Most smartphones now have a live tracker which lets you know how many steps you have walked in a day. While relaxing this Summer in Italy after my Dalesway adventure, I clicked on the app to reveal the statistics of my latest challenge. 175,000 that was the number of steps completed in 36 hours, starting in Bowness in Windermere and ending in Ilkley in West Yorkshire, a distance of 82 miles.
Ever since I moved to Ilkley I’ve wanted to complete this iconic long distance trail. Many times over the years I have planned and determined to set off towards the Lakes on foot. This well trodden walk is usually attempted over 5 days with overnight stops in some particularly beautiful locations. In hindsight, the thought of ambling 20 miles a day then enjoying a respite in a boutique hotel or traditional inn with a couple of pints of local ale makes me green with envy.
I have over the years developed a knack for taking what could and should be an enjoyable experience and making it into a feat of mental and physical suffering that is only fun in retrospect! I think they call this type two fun. Of course, I decided that the 86 miles of the Dalesaway could be undertaken in one go. I am not an ultra-runner nor a long distance walker. I do have a decent level of endurance fitness but I had never tested myself in such a way before.
It was a simple plan. I was to set off from Bowness in Windermere as early as possible and walk/run as quickly as I could back to Ilkley. Supported along the way by Helen in our camper van I knew I had a fighting chance of succeeding. I had a Harvey route map and had done a little research into the route which included visiting various forums and blogs online and speaking to friends who had completed it the more traditional way. I new that due to the flooding earlier in the year there would be some diversions but I felt assured from the information available online that between my map and my iPhone navigation wouldn’t be an issue.
I wanted to travel as light-weight as possible but also recognised that I would at least need to carry a waterproof, some food, water a compass and a hat. I took my walking poles as I knew these would take some pressure off my hips and knees. The forecast was not good, in fact it was awful, rain starting as 11:00 and ending goodness knows when. I was determined not to let this put me off, after all as a good friend often tells me whenever I complain about the rain “tha’s not made of sugar lad!”
We arrived in Bowness the night before my proposed departure and enjoyed a good nights sleep in a secluded spot just near the starting point.
As it was my intention to run as much as possible I started off in my fell shoes. I knew these to be comfortable and they would allow me to make quick progress. Waking at first light around 6:00am I grabbed my walking poles, slipped on my rucksack and slid back the door to the camper as silently as possible as Helen was still sleeping. Feeling my body waken with every stride I briskly made my way to the starting point. There is a small stone bench with a small plaque under a large tree, it marks the start of the walk.
Pausing for a quick photo, I glanced over my shoulder and caught sight of the magnificence of Lake Windermere. I imagined how it must feel for those walking from Ilkley to Bowness to finally reach this point and to be greeted by that view. Turning back to the task in hand I set off up the hill following the designated path. Here we go I thought, through the next gate I took completely the wrong path and ended up walking 100 mts down a farm track to a dead end! not a good start, 5 minutes in and I was already lost!! Re-tracing my steps I made my way back to the gate and spied the small yellow arrow that marked the correct direction. It was hiding in the depths of an over-grown hedge. It wasn’t the first time on the journey that I would have to spend time “wummaging through the undergrowth” in a David Bellamy style looking for a way marker. I realised then that I might have to pay more attention to the route than I had been led to believe. Progress was good in the first hour and I felt my nervousness about the journey dissolve a little. Given the time of day there were very few people around save for the usual early risers, postmen and farmers. I soon fell into a steady rhythm, walking the uphills and trotting the flats and the descents. The plan was for me to meet up with Helen around Burnside for a coffee. I reckoned this would take around 2 and 1/2 hours as it was around 10 miles away. This gave her enough time to pack up, get some breakfast and make her way to our rendezvous. At this stage the weather was good, a little overcast but not too cold. For the first 10 miles it was rolling terrain, taking in farmland, public paths and a little bit of road.
