The Pennine Way
The Spine of England
“A pedestrian is a man in danger of his life. A walker is a man in possession of his soul.” – David McCord
If you ask anyone to name a National Trail, this will be the one; this is the first. In 1935 two American girls wrote to a local newspaper, asking if there was anything like the Appalachian Trail in the UK. Tom Stephenson picked up the letter and started a campaign that led to the opening of an initial 70-mile route in 1965. In 2020, over 5,000 miles of trails will be available when they complete the England Coast Path.
The Pennine Way has been on my mind for several years. Its wraps its legendary status in tales of heroic deeds and efforts. It follows a range of mountains and hills from Edale, in the south, to Kirk Yetholm on the Scottish border; crossing 3 National Parks. A total of 268-miles, much at high-level through remote moorland. It is rightly considered a challenge for any enthusiastic walker and deeply rewarding.
“The Pennine Way is a beautiful thing
In summer, autumn, winter, spring.
As the clouds dance across the Pennine sky
And the wild birds wheel past the walker’s eye.” – Ian McMillan
I am always anxious when I set out on a big walk. It is an irrational state of mind. Do I feel failure? The train journey to Sheffield gives me plenty of time to reflect on the enormity of the task ahead. “Just break it down day-by-day”; I say – as time passes you make progress. As soon as I am walking to the youth hostel, my worries subside. It is great to be outdoors in the Peak District National Park, amongst the hills and moorland. I am fortunate to have the time to do this before the autumn nights draw in. The trains were busy with business travellers and students returning to University. I alight at Edale and breathe in the chilled air; it invigorates my soul and flushes out my doubts.
A Danish “Sprogskole” adventure trip has overrun the hostel. The warden kindly puts me into a remote shed, together with another middle-aged walker. He has so much gear he needs two bunks to sort through it an find his pyjamas! Pots and pans strapped to the side like a comedy sketch scene.
“Walking the Pennine Way?”; I ask.
“That’s the plan. I start tomorrow. What about you?”; he replies.
We talk about the route ahead and what we will do about accommodation. He is camping and cooking. That was my plan too, but careful planning had revealed ideal spacing of hostels along the route that matched my walking pace. For the sake of a few B&Bs to fill in the gaps, I could avoid camping altogether; and therefore travel light.
I wake early and manage to get to the head of the breakfast queue as a hoard of school kids explode out of the dorms. The noise in the dining room reaches a crescendo until a teacher demands calm. The Danish kids will be getting muddy and wet on the adventure course today and are too excited; marginally more than I am.
My smartphone map cannot pinpoint my location. It is trying to download assisted GPS satellite co-ordinations still set for London, without a mobile data signal. I can’t be bothered to work out how to fix it; so I set off in the direction of the Edale visitor centre. The map on the wall shows the entire route and the enormity of the task ahead. A copy of Stephenson’s newspaper article is attached to the first fingerpost. “WANTED – A Long Green Trail”; it demanded on June 22nd 1935. The final words read:
“Whatever the cost, it would be a worthy and enduring testimony – bringing health and pleasure beyond computation, for none could walk that Pennine Way without being improved in mind and body, inspired and invigorated and filled with the desire to explore every corner of this lovely island.”
There, in one long sentence is an answer to why I like walking the National Trails. A wooden bench on the path reads:
“Office bustle for leaves rustle
Mobiles ringing for birds singing
Lovers rejection for waters reflection
Twenty-First Century for a glimpse of Eternity.”
This poem is more than enough inspiration for a misty morning as I make my way towards Jacob’s Ladder and start my ascent onto Kinder Scout. It is tough going, but my walking poles help. I pass 600m into a warm sunny day, I am blessed with a stunning temperature inversion. The thick misty blanket covers the valleys. The peaks and cairns of Kinder Scout emerge into a heavy blue sky, crisscrossed with contrails. I can hear intercontinental aircraft making their final approach to Manchester airport. They disappear into the cloud as they descend. It is such a breathless sight that I can only stop and stare, but I have to make progress along the flagstone path that points northward. Luckily, the effect continues for several miles, as I walk along the ridgeline. I’m in a heavenly landscape untouched by civilisation below.
The Red Grouse have taken elocution lessons from Donald Duck. “g’ back; g’ back” they call as I disturb them from the heather. Perhaps they could learn “nae’ shoot; nae’ shoot” instead, for that is almost certainly their fate. Shooting parties will line the grouse butts this weekend and blast them from the skies. For now, it is peaceful and quiet, and I pay tribute to the pioneers that fought for the right to walk and share this moorland.
