The High Pennines

This is choose your own superlatives country: the highest fell, highest waterfall, best watershed, deepest depression. But not the blue sort of depression: High Cup, one of England’s great natural wonders, a surety to lift the spirits.

Remarkably, this is the only one of my four PW divisions not to feature a National Park. Teesdale is though designated an area of outstanding natural beauty, and to my mind it has the best landscape on the entire Way.

On these pages come together four separate walks of which I have some written record. ‘My first fellwalk’, somewehere around April 1971, included Middleton to Alston; the 1973 trip with Dave Travers and Mike Chant, Middleton to Keld; my 1976 heatwave special, the whole section; and in 1994 Dave and I covered Middleton to Alston.

I’ve been back at other times too, to pick up some of the minor fells away from the PW, and I forged a different route through on my cross-England walk in 2015.

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A Monday in 1971, 10 April 1973, 25 August 1994: Middleton to Langdon Beck, 8 miles; 15 August 1976: Bowes to High Force, 16 miles.

Poison gas warnings

Poison gas warnings north of Bowes, 1976

Or in summary, introduction to Teesdale. The preamble from Bowes includes, in Wainwright’s view, ‘the ugliest mile on the Pennine Way’, a road walk past an abandoned air base used for poison gas testing; almost worth a return to see if anything has improved. The next valley, Baldersdale, is the half-way point for those walking the whole Way, and above Middleton is a spooky little hillock with a spooky name, Kirkcarrion. We deliberately missed this section in ’73 as there had been heavy snow, hitching to Barnard Castle for the Bowes Museum and the hostel overnight, and taking the bus to Middleton the next day.

In ’71, I was bravely backpacking, walking in from Barnard Castle but blagging a lift from Cotherstone to Middleton from ‘a nice female vet’ as I could not find the riverside paths shown on the map (and, to be fair, they may have been barely traceable even by the knowledgeable in those days). In ’94, Dave and I travelled up from the south and bussed direct from Darlington to Middleton.

Which brings me nicely to a portmanteau of recollections of the stroll into Teesdale, a wonderful little riverside walk. The first mile, down a lane, gives little hint of what is to come, but soon after the Way hogs the riverbank past three footbridges and on with increasing drama to the rapids of Low Force. In ’76 I left the Way at the next bridge, Holwick Head, to stay at the High Force Hotel (B&B then £4; 2009: from £35) ‘just for a change’ from the youth hostel further up the valley.

High Force

High Force, 1994

But at the bridge, the Way swings surprisingly up a little slope, through juniper bushes, before levelling out to bring you a direct view of England’s highest waterfall, High Force. Now at 70 feet it’s no Niagara, but it’s tremendously exciting nevertheless, not least because you can clamber (carefully) along rocks to get as close as you dare. Just along from here is the one blemish, a quarry; just downstream of here, I had found in ’73 some stepping stones to bring me back to the southern bank. It’s beyond here that you suddenly recognise that a treeline has been crossed, after surmounting a little shoulder.

In the wide view hereabouts, moreover, you will notice that almost every dwelling is painted white – to ensure, the story goes, that the local estate can tell which are its tenants in a storm. On the first walk, I knocked at the door of Cronkley Farm to ask for milk, and it was given. Carefree, simple days! This area, named for Tees tributary Langdon Beck, has the last accommodation for many miles, so is a natural stopover for wayfarers. On the first three of these walks, I/we stayed at the Langdon Beck Youth Hostel, but in ’94 we were looking for more comfort, so chose the Langdon Beck Hotel. Both are a short distance off the Way. In ’73, the walk ended here for Mike (heel trouble) and Dave (strained tendon); they hitched to Knock via Alston, nearly three times further than the PW.

A Tuesday in 1971, 26 August 1994: Langdon Beck to Dufton, 13 miles; 11 April 1973: Langdon Beck to Knock, 15 miles; 16 August 1976: High Force to Dufton, 16 miles.

