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.

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