I soon skirted around Staveley and was on track to meet Helen. The one problem I encountered almost immediately was wet feet. The grass was soaked with dew and the paths were quite overgrown in places. This meant my feet were saturated very quickly. Whilst it wasn’t an immediate problem ( you get used to wet feet running on Ilkley Moor!) I knew it could be a problem later on. I had anticipated bad weather and had brought 2 spare pairs of “waterproof boots” it turns out such things doesn’t exist! So in my soggy trainers I continued at a pace, it was at around 8:00 that I felt the first spots of rain. I ignored them at first, hoping it would be a passing shower, wishful thinking. Taking my phone out to look at the forecast I quickly realised it wouldn’t be. I put on my water proof and continued along. I won’t bang on about the rain and the cold but I will say that it didn’t stop for the next 14 hours. I was, after a time, wetter than an otter’s pocket and stayed that way all day.
A rather sketchy phone signal meant that contact with Helen was difficult. I arrived at the agreed meeting place but on ringing her found out she was still 20 minutes away. By this time it was bucketing it down. I don’t mind the rain (much) and I don’t mind the cold but standing still in the rain getting cold is little fun so we agreed that I should push on and using the find me app on the iPhone message service she would come and meet me en-route. This worked well and it was a technique we employed throughout the challenge. Seeing the van lifted my spirits and the 10 minute respite from the rain was much needed. I sat in the van and reflected on the first few hours. My head slowly sank lower as the condensation rapidly misted up the windows. I changed my socks and put on fresh “waterproof” hiking boots. It was fairly obvious to me that given the conditions I wouldn’t be able to run at any sort of pace and that a brisk walk would be better.
“Can I get you anything?” Helen asked, I thought for a moment whilst a drip of water made its way down the top of my nose and landed in my lap. “yes” I replied ” some fresh socks and an umbrella!”
I set off again, still with a degree of enthusiasm. I had enjoyed the sounds of natures reveille in the first few hours but the constant rattle of raindrops on my hood had all but drowned out any other sounds. I decided to plug into one of my favourite podcasts and enjoy a bit of 5 live “wittertainment”. We had revised our plan, Helen was going to head into Kendal to find fresh supplies (not mint cake, I can’t stand the stuff!) and meet me again at Holme Park Farm which was right next to the M6. I wasn’t sure if the Dalesway route passed under it via a tunnel or over it on a bridge. I hoped for the former, it might then at least provide a bit of shelter. This next stretch was around 6 miles so we reckoned a couple of hours at the most. I thought I would need something to eat by then so a sandwich was added to the shopping list.
The dry boots worked well for a while until I reached a diversion through a field, the long damp grass quickly sent water coursing down my legs and into my boots. One problem I have always found with waterproof footwear is that it often holds the water in as efficiently as it keeps it out. This is great in that it keeps your feet warm, like a wetsuit, it is bad in that your feet start to literally dissolve. I squelched along at a good pace, I had plenty of snacks, I had my audible entertainment and I had lots of water both in me and surrounding me! Enforced mobile silence continued as a lack of any signal meant Helen had no idea of my progress. I faced another detour, there were many because the floods earlier in the year had damaged many of the bridges and paths. Some of these diversion are marked on the website http://www.dalesway.org but some are not and it isn’t easy trying to figure out which route to take, especially when you are standing in the pouring rain and all the diversion maps,markers and signs look like a botched chromatography experiment. I had to resort in many instances to the thing men enjoy the least, asking for directions. People were only too pleased to offer assistance and I always enjoyed the look on there faces when they asked where I had come from and where I was heading. The conversation often followed the same pattern
“are you doing the Dalesway?”
“when did you set off?”
“This morning at 6:00, from Bowness”
“where are you stopping next”
“No, I mean where next”
“Ilkley, I am doing it in one go”
“Really! is it possible?”
“I don’t know, I hope so”
“Good luck, you picked the worst day for it”
It is the last statement that got to me the most. I don’t mind poor weather, you just zip up and get on with it. That said I am a bit fed up with doing every outdoor activity in the seemingly never ending mud and rain. I don’t know if it is a blip in the jet-stream, a fluctuation in El Nino, global warming or just me getting older and grumpier. What I do know is that in the last fewer it has been getting worse. I spend a large percentage of my free time outside and you get to notice these things!
