(Tour du Mont Blanc) Sunset over the Aiguille Verte and Dru, Chamonix

Alpine Exploratory's Blog - Reports from our recces, and more

West Highland Way (2017 recces)

Posted on Tuesday, 27 June 2017 . Permalink

Suze Connolly made our 2017 recces on the West Highland Way, taking a few trips to and from the route. This included the ferry across Loch Lomond, always a fine way to travel!

Bluebell woods
Glengoyne on the way to Drymen
Loch Lomond
Ferns above Loch Lomond, near Ardlui
Refreshments and honesty box, a feature of the WHW
A Wee Treat To Help Along The Way
The feral goats near Rowardennan
Wild garlic
Towards Ardlui and Inverarnan
Stock up!
Setting off from Tyndrum, the WHW passes under Beinn Dorain

Pete summits Chimborazo!

Posted on Friday, 13 February 2015 . Permalink

Following on from his climb of Everest and completion of the Seven Summits in 2012, Alpine Exploratory team member Pete Ellis has been out in the mountains again. This time, a two week trip to Ecuador climbing volcanoes, the principle aim being to climb Chimborazo, 6268m. Due to the equatorial bulge, this summit is the farthest point from the centre of the earth, approximately 2km further than the summit of Everest.

Pete Ellis at the summit of Chimborazo

After a 3 day acclimatisation trek, Imbabura, 4634m, was the first volcano to be tackled. Being without glaciers, this was relatively straightforward with some simple scrambling being the only technical difficulty. This was following by the glaciated Cayambe, 5790m, in poor weather. Whilst the rest of the group had a rest day in Quito, Pete took himself off to climb Pichincha, 4784m.

The final two peaks involved 11pm departures and climbing through the night to make the best of the snow conditions. Cotopaxi, 5896m, was done in another night of poor weather: low cloud and strong winds resulted in the climbers being coated in a thick layer of ice. The reward came on Chimborazo, with perfect climbing conditions for the 1500m ascent: a full moon and many stars visible, including the Southern Cross and The Plough. After 7 hours climbing, the summit was reached just as the sun was rising above the horizon, and another climbing ambition was realised.

Summit view! On Chimborazo

Tour du Mont Blanc (Guided) - join Pete on the TMB from 31 August to 14 September 2015

Team members at the BAIML AGM weekend

Posted on Saturday, 13 December 2014 . Permalink

Stewart MacKenzie, Keith Miller and Pete Ellis in the Lake District, 7 December 2014
(Pete writes:) Five members of the Alpine Exploratory team recently joined 100 other International Mountain Leaders at the Annual General Meeting and Dinner of the British Association of International Mountain Leaders held in the Lake District. As well as the formal meeting and dinner, two days were spent refreshing skills and gaining new knowledge on some of the extensive range of courses on offer. A great week-end, and a good chance to catch up with mountain colleagues. The photo shows Stewart, Keith and Pete at the end of a day looking at Lakeland geology in typical wintry weather: a strong cold wind with bursts of sleet every half hour - a far cry from the usual warm and sunny conditions that we experience on our Alpine holidays.

People - more about the team!

Anna-Maria on the CTC: Part 2 of 3

Posted on Friday, 27 June 2014 . Permalink

(Anna-Maria writes:) This was my second week on the Coast to Coast. After a first week reviewing the middle stretch from Kirkby Stephen to Danby Wiske (days 7 to 10 of the full trek), I picked up where I had left off a few weeks earlier, walking through to the east coast and Robin Hood’s Bay (days 11-14 of the full trek).

Introducing the Coast to Coast – Eastern stretch
The Coast to Coast is one of my favourite and most frequently recommended long distance routes in the UK. When people ask me which long distance footpath I enjoy most, my mind always returns to this one because of its many changes of scenery.

Of all those changes of scenery my favourite, by far, is the Yorkshire Moors. I love the rolling open scenery found on this particular stretch of moorland, especially during the first couple of days. These are days featuring wide views of colourful heather and a characterful inland cliff with fabulous rock formations.

On the edge of the North York Moors.

When I was last reviewing this section of the route, in 2012, the country was under attack from gale-force winds and had just suffered from a spate of flooding. I was hoping for better weather this time and an opportunity to enjoy the open moorland. In particular, this would be my first time seeing it when the heather was not in flower.

