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Ancient Feet: 61 - A Spooky Incident

...'He looked about thirty years old, with short black hair and a black moustache and I would describe him as looking like someone from the SAS, although I don't think I've ever met anyone from the SAS,' Don said. 'He was wearing army type boots rather than walking boots, and camouflage trousers that made his hips look enormous so that he looked immensely strong...

Don tells of a disturbing experience.

Alan Nolan continues his gloriously humorous account of a Coast to Coast trek with his mates.

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The path continued with two or three more ascents and descents over the hills until the B1257 road was reached at Clay Bank Top. This is the end of the day's walk for those who are following Wainwright's recommendations, but the problem here is that Clay Bank Top is simply a spot on a map where a road happens to pass. This may be all right for campers who can simply pitch their tents, but anyone else has to arrange transport to the nearest B&B which is likely to be several miles away.

Crossing the road at Clay Bank Top, we were faced with another climb onto Urra Moor, which is the highest ground within the National Park, rising to 1,491 feet. Once on the top, the walking was easy for the rest of the day. Four or five miles beyond Clay Bank Top, the route of an old railway line was joined which is where the Coast to Coast route leaves the Cleveland Way, although the route is still coincident with the Lyke Wake Walk. The walk continued along the old railway track for six miles to Blakey, following the contours of the moors so that the walking was very easy, but soon became rather tedious and this was a section which needed to be covered at speed.

The red grouse were abundant and unconcerned at our presence, allowing us to approach to within a few feet before scuttling away. Perhaps they had become blase about having survived for a month since August the twelfth.

The Lion Inn sits on Blakey Ridge and is situated on a road which runs along the ridge. Apart from the Lion, there is one house directly opposite and no other habitation in view. Towards five o'clock, we left the old railway line to climb the last few yards to the Lion and, as we approached, Don was waiting for us. He seemed very pleased to see us and quickly told us that, rather than camping that night, he had gone to the expense of booking a room in the pub, even though he was having to pay for a twin-bedded room.

Of course, we were eager to learn what he had been doing for the last three days, but we were totally unprepared for what we were to hear and, as Don related his frightening story, we began to understand -why he was so pleased to see us and why he had booked a room in the pub that night.
Apparently, he had decided to follow Wainwright's original itinerary, which covered the distance from Osmotherley to Blakey in two days, staying overnight at Clay Bank Top, leaving him just eleven miles to walk on Sunday. The absence of any accommodation in the vicinity meant that he had to camp but some of his gear was still damp as a result of Friday's heavy rain. Fortunately, he had not had to walk too far that day and the late afternoon sun encouraged him to stop and try to dry it out before pitching his tent. He had left the footpath and walked about twenty yards up the hillside to spread his tent out on the heather, hoping that the weak sun would have some effect, and was making himself a mug of tea when he noticed three men on the path below.

'I was feeling quite relaxed and shouted 'good afternoon' to them and raised my hand in acknowledgement in exactly the same way I have to hundreds of other walkers in the last ten days,' Don explained.

"Lovely day now,' the one who appeared to be the leader of the three said and, surprisingly, he started walking up from the path towards me. I thought it was a bit unusual because most people are happy enough just to say hello and keep walking.

'Couldn't be better,' I replied, thinking of the contrast with Friday's torrential rain.

'Have you walked far today?' he asked in a Geordie accent. Well, I would call it Geordie but he could be a local because we're not far from Middlesbrough, are we? So, I told him I'd 'walked about twelve miles, and then he said something that made me realise how vulnerable I was on my own:

'Are you camping here tonight?' he asked me, which made me very apprehensive, even though there was nothing threatening in the way he asked. I wasn't sure exactly what troubled me, but why had he left the path to come and talk to me and why had he asked whether I was camping there?'

'What was he like?' we asked Don.

'He looked about thirty years old, with short black hair and a black moustache and I would describe him as looking like someone from the SAS, although I don't think I've ever met anyone from the SAS,' Don said. 'He was wearing army type boots rather than walking boots, and camouflage trousers that made his hips look enormous so that he looked immensely strong. He was wearing a dark blue teeshirt and the short sleeves seemed to bite into his biceps. It's funny what goes through your mind at times like that because, even though I was starting to get a bit worried, I couldn't help wondering whether you can buy teeshirts with very narrow armholes these days, or whether he was just excessively muscular.

He seemed pleasant enough but I thought it was odd that his two mates stayed on the footpath. They were younger, probably about twenty, and both of them had shaven heads. Again I found myself wondering the strangest thing — why do young men want to look prematurely bald when they might not have a choice in a few years time? Maybe it's to make them look 'hard' and, if so, it worked. They both had earrings and tattoos which added to the effect, but what bothered me more was that neither of them made eye contact with me or said a word. I really did feel uneasy, but tried to stay calm. I couldn't admit that I planned to camp there, so I told a white lie and said I was just trying to dry some of my things and would be moving on. I'd spread my wet socks on a rock and pointed to them and said I needed to dry them in particular because I had only two pairs and I'd been wearing the other pair for two days.

What happened next really got me worried,' Don continued.

'Why? What happened?' we asked, wondering what terrible event could have made him so obviously agitated.

'He went across and picked up the socks and felt them, as though he was checking that I was telling the truth, and then he said the most perturbing thing so far:

'I can do you a favour,' he said, 'I'll take these home and dry them for you and bring them back later.'

