Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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C2C Day 7 - Chickens Rule the Planet
Kirkby Stephen -> Keld

"This 13-mile stage is something of a red-letter day, full of major landmarks. Not only do you cross the mighty Pennines – the backbone of the British Isles – but in doing so you cross the watershed; from now on, all rivers flow eastwards, where before they flowed to the Irish Sea. This is also the stage where you pass from the county of Cumbria, your home for the past week or so, to Yorkshire, your home for the rest of the trek. And finally, by the end of this stage you are virtually at the halfway point, completing more than 95 miles out of approximately 192.
    Yet in spite of the importance of today, the one thing that most walkers remember about this stage is not the number of landmarks they achieve but the bogs they have to negotiate along the way. If you've heard the stories about Coast-Coasters falling into waist-deep mud it is during this stage that they probably did it. The maps point out where the boggiest sections are. If you do succumb to one of the deeper mires, cheer yourself up with the thought that, at the end of the stage, you'll be spending the night in the gentle pastoral scenery of Swaledale, Yorkshire's most northerly dale, and perhaps its loveliest."
         - Henry Stedman, Coast to Coast Path

     Great, that will be wonderful consolation. Moreover, it appears that on this walk if it's not one goddamned thing, it's another: if you manage to avoid getting blown off the cliff-edge of a fell, you've only survived to later get swallowed whole by a bog. Well, never a dull moment.

In better news, our feet seemed to have regained feeling – and roughly their previous shapes – overnight. Which was a good thing, because the night before, I had literally barely been able to hobble downstairs to move our laundry from the machine to the drying room. But, once again, our bodies had orchestrated great feats (pardon the pun) of repair and resilience.

Also, we benefited from another award-winning (and cheap) YHA full breakfast – served in the former main chapel, where the pews had been turned around to face one another, with a long table placed between. Oh, the sweet blasphemy. I felt like singing a hymn to my steaming porridge and beans and mushrooms on toast.

Back in the room, packing and gearing up, I made what was probably the acute motivational error of reading aloud the bit from the guidebook (reproduced above) about the likelihood of us sinking to the waist in mud today. I tried to reclaim the mood by reminding the others that "Bog is easy on the feet!" This seemed to help somewhat. We also inaugurated one of the longest-running jokes of the trip: I had related that in London a few weeks earlier, I had seen a person on the Strand wearing a t-shirt that read, "Well, it's not going to suck itself." (The punchline was that it was a woman wearing the shirt.) Today, we roused ourselves to get moving with the admonition that, "Well, it [today's walk] isn't going to suck itself." This formulation really caught on.

And so we got moving, initially on a gentle climb out of town that allowed us to look back and bid adieu to Kirkby Stephen. As we passed a cool terraced hill, I related to Mark and Darby a tidbit from my youth: When I was little, our family would go on vacations to scenic spots – beaches in South Carolina, autumn-leaf-changing in New England, etc. And, virtually invariably, my mother would either forget the camera, or forget the film, or break the camera, or expose the film, or misload the film, or misplace the camera. And, so, when my sisters and I would be standing over some beautiful overlook, and we couldn't take any pictures, Mom would wisely and cheerfully instruct us that we had instead to "take a mental picture". Hugely cynically, Mark instantly connected this intimate personal history I had shared with my current (putative) obsession with photographing everything, never running out of memory or power, etc.

Mark: That explains it all. Early on you vowed 'Never again.'
     The other thing about today's route was that it was through an area with huge erosion problems. Accordingly, the powers what were had created three separate, colour-coded routes through the area – each to be used during a different third of the year. I couldn't help but cynically note that the waymarking was for once fantastic (unmissable, really), when they had got an interest in keeping us on the path they wanted us on (the red path, in this case).

We crossed the world's smallest bridge (five feet long and not quite wide enough for one). We passed what looked to our eyes like the evil love child of a cairn and a dry stone wall. (It was made of perfectly stacked and even rectangular rocks. For some reason, I failed to photograph it.) We paused briefly to see if we could turn it into a Cairn Man. We couldn't find any sticks, probably due to there being no trees anywhere for miles. I was able to jam a long rock in one side for an arm, but that was as far as it went. (Except for Mark's little ditty he composed on the spot: "With a corncob pipe and a sheepshit nose . . .")

