Richmond to Robin Hood’s Bay
This was the last section of our grand adventure. You can find the earlier sections of the walk from the Cumbrian coast at St Bees Head, here.
Spread over four days we traversed the dull bit around Catterick, climbed onto the plain top of the North Yorkshire Moors and then dropped off that plateau to reach the sea at Robin Hood’s Bay. We ate ridiculously well, saw the weirdy dishes of Fylingdales early warning station, the steam trains at Grosmont, revisited Dad’s past at Maybeck and Falling Foss and sighed deeply at the end.
Leaving Richmond was a chore. It is very attractive and the day was windy. Wainwright, our guide warned us of mud ahead – he wasn’t wrong – and the flat rolling pastures that replaced the higher ridges and crests we had experienced so far. It was rural, very green and pleasant Landish but it lacked the character, the brutality, the viscera of the granite coloured tops and undulating horizons of the past few days. We hankered and while the sun shone and the wind blew we trudged. None of us took any pictures. It felt, sort of, like a waste.
Which is rubbish, of course, because it was gorgeous in its way. We continued to follow the Swale, for starters and it’s as grand a small river as England produces, maintaining its way east with a rugged steadfastness that more famous rivers lack. For sure, it’s managed and manicured and neat and it lacks the portentous views of the Dales and Moors. Yorkshire’s Broad Acres in all their refinement and pastured glory. And flat. Oh how flat. No inclines to test glutes and hammies, no knee-poppers, just mile after mile of plod.
It was 23 miles to Ingleby Cross, in the shadow of the Cleveland Hills. We stayed, as most walkers did, at the Blue Bell Inn. It felt good. Tomorrow would be the last major climb to Live Moor up Beacon Hill (if you ignore the drop down to the next night’s B&B at Great Broughton. It wasn’t much by many standards but it seemed like a real something. And we also had the enjoyment of being joined by another friend for the last few days. Peter and I had known each other since Uni. Played rugby together, holidayed together. I still have his wife’s tortoise, which does sound odd when read out loud. And his sharp, sometimes acid wit was most welcome since eight days in the company of the older generation had worn me down; I’d needed someone on my side (after one especially long and vigorous debate that split the generations we encountered a sharp hill; as was his wont dad slipped to the back and caught us up on the next flat section. Apologetic as ever he offered: ‘I hope I haven’t held you back?’ to which Peter replied ‘Only intellectually.’ Oh that that had been my riposte…)
The North Yorkshire Moors are hard man country. Unremitting. Often bleak. You can see forever up there but sometimes it feels the views have a Dante quality to them as you take in, not the rolling grandeur of the Lakes or the craggy architecture of the Dales, but the enormity of where you stride, rendering your humanity tiny in this expanse of nature. It seems vast like you are crossing the crown of the world, on its top, not on some ridge with sides or in a gully or score. When finally, at the end of our first day on the top we reached the edge and had to drop down to Great Broughton, it felt like we might need to abseil, so sheer was the escarpment. Possibly this sense of freedom, of the boundlessness of the Moors is enhanced by the lack of hedges and fences, the lack of roads, certainly on the western side. It is, in truth, some place. Because, and this comes to you only after you readjust your gaze from the forever, thousand mile stares that feel natural back to the realms of the present, there is ancient history here in trowel fulls. People have lived and loved, worked and warred here for centuries, millennia. It might appear a desert of bog heather and giants’ rock granules, but it is far from deserted.
It took me time to realise it but I wanted more. I enjoyed the Dales and the Lakes, but I enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that came form crossing and leaving them. When eventually we dropped off the Moors for the final time, it felt too soon. I wanted to stay, to come back. One day…
The B&B in Great Broughton surpassed all others. We were immediately offered tea and scones, with Parkin and some sort of berry jam that had the glutinous adhesion of a jilted bailiff. Dinner followed not two hours later. The plates had their own microclimates so huge were they. Mine hostess informed us we were in for a ‘proper Yorkshire roast dinner’ and the Yorkshire pudding would be the best we ever had.
‘How so?’ Offered dad.
‘It’ll cover t’plate, lad,’ came the response.
Dad liked the ‘lad’ and affecting his most cheery chappie persona countered, ‘Surely that’s not possible?’
Oh dad. Don’t you understand that, up here, wit is what you get in the rain, not something you offer to a proud cook about her cooking?
The Lady hustled away, making a noise that was replicated a day later when we encountered the restored steam trains at Grosmont.
