Saturday 1 August 2015


The Lyke Wake Walk on a 1976 map, before Ordnance Survey was ordered to remove it

(an edited extract from my book The Wild Rover, 2011)

The northern equivalent of the word lich is lyke, and reading that, a distant recollection detonated.  The Lyke Wake Walk was a name I’d not heard in years, and it instantly brought back memories of Blue Peter presenters grunting and grimacing their way across the invariably sodden North York Moors.  In the late 1970s, it had seemed that every scout pack, charity group, rambling society, Rotary Club and TV beefcake was stomping through the heather from Osmotherley to Ravenscar.  This, we were always told, was far more than a mere walk; it was an endurance test, a challenge like no other, for to qualify for membership of the exclusive club of successful Lyke Wakers, you had to complete the 42 mile trek in under 24 hours, usually necessitating overnight walking.  Even better, and even darker, it was overlain with a neo-pagan patina of ancient ritual, for this was said to be an old coffin path to the sea, passing as it does the odd Bronze Age burial mound and stone cross.  Some groups even upped the ante by dressing as undertakers and carrying a coffin.  In my early teens, it had been the biggest, most famous footpath in the land, yet it had all but disappeared.  To paraphrase another great relic of the Age of Beige, whatever happened to the Lyke Wake Walk?

The walk, sometimes claimed to be the first named long-distance path in the country, began in modest circumstances in 1955.  Bill Cowley, a farmer from Swainby, between Middlesbrough and Northallerton, had written a piece in that August’s edition of The Dalesman magazine laying down the challenge of walking across the moors to the sea in one day.  The idea had come to him in a flash, he said, earlier that summer when he’d climbed to the top of Glaisdale Rigg, the ridge between Glaisdale and its splendidly-named western neighbour, Fryupdale.  From the lofty top, he’d suddenly imagined lines of the ancients trekking their way across the moor, from one weathered old cross, standing stone or ancient mound to the next.  Cowley was an engaging and passionate Yorkshireman, always able to join the most insubstantial of dots into a seamless swagger of local pride.  He’d gone to Cambridge, where he formed the Yorkshire Society, led a 1957 Yorkshire Himalayan Expedition and, since returning to farm his native patch, was active in the Yorkshire Dialect Society.  No prizes for guessing what he would have picked as his specialist subject if he'd ever made it on to Mastermind.

At noon on the first of October 1955, Cowley and twelve others set off from Osmotherley and headed east, threading their way along sheep paths through the heather.  The party camped at seven that evening at Hamer, and set off again at 3.30 a.m, reaching the coast at Ravenscar, midway between Scarborough and Whitby, at eleven o’clock the following morning.  The Lyke Wake Walk, and its irresistible mystique, was born.

Word spread fast.  In the early days, it was almost entirely local: the first log books of the walk, which were kept in cafes at either end for people to sign in their times and experiences, are full of entries by groups from places such as York Technical College, Middlesbrough GPO Telephones Division, a Stockton-on-Tees scout pack, the Apprentice Training Centre at ICI’s Wilton works, Selby Round Table and the Darlington Young Liberals.  The unlikely sounding outfit of the East Yorkshire Mountaineering Club feature a few times.  The few southerners who took it on fared fairly dismally, none more guaranteed to make a Yorkshireman crack a thin smile than a party from the London Region of the Youth Hostel Association, who, in 1961, curtly confessed to the log book that they “did not take magnetic variation into account – ended up in Middlesbrough”.

At the end of every year, Cowley would tot up the number of walkers who had completed the route and scribe the result into the log book.  Keeping to the funereal theme, he called himself the Chief Dirger, and granted titles such as Anxious Almoner to his closest acolytes.  Any man who completed the challenge in the requisite time could apply to become a fellow dirger, and to receive a black-edged ‘condolence card’ to prove it at a shilling a pop.  191 did it in the first three years, and then the numbers started to climb quite markedly: 112 in 1959 alone, 255 in 1960 and 790 in 1961.  Over ninety percent of them were men.  Women who’d completed the trek weren’t granted dirger status, and were simply called ‘witches’ instead.

There was a breezy levity to those early days.  Bill Cowley himself did the route numerous times, including on skis during the Arctic winter of 1962-3.  He sounded at his most spirited recording a trek in November 1961, when he and regular fellow dirger Campbell Bosanquet left Osmotherley just after midnight, arriving in Ravenscar at 2.40 the following afternoon, in time to catch the 3.16 train back for an evening cocktail party.  En route, he records, they’d enjoyed ham sandwiches and coffee at 3.30 a.m., sausages and mushrooms at 8.15, “a pint of iced nectar at Beck Hole” at 10.45 and “another at the Flask (not quite so iced)” at 1.40.  It was all a bit of overgrown schoolboy fun, but that couldn’t last.

