The Lyke Wake Walk is an unusual trail among the long distance routes of Britain. There is no official path. The guidebook and signposts are mere suggestions you can choose to ignore. All that matters is that you cross the moorlands of northwest Yorkshire at their highest and widest part starting at Osmotherley and ending in Ravenscar. The rest is up to you.
There is an additional catch to this walk. Bill Cowley, its creator, wasn’t after adding another long distance trail to the UK. He was after a challenge. So in 1955, in a local paper, he defied people to traverse the moors from Scarth Wood Moor to the coast, keeping as close to the main watershed of the moorland area, within twenty-four hour. Yes, twenty-four hours to complete 40 miles in the moors. If successful men acquire the title of Dirgers, and women Witches.
Jenni and Zoe were going to become Witches in June, making the most of the longest day of the year to complete the crossing between dawn and dusk. But the weather turned against them and they were forced to cancel. Rescheduling the walk proved a difficult matter and the earliest date they could both come together fell in October. The days being much shorter they decided to split the hike in two days. They wouldn’t become Witches but that didn’t matter.
Since the nature of the walk had changed and the date was so far away, Jenni and Zoe invited a few other people to join them. I was one of them, and as it turned out the only one who was able to make it. I eagerly agreed, marked the date in my calendar and promptly forgot about it. This was June and first I had the Camino de Santiago to explore the following month.
July came, August went by, September rolled in and all of a sudden it was October and I had not done any training for the Lyke Wake Walk. I had actually barely done any hikes since the Camino de Santiago, preferring my bike to explore Britain. I reassured myself that all would be fine. After all, going over the moors would only involve placing one foot in front of another for 40 miles. How difficult could that be?
I wasn’t worried when we began on the trail for the first time on Saturday. The going was easy. We were following the Cleveland Way through a flat woodland area, meeting other hikers, greeting each other and all thoroughly enjoying that bright morning. Pine trees slowly receded as we advanced further east, the stony hills an unfriendly environment for their roots. Ferns took over for a while and our legs and lungs began the real work out. We ascended and descended several peaks in succession, rising to a trig point, only to be faced with a downhill a few minutes afterwards. Until finally we were met with the last ascent of the day and the Lyke Wake Walk took us along a disused railway. The path was flat and soft under our boots. We went on, happy for the rest to our legs and lungs. I slowed down, my mind now fully adjusted to the walk. All thoughts of London, of a job left behind and of a new one about to start secluded away. None of this mattered perched on the moors and surrounded by grazing sheep. So I lagged behind, content to let my thoughts drift away, my eyes drink in the views and fall in love with the moors once more.
As daylight began to fade, we reached a road, the tarmac a strange sight after so much earth and stone. On the other side, Fat Betty was erect and dangerous with her stone carved skull, sending us a warning for what was to come. But I didn’t take notice of it. I just liked the sculpture and painted stone, delighting my imagination with stories of farmers standing guard with their rifle by Betty to assert their right to the land. We snapped a few photos, went back to the road and followed it to the car. My legs were tired. I had forgotten how relentless walking can be. It is unforgiving, working your muscles and pounding your joints without the possibility of a rest – not if you want to keep going. I dropped my bag, my shoulders relieved at the disappearance of the load, and began to stretch. My muscles moaned from the pain but at the same time I felt soothed by the movements and knew my body would be alright. It had been a long day but it had been good.
On Sunday we drove back to where we had stopped the day before. I looked ahead of us and wasn’t as calm as Saturday. Stretches of moorland covered with peat sprawled as far as I could see, and we knew from the guide that our feet might sink in deep into the bog. It had not rained much the week before but this was still a wetland area. I remembered sinking into the peat when I last enjoyed a day out with Jenni and Zoe. This had been a fun experience but then we didn’t have 20 miles to complete on top of the North York Moors. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and joined my companions at the edge of the road. The path didn’t stand out. There was no way-mark to show us the way, only the suggestion of a trail and some posts in the distance – most of which were barely visible.