Darby: Michael, it's day seven and you're still waving at sheep.
Me: Just being friendly.
     So, our first goal of the day's hike was something called Nine Standards. As you can pretty much see, it's nine big piles of rocks on a tall, wide, flat hilltop. I traipsed lightly up, and photographed Mark and Darby dragging themselves up to the summit behind me. At the top, we found a lovely, older couple sitting serenely on a bench made out of big piled-up stones. Mark was not feeling serene:
Mark: That's it. That is the last time I'm going up. It all has to be downhill from here.
Older Man: Well, you're doing the Coast to Coast, right? It is all downhill from here. He's quite right.
     I could have kissed this gentleman. He'd contributed immeasurably to our growing project of Mark Management.

Looking back on our morning's preparations in the room, I had to confess (aloud, alas) that I was actually beginning to like this routine of gearing up for another day of battle: New plasters on feet, boots laced up tight, lip goop on lips, sun goop on lower part of face. Good to go! Of course, today, on the Nine Standards climb, I naturally discovered I now had a whole new ailment: shin splints. <Cartman>Aww, sons of BITCHES!!</Cartman>

We checked out the Standards from up close. I wandered over to check out the view past the northernmost Standard. As this was a big, nearly completely exposed hilltop, the wind was blasting through – making our original, intuitive-seeming, plan to stop here seem markedly less appealing. However, I at least sat down in the comfy lee of the biggest Standard. Mark and Darby, because they aren't very smart, did not. Then, anyway, it began to hail. Darby came and found me where I was (i.e. in the only decent place to be).

Darby: We were thinking about moving on.
Me: What, it's not good enough for you here? You don't like hail?
     I gathered they were leaving with or without me. There followed a long slog across high heather in wind and a light rain. But at least we were all talking to one another again.

We passed a lone, well-constructed stone pillar. We met a father and son pair doing the C2C in the opposite direction. We were all five of us almost exactly at the halfway point! Though, the son seemed to take a particular glee in pointing out that we were not quite at the halfway point – they were more than half-way done and we were not. (Bastard.) The father instructed us to listen/look out for curlews, who nested up in these parts. They go, pureep, pureep. The father and son were both wearing sort of wader things on their legs, which should have made us afraid. We proceeded to skirt and dodge large sections of mud and bog, all of us waiting and wondering to see who would be first to go in to the waist in liquefied peat.

Mark: This is what they make Scotch out of. Not sure I can ever drink it again.
     We stopped for lunch; it had become cool and sunny. We began the descent, amidst farms, into Whitsundale. There were chickens. (I was really beginning to get into chickens.) Philip Larkin had a poem – in fact a volume of poetry – called The Whitsun Weddings:
". . . and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give."
     We came across a small river. We carried on, occasionally having to navigate. There then followed a high traverse above a ravine/river with stone farmhouses on the opposite side. The area, dotted with stone barns, seemed fortress-like with its long, hill-topping, surrounding walls.
Me: Kinda lonely.
     Still, I was finding all the terrain on this walk pretty routinely amazing. Hopping through a series of enclosures, we passed an old guy tending to his sheep. A few minutes later, he passed us right back, zipping across the mud on his four-wheeler. Good for sheep work, I reckoned. We went across a stone bridge. Darby liked, and made me photograph, this tree.

We reached the camping farm, Park House, just outside of Keld. (Well, a bit more than just outside. Darby pointed out the "Keld: 1/4 mile" sign and informed us that this was widely understood to be the world's very longest quarter mile.) Alone in the field, we set up tents. The brood of lively, lovely chickens – whom we were soon to learn ran the whole place – cruised over in force to check us out. I was immediately struck by their beauty and grace, and took a portrait of one of them.

