Unsupported crossing 7th June 2017

First time Dirgers: Dave Ellis, Martin Ward & Chris Raynor

My father, John Raynor, did the LWW five times between 1970 and 1972 with a group of friends calling themselves ‘The Boggy Booters’. The Booters’ badge (Dad’s design) was a toilet bowl with a walking boot balanced on top, the boot taking the place of a semi-flipped-up toilet seat. To my younger self the LWW was something dark and intriguing, oft mentioned by Dad and his friends, a collection of patches, objects and crossing cards in a coffin-shaped box in the dining room table drawer. I remember thinking about doing the walk in my twenties, but never that seriously. Four or five years ago I bought the twin OS maps of the North York Moors, but it wasn’t until after Dad’s funeral in 2015 that planning began in earnest. A very tall fellow called Steve Otter – one-time dirging companion of Dad – approached me at the funeral suggesting a trip to the moors.  My sister and I went with Steve last year, up to the viewpoint on Cringle Moor, with a good meal at Lord Stones Cafe on the way back. Hence, this crossing was conceived in dedication to John Edward Raynor (1938 – 2015) husband and father, draughtsman, trumpeter, history buff, ex-soldier and Dirger.

So it happens that I find myself in Osmotherley at 5pm on 7th June, the day after my 45th birthday, eating fish and chips with two friends from work on a bench outside the chippy. Dave and Martin are both younger than I am. Martin is undoubtedly physically the fittest. Bellies perhaps a little too full, we drive up by the reservoir to the Lyke Wake Stone and prepare to walk. My backpack is the largest and heaviest, a heavy-duty modern military type 45l (I’m navigating so I also have the maps and compass; I also have a serious quantity of Snickers bars). Dave’s pack looks about the same size as mine but is clearly a touch lighter. Martin’s is suspiciously small – day-sack sized – can he really have all he needs? My boots are also heavy duty: an almost new pair of Asolo’s I bought when I realised my previous pair were leaking. Not ideal, but I’m happy I’ve worn them in with about fifty miles’ walking. Dave’s boots look quite lightweight, and I wonder how he’ll fare on the boggy section.

(In April this year I practiced the LWW route over two days, staying at the Lion Inn, Blakey, overnight. The weather was fine and had been for nearly a week before, but the boggy section was still boggy and at one point I worried about the mud claiming a boot and a gaiter. On that walk I met a couple who told me about an organised LWW they’d done after bad weather, when they’d been issued with heavy duty bin liners to use as disposable waders. I have heeded their advice and passed it on.)

Recent weather has not been good. It’s fine as we get ready, but if the BBC forecast is correct it will start raining at ten or eleven this evening and probably won’t stop until after we’re done. At 6.15 – two hours earlier than planned – we touch the stone and start walking, falling quickly into a pattern: Martin ahead, Dave in the middle and me bringing up the rear. The early wooded sections are pleasant, any potential shelter offered by the trees being taken completely for granted. At the viewpoint on Cringle Moor I pay my respects to Dad’s hat, which he lost here to a long-ago gust of wind. All is well as we tackle the series of ascents and descents which characterise the next few miles. My boots are rising a bit at the back. Possible blister warning, but it’s not too bad. I’m losing ground to the others though, particularly on the downhill, listening to the bitter voice of experience and taking my time so as not to traumatise my knees.

At the top of the descent to checkpoint two we stop to size up the path ahead. The sun won’t be with us for much longer. Halfway up the other side, in twilight, it starts to rain. Not hard: ‘heavy drizzle’ would be the best description (It turns out the BBC were spot-on: apart from a brief dry-spell in the mist before Hamer, ‘heavy drizzle’ will be our constant companion for the remainder of the walk). Before long it’s head torches on and I begin to notice a strange optical effect: The ring of darkness between the snorkel of my hood and the circular beam of my head torch appears to be inside my hood, like the edge of a heavy set of goggles. The effect is enhanced by my hood completely protecting my face from the rain, which is blowing from the right. Indeed, my memory of that section of the walk is of wearing goggles. I definitely wasn’t wearing goggles.

We hit the railway and it’s a good thing the path is so well-defined: visibility has taken another turn for the worse. At first I think it’s because we’ve turned into the rain, but it’s fog that’s the problem: we can see no more than three or four metres with our head torches on. We’ve been walking the railway line for what seems a very long time, and morale takes its first dent. I don’t feel so bad, but I’ve been here before and I’m confident in my own map reading (and that following the very obvious track will ultimately lead us to where we need to be). The others have never been here, have no idea if my navigation skills are up to scratch, and very possibly believe I’m about to get them lost on the moors at night, in the rain and fog with no shelter. With some small misgivings we pass a handmade sign pointing left off the path marked ‘LWW’. From the map it seems this is a shortcut over rougher ground, cutting out the Lion Inn completely, but this isn’t an option as we need to replenish our water at the Inn’s outside tap. Privately, I’m relieved to have to stick with the clear, wide track of the railway.

Martin informs us he’s been sleeping, which is strange because we haven’t stopped. He has apparently fallen asleep while walking. I hope he’s not been actually sleep-walking because I’ve seen people in a sleep-walking state before and they give me the willies. It’s a good job the path at this point is so straight and without obstacles, and that Martin was in front. We stop briefly and he’s fine. The sleep has apparently done him some good.