I’ve been back to this place more often that any other, all because of that spring Tuesday in ’71. Then, I was not enjoying carrying that weight – the heavy Vango tent, which I only used at a commercial site on day one, was to be dumped at Dufton – but all regular hillwalkers know there are times when physical discomfort drops away in the presence of natural beauty. This walk is highlight after highlight, and goes to show that summits are not needed for memorable hill days.

Beyond Widdybank Farm, the Tees enters something of a strath, with the steep banks of first Raven Scar, and then Falcon Clints – what splendid, wild names! – hemming the river in on alternate sides. This is one of few places in England that you believe will never be touched, and a good last resting place could be somewhere beneath the Clints.

At the confluence of the Tees with Maize Beck, there’s a brief scramble beside the waterfall of Caldron Snout, before an anticlimax, the white concrete walls of Cow Green Dam. Turn quickly away; it intrudes on the scene only briefly, thankfully. The Way follows Maize Beck instead of the dammed Tees, though rising past the old mines of Moss Shop initially. Mickle Fell is prominent to the south, the highest hill in Yorkshire when I walked past it in ’71, and the highest in Durham two years later. It is safely accessible only on days when the Warcop firing range is dormant.

Regaining Maize Beck, there were then two choices: continue to the bridge at Maizebeck Scar; or ford the beck at an iron post. If you could ford, you did. [There is now a bridge just above the ford, making the choice no choice at all to my mind.] The Way then puts you on a direct line for the head of High Cup, but before that highlight, on attaining the watershed, there across the Eden … that demi-paradise which is the Lake District appears in front of you. In ’71, I had no idea. A stand and gape moment.

The Tees north of High Force

The Tees north of High Force

Dave fording Maize Beck

Dave fording Maize Beck, 1994

And that is before you reach High Cup. This great cleft in the Pennines seems utterly un-English, out of scale with our modest little landscape. If I were damned to repeat one mile for all eternity, it would be Maize Beck to High Cup, for I do not believe one could ever tire.

High Cup, 1994

A Wednesday in 1971, 27 August 1994: Dufton to Garrigill, 16 miles; 17 August 1976: Dufton to Alston, 20 miles

Knock Fell

Knock Fell, 1994

The 1973 walk ended at Knock, or strictly the A66 at Kirby Thore, from where we hitched southwards. The other routes continued northwards. In ’71 however my inexperience badly showed. I bizarrely felt that Swindale Beck would be a surer way to the top of Knock Fell than the fellside itself, but unsurprisingly suffered mishaps including the wetting of the map in the stream, before no doubt wisely extricating myself and contouring round to the Great Dun Fell Road, which serves the meteorology station atop the hill. Near the top, in cloud, a touch of ‘walker’s magic’, as I met a warden who took one look at me and advised me not to cross the tops but instead to take the path down to the Tees and then pick up the Tyne Head track direct to the pretty village of Garrigill. I can still remember how much my heel blisters hurt over the last couple of miles.

Five years later, and the walk was a breeze, up without difficulty and with time to continue past the village beside the South Tyne into Alston, England’s highest market town. Conditions were a little tougher for Dave and me in ’94 – I remember a squally hail shower on Little Dun Fell – but in reality this stage, though long, is not technically difficult.

Height demands respect of course and at 2930 feet Cross Fell is very nearly an English Munro, and the topography makes the range the generator of England’s most ferocious (and only named) wind, the Helm Wind. Otherwise the principal challenge is to take the correct way off Cross Fell through screes. Below the summit, an old corpse road makes a clear and fast descent to Garrigill. In ’71 I waited for the George and Dragon to open, and they had a room – I wouldn’t try that now (indeed, they no longer provide accommodation, though there is a bunkhouse in the village); wonderful it was too, and indeed we couldn’t get in in ’94 but found a very welcoming farm instead.

Postscript: the 1971 walk re-crossed the Pennines to Culgaith before heading into the Lakes and a return by bus to Dufton to retrieve the tent. Quite a clever route, given that I had little idea what I was doing; might write it up sometime.

