Monday, 24 June 2013

Harestanes to Melrose

I had certainly felt tired following a pretty gruelling 28km the previous day, and had even had cramp during the night. Irvine had also been pretty exhausted, so he decided to walk only for half the day with me, and visit some of the grand houses in the Borders in the afternoon. So when John took us back to Harestanes we asked him to pick up Irvine at St Boswells, which we would comfortably reach by lunchtime.

From the Visitor Centre at Harestanes it was back the way we had come the previous evening, and then off through woodland to reach Dere Street. This was a long stretch through farmland, conforming with the Roman ideal of being absolutely dead straight. There is no sign of the stone base that must have been laid originally: there was no way of knowing whether it was taken over the millennia for local building, or whether it had simply been covered with soil over the years. The footpath meanders through a forty-metre wide avenue fenced off from the fields on either side.

Information board at Lillian's Stone
Half way along this stretch we came across Lilliards’s Stone, right at the point where one switches to the next OS sheet. This celebrates “fair maiden Lilliard” who fought in a battle against the English. The stone bears an inscription:
Fair maiden Lilliard / lies under this stane
little was her stature / but muckle was her fame
upon the English loons / she laid monie thumps
and when her legs were cuttit off / she fought upon her stumps.

An information board nearby suggests that the rhyme had originally been associated with an English knight at an earlier battle, and been taken and adapted by the Scots. Whatever. It certainly serves to underline the brutality of medieval warfare.

At the time we thought that the battle of Lilliard’s Edge, which was where we saw the stone, had probably been one of several minor skirmishes, with relatively small numbers of combatants and casualties. I have since learned that this was not so: it was actually the battle of Ancrum Moor, where after sacking all four of the great Border Abbeys at the behest of Henry VIII, the Earl of Hertford’s army finally met its match and was roundly defeated. Some 800 English soldiers perished, and almost as many were taken prisoner.

This border country was really the focus of 500 years or more of fighting between England and Scotland, and lawlessness when it wasn’t actually a war. So our thoughts, as an Englishman and a Scot, turned to current affairs. After all it’ll be time for Scots to vote on potential separation in just 15 months.

Neither of us believe that Salmond will win the argument. Irvine hopes that he’s roundly defeated so that he can’t make any special pleading (“it was raining”) and ask for a re-run a couple of years later. He also pointed out that Scotland simply wouldn’t have the resources to handle all the administration that would be required after independence. And what would happen to all the treaties to which they are party as a result of being in the UK? With NATO, with the EU, with others? How would the National Debt be apportioned? What currency would they use? Irvine also points out that some pretty heavy international pressure will be against separation. If Scotland succeeds, what about Catalonia and all the other parts of European countries “yearning to be free”?

Meltoun Bridge over the Tweed
 After turning off Dere Street it was down to the Tweed valley shortly after Maxton. There Irvine left me to make his way to the Buccleuch Arms hotel (and a welcome sandwich and beer), where he was to be picked up to go back to Jedburgh for his car. My route then took the pretty way, following the Tweed around a great bend to reach a point not more than a quarter mile form where Irvine had gone to meet his taxi. This is a beautiful stretch of water, with what are obviously fine pools for salmon. Nobody was fishing, though: the Tweed is, I think, essentially a late river, and in any case the water was pretty low. In these conditions I would certainly hesitate to invest the several hundred pounds a day that a good beat on the Tweed costs. I’d want to know there were fresh-run fish.

Dryburgh Abbey Hotel from across the Tweed
The point where I finally left the Tweed was directly opposite Dryburgh. The Hotel where we’d eaten a couple of days earlier was clearly visible, but the Abbey was still hidden behind trees.

The distinctive Eildon Hills from the East
As with the Pennine Way, St Cuthbert’s Way never takes the easier options, so instead of a more direct route to Melrose it crosses the Eildon Hills. These are three rounded peaks, not particularly high, but isolated and visible for miles. The path goes inland to the attractive village of Bowden, and the climbs up through woodland to cross the hills by way of the col between the Middle and North Hills. Then it’s a fairly steep descent into Melrose itself. I arrived half an hour before the appointed time, but the coffee shop near the Abbey was already closing at 4:30. I don’t begin to understand. This was the tourist season; people were leaving the Abbey as it closed; surely there would be customers? Or has enterprise died in the Borders?

Irvine met me at Melrose, having visited Mellerstain House and Floors Castle. Mellerstain is the work of William Adam and his son Robert, and has some of the finest Adam interiors, which Irvine had long wished to see. However, he reported that it now seems somewhat run down, no doubt through lack of money. Irvine hadn’t had time to go into Floors Castle, but the building itself – Scotland’s largest inhabited castle – is quite magnificent. It’s one of the principal Roxburghe properties, further evidence of how the Kers, as former Border reivers, benefited from ennoblement after the Union.

The view over Melrose from the Eildon Hills
We drove back to our B&B. Irvine reported that the Buccleuch Arms seemed to have a good restaurant, so (with confirmation from Tripadvisor) that’s where we went for our last dinner in the Borders. Excellent starters, excellent steaks, and reasonably priced, so it exceeded expectations.

