Into the WILD! Days 4 & 5: High Cup Nick to Cauldron Snout & beyond

High Cup Nick was spectacular. A gouge out of the landscape, we agreed it would probably be yet more breathtaking 1) were we to have approached it from the other direction and 2) had the weather been even half-way decent… But it was amazing nonetheless.

Right on its very top, we bumped into a walking party who told us the tale of an 18 year old girl they had encountered a little way back. They had spotted her apparently waiting for somebody, only to discover that it was indeed they for whom she was hoping… or anyone really… to help her out of the bog in which she had become stuck. Her story is one of bravery, actually. She had, at her tender age, started the walk with two friends; one of whom had twisted her ankle and had to leave, and the other had given up and gone home. But on she soldiered (not too happy to be identified by us, when we encountered her the following day, as the girl who had got stuck: “Does everyone know?!”) Anyhow, our walking party walked on and we filled our Aquapure in preparation for the first cup of tea we were to have on our funky stove.

Balanced Precariously above High Cup Nick

Balanced Precariously above High Cup Nick

And the rain it did rain and the wind it did howl… And our faces became fixed into the grimace of those who are determined to look like they’re having fun… We couldn’t stop for said cup of tea until we could find somewhere even vaguely sheltered, so we paused to rest our weary shoulders in a small dip, atop a rock, and ate a Snickers bar. From. The. Gods. It’s amazing, as one who is generally enormously snobby about chocolate (my favourite being Lindt 90% cocoa) how good a Snickers bar tastes under such conditions. It just wouldn’t have the same effect here in my comfy sitting room.

And on we marched, over that vast and exposed expanse of soggy grassland. And something miraculous happened… As we descended into Upper Eden Valley (yes, that really is its name), the sun emerged from behind the clouds, which blew away with alarming and delightful speed. And it stayed. We could see all sorts of revolting weather going on behind us, but overhead and before us were simply blue skies. We began peeling off layers: waterproof coats, fleeces, the legs of trousers…! Our path took us along the Eden River: a wide, babbling, rocky river of awe-inspiring beauty and proportions. We came to a bridge, rearranged some rocks to sit on, hunkered down out of the still rather powerful “breeze” and (drum-roll, please) made our first cup of tea on our funky stove. The water boiled in such a short time we were speechless. I opened a packet of plain chocolate Digestives and our bliss was boundless. Listen carefully to this next bit (especially as you’ll have to take care to remember these words when it comes to describing our supper): there is nothing in the world that can make you appreciate the smallest comforts when you are out in the wild with only the possessions you carry on your back. Nothing. You take only what you can carry. You possess, in time, only the moment in which you are living. Your company is only that person with whom you walk. Your entertainment is the awesome power of the nature that surrounds you. That afternoon I felt, possibly for the very first time, soaring  contentment and an utter sense of peace. I should have been nervous: yet again our little book had misled us. We didn’t know where we were going to sleep for the night; we were once again in the middle of nowhere without a plan (our forte) and yet… It was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. The world felt right.

We pushed on through that scenery, keeping an eye out for a suitable spot to make camp. We passed through deserted farmyards, greeted many, many sheep, and all the while the Eden River gargled nearby.

Shortly before dusk we were attacked. Yes, you heard right. Attacked. By blooming midges. Thankfully, my ever-prepared companion had had the foresight to read many an article on the absolute necessities of such an outing and we applied, most liberally, our insect repellant. Repeatedly, as it happened. It was necessary!

And then!

We heard it before we saw it. The crashing, thunderous roar of gallons and gallons of water falling tumultuously from great heights. Cauldron Snout (unhappily named, in my humble opinion, for such a spectacularly beautiful piece of natural architecture) is dramatic and regal and irresistible. We scrambled down the rockslide that passes for a path down the side of the falls and (I can hear celestial voices singing as I recall this bit) there, at the bottom, far from any hint of civilisation with one of the most beautiful of natural wonders this country can provide as our backdrop, was the perfect spot for a tent.

Making Camp at Cauldron Snout

Making Camp at Cauldron Snout

I washed our clothes in the river, marvelling at the happiness such basic living could inspire.