A Thursday in 1971: Garrigill to Alston, 4 miles; 28 August 1994, Garrigill to Slaggyford, 10 miles

It’s a pleasant start from Alston, looking back over the South Tyne to the town, but then the river is left behind for a detour onto some pretty unpromising moorland. For a time you flirt with the old Roman Maiden Way, and indeed you pass by the edge of a Roman fort, the first indication of the grandeurs to come. Eventually you come closer to and eventually beside the South Tyne on the way in to the unhappily-named village of Slaggyford, where we stayed the night. Alston is known as the highest market town in England, and its branch line railway – still open when I came this way in the 70s – was maintained so long only because it was the sole reliable winter route into town.

Hadrian’s Wall and the Cheviot

This section is famous for its time beside some of the finest sections of Hadrian’s Wall, but there is less awareness of what else the Pennine Way visits in its northernmost sections.

Initially, not very much at all; some rather nondescript sections of moorland, strung unconvincingly together to form a route, until reaching the Wall north of Greenhead. From the Wall, look north over wild and rough country, little changed from the days of legions and reivers: that is where the Way goes. From here to the finish at Kirk Yetholm, several days away, there is only one settlement of any size, Bellingham.

Many miles of the Border forest, which encircles Kielder Water, lie to the west of the Way. At the small forestry settlement of Byrness starts the last mountain stage of the Way, across the Cheviot Hills, to the eponymous summit, beside the border fence for much of the way. Kirk Yetholm is just inside the Scottish border.

Kirk Yetholm

Kirk Yetholm

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When the PW was established, there was no shelter at all on the last 26 miles from Byrness (there are now a couple of refuge huts that can serve as bothies), so many made one last grand day of it; fewer seem to do that now, either diverting into Coquetdale, using the huts, or wild camping. When I finally came through this way in 2016, partly on my cross-England walk and partly on a completion expedition later, I camped one night, and used a hut on the other – but only because I was bagging all the Cheviot Hewitts at the same time.

The notes from this page are taken from my 1994 walk with Dave Travers and a couple of visits in 2016. I’ve also walked the Hadrian’s Wall stages, in reverse, with my wife and son, in 2007; see my Hadrian’s Wall page.

29 August 1994: Slaggyford to Once Brewed, 18 miles.

The Way starts off close to the old railway for a while before skirting yet more anonymous moorland to near the village of Lambley. More meanderings around fields and moors follow – really, it can get very tiresome – before a fitting reward: the outer vallum (defensive ditch) of Hadrian’s Wall, down a little lane to the mediaeval Thirlwall Castle. Here we sheltered in a cafe from a vicious rain shower – it had been on and off all day.

The Wall runs through here but its route is not easily discerned. That changes at the next road, when the whin sill outcrop is encountered at a quarry and, beyond the workings, the Wall is visible at last. It’s not only the Wall that takes the imagination. Most of the Roman milecastles and turrets are present still, and you soon come to the earthworks and other remains of Great Chesters Fort. On this day’s walk, we had another three miles of classic wall walking, in and out of showers and sometimes hail, over Windshields Crags, the highest part of the Wall. Like many walkers we took accommodation at Once Brewed. There is a youth hostel here, but we chose the Vallum Lodge guest house.

30 August 1994: Once Brewed to Bellingham, 18 miles

Two more miles of excellent Wall walking before you head off north into what looks like, and for England undeniably is, a bare wilderness. It’s easy to get disorientated in the boggy ground beyond the Wall, but you soon dive into the Wark Forest. There is an awful lot of this until more open country is entered around Warks Burn, a tributary of the North Tyne. Unlike the South Tyne, which the Way stays close to for some miles, the North Tyne is encountered only once, at Bellingham, a pretty little place with a flower-girt main street. We stayed at the then Lynne View B&B.

31 August 1994: Bellingham to Byrness, 16 miles; 21 April 2016: Bellingham to Cottonshopeburnfoot, 14 miles

There are some interesting low hills beyond Bellingham, topped by Padon Hill, which has a large stone monument. Certainly in 1994, their place on the Pennine Way did not lead to obvious tracks across, and we found it quite taxing to plot the corrct route. One more stretch of forest then remains, the Redesdale Forest, named after the River Rede, another North Tyne tributary. The Way then stays close to the Rede for its last two miles into Byrness, passing the camp site at Cottonshopeburnfoot which I used in 2016.