I was interested to know what Irvine’s ambitions now are. It seems that they very much revolve around the schools he is supporting in Newcastle. They’re really making a difference, and are improving outcomes significantly. He supports a secondary academy, divided into four separate units, and more recently has become involved with three primary schools, so that kids are helped even before they reach secondary level. There is a rigorous system of measuring teachers’ performance through added value, and excellent management. He is a great believer in making sure that kids from hugely disadvantaged backgrounds aren’t handicapped by starting the day hungry, so they provide breakfast. For later in the day they provide what he believes is the best school food in the country. This is supported by his own experience when eating there.

Irvine had talked with one of his friends, also a major philanthropist with an interest in schools, about when he could expect to achieve his objectives. The answer is – never. Once one starts to support a school there is no limit in time or cash as to what can be done. One of the issues he is now facing is how to manage his schemes. He has an excellent former headmaster working for him, but he is much the same age as Irvine, and succession is likely to become an issue. I suggested that management training for good teachers might be necessary, which got Irvine thinking that it might be something he should discuss with Michael Gove as an area where he could also contribute.

Irvine and the Welsh Cob in Jedburgh
On the way back into Jedburgh Irvine spotted a horse rolling on the roadside verge; nearby was a colourful tinker's caravan. We spoke to the chap in it, who had seen us with his (as it turned out) Welsh Cob. They had made their way from Cornwall, had sold a horse at Appleby in Westmoreland, and were going on to Brighton and then to the Camargue. Afterwards I wished we had interrogated him further. Does he have a home, or is the caravan it? How does he finance it? How do you get a caravan and a couple of horses across the Channel? How long has he been doing it? And many more questions that sprung to mind afterwards. We mentioned our discovery to Walter and Jean, and suggested that they might get a local journalist to find out more. I shall be interested to find out if they succeeded.

Walter, Jean and Irvine
The following day we were up early, and drove to Edinburgh airport where Irvine had left his Gulfstream 550. My week’s walking was rounded off in style by being flown in his plane back to Northolt, from which Irvine was to go to Cliveden and then to Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Il Seraglio) at the Garsington opera – now at the Wormsley Estate, which used to be one of my favourite walks when my parents lived nearby in the Chilterns. He expected to be lobbied to contribute to Garsington as he does to the Royal Opera, ENO and Glyndebourne.
It had been an excellent seven days of walking, with splendid company, and except for one horrible rainy day, pretty reasonable early summer weather.

Cloudy but dry. 13-16C. 24.5km, 534m ascent and 544m descent. Maximum height 318m in Eildon Hills. Mostly good footpaths, but about 15% on roads. 

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Kirk Yetholm to Harestanes

The nave of Jedburgh Abbey
I had spent most of the previous day in Jedburgh. Walter and Jean at my B&B, Kenmore House, couldn’t let me into a room until midday, so after a couple of coffees at the only shop in town, and a fruitless attempt to get my washing done at a local launderette, I spent most of the morning at Jedburgh Abbey. It’s a wonderful building, with a very well produced audio guide, and it was a real pleasure to be able to see it at leisure. It was also a beautiful spring day, which made it even more of a joy.

... and the Abbey from the South
The afternoon was spent in catching up with paperwork and doing some research on restaurants, before Irvine Laidlaw arrived from Edinburgh at a few minutes before 7:30. I had already cancelled our booking at the Dryburgh Abbey Hotel, seven or eight miles away and claiming to have a two-rosette restaurant, and was only able to leave a message when I tried to reinstate the booking. We took the chance we’d be OK.

The Hotel is an impressive red-brick Victorian building, with subsequent additions. It looks as if it was originally a country house rather than a hotel, and is what I would describe as Scottish Baronial. The first surprise was that they were hosting the after-wedding party for a group of wild locals, who were running around rather excitedly with crossbows, model guns, war paint, and fancy dress. The bride, still in her finery, looked rather confused, I thought. It was, we were told, a zombie party. They do things differently in the Borders, it would appear.

The wedding party disappeared into some function room in the bowels of the hotel, and Irvine and I took our drinks for a pre-dinner stroll down to the banks of the Tweed. The hotel is in a wonderful position, although Dryburgh Abbey itself is hidden by trees, and would be a great base for fishing the Tweed. There were indeed a couple of men fishing, though with the water as low as it was and it being only June I could not imagine there would have been any chance of a salmon.

The second surprise was the food. It was pub-level food in a palace. Very disappointing. So I did not feel that Irvine’s return to his homeland was off to an auspicious start.
The following morning we were picked up by John, our taxi driver for the next couple of days, for the journey to Kirk Yetholm, where he dropped us at the Border Hotel. The forecast was dire, and it started raining as we arrived, so the first few minutes were spent getting ourselves waterproofed.

A moment's respite from the rain. Looking back
towards Kirk and Town Yetholm
I had bought a guide to St Cuthbert’s Way the previous day, and it had a profile of the day’s walk: a stiffish uphill climb to start, and then relatively gentle gradients. So after a little level walking along the valley of the River Yet we began the climb. This is a rather deceptive climb: there are three or four false summits, where you might think you’ve reached the top before you actually have. As you reach each such false summit more uphill walking is revealed. With the altimeter on my watch I knew we hadn’t done enough climbing, but it was still something of a surprise each time. It wasn’t helped by squally showers, often with hail, as we made our way uphill.

