We’ve never been good with cows in our family. I blame my mother and one long-ago sunny, childhood day (I seem to recall a button-under-the-chin swimming cap and a salmon pink, ruched and waffled swimsuit were still the order of the day. I know, I know. Don’t say a word.)
Why mention this now? Well, I was put in mind of my own chequered history with cows only recently.
As you might imagine, being editor of such an esteemed publication as Mountain Rescue magazine, I’m privy to all manner of tales of derring-do. And it’s not just humans who get themselves in a pickle. Lambs, sheep, ducks (real and the plastic yellow variety), birds of prey, horses, dogs (lots of dogs) and cows regularly feature, rescued from all manner of inaccessible places.
Back in 2011, members of Derbyshire cave rescue team were called to rescue a bull which had entered a mine adit and was some twenty metres underground. Lucky for the bull, they were soon on hand to winch it back to the surface, seemingly unharmed.
Incidentally, if – like me – you were ignorant of what exactly an ‘adit’ might be, I can now tell you it comes from the Latin aditus, meaning entrance – in this case the entrance to an underground mine which is ‘horizontal or nearly horizontal and by which the mine can be entered, drained of water, ventilated and minerals extracted at the lowest convenient level’. Not a place you would normally expect to find a bull, but there you go.
These call-outs often come through the fire and rescue service, swiftly followed by a press release. And so it was that, last Thursday, I heard about three cows rescued from the River Brue in Devon by the local fire service and their specialist rescue team. Unable to exit steady, deep-flowing water for several hours all three animals were eventually brought back to dry land by means of a rescue boat and animal lifting equipment. And that’s when the memories came flooding back.
…all set up for a day on the beach – tartan rugs and towels, picnic baskets, any number of Thermos flasks, potted salmon butties, fishing nets, frisbees, bucket and spade each, selection of flags from around the UK (technology yet a twinkle in the Devil’s eye).
There we were at Church Bay, on Anglesey, us and another family, all set up for a day on the beach – tartan rugs and towels, picnic baskets, any number of Thermos flasks, potted salmon butties, fishing nets, frisbees, bucket and spade each, selection of flags from around the UK (technology yet a twinkle in the Devil’s eye). All set up, plot bagged. And that’s when they arrived – at speed, from a corner of the beach. Cows. Bloody loads of them. No doubt pursued by a laughing farmer. I have never seen anyone pack up so much stuff, so fast, as my mother did that day. Her fear was palpable. We were off that beach in a flash. Never to return.
To our eternal discredit, my brother and I never let her live it down but it left a scar, did that. Augmented in no small way the following year by an ill-fated week on Brownie camp at Ashley, in Cheshire, with my Brown Owl aunt, the indomitable Bessie. Running through a seemingly innocuous field of grass barefoot (I have no idea why this was even allowed on a Brownie camp), I ran splat through a caked-over cow pat, the moist, underlying content of which rather indelicately forced itself through my tiny toes.
I swiftly learned to avoid cow pats but the Gremlin will attest to the fact I am never very comfortable walking through a field of cows – however distantly small they might appear – convinced that at any minute they will get me in their sights and charge. Because, let’s face it, they sometimes do.
Only this year, Marian Clode died after being charged at by a herd of cattle while out for a walk with her family in Belford, Northumberland. Her daughter Lucy said the cow had charged at her mother three times, flipping her like a rag doll over one fence into the next fence. The injuries Marian sustained were equivalent to those of a high-speed crash.
According to the Health & Safety Executive, there have been 74 fatalities involving cattle recorded since 2000 – with 18 of those being members of the public. By comparison, dangerous dogs have killed 17 people in the last eight years. In November last year, The Independent quoted these figures under a headline which declared ‘Cows officially the most deadly large animals in Britain’.
More often than not the cattle are protecting their young and it’s farm workers who cop for it but, even so. Cows. Far from the docile creatures we like to imagine.
Fast forward then, to May 2011, when me and my buddy Gail were doing the Coast to Coast, styling ourselves as the Twirlies on Tour. All went well until we left Muker. There are many paths between Muker and Reeth. You can opt to climb higher, towards the ridge, the mining track and stupendous views across Swaledale. Or you can choose any number of rambles alongside the river, left bank or right, hugging the water, or passing through fields. Or there’s always the road, which meanders along the valley, never too far from the river. We chose the lower route, variously ambling alongside the water’s edge, through swathes of wild garlic peppered with bluebells, dodging tree roots and fallen branches, on and on across lush green pastures. Lots of sheep. Lots of lambs. And a fair few cows. And usually they ran away when they saw us coming. But not that day.
At this low level, you pass through field after field, linked by the slenderest of gaps through dry stone walls (our guide book had it that they’re built for ‘whippet-thin farmers’, although we didn’t see many of those), each with a tiny spring-loaded gate which positively fights back as you try to pull it open. Try pulling against the prevailing wind and you’ve lost the battle before it’s begun.
