The unbelievable has happened. Today, our last walk before the Easter holidays, is sunny and warm. This must be the longest stretch we've had without a rainy walk. Ever. Good job too as we've planned a long one for today.
We meet up in our favourite car park at the side of Derwent, just up from the Fairholmes car park. We're early but the good weather has already dragged people from their snug hidey-holes and there are more folk around than usual. We tog up, stuffing as much as possible into our already bursting rucksacks, deposit a very exciting parcel in my car (to be opened on my birthday in a few days time - 21 again, plus some) and set off, almost immediately encountering a frog on the path. Ah yes, we'd forgotten about the abundance of frogs around here in Spring.
After a brief but necessary visit to the Fairholmes facilities we walk towards the dam, passing another frog before crossing the grass to the base of the dam wall. The steps up the side of the dam are quite steep and we're part way up before PC suddenly realises that she's left her walking poles in the car. She bravely decides to press on without them, even though this walk won't be an easy one, but the thought of sprinting back to the car for the poles was too off-putting.
Once we're up onto the top road we can relax. This is easy walking on a wide, surfaced track. Mollie is let off the lead and she immediately finds a log to carry, bringing it to us from time to time to throw for her. It's like tossing the caber! However, there is too much traffic here - cyclists, walkers and even a couple of rangers' Landrovers - so Mollie has to go back on the lead. Not that it stops her finding something heavy to play with. We keep stopping to enjoy the views, but the brightness does tend to prevent high quality photos as there is a slight heat haze over everything. Maybe it will burn off later.
Passing the first right hand footpath we continue on towards Howden Dam. Before we reach it we take the sweeping path up to the right at Abbey Tip Plantation, through a mass planting of daffodils. They may not all be native (there are some doubles here) and they aren't in full bloom yet as they are in shade, but they do look stunning. Amongst the daffodils are snowdrop leaves. Their flowers are long gone, but we must try to remember to come and see them at snowdrop time another year.
The path rises steeply through the trees up to a gate which opens onto moorland and here we have a choice of three paths; right to Abbey Bank and Derwent hamlet (the hard way), straight on across Greystones Moss towards Lost Lad or left circling Little Howden Moor. We have to study the map to make sure we choose the correct path (we have picked the wrong one here before) and once we're sure that the left hand path is definitely the one we want we pause to remove our jumpers. The day is warming up seriously.
This is a good path quite easy, running level with the contour lines and following a wall. We've never been on it before but as soon as we're around the first curve of the path and see the view opening up ahead we know we've picked a good one. There's a gate and a stile to negotiate, the stile has a handy rail to pull up to make it easier, and once on the other side it's time for me to unzip the bottom part of my walking trousers thereby exposing my legs to the whole world. This is not a decision I take lightly, and is a sure sign that temperatures are at a real high.
We're above the Abbey Brook valley with the melodious running water below us contrasting with the sound of the curlews calling. It's very peaceful here and we're all alone. Across the valley is New Close Wood and above the trees, circling high in the blue sky, is a buzzard. Magical.
The path is a gentle incline taking us upwards with minimal effort, which is good on such a warm day. At Cogman Clough the path dips sharply towards a ford, although today it isn't much more than a gentle stream easily crossed, even though PC manages to find the only wobbly stone to step on, then it's steep uphill again. However, when the short pull is over we're back on a moderately level path which leads us around the moor towards another stile.
Over the other side and we're circling Howden Dean in a steady, clear sweep high above Abbey Brook which we can only see if we peer downwards. The track turns slightly and on the other side is the sharp cleft of Gravy Clough. Presumably the water running down it is usually stained peaty brown, hence the name, but today it's clear and not a bit gravy-like. Our path winds away ahead of us and looking, as PC points out, like the road to Rivendell and it does have that otherworldly feel: no man-made structures in sight, just us and nature.
We are climbing a little now, and the path is becoming rockier in places. But the payback is that we're getting better views of the high moors and prominent features. With Berristers Tor across the valley our path turns sharply to the right and then splits: left over the stream of Sheepfold Clough or straight ahead on a track made for moorland management. We ignore the temptation of sitting by the stream and take the right hand track which leads across the moors. Yes, we're climbing now but it isn't too strenuous and the views are becoming more and more impressive as the panorama opens up around us. Pity about the heat haze which is shrouding everything, but we aren't complaining. There's quite a bit of fencing here, probably to segregate the areas used for rearing grouse, and there are plenty of grouse about with their strange croaking call and pantomime long-johns.