Danby Wiske to Osmotherley
This was a gentle start to the route, finishing the flat crossing between the Yorkshire Dales and the Yorkshire Moors, which had begun at Richmond. As I set out I was treated to a promising clear, deep blue sky with a warm sun. I wasn’t disappointed either – this glorious weather held up until long after I had reach my destination for the day. To match the summery weather, the songbirds were out in force, including a persistent cuckoo, which seemed to pursue me along my final climb through the woods at the end of the day.

Tall trees on the way to Osmotherley.

There was plenty to keep me busy on the reviewing front. As well as basic changes, like the removal of old stiles, a footpath had been closed where it crosses a railway line without any diversion being put in place.

In many ways this footpath closure was inevitable. The crossing of the railway line here is a definite safety issue. There is no bridge or tunnel and the stones placed around the tracks can make it easy to lose your footing and stumble as you cross this fast line. The new route I’ve written for Alpine Exploratory, using the nearby level crossing, is a much safer alternative.

Osmotherley to Clay Bank Top
This was the day I had been looking forward to. The terrain over this western section of the North Yorkshire Moors is different to any moorland already seen on the Coast to Coast. This is moorland that is wide and relatively flat with broad open views and periodic drops down into narrow valleys that cut across the moorland. The moor here is crossed on an excellent track, often laid with flagstones. The track follows an edge like an inland cliff, which allows long and distant views to the north over low, agricultural land, and simultaneously a sharp contrast with almost equally distant views south over the rolling expanse of heather.

Sadly the weather closed in a little so that the distant views were hazy with cloud and, through the afternoon a gently cooling drizzle fell. However, it was still an enjoyable day’s walk.

On the escarpment of the North York Moors, the plain of Teesdale to the left and the moors to the right.

I was pleased to find that the Lord Stones Café has reopened this year after being closed through the 2013 season for refurbishment work. The old café has been replaced with a smart new walker-friendly restaurant and shop where I was able to take a welcome break from the cool, damp weather and treat myself to a hot meal and pot of tea.

Clay Bank Top to Blakey Ridge
Any remaining luck I had with the weather finally broke overnight. I woke to semi-heavy rain. As I climbed up onto the moors again, the rain lifted to a gentle drizzle and warm breeze. Thankfully this is an easy day for terrain with none of the ups and downs that the previous day so it was possible to avoid any “boil-in-the-bag” situations – the unpleasant sensation of getting wetter inside your waterproofs than out when tackling steep ascents. Instead, after the initial climb, the route flattens out and takes a delightfully gentle, wide and sandy track all the way to the solitary and exposed Lion Inn at Blakey Ridge.

For the first couple of hours the temperature warmed slightly and the rain eased to persistent spray. In this way I wandered across the moor, frequently stopping to watch the moorland birds. There were large numbers of curlews and meadow pipits in evidence everywhere this week. I also confess to giving way to my inner child – splooshing through the middle of the largest and deepest puddles. After all I couldn’t get any wetter than I already was. After that the rain got heavier, the wind started blowing hard and the temperature dropped by several degrees, chasing me into my refuge for the night.

Blakey Ridge to Grosmont
Foolishly, I had hoped for an improvement in the weather but it was not to be. I was one of a large number of walkers setting out from the Lion Inn in the morning. As we looked out at the bleak grey clouds, obscured visibility and applied all our layers of waterproofing, we commiserated with each other, enjoying the shared camaraderie of the route.

This was, thankfully, a simple day. Despite the cold wind driving heavy rain into my face throughout the morning, I was able to squelch my way across the moorland on paths that started as boggy slime before switching to rough, rocky tracks. Compared to the previous day’s easy, sandy tracks, the tracks on this day are far less friendly to those with tired or blistered feet. I did see many opting to miss out the boggiest of the moor paths though, instead taking the longer route around the moor on the road.

The stone bridge, in Egton Bridge, that crosses the River Esk.

Much later, as I passed through Arnecliff Wood, a stunning stretch of woodland, the rain lifted. Suddenly every possible shade of green glistened brightly and scents of damp woodland assaulted my senses, making up for the slimy mud underfoot that threatened to fell me with every step. It is the moments like this that make walking such a special activity for me.

