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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!

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