West-East Crossing, June 8th, 2014, Peter Naish

Friends in Kilburn had long been inviting me to stay, so that I could do the Lyke Wake; when I was asked to give a talk in York on the Saturday it seemed the ideal opportunity to stay an extra day and accept the challenge. As I looked outside at the weather while I was lecturing on that Saturday I was glad not to be on the Moors – it was dire! The forecast for the Sunday wasn’t good, with rain expected from midday onwards, but I needed to travel South again on the Monday, so it had to be Sunday or nothing for the walk. As it happened, it was warm and dry all day, although about 15 minutes after my friends had picked me up from the end there was a real downpour, so the Gods certainly smiled on me! I only wish I had known they were going to, because I could have carried less and travelled faster and more comfortably.

I used the route suggested on the LDWA website, and my friends dropped me off near the reservoir at 6:10, on a very pleasant morning. I found the first ten miles quite arduous – it does go up and down a lot! The Chilterns around me are designed for soft Southerners and they are not half as abrupt in their changes of altitude. Of course the scenery was wonderful, and in a very different way from the kind I enjoy in Oxfordshire.

I soon heard curlews. That’s a special bird call for me, because as a child I used to hear a nature programme on what was then called the BBC Home Service (I’m talking about the ‘fifties I guess) and I seem to remember that the curlew was used as a kind of signature tune. I’ve loved those swooping burbling notes ever since. More than hear, I saw the birds too, and lots of grouse of course, including numerous chicks. It was a wonderful wildlife day and, although not wild, I do like the black-faced, horned sheep – something else we don’t see in my neck of the woods.

With the major ascents and descents behind me it finally became easy to settle into a good stride, with the disused railway making for particularly easy progress. There was one feature of this part of the route not mentioned in any of the guides: a swarm of bees! A large cloud of them was crossing the patch of path that I was about to enter. The good thing about honey bees is that they don’t travel on empty stomachs. They fill up with honey from the hive they are leaving, so that when the reach the site of their new hive they can regurgitate what they haven’t digested. This ensures that they will not be without stores in the new home. Like us after a good meal, the well-filled bees have a benign approach to the world, so, taking care to keep my mouth shut, I walked through the swarm and emerged unscathed on the other side in perhaps half a dozen paces.

The road that followed (near the pub, which I resisted) was obviously smooth and level, but rather boring and certainly a bit hard under foot. However, having been hoping for something softer, I was soon reminded of the old advice to be careful what you wish for because you might get it. The bogs that followed were something else indeed! After the long wet Winter they had obviously been nicely topped up by the previous day’s rains. At least they kept my feet cool, but I didn’t really need my shins and calves cooled too. Those bogs presented mile after mile of serious energy-sapping. Somewhere out there I saw a lone boot. No sign of any bleached bones near by, so I tried to imagine some super athletic walker hopping across the squelching terrain. I was finding it hard enough using both feet!

Eventually I reached the cross at Lilla Howe. From there I saw the sea for the first time, saw the communications mast that was my goal, and was able to get a mobile signal, to let my friends know an ETA. It put a certain spring in my step, although it’s tricky to be entirely springy when the path is an eroded gully, alternately paved with spongy peat, random rocks and watery mud. Anyway, after crossing the steep valley of Jugger Howe Beck (a final sharp reminder of how the walk had started) it was all plain sailing. Well, perhaps “plain” is an exaggeration, since my feet and legs were making sure I didn’t forget they’d already done thirty something demanding miles.

I reached the finish in twelve hours sixteen minutes. To put this in perspective, the Ridgeway 40, which I had walked a month before, also runs from West to East, over exactly the same distance; I did it in under nine and a half hours. My conclusion? It’s right what they say – it’s tough up North!

So there you have it. A wonderful, challenging walk, and I’m at long last qualified as a real live Southern Dirger! My advice to others, especially if doing it alone, is be very sure you are up to it before setting off; there are many demanding miles out there, miles over which you will probably not see another soul.