Grosmont to Robin Hood’s Bay
My final day began early, leaving before breakfast to ensure I arrived at Robin Hood’s Bay before the transfer bus left. This is a day of constantly changing scenery, with open moorland that gives way to a wonderful stretch of woodland, a brief stretch of wetter moor, and finally coastal walking. It was a day to enjoy, notwithstanding the early start I’d made.

The rain had stopped, and lid of cloud finally cleared at lunchtime. The sun even made a full blue-skied appearance for my final 6km round the coast path. Despite all this though, the theme of the day was very definitely mud.

After trekking across the first stretch of moor on a road and seeing my only pair of peewits of the week (also known as lapwings) I dropped down into Little Beck Woods. Here the mud assailed me and I slimed and slid my way with difficulty over the next 3.5km through this beautiful woodland. It was nothing compared to the final moor crossing though – a notoriously wet stretch, even in the driest weather. I was treated to moments when I sank nearly to my knees in the bog-weed as I crossed the marshy terrain.

The path in woods becomes a muddy challenge.

All of this toil was quickly forgotten as I walked along the final coastal stretch. It is an uncharacteristically flat stretch of coastline with high views over mud flats and the sea and was in full colour with the gorse glowing bright and yellow, making a strong contrast to the blue sea and sky and emerald coastal grasses.

A glimpse of Robin Hood's Bay, with its beach at low tide, from the final coastal miles into the village.

Looking forward
I’m taking over a month off the Coast to Coast now before returning to walk the very start. In mid-July I will be walking from the west cost at St Bees, across the width of the Lake District to Kirkby Stephen.

Have you walked the Coast to Coast before? If so, what is your favourite section? Do you also love the wideness of the Yorkshire Moors or are you a fan of the rugged Lake District? Let me know through the Alpine Exploratory Facebook page!

Coast to Coast - join us!

On the Coast to Coast: Part 1 of 3

Posted on Friday, 30 May 2014 . Permalink

(Anna-Maria writes:) It has been six months since I finished last year’s reviews with a sodden stretch of the Pennine Way in the Peak District at the end of October. Usually I would start reviewing again in March but I was glad to have waited until relatively late this year before starting again. May often brings stable weather in the UK and as I had hoped I was treated to a little warmth in the wind and plenty of dry days.

This first reviewing week saw me returning to the Coast to Coast to review the middle stretch from Kirkby Stephen to Danby Wiske (days 7 to 10 of the full trek).

Open walking high above Swaledale

Introducing the Coast to Coast
The Coast to Coast is one of my favourite and most frequently recommended long distance routes in the UK. When people ask me which long distance footpath I enjoy most my mind always returns to this one because of its many changes of scenery.

Last year’s review of the Pennine Way introduced me to a wider variety of different moorlands than I had previously appreciated could be found in the UK. Ultimately, though, all moorland does have a similarity. In comparison, the Coast to Coast broadly splits into three very different sections as it crosses three of the UK’s National Parks: the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North Yorkshire Moors.

Each of these National Parks looks gloriously different. It prevents any boredom building up from walking through similar scenery day after day for an extended period of time. Instead the views change completely just as you become accustomed to them.

The Lake District grasses are tough, clinging onto the rocks of the crags, but still glowing with a pale green. The craggy rocks here give the land a distinctive lumpy appearance that can be recognised instantly.

Crossing into the Yorkshire Dales the lumps melt away and the hills become lower, smooth and rolling. Classic English countryside. Meanwhile the colour changes too. The grass, now on thick and fertile peat, becomes a deeper, lush green.

Finally you climb steeply up onto the glorious North Yorkshire Moors. This is my favourite section of the route. A natural inland cliff edge provides a guide as you walk along this elevated moorland. Wide, flat and surprisingly dry moors, coated in heather, spread out like a pale green and purple carpet.

For my first review week I tackled the Yorkshire Dales. I chose to start here to give me with a gentle warm-up to the review season, leaving the worst climbs until a little later in the year.

