Spine of England II – Reflections from Boff

Alongside this video of the walkers, taken during the final section of walking into Settle, Boff wrote his thoughts on the 6 days.

Click here for the video

Another year, another Ramble. Even after seven years’ worth of walks and gigs I’d still say the whole Reluctant Ramblers idea is unique. And that’s what it is, this weird collection of blisters and singing, it’s an idea. Great ideas stick.

Going for a long walk, through beautiful countryside, is one thing. Playing music every night amongst friends and to invited audiences, that’s one thing. Combining the two is something else altogether, something strange and wonderful, something singular and rare. And mad!

The madness this year began in Hepworth, a village high up on the hills above Holmfirth, a place where the buildings and the people are carved out of local Yorkshire stone. The village hall packed with locals and Ramblers, a gentle enough start to the week’s walks. The highlight for me was watching JJ join his old mates, standing tentatively between bar and Exit sign, belting out ‘Pratty Flowers’ in harmony. It sounded like nothing less than a gathering of community and history as it rolled from verse to chorus and back again.

Next morning, after a big fat teacake of a Yorkshire breakfast at Steve and Alison’s in Hepworth, we headed off up over Marsden towards the Calder Valley, some 20 miles away. John turned up to explain that he couldn’t do the walks this year due to having damaged his back on a recent Oysterband tour. “I was helping move some equipment,” said John, sighing. Anyone who knows John understands that he hasn’t helped move any musical equipment since that fateful tour in 1983, around the time Alan Prosser had an afro. On that occasion John had damaged a wrist carrying several bottles of fine wine from the dressing room in a Tesco carrier and vowed never to “play the roadie” again.

So it was that the Spine of England rambles lost a leader. Yes, we all make jokes about John’s sense of direction. His “little detours” and “creative map-reading”. But having been thrust into the role of leading some of the walks on this tour I can belatedly appreciate the pressure involved in strolling along with 40 or 50 people behind you, chatting away, pointing out landmarks, and watching the Ordnance Survey’s little green dotted lines as they weave and curve under your feet faster than your eye can follow them on the map.

That was a long first day of reservoirs, deer and fields, up and over Blackstone Edge across rock-strewn peat paths. At the White House pub our numbers doubled and tripled as we walked across to Stoodley Pike and steeply down into Hebden Bridge. It was a glorious way to end the day’s walk, though most of us were wondering how we were going to play a concert before getting up the following day to do it all again. Then again. Then again. Then again. I was tired – we all were, weren’t we?

John’s absence meant that instead of ambling alon Pennine paths getting lost he was spending the days fretting and worrying. He claimed that being in ‘the back-up team’ with Tom, Julie and Fran was harder than walking. Which, in hindsight, is probably true (though when he was sending text messages to that effect as we stumbled over rotten stiles and through shitty farmyards, it didn’t seem like it). The gig in Hebden was lovely. The band basically breaks down into several parts – Al holds it all together at the back, centre-stage, goalkeeper. Safe hands, great delivery. His wing-backs at either side are Lindsay on bass, rooted and strong on his right, with Tim on fiddle on the left, the brilliant flair player. Rowan at the front, angelic vocals and great crosses into the middle. Then there’s me out on the right midfield, strumming along and trying to feed neat little passes up to the striker, John, bullet-headed marauding centre-forward and goal-poacher.

By the next morning the football analogies had been tucked into rucksacks and we were setting off up along the gorgeous Cragg Vale with an army of supporters, loving the scent of the woods and the sound of the rushing river, heading up and out of the valley to the Haworth moors, where, frankly, it pissed it down. One long, heavy, relentless piss of a pissing it down. We got so soaked we couldn’t begin to muster the enthusiasm to sing a bit of Kate Bush up at Top Withins. Arriving at lunchtime, behind schedule, at the Old Sun Inn at Haworth, we packed out the pub with soggy clothes and tales of woe. The hardest morning, by a mile. By 11 miles, in fact.

John was worrying. He suggested calling off the afternoon’s walk and heading straight for Saltaire by car. No! Thirteen people tightened the hoods on their cags and set off behind Colin, Mr Do-Or-Die, John’s Captain Oats – “I’m going outside. I may be some time.” Colin is the backroom staff you need when you’re faced with the elements battering your willpower – one of those people who, if you have to picture him in your imagination, is wearing a smile and throwing out a gentle, witty insult. Colin isn’t like me or John. Colin never gets lost.

Back-marker for the walks was Chris, another man of steel. Dependable. Except that, a mile out of Haworth and turning off the road onto an innocuous pathway, Chris slipped on wet tarmac and shattered his kneecap. It was all we could do to hold him back from amputating his own lower leg with his penknife and carrying on hopping the rest of the way. A trooper, he was carried off to the nearest A&E where he stayed for several days. Let that be a warning, ramblers! This all didn’t help John’s fragile sense of responsibility, or at least not until the first couple of beers had gone down before the Saltaire show.

The Live Room at Saltaire takes over an old social club, striplit and rough around the edges, with cheap beer and great photos of cabaret artistes (that extra ‘e’ is essential) on the noticeboards. I can see it now – John Jones and Rowan Godel. Boy-Girl Duo with Velvet Vocals and Full Repertoire of Contemporary Hits.