The birds are busy flitting from twig to twig and my only company until I turn right at Mill Hill. “No Mill and not much Hill”; as Alfred Wainwright would say. A group of students are searching for a WWII plane wreck, not the famous B-29 Superfortress still evident on Bleaklow Ridge ahead, but lesser known aircraft. These cloud covered hills even claim victims to this day. So this hill should not be underestimated.
The flagstones are a welcome sight, helicoptered from the Mills and laid to avoid erosion into the deep bog. I adjust my gate to synchronise with the interleaving stones, which offer grip, even when wet. I cross Snake Pass, the first of many trans-Pennine routes into deeply rutted moorland. A community science sign asks for help with a Bumblebee Survey. I now start seeing these high-speed black marbles whizzing across the moorland. It will hurt if you get struck by one.
There is a charming B&B in Crowden, and I am offered a lift to the Peels Arms pub in the evening. Soup, a Roast Dinner and water cost £9; not London prices here. I’m not drinking alcohol on this trip, having recently lost a good friend to alcoholism. Many would argue that it is not possible to walk this path without a good pint or two, but I remain determined to honour his memory.
It is shorts and t-shirt the next day, much to the amusement of the landlady. There is still hill fog, but I am hoping for a repeat of yesterday. It is eerily quiet in the mist, only the sound of babbling brooks, draining their way to a river or reservoir. Wainwright got stuck in the bog here, adding to his dislike of the Pennine Way, not something you would expect to hear. If it were not for the flagstones, I too would be buried up to my knees in thick black fibrous peat. I eat the two sausages stolen from my breakfast and wrapped in foil for lunch to keep my energy levels high as I reach Black Hill, a desolate spot with a welcome OS Trig. point, freshly painted white.
I descend, crossing the dangerous Dean Clough into Wessenden Moor. Heavy rain would undoubtedly demand a wide detour to reach the A635. I cross a stile to read a campaign sign to find the moors murder victim, Keith Bennett, who is buried here somewhere. Further north a plaque recalls The Black Flood in Marsden disaster in 1810 when the inky black water in the reservoir burst its banks and drowned six people. I try to purge morbid thoughts from my mind as I approach Standedge and my accommodation for the night. I can see the lights of the hotel piercing the mist. I have time to read about the four parallel tunnels, each 5km long, that convey canal boats and rail traffic under the Pennines. Quite a feat of engineering that cannot readily be appreciated.
It is a delight to be served a Turkish Meal instead of the usual chips with everything. I rest well and wake to meet a fellow Pennine Way walker, Alan. He completed the path some years ago and is back for the highlights. We walk together as he recalls his journey and gives me advice, stopping for exceptional views of Manchester and its conurbations. We summit White Hill, Black Hills twin sister, a sentinel in a landscape of foreboding names – Bleakegate Moor ahead of us.
We cross the M62 over a footbridge I have wanted to cross for decades as I have passed underneath it on many an occasion. The road noise penetrates tranquillity of the moorland, accompanied by a toot or two from lorry drivers as we both wave. Blackstone Edge, a gritstone escarpment, stands in defiance of the encroaching urban spread. We cross a drover road signposted by the Aiggin Stone, of indeterminant origin, perhaps earlier than the Roman road that passes by.
There is a beautiful poem etched in gold on the face of the gritstone, recently completed. It is worth a couple of readings. My companion starts first:
“Be glad of these freshwater tears,
Each pearled droplet some salty old sea-bullet
Air-lifted out of the waves, then laundered and sieved, recast as a soft bead and returned.
And no matter how much it strafes or sheets, it is no mean feat to catch one raindrop clean in the mouth,
To take one drop on the tongue, tasting cloud pollen, grain of the heavens, raw sky.
Let it teem, up here where the front of the mind distils the brunt of the world.”
An apt poem – for an escarpment that will bully the rain out of the south-westerly clouds.
It is a short walk to The White House public house on the A58 and a pleasant pub lunch. My legs are sore; I fear shin splints which I hate. Alan has come prepared and lent me some Ibuprofen gel which works a treat. The next section is not strenuous and leads through a network of reservoirs, serving the cities below, towards the imposing Stoodley Pike. This monument also lies on the Pennine Bridleway, a path I will walk in a few years. A few horse riders are enjoying the end to the day; it looks like an ideal mode of transport on the moors. I walk to its base, climb to its balcony and read the graffiti etched in the gritstone, before diverting back into Mankinholes and the youth hostel nestled in the valley. Alan has come off the path earlier, and we meet to walk a short distance to a local pub, the Top Brink Inn, in Lumbutts.
