2015.07.22 – In the Valley of the Swale

2015.07.22 – In the Valley of the Swale

When you spend more than one night at a B&B, you build quite a relationship with the staff, or in our case, the owner. At the Keld Lodge, we received some of the best advice and treatment of our trip thus far. Our host, whose name we sadly do not know, was amiable, inquisitive, respectful, and playful in his manner. He took my veganism in full stride and figured out a way that they could make it work. He gave out endless advice on the trail, the various alternatives in the area, and even shared a bit of his background as a walker. When we left this morning, our fellow guests were showering him with praise for the hospitable environment he had cultivated in the Keld Lodge. His response was: “I am first and foremost a walker, then a hotel owner”. He, like many of his countrymen, is a walker and knows exactly what walkers needed and wanted. The Keld Lodge, but especially its owner, will definitely rank high in the pantheon of B&Bs of this trip.

Keld was a great place to spend two nights, but the show must go on. Even though we completed the majority of Wainwright’s route yesterday, our path took a different route today. As such, we were at some liberty to chart our own course. We knew we had to follow the Swale to Reeth, but we had plenty of footpaths and bridleways to choose from to maintain that heading. For starters, we set off on a section of the Pennine Way Britain’s first official long-distance path. This route kept us high above the Swale, traversing a ridge above the river. As we made our way to Muker, a small village with a wool knitting collective! Once in Muker, we reconnected with the Swale and followed our footpath along its banks. Our journey downstream had begun.

Alongside the Swale are fields of grain and pasture, dotted with countless small, stone barns. The combination is entirely different from the high pastures of the Lake District. There, the sheep graze in the alpine meadows then move to lower pastures during the winter. The Swaledale Valley follows a different pattern. Swaledale shepherds grow hay while their sheep are grazing during the warmer months, then store it in those small stone barns so that the animals can feed during the colder months. Such a process means that the fields that blanket the slopes of the Swale river valley are checkered with the yellow of freshly cut hay and the green speckled with white of the sheep pastures. The contrast is stark and beautiful.

That dichotomy now meant that we were walking on stricter rights of way, at least on the fields that were growing hay. In the grazing pastures we have seen thus far, there are vague paths leading in many directions, generally ending in a gate or style. There is very little guidance on the pastures themselves, maybe a sign here or there. In fact, it can be quite difficult to differentiate a sheep path from the footpath. Not true in the hay fields in Swaledale. In these fields, farmers had posted signs urging walkers to stay single file and, in some cases, others had gone so far as to lay flagstone paths into their fields. Such paths were a reminder of how seriously Brits take their walking and their commitment to protecting those rights of way.

From hay field to pasture, our path echoed along the north side of the Swale River. After a few miles, we were walking along raised embankments that protected the fields from water level surges. It was apparent from the naked tree roots and wide banks that the Swale does swell under the right conditions, drastically shaping the landscape around it. The embankments, which were sometimes no more than thick walls, made for wonderfully flat and level hiking with the river rushing quietly below you.

Advertised as a quick, easy, and beautiful day, our route mysteriously seemed everlasting. Eleven miles of flat, downhill, clear footpath should take between four and five hours, depending on your speed. Somehow, we were still chugging along by 2:00 PM having left well before 9:00 AM. Normally, this wouldn’t have been an issue (and it really wasn’t), but we were planning on having lunch in Reeth, our final destination. I don’t know about you, but 5+ hours without a meal is pushing it for me. I was borderline hangry as we rounded the crest of our last hill, overlooking the bustling town of Reeth.

Once I had plopped down in the town centre and had refueled, I began to take in the sounds, sights, and smells of Reeth. First and foremost, there was a band of elderly men singing to a crowd of thirty onlookers. The songs were folky and region specific, although a ballad to Amelia Earhart snuck in near the end. They sang in the southern corner of a large open green, surrounded by small gift shops, public houses (pubs), a post office, and a bakery. It was calm, yet busy. No one was in a rush. We wandered the square, finding a vegan chocolate cake in the bakery, along with some amazing scones (or so my Dad tells me). We sat munching at the top of the green, taking it all in, before heading off to the Swaledale Museum, a surprisingly informative and comprehensive local history museum.

Once 3:30 PM rolled around, we knew we could head up to our B&B. Once we had checked in, we were immediately offered tea and scones. What a civilized way to end a day on the trail. The scones were quickly followed by hot showers and a trip to the local inn for dinner. I am still not exactly sure what I ate, but it looked like a pair of chick pea and red pepper kebabs seated atop a brilliant salad of sun dried tomatoes and veggies. It is a far cry from the remote hospitality and congeniality of Keld, but Reeth sure didn’t disappoint.


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