THE LYKE WAKE WALK – 40 miles – Sunday 6th July 2008
Had anyone told me at the start of 2008 that I would finish the year having completed the Lyke Wake Walk I would have said it was as likely as Portsmouth winning the FA Cup or a black dude being elected President of the United States. Then again 2008 was no ordinary year. I knew about the Lyke Wake Walk but always felt disinclined to have a go at this famous challenge. That all changed in 2008 because of Mike. Mike was a colleague nearing the end of a twelve month secondment from our Sydney office. This likeable Welshman from Cardiff moved to Australia a few years earlier and whilst back in the UK, he and his Australian wife crammed in a number of walking challenges including Ben Nevis and Snowdon and had already dragged my sorry arse up Scafell Pike a few months earlier. Having made the mistake of mentioning the Lyke Wake Walk and the challenge of completing its 40 miles within twenty-four hours, Mike decided we ought to have a poke.
The Lyke Wake Walk, or LWW, was the brainchild of local farmer Bill Cowley who laid down the challenge of walking 40 miles of untracked heather across the North York Moor National Park between Scarth Wood Moor, near Osmotherley, to Ravenscar on the North Sea coast. It led to the first crossing of eleven people completing it in twenty-three hours on 1st October 1955, ten years before the Pennine Way was opened. The name derives from the 10,000 odd burial mounds on the moors known locally as howes. ‘Lyke’ is an old word for corpse, ‘Wake’ is a funereal celebration of the dead, I assume you know what ‘Walk’ means! The Lyke Wake Club was formed with the Dirge as its anthem, this was an old Yorkshire dialect song about doing good in our mortal lives to avoid the flames of hell, you know the type of thing. Those completing the walk are officially known as Dirgers. The LWW’s popularity peaked in the 1960’s and 70’s with up to 15,000 attempts a year bringing with it the inevitable erosion issues. In recent years its popularity has declined with the figure at around 500 in 2005. After Bill Cowley died in August 1994 the Lyke Wake Club closed, reopened, split in two and fought over for legal rights of the name and trademarks, and there was me thinking it was just a bit of fun.
Mike’s infectious enthusiasm ground me down and I came to view this as my one realistic chance of doing the LWW. There was one fly in the ointment though. In January 2008 we joked at the unlikely chance of his beloved Cardiff City playing my club Portsmouth in the FA Cup Final. ‘What…’ I scoffed, ‘…were the chances of that ever happening?‘ Fast forward to May 17th and the pair of us were at opposite ends of Wembley Stadium texting verbal abuse to each other. Mike had been in dreamland since arriving back in the UK with numerous Welsh sporting successes such as Joe Calzaghe winning the World super-middleweight title and BBC Sports Personality of the Year. With their Rugby Union team winning the Six Nations Grand Slam and Triple Crown, he could have been forgiven for thinking Cardiff’s remarkable cup run was written in the stars with no possible outcome other than a victory for the Bluebirds. To be honest, I almost believed it myself until Nwankwo Kanu settled any lingering doubts. Mike took it bad and for a while I assumed the Lyke Wake Walk would be a casualty. At some point during 40 miles of a North York Moors wilderness the chances of one leaving t’other for dead was pretty high. In the end all parties reverted back to a previously agreed non-gloating pact, clearly the lure of the moors was more compelling than mere football rivalries.
Timing was everything. Mike and his wife were due to fly back to Oz on 15th August and I only agreed to do it during the longer daylight hours of June or July. The date was set and the plans were made, next came the logistics so I asked a friend in York if he wouldn’t mind putting us up for a night as well as driving us from one side of Yorkshire to the other. What could be simpler? We spent the day before our attempt driving up to the Raven Hall Hotel in Ravenscar which is the official finishing point these days, their relaxed attitude to late arriving walkers relieved some of the pressure on our finishing time on the day. One concern I had was if the day was a hot one, we could ill afford to run out of water over 40 mile of nothingness that passes no civilisation. So on the drive up we made two water drops by hiding a supply in the undergrowth where roads crossed the route. However, as we secreted them at the 9th and 31st miles with the rain pouring down, the notion of dehydration seemed laughable. We were picked up from Ravenscar and the following morning driven through the sleepy streets of Osmotherley into a tantalising stretch of wilderness. Within the Sheepwash car park was a solitary stone perched on a rise, the Lyke Wake Walk Stone. At one time the official starting point was on the hill above in a privately owned field which made it unpopular for obvious reasons. So we gathered in darkness for the official photograph, delighted to be on our way at the planned starting time of exactly 4am. We strode through Scarth Wood Moor in the early percolations of daylight to Coalmire Plantation. From there I was on familiar ground having come this way on the Coast to Coast Walk in 1993. With the Cleveland Way using the same paths, route finding would be easy for the next 11 miles. We celebrated completion of the 2nd mile in the tiny community of Heathwaite very happy with our lot, and why not, there were only 38 miles remaining after all. As we made our way through darkness across an open area of grassland I faced my first challenge of the day, trying to steer a Welshman through a field of sheep!
