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Guest blog: Never trust a guide book – two cautionary tales by Tony Howard

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Tony has written and contributed to numerous walking and climbing guidebooks over the years, but two recent experiences inspired him to write these cautionary tales …

Part one – Be prepared

It was February and freezing outside, but the sun was shining and the sky was blue. “Do you fancy going somewhere for a couple of days walking?” Di said. I did, but if we were going to get something in that day it would have to be fairly near. The Trough of Bowland sounded good; we had climbed there a couple of times, but never done any walking. A quick flick through the guidebook revealed a walk over Fair Snape Fell – five and a half miles and three and a half hours – if we got there for two o'clock we could probably be back down for five, just before dark. 

Not having a map, we stopped briefly in Clitheroe and bought one and I stuffed it in my sack in case we needed it up on the moor. We found the car park easily and left not long after two. The start of the walk as described in the book was obvious: up Langden Valley, then left beyond Langden Castle (actually a barn) and up the shoulder of the next precipitous side valley. From there a fence is followed across the moor to the summit cairn at about half way. It sounded straightforward and it was. It was also enjoyable and we didn’t dawdle since we were pushed for time, but when we looked at the watch it was almost four, not just after three as we had expected. What was going on? We got the map out to check how far we had to go in the remaining hour or so of daylight: it was more than five miles!

 

How could that be? The whole route was, according to ‘the good book’ only five and half miles! How far had we come? I counted back across the map – sure enough, a similar distance. We were half way all right, but it was eleven miles in total, not five and a half. Of course, we should have checked the map first and we should have looked at the sketch map in the book more carefully, but we hadn’t done either, just glanced at the route description and details: five and a half miles, three and a half hours, and then taken everything else for granted. “Just wait till I see the author!” I said, knowing very well who it was.

We had just over five miles to do and just over an hour to do it. To remind us, the sun was already hanging low over Morecombe Bay, the sea refulgent in the late afternoon light; time to get a move on as we had no wish to be up on the moor after dark. It was one of those days when the peat groughs freeze over, enabling you to scurry fleet of foot over the crispy surface – until they don’t, then you plunge in, ankle deep or more, into the black morass. If the author could have heard me his ears would have been burning as we stumbled on, half running, half walking with the light going as the sun sank into the clouds.

We reached the moor edge at dusk, the moon already high, as we plunged down the steep hillside and through an unseen bog in the lower meadows to emerge at a farmhouse, it’s windows shining warmly in the gathering gloom. A quick dash up the river valley took us back to the van and fifteen minutes later, we were in the pub, sitting by the fire, drinks in hand. “Next time, I’ll check the map as well”, I said!  

Part two – Wet dreams

Having had a day on the Lake District hills followed by a pint and a pie in a south Lakes pub, we left well after nightfall and drove down to the coast, to Humphrey Head. Our walking and climbing guidebooks both instructed us to 'Park on the beach below the cliff,' but Di, always wise in the ways of nature, was dubious. "It looks very wet to me", she said. “Maybe we should look for another place?” 

"It must have rained yesterday,”  I said, not wishing to drive around in the dark looking for somewhere else to kip. And anyway we had checked the beach out earlier - the sea was nowhere to be seen, just a stretch of sand with a couple of fisherman’s carts on it and marsh grass extending to the horizon. I drove onto it, negotiating a tortuous route between some boulders and parked up for the night.

Di woke me about one in the morning. "What's that noise?" she said rather anxiously. It sounded ominously like waves slapping against the van! Peering out all I could see was sea. I wound the window down and sure enough we were surrounded - were we blissfully floating across Morecambe Bay, I wondered? But no, thankfully the cliff was still visible behind us in the darkness. I put my arm out of the window and could touch the sea. It was over the tops of the wheels and seeping in beneath the doors!

Questions buzzed through our minds: was it already high tide, or was it still rising? If so, how much more would it rise? Would the engine start? Do we wait and see if the tide is still coming in, or do something? I tried the engine. It started, but, as the various beach boulders and the marshy swamp were now submerged and the night was pitch black, it wasn't at all clear where the route back to the road was, however, nothing ventured, nothing gained. We set off cautiously through the sea and the night, headlights casting a murky glow beneath our bow wave and hoping we wouldn't hit a rock, slip into the swamp or stall. With a sigh of relief, we emerged, shedding water onto the road like a landing craft, and parked up again.

In the morning we returned to the beach for breakfast. The sea had gone without a trace. A motorist arrived, to walk his dog, raising his eyebrows at the obvious clean tidemark well up the side of our van. "High tides you have round here", I offered with a grin, by way of explanation. "Yes" he said, especially last night. With the equinox, it was over ten metres!"

 

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