Back to my Dalesway; I met Helen, using the find me button on the text message service and enjoyed a hot tea and a sandwich.
She said nothing for 5 minutes as I ranted about wet feet, dodgy diversions, aggressive cows and continuous rain. She just soaked it all up then pulled out a bag of fresh socks, some seal skins in fact and a big bottle of talc, perfect. We quickly rigged up a some drying lines in the van and had it looking like the proverbial chinese laundry but smelling like the bottom of a wheelie bin!
Confident that I would now be able to keep my feet in one piece I set off again, over the M6, damn, and on towards our next meet up point Dent. Helen was going to take the van to Sedbergh, do a bit of browsing and meet me around 18:00. I knew this would be a tricky section it was a long flat drag, there was very little change in gradient as I followed the valley bottom, I would liked to have enjoyed the views of the Howgill hills but visibility was about 50 metres. Following the west coast mainline train track along a field for quarter of a mile before I finally arrived at a footbridge where I was able to cross over. With perfect timing when I was halfway across the Virgin express came whistling along full chat beneath me. I nearly let out a loud childlike whoop as it passed, the adrenaline it stimulated kept me buoyed for the next couple of miles.
Along much of the route I passed under, over and along remnants of our revolutionary transport past. The Beeching cuts in the 1960’s forced the closure of many lines that you can’t help but think would be a wonderful well used resource now. What is left behind, stunning examples of victorian architectural engineering at its best. These relics of progress stand proudly in our landscapes and demonstrate man’s ability to bend even the most difficult terrain to our will.
Following the course of the River Lune I battled slowly onwards towards Dent. I was very tired hungry and wet at this point. I also had the added problem of a pain developing in my left knee. By adopting a limping gait I was able to take the pressure off it and hoped as I so often do with problems like this that it would just go away! Passing through Millthrop I reckoned I had a couple of miles to go to Dent, I passed a reading it read “Dent 3 miles” I cursed, the pain in my knee seemed to get worse in reaction to the extra mile, I tried to quicken my step but knew it would be at least an hour until I could rest.
Approaching Dent I still hadn’t made any contact with Helen. I knew this village well, having visited it many times before. Helen had not, but knowing how resourceful she is I knew she would find me. I limped into towards the public car park, it being the obvious place to look first and there I immediately spotted our van. Walking up to it I yanked at the door hoping to see Helen’s cheery face but the door stuck fast. It was locked and Helen was nowhere to be seen. Damn, I thought, what do I do now? I looked around the immediate vicinity but there was no one around. I was getting a little agitated as I knew time was against me. I just wanted to get some food, to dry off a little and change my socks. There was nothing else to do but head down the high street and look for her. I passed the Sun Inn, a man standing in the door way nodded in my direction “you look lost” he stated.
“I’m not lost but I have lost my wife” I replied and went on to quickly explain my predicament.
“I haven’t seen anyone walk by, maybe she is in here” He gestured behind him to the pub. I looked over his shoulder, through the window I could see the orange flicker of the open log fire, the people sitting around it were all nursing pint glasses of dark ale. Worth a look I thought. One very satisfying pint later I was back in the high street making my way back to the car park. Helen popped out from around the side of the van “Oh, there you are I replied” I often get hangry (hungry/ angry) so struggled to keep the grumpiness out of my voice. I decided I had better eat quickly. We warmed up a pan of spaghetti carbonara and I took on some energy drink.
My spirits quickly lifted. Another change of socks accompanied by a liberal sprinkling of talc and I was ready for the off again. I popped in some ibuprofen to try and ease the pain in my knee and took a couple along with me in case it developed.
By this stage I had covered around 38 miles, not even half way. I knew the next section would be the toughest and longest. It was 15 miles to Oughtershaw which lies at the head of the Wharfe valley, my home valley. I felt that if I could get there then I would make it. I packed a couple of head torches as I knew I would soon be walking in the dark.