This was the aptly-named Wideopen Hill, modest compared with 700m+ peaks earlier on the Pennine Way, but still a good climb. At least we had climbed it from the easier side. The descent was much steeper. The views to the West were extensive, with the three distinctive Eildon Hills some twenty miles away.

In the village of Morebattle there were several horse boxes and cars parked before we reached the pub. This was a very strange place; an untidy arrangement of dark, small rooms on one side, and a large function room on the other. There were only four other people there, 
apparently having a meal, and they actually had to open the street doors of the function room to let us in as there appeared to be no way to reach it from inside the pub. But it was a welcome relief from the rain and we certainly enjoyed our beers.

Cessford Castle - or what's left of it
When we left it became apparent that the village had filled up while we were having our drinks. It turned out that this was the first day of the Border rideouts, when horsemen travel from one town to another. Today 80 or more were due from each of Jedburgh and Kelso, and, according to by walking guide, the “Jethart Callant meets the Kelso Laddie in Morebattle”. There were plenty of spectators to watch them, and vans selling refreshments, but the pub didn’t seem to be making much of it. Though perhaps we were just too early, and beer would flow later. We certainly had to be on our way before the horses appeared.

Cars were still flooding in to Morebattle as we left. This was now fairly level going, initially along roads, and then on farm tracks. We passed the ruins of Cessford Castle, which had been the base of the notorious Kers, who as Border reivers raided both sides of the border in the period up to the Union of England and Scotland. They became ennobled as the Earls of Roxburgh, standard practice to bring recalcitrant warlords to heel after the Union, and later acquired part of Jedburgh Abbey as the family mausoleum.

The Roxburghes are still one of the three great landowners in the borders. The fields here are enormous, almost the size of those in East Anglia, and the farming is obviously good. The nineteenth century farm workers’ cottages immediately after the castle are testament to the wealth on the local estates. They’re built to a high standard, but as two terraces in the middle of nowhere look more like a town street than homes for agricultural workers. Not, I suspect, that there are many agricultural workers there now: the couple we met, who rented from the Roxburghes, did not strike one as toilers on the land.

Irvine on the suspension bridge across the Teviot
There was then a long, very wet cross-country session on minor tracks and field boundaries, through woodland, and across the Oxnam Water, where the stream has eroded the far bank into red cliffs. More modest climbing on the other side, a bit of road, and then a walk up through woodland to meet Roman Dere Street again for a final gentle descent to the bridge over Jed Water. The guide book gives this as the end of the 26km stage from Kirk Yetholm, but we walked a further 2km or so along and across the Teviot River, below Monteviot House, and on to the visitor centre at Harestanes.

Monteviot House is owned, we learned later, by Michael Ancram, who Irvine knows through the House of Lords. It looks an attractive building, and has lovely gardens leading down to the river. Names are confusing around here. Michael Ancram is The Earl of Ancram, son of the Marquess of Lothian, and related to the Kers, who sometimes are Kerrs; a local village is Ancrum, which presumably comes from the same root; Roxburghes also feature strongly and are related.

Monteviot House and Gardens
John was waiting for us at Harestanes, and it took only ten minutes to drive back to our B&B in Jedburgh. There it was a well-earned shower before setting off for dinner in a local pub.

Wet most of the day.  Mainly showers, some more continuous rain with occasional hail, dry only towards the end of the day. 10-15C. 28.1km, 500m ascent and 500m descent (estimated). Equal distances on roads, stony tracks, and grassland. Largely wet underfoot, and becoming muddy as the day advanced. 

Friday, 21 June 2013

Trows to Kirk Yetholm

Me before my last day on the Pennine Way
A very comfortable night at the Byrness Hotel, and an early departure. It turned out that Kate was not only driving us back to Trows (14 miles), but was subcontracted to Brigantes to take out luggage on to Kirk Yetholm (more than 20 more miles), so she would be spending much of the morning on the road. Winding minor roads, too, with no real opportunity to put one’s foot down and stupid unpredictable sheep to avoid at every turn.

She dropped us at the same point I had been picked up the previous evening, which meant that it was another long walk to regain the Pennine Way at the summit ridge between England and Scotland. This was initially a mile and a bit up a dirt road (past the point at which I had reached it the previous evening), and then a climb up to the tops – gentle at first before a steep bit to a plateau, and then a final climb to the summit ridge.

The view from the ridge path on the way to the Cheviot
The most extraordinary incident was that Frank commented that the final bit looked like grouse country. Within a minute a red grouse actually flew off with its characteristic whirring flight. It seemed altogether too much of a coincidence, as this was the only grouse I saw in five days on the Pennine Way, despite passing miles of suitable habitat and one area which was obviously managed for shooting. But Frank assured me it was just that – a coincidence – and that he hadn’t seen the bird first. Extraordinary!

At the summit there was a signpost stating that we had just walked up Clennel Street, which then headed off to the lowlands to the Northwest. This was the first mention of Clennel Street we had seen, apart from reference to it in documentation on the Pennine Way, stating it as the break-point if splitting the final bit from Byrness to Kirk Yetholm into two shorter stretches. However hard I looked at the map I had never managed to determine where it was, so it was rather gratifying to learn that it actually existed.

