Wild horses wouldn’t get me to central Lancashire for a bank holiday–or so I thought. In fact, all it took was some old friends from Ribchester. ‘Great walking,’ they’d insisted, and before I could say ‘Hey Preston,’ my wife had a copy of Walking the Ribble Way, and we were on the train.
What better place to start than Ribchester? Everything about it was slightly outlandish: it was built by Hungarian cohorts, and has since been enjoyed by steamy Romans, salmon, Hospitallers, lepers, weavers and now a mysterious theatrical collective known as The Rats. Even the battered cow that hangs outside the pub calls itself The White Bull.
I could have spent the whole weekend here, poking around the Middle Ages. Sadly however, we had reservations upstream, and return tickets from Yorkshire. ‘Good luck!’ shouted our friends, as we padded off towards enemy territory. As a Londoner, it’s not easy to understand this rose-border warfare, but I can see how suspicions were aroused. When, eventually, Yorkshire did loom into view it looked like the surface of Saturn, all brown and burnt. Curiously, Lancashire looks equally grim from Yorkshire, like a soggy, green version of Mars. Happily, neither of these planetary illusions survived closer inspection, as we would discover.
Sure, Ribbledale’s green and remote, but it was hardly Martian. In fact, almost immediately, the river came to life. Ahead, the path was crowded with squirrels, herons, magpies and–for want of a real name–little purple flowers that we called ‘Nancy Reagan’s Handbags’. At one point, we even found two fishermen asleep under the trees with a huge basket of fish. Only walkers were in short supply. The two we did see were lost, trying desperately to follow the little yellow arrows. But for our guidebook, we’d now be drifting dangerously near to Scotland. More arrows please, Lancashire CC.
Still, Ribbledale is a delightful place to be semi-lost. There’s a cosy, gentle feel to the landscape. I’ve never seen such an unspoilt stretch of English countryside. It seems that after the Jacobeans had built Hacking Hall (scary) and Cromwell his bridge (unsuitable for traffic), all other plans had faltered.
Naturally, in this wild, green world eating-out is a hit-and-miss affair. Some places, like the Shireburn Arms, Hurst Green, made everything sound tempting enough but what arrived was disappointing (ping-ping soup and ping-ping pies). Other places, like the Buck Inn at Paythorne, weren’t much to look at but the food was exquisite (thick lamb soup and fresh fishcakes). On some stretches, however, like Clitheroe to Paythorne, we found ourselves either too early for the pubs or in a retail desert. If it hadn’t been for a car boot sale (and some colossal bacon-butties), we’d probably have starved.
We broke the journey first at Clitheroe (10 miles on), at The Station Hotel. It didn’t sound great, but at £85, we got a room that was functional and spruce. Even more surprising was the wine bar opposite, which looked as if it had arrived here Tardis-like from Miami. Everything was made of glass, or leather and decking. It wasn’t quite what I’d expected in this land of woods and rainbow trout, but the Clitherites (or is it Clitheronians?) loved it. Once again, Lancastrians are eating Caesar salad, just as they had almost 2,000 years before.
Our second stopover, at The Maypole Inn in Long Preston (another 18 miles on) was less of a surprise. It was more tweed than bling, but all the better for that; we unwound in a snug little bar, and re-fuelled on Yorkshire lamb and life-restoring apple crumble. Our room was so determinedly medieval that it still had giant iron hooks in the ceiling, which we assumed were for dangling either looms or bacon or perhaps even human beings.
Almost overnight, the landscape had changed. After the leisurely green curves of Lancashire, the Ribble now came frothing down from the dales. At times, the path had to climb away from the river, and we found ourselves alone in a grand and treeless world, where no-one spoke anything but Sheep. I enjoyed these blasts of heather, with all their quaintly apocalyptic features, like ‘The Edge’ (a cottage), ‘Wild Share’ (a field) and ‘Scaleber Force’ (a waterfall), but I wasn’t sorry to be back in the valleys.
Yorkshire always makes up for the ferocity of its uplands, with the gentility of its crevices. I loved the towns squeezed into our last ten miles of the Ribble. Settle was cheekily Stuart with its little palace named The Folly and a pie-shop called ‘The Naked Man’. Further up was the elegant village of Stackhouse and, beyond it, Stainforth, where the church ladies had laid on a huge cream tea, at £1 a splurge.
Things were a little wilder further up the valley. On Bargh Hill, a storm suddenly erupted from a sunny day, like a river pouring out of the sky. Then all was forgiven, with warm breezes and a pub at Helwith Bridge. It seems the war has never ended here, and there were still bombers swooping off the walls and diving round the bar. According to CAMRA, this is the best (and perhaps only) beer for miles. To enjoy it properly – as the locals do – you need to grow a long beard and sit all day at the bar. Sadly, we had a train to catch, two miles upriver.
The Settle-Carlisle railway is a curious end to this adventure. For those who dug it out, in 1860, it was an unforgiving task, and many are buried in the valley. For us, it was like re-playing all our efforts very quickly in reverse. But in Horton in Ribblesdale, they were appalled we’d only managed 40 miles in three days. Hill-farmers here can manage 26 miles in a mere three hours.
‘Aye,’ said the café owner, ‘they even tire their sheep dogs out.’
I know the feeling: dog-tired at the end of the way.
John Gimlette is the author of five books: At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, Theatre of Fish, Panther Soup, Wild Coast and Elephant Complex; Travels in Sri Lanka. In 1997, he won the Shiva Naipaul Prize for travel writing, and, in 2012, he won the Dolman Travel Book Prize. He has contributed articles and photographs to a wide range of magazines and broadsheet newspapers. In September 2015, Wild Coast was nominated by The Daily Telegraph as one on the ‘Twenty Best Travel Books of all Time’.