The gig was great. People seemed to like it. We played some encores and laughed as we played. People danced! Then it was back to a Tardis-like hotel in Shipley where we talked nonsense and forgot the fact that we had to set off on another long trek the morning after.

Saltaire to Otley. Easy. That’s a one-word description that misses out the glorious weather, the birdsong, the ancient monuments, and the singing of ‘Ilkley Moor Bah T’at’, all 117 verses, by Slaithwaite’s own bard, Mark. Doing these walks – and especially leading some of them – in my own backyard gave me a chance to look around me with an outsider’s eye. I do remember first running on Ilkley Moor back in the 1980s, trying to cover a circuit of the whole moor before giving up and realising it was far too big. The Ramblers crossed the moor and headed down to the Cow and Calf quarry, pausing for breath and looking out over the Wharfe valley, up across to Beamsley Beacon where we would walk the following day.

From there we headed up to the top of Otley Chevin and the blustery Surprise View, on schedule and in good spirits. We pointed fingers at where we’d be playing that night and descended to the town for a drink at one of Otley’s several thousand pubs. The concert, at the Courthouse, was a little more sedate than the previous three – possibly because arts centres can be quite neat and tidy, with an air of professionalism that doesn’t suit the rabble of ne’er-do-wells in and around the Ramblers – but by now there was a rhythm and pattern to the days, as if we were on some gently moving train that would keep rolling forward to the next adventure.

The next adventure was the slog, on the hottest of days, up over Beamsley Beacon. We crossed burnt heather and I was so busy answering John’s text messages (“Where are my socks?? I definitely had them on when I went to bed” and “Is anyone available to go to the bar for me?”) that I took the line of Ramblers far from the chosen route and instead into an abyss of unfathomable, peat-bog awfulness. It was thus my fault when Nick decided to surf across the crusty top of the deepest of all bogs in the hope he might flit bird-like to the other side. Instead he disappeared up to his armpits into the stench of foul-smelling blackness. He still came out smiling, of course. He always does.

From there it was onto the Blackpool-promenade-like Bank Holiday madness at Bolton Abbey, a lovely spectacle in the midst of which stood the welcoming committee (JJ dressed head-to-toe in black) looking like the Mafia and urging us not to sit down for fear of missing soundcheck. Onwards we went, on to Appletreewick, the Cruck barn and sunburnt faces drinking ale in the sun. There it was, in a snapshot, what the whole ‘idea’ is about – the exhaustion of a day’s walk, ramblers and band and JJ gathering and chatting through the ups and downs of the route, readying for a concert and revelling in the repeated rhythm of the walks and gigs. The Appletreewick show was a session, shared between anyone who turned up with an instrument and including some dancing, poetry-reading and even a version of that old Music Hall hit about falling over and getting back up again. You know the one – where the verse consists entirely of a list of drinks. Nick pointed out later that John couldn’t manage to sing the list because he so rarely goes to the bar to buy a drink. I argued vehemently, of course, saying that JJ was a generous and benevolent comrade who was going through a heavy walking withdrawal and needed our support. Nick felt suitably guilty and snuck off to the back of the room to join Colin and Kirsten in a dark corner with several pints of fizzy lemonade.

That night we ended up at the Premier Inn, waiting in the lobby for over an hour being entertained not by Lenny Henry but by a local lad acting as night manager who insisted we weren’t booked in there. To be honest he was fine until he spied Lindsay’s double bass, which he presumed was a particularly bulky body-bag. The five hours’ sleep we got that night was more than welcome, and from now on I’ll be sure to book my family holidays in the Gargrave Premier Inn.

Heading out of Grassington in the morning (“hey let’s have a group photograph in front of the carpark toilets!”) we sauntered past my old house and from there up onto the limestone-littered moors that stretch across the Pennines towards Malham and beyond. Do you remember earlier when I referred to the previous day as “the hottest of days”? I was wrong. Above Malham Cove, the undulating moors straddling the spine of England were brutally exposed and Sahara-like. Without the sand. And with grass and sheep. Our line of walkers stretched out a mile long as wearily and sweatily we made our way following the harsh red glow of Colin’s sunburnt legs, and fuelled only by his occasional offering of jelly babies (“cow hoof, anyone?”).

Down the steepest of descents into Settle and the final concert, at the beautiful old Victoria Hall. Despite the tour’s problems – John fingering the worry beads as he waited for us to arrive each day, Chris in hospital having his knee sliced and diced – we celebrated another wonderful and successful Ramblers’ adventure in the old music hall, with audience and band sharing the songs as players and dancers, just as we shared the walks each day. To everyone’s surprise, Chris turned up fresh from Airedale Hospital with his post-operation knee, smiling on the front row as the band played.

As I said at the start of this literary ramble, it’s all such a great idea. The exhuastion, the conversations, the leading and following, and above all the shared experience. Remembering the start of the walk, back in Hepworth, the locals joining together to sing ‘Pratty Flowers’, made me realise how these rambling tours create that same sense of community and history.

So another tour over, and back to the Golden Lion in Settle for one last session and a roomful of hugs and goodbyes. See you next time…

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