Once on the Pennine Way itself it was a long, reasonably level walk along the boundary fence for three miles or so before a 200m push up to the shoulder of the Cheviot itself. Much of this was paved, which was just as well, because without paving it would have been rough and boggy even in the prevalent dry conditions. The last bit, though, was work in progress. There were stakes driven into the ground, and pallets of new paving stones randomly dropped nearby. There was no sign of anyone working, though, despite this being a weekday, and according to the notices the work apparently being done by Northumberland Council. I thought this was a pity, as I’d have liked to see how they actually lay these paving stones (is it stones on stakes to prevent them sinking further?) and what sort of mechanical assistance they have. The pallets looked as if they had been dropped randomly, presumably by helicopter, but there were no signs of any equipment to do the detailed positioning. Yet some of the paving slabs must have weighed several hundred pounds, and be almost impossible to manoeuvre manually, particularly given the nature of the terrain.
Cairns at the highest point on the Pennine Way
in the Cheviots

One of the notices was ridiculous. It stated that the stretch of the Pennine Way we had just walked was closed because of the works. Not only was it after we had walked it (we had seen no equivalent sign at the beginning of the stretch), but the notice actually acknowledged that there was no alternative route. It was an example of planning madness, presumably, by some Council official far away from the heights.

The clouds had descended as we reached the highest point of this stretch of the Way at just under 750m, and even if we had wanted to make the mile-and-a-quarter diversion to the East to the peak of the Cheviot itself it would hardly have been worth it. In addition it was beginning to look as if the morning’s forecast of rain was about to be fulfilled.

We had a 20-minute pause at the top while Frank resolved some banking issues over the phone. Mobile reception is pretty variable in these remote parts, but sometimes improves at the highest points where there are presumably fewer obstacles between the phone and the nearest mast. Then it was down to the mountain refuge hut s mile further on – and 250m lower in altitude.

The view to the South from the Mountain Refuge Hut
There we paused for a snack break. The views were magnificent, and there was even the occasional sunny spell to give the hills more colour. I found the Cheviots the most exciting part of the Pennine Way from the point of view of mountain scenery. The Yorkshire Dales are also wonderful country, but lack the magnificence of this rolling high country. The only better bit had been High Top Nick and the descent into Dufton.

Within minutes we had been joined by two other walkers – David, who had been with us in Bellingham, and Bruce, a Yorkshireman who Dave had met at Windy Gyle. Bruce had started from Byrness at 4:00 in the morning, intending to do the whole 26-mile stage to Kirk Yetholm in a day, and had met Dave at around 9:30. Dave had done the same as us, and broken the 26 miles with a drop down into Trows and a return trip (from different lodging) that morning. He had actually gone back to Windy Gyle itself, whereas we had rejoined the Pennine Way a mile further along and missed a mile of ridge walking. They had been walking together since.

The track down to Kirk Yetholm
As they were clearly walking more speedily than us we let them get ahead before setting out ourselves. There was a steady climb to the final hill, the Schil, after which we had been told that it would all be downhill to Kirk Yetholm. This turned out not to be 100% accurate. After starting the descent from the border fence, and finally leaving England for good, one os offered two alternatives: the High Road, with an immediate climb ahead and more peaks later, with Kirk Yetholm 4½ miles away, or the Low Road, half a mile shorter and clearly downhill. Just before we reached it we were passed by a young man, who strode on ahead saying that he was anxious to finish, but without really studying the signpost took the high road, which seemed to give the lie to his intention to finish as soon as possible. Later we learned that Dave and Bruce had also opted for the high route. It seems that purists don’t take the easier options.
We did – and it was all downhill except for trivial little bits after crossing streams. The only exception was the final bit of road into Kirk Yetholm itself, which involved a 50m climb over the ridge between two valleys. 50 metres right at the end of the day somehow feels a lot more than 100m earlier!

We're there! Frank at the Border Hotel -
the end of the Pennine Way
The Border Hotel was wonderful: great rooms, with full length baths as well as showers, and great beer. And the food was pretty good too. We had dinner with Dave, who was also staying at the Border, and the only disappointment was that we had to leave too early the following morning to have anything more than a couple of slices of toast left out for us to make ourselves. Then it was time for Frank to leave me after an excellent week together. He dropped me at my B&B in Jedburgh, where I was scheduled for a rest day, on his way back home via Durham.


Changeable, with a forecast of afternoon rain, which fortunately failed to materialise. Cooler, though still mainly shirtsleeves weather. Cold and mist-shrouded at the highest point. Occasional sunshine through the threatening clouds. Moorland with a lot of paved stretches on the Pennine Way itself, otherwise grassy or tracks. Dirt road to start and a minor country road for the last 2km into Kirk Yetholm. 22.40km, with a high point just below the Cheviot peak (815m) of 737m. 806m climbing, 965m of descents. 