The pub is thriving, and Alan is meeting a few friends, a motley crew of adventurers. One is walking from Land’s End to John o’Groats, another cycling the same, several have already completed the Pennine Way. It is a pleasant gathering of like-minded souls, and we enthusiastically share our experiences. Even alcohol-free, I enjoy the evening, but not the walk back in through the dark lanes without a torch. I sleep fitfully knowing that tomorrow is a long hall to Earby, the next hostel on the route, 25-miles away.
We have now traversed the gap that lies between the great northern cities; heading for the Yorkshire Dales. Alan peels off towards Hebden Bridge, and I climb back into moorland after crossing the Rochdale canal. A black cat crosses my path, so it is going to be a good day, or so I thought until I come across a dead sheep and a murder of crows, feasting.
I am met by a three-legged dog, wagging its tail with joy as it hops up the path to meet me. It is utterly indifferent to its disability and easily outpaces its lady owner who joins for a chat.
“He’s happy”; I say
“He loves this walk, does it every day whatever the weather”; she replies.
“My friend told me to stop at May’s shop, is it nearby?”; I continue the conversation, keen to pet this lovely Labrador a little longer.
“You are close. Turn left on the lane ahead; you can’t miss it.”
Alan was right. May’s Aladdin’s Cave is full of everything a Pennine Way walker could need. Pies, sandwiches, cake, beverages, blister repair, painkillers, bandages – the list is endless. This farm shop has been open 14hrs a day, 364 days a year for the past 40-years. The wonder gran who runs it has been a godsend for many a weary walker.
I buy an ice-lolly seeing as it is a beautiful day and progress on to Heptonstall Moor and yet more reservoirs. There is a grouse shot in progress, and I can see the line of beaters flushing out the poor things from the heather. It is big business and a significant contributor to the rural economy. That explains the traps I can see at regular intervals, controlling any predators that would reduce the numbers of birds in sharp contrast to the brutal efficiency of a 12-bore shotgun.
I reach Top Withins. A plaque describes its significance:
“Top Withens. This farmhouse has been associated with “Wuthering Heights”, the Earnshaw home in Emily Brontë’s novel. The buildings, even when complete bear no resemblance to the house she described, but the situation may have been in her mind when she wrote of the moorland setting of the heights.” – Brontë Society 1964.
It is a favourite spot for tourists, the signs from Haworth are written in Japanese to guide enthusiasts over the moorland. I pass a few dressed in clear plastic macs, more Mary Quant in style than your regulation Gore-Tex. Their footwear is entirely unsuitable as they pick there way through the sheep droppings.
The route descends and ascends again into the natural moorland and into what seems to be hobby farm at Cowling. Notices pinned to the gates warn you not to feed the animals. A shaming list names the naughty pigs and sheep, who will happily follow you into the moorland if you do not close the gate. Closing the gate tightly, I continue at a relaxed pace to Pinhaw Beacon and stop for a while as the day draws to a close. I am in an endless desert of moorland as far as the eye can see, the sense of isolation is intense.
I follow waymarks to a very cosy youth hostel at Earby. I arrive at the same time as a mountain bike group, who stayed at Mankinholes last night.
“Have you walked here?”; they exclaim. “We covered the same distance and are exhausted”.
They must have got lost – I confirm the 25-miles, and we chat in the common room for a while, before I have to sleep.
The dorm is like a man-cave of snoring trolls, partially fueled by a few beers the night before. Earplugs have had little effect. Getting up earlier seems the only solution even though I only plan a short walk to Malham youth hostel, 11-miles away. Today I cross the Aire Gap, a natural glacial pass through the Pennines. The route is pastoral following the Leeds and Liverpool canal towards Gargrave. Smoke from the canal boat wood fires drifts gently into the air. “Rosie & Jim” puppets stare of the windows.
Having skipped breakfast, I make amends at the delightful institution that is the Dalesman Café Tea Rooms – a magnet for cyclists and walkers. The “full Yorkshire” is a treat in a room with an open fire, next door to a sweet shop that would keep any kid happy for a month. The decor is eccentric and full of Pennine Way memorabilia; even the mugs show the route ahead to Malham.
The Yorkshire Dales landscape of dry-stone walls and pasture emerges as I approach Malham along the River Aire. I’m early, so sit and sleep on the slopes above the village, nibbling on the cake I bought earlier. I have no desire to join the tourist crowds in Malham, just yet.
I read everything in the visitor’s centre, waiting for the youth hostel to open at 5 PM. The entrance is marked with a mosaic of stones, depicting the iconic Swaledale sheep. It is a large hostel with a restaurant and washing facilities. I read in the dorm, as more adventurers arrive to fill all the bunks. One late arrival is running 50-miles per day for a month, aiming to visit every county in Britain – an astonishing goal. He is an ultra-runner from France and has secured the services of an ex-Army logistics guy to support him – a good business he tells me. The routine seems to be: up at 4 AM; drive to start point; feed on the route; and then run until 7-8PM, for a month! The runner is complaining of a sore ankle, so I lend him some Ibuprofen gel – day 1 for him. I suggest he buys a tube.
