Guess what? It’s raining. Again.
Yes, it’s February. Yes, we’re up north. Yes, it’s winter, but does it have to be so perishing cold? Why am I standing in a puddled layby on the A59, watching trucks speed past, when I could be home, tucked up in bed with a brew?
The answer lies in what happens next. It takes about half a minute of running for the magic to kick in. All I need to do is get off this road and move. Is there a better way to warm up on a chilly morning than to look a steep slope in the eye and take it on?
Within seconds, the heart rate is up, and calves and quads are demanding a break, but the noise of the busy road below fades, replaced by the bleating of sheep and the sound of birdsong. To take a bit of Shakespeare completely out of context, “gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here”.
The climb isn’t easy, but it’s broken with fields we traverse rather than climb. and we grab a breather as we scale huge stone-built stiles. The colours are muted, moss and brown. Gnarled trees are still black and bare, but a calf creep-feeder – painted in pillar-box red – shouts from the hillside. As we reach Halton East, we pass the gable of a chapel – its elaborate stonework at odds with its modest size – and discover a crowd of snowdrops corralled behind a wall.
And then we start to climb again, up a hillside where what appears to be the summit never is, and where the path wanders through sedge and moss, tussocks and water. We cross dry stone walls where the boulders at the base are the size of sacks and wonder at the persistence of the men who built them. Finally, we reach the top of Halton Edge and, pausing to take in the view of Lower Barden reservoir, skip down the other side.
Hare Head seems to be carpeted with cushions of moss, and it’s easy going but it leads to boggy ground where shoelaces need tightening and every other step sinks far below the surface. Below us, a pair of lapwings circle, calling out to distract us from their nesting site. We’re heading back towards a road, peeling off hats and gloves because the rain has gone, and we exchange moorland for forest as we drop into the Bolton Abbey estate, just above the Strid.
The contrast is marked. Here the paths are wide and well-drained as befits a spot that attracts thousands of visitors, but there is nobody out and about this morning. We drop towards the Wharfe through trees that have stood for generations, soft light filtering through, and emerge at the river where a grey heron flies lazily by. We cross at an impressive stone bridge. Built to resemble a castle, it’s an aqueduct with its fortifications a disguise for pipework.
On the north side of the Wharfe, we find a firm path created from crushed blue slate. It’s out of context here but effective, and snakes along the hillside, lifting us swiftly high above the river. Every few yards we pass rocks that have been drilled and split to permit a clear route, and benches fashioned from logs so that visitors can take in the views. We stop at a shelter, take on refreshments and through the trees spy the river, gunmetal grey, far below.
As we get going again, the path descends. The banks around us are thick with the lush foliage of bluebells waiting patiently for spring. We avoid the route towards the Valley of Desolation and head instead to the riverside where there are trees – both alive and long fallen – that have been overtaken by thick, furry lime-green moss. The Wharfe here is flat and wide, clear enough to see the pebbles below the surface, and we cross again at another, much simpler bridge.
The ruins of the priory are clear now, and dramatic in the light of this still improving day. There are hints of sunshine and patches of blue sky, and flat ground that’s easy to run, even if it is somewhat damp underfoot. We climb a short steep flight of steps to the Cavendish Fountain and then drop down again into the priory’s graveyard where the memorials lie horizontal, raised above the ground on turned legs like a collection of macabre coffee tables.
The stepping stones across the river are underwater. We take the sensible route, cross again by a timber-built bridge and leave the high gothic arches and toil of the ancient masons behind. We climb again, out of the valley bottom, squelch across a field fragrant with manure and onto Bolton Bridge, another stone treasure that spans the river.
A few minutes later, we’re heading into another valley and Lob Wood. As we round a corner, there’s the surprise of a viaduct, completely hidden in the trees yet close to a major road. As water drips from its stones, we pass underneath its arches and up a steep bank of slow, heavy mud. The legs are tired now, but the ascent is all but done. We leave the wood behind and cross fields and a farmyard, bathed in pale sunshine that’s carrying just a touch of warmth.
It’s a wonderful descent. The gradients are gentle, and the fields are firm. There’s enough blue sky to hold the looming darker cloud at bay and enough chat to make the last few hundred yards, which are back on the road, pass remarkably quickly.
Now back in that unpromising layby, we are a different bunch. We’ve shown the rain that we won’t be stopped. We’ve worked our hearts. We’ve built on friendships and created new ones, and we’ve seen some fine examples of Yorkshire grit and determination.
And after all that, there’s only one thing for it – a fine breakfast at a cosy cafe. Thanks to The Pantry at West Marton for a warm welcome, a warming stove and a great plate of food.