The huddle of Hollin Hill Farm and nearby Huthwaite Green would be the largest human habitation encountered on this walk. As Live Moor levelled to a gloomy and windswept plateau, I looked to the line of flagstones ahead. This resurfacing had been a work in progress in 1993 as I watched a helicopter dropping off white tarpaulin sacks at various points. Fifteen years later and the initiative was working. Beyond Live Moor’s 1,023 foot summit others soon followed; Gold Hill, Faceby Bank, Carlton Moor and Cringle Moor (cringie to the locals), before we thread our way up through the Wainstones on Hasty Bank. At ten minutes after 7am we were half an hour behind schedule with 8 miles done, but it was good progress as this first quarter of the LWW is the hardest with some 2,000 feet of climbing. We stopped for a short break for breakfast. With a mile to the first water drop we needed to start drinking, yet somehow the day was not shaping up to be the scorcher I’d anticipated. After dropping to Clay Bank and the B1257 road I leant into the undergrowth by a broken wall and retrieved two litres of water.
The climb to the 10th mile was the hardest of all but from Carr Ridge a south easterly route over a wide grassy ridge took us onto an exposed shelf of land that holds aloft some the highest ground in North Yorkshire. Over Urra Moor, named after the Celtic goddess of heather, a wider track continued to the nearby burial mound of Round Hill, at 1,400 feet the highest point of the Lyke Wake Walk. Ahead of us stretched the Rosedale railway where at Bloworth Crossing the Cleveland Way turned left and three trails became two. The comfortable railway would be our companion and guide for the next 5 miles. Constructed in 1861 it took ore from the ironstone mines in Rosedale to the furnaces of Teesdale and Durham. Ten million tons was transported before the mines closed in 1925. The railway soon followed in 1929 but since that time its dormant trackbed has provided the perfect high level route across the moors. This was an easy trudge if not a little dull, so we resorted to mp3 players. It was time for some music, Stone Roses for me and the latest New Order album for Mike. The features on the map passed by as we steadily built up a head of steam across the moors. At 16 miles the Lion Inn came into view as Gill Wath and Blakey Gill were rounded then, as the line straightened, a crudely painted ‘LWW’ and arrow on a stone directed us left. From there a quarter mile climb brought us to one of the remotest pubs in Yorkshire at 10:49.
Though 2 miles short, this was a good halfway stopping point. Inside the Lion Inn were two packed lunches with our names on, so we stopped for a pot of tea. The place was pretty much as I remembered from my previous visit in 1993 on a more cheerful day, hence the dated looking photo above. It was here I enjoyed the best night ever on a long distance walk, oh how the alcohol flowed through to the early hours of the morning. Unfortunately I had to get to Grosmont the next day and suffered a near-death experience walking 13½ miles with a screaming hangover! There were no such excesses this time, just two wannabe Dirgers with halfway faces. We departed into depressing rainfall. Having turned our back on it for forty minutes, the weather took a turn for the worse.
We walked 3 miles of road around a 1,300 foot high area of burial mounds, crosses, ancient stones and monuments. One of these was a squat cubical stone topped by a circular wheel head known as Fat Betty. I knew Betty well and could see she’d put on a few pounds. Beyond the 20th mile we lost the Coast to Coast Walk at Danby Head and dos became uno. Leaving the road an altered landscape stretched ahead of us, this was the real North York Moors wilderness. A badly eroded path led by white posts through layers of peat brought us to even more exposed moorland just as the rain fell harder. This was the infamous roake, a local name for sudden unpredictable weather that rolls in off the North Sea and drains the land of colour. Little of the LWW from this point is on established rights of way which put it high on the open access agenda. The authorities worked to keep walkers to designated paths and an uneasy peace existed, but there was a lack of markers. The path was in neglect as no official body wanted to pick up the tab for badly needed repairs. All too often the path disappeared into a series of lines intent on avoiding floodwater. The compass was our best hope, I just needed to sort the direction and stick to it as best we could.
