Trails and trials of the writer who walks
My husband does not share my passion for back-packing and probably thought I would grow out of it long before I got my bus pass.
“Lots of people do it,” I say, and leave copies of TGO lying around to prove the point. This year, in deference to advancing age, I buy a tent (which weighs less than my friend’s designer handbag) before setting off along the Cleveland Way.
The 100-mile route is over 40 years old, the M2 of designated trails, if the Pennine Way were the M1. It’s the diva of dramatic views: the escarpments of the Hambleton Hills, the plateau of the North Yorkshire Moors, the cliffs of the ‘iron coast’ – cliffs so high, the Samaritans have posted their contact number on the edge.
The journey begins in Helmsley, a market town with enough history, scenery and cosy pubs to delay a rambler for several days, but I have already indulged myself during previous visits, so this time I head straight off in the direction of the castle to find a street which has been named, with impeccable logic, Cleveland Way.
After walking less than four miles, I have already found an excuse to linger. The elf-kingdom ruins of Rievaulx Abbey turn me into a drooling Hobbit. Dorothy Wordsworth wrote to her brother that she was spellbound by them. In a setting of terraced gardens and riverside pastures, it’s not hard to imagine the wealth of the Cistercian monks at the height of their power. There were said to be 700 people within its walls at one time with income, not only from sheep (14,000 of them apparently), but from fisheries as far away as Teesmouth and from iron ore mines at Wakefield.
I devour this information along with a slab of home-made cake and a pot of strong Yorkshire tea in the Abbey cafe. The next stop will be for a pint of Black Sheep bitter at Osmotherley, over 15 miles away.
By the time I taste that longed-for froth, it’s already evening but Osmotherley is still buzzing with walkers. This is where the Cleveland Way crosses the Coast to Coast which everyone else is following.
Between sips, I listen mindlessly to the throb of my toes and wonder why this is the only pub in England called the Queen Catherine.
Suddenly, I am surrounded by walkers carrying cellos and, yes, they are doing the Coast to Coast. With their cellos. Skeptics can check it out on http://www.extreme-cello.com. It’s for charity of course, so that makes it perfectly normal. The young man with the large white one strapped to his back tells me it weighes 15 lbs.
“But this smaller one, which I carry on my front …” he continues. In a charity group of extreme music on mountain tops, I would be the one with the penny whistle.
As I heave my own pack on to my shoulders, I tell myself, ‘Hey, at least it’s not a cello.’
The Cleveland Way hugs the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors, maintaining its height and providing a constant slide-show of jaw-dropping scenery. At one viewing point, a giant stone armchair has been built – ideal for huddled sandwich eating – in memory of a well-known Yorkshire rambler, Alec Falconer, who must have had a considerable following, as his friends also erected one of those helpful plaques which tell you what you’re looking at.
For several miles I have been glimpsing a hill which is shaped like a pear topped with squirty cream. The plaque confirms it has the entirely appropriate name of Roseberry Topping. The hill was named by Norsemen as Odin’s Rock and used for centuries as a portent of storms. ‘When Roseberry Topping wears a cap, let Cleveland then beware a clap.’
Today, the peak is wearing a cap of brightly-coloured walkers. The fine weather, and a convenient visitor car park, has brought crowds up from the miniature villages, towns, and cities sprawled out in the plains below. On a neighbouring peak, the Captain Cook monument is having an equally busy time. I abandon my idea of camping there, just to say I’d slept with Captain Cook, and carry on until well after sunset for another night on the heather.
The lonely moors come to an end at Skelton Green which has the first shop, cash machine or pub since leaving Osmotherley two days previously. It’s extraordinarily friendly. Men and women hail me from the other side of the street as though they’d been to school with me.
The wooded valley of Skelton Beck is the final corridor to the coast. It’s clearly much-loved by the community: cycling grandads, rope-swinging boys, paddling infants, smiling dogs. All this innocent outdoor play is a wonderful prelude to the traditional seaside ambience of Saltburn-by-the-sea. I’m a child again, in a 1950’s summer holiday.
