Bunk barn days and a hill too far…

HILLS come into it a lot. Early yesterday I failed to run up a steep hill in the Dales. Later I failed to cycle up an even steeper hill.

We’ve been going to the bunk barn at Halton Gill in Littondale for years now – our best guess is eighteen years. To do this sum you take your 22-year-old daughter and minus four. Our youngest nearly shared my birthday, but came a week early. Because of this we have both celebrated our birthday at the bunk barn a few times. I missed by a day this year, and our daughter hasn’t been for a while.

In bunk barn lore, she is remembered for the Difficult Walk Birthday. She was seven at a guess. The walk was tough and one of the adults went feet first into a big water-filled hole, going up to her chest. After that there was a mini-rock-face to climb. Or possibly a steep rise with a waterfall: versions of this story vary. What is certain is that our daughter exclaimed loudly: “This is the worst birthday I’ve ever had in my whole life!” People still remember this today, and each year someone brings it up.

The bunk barn holds up to 40 people or so and the weekend follows a pattern. Some people arrive on the Friday evening to chat and eat or drink. Others arrive on the Saturday morning, just before the walk. We usually all walk together, returning in time for tea and cake. In the evening we share the food we have brought, drink wine and talk.

On the Sunday morning, some of us cycle and others go on a shorter walk. At lunchtime we eat whatever was left over from the night before.

This weekend dates to the late 1980s and was originally organised by doctors living in Leeds. Two of the doctors moved to York, other doctors came on board, then the invitation spread round friends who had children at Park Grove School, which was where we came on board.

Often it rains, sometimes it pours. This year Saturday morning broke and the sun shone out of a blue sky above Littondale. And you don’t often see that. By the time we set off for our walk the mist had rolled in and didn’t lift all day. Frustrating, but it did provide the sight of the weekend. As we drove up the steep hill out of Arncliffe, the one I would push my bike up on the Sunday, the car rose above the mist. We could see the hills opposite, the sun shone for a moment, and the valley below was stuffed with layers of fog. It felt like we were in a plane looking down at the clouds.

We parked on the roadside in thick fog above Malham Cove. Half our party had gone missing. We waited and wondered when we should set off and how to get a message to the others. Then they emerged through the curtain of foggy droplets. Turned out they’d parked 150 yards away and had been waiting for us in their patch of fog.

This walk included Gordale Scar, a limestone ravine a couple of miles from Malham. A daunting prospect, especially when you stand at the bottom and look up at the waterfall. We’re meant to be going up there how? It’s tricky, but fun and not as bad as it looks. Some in our party panicked part-way up, but they were helped by others. Not, shamefully, by Man On Ledge. I panicked at the beginning, then shot up and found a ledge on which to prop myself. Memo to selfish streak: slow down and hang around.

A few hardy joggers go for a run before breakfast each year. My ruse to get out of this has always been to forget to pack the running shoes. This year I gave the run a go. Those hills were a lung-stretching challenge, but it was lovely to be trotting across the misty hillsides, even if someone had put a pneumatic drill in my heart.

Each year the cycling contingent go on the same 20-mile ride, along the valley bottom to Arncliffe, then up the cruel hills towards Malham. Yesterday morning a pro-cycling type shot down the hill as I struggled up on my old hybrid bike. “Morning,” he said, with a smile. “It’s a tough one, this.” With a whoosh he was gone. And I was left to wobble up the incline, before giving in as always, and pushing. A couple of hours later, a push or two later, and it was downhill all the way to Halton Gill, scarily fast but great fun. Perhaps the biggest threat lies in wayward sheep. Fortunately the sheep behaved or I might not have survived to another birthday.

Over the years the bunk barn weekend has become a cornerstone of life. You spend time with good friends, or meet up with old friends you only see once a year. You do reasonably energetic activities. You go to the pub (didn’t make it this year myself). You eat and drink a little too much. And you laugh and chat.

Sometimes people are living through worrying times, as we are at the moment; sometimes people are coping with tragic loss, as one of our friends is. But the bunk barn is there and the people are there.

One difference this year came with the choir. A group of girls from Boroughbridge High School were staying in a nearby barn. Through a mutual connection, they asked if they could sing. As the food was about to be served in the big hot kitchen and dining room, the 11 girls and their teacher trooped into the bunk barn. They giggled and shuffled into a line. Then they sang three a cappella numbers for us, everyone cheered and clapped and the girls filed out again. A happy moment in a happy day.

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