(Anna-Maria writes in September 2013:) This year one of the routes I am reviewing for Alpine Exploratory is the Pennine Way. However, I am breaking the route up into five sections. Having tackled my two sections, Haworth to Hawes in July and Hawes to Middleton-in-Teesdale in early September, I was back on the trail last week.
This time I was tackling the final, bleak moorland stages from Hadrian’s Wall and through Kielder Forest to cross the Cheviot Hills. This is desolate land and was also the least populated I had seen the route so far. Apparently it is the section of the Pennine Way that is least often tackled by walkers although having now done it I am unsure why this might be as it is beautiful and gives a real taste of what the country must have been like when the Romans built the wall to protect their land from any invading or marauding Picts from the northern end of the British Isles.
Hadrian's Wall just after leaving Once Brewed.
Day one – Once Brewed to Bellingham
After an incredibly early start from home (at 4.30am) to get me up to Hadrian’s Wall, I set out on foot from the Information Centre at Once Brewed just before lunchtime. Once Brewed is about halfway along Hadrian’s Wall and is only a small collection of buildings, but it marks the last main place to easily access public transport on the stretch of Pennine Way that follows the wall before heading north into the wilds.
The day was a late summer sizzler, with clear blue skies, scorching sun and fantastic clarity for the wide views that can be seen in this area. The wall appears to have been built along a natural line with the ground dropping away on both sides. A green valley with grassy hills beyond it was visible to my right (south) while the darker browns and purples of the moorland lay on my left, to the north.
For the first hour I walked along the wall with its constant climbs and dips looking out at this scenery. This was the first time I had ever seen the wall and, despite the toughness of the endless ups and downs, it has given me a taste for more. I’m really looking forward to the full day along the wall that I’ll be doing from Greenhead to Once Brewed later on in my recce trips.
Eventually I broke away from the wall, which had been busy with plenty of tourists and walkers, and headed north into the moorland. From that point I met only one person for the rest of the day who was a surprised to see me as I was to meet him, since he’d walked for three hours and not seen anyone until our paths crossed.
After leaving Hadrian's Wall, there is a view back to Broomlee Lough and Sewingshields Crags above.
The day alternated between open moorland and dense forest. The forest sections were particularly pleasant as they wound between the trees, mostly avoiding the larger forestry tracks. Meanwhile the moorland was beautiful under the deep blue sky but also frustrating. The ground on this stretch does not retain clear paths well and, unlike the open moorland sections of my previous recce trip, marker posts are far less helpful here, often displaying multiple footpath directions with no indication of which one is the Pennine Way. As a result I spent a significant part of the day trying to avoid getting lost while finding ways to enhance the existing directions.
The open landscape on the stage to Bellingham.
Day two – Bellingham to Byrness
After the first day’s clear weather, which I confess was almost unpleasantly hot for me at times, I was surprisingly grateful to wake to thick cloud. This dense, cool bank of fog didn’t lift all day so that I could trundle across the open moor without worrying about where I could find some shady reprieve from the burning sun.
The downside was that I was also left with no significant views for the day. However, this is a day of large, fairly flat, bleak and lonely moorland and the white clouds wrapped around me provided both a friendly blanket of cover and also added interest. Rather than walking for hours with the view only changing very gradually, each new waymarker or hilltop would suddenly loom out at me. I would find myself pleasantly surprised on finishing each section of the route, rather than getting frustrated by how slowly I was moving through the scenery towards the next waymarker.
An orange common frog sits on a rock.
Another added benefit of this sudden cloud was to the way sound travelled. For the first part of the day the moorland takes you quite close to an army artillery range and today was a firing day. Frequent explosions were happening but the thick air blocked the sound and confused its direction so that I could never pinpoint how close or even exactly where the range was, compared to my position on the moorland.
This is a wet and boggy stage especially for the middle part of the day, with a notorious section that is so wet that it is more like wading through a pond, often up to your knees. It was certainly eventful and there is no easy way to avoid it if you want to walk the official route. Wet boots, feet and legs are the flavour of the early afternoon.