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Byrness to Windy Gyle, and down to Trows

Frank elected to spend the day attending to his blisters, so after dropping him at the surgery in Bellingham Ken drove me to the hotel at Byrness where we had been picked up the previous evening. I elected to get out at the hotel itself rather than at the bottom of the next section of the Pennine Way, as, purist that I am, my intention is to walk every step of the way that I can, and not to take any short cuts. (The only exception was last year at Padstow, where I had taken the ferry to Rock, but I think that’s allowable, as it’s what the South West Coast path does too.)

Looking back down from Byrness Hill - the Rede Valley
and Catcleugh Reservoir
So it was a level walk for two or three hundred metres before the sign to the Pennine Way. This section starts with a stiff climb of 200m up to Byrness Hill, initially through trees, and finally up a rocky slope before gaining more level ground. Many (younger and/or fitter) walkers do the whole 26-mile stretch to Kirk Yetholm in one long day, but they can probably take 200m climbs without breaking sweat. Not me. I was passed within minutes of starting by David, one of the walkers who had been at our B&B in Bellingham, and he vanished over the skyline not to be seen again that day while I was only three quarters of the way up.

The first real view over the Cheviots
After reaching the top of Byrness Hill it was a further steady climb to the next high point, another 100m higher. Fortunately we had all been warned of a dangerously boggy bit alongside Houx Hill, where walkers had allegedly sunk in up to their waists in the past. It certainly looked very nasty from the safe pathway on the other side of a fence which we had been told to take. I doubt whether any of it would have been waist deep, but it’s better ot be safe than sorry on these upland stages. Many of the worst stages are paved, which serves both to preserve the environment and keep one safe, but there are still several traps for the unwary where there are no paving slabs.

The Border fence: Scotland left, England right
After Houx Hill it was all pretty level until the Scottish border. It’s not marked in any way, though there is generally a fence along the boundary, and it usually corresponds to the ridge or some other feature, in this case the border is the first few hundred metres of the Coquet River from its very beginning, before turning back North to reach the ridge again. After climbing a few hundred metres from the river’s source there was a signpost offering a shorter, more level alternative for the next few miles. I didn’t take it, instead opting for he “genuine” Pennine Way down past the Roman camps and other earthworks at Chew Green. They are impressive on the map, and no doubt from the air, but from ground level there is little to see other than embankments stretching several hundred metres alongside the path.

From this point the path turns sharply back to the North, and for a couple of miles follows the old Roman Road of Dere Street. This stretches for miles across the Cheviot Hills and into the border country, and though I left it to follow the Pennine Way along the ridge when Dere Street drops into lower country, I was to experience much more of it three days later when walking in the border country.

The map shows a Roman signal station at the highest point of Dere Street. Does anyone know how they communicated? Surely semaphore and morse code weren’t invented until the Napoleonic and later periods? But the Romans must have had some method of telling what was going on when they saw something from one of the various signalling stations in the area. What otherwise would be the point of being there at all? (Subsequent Google research suggests that there was a system, but it seems pretty crude and laborious.)

Another view over the Cheviots
I reached the signalling station at the same time that a group of five walkers came up another path. They were on a day’s outing, and are apparently regularly in the Cheviots. At least they didn’t put me to too much shame: although I was behind them after a brief rest, they never got leagues ahead. It’s rather reassuring to know that one isn’t all that much slower than others! I caught up with them at the refuge hut some three miles later, just before Lamb Hill. Lamb Hill is one of the principal staging points on the way, with its distance given on a number of signs. It always seemed further away than expected: I think some of the miles on the Pennine Way are seriously stretched.

After a rest and a bite to eat at the refuge hut it was a steady climb finally to reach Lamb Hill at 511m, then a further three miles or so of reasonably level walking before the final climb to Windy Gyle. This was to be the end of my high level walking for the day, to be followed by a descent to Trows in the valley below, where I was to be met and driven back to the hotel in Byrness.

Reaching the track at Trows Plantation - but still a
mile from Trows itself and my lift back to Byrness
This is a long descent, the best part of two miles. Unfortunately I had failed to bring the map reference for the meeting point with me, and had to ask Katie of the Byrness Hotel, who was to meet me, to text it to me. It didn’t arrive immediately, and I had already made the wrong election (there is a Trows plantation as well as the farm) by the time I had received it. So I found myself the best part of a mile from the meeting point when I reached the dirt road at the bottom. So I was 10 minutes late in reaching Kate in her car – where she was having a quick nap, having set her alarm for ten minutes later.

Then it was a wonderful drive through splendid Cheviot country back to the hotel, where Frank was waiting, having been driven to Byrness by Kate’s assistant who had been in Bellingham anyway. There seems to be regular communication between the various B&Bs and others in the area, so they had known about his being left in Bellingham for blister treatment and his need for a lift to Byrness. At least it meant that it didn’t mean anyone had to make an unnecessary trip, and Frank had been able to catch up with his reading while I laboured my way along he Pennine Way.

That evening, having a drink before dinner, we were driven indoors by midges – the first we had encountered in the whole trip. They’re not only Highlands pests!

