Friday, 11 April 2014

Pennine Way 2012 part 2

Day 8 - Tan Hill inn to Middleton-in-Teesdale 18 miles

God's Bridge
Davinder and I set out after some breakfast, we had about 18 miles to cover and most of the day would be flat moor. Leaving the Tan Hill inn we could see the distant line of the A66, it was pretty much the only thing to see. Navigation was fairly tough and the going was horribly boggy. Eventually we followed Sleightholme Beck and the route was more obvious. I'd been looking forward to God's Bridge - a natural limestone bridge under which the Greta flows - and it was kinda cool, but the river had barely any water in it. Crossing the A66 it was back to moorland until we hit Balderdale, then Lunedale. We joked that all the dales looked the same, another dale, another reservoir, another sheep :-)  Finally we dropped into Teesdale and both of us were exhausted. Passing a farm on the last hill I had a Monty Python moment as a suicidal rabbit launched itself at me, it managed to avoid a collision at the last second just as I saw it bearing down on me. We struggled to find a good pub, had a few iffy pints and then went to the chippie for dinner.

Day 9 - Middleton-in-Teesdale to Dufton (Cumbria) 21 miles

High Force
We set out fairly early as we had a decent distance to cover, with some of the most photogenic parts of the Pennine Way to see. We were not even a mile into it, following the river Tees, when we caught up with Lee who'd arrived late the previous evening. Mel and Simon had apparently quit, going to Bowes and then home. The three of us enjoyed a nice, easy walk up the river in the sunshine, passing Low Force waterfall and then High Force. The river bent into a canyon and we stopped for lunch before pressing on to Cauldron Snout, a fall where the Cow Green reservoir poured into the canyon below. Just as the pathway crossed some rocks at riverside, the Heavens opened and rain made us rush to get our waterproofs on. We then had to negotiate the super slippery wet rocks.
The climb up the snout was steep and with our heavy rucsacs and the wet rocks it was a little dodgy. At the top we crossed the outflow from the reservoir and started climbing the gentle slope on the far side when the rain came belting down again, turning to hail as lightning flashed and thunder rolled overhead. Within about two minutes we were soaked through, my waterproof jacket stood up to the battering but the rain streamed down my shorts and legs, soaking my socks and flooding my boots. A brown river ran down the path.
The storm eased off quickly and as we resumed climbing the rain slowed and stopped, but we could hear thunder booming up the valley the rest of the afternoon. Climbing to the head of the valley we eventually came to High Cup Nick and enjoyed the views down the spectacular Gill. From there we dropped down to Dufton, passing a field full of black horses halfway up a mountain which had me doubting my own eyes :-)  Davinder had phoned ahead and booked us into a b&b which it turned out was about half a mile out of town, resulting in some scratching of heads trying to find the place and plenty of swearing. Eventually a phone call to the owner resulted in not only being picked up but also getting a lift back to town for dinner. There was only one place to eat - the pub - and as it was Dufton's annual beer festival we feared dinner would be the liquid variety. But we managed to get just about the best pie and chips ever, and after a few pints of Radical and some sample ales from the festival there was talk of spending an extra day in Dufton :-)

Day 10 - Dufton to Alston YHA (Cumbria) 20 miles

Approaching Cross Fell. No clouds...
Lee had bailed on the previous evening due to suffering from an upset stomach... both Davinder and I tried to convince him it was because of iodine treated river water he'd been drinking, but the last I saw of him he was washing down immodium with the same river water. We left him in Dufton and both set out for Alston on our own separate schedules - Davinder knew this was maybe the toughest stage and left at 6am to give himself plenty of time. It was almost 9.15am when I left Dufton as I'd had a good breakfast, a chat with the b&b owner, and stopped for a few pictures. I set off at a great pace, the stage started with by far the biggest climb on the whole Pennine Way, up to the Old Man on Knock Fell. I was soon sweating in the morning sun but by a couple of hours in I had climbed Knock Fell, and reached the weather station on Great Dun Fell. From there it was straight across Little Dun Fell and up again to Cross Fell which I could see - the clouds that were obscuring it when I left Dufton had cleared. As I climbed the visibility got steadily worse, and by the time I made the broad, flat summit I could hear thunder rolling around and misty cloud obscured everything. I began to appreciate packing a compass, but actually cairns marked the path and as I started to descend the visibility picked up. I picked my way down Cross Fell looking for the bothy "Greg's Hut" that was marked on my map. Ominous rumbling thunder and an odd sixth-sense dodgy feeling made me look over my shoulder, and I saw a mass of dark, thick cloud pursuing me down the hillside at a much faster pace than I was travelling. I picked up my pace, figuring a bothy would be a really good place to be when the cloud hit. The bothy came into sight and I realised I wouldn't make it, the still air was now cold and the oncoming storm was almost on me. I ran as fast as I could without breaking something, rucksack thudding into my back, and gained the front door of the bothy as hail started thumping into the ground. The next hour was spent eating my lunch in the entrance of the filthy bothy, watching the deluge and listening to the thunder right overhead. 

