If England is known for its picturesque countryside on a small scale, then the walk from Thwaite to the Tan Hill Inn completely shatters the mold. Immense expanses were the order of the day. It began with fine-looking farmland but steadily merged into deep limestone canyons and eventually sweeping moorland. We’d passed nearly every sort of scenery that the country offers, gawking the entire time.
Ruth and I began our daily dose of exercise around 11am, late no matter how you clock it, but especially so when the daylight hours are truncating themselves ever so rapidly. We had unwillingly absconded Thwaite and all the extravagances of modern civilization, but were delighted that the weather was not nearly as livid as yesterday. And we never expected such fine scenery.
It’s easy to frown
When you leave town
But it’s easy to grin
When you know where you’ve been
And yet it’s easy to dread
What lies ahead...
The route from Thwaite has us gently climbing between head-high stone walls for ten or so minutes before jutting uphill in a more serious manner. We passed a few empty structures that may have once been houses but were now used to house hay and mice and aging farm equipment. The path leveled off far above the River Swale, enabling us to at last see beyond our steamy heavy breathing. We would gaze in wonderment, and rightfully so.
The guidebook, our ‘Walkapedia,’ never foretold us of this, perhaps because it was so indescribably delicious. Atop the North Gang Scar, I altogether forgot I was in England. Our position had us nearly five hundred feet above the river and not a whole lot farther in a horizontal sense, and views abounded in all directions. The hillsides were steep but inviting and the Pennine Way rolled out before us like a red carpet, wishing us good tidings.
In a matter of minutes those tidings would become more tide-like. The fickle weather did yet another about-face, this time with a lawless vengeance. Out came the raingear, in went the cameras, and down came the moods. It’s hard to remain upbeat when beat up. We carried on at the speed of heavy. Heavy packs. Heavy moods.
As we moved on toward the puny parish of Keld, we lost some of the elevation we’d gained and soon strode alongside the river, which ran in the opposite direction of us. It ran; we walked. There was no hurry for Ruth and I, except that hurrying allowed us to stay warm. Hypothermia hates a moving target.
When we reached Keld we took shelter next to some dried-out tractor tires and some decrepit engine parts in an old stone shed, debating our options. Suicide seemed the leading nominee, but we opted to instead continue northward, in hopes we’d reach the Tan Hill Inn by evening, before we died. Reaching it wouldn’t quite be enough; we hoped it would be open.
As per usual, I had no use of my digits and could only watch as the snot flowed freely from my nose, trying not to drown in it. (Truth is I couldn’t watch it, for fear I might go permanently cross-eyed.) Grasping my hiking poles was now even an impossible chore, so, with Ruth’s assistance, I shortened them, threw them in the side pocket of my backpack, and walked with my hands down my pants (this last one I did alone). This is not the easiest way to walk The Way, what with all the balance required and the obligatory use of arms when pulling yourself from yet another bog, but it’s the only way I’d been able to manage. On the Pennine Way hands are needed when hiking.
Our route took us up out of the sheer, grassy hillsides and dumped us back into the moors---the emptiest, darkest, most hostile ones yet. If we’d been walking in the land of milk and honey earlier, we were now in the land of piss and slop. The wind blew at a robust thirty miles an hour, usually from behind, but quite often from the west, our left, while the rain came down horizontally and in waves. Some waves were more powerful than others but all were no weaker than tsunami-strength. In spite of the wide-open views, there was no sign of life anywhere…just two dumb Americans migrating north in a landscape God wouldn’t even consider home. Indeed, despite being the black-belt walker he was, Jesus himself would’ve hated the Pennine Way. The dude knew it was easier to walk on water than through bogs.
We were soaked, frigid, overdosing on negativity, and no longer enjoying ourselves. I love the challenges of thru-hiking, but they don’t always present themselves in a manner that’s to my liking. And though there was nothing great about it, this was the greatest of those challenges. We snuck into another stone shed lining the path, momentarily delivering us from harm’s way (though, of course, harm was already having its way). It was the last refuge we’d see for hours, and so we attempted to regroup, downing candy bars like they were going out of style. I was shivering so much I kept missing my mouth.
“Got a good reason for taking the easy way out
Got a good reason for taking the easy way out now…”
And that’s precisely what we did. When the road was within striking distance we beelined toward it and road-walked the remaining couple of miles to the inn. This actually enabled us to enjoy what little scenery there was, as we weren’t forced to stare at our every step, for fear we might drown in a bog. I might have had a tinge of guilt except that the road played into my ‘always take the scenic route’ credo. And not one car would pass. Motorists understood that driving in such conditions would be downright dumb.
The Tan Hill Inn plays host to England’s highest pub (1,732-feet above sea level for those of you keeping notes), and is firmly stuck between the heart of nowhere and the backside of beyond. Here’s a map of the area, lest you wonder…
Middle of nowhere > Tan Hill Inn < Backside of beyond
The two-storied edifice has enjoyed/endured countless stories(1) over its four hundred and twenty-six year history (that’s right: four hundred plus years) and is truly a sight to behold. Situated at a three-way junction, it stands just to the right of the intersection at the top of a T. The nearest municipality, Kirkby Stephen, is eleven miles away. Between the two, nil. In fact, of the tens of thousands of acres we could see surrounding the tavern, there were a grand total of no other structures. The whole area was comprised of nothing, just moors and more moors.
Moors > Tan Hill Inn < More moors
We secured a room upstairs, then wrung out and hung out our clothes, before showering until the “on demand” water heater could pump no more hot water; we had demanded too much of it. We then blow-dried our clothes so we could wear them downstairs in the pub without leaving puddles on the frigid, stone floor. I worried any such liquid might solidify and an unwary customer might stride in, slip and smack his skull. The air was warm thanks to an eternal flame that had been ablaze in the fireplace for an infinite number of years(2), but the floor was absolutely freezing (out of respect we removed our boots upon entering the place, though our socks smelled anything but respectful). Floors in England are all unnecessarily cold. In fact, in the case of Tan Hill’s floor, ice may have been warmer.
As per our new-found tradition, we ordered cider with our dinners. I’d wished the cider had been warmed, but this wasn’t the wimpy non-alcoholic apple cider served Stateside; this was the highly flammable stuff, which, when heated, would detonate. But even cold, it would soon warm us just the same. They say the warming effects of alcohol offer a false sense of heat, but the Pennine wayfarer will attest that any sense of warmth is a good one.
(“Foot”note of the Day #1: One such story: in May of 2007, Kentucky Fried Chicken threatened legal action against the Tan Hill Inn for trademark infringement over the use of the phrase “Family Feast” on the inn’s Christmas day menu. But, after widespread public backlash, KFC dropped pursuit of the case.)
(“Foot”note of the Day #2: Rumor has it that it goes back at least a couple hundred years to the last time the fire was out! Global warming’s birth may indeed be pinpointed to the Tan Hill Inn.)