…in which I encounter ghostly cattle, feel morose above a valley and am roasted to a frazzle.
Fountains Fell to Malham, 8 miles. Jump to Journal.
The National Trust kindly provides a useful public toilet at the rear of Malham Tarn Field Centre – note the donation box. Malham is a tourist honeypot and resource-rich, even out of season. There’s camping and BnBs, two pubs and other options for food and even an outdoor shop although their stock is understandably aimed at day walkers – they didn’t sell sleeping mats. The lack of grocery shopping here isn’t an issue southbound as Gargrave is so close. I stayed at the YHA hostel, which was convenient, friendly and good value with an excellent drying room and flexible access. This hostel is one of the more popular with groups, so it tends to be noisy and watch out for the curse of exclusive booking.
Generally straightforward but I did get confused at two points trying to follow the NTG ‘backwards’ – as usual among farmland rather than on high ground. Approaching the north end of Malham Tarn for some reason I followed a rising track heading west and ended up picking my way through the National Trust HQ at Home Farm back onto the driveway, an unforced error and annoying detour. The Way runs more or less due south directly down to the line of big trees (point E on NTG p. 81).
I then mistakenly followed another track heading southeast from the south end of the wood on the east shore of the Tarn. In fact The Way heads southwest from that point towards the outflow at the southeast corner of the Tarn, where it then turns south. You’ll have to look at a map for those two sentences to make any sense! To rejoin The Way, I had to stumble back west through the cattle at Tarn Foot (NTG p. 81).
Having slept damply but well for a change out of the wind, I woke before dawn and, given that the track was pretty obvious and the local Springerati were clearly unconcerned about descending it in the dark, I set off by headtorch. Just after the cairns I stepped off the path to peer at a mysterious sign in the darkness. It told me not to step off the path.
Soon afterwards I found myself wishing someone else would step off the track – an enormous sleepy bovine with terrifying wonky horns, whose massive bulk I’d virtually tripped over in the gloom. It rose with a great shudder and a playful but notably careless swing of its weaponry. ‘Er, shoo…?’ I said doubtfully. It padded off down the track in front of me, its great cloven toes splaying in the mud, its manner ruminative, an animal very much at home in its environment. Thoughtfully, it had decided to introduce me to its family and friends. ‘Hello’, I said as a dozen more gigantic beasts loomed out of the swirling cloud, ‘nice horns.’
Joking apart, there’s hardly a more heartening sight than big animals living semi-wild lives in semi-wild country. It’s wonderful to see them behaving so naturally. The Fountains Fell Longhorns must have the highest fibre diet of any British cattle judging by their droppings. These vast elephantine deposits add further topographical interest to the Pennine Way, each one a bucket of roughage totally different to the reeking cheesy flops of pellet-fed lowland herds. Hey, you need to take a distracting interest in something when you’re trudging through dung in semi-darkness past a herd of panzer-cattle armed with intercontinental ballistic hornage.
Above Malham Tarn I decided to get lost for no reason whatsoever, surprising the National Trust staff who were just clocking on by stumbling in some confusion through their office forecourt. In passing, I noted they looked like proper National Trust staff, not the kind who spend all day in meetings commissioning animatronic interpretive cowdroids and interactive ‘Spot the Flop with Lucy Longhorn’ websites. These were the salt of the earth warden types who whizz about on quadbikes fixing flagstones on the Pennine Way; hard labour for which I’m humbly grateful.
I then got trivially but frustratingly lost again. Downcast, I sat and rested at the viewpoint above the dry valley. I ate some manky nuts, as opposed to monkey nuts, and listened politely to a chirpy chap explain his rather clever circular walk. Oh yes, two nice BnBs and the train home from Horton.
Having left Fountains Fell before dawn, I’d be in Malham by ten and I could easily then have pushed on to Gargrave. The original plan for the previous night had been to camp on Penyghent. By forging on instead to Fountains Fell I’d overdone it a bit with a 22 mile day. Fatigued from that and concerned about my navigation errors, I contemplated my claggy sleeping bag and sopping tent. I resolved to spend eleven pounds on a night in the hostel, not so much for the bed which I knew full well would afford little sleep on a Friday night at Malham, but for the drying room and for an afternoon off back in the normal world with sensible people.
The first sensible person I met was the highly-groomed eurobarperson in the Lister Arms who preeningly demanded ‘what kind of coffee?’ as if I was a bumpkin not to have proactively specified my required provenance, roast and grind in an English country pub. My heart sank at the painful memory of a time in Sheffield I was told I couldn’t have an Americano because it wasn’t on the menu. ‘But you have espresso and hot water…?’
‘Just coffee’, I said, stupidly, in the manner of a man who’d been in the hills too long. I roused my few remaining scraps of feeble energy. ‘You know, filter’. ‘We have cafetières’. ‘Lovely’. I slumped in the corner and concentrated on looking pathetic, in the hope of a free biscuit. This never works in posh pubs, especially when you’re covered in cow poo from the knees down.
The coffee came and it was hot and delicious in a swish insulated pot but much too strong for a hypohydrated hiker. I asked for hot water, a kind and friendly young man brought hot milk. This was going well. The Lister Arms is populated by well-groomed types who think anyone with dirt, let alone actual dung, on their clothes must be a workshy, bus-riding, benefit claimant. After an hour of gently reeking by their warm fire I figured I’d better get myself to the hostel and clean up.
The hostel was rammed with small and amazingly noisy schoolchildren, luckily all on the point of checking out. This incomprehensibly complex procedure involved, bafflingly to my eyes, laying out in lines across the hostel courtyard all their bags. Some of these appeared to be larger than their owners. The hostel staff, although super-friendly, quite understandably didn’t want me under their feet while this extraordinary tableau was playing out. They kindly let me into the drying room, where I got changed and left my stuff. I enjoyed a happy afternoon meandering aimlessly, drinking tea and bothering shopkeepers with vague banter.
At suppertime I was enjoying an excellent steak back in the Lister, guiltily remembering how the beautiful and gentle longhorn cattle had let me barge through their home that very morning, when the eurobarperson barged past my table. He put far too many logs on the fire, by which I’d been until then happily ensconced. This raised the temperature from merely challenging to positively volcanic. Unable to remove any more layers while remaining respectable, I was forced to leave. The only charitable explanation for this behaviour is that he was a penurious Lithuanian physicist forced to work bars but sustaining his intellect by conducting extracurricular experiments in human fusion.
The hostel was now packed with a noisy, cheery and hard-drinking weekend walkers’ club. The women in the room above nattered and giggled, every word audible, the guys crashed into the dorm half-cut well past midnight. They all grumbled, of course, when I got my own back at five am.
Joking apart again I was glad of a break and, for all its flaws, of some human company. I’ve walked the Pennine Way three times and each time there was one point at which it all seemed too much. That point at which your head sinks involuntarily into your hands, and you would blub if there was anyone within miles to hear you. At this point you realise the Pennine Way is not about physical capability, and a good job too as my body was thrown together on a Friday afternoon from decidedly inferior components. It’s a matter of mental resilience. I’m not sure I see the point of a long distance walk that doesn’t take you over that threshold. You may as well be a weekend walker. In the UK at least, the Pennine Way is the PhD of trails. I have a PhD, and I blubbed getting that too.