Sunny to start, but increasingly cloudy as the day progressed. Cooler – maximum 17C. 25.50km, 900m of ascents, and 836 of descents. Maximum height of 608m by Windy Gyle. Mainly moorland, with about a quarter paved to prevent erosion (and keep one out of the boggier bits.)
2 � > a @� �n :PlaceType>. The final two km were on riverside paths and tracks.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Bellingham to Byrness

Frank had a yearning for Kendal Mint Cake, of which there was none left in any of the three candidate shops in town. So we let the other walkers who had been staying at the hotel – Dave and Steve – get ahead of us while we waited at the last chance saloon, the local information office, which we were told might have said confection. And so it proved – which was just as well, because we had sacrificed half an hour in the hope that we (or rather Frank) would be in luck. So although we were heading in the right direction we didn’t start walking in earnest until nearly 9:45.  We weren’t the last to leave town, though: just before we left the road out of town we were passed by a young man, complaining of his blisters, but still doing the whole Pennine Way in one 17-day session. Blisters or no, he was soon ahead of us.

Spoil tip above Bellingham
The Pennine Way strikes off from the road by a great mound of earth. I was tempted to think that it was some ancient fort, but learned only later that it was of course a spoil heap from a local mine. Bellingham is a quiet country town. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that mining – for coal, and in this case iron ore – was a really widespread activity throughout Northern England. It then passes a farm, where we had to hasten past the windblown traces of spray being applied to the over-abundant nettles nearby. Then there was a climb across good quality grazing (this time with what definitely looked like old settlements rather than mining detritus) before reaching moorland.

Single-tufted Cotton Grass
This was largely heather, with areas of bracken where the heather hadn’t prevailed, and great drifts of cotton grass. Though the wildflower app on my iPhone doesn’t describe them, there are actually two kinds. One has multiple cotton heads which look something like paintbrushes, while the other has single cotton heads that appear completely round. I think the former were a bit past their prime, but the single-headed version, which was the more prevalent, was in its prime. We saw it everywhere over the next few days, sometimes in heather, and sometimes in open grassland. Where it was at its most dense from a distance it looked almost like snow. We later learned that this year it was at its most prolific since 2001, when the uplands had been devoid of stock because of foot-and-mouth disease.

The first stretch of moorland was followed by a short stretch of farmland, and then it was back to moorland, with a further steady climb to the higher parts of the transit. We came across a group of about 40 walkers who were on an expedition that had been up to a monument at the top of Padon Hill, off to the right of the Pennine Way. No footpaths are shown on the map, but there must be a reasonably well-established route here, because we saw another smaller group later when we were crossing the shoulder of Padon Hill ourselves. This was a rather unpleasant stretch of a couple of kilometres – a narrow, rocky path alongside a fence with heather and cotton grass but little else of interest.

Frank at Millstone Edge (361m)
We stopped then for a bite, where I discovered that Frank may cherish it but that I find Kendal Mint Cake rather disgusting. As far as I can see it’s just mint-flavoured sugar, and rather disgusting. Perhaps it’s a good source of energy, but I don’t think I’ll be adding it to my supplies.

Lunch was followed by a stiff uphill climb of 80m along the edge of woodland. I took the wood side of the stone wall; Frank opted for the grassy side away from the trees. His side was not officially the Pennine Way, but probably easier. It was certainly less muddy. We encountered another walker, coming down the slope, who was treading very gingerly to keep mud off his boots. I have no idea how he had managed to keep them clean up to that point, as the next bit, though level, proved the wettest of our whole week’s walking.

Initially this was across peaty, damp moorland at the edge of the wood; then it went into the woods themselves, and for half a mile was very wet and slippery. There was no obvious path, and it was difficult to believe that this was really the Pennine Way with all its traffic. Later on we were told that for 99% of the time it’s wetter, so in more normal conditions this would be a very difficult stretch.

The dirt road through the Kielder Forest
After half a mile we joined a well-maintained dirt road, which took us an undulating three miles through the Kielder Forest. We were surprised early on by a dog walker, who seemed to appear out of nowhere while we were taking a brief rest. It was he who told us about the unusual dryness, and the exceptional flowering (if that’s the right term) of the cotton grass. Later we encountered two logging trucks making their way into the forest, and forty minutes after that by one of them coming back out of the forest with full load of logs.

Eventually we were out of the woods, and made our way to the Byrness Hotel for our pick up – an attractive walk along the bank of the
The Byrness Hotel - our destination today, our
overnight stop tomorrow
River Rede. We were due to stay at Byrness the following night, but had to go back to Bellingham that evening instead. Our Bellingham host, Ken took us on an attractive drive across great country back to the B&B, and another good meal at the Cheviot.

Another sunny, warm day with temperatures up to 19C or so, with very little cloud. 25.37km, 608m of ascents and 525m descents. Roads out of Bellingham, then mostly open moorland, though with stony paths for much of the latter half before the forest. Very difficult and wet bit into the forest, then dirt roads all the way into the Rede Valley. The final two km were on riverside paths and tracks.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Steel Rigg (Twice Brewed) to Bellingham

Our stay at the Twice Brewed Inn was a bit of a curate’s egg. The fdinner was fine, and I was particularly swell-pleased with the lamb chops I chose. But the bedroom would have been small even for one: with two of us, there was virtually nowhere to put our bags and organise things properly. So when it came time to pay Frank expressed his disappointment, and the charming young woman who had served us our breakfast told him that she’d get the proprietor to call him to respond to his complaint. (In the event we got charged for the price for single occupancy rather than for two, so I guess we got a second breakfast for free.)