Washing Clothes in Eden River

Washing Clothes in Eden River

Behind me the thunderous falls and my view: our tent and the open vista of the Northumbrian Fells.

View of the Fells from the Falls

View of the Fells from the Falls

Nothing but the distant bleating of sheep for company. And weren‘t we pleased with ourselves:

Smugness Personified

Smugness Personified

That evening, we had wine – cleverly decanted into a plastic bottle to keep the weight down – to accompany our tuna and Smash. Yes, you heard right. Smash. Just add water! Tuna, Smash, a little olive oil, salt and pepper and some garlic flakes. My God, it was good! Yes, I mean it (remember I said you needed to mark my words?) So good to have hot food with some flavour (thanks to the bits and bobs we’d brought with us – plastic travelling bottles and pots from Boots are perfect), a glass of wine and survey the incredible scenery.

Smash and Tuna Gourmet Delight

Smash and Tuna Gourmet Delight

I hope I’m not waxing too lyrical, but I have to say that that afternoon and evening were the most perfect and magical of my life so far.

To wake up to that view isn’t bad either (she understated).

We were up with the lark, wild-camping style, packed up and off in the direction of High Force with this for our view:

The Eden River

The Eden River

Can you beat that?

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Into the WILD! Day 4: Alston to High Cup Nick

Blenkinsopp Common had taken its toll. My feet were in an uncomfortable state of disrepair, blisters are serious business when you still have 80 or 90 miles to walk. So I hobbled up the hill on a quest for soothing beer that night, and chatted drunkenly with mad old women who were visiting Alston to take an art course while troughing lasagne. I managed near on 4 pints of Black Sheep, which – incidentally – is far better than the bottled variety; they put fizz into beer when it goes into bottles and that degrades it considerably.

The next morning we determined to go to the outdoor shop in the village to find some magic solution to our predicament; our boots, which started  very happily, had become completely permeable to the wet: not surprising considering that we’d waded the best part of 15 miles through the neverending puddle that is Blenkinsopp Common; but I could hardly walk uphill due to the blisters on my heels. Alice, had the opposite problem due to a recently diagnosed case of patellofemoral syndrome (or runner’s knee if you prefer the vernacular) so she was struggling to walk downhill. Somewhere far off, the Gods laughed.

Alston is quite probably the village featured in the Hovis adverts. I half expected to be taken out by a freckled ginger kid on an old fashioned bike, but the local youth were nowhere in evidence. Alston is famous for its sausages (apparently), for being the highest market town in England and all the streets are cobbled thus:


Down the hill in the picture on the right-hand side is the Angel Inn, scene of the previous night’s shenanigans. We briefly met another couple who were walking the Pennine Way in the opposite direction in the pub and they told us of the interminable slog they’d endured over Cross Fell and along the dubiously monikered “Corpse Road” that day to reach Alston; it was not the first portent of doom we were to have relayed on the subject of the next stage of our itinerary and with my disintegrating feet and Alice’s hurty knee we were already beginning to question the wisdom of trying to make it to the next point of civilisation: some 21 miles away in the remote village of Dufton. Neither of us felt particularly optimistic about such a gruelling march across some very inhospitable country so we decided to see if we couldn’t find an easier way.

Besides, I rather liked Alston, but clearly, not everyone felt so positive about the place.


It wasn’t an especially easy decision, and there are those, purists and long-distance walk fanatics who would surely have scoffed at us for even considering such a soft option. We were learning very quickly though that the Pennine Way is not an easy walk. The difficulty in navigation, the roughness of the terrain, the wet, the lack of shelter, the remoteness of the fells and the sheer distances that you are required to cover to get to civilisation all combine to create a challenge that is far more gruelling than we had expected. Besides, we decided that since this was our holiday, there was no sense in making ourselves miserable, so instead of setting out at some unearthly hour on a death march to Dufton, we decided to find ourselves a public transport alternative and take some time to eat, rest and recover from our two days of slogging over the interminable marshes of Northumbria.

