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.

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