Anyway, as we approached one particular gateway, it became clear the path was closely guarded – by several cows – and they were all looking our way. Er, no, actually, they were MOVING our way. Cue a rather rapid dredging up from somewhere deep in memory of my own advice on meeting cows in a field, researched for one of my books (‘Call Out Mountain Rescue?’ since you ask. Only £9.99!)
1: Let dog off lead – he’ll sort himself out and run faster than either you or the cows if being chased! (That one was easy. No dog.)
2: Identify the nearest exit. (Yep! We’d identified it – the one immediately behind the cows. Those cows that were closing in on us.)
3: Don’t panic! (Shiiiiiiiit!)
4: CLAP YOUR HANDS! (Not panicking, honest!)
Well, d’you know? It worked. Clapped a couple of times, the cows parted, leaving the footpath clear towards the gate, which we headed for RATHER quickly. Just as well because they were bright those cows, realising pretty damn soon that they were, in fact, bigger than us. Back in they came, just as the second of Gail’s little legs squoze through the gap. And there they stayed for quite some time (our bovine friends that is, not Gail’s little legs!), huddled together on the other side of the gate.
So, yes. Cows. Better viewed from the other side of a gate.
Meanwhile, more ‘flood controversy’ over in Workington, where Allerdale Council is set to open a brand spanking £11.3m leisure centre right in the middle of an area which is known to flood. Quite severely.
I gather, from locals who’ve witnessed as much, that the area has flooded five times in thirteen years. On this occasion, ‘heavy rainfall’ was yet again blamed for the water that flowed into ‘the incomplete swimming pool area, where windows had not yet been installed and part of the bund wall was not completed’. According to the News & Star, the ground level on the site has ‘now been raised by an average of almost a metre.’
I was fascinated, a couple of weeks ago, to hear Alan Smith, leader of Allerdale, on local telly, talking about the new centre.
Even in December, as the latest flood waters receded from the site, local councillor Mike Heaslip ‘reassured residents’ that it would never flood. Despite being surrounded by evidence that it already had.
Eight months later, pictured inside the new complex, Councillor Smith was keen to point out that the council were confident it wouldn’t flood because it was ‘three metres above the flood height’. Three metres? Surely not? That’s higher than your average domestic ceiling. Taller than two cows (as we’re talking cows), one stood on the other’s shoulders. But I thought no more of it until I happened onto Councillor Smith’s Facebook page, where he updates us on various activities he and the council are undertaking.
‘One hundred millimetres (four inches) is the floor level above the December 2015 flood height’, commented fellow councillor Mark Jenkinson, after the piece aired. ‘Not three metres’. And he was ‘happy to prove it’. The floor level, he went on, is set exactly at the 2009 official flood level, which is 800mm below actual flood level on that particular site.
So… not above flood level at all then?
Finally, local dog walkers are still angry about the blocking off of an unofficial right of way alongside the Story Homes development at Strawberry How, which they say has been used for generations as a thoroughfare. The company has now extended the barriers and erected a sign. Campaigners have tried encouraging locals to contact Cumbria County Council with evidence of their historic use of the path, with a view to establishing it as an official right of way, but few seem willing to put fingers to keyboard. Easier, it would seem, to simply throw some dog poo at the problem.
Whatever you might think about Story Homes and this development or the loss of one small section of your regular dog walking route, does it really help anyone’s cause picking up the contents of your beloved pet’s bowel and smearing them all over the sign? I really hope you washed your hands very soon afterwards – at the very least carry some bacterial gel in your pocket – for the sake not just of your own future health but that of anyone who had the misfortune to shake hands or share a door handle with you that day.
And as for Story Homes. Please, next time you order up a piece of signage, get whichever department it is that deals with it to check their facts. Speaking as one who has experience in these things, it’s highly unlikely – unless they have a puncture – that anyone will be ‘walking the coast to coast’ along this footpath.
When Alfred Wainwright published ‘A Coast to Coast Walk’ in 1973, he was keen to encourage fellow walkers, armed with maps and compass, to devise similar cross-country marathons of their own. But the majority, I suspect, choose to follow in the great man’s footsteps, perhaps taking in the odd mountain top rather than settling for the valleys as we did. As such, the 192-mile west-to-east route passes from St Bee’s, through Cleator Moor to Ennerdale, before heading over Honister to Borrowdale and on towards the North Sea. At no point does it pass through Cockermouth, much less Strawberry How.
The cycle route, however, is entirely different. Opened in 1994, this shorter 140 mile-route combines sections of existing cycle routes, starting out at either Whitehaven or Workington and converging at Keswick before heading east. It is the latter route which runs via Cockermouth and Strawberry How.
Pedantic, moi? Maybe, but it’s this sort of detail that shows whether you really do have your finger on the pulse of whichever community you are currently ‘working closely’ with.