Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Dufton to Alston

This was the tough one: nearly 20 miles, and the highest point in the Pennines to boot. So it was irritating that the helpful Tracey Foster wouldn’t do breakfast before 8:00. We would have liked an earlier start, but with a long day ahead we judged that a cooked breakfast was the preferred option. The weather had always been a concern, as it had at best been “changeable” over the previous few days, with the highest hills often covered in cloud. But we were lucky, in that it promised to be reasonably fine, and the hills were clear.

While Coney Garth was beyond Dufton, where the required section of the Pennine Way started, there was a short-cut which allowed us to reach it without any unnecessary downhill walking. Both Mike and I intensely dislike starting a day with a downhill stretch when it’s mostly going to be ascents, or a climb at the end of the day such as the one we’d both “enjoyed” at the end of the day walking to Hebden Bridge. So we were grateful that we didn’t have a downhill start now.

After crossing a few fields and a farmyard we were on the Pennine Way – and climbing. Initially it was a rough farm track between hedges, but soon it was open country. The farm track petered out after a while, and then it was just open grassland. The way was fairly obvious, and steadily uphill. I really appreciated having company again. Mike is an excellent walking companion, and progresses at more or less the same rate as me. (if he could actually have gone faster, he was too polite to show me up!) I think it really helps on the  climbs, when each encourages the other, and if one plods steadily uphill without overdoing it one doesn’t need as many rests. There were a few stretches where it was quite steep, but mostly it was just a steady climb. Before starting out I’d hoped that we could climb the 700+ metres to the top in thee and a half hours. We were behind schedule for he first hour, as there was quote a lot of level going and a couple of points where we actually lost height, but we were pretty well spot on for the rest of the climb.

Mike Tobias and  the NATS Radar installation
at Great Dun Fell
This finishes at an area called, rather unimaginably, The Heights, at a metre or two under 800m. Then it’s a ridge walk, from The Heights to Great Dun Fell (848m), Little Dun Fell (842m), and the highest one, Cross Fell (889m). Each time you drop down into a col, perhaps 100 metres or more beneath the previous peak, and climb again to the next. There’s a road through the first col and on up to the top of Great Dun Fell, which has a radar station operated by the National Air traffic Control system. We were passed twice as we climbed by a cyclist, first on his way up, and then on his rewarding descent from the radar station. The road appears as little more than a track on the map, but in fact it’s fully paved. Those in the know can drive up to the point where the top section is gated off half a mile before the radar station.

Still snow = six weeks after it fell
Each of the peaks is about a mile from the previous one, so it was a surprisingly lengthy trip to get to the final one, Cross Fell. The cols between are largely paved, so the going was pretty good. We stopped at the top of Cross Fell for lunch. This is the highest point in the whole Pennine range. It’s not actually very grand, in that the top is largely a level area, but the views are terrific: to the East and South it’s all high country; to the West it’s across the valley to the Lake District hills; and far to the Northwest one can see the silvery waters of the Solway Firth. There’s a shelter at the top, built in the shape of a cross, so that there’s always one or other of the quadrants in the lee of the wind, but as we discovered it’s not as windproof as one might like: the stone walls give only so much shelter, and the wind while somewhat moderated still gets through.

Trap for vermin on the grouse moors
After lunch it was the beginning of the descent. This starts out across open grassland, but after half a mile or so meets a rough stony track, which gradually improves in quality. This goes on, and on, and on. After dropping perhaps a hundred metres from the top of Cross Fell, the next few miles are all pretty well between 600m and 700m. This is grouse country, with plenty of heather, expensive new fencing, and traps mounted on logs that span little gullies at regular intervals. We couldn’t figure out how they worked. There were entrances at either end to a semi-circular cage, and a sprung plate in the middle with a hole through the log beneath. They were, said a notice we subsequently discovered, to trap predators of “ground-nesting birds”. I suspect that was a euphemism for grouse. There are, of course, plenty of other types of ground-nesting bird in these high moorlands, but I don’t think protecting them in this way is economically justifiable. Besides, the notices said that the area was “under surveillance” – presumably by the local gamekeepers.

There are also various old mine workings and spoil heaps beside this track, so perhaps it had originally had other purposes. Eventually, after what must have been the best part of five miles since the beginning, it turns sharp right and goes down to the little village of Garrigill. When first you see it the village looks like a lot of little models below, which gradually get larger and become real houses as you get nearer. It takes a surprising length of time to accomplish the descent.

Garrigill in theevening sun
The village itself is very attractive – and has a pub. We felt we deserved some reward for the Cross Fell adventure. I had a pint; Mike a lime and lemonade.

The only snag is that, while it’s the end of the high stuff, Garrigill is still four miles short of Alston. (Some walkers stop in Garrigill and walk further the following day, but that means a 21½ mile challenge lies ahead.) So we were soon on our way.

This is now the valley of the South Tyne, which at this stage is a modest, clear, fast-running stream with several good holding pools. I imagine it’s good for trout, but I don’t suppose salmon make it up this far, even though the Tyne system as a whole is improving. The final four miles were a real pleasure. There was only one modest climb to cut a corner, and otherwise it was level going across sheep pasture fields. Stiles, of course, in profusion, but that was only a minor inconvenience.

We arrived at our hotel in Alston just before 8:00. It had been an eleven hour day. There was a choice, so we both elected for rooms with baths. The whole hotel looked as if it had been recently updated, and was excellent. So it was dinner, a couple of pints, and an early night. Not surprisingly we both slept rather well!

Sunny intervals, and a reasonable cloud base which meant that the mountains were in the clear. 12-17C. 31.50km, 1,112m ascent, 964m descent. Much of the distance on stony tracks. 50/50 open grassland and paved sections on the tops. Farmland at the beginning and for the last four miles into Alston.

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