Then it was off at 9:00. The first bit was the moderate climb back up top Steel Rigg on the Wall. It’s less impressive in morning light, as the face is in shade, but still a lovely part of Hadrian’s Wall. This is still the section where the Pennine Way and the Hadrian’s Wall Path are one and the same. It was also the most crowded bit of the whole walk: there were several small groups of walkers, and then a party of 30 or 40 teenagers. It’s still a very much up-and-down experience, and it was rather galling to see them dancing carefree down some of the descents where we placed each foot with great care: there are plenty of loose stones, and one can easily imagine coming a real cropper – and putting a premature end to the whole adventure – with a simple careless step.

Frank at the dip in the wall with the single sycamore tree
There were five or six sharp descents followed by equal climbs on the opposite side. They’re probably not much more than 30 metres deep, and simple variations in the height of the escarpment rather than caused by water erosion, but still make for slow progress. One of them has a sycamore tree in the bottom, fully grown but still lower than the flanking slopes, and much photographed as one of the highlights of the wall. The photograph had featured in our bedroom back at the Inn.

After a little more than a couple of miles it was time for the Pennine Way to leave the wall and strike off across the open country to the North. Looking back from a few hundred yards really demonstrates how impressive the wall is: sitting on top of a series of crags it really does appear impregnable. But what I don’t fully understand is why it’s there at all. The Romans had certainly pushed further North – and even built the Antonine Wall in Scotland – decades before starting Hadrian’s Wall in 122 AD. So were they effectively expelled from Scotland? It is difficult to believe when their military prowess must have been vastly superior to the capabilities of the Picts and Scots. A subject for more research, I think. (Or elucidation from readers of this blog!)

Looking back at the escarpment topped by Hadrian's Wall
The country here is open, rough grazing, mainly for sheep, but also with a few cattle. However, much of the open land has gone, now cloaked in conifers. This is the Kielder Forest Park, much of which is also designated the Northumberland National Park. It covers tens of square miles of the area. Some of it has been harvested, and has now been replanted with a more sympathetic approach and wider open margins, but most is relatively mature with complete canopy closure, dank and dark beneath the trees. At least the margins and clear felled areas now sport a wide range of wildflowers, which help to relieve the monotony.

At one point there was a notice about bothies in the area, provided for shelter in inclement conditions. This was difficult to understand: there was no bothy, or any other kind of building nearby, and instructions on how they should be used seemed rather redundant. Neither are any shown on the map, which as an Explorer Map is supposed to show leisure facilities, so it was all a bit of a mystery.

An adder sunning itself on a forest track
Fortunately the Pennine Way is at the Eastern end of the afforested area. After a mile of trees it was back for a mile of moorland before re-entering the wooded part. Here,, however, much had been clear felled, with a lonely mechanical digger operating a couple of hundred metres away from the track. It was tempting to think that it was grubbing out tree stumps, but I suspect it was actually preparing the tortured ground for the next generation of trees – conifers, no doubt. Its bucket seemed to be full of earth rather than tree debris. Thereafter the path became a narrow track through the trees. Towards the end we met the first walker we encountered on this section of the walk – a Frenchman, with virtually no English. How he survived in such a non-Francophone part of the world was a mystery, and we were surprised that he’d ever heard of the Pennine Way. Perhaps it is because the Pennine Way here is also classified as the E2 Long Distance Path, with EU motifs on some of the way markers. Given that we had covered a good five miles since Hadrian’s Wall it also served to underline the different popularities of the two long-distance paths.

The Warks Burn valley - from the far side
After emerging from the third and final forest stretch it was open farmland for much of the way. There were two burns to cross on the way. Both looked innocent on the map; both involved steep descents into valleys and climbs out the other side. The disappointment here was that the farm advertising refreshments at several points as we approached it turned out to be deserted except for a noisy trio of dogs. But it did allow us to fill water bottles.

The last bit was from the unattractively named (and unattractively looking) Shitlington Hall, which was little more than a rather untidy farm, and then up over the crags and past a television relay mast to the North. Finally it was down across moorland and rough pasture before the final mile on the busy B 6320 into Bellingham (pronounced Bellingjam), which claims to be the capital of the North Tyne. We crossed said river, and walked along its banks for the final stretch into the centre of the town. It was hard to imagine that this is a good salmon river: the water was extremely low, and long areas looked almost stagnant.

A placid stretch of the North Tyne at Bellingham
In the final couple of miles we saw our first raptors for three days – a kestrel, and later a buzzard. Perhaps the scarcity of such predators helps explain the exuberance of the meadow pipits and larks seen everywhere in the open areas: meadow pipits parachuting to ground with a steady descending trill; skylarks singing their hearts out higher up. The other abundant bird, heard everywhere with trees, was the willow warbler. But we saw little else, apart from a family of wheatears on Hadrian’s Wall.

After checking in to our B&B, where we were due to stay two nights, it was a very acceptable pint and later an equally acceptable dinner, at the Cheviot Hotel.