© Guardian

A month before this crossing, the Lyke Wake Walk had been featured for the first time on television, when a crew from the BBC programme Tonight came to film it.  Over the next decade or so, other TV crews, journalists and writers followed and soon, the Lyke Wake Walk was a national legend.  Numbers swelled exponentially, peaking in the lighter months of May and June.  In June 1975 alone, 3141 people completed the route, including Louis Kulcsar of Stockton-on-Tees, for whom it was the 110th crossing (three of which were barefoot).  He’s still doing it, and has now racked up around two hundred, the official record.  It’s believed that 1978 was the peak year, when anything between twenty and thirty thousand completed the walk, the vast majority of them going west-east from Osmotherley, and most of them starting in the dead of night.  The muttering of discontented locals, furious at being woken up almost nightly by excitable gangs of soldiers, scouts and Rotarians, became an inconsolable roar.

And as the popularity of the walk grew, so did the hoodoo surrounding it.  Despite there being no evidence whatsoever that this had indeed ever been used as a coffin path (and it seems unlikely that any funeral procession would carry the dead over forty miles), Bill Cowley’s imaginative take on history was given as hard fact, and repeated mantra-like across books, newspapers, radio and television.  Merchandise, such as coffin-shaped cuff-links, ties and headscarves for the ‘witches’, flew off the shelves.  Regular gatherings were called Wakes, with suitably morbid entertainment laid on.  The highest accolade, allowing you to wear purple robes at Wakes, was as a ‘Doctor of Dolefulness’: to qualify, you had to have done at least seven crossings, one of which needed to be in the winter and one a solo unsupported trek, meaning no teams of thermos-bearing car drivers to meet you at appointed halts.  Photos of the Wakes in the seventies show a curious mix of grizzled Yorkshire farmers, a few bald bank managers taking a walk on the wild side, some wiry fell runners and a generous sprinkling of bearded progrock pagans getting quietly wassocked on real ale.  These took place against a backdrop of black candles, coffin-shaped menu cards and skull-painted drapes.  With its coterie of hardcore fanatics and pedants, its pages of tightly-held rules and invented customs, the Lyke Wake Club started to look distinctly cultish.

It was increasingly obvious that Bill Cowley had created a monster, and the backlash came quickly.  In the hot summer of 1975, a fire on the heather-and-peat tinderbox of Wheeldale Moor burned for a fortnight.  As always, blame was swiftly, and on no firm evidence, lain squarely at the feet of walkers; calls were made for the Lyke Wake Walk to be banned outright.  Richard Hamersley, Land Surveyor to the Duchy of Lancaster, slyly pointed out that “the route of the walk is not a statutory footpath, and serious thought will have to be given as to the legitimacy of this activity”.  He was being disingenuous, for much of the path was on recognised rights of way, the remainder, mostly in the eastern half, on well-worn permissive tracks that had been used since anyone could remember.  In Hamersley’s mind, there was no doubt who was to blame for the fire: “this week I collected no fewer than 69 cigarette ends in a half-mile random stretch of the route.  If this is indicative of the whole length, there must be some 5,600 cigarette ends recently smoked along the walk.  No wonder that during the recent dry weather a fire of this magnitude has occurred.”  The following summer, 1976, was hotter and drier still, and an agreement was reluctantly brokered to suspend the walk for the duration of the drought.

The first winds of trouble only made the Lyke Wake Club retreat further into its poundshop Hallowe’en grotto.  They put a proposal to the Countryside Commission that the route should be recognised as an official Long Distance Path (LDP), which was immediately rejected.  Never mind, for it gave ample chance for the polishing of Yorkshire chips on square shoulders; the Chief Dirger himself denouncing the decision, and stating that it “reflects the typical Southern, bureaucratic attitude of people who would not recognize a walk if they saw one.”  In fact, the Countryside Council had already plotted an alternative walk, the Cleveland Way, over much of the same ground, combining it with a final coastal flourish from Whitby to Filey.  After the Pennine Way, this had been Britain’s second official LDP, opening in 1969.  But that was dull and square, man, authority’s preferred route and not for the self-styled swashbuckling dirgers and witches of the Lyke Wake.

