens darken, the wind increases and the planning part of my brain starts working on appropriate layers for a cold start and an improving day. I always carry a day-type-rucksack for layers of clothing and appropriate sustenance when we’re on the Pennines and North Yorkshire Moors; up there, the weather can change in a heartbeat and today’s variety is promising to be interesting!
We all arrive at Keld and follow the Parking signs to a large farm yard that has complimentary toilet facilities and plenty of space. It has an honesty-box that politely asks for £3 if you’re staying all day. It’s a bargain to be able to leave the car somewhere relatively secure and with the added bonus of the ‘facilities’, what’s not to like?
The wind is significant but the rain-bearing clouds are scooting past at such a rate that they forget to leave their content and disappear, at speed, over Rogan’s Seat. They maintain the two or three hundred feet elevation between them and the heather. It’s miraculous how nature works and I’m thinking why don’t they just plough into the fell-side? What makes them maintain that distance?
We’re off and heading out of Keld on the Coast to Coast on a downward path of steps or easy ramp, we need to enjoy this as the next three and a half miles are very definitely ‘up’.
East Ghyll is a beautiful stream and East Ghyll Force in full flow is a wonderful sight. There’s a dappled glade that shades the wooden footbridge and a boulder strewn bed for the river to dance upon. Well it is now, but in the winter, or after a storm there’s different sight and after the excitement of a flood the river bed is different. The rocks that four men would struggle to lift are redistributed and lodge further down-stream whilst new ‘immovable’ rocks take their place only to lose their ‘immovable’ status at the next flood. It’s a lovely land of contrasts and we appreciate it as we pass.
Now we’re going ‘up’ and this will be our lot for half the walk. There’ll be a very occasional flat bit and it’s there that we’ll catch our breath and gird ourselves for the next ‘up’. We knew that this would be a challenge though and we have done the first few miles a couple of time before so all’s well.
As we walk along Birk Hill Scar, we’re treated to views down to Muker and the Swale as it meanders its way along the flatter part of the dale through the meadows that have been recognised as areas of Special Scientific Interest and are a delight any part of the year but more so in Spring and early Summer.
We turn left near Crackpot Hall and the girls carry on to their assignation with a coffee in Muker. We’ll all have walked about eight miles by the time we finish but the higher route will take longer so they’ll probably manage a second one before we arrive back in Keld.
It takes only a few minutes to reach Crackpot Hall and it has a story to tell.
The building has been a hunting lodge for Thomas the first Barron Wharton who used to come to the oak forest to hunt red deer. The oak forests are long gone having been felled to build the ships used to defeat the Spaniards, French and any other nation that would put to sea in the days of empire. The Hall was also an office for the local lead-mining industry and a family farm over the centuries. It also has a secret!
…well, OK, perhaps not a secret but during the 1930’s Ella Pontefract and Marie Hartley visited and eventually settled in the dale and whilst they were visiting Crackpot Hall, they saw a four-year-old who had a “mocking, chuckling laugh” as she roamed alone with her dog and cats, her name was Alice and they wrote about her in one of their books. Ella suffered from ill health and died from blood pressure at the age of forty-nine, Marie managed over a hundred years and the little girl Alice was tracked down by David Almond who produced a 30-minute programme about Crackpot Hall and the book they wrote; you can find it clicking the link at the bottom of this article.
We’re at the open-end of Swinner Ghyll with the wonderfully named Buzzard Scar above us and the stream 350 feet below. The clouds are breaking from time to time and we get a welcome glance of blue although the wind is ramping-up and making the walk along the narrow track towards the waterfall at its head a little more precarious than we would like.
We’re always careful on these narrow tracks but at our age we don’t bounce as much as when we were younger; however, I suppose a fall of 300 feet would render the ability to bounce an irrelevance anyway but instinct is stronger than bravado and feet are placed with more care until the bluff protects us from the wind.