A much brighter start to the day, which remained pretty sunny throughout, with temperatures up to 20C. After an initial climb back to Hadrian’s Wall it was almost entirely grassy going, except for some woodland stretches with dirt roads. The final mile into Bellingham was on a busy B road. 24.25km, with 649m of climbing and 710 of descents. Boots still dry, and trousers unmarked by mud – a real contrast to the May days.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Greenhead to Steel Rigg

The previous day Frank had picked me up at home in London, and we had driven up to Greenhead, arriving after a long but easy journey at about 8:00 p.m.

The morning was spent on logistics. This involved driving back to Hexham, picking up a hire car, and then driving together the 63 miles to Kirk Yetholm. This is a wonderful journey through great country, initially on a dead straight road that must have had Roman origins, but something of a switchback with several blind summits, and then on reasonably fast roads into Scotland. There were splendid views towards the Cheviots, and great views of the Abbey as we drove through Jedburgh. Then it was winding country roads to Kirk Yetholm itself, where we left Frank’s car outside the Border Hotel, our destination for Friday. (Some minor difficulties from a woman at the hotel, Frank reported, but all speedily resolved.)

Frank Brierley - enjoying a beer at Haltwhistle
We made good time back to Hexham, despite one threatening stretch of road works, and a spell stuck behind a logging truck, and despite having to refuel the cat and complete the paperwork we were just in time to get the 12:55 train to Haltwhistle. There it was half a pint and a packet of nuts before our taxi arrived, and a short trip back to exactly where I had finished back in May. On with our boots, and we were on the walk just before 2:00.

This section is where the Pennine Way and the Hadrian’s Way Walk are one and the same. The acorn signs refer to “National Trail” rather than either of the specific trails. They only part company where the Pennine Way
Me at the beginning of our walk - starting where
I finished in June
strikes off to the North, which would on be the following day’s walk. In consequence there are many more walkers than I had encountered on any previous day. Most are doing Hadrian’s Wall, which seems to attract an enormous number of walkers from all over the world.

The astonishing thing was that we managed to get off track within less than ten minutes. It was all because I didn’t read the map properly, and failed to use all the technology I have at my disposal. Instead of cutting back just before the ruins of Thirlwall Castle we walked right past it on a track – to the North rather than to the East. Nor were we the only ones: two other walkers made exactly the same error. It was only when a local woman, walking her dogs, told us we were off track that we realised our mistake. So after a wasted kilometre or more we started on the right course. This was the first of several ascents along the wall, but at least there were refreshments available at the café at the Walltown quarry as some compensation. So we indulged ourselves as coffee apiece, and a bit of fruit cake for me, before starting out on the major part of the walk.

Back on Hadrian's Wall
I had walked all this part of the Hadrian’s Wall back in 2011 when I walked from Hexham to Carlisle over four days. The strange thing is that it seems surprisingly different when one travels in the opposite direction. I recollect the switchback nature of this section, but the vistas are different when one is looking in the opposite direction. And while some bits were obviously familiar, I didn’t remember many others, such as the wood one travels through at one stage of the walk. Perhaps it was that at least some of the day’s walk was on parts of the wall I had tramped through in lousy visibility and constant drizzle back in 2011.

Frank is good walking company. He walks at the same sort of pace as me, and is (almost) equally exercised by the steep uphill sections as I am. And there is always plenty to chat about. He has also done a lot of walking in this part of the world before, so we both have a degree of familiarity with the country we’re walking through.

I think the section between Greenhead and Steel Rigg is one of the best on Hadrian’s Wall. a lot of the wall itself is still in good repair (though I suspect much of this section has been rebuilt rather than simply survived for 1,800 years), and it for much of the way it runs on the top of sheer crags. The downside is that it’s very much up and down stuff. The highest point is only 345m in altitude, but there are frequent parts where one drops 30 to 50 metres only to climb the same again on the other side of the drop. In many cases there are steps, but these aren’t always easy.

The high point on our first day's walking -
at 345m above Winshield Crags
This was the section where we encountered several walkers. These included a number of teenagers who leapt along like mountain goats, but there were several others who were covering the ground more rapidly than us.

The final ascent of some ten to twelve climbs was to the trig point just before Steel Rigg, at 345m. Then it’s downhill to the viewpoint over the crags at Steel Rigg, and down the road to the pub at Twice Brewed. (Staff training note: bar staff have not been told why the place has this extraordinary name.) But the food and beer are excellent!

Other snippets: loads of meadow pipits; no merlins. Occasional curlews and oystercatchers. We were surprised not to see any stonechats. Blackcap heard, but not seen, in the wooded area by Walltown quarry. Wildflowers now in profusion, which hadn’t been the case just a month earlier. Huge areas of buttercups – some fields looked as if they had been deliberately planted with them.

Our resting place for the night
A great day, and a good start to the week. The only real pity was that we never really had the quality of light that a little sun would have provided really to bring out the scenery to its best.

Dry and warm (to 17-18C) all day, but sun reluctant to appear until evening after arriving at the Twice Brewed Inn. 13.05km (including an early mistake), estimated 500m of ascents and 460m descents. Dry underfoot all day – wonderful to have clean, dry boots at the end of the walk. All except the last bit down into Twice Brewed on footpaths – mainly grass underfoot, but some stony sections.