At breakfast, the kitchen is full of like-minded adventurers, but not the ultra-runner, who left hours ago. We chat about what we are doing. Everyone is very knowledgeable about Scotland and this area, so we shared tips and recommendations. Using the hostels is far more friendly than wild camping. Being in the company of like-minded people is great.
I’m on the path to Malham Cove early, before the crowds. The broken cup curved limestone erosion was formed by a powerful waterfall during the last ice age, some 12,000 years ago. Now a mere trickle flows over the lip, feeding the trees with minerals, that cling to the rock face. I scan the cliffs for Peregrine Falcons and Little Owls, which I read live here, but without success. The climb to the limestone pavement summit reveals a molar tooth-like surface, which requires concentration to walk on. The path leads to Ing Scar and Malham Tarn, which I assume to be the remnants of the once mighty glacier.
I am met by six collie puppies at Tennant Gill Farm, just before a long drawn out ascent of Fountains Fell. They fuss around my feet, nibbling the laces as I talk to a young farmer.
“In a few days we will select one of these to work on the farm”; he says. “You can always tell after six weeks. The remainder will become pets”.
I guess which one it may be, but get it wrong.
“This is the current favourite, keen-eyed, intelligent and responds readily to my voice”; he adds. “The father is a champion sheepdog; I will start the training soon”.
One of them follows me up the path. I briefly consider dog-napping, but the farmer has to round them all up – how ironic, I thought that was their job.
The heights of Fountains Fell reveals the full glory of the National Park, like being a low-flying pilot over the expanse of moorland and fells. Pen-y-ghent proudly overlooks Ribblesdale and the peaks of Whernside and Ingleborough, which collectively are known as the 3-peaks of Yorkshire. Its name sounds Welsh, and indeed the Cumbric language had a connection to that Celtic culture. I start the steep ascent to its summit, joining a crowd of people who have parked along the roadside. I climb over the last dry-stone wall to touch the Trig. point to see a possie of Cyclo-Cross bikes carried on the backs of very competitive cyclists. They immediately turn after checking in, to descend like madmen down the steep slope. I now have to battle against the tide using the same path, so I stop for lunch to let the leaders get on with their race. I do my best to pick a route that cannot be cycled on, but all these guys are on a mission. It is the annual 3-peaks Cyclo-Cross Race, conceived in the 1960s. A good time for the 40km course is 3 hours. The atmosphere is excellent; the cyclists appreciate me getting out of their way.
I’m happy to have arrived in the village of Horton-in-Ribblesdale and the Pen-y-ghent cafe. It is time for a pint of tea and a hefty portion of cake. An old timing clock can be used to measure you attempt on the 3-peaks challenge. The record is faster than the cycling times; an astonishing 2 hours and 30 minutes, although the course is slightly shorter. The challenge is popular, almost like a coming-of-age event for any Yorkshireman. The walls are covered in photographs of both events, in appalling weather, with bicycles up to there saddles in water.
The bunkroom is surprisingly empty, considering the weekends’ events but I can gather why when I sit for a meal at the pub. The meal is awful, and the customers are abusing the poor bar-girl. It is an unpleasant feeling; the landlord is absent. I skip breakfast, choosing to return to the cafe, which opens on time to serve up a perfect bacon buttie and another pint of strong tea. The owner knows his market well.
The route follows stone filled farm tracks and is hard going. The wind has picked up; I need gloves. The clouds are racing northeast as if filmed in time-lapse, casting their shadows on the fells. The Ribblehead viaduct is at one moment beautifully lit by the suns starburst rays. I meet several enduro riders on motorcycles, and they too are making slow progress through the rough tracks. Their engines resonate in tune with a pair of RAF Tucano T1 trainer aircraft racing down the valley. Buzzards and Kite hover in the air, unconcerned.
As I descend into Hawes, a couple of older American lady’s have ventured into the fells, dressed in expensive outdoor gear, that looks brand new. They look like escapees from the cast of Cocoon, with a vitality that belies their age. The town is full of tourists until the coaches depart. I find the local youth hostel and settle in for an afternoon nap. I am joined in the dorm by Colin, who is cycling in the area on a beat up a mountain bike and has essential outdoor gear, made from modified clothing. He is touring around the Dales across the passes. I admire his wisdom and knowledge: he can travel without effort; unencumbered by material possessions.