Our first task then was to try and find some way of keeping our feet dry. We called in at the Hi-Pennine Outdoor Shop and found the staff there to be incredibly helpful and after discussing our predicament they even telephoned the youth hostel to see if anyone was driving to Dufton that day and would be willing to offer us a lift. Sadly, the fates were against us in that respect  but we did invest in a pair of Sealskinz waterproof socks each. I cannot even begin to convey how wonderful these things are, although they are not remotely cheap, so they are not the kind of socks you can stock up on. From this point forward I was blessed with completely dry and problem free feet – and that boon cannot be remotely underestimated when you’re on a long-distance walking holiday. Apparently, you can stand in water with them on, confident that your feet will remain completely dry, but the miracle is that they are like normal socks; they are breathable and warm and soft; it’s not like putting plastic bags or the like over your feet. We also, crucially found some butane for our little stove.

Eventually we found a convoluted route out of Alston and went next door to the Blueberry tea-rooms to wait for said transport, of course, with time on our hands and feeling rather hungry (in spite of the great feast of beer and lasagne from the night before) we ordered breakfast from the most surly waitress which it has ever been my displeasure to encounter. She stopped short of actually swearing or spitting at us, but we sat for a few stunned seconds in the aftermath of her taking our order before embarking on a discussion of exactly why anyone would take a job when they were clearly so unsuited to it. Even so, the breakfast, when it did arrive was delicious, so I cannot complain too much.

Our revised plan was to make our way to Dufton and camp at High Cup Nick, so I went back to the camping shop while Alice hunted down our transport options at the other end of the village. I bought a cheap plastic container and decanted a bottle of Jacob’s Creek Shiraz into it before joining her. The woman in the camp shop promised she’d think of us as she sat warmly and dryly in her house watching telly that night. If you ever find yourself in Alston go and say hello and please convey our warm regards to those in that fine establishment, they were most fine and friendly.

To cut a long and rather tedious story short, we eventually arrived in Dufton and proceeded to walk the 4 miles or so to High Cup Nick. Vertically. With a hangover.

Okay, I whined more or less incessantly, like a big girl’s blouse. Alice very stoically ignored me for most of the way, although (in my defence) she’d drunk less than me and even palmed off her last half pint of Black Sheep Ale onto me the night before. I realise that she didn’t put a gun to my head or anything, but still, it would have been a shocking sin to leave it to be tipped down the sink, so I felt that I’d really had no choice but to drink more than was sensible. Goodness, did I feel it though on the long climb out of Dufton that morning. For the first time we met substantial numbers walking the opposite direction; indeed, 80% walk the Pennines from South to North, but with Uranus rising, I wasn’t going to fall for that convention. The weather wasn’t especially wonderful either; more rain, wind and cold, August was beginning to feel distinctly distant and mythical.


We carried on, not sure where we were going to sleep that night, but knowing that we’d have to find a remote spot in any case because we had dallied overlong in Alston and couldn’t hope to reach human habitation before nightfall. It was looking grim, the weather was ferocious and so we marched on; little were we to know that it would turn out to be the best day so far.

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South Downs Scramble

(Itinerary: Eastbourne – Jevington – Alfriston – Cuckmere Haven – Friston – Eastbourne)

South Downs Way

South Downs Way

A brief interjection…

Having spent a week walking  a portion of the Pennine Way this summer, we felt it would be foolish to allow fitness levels to drop too much, quite apart from the fact that the more we use our kit, the more return we get for our money😉

So, on Saturday morning, armed with backpacks once more (it had become tricky walking without one…) we hopped on a train to Eastbourne and marched out of that town onto the South Downs Way. It is, of course, an entirely different proposition. The South Downs Way is, generally speaking, wide chalk-white paths etching meandering ribbons into rolling hills; none of the barren magnitude of the Northumberland wilderness. But it is none the poorer for that. The terrain, while mercifully free of that godforsaken peaty bog, is firm and easy-going but hilly. Man, is it hilly!

A Typical View of the Downs Paths

A Typical View of the Downs Paths

The first stretch, out of Eastbourne, decided against breaking us in gently and took us directly upwards, over a golf course and out onto breathtaking countryside, the hills nestling and overlapping like eggs in a basket, with distant views on at least two sides of a sparkling sea.


