Pennine Way Day 4 Cowling to Malham

I don’t normally write about my feet.  I’m quite fond of them but I don’t expect my readers to share my interest in them. This blog is different.  My feet get a major role.

Enter the feet:

I never expected blisters on this walk. I knew my legs would ache and my back would be sore and even my hands, tired from holding walking poles, would suffer, but I never thought I’d get blisters.  I walk regularly and haven’t had even the sign of a blister for over twenty years. I don’t even carry plasters, the staple blister treatment for all walkers, because I never have problems.

But my feet are a sorry sight this morning. The heals are red and bleeding, a testimony to the miles Martin and I have covered over the last three days.  I have the worst blisters I’ve ever had in my life on each heel and look at them with a mixture of puzzlement and pride.  I can’t understand why I am in this condition, given how much walking I do.

My boots are two years old and well broken in, they have remained dry over the three days, so there has been no explanation of why my feet are disintegrating.  So, what’s the difference?   Why are my feet in such trouble?  Perhaps it’s the tendency for so much of the Pennine Way to be either tarmac or paving slabs which lies at the root of the problem.  When I walk in the Highlands of Scotland I am mainly walking on grass, peaty moorlands or rocky outcrops.  Perhaps this kind of walking causes a different sort of impact than I have experienced over the last three days.  Maybe the even, hard terrain of the Pennine Way, which is frequently an artificial surface, aimed at stopping walkers from sinking knee deep into the black peat bog below, had caused my heels to strike harder than normal and perhaps in a more even way which had caused damage to the skin of my heels.

We took a day off, in the tiny village of Cowling, to allow my feet twenty-four hours to heal.  My legs were tired too, after the three long days of walking and the days respite was a welcome break. I spent it reading, eating and dozing in the warm sun.

My mate Joe, who is acting as our driver is an expert on treating blisters.  He spent several years sending young people out on Duke of Edinburgh Award walks.  Being unused to boots, these young folk suffered the tortures of the damned and Joe became skilled at patching them up.

‘I’ve seen worse,’ he said, on being presented with my ripped ankles.  ‘Although, not much worse to be honest.’  Then he sucked air through his teeth, like a car mechanics do as they peer under the steaming bonnet of your car and are about to explain that you will be paying for him and the Mrs next two weeks in Marbella.

With Melolin applied to the bleeding skin and held in place with sticky elasticated tape I am able to put on a pair of trainers and walk. It’s uncomfortable but I am not in agony and Marin and I set off once more on our trek to Kirk Yetholm.    Now the way weaves through a patchwork of green fields and we are sheltered in the farmland from the incessant east wind. At times it’s almost pleasant.

After a few miles we pass through the little village of Lothersdale marooned amongst the rolling sea of hills with the single chimney of its old mill standing like a beacon.  None of the houses in Lothersdale  have a mains water supply and have to rely on ancient springs for their water.   A fact that often leads to long standing wrangles in the area as to who owns what trickle of water.  Apparently the mill boasts one of the largest indoor waterwheels in the world, at 45 feet.

Sadly, we have to pass the pub, still closed in the early morning.  It looks idyllic and I make a mental note to return one day and spend an hour or two in its snug sipping Old Peculiar and writing fantastic tales.

As the path leaves the village we encounter the smallest gate on the Pennine way.  It’s like something out of the Hobbit and I imagine goblins passing through the gate late at night when all the villagers are in the pub and only the cows see them.  Grumpy little men, muttering to themselves as they hurry up the path.

The village of Gargrave brings a welcome respite.  Martin, who has an intimate knowledge of every pub, restaurant, tea shop and café the length and breadth of Britain, guides me to a delightful little tea shop brimming with delightful cakes, sweets and fancies.  We sit down and the waitress brings us a steaming pot of tea which tastes like liquid nectar. I think I must have glanced out of the window while enjoying my first cup of tea because when I turned to pour a second cup the pot was empty.

‘Oh, did you not have a second cup?’ Martin asks innocently as he sips what looks suspiciously like his third mug of brew.  I make a mental note, hill walking doesn’t always bring the best out in people, and scowl out of the window.   Outside the café there is sign post pointing back the way we have come.  We are both pleased to read ‘EDALE 70 MILES.’  We have come a long way but have much further to go.

I remember walking this route forty years ago.  When I passed this way all those years ago, Martin had taken the day off, exhausted by his encounters with the peat bogs over the last three days.  The route to Malham has no huge hills and so I had expected an easy day’s solo walk.  This was not to be. The days of rain in 1974 had turned the path to liquid mud and each step was hard won as I had to drag my feet through the sticky mud.  With the previous three days walking having taken their toll Malham seemed a long way distant as I fought through each mile. I vividly remember sitting on a bridge, some three miles from the village of Malham, my legs trembling uncontrollably, wondering if I could make it.

I had plodded on and staggered exhausted, meeting Martin waiting for me where the path enters the village.  On the verge of collapse we had eaten a meal in the YHA kitchen before I finally slumped into bed and slept like the dead until roused for the next day’s ordeal.

Forty years on I am only in a slightly better state as Martin and I walk the last few miles into the village.  Here we make a fatal error and call in to the village pub on the way to the campsite. The warmth and a couple of pints send me into a state of euphoric sleepiness.  After I have sat in the little pub for an hour I decide that I never want to move again and will remain here forever, dozing beside the fire.


There’s still time to win a copy of my book The Last Hillwalker. See my previous post for a chance to win


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