When said pudding came it did indeed hang over the sides. Dad’s punishment? He had two puddings. The glacial stare indicated he’d better eat every last morsel.
Dad was many things but he was never less than a gentleman. It might have take a Coniston of gravy and a good hour but that plate was wiped clean. I detected a glimmer of a nod as the dishes were cleared, the only sound coming from the ricochet as dad’s top trouser button circumnavigated the dining room. We all relaxed… until the doors swung open to reveal a tray full of steamed Suet pudding and enough thick viscous custard to convert the whole motorway network into the ultimate yellow brick road.
Somehow we started our second day on the Moors. It rained. No, not rain. Precipitation. Noah like. A drenching. It hosed down. My skin was saturated. It meant we spoke little but that wasn’t a bad thing.
All of our much vaunted and over-discussed anoraks where no match for Yorkshire rain. At some point – the walk did seem rather interminable – we reached the Lion Inn. A tourist trap. As I squelched into the yard a party of American visitors descended their coach and hurried towards the welcoming door. I let them pass. I was beyond soaked and they were still reasonably pristine. One lady, with the sort of voice that can open cans and flatten beer, pointed me out to her companion. As I looked up, a touch bleakly perhaps, she levelled her camera at me. I glared, I glowered but clickety-click went her shutter. Something, some politeness gene lost the will to live and unwound its double helix. ‘Madam, you have just stolen my soul,’ I intoned. She seemed momentarily discombobulated but America wasn’t founded on a lack of chutzpah or a surfeit of self-awareness. She stepped forward and offered to shelter me the last few yards to sanctuary with her brolly. ‘You Brits are just so CUTE!’ she offered.
Ah the Special Relationship. How did we let that happen? Later I learnt she hailed from Kalamazoo. So there you go.
None of us dried out there. We steamed for forty minutes and then set off, meeting our ride by the one marker post that told us we were on the Coast To Coast walk (who knew?)
and ‘Fat Betty’, a rather magnificent medieval marker stone set, incongruously in the verge of a track on Danby Moor. I don’t think we really appreciated her worth by then.
We were done.
The next day we descended Great Fryup Head ( we were all still a bit jittery about these food allusions and took care not to slip on the greasy slopes) to Glaisdale Moor and eventually to the River Esk. Woods reappeared in profusion with the return of human habitations. It was still damp but it felt like we were now on the ‘down’ part of the walk. This was our last main section. Only 19 miles! Pah! The land undulated so the perception of the down was often stymied by a pretty frequent and irritating up. But we had several moments to review what we had achieved and to talk…
We paused in Grosmont and studied the beauteous beasts of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. Steam trains dropped out of service when I was four but for Dad and Ernie they were evocative of the lives they’d travelled as young men. Steam counterpointed excitement and challenges : jobs and the army, holidays and hospitals, romance and loss, all had a component that involved a journey by steam train, the smut and the smoke, the etiquette of the commute, the excitement of the face in the window. Those reminiscences carried us on, beyond a glimpse at the ultra modern, the curved early warning dishes of the Fylingdales base, to the Little Beck and May Beck.
Dad joined up in 1944 with the settled resolve to become a paratrooper. The training was horrendous and part of it was spent in the winter of 44/45 here on the Moors. He remembered 30 miles marches at double time carrying a full pack, sharing the extra load of a Bren gun but what stood out was the day his platoon spent around the Becks. For dad the words ‘May Beck’ would always be associated with a dodgy stew and a paperback copy of the Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan. You see, you couldn’t pause during this training or drop out. Your mates carried you rather than left you and that would be ignominious. So when the inevitable happened and Dad disappeared into a bush for the umpteenth time a colleague offered him his book to use, erm, a page at a time. Eventually the squad reached base and dad handed the somewhat emaciated novel back to its owner. The look of disappointment wasn’t unexpected but the fury that ensued seemed harsh. He had offered the help after all.
‘You didn’t have to rip out the ending, did you?’ came the explanation.
We laughed that day, we smiled a lot. The sun put in fleeting appearances as we hit the coast at Hawkser and meandered to our end at Robin Hood’s Bay where we met Stan and stood on the beach enjoying a sight of the North Sea.
I have so many memories of that walk, and especially of Dad. But the one that will forever stay with me is this.
He took the stone he’d carried since St Bees Head and hurled it into the North Sea. Then he turned, clenched his fists and made eye contact. He didn’t need to say it but I could read that silent speech bubble.
‘We did it, boy, we bloody well did it.’