Well, the thought of them coming back later, possibly when it was dark, scared the shit out of me. I tried to tell myself that it was all innocent and the bloke ¦was really trying to be helpful, but what sort of person goes to so much trouble without an ulterior motive? It seemed to me that it was a ruse to find out exactly where I'd be. It was very hard not to panic, but I managed to stammer:

'No, it's alright, I'll be moving on and, anyway, I'll be meeting my mates soon.'

As soon as I said it, I knew it sounded weak and that they wouldn't believe me. Daft as it sounds, I had this feeling that they knew I wouldn't be meeting you for another twenty-four hours, and I was thinking I could have been robbed or tortured or even murdered by then.

Fortunately, they decided to move on and I began to think that my fears were irrational and made myself something to eat. When I'd finished, I decided to pitch my tent, but still moved on a couple of hundred yards to be on the safe side.'

'It all sounds very strange, Don. It must have been quite a relief when they went,' I said, assuming that was the end of his story. 'Should we go and have a drink?'

'That's not all,' he said, hurriedly.

'Why? Did they come back?'

'There was no sign of them during the evening and I began to think I'd blown it up out of proportion and I had never been in any danger. I settled into my sleeping bag soon after half past nine — well, there isn't much to do when it goes dark — and I must have fallen asleep straight away, but woke in the middle of the night. At least I thought it was the middle of the night because it was pitch black and I felt as though I'd been asleep for hours but, when I checked my watch, I found it was only just after eleven. Anyway, having woken up, I decided I might as well go outside and water the heather but, as I went to unzip the tent, there was a flash of light which made me hesitate. There were several more flashes of light, and then my whole life seemed to flash before me.'

'Why, for God's sake?' we asked, imagining that some wild animal must have slashed through the side of his tent with razor sharp claws and run off with his remaining boil-in-the-bag meal. But no, this was no laughing matter.

'I heard his voice. The Geordie.And he was saying:

'He was somewhere round here.'

My stomach felt as though it had leapt up inside my chest, my mouth went dry and my legs felt as though they belonged to someone else. My heart was pounding so much, I felt sure they'd be able to hear it. I don't mind admitting I was absolutely petrified. Why had they come back? What did they want from me?'

'They might have had some dry socks for you,' I suggested, helpfully.

'I could see the lights through the side of the tent, moving up and down and across the hillside as the torches sought me out,' he continued, reliving the experience and recalling his terror. 'If there were three of them, they were bound to find me, but then what? It's amazing what thoughts go through your mind in a situation like that.'

'What? Like 'I wonder how Liverpool went on today?' I suggested, trying to ease the tension.

'I was figuring out my options. I could make a run for it, leaving all my gear behind but they'd be bound to hear me unzipping the tent and stumbling about in the dark and, anyway, they had torches and would soon spot me.

Alternatively, I could sit in the tent and hope they wouldn't find it, but that was wishful thinking. There were three of them with torches, so it was only a matter of time.

The only other option was to go outside and confront them. There could be an innocent explanation although, for the life of me, I couldn't think of one, so I decided I'd have to be prepared to defend myself. I had my Swiss army knife and I started to search for it in my pack but then I thought better of it. I'm sixty-two years old and haven't fought anyone since I was at school and even then I lost and that was one against one, not one against three. In the end, I decided to sit tight and hope for the best, although I realised it was only a matter of time till they found me.

I sat there, my mind racing. What did they want? Surely they didn't believe a single camper was worth robbing. Did they get their kicks (literally) from beating someone senseless? Or was it possible that they wanted to kill someone, just to see what it's like? I started thinking what it would be like to be beaten to a pulp. It's really scary what goes through your mind, you know.

I sat there for what seemed like hours but might have been only a few minutes and then I realised that I hadn't heard the voice again and hadn't seen the torches for a while. Everything seemed to be in complete darkness again and I started to believe that they might have moved on although I still couldn't relax. I didn't get much sleep I can tell you and I was up as soon as it was light. I just wanted to get as far away as possible in case they came back.'

'Hell, Don, I don't know how you coped,' I sympathised. 'Shall we go and get a drink?'

'That's still not the end of the story' he said. 'I told you that after they left yesterday, I moved on a couple of hundred yards to set up camp but, a little later on, I realised I'd left my socks on the rock and decided to go back for them. When I got there, they weren't on the rock and I assumed they must have blown off and had a little search around but couldn't find them. I thought that was odd, but it was going dark so it wasn't easy to see and I didn't think it was worth wasting too much time on a pair of socks and gave up.

This morning, as soon as I'd packed all my stuff, I set off down towards the track and, as I was walking down the hill, I could see a big rock alongside the track and I thought I could see something on it. At first I couldn't make out what it was but, when I got close, I could see that it was a clear polythene bag and you'll never believe what was in it, and this was the really scary thing, it was a pair of socks.'

'Were they yours?' I asked, wondering where this story could lead now.

'I think so, but I didn't stop to check. It scared the shit out of me just seeing them there. I can only think that they had taken the socks yesterday afternoon and brought them back last night and, when they couldn't find me, just left them there. The other spooky thing about it was that, even though I didn't touch the bag, I could see that the socks were clean as well as dry, and had been folded very neatly before being put in the bag, almost as though someone was really trying to impress me.'

'Now that is spooky'


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