As the storm rolled away down the valley I left the bothy and had to hurdle suddenly swollen streams spilling across the path. The flanks of Cross Fell have been mined for fluorspar historically and the slopes are scattered with purple shards, which were glistening with fresh rain. The hike out down the valley was long and hard on my knees, by the time I made Garrigill I couldn't face the thought of the short flat walk up the river to the YHA at Alston. Every step became more and more laboured, until at last the pain forced me to stop for short rests every few hundred metres. A combination of pain killers and bribery got me through, I promised myself I would take a day off to let my knees recover. When the YHA finally came into view I felt like crying with relief. The whole Way seemed to have turned into a giant pub crawl so when Davinder suggested a loop of the three pubs in town that seemed sensible. 

Day 11 - Alston - rest day
Davinder and I spent the day doing anything that didn't involve walking. I'm pretty sure my knees were squeaking. Met up with a guy and his wife that had done the Pennine Way every single year for the last 10 years. They were extremely knowledgeable and suggested we should follow the line of the railway out of Alston instead of the regular Way, which was terribly boggy and not at all picturesque. The whole time we were talking I couldn't help wondering what kind of person does the same trip over and over again, year after year. Maybe for variety they dream of doing the route in reverse.

Day 12 - Alston to Once Brewed YHA (Northumberland) 23 miles

Hadrian's Wall
We walked out of Alston on the dismantled South Tyne Valley railway tracks that we'd been told about, both commenting on how awesome a little flat gravel was compared to boggy fields. We made excellent time to Lambly and then turned onto the boggy fields we'd been avoiding. All the recent rains had flooded the fields and Davinder and I tried our hardest to keep the watery mud out of our boots. It was much harder going but I was spurred on by the rest day, and also the thought of very soon getting to see Hadrian's Wall for the first time, something I'd been meaning to do my entire adult life.

At Greenhead we had some lunch in a nice tea shop, and Davinder surprised me by saying he was going to walk along the flat road behind Hadrian's Wall to the YHA at Once Brewed... missing the Roman Wall. He explained he was tired and he'd walked the seven miles of the Wall as a tourist previously. After lunch and feeling pretty strong, I took off up the trail to the Wall, passing Thirlwall Castle ruins. I spent a leisurely few hours wandering along the Wall, taking pictures, and talking to a couple of girls that were doing the Coast-to-Coast path along the entirety of Hadrian's Wall. The sun was dropping as I came down into Once Brewed, turning away from the Wall but knowing we'd be walking along it some more tomorrow. Sat amongst all the foreign tourists on bus tours with a few beers lined up at the YHA we felt like heroes. A day before I'd wanted to quit. Talk about highs and lows.

Day 13 - Once Brewed to Bellingham (Northumberland) 15 miles

Wark Forest
In the morning we headed back up to the Wall and walked along it to Sycamore Gap, made famous by the Kevin Costner movie Robin Hood, among other things. I think it is probably the most photographed part of the Wall, maybe even of England :-)  After a few pictures we started to think about the path north of the Wall, and looked out from the heights of  the Whin Sill, the natural crag that the Wall is built on, over the mass of Wark Forest. I tried to imagine myself at the edge of an Empire, with the vast unknown ahead of us. 2000 years ago this must have been a pretty bleak and ominous posting for a Roman soldier.

We crossed the boggy fields glancing back towards the Wall often, and before long we entered Wark Forest on a logging road. It was starting to get pretty hot and before long we came across what I am pretty sure was an Adder (Britain's only poisonous snake) laying across the path, soaking up some warmth. Davinder almost stepped on it, and it bolted whilst I was desperately digging for my camera. The forest seemed to take forever to cross, but the logging roads that cut through it were definitely preferable to marshy, boggy fields. Or peat. Pretty soon I was starting to feel dry even though I was sipping my water frequently. Davinder's guide book had mentioned there was not much in the way of refreshments between the Wall and Bellingham, but that a rather eccentric lady set up a tea stall at her farm, and we planned to check that out for lunch. We dropped down steeply into a creek, climbed the other side and arrived at Horneystead Farmhouse. We knocked but there was no answer, so following signs we found some tea and various cakes and biscuits in the barn. There was a book to write in and an honesty box. The tea was very welcome, and made the hike into Bellingham a little easier. Davinder had booked into the bunkhouse there and welcomed me in to share his room, but a family with screaming kids were next door, so I headed over and stayed at the Cheviot Hotel. We enjoyed and few more beers and made the most of our last evening in "civilisation"... this would be the last chance to get cash etc before the end of the Way.