It is a delight to meet an old friend that evening who has moved to the Yorkshire Dales from the hub-bub of London. We spend a few hours over a pleasant meal, catching up on events. She encourages me to write a book, which I dismiss as a crazy idea, but she has sown a seed which will grow into this publication.
I depart after an excellent breakfast to walk through the town, setting up for the Tuesday market. I ascend Great Shunner Fell into the thick cloud to spend a pleasant few hours traversing Thwaite Common. I need my compass at the summit to navigate to the village in Swaledale. What would be a marvellous view in clear weather is now obscured by cloud. No picture postcard photographs today. The Kearton Tearooms extort an unbelievable £9 for tea and toastie from my wallet, clearly pricing to a different clientele, they too know their market in this popular hamlet.
I depart lighter than expected, paying with every scrap of change I can find, to walk alongside Kisdon valley, a noted beauty spot, with a sequence of waterfalls. The path is rough and overgrown until I can ascend again into familiar moorland until I reach the remote Tan Hill Inn, Britain’s Highest Inn at 528m, or 1,732 feet in old money. I receive a warm welcome and sit by a roaring coal fire, still in my shorts. The direct heat does wonders for my weary muscles. Tracy, the landlady is a real character and full of tales of epic lock-ins, due to heavy snow. She is convinced that people study the forecast, to time such events to perfection. There is always enough beer and coal to last. The Theakstons’ Old Peculiar hand pump stands centrally on the bar. It must be one hell of a party.
Local customers included the gamekeepers and the local sheep, who will barge through an unlatched door and sit in front of the fire – I thought sheep were stupid, but they are not daft on Stonesdale Moor. If ever there is heavy snow in England, you can be sure a photo of this pub will be on the front page. I recall a stunning photograph of the building bathed in the Northern Lights. Some describe the Tan Hill Inn as the “Faulty Towers” of the north. I love it, and so do many others, as the expanse of newspaper articles and postcards pinned to the wall, confirm.
But not the heavy rain that starts the day. Tracy advises avoiding the Sleightholme Moor route, that runs with Frumming Beck due to flooding and deep bog. I’m not to argue and take the road towards the farm before crossing underneath a very busy A66 that connects the northeast to the west. I’m in the North Pennines now, heading to Middleton-in-Teesdale and a warm B&B. My waterproofs and boots are holding out against an onslaught of rain and wind. I arrive at High Birk Hatt farm, the home of Hannah Hauxwell, an English farmer made famous by a series of articles and television documentaries. She endured poverty and hardship over decades. Her story became so well known that she was invited as a guest to the “Woman of the Year” gala at London’s Savoy Hotel. “In summer I lived and in winter I existed”; she is quoted as saying. I can begin to imagine the hardship as I walk through her meadows in the torrential rain. This is a remote and inhospitable place at such times.
I trudge on into Middleton, over Harter Fell. The 1618 cafe is a wonderful stop for cake and tea. I don’t want to arrive at the B&B too early and need to readjust to life indoors. A second mug with two sugars brings my body back to life. A Fish & Chip shop completes my transformation into a normal human being, ready for a good nights rest.
After perhaps the best breakfast I have had on this trip, I set out to walk alongside the River Tees after re-crossing the bridge. In a few miles, I can hear the sound of Low Force ahead, a prelude to High Force (High Fosse in Nordic), the largest waterfall in England, by volume of water. The Durham County gates are quite different from their Yorkshire counterpart, far easier to negotiate compared to the man-traps I have got used to. Teesdale is wonderful on an overcast day, the dark skies reflecting in the peaty river. A stone sculpture announces “A wonderful place to be a walker”; I heartily agree as I continue to the impressive High Force waterfall.
A Natural England control post insists that I disinfect my walking boots to prevent the spread of a tree-killing disease called Phytophthora austrocedrae. Juniper trees are rare so I am happy to oblige and get a free boot clean. I turn west to endure a difficult riverside section of awkwardly spaced polished rocks, to reach my third waterfall, Cauldron Snout; the longest in England. That is two ticks in the book, even though it appears to be an unnatural feature, an overflow from a reservoir above. I can hear thunder, but the signs warning of military activity suggests otherwise. The land to the south is active with an exercise, or maybe it is thunder, I cannot tell.
I’m happy to reach the isolation of the open moors again, and walk contently west until my senses are assaulted by High Cup Nick – an enormous symmetrical gouge in the Pennine ridge, as if dug by some mythical monster on a sandy beach. It is undoubtedly the finest view on the Pennine Way. I have to stop and gawp, feeding crumbs of cake into an open mouth. The feature is so unexpected I realise that The Lake District, Scotland and Snowdonia do not have a monopoly on wonderful views.
Whenever I begin to think..