Kirkby Stephen to Keld
Starting out from Kirkby Stephen I quickly made my way up the long, steep but steady climb to Nine Standards Rigg. This was only the second time I had been treated to clear visibility while on this summit and I found it made staying on the route much easier than usual as I picked my way through the peat hags keeping watch for marker posts ahead. Even several dry days had failed to make a difference to the wet peat and marshy ground which is some of the wettest terrain on the entire Coast to Coast. Fortunately the rest of the day was drier underfoot as I gently contoured around the edges of valley bottoms to reach the tiny village of Keld.

The cairns on Nine Standards

Keld to Reeth
Leaving Keld the next morning to walk the length of the Swaledale valley I elected to review the official high-level route rather than the low level alternative that Alpine Exploratory has provided through the valley bottom. This quickly took me up onto the moor tops and away from the classic Dales dry-stone field system. It is a relatively short day, but despite this the two climbs of the day are definitely designed to get your heart pumping. The first challenge is to get onto the moor top and then, soon afterwards, you have to drop steeply to cross Gunnerside Beck near some old ruined mine buildings and climb equally steeply up the other side.

Climbing steeply out of Gunnerside Beck with boulders either side of the path

Mining is the theme of this day from Keld to Reeth. Crossing the moors I passed many ruins of old mining buildings, chimneys from old smelting mills, and wide stony areas that have been left as barren moonscapes long after the mining has left. Everywhere I turned there seemed to be reminders of what was once one of the main industries in this area.

Reeth to Richmond
Taking the crossing from Reeth to Richmond there is a definite sense of departure from the Yorkshire Dales. Using a series of green and lush valleys, each broadly parallel to the next, the route takes a diagonal approach. First traveling along the valley from Reeth before climbing briefly over the ridge into the next valley to resume this gentle walking in the valley bottoms or partway along the hillsides surrounding the valley until you are pushed out through a funnel into the wilderness of the land beyond the Dales.

My favourite part of this day’s route is the woodland of Whitecliffe Wood. This is a meandering wander through classic English deciduous woodland, filled at this time of year with fragrant wild garlic and a carpet of blue from the bluebells. It is also the equivalent of passing through a magic doorway.

Applegarth Scar on the way into Richmond

As I entered the trees I looked back for a final view along the cliffs of Applegarth Scar and the rolling green hills of the Dales. Emerging just a few kilometres later the scenery had changed dramatically. Suddenly there were no hills in sight. Instead, beyond the pretty market town of Richmond, a vast flat plain lay ahead of me – the flat lands across to the Yorkshire Moors. Distantly visible through the mist the Moors reared out of this flat field system. A climb for another day.

Richmond to Danby Wiske
This was a day for earning my keep as I trundled along long stretches of tarmac under clouds heavy with threatening rain. Days across agricultural land are often my least favourite as a route reviewer. Unlike moorland, fields have a tendency to change with alarming regularity. Field boundaries are removed periodically while stiles and gates move, change, appear and disappear quite frequently. All of these changes have to be recorded as I go so that I don’t lose track of how many gates or stiles I have passed. Often these days become days of regular stops and starts.

This particular day usually has the pleasant benefit of spending the first half of the day enjoying field paths beside the ever-widening River Swale. It was particularly pleasing to find that many of the old, broken and unstable stiles that used to characterise the route out of Richmond have been replaced with clean new gates. A number of clear wooden signposts marking the Coast to Coast had also sprung up – great news for any walker.

Low, flat fields in the Vale of York

Unfortunately a few diversions had also appeared. Major roadworks on the A1 have created a long diversion for walkers along a farm track and a main road to reach Catterick Bridge, removing a pleasant riverside ramble and adding some extra tarmac miles to a day that is already long for the Coast to Coast. Fortunately this is advertised as only being in place until September this year. Further on, quarry works have been extended, permanently shutting a permissive footpath and again diverting walkers out to the road and away from the fields. This year I was reviewing the main route, rather than the alternative options offered by Alpine Exploratory. This took me along a section of the route that seems to me to be some of Wainwright’s least inspired route-finding. Instead of a pleasant route from Ellerton Cross to Danby Wiske mostly along fields (a route now adopted by many guide books and an alternative offered to Alpine Exploratory’s clients), Wainwright chose the simpler but foot-pounding alternative of nearly 7km along roads. While they are not busy roads, my feet were certainly aware of the miles of tarmac by the end of the day. I cannot recommend the field alternative heartily enough, unless you are determined to stick to Wainwright’s original route!