There’s a minor ‘down’ to the little bridge that will get us over the stream with dry feet before we start the next ascent that will take us past the disused and abandoned lead mine that marks the start of quite a challenging ‘up’.
We’re on the Coast to Coast which doubles as the Herriot Way depending on the map that you use and whilst the path is well defined and maintained it’s quite a rake with a 750-foot height gain in half-a-mile; we stop a couple of times!
Near the top of this element, we sit on a small footbridge drinking to keep our fluid levels up when a small group of lovely ladies appear. They’re walking the Coast-to-Coast and take the opportunity to pause and pass the time of day as we tell them about some of the things to expect as they progress along the route.
The next mile or so, you’ve guessed it, is ‘up’. The wind up here is really gusty there’s a bit of a chill to it so coats are donned although extra layers are not necessary due to the exertion.
Towards the top of one of many false summits we spot an old peat working which gives us some protection from the wind whilst we eat our sandwiches, bananas and nuts (we know how to live) it also gives us time to review where we’re going. This point is about half way and it looks like we have another quarter of a mile of ‘up’ then we should be on a rather easier way ‘down’ and we’re full of food and optimism in equal parts as we set off on the return.
The views from the top are exceptional but the wind is blowing really hard now and although we can see as far as the A66 it’s so strong that we have to concentrate on what’s directly in front of us to remain upright.
I find a signal on the phone and take the opportunity to download the highest level of detail OS maps and within the next hour will be really glad that I did. The app is already giving us accurate positioning and we can see where we need to go but now, we have details of boggy areas and old mining operations. The former is one to avoid and the latter a confidence booster as we make our way across the almost trackless moor.
We’re down to East Ghyll and less exposed but the lack of track is proving hard work as we have to pick our way through clumps of heather some 2 feet long and a foot wide with 6 to10 inch deep gaps between. We have to be careful as we lower our feet either on to the clump or more tentatively between the clumps each step being a calculated move. We cross numerous streams and find a contour on the North side of East Ghyll that allows reasonable progress in bursts.
At times we find an animal track and they take us to the edge of the ghyll where the river flows 50 or 60 feet below and after a couple of stumbles we all decide on the higher route which is more challenging but less lethal if we fall and, just occasionally, we do.
About an hour in to this terrain and with another couple of miles to go we take a break and as I look around there are some tired expressions. Everyone is still upbeat and two are thrilled as they love the ‘off-piste’ adventure. There’s talk of doing it the other way around in the future but I’m thinking there’s an element of humour in the tone!
As we pick our way through another mile of bracken, heather and peat together with some soggy foot-placements into heavily disguised streams or rivulets running under the vegetation, it’s hard-going. All of this is coupled with more stumbles and the odd fall but the falls are cushioned by the soft heather and no-one is hurt.
George P mentions the Pennine Way and I locate it on the OS Map on my ‘phone. We gather around the screen and discuss a minor detour that will avoid crossing East Ghyll and also allow us to follow the current contour to meet the national footpath in less than a mile.
This has the effect of lifting spirits and we set off again, perhaps not with a spring in the step but certainly with an enthusiastic stride. As we approach a dry-stone wall that’s also marked on the map, we can see the scar of the Pennine Way and head for it across some rather better ground in the form of a meadow. It’s clear that we’re leaving moorland terrain and moving on to agricultural land which usually means less likelihood of shear drops and more rolling hills, we like that.
The Pennine Way takes us to the bridge mentioned at the start of the article and within twenty minutes we’re back at the car park/café in Keld encouraged by cheery smiles and waves from the girls who are already enjoying another coffee unaware of the minor drama that unfolded on the top.
As mentioned previously, we were not in danger as we were all prepared and have many years of walking experience between us but this walk is not recommended for the unfit or unprepared.
Thank you, George Preston, George Renwick, Chris Richardson, Dave Bowman and Dave Rider, excellent day but not for the fainthearted. G x
Radio 4 programme about Alice at Crackpot Hall https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06nr54x