An English area comes to mind
I see the nature of my kind
As a locality I love
Those limestone moors that stretch from Brough
To HEXHAM and the ROMAN WALL,
This is the symbol of us all.
There where the EDEN leisures through
Its sandstone valley, is my view
Of green and civil life that dwells
Below a cliff of savage fells
From which original address
Man faulted into consciousness.
Along the line of lapse the fire
of life’s impersonal desire
Burst through his sedentary rock
And, as at DUFTON and at KNOCK
Thrust up between his mind and heart
Enormous cones of myth and art.
Always my boy of wish returns
To those peat-stained deserted burns
That feed the WEAR and TYNE and TEES
And, turning states to strata see
How basalt long oppressed broke out
In wild revolt at CAULDRON SNOUT. – W. H. Auden
The descent is exhilarating into Dufton. My fitness levels are high now and I am skipping over the rocks to a farm track that enters the village. Perhaps it was the joy of seeing such a sight that has given such levitation. The youth hostel is a diamond, friendly, comfortable and quiet. The pub opposite is even better, with a roaring coal range and a kitchen that produces a humble, yet delicious pork belly meal. I am gasping for a pint to join in with the banter, but my resolve continues. This self-enforced abstinence is proving harder than walking.
Ten days have passed since I left London; the walk has become my new life. I am feeling full of energy and ready to tackle one of the hardest days. I started from the south for two reasons: to keep the sun behind me, so it lights up the landscape I am walking into, and to keep the tough sections to the end. Cross Fell beckons, the highest point on the Pennine Way.
It’s a cloudy day, but it is not raining. I take a farm track, but miss a fingerpost sign and end up following “A Pennine Journey” – Alfred Wainwright’s route around the Pennines in 1938. This route from Settle to Hexham is a tribute to his work and excellent publications, but he was not a fan of the Pennines compared to his love of the Lakeland Fells. I use Dufton Pike as a guide to get me back on track where I meet a farmer on his quad bike setting off into the hills.
“What will the weather be like today?”; I ask. “The forecast is rain”
“Don’t trust the forecast lad, it’ll be fine, although cloudy. The wind direction is all important”; he replies. I trust his judgement. He points to the Radar Station on Great Dun Fell, clearly visible in a patch of blue. The next time I see it I will be standing 20m in front of it, as the cloud draws in.
His sheepdog is running in the adjacent field, hiding behind the dry-stone wall to gather sheep ahead. They are oblivious to his approach until he pops over a stile and startles them in the direction he wants. The farmer has no need to whistle; this intelligent dog knows the score.
I start my climb along Swindale Beck, reaching the imposing Knock Old Man cairn, 500m above Dufton. This is the signal to turn northwest and I check my smartphone to confirm which path to follow. You do not want to get lost on this route as it is littered with shake holes and hashes (gullies used to flush the minerals) from the former lead mines industry on the 19th Century. I double check my position with map and compass
Sure enough, the huge Buckminsterfullerine dome emerges in the mist, a surreal monster football protecting the air traffic control radar. I’m walking in the right direction, but it would be all too easy to take a sheep-track path and end up hopelessly lost. I check compass and smartphone again noting a crossroad ahead as my next navigation point. It is marked by a beautifully carved flagstone, clearly indicating the way to Cross Fell.
I reach the Trig. point at 893m. This desolate peak is home to the only named wind in England, the Helm Wind. When a strong northeasterly is blowing the vortex off the lee slope builds a howling wind that tears down the gullies. Wind speeds of 134mph have been recorded on Great Dun Fell. It is not a place to linger.
One of England’s few bothies lies a mile north, beneath the scree slopes. Greg’s Hut is a welcome shelter if conditions are poor. This former mining hut has a wood-burning stove (bring your own fuel) and sleeping platform. I give my ears a rest from the strengthening wind and enjoy lunch. I am glad I packed a thermos flask of tea.
Navigation now is simple. You just follow the corpse road east and north to Carrigill. Grouse butts and vermin traps are everywhere along the 7-mile slog into the village. I walk alongside the South Tyne River, starting its journey to Newcastle on the east coast. I have crossed a major watershed even though I am nearer to the Irish Sea.
I have been dumped out of the youth hostel, they decided a lone-walker was to be a casualty of a subsequent block booking. There is no one to remonstrate with as the door is locked. I have to walk into Alston town centre and ask around. The Cumberland Inn has a vacancy; it is a delightful stay, lovely food, a welcoming host and lively bar. I have to climb on my hands and knees to bed – it was a long hard day.
The grab lunch at the local Spar before continuing through South Tynedale. A cycle track offers an alternative route, but I stick to the path. A farmer, with ubiquitous quadbike and sheepdog stop for a chat. After the usual dialogue, he opens up about the farm.
