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.

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