Thursday, 16 May 2013

Hawes to Thwaite

The first part of the day was an easy cross-country stroll up the valley of the River Ure to the tiny hamlet of Hardraw. This was level going across fields of sheep.

The River Ure between Hawes and Hardraw
On the way I met a couple walking in the same direction. I guessed that they were slightly younger than me: certainly retired, and therefore probably over 65. It turned out that he – Ian, I believe - was also doing the Land’s End to John O’Groats walk – but on a continuous basis, with no rest days. He had started on 2 April, so was now on day 46. He had a big pack: though he was mainly using B&Bs he was prepared to camp if necessary, and had already spent eight nights under canvass. He was also planning to do the tough Highland stretch more or less directly from Fort William to the far Northeast, so would have to be self-sufficient for several days in the high country. His wife was helping with logistics from time to time, and joining him for the (very) occasional day. Very impressive, I thought.

At last there were signs of Spring. I had seen swallows and a house martin the day before; now there was as squadron of swifts over the village. It seemed more like the exuberance of late summer after the breeding season, but must just have been joy at the prospect of a better day than the last few.

With a relatively short day ahead of me I had flirted with the idea of strolling up the valley of the Hardraw Beck to the waterfalls above, but the only footpath on offer struck off straight uphill and I had enough climbing ahead of me anyway. So after looking for alternatives I gave up on the project and set off on my way.

The shelter at the top of Great Shunner Fell (716m)
It was then a long steady climb all the way up to Great Shunner Fell, at 716m the highest point on the walk so far. (Check – altitude above Hay on Wye.) The first part was on tracks, but then it was open moorland for the best part of three miles. The country itself was dull, open grassland, but the views to the valleys and further hills were often excellent. There were notices stating that this was an area where they were trying to re-establish a black grouse population, but I saw little heather, and didn’t think it looked particularly propitious terrain. But no doubt they know better than me.

On the way up I came across Ian and his wife, who had (as most walkers seem to) passed me and strode on ahead. He was on the phone, arranging accommodation for the following week. High country was required, he said, to get any kind of reasonable signal, though I hadn’t been as unfortunate as he appeared to have been on low-lying overnight stops.

I left them behind as he continued to search for a bed, but they caught me up just before the summit. Here there is a curious cross-shaped stone walled structure, with benches in every angle. You can choose the most sheltered whatever the wind direction. We each took or lunch break, and were joined by a group of six walking up from the other direction, who had to settle for a less sheltered quadrant. A real multinational group they were – there was at least one Canadian and someone with what sounded like a German accent, and I suspect some of the others weren’t Brits either.

The view down into Swaledale
Ian and his wife set off down towards Thwaite ahead of me, and were soon distant figures. I stopped when the threatening squall was clearly coming my way. It was on with waterproofs, which hadn’t been necessary for some time, and with the temperature dropping suddenly and hail rather than rain it was even gloves. Strangey, although they had been easy to put on the evening before when I bought them, now they were the very devil to get on. Cold, damp hands were to blame, I imagine.

The way down to Thwaite was a long, gentle decline, often with welcome flagstones over the marshier bits. Still no heather. At one point I saw a small wader just a few yards away, walking quickly through the low vegetation. It was black-billed, and Dunlin sized, but appeared to have a streaky breast. Neither did I see the black belly a Dunlin should have had at this time of year – and it was too early, I would have thought, for a fully-fledged juvenile. But even if I didn’t see all the characteristics I cannot think that it would be anything other than a Dunlin.

The weather improved rapidly after the squall, and towards the end of the walk there were wonderful sunny views over Swaledale to the East. As I reached the lower levels it became apparent that there were more stone-built barns or byres than one would have imagined possible. They are beautifully built, and most are obviously still in use for winter shelter. They are rectangular, with pitched roofs of slate or dressed limestone, and have regular courses of slightly larger stones that give them their characteristic appearance. I must have been able to see fifty or more of them in the valley or the shoulders of the neighbouring hills – all, apparently, in pristine condition. I cannot imagine that anyone would build such structures now (unless the National Parks Authority funds them), but they are certainly lovingly maintained.

Approaching Thwaite
On the final stretch down into Thwaite I thought I saw a pair of Ring Ouzels, but I didn’t get a good enough view to be sure. The wings appeared lighter than a blackbirds; the call was more like a Stonechat ; the habitat wasn’t right for a blackbird, either. But the bird I saw best was unobliging in that it perched with its back to me, so there was no chance of seeing the white breast crescent. So no tick, I’m afraid. I hope to catch up with one later in the Pennines.

Thwaite itself is little more than a hamlet – a few houses, a couple of farms, and the hotel. This proved to be excellent – all newly furnished and decorated, a good bedroom, an excellent lounge, and a good choice for the evening meal, which was included in the price – itself little more than one sometimes pays just for bed and breakfast. So it was an excellent end to a fairly gentle day’s walk.

A much better day. Overcast throughout the morning, but dry until a brief squall just after lunchtime, and a sunny evening. Cool – mainly 8-12C, but colder in the squall. 17.59km, 520m of ascents, 469m descents. Cross-country to start, then tracks for the initial climb and the final stretch into Thwaite. The mountainous part was frequently paved but occasionally wet.

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