Leaving Dent I felt a degree of urgency as daylight was fading. We had reckoned on sunset at around 21:30 it was around 19:00 and already getting the light had a gloomy air. Following the River Dee I made my way through Dentdale, picking my way along paths that skirted past farm houses and the occasional campsite. At Cowgill I followed the road, passing what I knew would be the last signs of civilisation for a while. The Cow Dub pub was lit up and locals and tourists alike were filing in, I solemnly walked past. I still had the taste of beer in my mouth and craved another one. Turning away hesitantly I continued up the rapidly steepening valley.
I had cycled this way a few times on the “Etape du Dales” so knew what to expect. The gradient ramped up sharply and I had to dig deep to keep up my pace. Out of the gloom and the mist loomed the Dent Head viaduct, passing under it my thoughts turned to the next few hours and what lay ahead. I was soon to turn off onto Blea Moor. I don’t know why they didn’t just stick the “k” on the end of the name because bleak is the only way to describe it. I have mentioned, all to much, the rain and the wet conditions well Blea moor made everything else seem like a dry walk in the park. In places it was ankle deep mud and there was no avoiding it.
In the rapidly fading light I followed Black Rake Road beleiving it would lead me to the main road where I would hopefully cross over to make my way to Cam Head and my target destination. I am still not quite sure what went wrong but I suddenly became lost. Well not exactly lost but not exactly sure where I was. I could see the main road but the path I was on wasn’t the one marked on my route. It was probably a combination of tiredness, lack of visibility and general incompetence!
I thought my best bet would be to head directly for the main road and work out where I was from there. I managed this, only by wading through knee deep bog, and found myself on a very familiar road (it runs from Hawes to Ribble head viaduct) but where exactly was I on it? I couldn’t be sure. I had no signal on my phone and no defining features around me that I could transpose onto the map. I had to choose to go left or right in the hope that I would pick up a sign or the path. I chose left, oops. I walked about half a mile until a small hump backed bridge came into view. I looked at the map and found the bridge, I should have gone right. I was now nearly a mile in the wrong direction. What to do? I could have gone back down the road and looked for the Dalesway sign in the fading light but knew this would add at least 30 minutes and gave no guarantee that I would find it. Or I could cut straight up the hill in front of me and hope that would intersect the path higher up. I knew that if I kept my back to the road and set a compass bearing off the road I would pick up the Dalesway again. I also knew that I had about 30 minutes of light left and that I couldn’t afford to make a mistake.
Jogging up the steep slope trying to hold my compass in one hand and the map in the other I felt a wave of frustration wash over me. I tumbled over several times as I tried to make my way over one foot tall tussocks of grass whilst trying to maintain a straight course. I wouldn’t say I was at all scared but an increasing sense of panic crept up on me. No one knew exactly where I was, I had a limited amount of food and there was very little shelter. I never felt completely in danger as it wasn’t particularly cold but it would have made for an uncomfortable night if I had sprained an ankle and had to stop.
I worried most for Helen because I knew she would be concerned if i didn’t make it to Oughtershaw by the agreed time 23:00. To try and mitigate against any further errors I double checked my heading and put in place a catching feature to ensure I didn’t over shoot the path. Fortunately Cam woodlands ran parallel to the path for about 1/2 a mile and was clearly marked on the map. Even in the twilight I knew I would be able to see the trees and know where I was. Continuing at a trot and using a great deal of energy I finally made it to the top of the slope and just as the last of the light disappeared saw the trees and then the path. I needn’t have worried about missing it, as far as paths go the Dalesway in places is akin to the M1! I put my head torch on, turned left and relaxed a little.
I knew there was a right fork to take on the Cam High road that would lead me along Oughtershaw Moss. I reckoned I had around 3 miles to go and the sign at the fork confirmed it. I looked at my watch 22:00 was on track for a 23:00 ETA. At this point the heavens really opened up and the wind too, fortunately it was at my back so pushed me along. Having to take a little more care in the pitch dark I followed the path which was at this point just a ribbon of quagmire. Then I suddenly hit rush-hour! Not for me, but for the dozens of frogs that now accompanied me on the path. I had to have nimble feet to avoid treading on them as they did nothing to move themselves out of the way. The route finally made its way off the damp moorland and picked up a farm track . I knew it wouldn’t be long until I could enjoy a rest. Spying lights in the distance and believing them to be the village of Oughtershaw I quickened my pace once again. Approaching the lights I realised with despair that it was just an isolated farmhouse, Swarthghyll Farm. Looking at the map I worked out that I still had another painful mile to go. My previously quickened pace soon became a trudge. I was shattered at this point.