“I notice your bike is a diesel engine, that’s unusual”; I enquire.
“Aie. It is much cheaper to run – I can use lower-duty red diesel, but the bike is not as reliable”; he states. “I struggle to find ways to save money; there is no profit in sheep farming now. I’m divorced. The children have all got good jobs in the city. I have no idea what will become of the farm”; he adds.
The sheepdog stares at me with piercing eyes – one blue, one green. There is an almost uncanny sense of connection and understanding between us as if he reads my mind.
“By the way, Spot says you’re going the wrong way”; the dog barks once to confirm.
Sure enough, I have drifted off the path, but we continue to chat for a while. I sense the farmer hasn’t spoken to anyone for a few days and he is glad of the company, Spot and me too.
I haven’t seen any walkers for a few days now, but suddenly they are everywhere. A long line of day walkers follows a group of 6 women. I hear the tell-tale thrum of a BMW motorcycle on the A689 – it must be Saturday, and everyone is out to enjoy the day. It is energy sapping bog all the way into Greenhead. A rude sign blocks my path that states “NOT Pennine Way”. I check my map and then proceed to a gate. I open it to be confronted by a Bull. My navigation has gone to pot today.
My boots are caked in peat as I enter the village. The Greenhead tea-room are unconcerned as I ask to enter. They have seen enough walkers over the years. I enquire about the youth hostel, he directs me to the pub opposite. They appear to own it, so I settle in to return for a meal. The same lady who served me in the tea room is now working behind the bar. This family have a monopoly on Greenhead facilities. I can see the synergies as the hostel fills up with inebriated customers at closing time. A sensible approach, but not in the usual spirit of youth hostelling. The kitchen is next to useless.
The Pennine Way joins with Hadrian’s Wall for a few miles. I’m up before dawn and ascending to a Roman Fort, passing Milecastle 46. The walk now takes a rollercoaster ride along the escarpment. The bird song announces a new day. The deep red dawn fades to orange, igniting the moors in a beautiful soft light, revealing the texture of the land and the archaeological features. It is a joy to be up so early walking through such a transcendental landscape.
I count off the milestones until I reach the Milestone 37A. It is time to depart from the Wall and head north. That brief 8-mile section gives way to bog and forest. The fields ahead are full of Rams and Stallions; it is breeding season. The sheep with fluorescent marks on their backs had their turn. The path pass close to pretty cottages, some with overhanging fruit trees. The plums and apples are ripe and taste delicious.
Bellingham emerges on reaching the earthy named Shitlington Crags. Crossing the North Tyne, I head for the hostel – a wood burning stove heats the living room, but no-one is around. Leaving my gear, I explore this busy Kielder Forest gateway town. The local Chinese takeaway has a menu of 400 items, but I have no energy to choose, so I copy the order from the customer ahead of me, on the basis that they might know more than I do. Returning to a spotlessly clean hostel kitchen, I devour the meal. A Danish fisherman turns up, who has been coming to this place for years.
“It is so far from the sea; I could not ask for more”; he says.
The warden arrives and checks us in. It is a relaxing place to stay.
Forcing myself to have a lie-in, I leave late after breakfast. It is the penultimate day, and I know the real test is tomorrow. The moorland now seems like a second home, although featureless, there is always something of interest if you keep your eyes open. I have become attuned to any unusual site, a shy grouse, soaring buzzards, lizards and insects. A lonely hairy caterpillar is making steady progress across open ground, whose destination is unfathomable.
The landscape changes as I enter Kielder. A network of tracks and paths built with industrial efficiency overlay a vast forest. In between the precise array of trees lie huge volumes of Fly Agaric mushroom, with their dark red caps. The shade provided by the fir trees means the path cannot dry out, so it is deep bog and ponds all the way. Health & Safety diversions don’t help either, directing me into an impenetrable forest. It is unpleasant walking into Blakehopeburnhaugh, which I read is the longest place name in England, but someone missed Cottonshopeburnfoot a short distance further.
I am met by Joyce, waving from the door of Forest View Lodge, my accommodation for the night. This well known Pennine Way stop is perhaps the only option in the area. The welcome is warm and friendly; she knows the routine by now. She places my boots in a drying room, tea and cake served and stories told. Her knowledge and wisdom is enjoyable to listen to, she sees patterns in customers; teachers arriving 2 weeks after schools breaking for the summer; lines of Land’s End to John o’Groats and Pennine Way walkers – up to 60+ this year, the recession she fears as many have lost their jobs; the fastest completion is…; the most times completed is…; and so on. I’m one of the last she expects to see this year; the snows are due soon on the Cheviots.