This is a wide swathe of a track and Lost Lad looks a very long way off, but it's surprising how quickly we're making time. It must be hunger driving us on, we've made a pact not to sit and eat until we know the bulk of the climbing is over. Too often we'd paid the price of eating early then lethargy setting in. We can't afford to do that today so we'll eat when we reach Lost Lad, and not before. We crest another rise and see the domed mound of Lost Lad with its prominent cairn over to our left, and know we haven't far to go. This is clearly a popular route as the path, which is peaty underfoot and will be grim in wet weather, has been paved. Not pretty but probably essential. A pause to admire the view then it's the push for the top. We race for it - Mollie is the outright winner (naturally), and I stand at the top with her as we wait for PC to catch up. She was spending longer admiring the views, obviously!
It's a splendid all round panorama here and we spend a few minutes taking it all in and savouring the feeling of accomplishment before finding a well placed rock to sit on. Lunch time, and do we need it!
PC pulls out a small bottle of pink champagne (what style!) and even has ice in a flask to chill the bottle and two posh glasses. This is high living at its very best! We pull on an extra layer of clothing (it's a bit breezy up here) then have a coffee before rapidly consuming the heavy salad and sandwiches, the chilling champers encouraging speed. Then PC does the honours and we're toasting my impending 21st (and some) as some other walkers reach the top of Lost Lad and give us a few curious glances. We don't care. This is good! Everything has taken on a mellow, rosy glow as we sip our drinks and smile at the world. Once we've lingered over the champagne we start on the sweet treats. Choc chip cookies smothered in the new Philadelphia cheese with chocolate. Sounds awful. Tastes wonderful. Then it's bun time - fat choux buns filled with fresh cream and topped with chocolate. They're like huge profiteroles and taste just as good. Suitably replete with finish off with another coffee, look at the time and realise, sadly, that we had better make a move. We're running short of time.
We head east towards the prominent rock formation of Back Tor with its white trig point (538 m) on top, firstly dropping down off Lost Lad then climbing sharply uphill before the paved path levels out. A few more steps up and we're level with Back Tor and walking along the edge towards our next path which turns right at Bradfield Gate Head. The path takes us gently down and we're disturbing plenty of grouse as we go. To our left are some weathered rocks and one looks surprisingly like Jabba The Hut from Star Wars. PC gives a shudder, obviously not one of her favourite characters.
Once we've dropped down a bit the path is long and descending steadily and it isn't long before we're all alone again. We're glad we didn't come up this way, it would have been a pretty featureless slog with little indication of progress. In poor visibility this route would be a nightmare. It's a longer path on the ground than it seems to be on the map, but eventually we meet up with the track coming off of Lost Lad (the shorter route) and we're heading on a clear, level track towards the reservoirs.
It's bleak and barren up here, although we're returning to the land of dry stone walls again and we can see across the Derwent Valley to the hills opposite. The path begins to dip and we reach the crossroads of paths above the derelict Bamford House and we have no option but to take the one straight down. The start of this path is not good; badly eroded, steep, rocky and with plenty of loose stones to catch under your boots and send you falling. If any path around here needs some work doing to it, this is the one. We're too busy watching where we put our feet to admire the scenery and PC is having to be especially careful as she doesn't have her walking poles to support her. However, we manage to make it down unscathed and we're soon through the gate which signals the end of the moors and the start of the reservoir.
It's just a steady walk back along the track now, though we're feeling a little weary. Even Mollie can't muster the enthusiasm to find a stick. Then it's down the steps at the side of the dam wall, across the grass at the bottom and rejoining the people who haven't wandered far from the car park. There are still frogs on the road (urgh) but we side-step them on our way back to Fairholmes then it's a short haul along the road to our cars.
Today has been amazing. The sun is still bright, it's still warm and we've had better walking conditions today than we've had on many summer walks. We're reluctant to leave, but we're already late so we have to pack up and go back to real life and responsibilities. The Easter break is close too, which means a break for us while the schools are out. But we have a great walk to look back on and sustain us during the lean weeks ahead.