Wildlife on the route
This was a lovely time of year to be out in the Yorkshire Dales. The characteristic dry stone walled fields were still filled with young lambs. Many were old enough to have recently started to boldly venture away from their mothers and explore their enclosures. Despite that they would quickly run back to the ewes if I started to approach across the field.

Meanwhile the moors were home to ground nesting season to the birds. Everywhere I went, ground nesting birds would fly up out of the grass and heather to try and draw me away from their nests. Some, like the grouse and peewits, both with very distinctive calls and markings, I recognised. Many others I didn’t recognise and only got close enough to see their markings for the first time on this trip.

Bluebells in Whitecliffe Wood

Looking forward
I have two weeks of the Coast to Coast left to review. Next time I’m out, at the end of May, I will be walking my favourite stretch. Starting out from Danby Wiske I will be walking over to Robin Hood’s Bay on the East coast.

Have you walked the Coast to Coast before? If so, what is your favourite section? Do you also love the wideness of the Yorkshire Moors or are you a fan of the rugged Lake District? Let me know through the Alpine Exploratory Facebook page!

Coast to Coast - join us!

The Pennine Way completed!

Posted on Wednesday, 5 February 2014 . Permalink

(Anna-Maria writes in October 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. Last week took me out for my final section which is, bizarrely, the very first four days of the route.

Given the lateness in the year I had anticipated that this might be an exciting week of eventful weather. Within minutes of starting out I was already soaked through and certain that this would be a walk of adventures.

Gritstone outcrops on the first Pennine Way stage.

Day one – Edale to Torside
The Pennine Way doesn’t waste time easing walkers in gently. After the first 3km of warm-up walking over fields walkers are faced with their first challenge of the route. This is a steep haul up a path known as Jacob’s Ladder to gain the exposed open moorland plateau of Kinder Scout.

From here, navigation varies. Sometimes it is easy, trundling over clear flagstone paths. At other times you find yourself picking your way around peat hags and rocks, guided by cairns, or climbing up through cloughs that can vary from clear dry paths to deeply flowing streams depending on recent weather. There is nothing as worrying as walking uphill in a deep stream, with the path obliterated by flowing water. It can make even the most intrepid walker doubt themselves and wonder whether they took a wrong turning.

The path is submerged here...

... creating a problem even for waterproof trousers!

Unsurprisingly many walkers find that Jacob’s Ladder is an unpleasant wake-up call to the challenges ahead. However, if you survive the climb and successfully navigate your way to the end of this first day without incident then you can be confident that you should be able to complete the route.

The descent to Torside and Crowden at the end of stage 1 of the Pennine Way.

Day two – Torside to Standedge
After the first day, this day seems surprisingly easy. Moorland crossings are a continuing theme – one which pervades the essence of the Pennine Way throughout its length – but this is more frequently broken up with evidence of human habitation during the second half of the day. Reservoirs are frequent, as a reminder of the wetness of the Pennine watershed that runs up the country and which is the backbone of this route.

After a day of torrential rain and strong winds on my first day this was a milder day for me. While the rain was never far away, it fell with less intensity, and the wind was calmer. The route for this day crosses several fords, many of which are marked on the map, and I frequently found my feet feeling their way through dark, brackish water as I crossed numerous streams with limited visibility of the rocks they were standing on and water flowing higher than my knees.

Day three – Standedge to Hebden Bridge
If you look at any road atlas of the UK and pick out the locations of Standedge (or at least, nearby Diggle) and Hebden Bridge it seems impossible that there can be a pleasant and remote route between the two. Even once you look at the Ordnance Survey orange maps of the area it is hard to imagine that you won’t feel oppressed by surrounding large cities and towns as you walk. As a result I was intrigued to see what this day would really be like to walk.

Surprisingly, the route does actually manage to stay quite remote. There are distant views to the west mid-morning as you cross over the M62 motorway, revealing the large town of Rochdale, with Bury and Bolton beyond it. Despite this though, the densely packed industrial areas that seem at first glance of a map to cut across the country here are kept out of sight.

