“You do know the weather forecast is horrific, yes?”
“Yes. But I am MIKE!”
“Er – I’m MIKE. It’s…it’s like a rallying cry. I’m facing off against the world, see. Staring it down. And there can be only one winner.”
“Well yes. That’s certainly true.”
My housemate eyes me pityingly as I continue to lace up my boots.
Imagine northern England was underneath your fingers. You run them up the soft scoop of land between the Pennines and the Wolds, marvelling how smooth it all feels (country-sculpting pro tip: glaciation removes all known lumps, even those really stubborn ones). Over York you go, the spires of the Minster scratching your fingertips, and then further up the Vale until the land starts to corrugate, gentle rises turning to deep waves in the earth, lifting your hands higher and higher – and suddenly it’s like you’re touching a stiff shoe-brush, or someone’s 2-day stubble. You look down – and the hills are bare of trees, of houses, of anything. The land looks mangey, or burnt to the quick. And your fingers are cold.
You reckon it would look lovely up here in the summer (perhaps even lovelier in early September, the low vegetation burnished russet and lilac), but this is bare October and in bad weather it’d be savage.
Only an idiot would risk it on foot.
Come on, I say to myself as I stuff fair-weather gear into the inner liner of my rucksack. This is England. England. Nuns on bicycles, warm beer, mustn’t grumble, khaki shorts in winter, damp sandwiches in cling-film, deck-chairs and ice-cream. This is not the Himalaya. Or even Scotland! You’re doing the right thing in ignoring the weather report. Don’t forget this is the country that refuses to run trains because there’s leaves on the track. “Bad weather warning”. Pah. The Met Office is catering for doddery old dears and families infested with the kind of whiny pasty-faced urchins that would define “adventurous” as spending 12 hours on a Wii instead of an Xbox. They don’t mean outdoorsy types should stay indoors. They don’t mean you, old son.
Anyway, it’s my birthday and I’ll do what I please, thankyouverymuch.
And hey, what’s the worst that can happen in England?
It’s 6 hours later.
What you’re looking at is a satellite imagery mock-up I’ve made. I don’t have any photos of my walk on Friday afternoon, because my camera – along with my phone, my stove lighter and anything else sensitive to the damp – was in a plastic bag, balled tightly in the centre of my rucksack, surrounded by various layers of clothing, emergency rations and cooking gear. Despite my rucksack having a plastic inner liner, everything outside that tightly-wadded core was utterly, utterly sodden. This was because I’d been walking through a rainstorm for the last 4 hours.
I’m on that bright, pale road that runs from the left-nearest edge of the screen, down the hill to a low concrete bridge (you can see it as a brighter square, just before the dark shadow of a car heading up the other side). To the right is the last few yards of Cropton Forest, which I’ve been slipping, sliding, squelching and cursing my way through since 1pm. To the left is the barely-seen bulk of Black Rigg, the first of Wheeldale Moor’s colossal barren hillsides.
There’s a car reversing towards me. This is the car that passed me ten minutes ago, gingerly hissing its way down the rain-lashed road, going slowly because it wasn’t at all clear where the road ended and the verge began. Now it’s turning tail, and is soon past me and heading back towards the treeline. Since these are the only people I’ve seen in an hour I fight the urge to run after them, but I’m more curious about why they’ve turned round…
The bridge was right at the nook between two hills, and designed to allow for a bit of flooding. I knew this because there was a pole placed next to it, marking off the height of the water. Now, these bridges are really quite fun if you’re a driver (which I’m not – but I’ve seen their effect on drivers). There’s a bit of water. Something in you shrieks “the only way is FAST!” and you immediately tool down the hill at a mad old lick and power across, enjoying how the water scythes into the air on either side with a roar like the intense bit of an automated car-wash. Then you laugh delightedly, and try to salvage your relationship with the car’s other occupants. It’s a pattern.