We advanced and I delighted in the bounce of the ground as a child and forgot my worries. For a short while we made good progress but soon the peat became saturated with water and our boots sank in. We lost our straight line and had to zigzag our way around, trying to stick to heather or red grass, but they too were being pushed away by water. We stopped, incapable of finding a spot solid enough. We remained stationary for a few minutes, scanning the ground in despair. It was still early in the morning and we had a long day ahead of us. We couldn’t afford wet feet. Jenni looked at Zoe and me and tentatively suggested taking our shoes off to trudge through this wet section barefoot. It was logical and simple but I wasn’t too eager to do it. The ground was cold and squishy. And how far would I sink in?
Jenni unlaced her shoes, dipped in and started to walk. She was doing alright. This was ridiculous, but there was nothing else to do. So reluctantly, Zoe and I followed suit. My feet turned cold at the contact of the peat and I winced as I felt mud finding its way between my toes. I took a step, then another and began to enjoy myself. I was in the ground, more intimate with the moors than I had been before. The water finally receded, the ground finding its bounce once more. It was time to put our boots back one.
The walking was easier for a while and I took time to enjoy the views around us. All I could see was heather and grass stretching endlessly wherever I looked. It felt like there was no other world beyond. I knew this wasn’t true. We were after all following the footsteps of a man and his dog, but we never caught up with him. He might as well have been a ghost.
We crossed a roman road, crossed a tarmac road and saw cars but we ignored them and dipped into a ravine. The earth swallowed us down to Wheedale beck. It was like leaving our world to enter the Shire. Everything was green and hilly. The stream flowed past a tree, its branches caressing the water. I could have stopped here and disappeared among hobbits but we still had many miles to go. So I followed Jenni and Zoe on the other side. On top the land, we rejoined the purple heather. The ground was still wet but nothing as bad as before and our boots remained firmly laced to our feet.
We stopped for lunch not far from the North York Moors Railway and could hear the steam engine rolling in the distance, the locomotive hooting as if in encouragement. Our stomach filled, we set off, not wanting to rest for long and let our bodies grow cold. We crossed the rails, crossed an A road and found ourselves by Fylingdales radar and its military enclosure. Part of the land was now out-of-bounds but it wasn’t long before we left the wires behind and forgot about land restrictions.
We were making progress but my body began to slow. I stopped for a minute in a vain attempt to rest; Zoe and Jenni once more far ahead of me. I looked at them walking away and admired their stamina. But I wasn’t worried. I knew this was just a phase to go through. I had done long distances before and inevitably I would hit a low point during the day when everything seemed harder, slower, and the scenery lost its appeal. It was just a matter of pushing on until my mood turned. So I fixed my gaze on the figures of my companions and motioned my body forward. I chewed on some sweets hoping the sugar would provide a small kick to reach Lila Cross. It did and I found a new rhythm.
Zoe announced there would be another ravine soon. I fought hard not to be disheartened by the news but I shouldn’t have worried. As I looked down Juger Howe ravine all I could see was orange. The vegetation had drained away its green, showcasing its autumn colours as far as our eyes could see. It was like entering an American film, where autumn colours are always so vibrant. But this was not Hollywood. This was here, in England, below our feet. I smiled and almost laughed, my spirits fully lifted at the sight.
On the other side of the ravine, the radio mast marking the end the Lyke Wake Walk, came into view. I found a new spring to my step. It was a straight line from this point to the end. But it was also a long line and daylight was beginning to fade. We formed a line and Zoe got her Jelly Babies out. We passed the packet of sweets back and forth between us and greedily ate them. I didn’t need the sugar to help me complete the final miles. I was fuelled by the knowledge of the end. We marched on to a steady pace to beat the dark. The hike was becoming an exercise in movement, so I forced myself to look back and enjoy the views one last time before putting my head down. I stopped abruptly and almost laughed with wonder. The sky was a radiant pink. I motioned to Jenni and Zoe and pointed to the clouds. For an instant we forgot about our race and lost ourselves in spectacle. We eventually turned our back to the sunset and carried on, and within minutes we reached the end stone. The sun was now fully sank below the horizon. There was no more light, no fireworks, and no one to meet us and celebrate. But it didn’t matter. We had made it. We had walked the Lyke Wake Walk.
Many more of my photos can be seen here on Flickr.
Jenni‘s account of the walk can be read here. In the meantime, you can view her photos on Flickr.
Zoe‘s account of the walk can be read here, including a video.