Sparse scenes on the moorland hops to Byrness.
It was another day of walking alone, passing just one pair of walkers all day who were walking the entire route in a single trip and were due to stay at the same hotel as me that night. It seems that this furthest north section is perhaps the least popular and this abandoned nature only adds to its mystery and beauty for me.
Day three – Byrness to Windy Gyle (and Trows)
This was a wild day! The cloud had lifted a little but the walking was higher so I frequently found that I was still walking in cloud. As I rose and fell in and out of the cloud-line with the clouds sometimes blowing away to give visibility before drifting back across my view I was reminded of those atmospheric films where they have mists blowing around to give a sense of mystery.
A toadstool after rain.
A stretch of the day includes walking along Dere Street, an old Roman “road” (pathway) along the ridge-top. I found myself squelching along through the never-ending bogs, with cloud drifting across my vision and fleeting glimpses of the surrounding rounded moorland hilltops, wondering what the Romans must have made of this bleak landscape.
When the clouds did clear I found myself faced with views on all directions of this rolling moorland scenery for as far as the eye could see, rarely with any sign of habitation or human existence other than the odd fence-line. A lonely day indeed, if it weren’t for the long stretch in the late morning when I caught up and walked for a while with the same two gentlemen I had passed the previous day and then shared a dinner and breakfast table with at our B&B in Byrness.
Views revealed into the valley, from the Cheviot ridge.
Highlights of the day included two sightings of herds of feral goats, which are common on this part of the moorland, and then a Sparrowhawk at the end of the day once I had dropped into the valley. The Sparrowhawk caught something just as I approached it and then perched on a post just ahead of me to eat. It was a rare lingering sighting of a bird that is most often glimpsed briefly from afar as it glides swiftly past.
A herd of ferral goats beneath a fence, on the Cheviot ridge.
Day four – Windy Gyle (and Trows) to Kirk Yetholm
This was, by far, the best day of the week for me. I awoke to clear blue skies and despite a chill wind blowing up on the ridge all day, views were clear throughout the walk giving me a chance to see the wide open vistas of the Cheviot Hills that I had missed the previous day.
The bold curved slopes of the Cheviots make a suitable end to the Pennine Way route.
Having walked several long-distance footpaths now, I must admit that the Pennine Way finishes in far better style than many others. The problem with any long distance route is that at the end of the walk it has to get you back to civilisation somehow. This can often involve a long walk along a busy road (West Highland Way) or an extensive walk along a section of unchanging views (Alta Via Una and, to a certain extent, the Coast to Coast – although those are at least sea views from a very long walk along the coastal path to Robin Hood’s Bay).
The Cheviot, a broad-topped hill that is a short detour from the Pennine Way route.
In comparison, the Pennine Way keeps you up on the ridges of the Cheviot Hills with endlessly changing scenery until the very last moment. With every ridge end you think you have finished and will be dropping down into the valleys but then the route turns sideways to pick up a new ridge.
This does mean that the climbing (often steep) isn’t done until the end of the day, but it also means that you stay in the hills with wide views until the final kilometre. It is only then that you reach a quiet, narrow lane (a dead end leading only to a farm and a quiet walker’s car park, so is barely used) and trot along to Kirk Yetholm between a pleasant pastoral valley and the high Cheviot moorland hills. Even then, the start of this stretch involves a brief climb over a blind summit so that your final destination only comes in sight with at most 15 minutes of walking to go.
Nearing Kirk Yetholm, the rolling ridge takes you almost all the way into town.
An excellent end to one of England’s longest long-distance footpaths!
Still to come…
Next week I am back on the Pennine Way, filling in the gap from Middleton-in-Teesdale to Once Brewed.
I’m looking forward to the final day of that section when I will spend the whole day walking along Hadrian’s Wall. Admittedly I have some apprehension about the amount of ups and downs that day will involve, having talked to other Pennine Way walkers this week who had already done that stretch, but it will be fascinating to get to know the wall a little better.
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