So, there were a couple of striking things about this camping farm. The first was how informal, yet how efficient, an operation it was. We went poking around looking for someone to pay. No one answered the door. Finally a guy wandered by, evidently doing something with sheep. When we flagged him down, he urged us to make ourselves at home (including in the barn if the weather continued to deteriorate). The other thing was that it was truly a farm, out there by itself, with no amenities of any sort anywhere close. To compensate, they ran a tiny little dry goods shop – and a totally unlicensed off-license. After set-up, we did wander into the barn, which had a picnic table in it – along with a printed list of items available in the food shop. At the very bottom it said:

"We have bottles of wine which we are not allowed to sell you from 4 (red or white) but which we may give you if you ask nicely and promise not to tell. We may also be prepared to let you have other (better) wines from our cellar from 5 to 7."
     They also had, it turned out, a variety of beers. Mash'allah.

Back outside, hanging out with the chickens, we saw a guy-and-two-dog shepherding crew come by herding a couple dozen sheep. The dogs were machines, darting to and fro and barking and rounding up strays. And the shepherd even had a crook! Shortly after, the house dog came out to try and hang with the sheep dogs. But he wasn't cool enough. We decided this place was really colourful. We decided that, overall, it had been a good walking day. Finally, I decided that now it was time to drink. Though I paused to note the thick caking of mud on my trouser cuffs.

Me: Jesus. I just washed these.
Mark: You just hiked through 13 miles of bog is what you just did.
     So we wandered over to the "shop", which was a window in one wall of the house, letting onto a cellar room stacked with food and drink items. Noting that it was currently shop hours, we rang the bell. The guy we had seen earlier turned up and opened the window. While we were picking and choosing drinks, tins of food, and pot noodles, a gunshot went off somewhere in the distance.

The proprietor then related to us that, a few years back, a rich American named Miller had bought all the surrounding land from the aristocrats who had owned it for the prior several centuries. Along with the land, Miller also got shooting rights, about which fact our proprietor was not real thrilled. In fact, a few months earlier, Miller's game keeper had shot his cat! He claimed the cat had been going after his game birds; but Miller had not offered to replace the cat – nor so much as apologised. (Mark later opined that if he were a keeper of game birds, he'd absolutely be shooting all cats on sight – and asking questions never.)

The proprietor put two of my three beers in the freezer so I could get them later; offered to boil water for Darby's pot noodles; and agreed to let Mark use the phone to call Packhorse if he "asked nicely". The guy was kind of gruff, but truly awesome. A really nice, no-bullshit guy.

Back in the barn, while preparing dinner, I flipped through the guidebook for info on Keld proper.

Me: There's a lodge in Keld called Butt House! Presumably their competition across the way is known as Arse House.
Mark: That's Arse Lodge. Get it right!
     Out of morbid curiosity, I perused the ingredients list on Darby's Beef & Tomato pot noodles – and discovered that they were actually vegan! Vegan Beef & Tomato pot noodles. We'd get a lot of mileage out of that over the next week. For myself, I cooked up some tinned carrots, peas, and baked beans in my camp cup. And it was the best meal I'd had in ages! Yum.

And then the chickens joined us! I was very pleased to realise that, in a real habitat, where they're allowed to move around and have lives and whatnot, chickens really are the "lively, social, intelligent birds" that PETA has always assured us they are. Mark took a rather dimmer view of their intelligence. There was a single duck that hung out with the chickens, and Mark suggested that they're not smart enough to know the duck isn't a chicken.

Mark: They probably don't even know there are more than three of them.
Me: Oh yeah? Ever heard of "the pecking order"? We got that concept from them.
     I went looking for something to feed them, maybe, erm, some chicken feed or something. Mark found it in an open barrel slightly toward the back of the barn.
Mark: That's how cleverly they had to hide it to keep it from the chickens.
Me: . . . Maybe they're just well-behaved.
     After dinner, we proceeded to sit in the barn freezing, with dogs and small birds coming in and out periodically.
Me: So now I guess it's just a matter of huddling for warmth until 5AM.
Mark: Welcome to camping. You say that like you expected something more. And then tomorrow it's walking until we can't walk anymore. The only reason this trip is slightly better for me is I have someone to blame.
     Isn't he just the most adorable curmudgeon? Finally, we slept; and I, for one, discovered I was actually able to get warm in my sleeping bag. In the morning, we found the brood sheltering from the rain under a van. Are chickens cool, or what!

Tomorrow: Day 8 - Keld to Applegarth (19 miles - by choice!)

  coast-to-coast walk     camping     dargbles     humour     photography     pitely     walking     wildlife  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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