Perhaps real back-packers don’t pop into hairdressers, and there can’t be many who qualify for a senior citizen cut and blow, but I emerge revitalised. My new ‘coiff’ survives lunch at The Ship, a 15th century smugglers’ pub overlooking the beach, but is mercilessly blown away as I climb the next cliff.
Looking back to Saltburn, I watch the funicular as it trundles up and down between the shore and the Victorian cliff top villas. It’s powered by gravity – a tank of water in the higher car is filled, until the weight takes it down, pulling the lower car up. It all seems so wholesome.
As I turn to leave, black clouds are gathering, but the rain holds off and I am looking forward to the miles of sea views to come, inhaling salty drizzle, filling my ears with the music of Seagull Screech and the Wave-crashers. That, on its own, is rambler heaven. But there’s more. The music is set to film. The cliff tops show a time-line of survival struggles: first against invaders, then the invaders worrying about other invaders, and then, just when all the invaders are nicely settled on our shores and getting on quite well with each other, comes the War.
The Romans had a problem with pirates raiding from Scotland. (Skull and crossbones on the sporran?) At Huntcliff I come across the site of a fortified signal station, commissioned by Emperor Theodosius, to use as a warning beacon.
By the time archeologists began excavation, half of the site had already fallen into the sea. It must have been like reading a murder mystery with the last page missing when they discovered a well containing the remains of 14 people, including women and children. Preserved at the bottom were a leather sandal, a piece of cloth and wooden bowls. Then the rest of the site fell into the sea as well.
War-time invasion defences also landmark the route. A radar station stands unchanged. A pill box presents an open entrance, stone steps tempting me down to its black interior, but I no longer enjoy deliberately scaring myself witless, so I resist.
Near the pill box is an information board. I look forward to some factual titbits, such as there having been around 28,000 of them built, rather hurriedly, in 1940, with around 6,000 remaining, but the information board has other ideas. Underneath the heading ‘Wall to Wall Interest’ is a paragraph which reads ‘Traditional stone walls were originally built to keep farm animals in or out.’ Fascinating. ‘Greatness of Grass’ is followed by ‘Grass is nutritious and versatile. It may be eaten fresh in the field, or you can cut it and preserve it.’ Next week, how to open a gate?
In between looking nervously out to sea and feeding their pigs, the hardy men and boys of Cleveland laboured in ironstone mines and alum quarries, in coves such as Port Mulgrave.
Ironstone, essential for the railway and ship-building industries further north, was brought out of the cliff in trucks and pushed down the rails to the end of the pier. A ship would have been waiting, anchored in the small harbour. The heavy loads would have been hoisted aboard amid a din of pulleys and chains. The sea and the Yorkshire curses would have roared in equal measure.
The cottages overlooking the harbour were built for the white-collar staff. Perhaps the mine manager once gazed down at his enterprise while reaching for a buttered crumpet. It was certainly big business. Labour was imported from as far away as Norfolk and housed in purpose-built accommodation, each property with its own en-suite pig sty.
Port Mulgrave still seems to breathe its history, part mining, part fishing. Perhaps in the near future it will relax into second homes and lobster pot cafes but, for now at least, its past appears raw and undressed.
Moving south down the coast, the heights of the headlands lessen but are squashed into ever steeper formations. Long flights of steps plummet down to the pebbly beaches. Standing at the top of one and gazing across at its matching ascent is daunting. I count seven between Robin Hood’s Bay and Scarborough, but each lonely cove sings of smugglers and secrets.
Some of the hills along the way are former slag heaps, regenerated so successfully, I take them to be nature reserves.
It seems as though the north east coast has only, in the last few decades, finally put its feet up and said “Eh, bonny lass, let’s take things a bit easier. The mining’s flown the nest. Why don’t we just grass over those muck heaps, sit back and look at the sea?” It’s certainly worth looking at.
The Cleveland Way feels like two walks joined together. In the first, I enjoy solitude on the heather-clad moors, waking to a dawn chorus of grouse, the rest of Yorkshire laid out like a map, far below. In the second, I am moved by the power and drama of the seascape and the people who were part of it.
A word of warning though – the urge to photograph every stunning view is irresistible. Add plenty of shutter time to your schedule.