"Oh, not really," I replied. "Only 80 miles".
I don't think he believed me. At 21lbs my rucksack did feel very heavy, until, that is, I was wearing it, when it actually didn't feel too bad at all.
It was a little after 2.30 p.m. when we got off the train at Ilkley station and went in search of a toilet. There hadn't been one on the train from Leeds and now, it seemed, there wasn't one at the station either. At least if there was I couldn't find it. I spotted a pub across the road and Tom and I dashed over. Let's start as we mean to go on, I thought. With a beer!
The bar was dimly lit and the only customers were a handful of men gathered around a large screen TV watching a football match.
"Are you going for a walk?" the barmaid asked as we ordered a pint of Tetley's (definitely not my favourite beer, but the best on offer).
"We're going to do the Dales Way," I told her, mistakenly believing everyone in Ilkley must have heard of this popular long distance path which starts practically in the centre of their town.
"Is that up Ilkley Moor?" she enquired. "You should definitely go up Ilkley Moor. Visit the Cow and Calf rocks".
Apparently not everyone in Ilkley has heard of the Dales Way after all.
Having downed our pints and used the facilities we set off for a walk around the town. On this, our first day on the Dales Way, we only had to walk the short distance of three miles to our first night's accommodation in the nearby village of Addingham. I'd deliberately planned for a short ramble on day one, to enable us to get into our stride with the rucksacks and to allow for a reasonable walking distance of 16 miles the next day, to Grassington.
It was still a little too early to begin our walk to Addingham, so we went in search of an outdoor clothing store. Whilst packing our bags that morning I'd realised that Tom could do with one extra pair of lightweight hiking socks and I was hoping we'd be able to pick some up en route. We soon located a suitable shop and could instantly see that they stocked a good selection of Bridgedale walking socks: our favoured brand.
Now don't get me wrong, I do appreciate helpful staff in outdoor clothing stores, but sometimes they really can be just a little too, shall we say, "enthusiastic", especially when, as was the case on this occasion, customers seem to be a bit few and far between. As we made our way over to the sock display an assistant stalked after us.
"Have you used Bridgedale socks before?" he asked as Tom inspected a likely looking pair.
His question took me slightly aback. Here we were, dressed from head to toe in very obvious hiking gear, carrying large rucksacks, looking at socks. Socks! Not a new Ford Focus ("Have you driven a Ford before?") or a camera ("Have you used a Canon before?"), but socks.
"No!", I wanted to say. "Could you run us through some of the finer points and then perhaps we could take a pair out for a test run?". Instead I simply replied "Yes. All the time."
Once the socks were purchased (I'm sure he was just trying to be helpful, but a test drive really was unnecessary) we decided the time had come to leave Ilkley behind and let the adventure begin. (Incidentally, this wasn't the end of this qualifying round of "Sock Salesman of the Year 2015", as will be revealed during my blog for Day 2.)
The Dales Way begins by the side of the narrow, 17th century hump-backed Ilkley Bridge which we reached by first walking to the more modern Middleton Bridge. Here, instead of crossing the river, we descended some steps into Ilkley Park and walked alongside the River Wharfe, which we would now be following closely all the way to its source near Oughtershaw.
The starting point for our walk was a stone bench bearing a metal plaque inscribed "For those who walk the Dales Way", which is situated right by the side of a small garden centre. There were people walking around with hanging baskets and potted shrubs as we posed for the traditional "And we're off" type selfies, feeling ever so slightly conspicuous.
The starting point also had an information panel, showing a map of the full route and a direction sign telling us that it was 82 miles to Bowness - an extra two miles to the 80 quoted in my guidebook for the walk, the excellent "Dales Way: The Complete Guide" by the founder of the walk, Colin Speakman. Tom set his GPS watch. 80 miles or 82? We were about to find out for ourselves.
Our train into Ilkley had been crowded with people carrying sports bags and tennis rackets and now the reason why became apparent as the path led us towards Ilkley Tennis Club. We had arrived, it seemed, during the opening day of a major tournament. The Aegeon Ilkley Trophy is the highest ranking tournament ever to be held in Yorkshire, which accounted for the thwacks and grunts we could hear in the distance as the path turned away from the tennis club and returned to the banks of the Wharfe.
The river was wide, slow and still here, reflecting perfectly the lush greens of the trees along its banks. I paused for a while to enjoy the scene and to admire this beautiful river which was to be our almost constant companion for the next three days. Today was always meant to be a leisurely start and, like the Wharfe at this point, I was in no particular hurry. In fact, as I'd left home that morning I'd made myself a promise. I was going to remain in the present moment as much as I could and, no matter how tired I became, I wasn't going to wish away a single mile. This was an experience I intended to savour. Because time has a habit of passing all too quickly sometimes and, if I didn't remain vigilant, before I knew it I'd find myself back in the office playing the "this time last week" game.
