With the rabbits playing hide-and-seek and the day not getting any cooler, I moved on from the warren and followed the path over boggy ground towards the west end of the dale. In one place a wooden walkway had been laid down and I could see why; the mud beneath looked as though it had the consitency of tomato soup. As I climbed over and through stiles of varying widths and designs, I looked to my left at Addlebrough and over my shoulder at Lady Hill. On my right there was a small woody area behind a dry stone wall. It looked cool under the trees, but there were no paths that I could see and I didn’t want to risk trespassing.
Eventually I came to a stop. According to the map, the footpath hugged the edge of the woods and emerged into Woodhall opposite the garage. This meant going through a metal gate and up what looked like someone’s driveway. This I did, but I began to feel uneasy. There was no sign and the track looked as if it was leading to someone’s front door and not the main road. Had I missed something?
I retraced my steps and walked along the edge of the field, searching for a signpost or a stile or anything to indicate that I had made a mistake. Surely I had misread the map and I was meant to cross lower down. But there was nothing and I went back to the gate and walked along the drive again. I rounded the corner of the house and a bunch of collies in metal cages went mad, barking and snapping and leaping about behind bars. There was no one about and I didn’t stay long enough for someone to come searching for the source of the disturbance.
The track became a stoney drive that curved up and round a bend. Half-way to the top I saw a wooden gate in the wall and went through, heaving a sigh of relief (and heaving my body through the rediculously narrow gap).
Opposite the garage was a lane marked with a T-junction sign. A wooden arrow pointed down it with the word ‘Footpath’ written on it. That was about all the help I could expect on today’s walk.
I followed the road down until it became another dirt track where I stopped and looked at the map. It was mid-morning and I didn’t have any pressing need to get home, so I looked at the dotted lines indicating footpaths and found one that would take me to Askrigg. I worked out that it would be lunchtime when I arrived and perhaps a pub lunch would be a nice treat. I put the map away and walked on, passing a tree that was still full of blossom even though the other trees I had seen in the area had shed theirs weeks ago.
What really swung the decision for me was the part of the map that showed I would be walking for a little way along the old railway track. It would be lovely to follow it and see the view presented to the passengers when the line had been in use. I took a footpath over a field where geese strutted and honked at each other (and me when I got a little too close). There were more clouds in the sky now and their brief shade was a welcome relief from the sun.
Eventually the path climbed up onto the track bed and I followed it along, keeping to the edges because the middle was almost a quagmire. A little way down was a stone and iron bridge that was still intact. I was pleased, if a little surprised considering how many of the old bridges have been dismantled over the years. This wasn’t a bridge that had carried track and I wondered if that had anything to do with it. I couldn’t think of any reason for it to be left intact, though the National Park Authority has a habit of decreeing certain structures have to be left untouched because they’re a particularly fine example of a certain feature (mullioned windows, for example). It wouldn’t surprise me if one of them had seen this bridge, decided it was worth preserving and issued the necessary paperwork with no regard to the fact it was in the middle of a field and sheep have no interest in British railway architecture.
I could only walk a short way along the track before the footpath turned to the right and into a field. The signs indicated that I could cut along the bottom of the field and head to Askrigg, or I could hug the right-hand wall and walk North to Nappa. I started along the bottom until I caught sight of a herd of bullocks in my way. As one they raised their heads and stared at me and from that distance it was hard to tell if they saw me as friend or foe or nothing important.
I waited. Perhaps they would go back to their grazing or dozing or whatever it is bullocks do to pass the time. They kept staring at me and I decided the best thing to do was to cross the field diagonally and keep my distance. In the middle of the field was a small rise and I walked with it between me and the herd so that I had a low profile and (hopefully) appeared non-threatening.
They started to walk towards me.
I kept moving, trying to maintain an illusion of outward calm despite the voice in my head telling me to throw caution to the wind and run for all I was worth. If you ever find yourself in this situation, running is actually the worst thing you can do. All the advice I had seen online and on Countryfile tells you to let your dog go because the animals will chase it and leave you alone. OK, what if you don’t have a dog?
I thought about that scene in Withnail and I where the two of them are – whoops, almost forgot the spoiler alert – threatened by a bull and one of them is encouraged to run at it shouting. It works in the film, but I didn’t want to put it to the test here. I could see the stile from where I was and what followed was the most perverse game of Grandma’s Footsteps I’ve ever played.
I turned my back on the bullocks and walked as calmly as possible to the ladder set against the dry stone wall. I could hear the animals following and every few paces I would stop and turn to face them. They would stop and look at me and none of us would move for a moment or two. Then I would continue and they would follow.
I did this five or six times until I was only a short way from the stile and then I did something stupid.
I could hear the bullocks galloping after me, but I was committed now. I could say that I had visions of what might happen running through my head, but in truth all I saw was the stile getting closer and closer until I was leaping up and over and into the lane on the other side. The bullocks came to a halt behind a metal gate and looked at me through the bars. I felt the adrenaline rush fade and stood for a while watching the animals watching me before they decided to go back to grazing and forget about the idiot who had invaded their field and led them in a mad dash for no apparent reason.
I found the footpath to Askrigg and walked on feeling somewhat embarrassed by my behaviour. In all likelihood, the bullocks would have just followed me at a slow amble until I was gone from the field. In fact, they had almost certainly come to associate humans with feeding time and had assumed that I was the farmer. This didn’t make me feel much better as I followed the path along the banks of the river.
I didn’t care whether the sun was over the yardarm or not; I needed a stiff drink.