Far into the distance our unalterable course made for Shunner Howe 2 miles hence, a seemingly endless trudge so we turned on our mobiles and the messages soon arrived in a steady succession. People were keen to hear how we were doing. We passed Shunner Howe without stopping, our feet sodden as each clump of ankle high heather delivered a payload of rainwater into our boots. Soon a new landscape emerged and with it a new challenge beyond a small road half a mile lower down. From this rise the distance smudged into a blur but I could make out a strange triangular white object 8 miles away that looked like a giant wigwam. As we reached the road at 13:55, just shy of the 24th mile, we stopped for a bite to eat. Next up was a 4 mile trudge over Wheeldale Moor to another road, by reputation this can be the most demoralising section so I kept my wits about me and watched for signs of dejection from Mike, fully prepared to slap him about if required. The path began promisingly enough as I kept to a compass bearing up White Moor before heading for Wheeldale Howe. On the way we passed a standing stone known by the quirky name of Blue Man-i’-th’-Moss. This ancient boundary stone was also a rare way marker and as if to quell any lingering doubts for LWW walkers someone painted a little blue man on it, but which blue, Portsmouth or Cardiff? It was a potential flashpoint, so to compromise I took a photo in black & white.
At the 27th mile we emerged from a tight ravine beyond the Raven Stones, an area devastated by fire during the hot summer of 1976. Only in recent years has the ecosystem managed to re-establish itself. With the rain restricting my peripheral view to that beyond my hood I became disorientated. It was easy to see why people would get demoralised and I even started to wonder whether Mike should start slapping me around. My anxiety heightened, had we gone wrong? All I had done was take a compass bearing and trusted. The road was nowhere. The last thing we needed was to stray either side of a 40 mile walk. The rain continued to pour with a round of thunder in the distance. There was nothing else for it, I decided to give in to panic just as the grey thread of a lane slowly came into view. Before we knew it an LWW arrow brought us to the Stape Road at 16:00. It was never in doubt!
The Lyke Wake Walk continued over Wheeldale Beck by stepping stones swallowed by the stream, then on the plateau of Howl Moor I felt the first knockings of fatigue. We kept ourselves amused by sending text messages, or at least I did, Mike was happy to dictate as if I was his secretary. The ridge of Simon Howe, another prominent burial mound, brought us to a calmer landscape as we followed a straight line to the east. The text replies came flying in and I found myself juggling between conversations which proved dangerous as I inadvertently told our IT manager I couldn’t wait to tear his underwear off! North of Crag Stone Rigg we passed what I estimated to be the 30th mile, wowser, three quarters done! Above the A169 was the strange triangular, or tetrahedron, shaped object seen back at Shunner Howe. This was the former site of the infamous Fylingdales golf balls that once sat atop Snod Hill. During the Cold War these three giant radomes played an important part in Britain’s nuclear early warning system, or America’s to be more precise. Fylingdales gave us the saying ‘four minute warning’ after one disgruntled politician questioned its deployment in 1962. For the Americans, who owned the site to protect their own transatlantic butts, the duration was a more comforting fifteen minutes. In 1992 the balls were dismantled and replaced with the current Solid State Phased Array Radar (SSPAR) which is so ultra secret it’s not even marked on the maps even though it can be seen for miles in every direction.
We crossed the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, built by George Stephenson in 1836, closed by Dr. Beeching in 1965 and reopened in 1973 as the UK’s second longest preservation line at 18 miles. Beyond that was our second water drop close to Eller Beck Bridge, it was 17:35 and time for something to eat and drink as the rain had stopped. After sitting for forty minutes I felt the early stages of hypothermia. Even for July, the evening chill played havoc with two inert bodies in wet clothing and I began to shiver uncontrollably. We needed to get going. Curiously, after such a spasm the gradual warmth generated by the resumption of walking gave a comforting glow and those first few steps were the best I’d felt all day, however it’s not something I would recommend. So, 9 miles to go, could we dare to dream? Goathland Moor was Ministry of Defence land which added more importance to our adherence of the path. There was a time when Fylingdales contained unexploded shells and soldiers were killed in October 1958 during a clearing exercise. Nothing had been found since 1970 which was sort of reassuring-ish. Eller Beck needed to be crossed, so we hurled our packs across the narrowest point and made a leap of faith. Floundering through rough scrub and marshland, we followed a series of white posts in the shadow of the radar pyramid that lurked menacingly to our right. It felt as if we were being watched, which we probably were. One wrong move along this bit and I fully expected to see the vapour trail of a heat seeking missile heading our way.
