To Osmotherly for the start of the Lyke Wake Walk, a barmy 42 mile, one day, east to west trek across the North York Moors. Two old school friends, Mark and James, have roped me into this, and are the reason I’m standing in the half darkness with a torch attached to my forehead, across from a hill of blank-looking sheep, who, it seems, don’t appear to sleep. We assemble at 4am in a car park at Sheep Dip, so called from the small dipping place by a running stream. The water draws themidges, which, until they started feasting on my neck and ears, I did not know came this far south. We wonder whether Mark has brought them down from Edinburgh in his hat. The starter, a mysterious figure half in shade, sensibly stays inside his car, cradling a flask. At twenty past four on the dot, the door opens a fraction and his wife shouts ‘go!’ then slams the door again. A bearded walker with a GPS and a slightly absurd beekeeper’s midge-net across his head immediately speeds off down the road, his two Nordic Walking poles clicking against the tarmac. A couple of others follow in his wake, while we bring up the rear.
The idea is to be into Ravenscar on the other side of the moors by 5pm at the latest, so time is something of an issue. We amble up a well defined lane, the sun creeping over the hill behind us, past the holly bush James visits/raids with his children each Christmas. Most of the valley is still in a blue grey twilight and a hazy mist rests in the valleys. Reaching a fork in the road, almost exactly like the scene in the Kipling poem, we immediately recognise the possibility of taking the wrong turn. A comedy photograph is taken of James pointing one way, and Mark pointing the other. We take the other. Fifteen minutes later and it becomes clear that we have taken the wrong turn, and find ourselves staring a great hill rising up where the Cleveland Way should be.
Instead of doing the sensible thing and turning back, we decide to navigate our way out of trouble, despite having forgotten to bring the compass. Another half an hour of mist filled paths later and we realise we have gone astonishingly wrong. Resorting to James’s phone it confirms we are way off track. Finding ourselves three miles adrift in the wrong direction, there is little to do but trudge up a waterlogged hill and attempt to rejoin the official route. Finally we reach the first checkpoint, a friendly crowd of outdoor folk, in yet another car park. They sit in folding chairs by a caravan, dressed in cagoules, munching on bacon sandwiches. While we search for evidence of officialdom, they reveal they are not in fact a checkpoint but walkers who set off the night before coming the other way. There are astonished faces when we reach the actual first check point over an hour late and it quickly becomes apparent that a 5pm finish is almost certainly off the cards.
Having found the route at last fills us with renewed confidence however, and James reassures us we are now on ‘home turf.’ Almost immediately departing from the main path, he guides us confidently down a smaller track and we soon find ourselves lost again in thick mist. A megalithic stone circle we saw five minutes ago suddenly reappears. ‘Don’t worry,’ says James, ‘there are loads like that.’ Reunited with the Cleveland Way, we begin to find ourselves being over taken by the serious participants: lean, bare armed fell runners, leaping from rock to rock, their numbers taped to their vests. Ours are folded up, rather shamefully, in our pockets. We bid them a polite good morning and stumble on. Lack of training and wet feet bring on the first ominous signs of blisters.
The walk comes into its own on the old railway track crossing the iron rich moors, falling away on each side. The moors are wild, empty places, but the colours are spectacular, from the almost luminous green mosses, and familiar purple heather to the muted brown and yellow flowered shrubs. The plants are tight knots of wooded bushes and bracken. Without the path, it would be surely be impassable. General knowledge quizzes help pass the time: name eight Bond villains, ten famous Nazis, five number ones from the eighties and nineties with an animal or insect in the name (Eye of the Tiger, Beetlebum and the Chicken Song for information) but all of us are suffering in one way or another from various ailments. Mark’s knee and shin, already mangled from the Caledonian Challenge are giving him trouble, James’ slip off the path results in a swollen ankle while my toes and the soles of my feet heat up as the blisters swell.
The Red Lion Inn appears on the brow of a hill, a welcome sight, and upon reaching it, we need little persuasion to hand over our race numbers in defeat. In return, we are handed polystyrene plates of rice pudding and apricots, but not much in the way of congratulation. ‘Yes,’ said one official. ‘We were speculating about what had happened to numbers one, two and three . . .’ After a bite to eat (courtesy of sterling home support Helen Webb) and a drink from the pub, we tackle the last four miles up to Castleton. In the company of yet more bewildered looking sheep, a bride and groom incongruously pose for photographs by an ancient stone cross. The wedding motorcade waits patiently on the other side of the road. Clearly these moors mean something to them, or perhaps they’re just looking for an unusual angle for the photo album. The bride holds onto her veil as the wind sweeps across the high, exposed road. Doffing our caps as they climb back in the Rolls Royce, we navigate our way across various flattened sheep, rabbits and other road-kill before taking our final detour onto a bridleway parallel to the road.
The soft, manure rich earth is like manna from heaven beneath our feet and Castleton draws ever nearer. Still two miles away and we hear an amplified female voice belting out Snow Patrol hits in the middle of the afternoon. The voice echoes around the empty valley. We wonder if it’s something to do with the wedding party. The last few steps up the hill to the pub are agonising; something terrible happens inside my boot as we pass the Post Office. Once ensconced in the boozer, pint in hand, however and not only is the mystery of the singer solved (the pub has hired her for their Saturday barbecue) but the ice cold beer proves to have wonderful anaesthetic qualities. Helen appears out of nowhere and whisks us away in her car, saving us a slow train journey home. Our Lyke Wake Walk is over then: a heroic failure, but after thirty odd miles including detours, it has been a glorious encounter with the magical, mysterious moors.