I clambered over a fence and furtively skidded down a wet bank. It was a shortcut. I stomped my way through a few brambles and emerged onto the Lune Valley Ramble, a footpath following the course of the picturesque River Lune, after which Lancaster, and by extension Lancashire, are named. I was grateful to be borrowing the Kings’ heavy duty umbrella, as the rain had come back in force. I followed the path east until it took me across a bridge over a bend in the river. I then turned up the hillside to the north.
My original plan had been to take a bit of a detour to spend a night in my girlfriends’ parents’ cottage in Kirkby Lonsdale. I had thought that by this point a bed would be a welcome relief, but that was before Tina and Adrian came along with their campervan. I had been sleeping comfortably for three nights in a row. Better than that, in fact – I had fulfilled my childhood dream of sleeping in the cosy-looking bulge above the front seats (it was everything I had hoped for). As such, I was feeling good, so there was no need to go out of my way; I could make a beeline for the Lakes.
One thing that excited me before starting this walk was that I would find out what exists in the corners and backwaters of the country that I would not otherwise visit. By this point I knew that the answer is, overwhelmingly, sheep and cattle. Pick a point on a map of this island away from the major towns, that you’ve never visited. You’ve just found some sheep. Zoom in on an aerial photo, look up the area; I bet I’m right.
On an unrelated note, I was walking through fields, mainly of cattle and sheep. “Alright, lads,” I nodded to them as I passed. Frequently I found myself unintentionally herding them. Buzzards soared and mewed overhead, but they wouldn’t be getting a meal out of me yet. I had left the plain behind and was up and down small hills. Through Over Kellet, then New England caravan park – that didn’t seem right, we were in old England.
North of Priest Hutton, swallows were hawking for insects over a field of particularly timid cows. The journey they were about to undertake put mine to shame. Swallows embody many of the things I love about birds. They are beautiful, with their clean-cut feathers of glossy navy blue, red bibs, and white bellies, their tail streamers and the graceful curve of their wings, and their darting, dancing, agile flight. They are birds you can sit and enjoy watching purely for the poetry of their motion. They are bold migrators and heralds of Spring; the yearly journeys to sub-Saharan Africa and back, from a creature the size of my hand, are always cause for wonder. And they have charmingly misguided old beliefs associated with them – people used to explain their yearly disappearance by saying they slept the winter away underwater, reported by Gilbert White in the legendary Birds of Selborne as a strange “northern opinion”. Swallows are excellent birds.
After Burton-in-Kendal, I passed under the roaring M6 and joined the Lancaster Canal towpath. The rain had subsided to a light spattering but down to the west I could see a farm that was extensively flooded. My eyes were drawn beyond that, though, to the distant fells that were inching closer. I doubt they had noticed me coming for them. We would meet soon enough.
Canals are magnificently flat. I put my foot down (repeatedly) and motored along. This section of the Lancaster Canal is defunct and closed to navigation. Sections began to be closed from 1939; it always seems incongruous to me to imagine mundane acts of civil admin occurring during a world war. I would have been tempted to put it off until a less stressful moment.
You could no longer use the canal even if you were willing to risk the wrath of the canal police (I don’t know how canals work), because it has been carved up and culverted by the M6, which I’m sure says something meaningful about progress and the pace of modern life (although lamenting the pace of modern life has been going on for longer than the modern world has existed). I passed the Holme coke ovens, relics of a time when dirty industrial processes took place in structures that look like pretty little hobbit holes. Those were the days.
Despite the proximity to the rumble of traffic, those last few kilometres were peaceful. Leaves hung green and gold in the low afternoon sun. Moorhens and swans meandered among the tangled water weeds. I startled a kingfisher and sent it peeping down the canal ahead, then ran into it again and again as it retreated, refusing to bite the bullet and fly back past me. Several stone bridges arched over the water. I passed a few families and dog walkers.
My last night with Tina and Adrian was spent at Crooklands. The days of not carrying my big bag had allowed my body to heal, and I no longer felt so ragged. I was fitter, ready and eager to reach the Lake District. What was more, by changing my course, I had put myself ahead of my planned daily legs. If anything, I was going to arrive early. I planned to climb the second of the three peaks in the company of a friend who lives in Ambleside, and my girlfriend, who was coming up for the weekend. That essentially meant I would have to take it easy for a while. I didn’t want a rest day – I wouldn’t know what to do with myself – but a couple of half-distance days would be very welcome.