Boots, anorak, coffin … the Yorkshire walk with a difference

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"You know," I began, as we made our way down yet another set of rustic steps cut into a precipitously steep slope, "I'm glad we're not dressed as undertakers and carrying a coffin."

This is not an observation I would normally make on a long-distance footpath but then the Lyke Wake Walk is a little out of the ordinary. At first glance it seems unremarkable enough: the route covers 40 miles of the North York Moors between the villages of Osmotherley in the west and Ravenscar near the east coast. The hint that there may be something unusual comes from the name – "lyke" means "corpse" while "wake" is the act of watching over it. The killer punch is that, in order to be able to say that you have "done" the Lyke Wake Walk and declare yourself a dirger (men) or a witch (women), you have to make the trek from end to end within 24 hours. And yes, some Lyke Wake walkers go the whole hog by dressing as undertakers and carrying a coffin (an empty one, in case you were wondering).

So it was that a friend and I found ourselves jumping out of a taxi at Osmotherley and breezing up to the unimposing roadside stone that marks the official start of the walk. Watches duly checked – it was precisely 3.45pm – we set off with a spring in our step that was perhaps not quite in keeping with the solemnity of the occasion. But why should we care? We were both experienced walkers. We had maps and a guidebook. We had a nice snug room booked in a pub at the half-way point. What could possibly go wrong?

Fittingly, since the Lyke Wake Walk commemorates the practice – long since abandoned – of carrying the bodies of the dead from various parts of the moor to their final resting places, there is no official route, and those attempting the crossing are at liberty to choose their own way between the start and finish points. As first timers, we had decided to stick to the course suggested in the guidebook produced by the New Lyke Wake Club. This begins by following the Cleveland Way, a path that shoots up almost vertically onto the moor.

And with that came our first surprise. I had never before associated Middlesbrough with stunning vistas, and yet here we were, high up on Cringle Moor, gazing out over miles of pastoral plain. Since the path then leads along the northern edge of the moors, this was a view we were able to become pleasantly accustomed to, without the need to stop. This was just as well because we had to be 18 miles away at the Lion Inn before 10pm, when they stopped serving food. The prospect of going to bed on a packet of salt and vinegar crisps did not appeal.

Our pace quickened all the more after an encounter with a group of mountain bikers who were taking on, and being beaten by, some of the muddier paths the moors had to offer. "Where y'heading?" one of them called out. "The Lion," we replied. "When by?" they asked. "Before 10pm," we responded. "You going by car?" We laughed, only to find they weren't joking.

The trouble with the Lyke Wake Walk, if you can call it a trouble, is that for most of its length it's not really a path you can speed along. There are a couple of ravines to negotiate; miles of open moorland; countless stone crosses, howes (ancient burial mounds) and tumuli at which to pay homage; and 5000 feet of ascents, the equivalent of climbing Ben Nevis and then some. Worst of all, perhaps, is a long section of bog on which our guidebook cheerily pronounced: "You either bounce across the peat or you'll be up to your waist in it depending on the time of year and recent rainfall."

At least there was little prospect of getting lost – the Cleveland Way is well signposted and, when we waved it goodbye, we joined the wide bed of a dismantled quarry railway. Still, it was with some relief that we at last caught sight of the lights of the lonely Lion Inn blazing out like a beacon on a dark ridge ahead of us. Even greater was our relief to have made it there 10 minutes before the kitchen closed. To celebrate, while waiting for huge plates of mushroom and spinach lasagna to arrive, we sang a couple of verses of the Cleveland Lyke Wake Dirge: "If ivver thoo gav owther hosen or shoon/Ivvery neet an' all/Clap thee doon, an' put 'em on/An' Christ tak up thy saul." Strangely moving, even if its meaning was rather lost on us.

It was on the second day that it all went wrong. We crossed the notorious peat bog without too much ado but then I took us on an unintended three-mile detour through a plantation. My companion's knee then decided to give up the ghost. In the middle of nowhere – and the North York Moors has more than 500 square miles of nowhere – this was not a great. Luckily, we were not far from one of the rare roads that cross the moor and he professed himself content to thumb a lift back to civilisation (he was picked up by the first car to pass – more than an hour later).

The rain, which had been intermittent up until that point, became torrential, turning the path into miles of slippery fast flowing beck within minutes. It is on such occasions – picking my tortuous way across the heathery moor, my boots waterlogged, the wind whipping at my face – that one appreciates the better times. And the better times were surprisingly close. The sun came out and the path dried up as if by magic. My weary legs were suddenly filled with an energy that comes from being entirely surrounded by nature in all its glory... coupled with a fear that I might not make it to Ravenscar before the 3.45pm deadline. I ran. And ran.

Panting and sweating, I pulled up at last at Beacon Howe, just outside Ravenscar, where another unimposing roadside stone marks the end of the walk. My time? 25 hours, 19 minutes. Not even close. I cannot call myself a dirger. I cannot wear the Lyke Wake tie. In short, failure. Still, if failure always tasted this exhilarating, nobody would bother being successful. So, once more with feeling, "If ivver thoo gav owther hosen or shoon ..."

Train travel was provided by East Coast (08457 225225, and First Transpennine Express (0845 600 1671, A single with East Coast from London to Northallerton costs from ?11.15 and a single from York to London costs from ?10.25. A single with First Transpennine Express from Scarborough to York costs from ?6.50

During the summer, the Moorsbus runs from York, Northallerton and Darlington to various parts of the walk including Osmotherley and the Lion Inn. Details of the Moorsbus timetable at

An infrequent bus service from Ravenscar to Scarborough is run by Esk Valley Coaches (01947 600604,

Lion Inn B&B (01751 417320, has rooms from ?23pp. Guidebooks (?4.50) can be obtained from the New Lyke Wake Club

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