Yesterday morning I was a bit cross. That is a euphemism for how much of a rage I was actually in. I grabbed my boots, filled my water pouch, shoved a waterproof jacket into my backpack and headed out. I needed miles of space to help me simmer down. But it had to be somewhere not too far from York and I wasn’t in the mood for my normal stomps.
I recalled having cycled past Kirkham Priory once, which is set along the banks of the Derwent River. A quick Google search showed a circular walk from the priory. ‘Right, that’ll do,’ I muttered and drove off.
Fifteen minutes later I found myself in the peaceful sanctuary of Kirkham. Getting out of the car, I turned to Google to check the route, only to discover that there was no internet signal.
Well the good thing about the UK is that you don’t have to walk far before you stumble upon a public footpath sign. So that’s what I did. Leaving my car at Kirkham Priory carpark, I walked back over the bridge and found a footpath sign pointing left along the riverbank. I vaguely recalled the walk being along the river, so I set off.
It was a pretty setting with the fast flowing river tumbling over a weir and the ruins of the priory brooding in the mist. I followed the path, which quickly resembled a bog. Cursing the fact that I hadn’t bothered with gaiters, I soldiered on still too cross to care how muddy I got.
After about 20 minutes I passed a fisherman relaxing in the perfect spot. He gave a cheerful greeting and told me that one of the bridges further along was down but that I should be fine.
I kept walking. It was hard work, the slippery mud making each step a good deal more difficult than it should be. I was feeling less angry but still hadn’t found my happy place. I kept walking.
After about an hour I began to wonder if I was indeed on the route I’d read about because it seemed to just go in a straight line along the river, whereas the route I’d seen online mentioned all sorts of diversions and was only 5 miles long. I checked my phone and there was just enough of a 3G signal to show me that I was indeed going in the entirely opposite direction to the one I was meant to be heading in.
Excellent navigational skills by me then.
I looked on Google maps and saw that the path would intersect a road eventually and that I could walk back to Kirkham along that road, which would be significantly easier than stumbling in the mud.
Shortly thereafter I came upon two lovely fishermen. Reet proper Yorkshiremen, who confirmed that there was a road up ahead, ‘just by t’bridge and t’mill.’ I asked them about the imposing building on the opposite bank and was informed it was Howsham Hall, a private residence. Not a bad pad really.
After a bit more of a chat, I carried on with a cheery, ‘Av a good day luv,’ ringing out behind me. My rage from the morning had dissipated. I began to feel a smile creep on my face.
As predicted by the fishermen, I soon came upon t’mill, an old building with all sorts of odd machinery around it. It was a pretty spot and I waved hello to some kayakers who were trying to drown themselves in the churning water below.
I ambled on toward t’bridge when a man, squeezed into a wetsuit, walked towards me in the opposite direction. ‘Had a swim?’ I asked. ‘Been kayaking,’ he said with a smile, nodding towards where the others had been. I asked him if I would find Kirkham by turning right on the bridge ahead. ‘Yes, but you should take a look at Howsham Mill first before you go if you’ve not seen it before.’
He explained how I might find it, what it was all about and wished me a pleasant day. Just as I neared the bridge, a long parade of tractors drove past in a riot of noise. Only in Yorkshire, I thought as the last of the farmers gave me a cheeky wave as he passed by. I crossed the bridge to the far side of the river, ducked underneath it and walked the short distance to the mill.
The kayakers had made their way there two and were tackling a slalom course complete with gates and masses of very fast flowing water. I had absolutely no idea that you could do kayaking like this so close to York. After watching them, a man came out of the building and walked towards me. I felt like a bit of an interloper, but said that the kayakers had suggested I come and take a look at the building.
The man was very happy to have a visitor and I was given a personal tour. Apparently Howsham Mill was built in 1755 by the family who owned Howsham Hall. They didn’t enjoy looking out from their estate windows onto a working mill (how ghastly!) so they had a faux hunting lodge designed and constructed by York architect John Carr to obscure the mill from view. It featured a lead statute of Diana, the hunter on its roof. The mill served the local area, grinding their grains and animal feed for 200 years.
The mill fell into disrepair in 1947 but in 2003, it was purchased and the Renewable Energy Trust was formed to save the building. It has since been completely restored, including a replica carbon fibre statue of Diana on the roof. A replica water wheel has been fixed into place and you can watch it churning away with impressive power. But even more impressive are two huge Archimedes screws that act as electricity generators. The power they generate not only gives the building electricity, but it’s also fed back into the national grid, which in turn pays the site money for continued redevelopment.
The entire place is now completely sustainable with rain harvested water, its own generated electricity and composting toilets. It is used as a place schools can take children to teach them about nature, history and engineering. And it can also be hired as a quirky, private venue. It’s still a bit rough around the edges but it’s a lovely space and I was very pleased to have found it.
I thanked the man for the tour and headed back the way I came. I saw the kayakers again, this time changing out of their wetsuits. ‘Worth the detour?’ the chap I’d spoken to earlier asked. ‘Absolutely,’ I said and thanked him for the tip. ‘You enjoy the rest of your day now,’ he said. Every single person I’d met on that short walk had been absolutely bloomin lovely.
By this point I was starving. That’s one of the problems of leaving in a huff. You forget to pack food. I picked up the pace so that I could get back home for a bite to eat.
My route back was along a very quiet road towards Crambe. As I approached the level crossing just outside the village, the station manager was just swinging the gates closed as a train was coming.
‘Ey up luv, I’ll hold ‘em open for ya. The train’s not here yet. By ‘eck, your face is red!’ I thanked him for holding the gates for me and explained that I was walking fast, hence the bright red complexion. He seemed to find it hilarious. He confirmed that I was heading in the right direction for Kirkham, and got back to his gates.
At last I came to a footpath sign for Kirkham – 1¼ miles. I followed it up a very steep hill, where a fellow walker sat with his picnic in front of him, admiring the view, which was spectacular when I turned around to appreciate it. After pointing me towards the right gate, I walked the last part of the route through a forest on the top of a hill, before rejoining the road down the steep hill into Kirkham.
The best walks are the ones you find by chance and manage to navigate with the help of friendly locals rather than a map. I'd stumbled upon a serendipitous three hour, roughly 7-mile walk dotted with some of a friendliest folk I’ve yet to meet on a walk. My anger had completely gone. Fresh air, a chance discovery and beautiful scenery had performed their tonic. It's amazing what you find when you just put your boots on.
What to take:
Wellies! Or good boots. A picnic for the spot at the top of the hill.