Due to life's precarious nature, I do try to remain in the present moment when I'm mindful enough to do so. All too often though, my mind has a tendency to resemble the higher reaches of the Wharfe, rushing and tumbling around, trying to work a way round this obstacle and that, so that life in general can pass too swiftly. Mindfulness is an ancient Buddhist practice which, simply put, means not becoming lost in the dreams of thought, but rather remaining present to what is arising in the moment. Minding the mind, if you will. And it's a practice which is much easier to uphold when surrounded by the beauty of nature.
At a bend in the river we followed a path along the side of a field. The day was overcast and slightly humid, but at least it was dry. Earlier in the day it had been raining quite heavily. In fact, the rain had been so torrential that the Met Office website had given out a weather warning for the whole of Yorkshire. Remarkably though, the ground was now dry underfoot. Over to our left we could see the outline of Addingham High Moor, home to some ancient rock carvings, including the "Swastika Stone" which is believed to be around 2,500 years old. Whilst the route of the Dales Way mostly follows the lower ground, its companion long distance path, the Dales High Way, crosses both Ilkley and Addingham High Moors and is a strong contender for our next long distance walk.
For now though we were staying close to the side of the Wharfe as the path left the fields and joined a short section of roadside pavement. We had only walked for a mile or so at this point, and this section of road was reasonably quiet, but already I couldn't wait to be away from traffic again.
Just before the path turned onto a quieter lane, heading in the direction of Low Mill, I spotted a beautiful patch of harebells, growing through the fence by the side of the road. We had plenty of time, so I spent a happy few minutes attempting to capture their gorgeousness with my camera, which wasn't made easy by the weight of my rucksack. Getting up from a kneeling position, I discovered, was a rather undignified process which almost resulted in the crushing of a particularly beautiful patch of wildflowers. The best of my photographic efforts falls far short of expressing how delightful these little beauties were, but is included due to the efforts expended on this one shot.
Having crawled away from the harebells so that I could grab a section of fence and haul myself back on my feet without destroying them, I trotted along the path until I'd caught up with Tom. He had continued ahead of me, unaware of my impromptu tortoise impersonation and was patiently waiting by a direction sign pointing us in the direction of Low Mill.
"Don't ask," was all I said in response to his questioning look.
My guidebook describes Low Mill as "a former mill workers' hamlet whose little terraced homes and former industrial buildings have been transformed into very desirable residential cottages". The Dales Way passes right through the centre of Low Mill which, to my mind, had been a little too "transformed" and had the feel of a gated community, or one of those suburban cul-de-sacs where the curtains twitch when a stranger passes by. I'm sure my impression was wrong though and the residents must be well used to the footfall of many strangers. Even so, I couldn't help feeling like a trespasser and was somewhat relieved once we'd emerged onto the lane at the other end of the hamlet. I didn't even take a photograph. It felt like too much of an intrusion.
As we approached the village of Addingham the Dales Way took us on a slight detour, passing through the churchyard. St Peter's Church was built in the 15th century to replace an earlier, Norman building, traces of which can still be seen within the tower. The magnificent large blue clock was made in 1830 and I especially liked the wrought iron arch and lantern over the gate which we passed through on our way towards the centre of the village.
It was just after 5 p.m. when we checked in to the Crown Inn, Addingham. Perfect timing to unwind a little in our very nice room before heading down to the bar for a delicious meal of pie and mash, washed down with a couple of pints of Dark Horse ale. The Crown Inn, it turns out, is a "Pie Minister" (see what they did there?) pub, their menu consisting of a selection of pies accompanied by mash, mushy peas and gravy. And what delicious pies! We loved everything about The Crown.
After dinner we took a short walk around Addingham, visiting another of the village's four pubs. It was surprisingly empty, save for a band setting up and performing sound checks in a corner of the bar. We sat sipping on our pints, listening to the twangs of guitar strings and random drumbeats, accompanied by the time-honoured "one, one, one-two, one-two, one" (I've often wondered if musicians really can count beyond two). All of a sudden the band struck up with a somewhat unexpected but nonetheless polished rendition of a Madness song (the name of which escaped me), and we found ourselves bobbing up and down in our seats in time to the music. Then the music stopped as abruptly as it had started, providing us with our cue to leave. It's not that we don't appreciate this type of music, but by now it was getting quite late and we wanted an early start in the morning. There was only a handful of other customers in the pub and, as much as we'd like to have stayed to hear a few songs from the ska band, it was easier to quietly sneak out, rather than later having to conspicuously get up to walk out mid-performance. I do hope a few more people turned up though, because they really did sound very good.
Back at the Crown Inn it didn't take me long to fall asleep, which was surprising given the short distance we'd walked. It was just as well though. Because the next day's walk would be significantly longer.
Total distance walked: 3.25 miles
Total walking time: 1 hour 33 minutes
Next time... We follow the River Wharfe to Grassington, through some breathtakingly beautiful countryside, including some stunning medieval architecture and (according to one website) the world's third most dangerous natural feature. And then there was those socks....