The moor tops rise high above the valleys containing the towns and cities. As you progress north you find yourself most often in one of two states of moorland. Sometimes you walk across the very middle of wide and flat expanses of moorland, where the distant edges of the moors block views of the narrow, steep-sided valleys beyond that contain the towns. At other times you carve your way among huge black gritstone rocks which not only occupy your vision as you carefully pick your way among them to avoid stumbling, but which also block out some of the surrounding scenery. So you spend the day winding your way northwards up this strip of moor with your most frequent reminder of human occupation in the form of several busy west-east roads that must be crossed and numerous man-made reservoirs.

Day four – Hebden Bridge to Haworth
I had anticipated a tough final day. Although the two moor crossings on this stretch of the Pennine Way are relatively short, they are meant to be some of the wildest encountered so far. In reality much has changed during this year with extensive amounts of new slabbed paving across the entirety of the second stretch of moorland – previously the tougher of the two.

A lot of the day is actually spent winding your way across fields with continuous climbs and descents as you make the steep ascent out of the Hebden Bridge valley, over a narrow ridge and drop steeply into the narrow valley containing Colden Water, before ascending again over a wider and smoother stretch of open moorland and descending gently towards the first reservoir of the day. From here another climb and descent over fields brings you to a further two reservoirs and the final sustained climb onto the wild and open moorland above Haworth.

The treat for the day is passing Top Withins – a ruined cottage on the open moorland which is believed to be the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. From here you can then choose from three different routes into Haworth. The easiest is a simple route, mostly on roads and with less descent and ascent than the other routes, that will be reversed the next day when leaving Haworth to regain the trail. However, far better is to take one of the other two routes which add more sight-seeing to your day as you walk over Brontë Bridge and pass the Brontë Waterfall.

The ruined cottage of Top Withins is lonely on the moor, on the descent to Howarth.

After three days of heavy rain and strong winds I was given a treat for my final afternoon of reviewing for 2013. I spent the morning walking in low cloud, but as the morning progressed the clouds burned away and the day became warm with deep blue skies. The moors seemed to glow in their golden browns and reds of autumn colours and I was able to take my time, enjoying some final moorland views and the Brontë sight-seeing tour as I walked the final few kilometres into Haworth.

Trees in the view, with green fields beyond, lower down and nearer Haworth.

Final impressions of the Pennine Way
The Pennine Way has been an education for me in how much moorland can differ over the UK. From the river and stream-filled moors of the Peak District, through the reservoir-littered Southern Pennines where I lost count of the number of reservoirs I walked past, over the glorious geological splendour of the Yorkshire Dales moors and the lower, flat moors of northern Yorkshire, and eventually over the wide, flat and excessively boggy uninhabited expanses of the Cheviot moorland where you can walk (or wade through mud) for hours without seeing any evidence of human presence.

The Pennine Way in the South Pennines, on a typical stretch of moorland path made with flagstones, some from old factories.

The route is tough and not to be underestimated. Of all the UK long-distance routes I have done only the West Highland Way seems harder. However, while the West Highland Way is exceedingly tiring underfoot, it is mercifully short, usually lasting only six or seven days. In comparison the Pennine Way combines consistently long days with some awkward terrain and exposing scenery. Often there is no escape from rain, wind or sun. On top of this the route is commonly walked in approximately 19 days – an extensive period of time to be walking such big distances.

For these reasons I would currently class the Pennine Way as the most taxing long distance trail in the UK, if you were to tackle the route in a single piece. Many people tackle the route in two, or even three stages. Breaking it up to make it manageable around holiday allowances or around their ability to walk daily for such an extended period of time.

Would you enjoy the Pennine Way?
To answer this question depends on what you are looking for. If you want a true challenge of grit and determination while staying in the UK then I would certainly put this at the top of the list, closely followed by the West Highland Way.

If you are already well-versed in UK scenery then the Pennine Way will also challenge your appreciation of moorland, as it did for me. You will find that no two sections of moor are quite the same in character, even when they look identical at first glance.

Flagstones carry the Pennine Way onto Black Hill in the South Pennines.. for easy walking compared to some North Pennines stages.

For those people less well-acquainted with classic UK scenery but still after a challenge then I would suggest the Coast to Coast as a better route to tackle first. The Coast-to-Coast route takes you in a line across the three National Parks of the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North Yorkshire Moors. While those are also technically moorland areas, they are far more varied in their style, ranging from the rugged and gnarly Lake District in the west, through the rolling hillsides and managed pastureland areas of the Dales to the flat, high and colourful expanses of the eastern moors. There is also the benefit of not spending the entire route walking up a natural band of land that seems to attract rain, whatever time of year you are walking!

