“Is it here?” We look at the phone, our location dot hovering somewhere close to 54.24401, -2.287632, which according to someone on the internet, is the earliest start of the River Ribble.
This unassuming roll of mossy windy hillside is Gavel Gap, Yorkshire. Derek and I are standing next to a gate in a drystone wall, being buffeted by a wind that’s billowing through the long grass and bringing darker clouds our way. The footpath ahead starts to wind down the slope, the beginning of the 110km Ribble Way that leads south and west, out of Yorkshire, through Lancashire and to the Irish Sea.
Somewhere nearby, hidden under the squelching moss, is the start of the first tributary that will quickly become the Ribble. As we start down the path we see the occasional peaty clear brown stream emerge for short sections before winding away again unseen through the limestone.
The first night we spend in The Station Inn, Ribblehead. Having been rained on for the last hour before arriving I feel justified in ordering a suet pudding that, when it arrives, is the size of my head. I manage to eat it, but the victory is pyrrhic and I am unable to order the desert that I’d convinced myself was going to be an essential part of my recovery.
That night lying on my bed in The Station Inn’s bunk barn I start reading Wuthering Heights, a book I felt appropriate for days spent walking through the Yorkshire countryside. As I get my first introduction to the wild Heathcliff wind and rain start lashing against the windows, setting the atmosphere nicely.
The second day starts as the first ended, with a generous meal and wet conditions. After eating a mountainous full english breakfast we spend the first couple of hours of the day making slow progress down the East side of the Ribble, over soggy long-grassed fields. Between Thorns and Nether Lodge the stylised ‘RW’ logo signs lets us down, directing us into the corner of an enclosed a field, then leaving us to find a gap in a fence to ford a couple of small streams before we finally meet the mettled road we were looking for. We climb up to a rise before dropping into Horton in Ribblesdale, but again detouring as part of the route is blocked by a locked gate. The rain is sporadic, but the wind incessant.
In Horton we wander past groups of schoolchildren all carrying rucksacks that sport the same bright orange rain cover as they go about their Duke of Edinburgh expeditions. For the next few hours we can spy school badged mini-buses waiting at road junction checkpoints, each with its own bored driver sat leaning on the steering wheel doing a sodoku.
We continue south out of the valley towards Settle, after which the hills start to recede and the river meanders across a flatter flood plain. Looking back we can almost see the edge of Pen-y-Ghent in the low cloud and occasional breaks of sunlight moving patches of glowing yellow and green across the hills.
This is the most archetypal English hillside scene; not as bombastic or spectacular as the Alps or Fjords, no endless skyward rock faces as in Yosemite, with snow covered peaks hanging in the distance. It’s low, rolling and made of patchy shades of green, understated in character, ancient and lived in; the dry stone walls and grey buildings dotted across the scene never letting you forget that people have been here for a long time. It’s not an ancient ‘home of the gods’ reverence that the high glaciers of the Rockies exude, but a human history, from prehistoric wanderers through Iron age settlements, Roman occupation, civil wars and the remaining marks of Victorian engineering. I suppose that’s what makes the British countryside what it is, not an untamed wilderness, but a long inhabited green space.
Further on we drop down and cross the Ribble again at Stainforth, passing the roar of Stainforth Force and through long meadows of yellow buttercups on the West bank before stopping at Settle for the night.
The third day continues across meadows and fields as we turn westward, cutting across a small rise as the footpath skips the large meander at Hellifield. The rain has gone and, while still overcast, the weather is warmer and the wind blows the damp, fresh smell of the meadows over us. Just before Paythorne we cross over the county line from Yorkshire into Lancashire, its presence announced with the outline of Pendle hill appearing in the distance.
After crossing Paythorne bridge we walk up and past the wooded 11th century earthwork of Castle Haugh, then pass by a tumulus as we walk along the A682 and cross Stock Beck to enter the north side of Gisburne Park. The park is home to a private hospital, a riding school and an expensive holiday home park. We stop at the holiday park’s cafe to rest and have some cream tea, but given our tired and unwashed appearance keep ourselves outside.
Most of the homes appear to be static caravans set in small patches of perfectly manicured grass. In some ways it seem idyllic, as the The Times property section newspaper extract from 2006, framed on the toilet wall, espouses; along with some eye watering prices. It also feels very sterile and leaves me feeling uncomfortable, but I struggle to put my finger on what exactly why that is. I suppose it feels very artificial, but since most of the British countryside has been transformed in some way by human action, I can’t claim that it’s more artificial than anywhere else. Perhaps it’s the faultlessness of it that makes me nervous, you don’t want to touch anything in case it brakes, if it looks as perfect as a Hollywood set you imagine it’s also as fragile as one.
Once we’ve found our night’s stop in Gisburn proper we eat the best meal of the trip in the excellent Italian La Laconda . The waiting area inside has no end of certificates and awards hanging in frames, but these seem pretty pointless once the food arrives, which can more than speak for itself.
