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 cafĂ© 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. 

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