Day 14 - Bellingham to Byrness  (Northumberland) 15 miles

Trail marker
We'd discussed plans for the next couple of days in the pub and Davinder had left early to try to get a good start, even though it was only a 15 mile leg. He seemed to be really feeling it. Up the hill out of Bellingham I got completely lost off the Pennine Way crossing a farm, and tried to triangulate where I was from my guidebook and map. I eventually spotted where I should be, maybe half a mile away, I wasn't too far off course but I had used up a good hour going in circles to get there. Shortly after I caught up to Davinder, he'd waited for me for a while at the farm I passed, but probably didn't figure on me making such a late start. I like to let my breakfast settle ;-)

We crossed some high flooded moor and climbed Pedon Hill, spending the afternoon sinking in very, very waterlogged grassy fields. When the Way dropped into a nice, easy forest stroll with the Cheviots in the background, it definitely cheered us both up. Suddenly the only topic of conversation (as Davinder had already booked us accommodation) was how we were going to play the last stage. At 27 miles it would be a long day normally, but with literally nothing between Byrness and Kirk Yetholm in Scotland, without a tent it would be difficult to break overnight. Davinder had talked to the landlady and she was prepared to pick him up halfway and then drop him off next day, whereas I was planning to do the whole 27 miles in one go. 

Arriving at the Byrness Hotel we got tea and cakes, and watched the landlady's psychotic goose wander around the hotel, angrily tapping it's beak on the glass window next to me. Allegedly the goose was going to be Christmas dinner in a few months. I think he knew.

We got big old rooms with comfy beds and agreed that we'd give the last leg a try. 27 miles of peaks was making Davinder nervous and he decided he'd make a start at 5.30am.  

Day 15 - Byrness to Kirk Yetholm (Scottish Borders) 27 miles

The end!
We'd made arrangements to eat a little breakfast that the hotel owner had set out for us and take a pre packed lunch as we'd both be leaving before the owner got up in the morning. I ate speedily and made the earliest start of the whole walk, but I was still about two hours behind Davinder. A sharp climb right from the hotel started the day it was going to continue, and pretty soon I was sweaty and breathless, climbing away from the forested valley and into the Cheviot Hills. I felt pretty good and figured I would catch Davinder during the day, and we'd finish together. At the summit of the first peak, a broad flat expanse of waterlogged grass meant I was going to get wet, it was unavoidable. My almost new hiking boots had started to fray across the toes and the Gore-Tex had split, so my feet soaked almost immediately. 26 miles on soaking wet feet was going to be a challenge. 

Despite the setback and discomfort I made great time, charging along the route as it wandered through and occasionally over the Cheviot peaks, past some ancient Roman camps and more marshy ground. A series of ridgelines led to Windy Gyle which I had figured was the halfway mark for the day, and approaching  the long climb I realised the person I could see maybe a half mile ahead of me was Davinder. I picked up my pace and after an invigorating climb, reached the summit a couple of minutes after him. He was sat sheltered from the wind so I joined him and we ate some lunch. Windy Gyle was easily accessed from the road so there were a few day walkers on the summit with us. It felt busy. I felt pretty good that I'd made such great time to the Gyle and it seemed unthinkable that I would go on ahead and finish alone, so I mostly walked at Davinder's pace in the afternoon. I say mostly because we had very different ways of climbing, Davinder would ascend in very small increments, often stopping for longer than he was going! My preferred approach was a steady ascent, rhythmic breathing, and stop at the top. Finally at The Schil, a very steep hill well into the day, Davinder really struggled. It was hot, the sun was beating down and I climbed, found a comfy rocky outcropping at the top and sat taking pictures and eating a snack. After a while I started to get concerned and was about to head back when he came into view. He fretted that he was so slow and holding me up, but I told him I wasn't in any hurry. He'd already walked Offa's Dyke path so including the Pennine Way, he'd almost walked the length of England in a few weeks. I figured he had a right to be tired.

Coming down from The Schil in the heat I started to worry that the three litres of water I was carrying might not be enough for the day. This section of the Way was definitely the most remote, there really was nothing between Byrness and Kirk Yetholm. The Way split into a "high road" and "low road" before it began to drop into Kirk Yetholm, and Davinder wanted to take the lower route. I wasn't about to complain. Once out of the hills and onto the road it seemed a ridiculously long way into the village... I had been convinced we were done but the walking dragged on another mile or so. We'd keep expecting to see the end over the next rise, and the next, and so on. Finally we limped into Kirk Yetholm and saw our destination, The Border Hotel, official finish point of the Pennine Way. We walked into the bar and were rewarded with a completion certificate and a free half pint of beer! Leafing through the guest book of those that had completed the whole Way, I found Mark's comments from two days previous wishing me good luck. He'd obviously managed the whole thing with no rest days at all. Top man. No sign of Vanessa though so I guess she didn't finish. 

Food and beer were just what we needed, so we checked in at the hostel (a Scottish one!) before heading back to the pub. It was a little difficult to believe it was all over bar the drinking. Well, and the ride home.

Two buses were required to get to Berwick, and then a train to Edinburgh which Davinder and I wandered around, looking for somewhere to drink and relax rather than doing the tourist thing. I'd never been to Edinburgh... it struck me as a very grey place. We killed time until Davinder's train left, and as I stood on my own in the station it dawned on me that I didn't have my car, and I had, in fact, walked from the Midlands to Scotland.


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