The conversation continues over a simple evening meal in contrast to an invasion of notices warning you “Please do not…”. The “shop” is a cupboard full of simple goods priced to the nearest penny. For 89p I can buy a tin of tomato soup. It is very quirky and charming.
Joyce knows I will have to leave before dawn, so she pre-lays a simple breakfast. Someone has cleaned my boots; they are unrecognisably bone dry too. I set off into the pitch black night, barely able to see a black cat cross my path. A good omen that I am pleased to see, as today is 27-miles to the finish.
Last night briefing included: which flagstones have broken; where the boggiest sections are; and where the escape points are. It is a long, remote, high-level section and not usually completed in one day. I consider an overnight contingency at Auchope bothy if the weather turns. As I ascend to Bryness Hill, some joker has placed a television on the fence, like some surreal, funny-ironic comment on the nature of reality. Another bright red dawn emerges. The biblical rhyme “red-sky in the morning – shepherd’s warning” is not encouraging as I reach open moorland.
Instructions to follow fence lines and divert along ridges have been correctly described to avoid the worst of the bog. Soon I am on firmer grassland heading towards Chew Green, a substantial Roman Camp. The Cheviots are covered in ancient paths and drover roads, connecting Scotland to England. The ridge follows the border over a rollercoaster of peaks passes. To the southeast lies Otterburn Camp, an enormous Army training ground that extends into the distance. The first mountain hut I arrive at is full of young soldiers, a staging post for today’s yomping competition.
A mile later, a squad of heavily laden soldiers are pacing up the hill, carrying heavy “Bergens” and fully armed with rifles and general purpose machine guns. The staff sergeant stops to talk:
“Aye, these lads are doing well, only another 30 clicks to go”; he declares
“How much weight are they carrying?”; I ask
“Maybe 30-40kg, depending on how many rocks their mates have sneaked into the packs”; he jests. “What are you doing up here?”; he asks.
I explain that I am finishing the Pennine Way today, a 27-mile walk into Kirk Yetholm, setting off at 6 AM this morning.
“Aye, nae bad. By the way, we have left a few whizz-bangs on the bridges ahead, be careful of the trip wires! – they are to wake up the sleepy heads”.
A quick look at the map confirms I will miss these bridges, but it is good to know.
“Gotta go”; he is off, running up the hill to catch his squad and make sure they are not cheating.
I meet another squad a few moments later and stop the leader to mention missing flagstone. Joyce had warned me that some have broken and sink into the bog when covered with the inky black water, you can’t tell. I used my walking poles to test as I progress and it disappeared at least 3-4 feet into the ground. A dangerous hazard – it would be easy to break a leg.
“Thanks, mate”; he says, taking another bite of a Snickers Bar.
Mozie Law and Windy Gyle follow the wonderfully named Beefstand Hill. The clouds are clearing, and I can see all the way to the North Sea and into the Southern Uplands of Scotland; perhaps the most utterly remote part of England, with rolling fells and moors in all directions. I know I am miles from civilisation, yet two gentlemen turn up dressed in kilts. They are on a day walk and parked there Land Rover on the coll that leads to Cocklawfoot or Trows Farm; one of the escape routes off the path and an option for walkers who will take two days on this section.
I clatter on, using my poles for purchase as I ascend to The Cheviot, but I leave this optional ascent to another day, preferring to take the route to the Auchope bothy to fuel up for the final stretch. It is good to be out of the wind as I finish my flask of tea and sandwiches. I sign the visitor book, full of amusing graffiti and set off north. I don’t want my legs to seize up now, but I have to stop at The Schil for one last look as I descend wearily into Kirk Yetholm, taking the low route. After one final climb, that must have been cursed by many, I reach the Border Hotel, in Scotland.
I call Joyce to let her know I arrived.
“Good time”; she says “I am glad you are safe”. The reassurance of having her know of my traverse was very reassuring.
The independently run Friends of Nature hostel is delightful, with a chatty warden, Simon. We talk for an hour before my stomach starts making rude noises. It is mandatory to visit the Border Hotel, but the evening meal is expensive, and the long tradition of a free ½ pint has faded. Wainright put up £15,000 of his own money to fund it, but that has long since lapsed, I assume. I sign the book, but the staff are disinterested, so I am happy to return to the common room, for a cup of tea and chat. A young girl arrives late; she is staying for a few weeks, counting bats.
Simon tries to persuade me to run a hostel, as we discuss the politics of the youth hostel associations. He is fed up of people booking the place just because it is the cheaper option, and then expecting televisions and full evening meals. He says that this is the start of the unofficial Scottish National Trail, other 500-odd miles to Cape Wrath on the northern tip of the highlands.
Now there’s a thought.