Pennine Way - join us!

The Pennine Way in the North Pennines

Posted on Monday, 3 February 2014 . Permalink

(Anna-Maria writes in October 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. Last week saw me walking the final four days of the route through the Kielder Forest areas and the Cheviot Hills. Having walked from Haworth to Middleton-in-Teesdale earlier in the year, I spent this week filling in the gap from Middleton-in-Teesdale to Once Brewed.

Water tumbles down the rocks of Cauldron Spout, with the headwall of Cow Green Reservoir behind.

I had been looking forward to this section of the route. In particular, the first and last day of the week.

I’ve walked the first day, and parts of it, from Middleton-in-Teesdale to Dufton before, though never in this direction. There are three particularly stunning sights, as you pass the High Force waterfalls in the morning, scramble up beside the ferocious yet secluded waterfall of Cauldron Spout in the early afternoon and then walk along the side of High Cup, an awe-inspiring glacial feature carved out of the ground many millennia ago, at the end of the day.

The final day from Greenhead to Once Brewed is a relatively short day but spends the whole day on Hadrian’s Wall. After my taster hour of Hadrian’s Wall the week before I was looking forward to seeing more, even if I already knew that it was going to involve plenty of ups and downs.

Sadly this week was not quite as expected. The autumnal weather was in full force with thick and low cloud, strong winds, and passing heavy showers. Interesting conditions to tackle one of the longest and hardest stretches of the Pennine Way.

Day one – Middleton-in-Teesdale to Dufton
This is an incredibly long day but it is surprisingly flat and the grandiose scenery and intrigue prevent any frustration that might occur with a similar length day on moor tops. It doesn’t matter how tired you are getting, there is always something new to surprise you.

The twin waterfalls of Low Force, on the River Tees below the more famous High Force.

I knew the route for this day quite well and had anticipated some glorious views. Sadly, the English weather had different plans for me. The skies were slightly overcast but the air and ground remained dry. It should have meant a great day for photos but sadly there was a thick cloudy haze over everything, occluding the views and creating a heavy sense of anticipation in the air. Accompanying this strange weather was a bracingly cold wind. This started the day as a cold breeze but by the time I arrived in Dufton it was a strong wind, easily blowing my feet about as I walked so that I struggled to place my feet over the rocks that litter the tracks during the second half of the day.

High Force on the Tees, a highlight of the riverside walking towards Langdon Beck.

Instead of views I had the dubious treat of the sounds of gunfire for most of my afternoon. From Cauldron Spout the route spends much of the rest of the day following the northern boundary of a large military firing range. Last week on the southern side of the Cheviot Hills there was evidence of military exercises but this week sounded like full-scale war with frequent explosions and bursts of machine gun fire. It was a salient reminder that despite the beauty and apparent vastness of the moors, we are actually all packed together quite tightly on a surprisingly small island.

The grand River Tees shortly before the Pennine Way takes to the moors to Dufton... a moorland crossing in contrast to the morning's riverside walk.

Day two – Dufton to Alston
This was a bleak and bitter day. It is another very long day, adding height and remoteness to the big distance of the previous day. The day involves a long climb up onto high moorland summit, walking over four summits before dropping down slowly and gradually on a long 12km track to the valleys for a final walk along fields. It is a tough walk at any time but particularly difficult when following on from the previous day’s route.

I woke to a fierce wind with rain in the air. Accompanying the inclement weather was a thick fog of low cloud reaching its misty tendrils all the way down to the valley bottom. I couldn’t see anything as I battled my way up onto the fells, head down to try and turn myself into an aerodynamic battering ram, fighting for some of the initial climb to stay on my feet. The wind dropped fractionally as I headed from the first summit (Knock Fell) towards my second (Great Dunn Fell). It was still strong, but at least I wasn’t fighting to stay upright, so I could work on trying to navigate instead.

The summit cairn of Cross Fell (893m) appears suddenly out of the mist.

