Day 1 Ilkley to Burnsall 21 km
After a sleepless night (b&b positioned on a busy road) we're up early and out to the Coop for a breakfast of pretzels and croissants, eaten at the start of the Dalesway. The morning is perfect, cool with a little moisture in the air which fortells the rain to come.
For now though, it's fine. I'm pleased to be underway as it settles the nerves which every so often question whether this is such a good idea and whether my fitness is good enough to manage the hikes and the pack carrying. The former are only slightly longer than I'm used to and the latter I'll get used to I keep telling myself. A few aches from yesterday and from the ultrasoft bed last night make themselves known but otherwise spirits are high and the sense of adventures unknown carry us happily along.
Much of the route later on will be well known to us and whilst the Dalesway itself out of Ilkley isn't, the geography and surrounding towns and roads are. Orienting ourselves is easy and the way is well marked. We follow the South Bank of the River Wharfe for around 10 km before reaching Bolton Abbey. Out of Ilkley, we break out across open meadow just after the Tennis and Squash Club. This continues for some time before bringing us out onto a minor road with a handful of other walkers up ahead. This brings us into the tiny village of Low Mill, a pleasant little, picture postcard enclave with buildings all constructed from yellow stone. The path passes through a pleasant wooded section of bank and then clips Addingham down millionaires row, a lane that seems to have multiple Rectories. It isn't long before the church itself comes into view and we walk through it's pretty grounds to take us onto Addingham's streets.
A well manicured caravan park ushers us back out into green land and alongside the river again. At a kissing gate on the holiday park's outskirts, a family stop for a short chat to ask where we're going.
A little down the path at the Quakers meeting house we encounter our first point of confusion. The map is unclear and the way markers for the Dalesway seem to disappear temporarily. It's only by reading the guidebook route description after several turns around the meeting house and establishing a number of ways that we don't want to go that we resolve the path ahead. We head through a right hand turn, tucked in a corner and hidden by a hedge (helpfully waymarked just after the critical turn!) and down what looks like a driveway to Lobwood House. As tricky as the path was to find, it keeps us off the fast and narrow road, which it tracks for a way before deserting us at the most treacherous stretch of road. Before tackling that we break for a snack and a rest and pass a few pleasantries with another couple who we've been leapfrogging
and greeting for the last couple of km. Later and a km or 2 up the road, we see her but not him striding past our ice-cream eating spot at Bolton Abbey. She doesn't look particularly troubled though so we amuse ourselves for a short time by telling wilder and wilder stories about the events that may have led to the separate ways.
Bolton Abbey is a trial to be endured as it turns 11am and the floodgates seemingly open. Within the time it takes to eat our ice-cream the stepping stones and bridge go from empty to thronging and the pushchaired mother's blocking the single lane bridge for the sake of a photograph or 10 do nothing to ease the now insistent aching in my shoulders. The people we encounter now morph from the friendly, open and easy faces that proffer greetings to closed, almost unhappy and seemingly unaware of anyone else around them. I muse to myself over the liklihood of a connection between our own happiness and our willingness to connect to others, however briefly? And why should those things be most evident in people out in nature, away from crowds? Perhaps it has something to do with saturation versus a choice to engage.
Regardless, we move on and soon lose the crowds for the more pleasant, quieter and more nature-filled footpaths leading up to the Strid. Once again people stand aside to allow us to pass and acknowledge their thanks when we do the same. We stop to eat on the limestone rocks bordering the Strid. We have 8km left to walk today and this is an old familiar stopping place that I can't pass by without visiting. We watch a pair of yellow wagtails conduct aerial acrobatics to feed their chicks in a hole in the rock wall that forms the narrow gorge. The sound of the rushibg water relaxes me whilst also reminding me of the dangers below. The hard limestone I sit on covers the softer rock that the rushing water has eroded to create a giant underwater canyon. The overlying limestone only allows a narrow opening into the canyon, creating a washing machine that can keep things unfortunate enough to be pushed into it in there for some time.
The natural beauty of the place is just as captivating though and the guidebook that I idly flick through as Mickey takes photos tells me there are over 80 species of lichen and 98 missed along with bats and fungi, many of which are very limited in distribution or are only found locally.
We finish lunch and press on to Barden Tower. We wave at the neighbouring Priests' House as we go giggling over memories of our wedding guests scrambling down a hill of long grass in their wedding finery to be photographed by a ruined arch. From here, my memory of the last handful of km is hazy with fatigue. I remember a long straight and narrow stretch of footpath bordered on the right by drystonewall and wildflowers and the river on the other, it was the epitome of English country garden, pretty but too much of a good thing. Unchanging as it was, it only allowed my mind to take stock of the developing blisters. A short lane led to a sharp right over a beck and into a private wooded glade. We stopped to apply plasters and climb down to the river before finding a poignant reminder not to take any of this for granted.
We break out of the brief stint in woodland onto sweeping expanses of verdant riverbanks thronging with swimmers and day trippers and overlooked by Appletreewick. I remember knowing it wasn't far now but feeling like it was anything but near. I remember the banks narrowing down, soil giving way to concrete path, on my right the wildflowers returned and we passed a packed campsite prompting Mickey to remark he was glad we didn't need to eek out a pitch there.
And then Burnsall appeared over yet another expanse of flat, sweeping green. The sign at the end of it telling us it was actually a carpark. £8 for cars and £2 for motorcycles. The latter Mickey repeated at ever increasing pitches of affrontedness for the short remainder of the walk. The overpriced nature of the parking was a theme that coloured our overnight stay there. But at that moment I was too tired to feel anything but grateful that I could sit down and take my boots off. Thirty minutes later the thunder started rumbling and the heavens really opened.