I had been going in tough conditions for 18 hours and I was coming to the edge. I inched my way to Oughtershaw and at 23:30 as I passed through the village I spotted the camper in a lay-by. All was quiet and dark, so I hoped it wasn’t going to be a repeat of what happened in Dent. Quietly approaching the side door I opened it and saw Helen’s head lift from sleep.
“I was worried about you ” she said. Not so worried that you fell asleep, I thought! I can’t say I blame her though, it had been a long day for both of us and she had done a fantastic job, especially having to navigate down all those unfamiliar small country lanes, in the dark in the rain. I quickly made myself something to eat and drink and took stock of my physical condition. My legs felt OK, my muscles hurt but the pain in my knee had gone, or I was just so used to it I no longer felt it. I was tired and wet but felt good to carry on. I made the wise decision to try and rest for a few hours. It was blowing a gale outside and looking at the forecast knew it wouldn’t last much longer. In fact, the forecast for the next day was dry with lots of sunshine, a real bonus. I knew I wouldn’t sleep but decided to try and lay down anyway. Listening to the drumming of the precipitation on the metal roof and feeling the sway of the van in the wind I must have dozed. Around 03:30 I got up, as quietly as I could and began to think about making a move. I must have been going in slow motion because it was 04:15 before I slid the van door open and set off again. The few hours rest had enabled me to dry off both myself and my socks and boots. Getting going again was always going to be difficult. My joints protested as I tried to cajole them back to life. It was necessary to use my head torch for the first 30 minutes but as I was following the road for a while I soon realised I didn’t need it. It was good to be back on familiar territory. I had cycled up and down this valley dozens of times. I knew it was around 35 miles back to Ilkley. On ,my road bike it would have taken a little over 90 minutes. Walking and jogging at the pace I was I knew it would be at least 12 painful hours before I reached Ilkley!!
My next target was Kettlewell, and I had it well in my sights as I knew I would be able to get a coffee and something to eat. We had decided that Helen should drive home, have a bath, feed the cats and find me at lunchtime in Grassington. Some friends had agreed to meet up and walk a while with me, Andrew would come with Helen to Grassington and Gavin and his family would meet me further along on the path heading into Burnsall.
From Oughtershaw to Kettlwell you follow the River Wharfe, passing through Buckden and Starbotton, this section was about 15 miles. Some of it followed the road, these were the toughest sections. I was getting pressure sores on my feet from where they were constantly sliding in the mud. The hard tarmac surface seemed to exaggerate the pain and I was always grateful when the path turned again to a softer terrain. It was a fine morning and an hour into the day the sun finally burst out.
There was plenty of wildlife around, as well as the expected sheep and cows I saw an abundance of birds. Arriving in Kettlwell I made my way to the nearest cafe, feeling the need for coffee, a bacon buttie and a catch-up on the phone. With my breakfast order placed I tapped back into the internet and duly informed all my well wishers and supporters of my progress. It was hard leaving the warm confines of the cafe but that walking wasn’t going to do itself and I now had a fresh deadline to meet Helen and Andrew. The next section leaving Kettlewell takes a sharp turn out of the valley bottom up onto the ridge plateau above Swinger Scar. Leaving the road and striking off up the hill I was briefly accompanied by some men dressed in wet-suits and diving masks. They were cavers and we teased each other about who was the more mad, me doing the Dalesway in a one-er or them disappearing underground into a dark wet, muddy cave on such a lovely day. Definitely them! I was afforded a wonderful view of Kilnsey crag as I walked along the ridge, squinting hard I could just about make out the red jacket of a climber half way up the over-hanging pitch and the yellow one of his colleague at the bottom on belay.