In ’94 we stayed in the Byrness Hotel, for many years the traditional last staging-post for Wayfarers, but it is the self-catering Byrness House. (A ‘walkers’ inn’ has since opened in Byrness village, though I’ve not used it.) I recall we had been shadowing an end-to-end walker for a few days, who by now was living on Ibuprofen, but determined to finish the last 26 miles in one hit; the hotel left him a full protein-rich breakfast for the morning, as he was planning a 4am start. We returned home the next day; we had planned to catch the daily Edinburgh to Newcastle coach, but as rail services had been hit by disruption there was no room for us, so we had to taxi to Otterburn, which had slightly more regular buses.

There will be more about the 2016 stage on my cross-England pages. Note though that I avoided the notorious Rumblingsikes bog with a little diversion – if I hadn’t done it in ’94, then as an ethical walker, I wouldn’t have been allowed to avoid it in ’16.

22 April 2016: Cottonshopeburnfoot to Davidson’s Linn, 16 miles (15 miles on PW)
23 April 2016: Davidson’s Linn to The Cheviot, five miles (four miles on PW) [and on to Wooler, 16 miles]

More information to follow on my cross-England pages. Davidson’s Linn is a popular wild camp site, less than a half-hour from the border ridge and about half-way between Byrness and Kirk Yetholm. On the second of these two days, I took the Way to the summit of The Cheviot, back-tracked a little, then headed off via Comb Fell and Hedgehope Hill to Wooler.

7 June 2106: Alwinton to Auchope hut, 14 miles (four on PW)

This is described in more detail on my Cheviots page. The only ‘new’ PW territory was the mile-and-a-bit from the Cheviot junction down to the hut!

8 June 2016: Auchope hut to Kirk Yetholm, seven miles

Hen Hole

Hen Hole

What a lovely walk is this. Auchope hut itself is beautifully sited, 1600ft up, with a wonderful view into the green chasm of Hen Hole, with distant views out into the verdant dales leading away from the Cheviot massif. And this side of the Cheviots is so unlike the southern and eastern aspects. Gone are the peaty messes that have led the Way’s conservators to install mile after mile of stone flagging, and in their place is soft springy grass, a delight to walk on. It totally belies the Cheviot’s rough reputation.

I had a companion today, a nice way to end my 45-year traverse. At the hut I met Rob, a 62-year old vet from Utah, enjoying a month or two walking around Britain as a retirement present to himself. He’d picked up the Pembrokeshire Coast Path before heading to St Bees, walking half the coast-to-coast to Keld, then setting off north up the PW. This is a guy whose regular walking is the deserts and canyons of the western US, and he was still relishing the miles that we could bring him. I remember reassuring him that the British people would not, in the referendum later that month, do anything as dumb as vote for Brexit. In return, I’m not sure that Trump was even on his radar!

The walk itself heads first to The Schil, at 1985ft just short of Hewitt status but with its tor-like top far more deserving of that accolade than, say, the grotty dump called Comb Fell just south of The Cheviot, or indeed of The Cheviot itself. From there the way gallops on its undulating course, the Southern Upland hills drawing the eye – the Eildon hills above Melrose a marker to my course on the Southern Upland Way the month before – contouring round Black Hag, and a last summit of White Law, before the final dip to the valley. There is a lower-height alternative, useful if the weather was rubbish – I would have certainly taken it the day before – but nothing like as good on a day like today: we’d woken to mist, but soon burning off, leaving some of the valleys in inversion, before the sun covered all. A glorious end to 45 years on the Pennine Way.

south of White Law

Rob, south of White Law

Kirk Yetholm is a lovely place to finish, a charming little village with a pleasant green and a thriving pub, the Border Hotel. Not a bad place to spend a couple of hours before the bus. And the barmaid insisted I get my certificate and free half-pint for completion, despite having taken roughly 1,000 times longer than standard.

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