Perhaps the driver of that little red hatchback could have powered his or her way across a near-metre’s depth had it been slow-moving – but right now, the bridge was hidden under a racing, foaming tumble of floodwater. This ordinarily innocuous-looking watercourse goes by the vivid name of Sod Fold Slack (I’m not making this up), and in good weather it’s probably a cinch to cross on foot.
And now too, in fact. I found a part that wasn’t too fast-flowing, and waded straight in. The water went a little higher than my knees and I felt the mud sucking up and over my ankles – but it didn’t really matter. Everything I was wearing had been soaked right through for the last 2 hours, my boots so much so that water had been squirting up my leg with every step for the last hour. It made no difference – I couldn’t get wetter. I was already wettest.
It was around this point that I started to formulate my Birthday Insights.
(In my head, I mean. My notebook was a ball of mush by this point).
Birthday Insight No. 1:
Everywhere is unsafe if you’re incautious enough.
Birthday Insight No. 2:
It’s very important to pack some kind of coffee-making facility that even works in the driving rain.
The third occured to me halfway up the opposite hill, the wind starting to pluck at my hood…
Birthday Insight No. 3:
Being in heavy rain is like being in a job.
It’s incessant white noise, too loud to think about anything properly, too demanding to ignore, too urgent to do anything but react. It’s novel and empowering at first, but that wears off when you realise it’s not going to end anytime soon. For rain and for jobs to be fun, you need to have a rough idea of when they end. That’s how to stay sane when you’re in them.
Birthday Insight No. 4:
Frusli bars are smaller than I remember.
I have one final Birthday Insight that day, and it comes 90 minutes later, as I’m scrambling up a frighteningly overgrown hillside, slipping on treacherous outcrops of sandstone, the waist-deep heather tearing at my numb hands, until one unseen smear of mud sends me down painfully onto one knee.
I start to panic a little. It’s 5pm and it’s getting dark (although technically it’s already dark). I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of where I am, yet I haven’t checked my map in half an hour now. I look around, and beyond the slashing rain the hills don’t seem to be in the right order. I was sure I’d have met the road by now. Where was the road? Not there.
So. I was lost. I was wet and cold and exhausted and lost in the middle of the North York Moors on the foulest day of the year, and I didn’t even have a tent to clamber into, because I was staying in a caravan in Goathland tonight, somewhere out there, beyond the curtain of water.
Birthday Insight No. 5:
This is how people die.
And that was enough to get angry at myself, to huddle over a rock and drag my map out (soggy with condensation inside its plastic sleeve), grab my compass and double-check every single assumption I was acting on. And here’s the thing: my plan until now had been good, based on the last time I checked my map. But going up the hillside, my judgement had gone awry. I’d shifted my planned direction 90 degrees, turning northeast into southeast inside my head. I wasn’t going the wrong way – but I soon would have done. Instead of walking over the crest and down into Goathland, I’d have blundered onto the top of Two Howes Rigg and perhaps further, staying on exposed hillsides, until….
Instead, I trudged on for another half-hour until suddenly, as it always seems to, Goathland appeared from between the hills like a child’s pop-up book. I scramble-slipped down the hillside and onto the road, past the church and to the brick-walled bus-shelter, clambering in, shrugging my rucksack off and sitting, just sitting, until my thoughts had stopped whirling and my breathing had slowed and I was truly here again, not locked away in some adrenaline-fuelled endurance mode of autopilot.
I briefly considered getting my pots and pans out and making a brew. In a bus shelter. But no. Too eccentric, even for me. Even after all that.
Well, North York Moors. You did your worst. Or…no, you didn’t. It’s October, not February, and it’s raining, not snowing. That’s probably not your worst by far. But it’s plenty bad enough for me. You’ve proved your point, via 60% of October’s average total rainfall in one day. And aye, it’s a valid point. You win. And I can’t manage the 9 miles to Whitby tomorrow, psychologically or otherwise, no matter how nice the weather reports say it’ll be (terrific things, weather reports – I intend to follow them religiously from now on).
But this was a good lesson.
And this was a good birthday.