The next day we stock up on lunch at the deli on our way out of Gisburn for the fourth and longest day of the trip. While 28km on its own in one day is not particularly hard, the aggregate effect of three days on our feet is starting to show. By this point Derek and I each have a couple of blisters and spend the evenings hobbling around as the blood and feeling flow back into our toes. Each morning it takes me about twenty minutes to get back to a reasonable walking pace as my feet take time to adjust to that day’s new combinations of aches and pains.
The morning takes us through a steeper section of the Ribble valley before we cross at Sawley and make our way along the north side of Clitheroe. At the peak of a meander just after a partly hidden cement works we stop for lunch, eating the sandwiches and giant black pudding shrouded scotched eggs we bought from the Delicious Deli earlier. In the bend of the river a heron slowly glides in and perches on a rock, watching the rushing water intently for a short while, before hopping to the next stone and closely examining another spot in the stream.
Pendle Hill now looms large over the ruins of Clitheroe Castle, from which flutters a large flag, as we walk into the town centre. Here we take a detour from the Ribble Way, skipping a small section to spend the night in Brockhall Village, before rejoining the official route the next day.
Walking out of Clitheroe we pass a housing estate under construction and, after following an old roman road, appear in Whalley, passing another new estate on the way. Signs in people’s windows argue against an additional third estate and then a fourth small estate seems newly finished just on the south side of the River Calder that we cross next to the rail viaduct. I know there’s a houseing shortage in England, but it seems a strange place to fill that gap. Having crossed the Calder we then walk to Brockhall Village, another relatively new development, to spend the night in a small hotel by the entrance to the village.
Brockhall is a gated community, even though we managed to walk through without being stopped at any point. In some places, where law and order might be poorer, I can understand the point in a gated community, but in this small part of Lancishire it seems very strange. If you have gates it implies you’re trying to keep people out, but who here are you trying to keep out round here?
The next morning we carry on out of Brockhall, walking through more houses under construction, before crossing back over the Ribble at Dinkely Bridge to rejoin the official Ribble Way. The river is now wider and slower with small sections with white foam spilling over exposed rocks and slow whirlpools eddying around the gear-shaped concrete bridge foundations. From here the trail to Ribchester is especially nice with sections of shady woodland next to the river keeping us cool and out of the sun.
We stop in Ribchester to buy a sandwich and get some water. The town is very small, but seems well endowed with pubs. As we wander through groups of school children on a field trip count passing cars and pedestrians, each group faithfully watching us walk past before making two more marks on their clipboards. I wonder if they have to gauge, on a scale of one to five, how far the people walking past have come by how sore their walking is.
For the last leg to Preston we now climb a little way before crossing a number of fields and streams at half height. With tiredness and aching feet catching up with us, we stop in a field just south east of the excellently named Grimsargh, settling in the shade by a small pool to eat lunch. The last section is due to take us along the final few meanders through the eastern outskirts of Preston, but feeling exhausted we decide to take a bus from the Red Scar industrial estate into the centre. We approach the main road just in time to catch a bus, on which a few stops later Lancashire’s answer to Ozzy Osbourne appears. He smiles happily without any front teeth, then takes a seat nearby and mumbles to himself until we reach the central bus station. At one point I’m sure I hear him mumble “I had to beat him to death with his own shoe” , but refuse to believe that he actually did that because it would be too perfect.
The last day opens grey and lightly raining, a sad downturn in the nice weather we’ve had for the last few days. For the last time we head west, crossing through Avenham park in weak early morning sunshine and crossing to the South bank of the Ribble via an old railway bridge. We head out of town through the long riverside park, passing under rows of tall trees. Once past a power substation the path goes through long fields of short grass by the river, with a short drop-off down to the muddy bank on our right.
Before us the grey sky merges into the expanse of pale mud and slightly greener salt marshes. We come to a tiny abandoned brick pump-house that is missing all of its windows and with the pipework inside busy rusting. Next to it sits a big vat, rusty continental shapes marked on the side where the black paint has come off. We take a photo, propping the camera in the lee of the hut, wind fluttering our jackets as it did at the start. While this isn’t the official end of the path, which is a mile on inland, it feels more like it than the post opposite the Dolphin Pub does, as at this point you leave the Ribble’s side. Here you can see out towards the Irish sea and turn around to look back towards Preston and imagine in the distance the hills and dales you came from.
With most transport you pass through a countryside, cut off in a bubble of road or rail, but you’re never really in it. Walking you get to see every little detail and have plenty of time to digest it as you persuade one sore foot in front of the other. You can’t travel everywhere like this, but it’s nice to be able to do so occasionally. It lets your mind wander and think about a thousand different things, all of which vanish again once you return to the speed of your normal life, left behind in some tiny detail of the landscape.