Our Boxing Day walk is a long standing family tradition which is withering as fast now as the family tree itself. The top end of the tree is thinning out through natural wastage (worryingly, I’m just fourth from the top now!). There is a lack of new growth at the base of the tree and the millennials are reluctant to get their boots dirty. In fact, most of them don’t have boots. Ted Baker don’t do walking gear. So this morning, the traditionalists split into two groups. Those of us who still enjoy the self-imposed purgatory of a testing hike and those who (by reason of age and health) need a more sedate circuit with level ground. Trust me when I say that I only just ‘made the cut’ for the former!
Hutton-le-hole is a picturesque village on the southern edge of the North Yorkshire Moors national park. We’re very lucky in that my brother-in-law Gareth and his wife Caroline own the Barn Hotel & Tea Rooms in the midst of the village. As they shut for winter, the family gathers here and fills the seven en-suite rooms to enjoy the Christmas festivities together. Christmas Days benevolence, feasting and games had been splendid but this morning, lacing my Berghaus boots, I was craving open space and fresh air. As always, the DSLR was around my neck as we (my wife, two brothers-in-law, Charlie the cocker and Roly the lurcher) took the path out from behind The Barn towards the next village, Lastingham. As we crossed the sheep pasture I reflected on the lack of curlew that frequent these meadows in the spring, drilling the sheep dung for beetles to feed to their chicks. Climbing through the wood beneath Riccal Heads, we came across an old crime scene. The pelvis and legs of an adult pheasant (undoubtedly a fox victim) had been stripped to the bone by the crows. I smiled to myself. Only two days beforehand, my niece had told me there were few foxes around Hutton. This is perfect fox country. Rolling hills, forest, sweeping heather clad moors with gullies carved by babbling becks. Sheep, lambs, rabbits and a multitude of ground nesting birds. Set in the midst of the Spaunton Manor estate, this is serious shooting country. If it weren’t for the small army of gamekeepers that keep careful vigil over these moors, meadows and woods, the red fox (our alpha predator) would do severe damage to the ecosystem here.
At Mary Magdalen’s Well, we cut off the metalled road and took the track behind Camomile Farm. Knowing we would be coming back to this point later, I suggested we mentally noted the lone tree where the track curved. Looking out across the moor, there was no clear path but we didn’t have to worry about that yet. We followed the sticky track until it dipped steeply down to cross Hole Beck. A slippery, grassy slope where I was glad I had a stout stick to keep me upright. Across the stepping stones and up the other side. A short but lung-busting ascent to a seat which looks down up Lastingham village. Then left to head north along Lastingham Ridge. We had a plan. Not only did we have a plan, we had three OS maps and a Garmin GPS device between us! Our route from here would take us about 1.5 miles along the ridge path (a wide limestone track which ends, ultimately, in Rosedale) before cutting back south-west on a path (clearly marked on our OS Landranger maps) to bring us back to the ‘marker’ tree. A pan-handle route of about 7 miles.
Half way along the ridge trail, we were in amongst the red grouse. They appeared on the trail in front of us. Charlie the cocker is a Suffolk bred dog, now adopted by us and living in Norfolk. Yet at the first ‘chacking’ ascent a red grouse cock he turned into a whirling dervish. Jumping up above the heather trying to spot the unseen enemy. His nose went down along the track and the pheromone of a game-bird he had barely met before (let alone flushed or retrieved) drove him into a frenzy. Thankfully, he was well constrained on a solid lead.
The track we sought was about 400 yards north of Spring Heads Turn, at a point where the trail forked north-east. Our path (according to the Ordinance Survey shamans) ran south-west from this point, between the grouse butts and Hole Beck. We could find no hint of a path, though the Garmin GPS showed us to be at the right point. In the absence of a trail and with no desire to double back we decided to trust the Garmin and head right through the heather. I snuck my old-fashioned magnetic compass from my pocket as the other three set off and satisfied myself that we were heading south-west (I don’t trust any device that needs batteries). It was a choice that, as it transpired, can only be compared to crossing an estuary via a mudflat. Letting the dogs choose the path, our little fellowship waded through waist high ling. Now, there was a time (in my twenties) when my stout limbs bore me around marathon circuits and my centre of gravity lay somewhere between my groin and my belly button. I have matured like an oak whisky barrel … and unfortunately look like one. My spindly legs have lost their stamina and my centre of gravity is now somewhere near my sternum. I’m not built for following sheep-tracks. Keeping up the rear-guard as we descended towards the beck I twice lost my footing and disappeared beneath the heather. Both times I stood up, straightened my cap and regained my dignity with my faux-pas undetected. The others were too focused on their own progress. I couldn’t see Charlie, the heather was so deep it drowned the little spaniel. Yet, now and again, I heard the clatter of absconding grouse and the little cocker would appear in mid-air, barking in frustration. Just to be clear, we weren’t actually ‘lost’. We just didn’t have a path to follow. Eventually we found Barker Stack, then climbed up to Spaunton Knowl to look down over Lastingham and our road home. I could hear a salvo of Boxing Day guns in the distance … probably on High Park. On the descent to the road I put up a single woodcock, which left the muirburn with a snap of its wings … too fast for this photographer and the stick he raised as a mock shotgun. Later, with a pint of Yorkshire Cider in front of me, I reflected on how the seven miles of moorland terrain took as much out of my aging frame as a twelve mile Norfolk hike. I was tired and sore but happy to have endured … and to have seen many Yorkshire red grouse.
Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, December 2018