The white posts marked a series of noncommittal lines through heather but I soon noticed a rough track to the right. A substantial army track that looked to be dryer, direct and going our way. We were in the thick of MoD land now with the dark gothic slab of Lilla Cross up ahead, believed to be one of the oldest monuments on the Yorkshire moors at 958 feet. Legend says it marks the grave of Lilla, gender unknown, who perished in 626AD whilst trying to save the life of King Edwin of Northumbria by leaping in front of an assassin’s blade. In celebration Edwin renounced his pagan ways, embraced Christianity and erected this cross. Or, it could have just been a tenth-century boundary marker. In the distance was our next challenge, a relentless plod to High Moor where we passed the 35th mile at the burial mound of Burn Howe. The rain eased and the views were good for once, at times downright dramatic as I looked to Jugger Howe Moor and watched a bolt of lightning kiss the ground where we were heading. Across the wastes of Fylingdales Moor a colleague texted a rundown of the day’s sporting events, Lewis Hamilton won the British Grand Prix whilst the Wimbledon men’s singles final was a rain delayed five set thriller between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It turned out to be the longest championship match in history, nearly five hours. Five hours? Had those dudes any idea how long we’d been walking? Sixteen hours and thirty minutes by the time we crossed the flow of Jugger Howe Beck to be precise. The mile to the A171 was on a wonderfully smooth and flat concrete tank track, oh to be free of rainwater swirling around our ankles. Soon came the noise of a road up ahead and before long we were across the A171 Whitby to Scarborough road.
Just like us, the daylight was still clinging on at 9pm. With an hour remaining the time was about right even though our pace had slowed considerably. Ahead was a tall radio mast, whilst a retrospective look back showed a curious atmospheric effect being played out across the land as wisps of low cloud drifted lazily across the moors as if they were on fire. Perhaps they were, though somehow I doubted that. The texts continued, by now a captive audience was willing us on, I never knew so many people cared. The tennis finally came to a conclusion at 9:15pm, Nadal beat Federer with his fourth match point. Beyond a triangulation point marking 872 feet we made our way to the radio mast and the 39th mile which is the finishing point for some who spurn the final mile down to Ravenscar, but we were there for the full 40 and took an overgrown path down the slopes of Stoupe Brow. Our reward was a magnificent view to the North Sea and the sweeping arc of Robin Hood’s Bay in the last vestiges of daylight.
We reached Robin Hood Road, formerly School Lane, turned right and then left as a crescent moon hung over the radio mast. Through the village of Ravenscar and with the entrance gates of the hotel up ahead a group of people came out of the gloom. They asked whether we had just finished the Lyke Wake Walk, it was something we couldn’t disguise. Three men were to do the walk the following day from Ravenscar starting at 4am. How strange to meet a group of prospective Dirgers at this stage of our walk, how strange and satisfying. We reached the car in darkness and dumped our packs, retrieved our overnight bags and sent forth a host of triumphant text messages from the entrance lobby of the Raven Hall Hotel. It was 22:10 and we had completed the Lyke Wake Walk.
Mike and I shook hands in formal recognition of our achievement. According to his pedometer we had walked 65 kilometres, (40.39 miles) trodden 95,000 steps and burnt off 5,075 calories in the space of eighteen hours and ten minutes. Our decision to stay at Raven Hall was a master stroke for as well as the luxury of being able to clean up, we also discovered the hotel bar stayed open for as long as we wanted. However, after just one beer exhaustion won us over and we made our way back to our rooms for the deepest of sleeps. So that was it, the furthest I have ever walked in a day and if reading this journal has left you exhausted, I can only congratulate you for finishing it with us, you almost qualify as a Dirger yourself. We somehow completed it in some of the worse conditions of any summer crossing of the Lyke Wake Walk, all the more remarkable I felt. If nothing else, at least it put to rest the FA Cup ghost and by the time Mike departed our office back to Australia I came to lament his going. He had been loads of fun and rekindled in me an urge to challenge the challenging. To this day I still hope it was not our last walk together as we both harbour an aspiration to walk the Overland Track, a wilderness bush walk of 40 miles across Tasmania, I just wouldn’t want to do it in a single day!
Enquiry : Hello Rambling WalkerI was pleased to find your account of the LWW – it’s a good report. I & (some other Lyke Wake Bores) are trying to get together as comprehensive an archive as we can achieve for the LWWalk – we will add a link to your webpage in our archive. Your account of your successful perambulation is what is referred to as a Crossing Report in LW parlance. Did you ever apply for your Condolence Card? – this is effectively your membership card for the LWClub/New Lyke Wake Club. If you want your Condolence Card you can apply to the New Lyke Wake Club – contact – firstname.lastname@example.org.Some of my Crossing reports are on the LWClub website check out – http://lykewake.org/reports/?p=297#commentsRegardsIan Evans