Fortunately for the next few miles the wind was behind me again and I soon began the descent into Grassington. It was nearing 11:00 so was on target and was able to let Helen and Andrew know my exact position, once again using the text message feature. This section was familiar to me as I had run it sveral times. Setting off from Grassington it forms the first few miles of the annual Wharfedale marathon. This time I was doing it in reverse and on anything but fresh legs! Coming into Grassington I had mixed feelings. I knew I only had 20 odd miles to go but having done them all on my own so far I wasn’t sure how i felt about walking with someone else. Approaching the van and seeing Andrew eager and ready I knew immediately that it would be a good thing. I hesitantly changed into some heavier but hopefully more comfortable boots, not knowing if they would ease or exacerbate the pain that was creeping up my shins.
I hastily devoured the pork pie that Andrew had kindly brought with him and together we set off. He was the ideal walking companion at that stage, happy to walk at my pace and happy to listen for the first hour to my incessant grumbles about bad weather and wet boots. We made good progress and within an hour had moved some distance from Grassington en-route to Burnsall. Here we were met by Gavin and his family. The walk soon took on the form of a family outing as Gavin and Carol’s two young daughters Elise and Emma marched along side us. This distraction was just what I needed to take my mind off the pain in my legs and shins. Munching on a bag of cherries the girls had brought along we made our way towards Burnsall and the Red Lion pub. Knocking back a pint, sitting in the sun on the banks of the river I could have passed for one of the multitude of day trippers that surrounded me. I hoped that the uplift from the beer and the rest would power me onwards to the finish.
From here Gavin, Carol and their girls took their leave and Andrew and I continued on, past Appletreewick and towards Bolton Abbey where he had left his car. The route from Grassington onwards was choked with people and made quite a contrast to the isolation I had both endured and enjoyed the previous evening on Gayle moor. The route finding also required no effort as it was very well marked in the Wharfe valley, in contrast to the poor signage on the first half of the walk! Making our way through the Devonshire Estate that is Bolton Abbey I really began to falter. Each step became increasingly painful, bizarrely it was going down hill that hurt the most and I had to adopt an old man, crab-like gait to descend even the most modest of inclines. I rejoiced when I saw an uphill as that gave me no pain at all! battling on to the Cavendish cafe I suggested Andrew go on without me. I knew he had family visiting and was already late. Like an injured soldier I urged him to leave me behind and to go on with out me. He replied simply with three comforting words “Don’t be daft”.
Arriving at the Devonshire I met up with Helen again. She had parked next to Andrew’s car in a small lay-by. As soon as we had said our goodbyes and he had gone I climbed into the back of the van and pretty much physically and emotionally collapsed. It was around 15:00 and I knew I only had 6 miles to go (on a good day I would run this in 45 minutes) but this wasn’t a good day and I was in agony. Every step felt like I was alternately putting my legs into a bucket of lava then ice. Helen at that point took control, she removed my backpack, sorted out some medication and told me she was going to walk to the finish with me. I set off again, feeling the acute pain with every step. Somehow, with much cajoling, complaining and cramping we made our way towards Ilkley and the finish line. Helen was busy on her phone at times updating family and friends on my progress and I knew that some people were waiting to cheer me home.
I finally believed I would make it as I passed through the village of Addingham and spotted Ilkley Moor.
Digging deeper than I have ever done before, I pushed myself through the last couple of miles. With 500 mts to go some friends met us and together we walked along the river side to the end. I would like to say I felt elated at completing it but I didn’t. I was so exhausted I didn’t really feel anything. I sat on the stone bench that marks the start/finish point, posed for a couple of photographs and removed my boots.
I was completely done-in and wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep. After a while I managed to walk in my socks to the Ilkley moor vaults. Three pints later I felt revived and as I made my way home in the car allowed myself a little smile of satisfaction. Blimey, I thought, I made it.
24 hours of moving time
I undertook this challenge in part to test myself and in part to raise funds and awareness for Raleigh international. More details can be found at my just giving site: