THERE’S a village in the hills above Reeth that is an absolute pleasure to visit because the only people who go there are the postman, the coalman, and the villagers themselves. Forgive me for sounding sexist. I know there are many postwomen in these rural areas. It’s just easier to say postman. I don’t know about coalwomen though . . .
This Pennine village is called Hurst and there’s only one road in. The road out is the same road – and it’s narrow. Hurst is a scattering of cottages and farms. I imagine it was once quite a busy place because there’s a building that used to be a pub, another that was once a school, and a farm on the crown of the moor that goes by the interesting name of Schoolmaster Pasture.
Other than that there are some abandoned lead mines, a large population of grouse waiting to sacrifice themselves for the type of people who have not batted a hooded eyelid at the mention of austerity, and a vast openness that cries out to be scuffed by rough boots. (Click pictures for high-res images)
There was a time when I came up here a lot. I used to do a bit of fell-running – not competitively because I’m rubbish – but Hurst is the perfect place from which to launch yourself onto swelling moorland and just run forever with the sun on your neck.
The last run I did from Hurst was about three years ago. I’m a bit heavier and slower, and stiffer and older and more disgruntled, these days. But what the heck. Trooper Thornton fought his way back so there’s hope for me yet.
So today I’m embarking on a short walk from Hurst. A couple of hours at the most. Because I’ve discovered a new formula for walking. Instead of sliding out of bed in total darkness, driving across the Pennines to the Lakes, spending a day on the fells then heading back in the dark, I’m developing a form of guerilla walking. Get up late to fool the neighbours, chuck some gear in a bag, drive into the Pennines, walk for two or three hours, and get back while there’s sufficient light to cut a cabbage on the allotment.
It’s not half as exciting as crossing the Khumba Icefall, I expect, but it gets me out of the house. And it’s better than sitting in a cold polytunnel looking at tomato plants that should have been pulled up three months ago. Still some tomatoes on them, mind. But I haven’t eaten one since before Christmas.
I used to have a book about the lead mines at Hurst but I can’t find it. An entire hillside is pockmarked with little shafts that have been sunk along the course of the mineral vein, which runs more or less parallel to the linear village.
Actually, “village” is a bit of an ambitious word – an overstatement. Hurst is more a string of houses with big gaps between them at the side of a road that a tired man could lie across with his head and feet on different verges. A tired coalwoman probably could as well.
A couple of big chimneys stand prominently on the fellside. They probably served the engine houses that hauled ore from the shafts or pumped water from deep workings, though I don’t see any associated ruins. But in a country where countless thousands of important historical monuments have been dismantled by local people hungry for quarried stone to build houses, that’s not surprising.
So I leave Hurst along a track that winds between grouse butts and takes me westwards over bleak moorland to a cairn on Fell End Moor.
I like it up here. I like to sit at this cairn (in the first picture) and gaze down into the wilds of Arkengarthdale. The view changes. Today there is snow on the distant moors. At other times of the year the hay meadows are full of flowers and men are burning heather to produce new shoots for grouse to pluck. A hundred-and-fifty years ago the hillsides were gashed open with raw lead mine hushes. Go back far enough and there were Viking settlements. I don’t remember them, though. Memory is a fickle companion.
And from Fell End Moor I head south-east along the escarpment known as Fremington Edge. The first time I walked the edge I was accompanied by my wife, Anne, and my 11-year-old son. Fergus will be 30 this year and probably doesn’t remember the outing.
Next time I come up here I’ll bring his three-year-old (nearly four) daughter. I shall indoctrinate her with lead-mining lore and lots of rubbish about coalwomen, because grandfathers have that power and use it unsparingly. I grew up believing that There’s a Moose Loose Aboot this Hoose was Rabbie Burns’ greatest poem, so I’m merely perpetuating a tradition.
On Fremington Edge my walk enters a completely different dimension. I stumble upon a Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie lying in the middle of the path. This has me scratching my head because I can’t imagine who would have carried a tinned pie up here and accidentally dropped it on the turf without hearing its telltale thud.
I approach this conundrum laterally. The pie could have been thrown in anger from an open-topped double-decker bus travelling along the seafront at Mar del Plata on a daytrip from Buenos Aires, drifted north to the Gulf Stream then been caught in the North Atlantic Drift, washed through Shannon, Fastnet and Lundy into Irish Sea on friendly tides, then pounced on by an osprey and dropped on Fremington Edge when it spied a fat red grouse clucking in the heather. Sorted. The sell-by date is December 2015, so I’m in luck.
Another thing I’ve learnt since the last article is that actor Sean Bean is addicted to the product, so much so that he had a crate of pies shipped to India by Fray Bentos when filming Sharpe’s Peril in 2008. In fact, there is a memorable scene where he stands on the ramparts with his Irish companion and says: “Heyup, Patrick. Stop thi faffin about an’ tek thee off sharpish to bray all those little fellers ovva theer while I get stuck into this bloody girt pie. Appen.”
There’s a thin, icy wind blowing across Fremington Edge, the ground is firm and the puddles are frozen. It’s no place to hang about. I walk eastwards briskly and veer down a track to Owlands Farm and walk back to Hurst through meadowland.
Several years ago, one September when I was out running, these meadows were absolutely chock full of mushrooms. I returned the next day with Anne and we filled two carrier bags in a matter of minutes. Some were big, flat horse mushrooms, others the pure white rounded type with pink fleshy gills. Bloody delicious. Can’t beat foraging.
But nothing’s growing today – except pangs off hunger at the memory. Still, what does a man need with mushrooms and memories when he has a freshly-foraged Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie in his sack?