We all agree we could do with some half-decent shelter for our wee-hours meal. Things get tense when I express surprise at the compass heading, but I figure we must be further ahead than I thought and identify what I proclaim to be a shortcut to the Inn, up a track heading west. If I’m right it’s the same shortcut I took before. Martin asks how certain I am. ‘Eighty percent’ I say. They look nonplussed. ‘Ninety’ I say, wanting to inspire a little more confidence. We’re all very relieved when we hit the road a few minutes later (though I try not to appear too relieved).

Unbeknown to me, the Lion Inn has taken on Shangri-La-like proportions in the minds of my fellow walkers. Martin will later confess he was hoping for a late night lock-in. After a fruitless scout round for shelter we settle for the corner bench next to the entrance, where we have the rain and an empty pint glass for company. We can see inside where the dimly lit chairs and tables sit smugly and distant beer taps mock us outright. It isn’t quite the R’n’R we were hoping for. Never mind. We eat in silence, fill up on water and get going. Martin and Dave want to press on, but I’m aware that soon we’ll be leaving the roads and tracks for marsh and mud, something I’m not comfortable with in the dark.

On the road after checkpoint three it’s as though we’ve not rested. It’s the constant rain: water torture, light but insistent. I tell them there’s a stone called Fat Betty round here but we must have walked right past her. Martin appears to have just experienced some mild hallucinations, having had flashes of petrol stations and bins at the side of the road. He’s tired and we stop at the small car park to sit down. Martin will later say he thought there were other people there with us (there weren’t). He falls asleep sitting and wakes ten minutes later, saying he feels as though he’s slept for hours. It’s clear that dawn is approaching fast and all three of us feel much better in ourselves and about the whole enterprise in general.

The bogs are bad, but not as bad as I worried they might be considering the grim weather. Martin, being the most athletic of us and carrying the lightest load, jumps across some of the worst bits. I opt for a different tack, trusting my boots and gaiters to cope with some of it and testing the footing ahead with a prod from the long wooden stick I’m carrying. Dave watches how Martin and I fare and adjusts his route accordingly. This is fun! Minds engaged, sun rising behind the mist, the rain slacked off, not entirely sure which direction we’re supposed to be heading but figuring it out and getting on. At one point Dave dons the pair of bin liners he’s brought and is immediately glad he did when he sinks knee-deep in the mud. Eventually the rain comes back and we settle into this new phase of the walk, where uneven footing is the norm, punctuated by mud pits and patches of swamp. I start to see faces in the path, either in the pattern of stones and soil or on the surface of larger rocks. Most look friendly. A few of them look like skulls.

Dave and I have slowed, whereas Martin has maintained – if not quickened – his pace. I catch up with Martin, who seems to be hiding in a grouse butt, head occasionally popping up. He’s found a small furry creature in there which has fallen in and is now trapped. It looks like a small rabbit, but without very long ears. It’s clearly in a bit of a panic with Martin as its new inmate. He’s trying to figure a way to free the wee beastie, and won’t rest until it’s done. With a staircase made of rucksacks and rocks, it eventually finds its way out. We have done our good deed for the day.

The stepping stones at Wheeldale Beck are mostly submerged by the torrent flowing through them – a different spectacle to the quiet flow I witnessed here in April – but we cross easily enough. On Simon Howe we have our first sight of RAF Fylingdales, previously invisible through the mist. At Eller Beck some of my previous options for crossing are unavailable due to the deluge, forcing us to deliberate and cross the stream twice. The climb to Lilla Howe is heavy going. Martin waits for us shortly before the top, but hanging around is giving him a chill and soon he’s off. From here, with the mast at the finish line now visible, the going is hard. Over the course of the walk I have felt a few minutes of pain apiece as my heel blisters burst, but they’re ok now. The problem is all my movements have slowed. I can keep walking – slowly – but any other movement – taking off my pack or adjusting my belt – is an ordeal. Dave looks pained.

I wait for Dave at the top of Jugger Howe ravine, eat a Snickers and we lay down for a few minutes. Ahead, there’s no sign of Martin. The descent is torturous, the climb up the other side not as bad as I’d feared. Nearly at the main road, checkpoint six, Martin comes to meet us. He’s been waiting awhile. He offers to walk on to the Raven Hall Hotel, pick up the car and come get us at the finish. We thank him muchly and again he’s off. The final gentle ascent to the finish is the slowest tract of earth I have ever walked, willing that mast to come just a little closer all the time. It occurs to me that Dave and I on that last stretch must look very much like a decrepit old man (me with my stick) being pursued by a relentlessly shuffling zombie. At last we are there, just as Martin arrives in the car. Bless his soul. We touch the stone. The time is 14.45. It has taken Dave and I twenty hours and thirty minutes to make our first crossing. Martin’s time is obviously better – just under 20 hours at a guess – and would undoubtedly be better still had he had speedier travelling companions. My dad made his first crossing in under sixteen hours. Good on you, Dad.

Chris Raynor