Although it sounds like it might be one, The Cleveland Way is not - officially at least - a learning methodology. One of Britain’s National Trails, it’s a 177km walking route that takes you through the North York Moors National Park, through forests and along the North Sea Coast. That’s not, however, to say that I didn’t learn a few valuable lessons along the way. Or should I say ‘along the Way’?
Being a novice when it comes to walking that far – I’d set a target time of a week for this adventure – and to walking any significant distance every day, the first lesson arrived almost before the set-off.
Faced with an entirely new experience, you can only prepare yourself so far: you have to stay open to learning as you go along, as ‘being ready’ means ‘being ready for the unknown’.
Day 1’s walk was set to cover 40k, with a resting place at the halfway point with beautiful views (if the weather was going to kind enough to obscure them from view). As well as resting tired feet, this point also presented a dilemma, as it allowed the option of a short diversion off the main track to see the White Horse at Kilburn. (A 200 foot high chalk carving, it’s Britain’s most northerly hill figure.)
My first choice was not to bother – my companion and I had a long enough walk ahead of us already. 200 yards along the track, however, we changed our minds: if we didn’t take the opportunity now, while it was almost beneath our feet, would we ever have a second chance?
In hindsight, standing on a hillside next to a chalk figure doesn’t give you the perfect view – what you mostly see is a white chalky patch of ground – but we got there.
It was definitely the right decision: the one that didn’t leave us to later on regret not haven’t taken the chance, and the one we felt better for having made.
Day 2 was a shorter walking target (25km), although I’d acquired a blister along with the satisfaction of Day 1’s good decision. The second day also saw us acquire British spring weather: torrential rain and howling wind. Like the previous day, it also offered two choices at one point. Option 1 was to take a side-turning to a car park, where we could phone our evening B&B to come and pick us up. Option 2 was walking through the forest on an unmade path. But we were on track, we had a map, and we had fairly clear instructions to follow.
Which my companion and I duly did, at least until we met another walker, got distracted as we fell into conversation with him… and missed our turning. The next things we fell into were knee deep bogs and liquid mud. Unlike the opportunity presented by Day 1’s diversion, this was a wrong turn and a dangerous one too.
The right decision – and thankfully, the one that we made – was to retrace our steps and get back on track. In the face of uncertainty and a rather dangerous path down the forest in the middle of a monsoon, we didn’t for one minute regret our decision once we found the track again!
Day 4 brought us a shorter walk (30k), better weather for at least some of the day, and an immediate lesson. We’d read the instructions the night before – see what I mean about preparation? – and they’d seemed clear enough.
We were to pick up the route at the end of a row of cottages. Duly finding the end of the row, there was indeed a path, signposted as Cleveland Street Trail. The name was nearly right – maybe this was it? Remembering that a row of cottages has two ends, we decided it would be wise to double check. And there, at the other end, was another path: Cleveland Way.
If we’d been any hastier to get started, we’d have taken completely the wrong route. If that decision boosted morale, so did the morning sun – and knowing that today we would see the sea for the first time.
The promise of the seaside stayed with us, while the sunshine tried hard to show its face but failed. I was also by now struggling with four painful blisters, and I was quietly glad to stop for a few moments to put on my weather-proofs. My companion, however, just carried on. Naturally, I felt rather angry at having been abandoned. Eventually, thankfully, they stopped, and I tactfully asked them why they’d kept going.
Their story wasn’t the one I’d projected onto them: they’d recognised that they needed to get moving so not to get cold and were anxious to keep going. They’d been worried that, had they stopped, they might not get started again - and get drenched. Another lesson: don’t assume that others are feeling the same way as you, especially when circumstances are challenging.
On Day 5, possibly because the weather was glorious and possibly because I’d soaked my feet in a soothing ice bath the night before, we were feeling better as we set off... only to stop and go back. We’d broken an uplifting habit we’d got into – taking a ‘setting off’ picture. Back to the beginning to break out the camera. Routine re-established, off we went again.
The day brought very different terrain (along with a need to get to the beach at low-tide so that we could follow the path through a gap in the rocks). The different types of landscape we passed through on our journey also meant that we had recognised the need that - just as different times need different leaders – so different parts of our expedition needed different pace setters. Very muddy tricky places required me to take more care and to set a slower pace, even though I was now feeling better, as my walking partner was being more cautious (especially as they had fallen at one point on Day 2). The pace I set had to be right not just for me, but for both us. Looking after myself and pacing myself was vital too, especially for the final stages: for some reason, the end of the journey always feels like the hardest, slowest part.
For our final day, a couple of our friends joined us and we noticed – through yet more changeable weather – how much the change of company affected our perspective: we saw the journey as they saw it, as well as seeing our own view. And despite the weather, we had a great day that ended – as all journeys (and especially difficult ones) – should, by celebrating together.
The Cleveland Way taught me many things, and not just the geology of the North East and the nesting habits of grouse. Every day started with a steep climb, but every climb brought the reward of an amazing view – and each climb increased our stamina to tackle the next. The path – when it was visible – reminded me to follow the tracks of the person in front and keep communicating the terrain in front of me to make the journey easier for both of us. I learned to take time to stop and look both upwards and backwards so that I could take in more than just what was right in front of me. And struggling to follow the route taught me that little milestones along the way – in the case of the Cleveland Way, there are little acorn markers to help you know you’re still on track – are the kind of reassurance that we all need from time to time.
It also taught me never to underestimate the people that you are with. My companion was much smaller than me, not as sporting, and – I’d assumed – less physically strong: They were amazingly resilient, a great team player, and wonderful company, Our next walk will not only be longer, but we will be even better prepared for it – and better prepared to put into action the lessons we learnt on the Cleveland Way.