As now happens with Wainwright’s Coast to Coast walk (which shares some of the route, and much of the spirit, of the Lyke Wake), the lack of official recognition only seemed to make it even more attractive to some.  Numbers continued to grow, peaking at the tail end of the seventies.  The walk was barely off the box, and it became by far the number one charity challenge in the country.  It was these that killed the Lyke Wake more than anything, for they were often huge groups, walking five or six abreast, prompting a member of the local National Park Committee to say that “twenty years ago, the Lyke Wake Walk was just a sheeptrack.  Now it is wide enough for two tanks to cross side by side.”  Worse, every charity sponsored walk came complete with a sophisticated back-up support system of refreshment and medical teams, to be found bouncing around unfamiliar moorland lanes in minibuses all through the night.  Increasingly often, an ambulance would have to join the throng.  Sensing only a thin scatter of population, many walkers – already fired up with the shouty sanctimony of doing it all for charity – were oblivious to their devastating impact on the taciturn local community.

In May 1982, the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, never the most radical of organisations, set up a Lyke Wake Walk Working Party to investigate what should be done.  The remit of the group was clear and stated at the outset, that “it is stressed that if a substantial reduction in use [of the Walk] is not achieved, the National Park Committee will have to consider complete closure”.  Dr Roy Brown of the National Park heaped up the hyperbole: “within a few years the whole area will be a desert if something is not done quickly”.  This is an interesting one, for while the track was undoubtedly eroding quite markedly in places, is this not exactly how our much-loved ancient holloways and green lanes were initially created?  We wouldn’t have much to coo over now if our ancestors had been quite so squeamish.

The report concluded that numbers doing the walk must be reduced by half, at the very least.  The Lyke Wake Club tried to do its bit by creating alternative routes, the Shepherd’s Round and the Hambleton Hobble, but they never really caught on, for people had bought into the myth of the Lyke Wake that the Club had so assiduously nursed and weren’t prepared to be fobbed off with sloppy seconds.  Ordnance Survey was told to take the route off its maps, which they duly did.  TV crews were turned away.  Charity teams were discouraged, while those from the police, army and cadet forces – a significant proportion of the total – were firmly told to go elsewhere and find other challenges.  Even Bill Cowley acknowledged the necessity for action, saying “I feel very sad that it has come to this, but it is the only way”.  And it worked: almost instantly, the number of Lyke Wakers plummeted.

After the drastic cull of 1982, numbers started to rise again, and when, a decade later, the National Park Authority set up another working party to discourage overuse of the route, one of the most vociferous of the Lyke Wake Club’s officials fired off a tetchy letter to the Darlington and Stockton Times.  In it, he told of an American tourist who’d written to the National Park to ask about the Lyke Walk Walk.  The officer who’d replied had told him that it wasn’t on official rights of way and that “permission should really be obtained from the landowners”.  He then went on to criticise the creeping mentality of council-approved waymarked routes, writing “for some reason, the vast majority of walkers seem to be unable to place one leg in front of the other unless the route has a fancy name, badge and completion certificate” – a very good point indeed, until you remember that it was the Lyke Wake Club that pioneered such things, and were still enthusiastically marketing them. 

Cowley died in 1994, aged 78.  While his steady hand was on the tiller, there was still – just about – a sense that the Lyke Wake Walk was little more than boyish high jinks that had got slightly out of control.  Some of his lieutenants though didn’t seem to share his easy-going sense of perspective, and furiously guarded everything about both the walk and the club.  This came to a head as the fiftieth anniversary of the first crossing loomed in 2005, when a tight cabal of ‘senior members’ decided to call it a day and kill the club.  A splinter group vehemently disagreed, and decided to launch themselves as the New Lyke Wake Walk Club.  This was inaugurated at a dinner in the Queen Catherine Inn in Osmotherley on the first of October 2005, precisely fifty years since Bill Cowley’s first walk.  Forty-two miles away on the very same night, at the Raven Hall Hotel in Ravenscar, the old Lyke Wake Club held its final Wake and disappeared from the map.  Not entirely, though, for the commercial trading arm, purveyors of all that coffin-shaped tat, the “fancy name, badge and completion certificate”, plus a whole load more, continued and still trades today.

It was not an amicable divorce.  The new group was regularly characterised by the old as being full of southern softies who didn’t understand the highly autarkic culture of the North York Moors.  The ghost of Bill Cowley was regularly invoked in the spat, with both sides contending that they were acting as he would have wished them to.  Claims and counter-claims streamed through the local papers and rambling magazines.  Although hostilities have largely ceased now, and a few hundred people continue to tramp the route each year, there’s still an acrimonious whiff hanging over the Lyke Wake Walk; never has its mournful iconography looked more pathetically appropriate.