Navigation across these summits is largely guided by cairns, proving difficult with only a few metres of visibility through the thick cloud. I found myself studying the ground for evidence of previous walkers where the grass might be worn down and joyfully speeding up as cairns started to loom out of the mist towards me. One benefit of this is that I can be sure that anyone caught out in unseasonal foggy weather in future (which does happen even in the middle of summer) and following the Alpine Exploratory directions should be able to find their way across the bleak and featureless landscape without too much difficulty.

Day three – Alston to Greenhead
This is a surprisingly hard day. The distance is fractionally shorter than the previous two days and the climbing is not as high or sustained as the crossing of the fells from the route over to Alston. Despite that it can provide any already-tired walker with a real challenge as field crossings give way towards the end of the day to a particularly wet and soggy moorland crossing.

I was lucky enough to keep dry for most of the day and even get warmed by sun for a brief half hour at midday, despite starting and ending the day in heavy rain and overcast skies. Although this should have meant a more enjoyable day than my previous day over to Alston I must confess that I found the day quite bitty – not my favourite sort of route. I prefer the wide open fells, even if they did try to blow me into submission as I went over Knock Fell ad Cross Fell the day before.

Following the South Tyne Railway, a feature of the valley North of Alston. At this point the PW passes beneath the old railway line at a bridge.

The dubious highlight of my day was coming face to face with a particularly large bull near the end of the day. Having carefully worked my way across a field of protective cows with their young calves I gratefully clambered up onto the stile, pursued by some of the braver and more curious young bullocks wanting to find out what I was. Once atop the stile I realised that 2 metres away from me on the other side of the stile was a massive and muscular bull.

Usually I wouldn’t be too concerned since I’ve found most bulls to be quite placid at this time of year, but to be safe I usually give them a wide berth. With this bull so close to the stile and stood grazing across the middle of the narrow grassy track I was due to take there was no possibility of going unnoticed. Instead I spent an extended period of time stood halfway down the stile talking to him while he came over to inspect me. Eventually I felt safe enough to walk past and head across the 500m stretch of enclosure – a distance over which I’m sure he could have easily outrun me.

Being chased down by the weather as I cross the final moorland of the day.

Day four – Greenhead to Once Brewed
Following three long and difficult days, anyone walking the full length of the Pennine Way is likely to look forward with anticipation to this day. It is a short half day of walking when compared to both the days before and after it. For interest it is spent entirely on Hadrian’s Wall, providing plenty of interesting historical features to stop and study as you wend your way east along the route.

I had been looking forward to seeing the expanses of wall stretching ahead of me as I walked and studying the ruined Roman features I was due to pass along the way. Unfortunately the English weather had different plans for me with torrential rain all day. Not only did my camera not make it out of my bag, but I also found myself walking for much of the day with my hood up, with vision blinkered to a narrow window ahead of me.

In military style I route-marched (or perhaps route-squelched or route-slimed would be more appropriate, with the wet grass and mud occasionally slipping and sliding under my feet) along the wall. In my head I was busy forming plans to return in a different season to see this classic stretch.

Useful information! A wooden sign reads "NOT Pennine Way"!

Finishing off the route
In two weeks' time I will finally be finishing my review of the Pennine Way for this year. Having picked off all the sections of the route that are furthest from my home, I will be walking the first four days of the route. Starting at Edale I will be crossing the Peak District National Park on my journey to Haworth.

By then it will be the end of October and is likely to be cold, wet and even boggier than it has been over the last two weeks. Unsurprisingly I have my doubts about the conditions, but it will be good to have finally finished the route. It will also be fabulous to spend a bit more time in Bronte country – especially with the possibility of some suitably bleak and blustery Bronte-esque weather to colour the backdrop.

In anticipation I have already started getting into the mood with some Bronte novels on my Kindle. I should be mentally well-prepared by the time I reach my final end point of the Pennine Way at Haworth, former home to the Bronte sisters.

Pennine Way - join our self-guided trips on the PW!

Labels: ,

Anna-Maria's third Pennine Way instalment

Posted on Wednesday, 15 January 2014 . Permalink

(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.

Pennine Way - join us!

More from the blog

Blog home page          Older posts

Alpine Exploratory
Alpine Exploratory is a system of knowledge on the best mountain trekking in our areas, giving clients superb holidays based on this exploration.
About us