First View of the Downs - Sea on Horizon

We had decided on the following itinerary: march as efficiently as we could, via Jevington, to Alfriston where we would have a late lunch. Then, we would carry on up onto the Downs once more, find some Access Land on which to pitch our tent and have a light supper (thanks to our funky stove – yet another of this modern world’s greatest and most efficient inventions – have I mentioned that yet?) of cupasoups accompanied by tuna, mayonnaise and red pepper sandwiches (prepared before we left). Needless to say our itinerary – as appears to be becoming our trademark – bore little or no resemblance to the actual order of the day.

For starters, we had set off later than planned, necessitating a pause en route at Waitrose for a quick pork pie. Thank God we did. The walk to Jevington was beautiful. I have, as a child, walked on the South Downs on many occasions with my family, but had never started at this point, nor crossed these stretches. We passed a groove in the hills (Sussex’s rather subtler answer to High Cup Nick) called Harewick Bottom that was dramatically cut-away through the chalk. Incidentally, this is also a great route for cyclists as evidenced by the number who passed us as we wended our merry way. Knees and thighs moaning and groaning we descended into Jevington where we passed The Hungry Monk – a restaurant with, again, associations from my childhood. I remember my parents talking about going there (the name always did rather grasp my imagination) and that it was a pretty well-to-do establishment back in the day. It proudly stated from banners draped across its front that it had been serving fine food for forty years and I remarked on that fact to my lovely companion, just as a family of four passed us bemoaning the fact that it had gone downhill and was overpriced. Another sad symbol of our day and age…

Out of Jevington was nothing short of gruelling. I felt we were on a vertical climb, but it was credit to our week away that we managed it with neither a break nor a pause in conversation – we are becoming carthorses. Another gash scythed out of the rock, where a gentleman was flying his model aircraft (big boys and big toys) dropped dramatically away to our left as we began the descent into Alfriston.

The Descent to Alfriston (Beer!)

The Descent to Alfriston (Beer!)

We managed to entirely miss the Long Man of Wilmington, a figure dug into the chalk a very long time ago – arguments abound as to precisely when – but I am pleased to say we have seen him before so we weren’t too miffed.

Alfriston… ahhh… Alfriston! A lesson that needs to be learned. It is such a pretty village, but it has succumbed entirely to the temptation to fleece unsuspecting tourists and passers-by for whatever they have left in their purses. The George Inn charges positively outlandish prices for poncey-looking meals (I overheard a Spanish couple also commenting on the massive expense – baratisimo – as they perused the menu outside the establishment) whilst the pub down the road – now a brasserie, if you please – has at least the decency not to pretend it is doing anything but go upmarket. Not a hope of a pint of bitter there, though. The only remaining possibility for a relatively well-priced meal and a pint of beer is the Angel. Not inspiring, but it would probably have been all right. So disheartened and disgusted were we, though, at being shoved over a barrel and held to ransom in such a fashion that we sank a beer, begrudgingly, in the George and resolved to soldier on to the next settlement. There were several choices (our itinerary now, obviously, well out of the window) including Seaford – not our first choice; Litlington – rather small; and a promising-looking OS Explorer pint jug symbol signalling a pub near Cuckmere Haven.

Some of us were getting a little grumpy at this point. It had been a long time since our last meal and we had walked a good 8 miles by this stage. But on we plodded, narrowly avoiding a bit of a set-to with a feisty-looking herd of cows and their calves, to Litlington. The path from Alfriston to Litlington takes you along the Cuckmere river and is a terribly pretty route, probably the easiest going of the whole walk. The pub here (the Plough and Harrow) looked fine. The menu was reasonably-priced and consisted of delicious-sounding meals, but the time was 5.45 and they didn’t start serving food again until 6.30. Not knowing where we were going to camp for the night and needing to be far enough on with our journey to get to Eastbourne again relatively early the next day, we did not want to risk such a long stay and resolved to keep going to our next hope – Cuckmere Haven. Should this fail, Seaford was to be our last resort.

Litlington to Cuckmere Haven was gorgeous. Once again, the climbs were punishing, but the South Downs Way led us through Friston Forest to the timeless little haven that is Westdean, where every house is a picture postcard, and back up through Red Riding Hood country until we emerged to the awe-inspiring view of the Cuckmere Valley and the Seven Sisters Country Park.

Cuckmere Haven from Friston Forest

Cuckmere Haven from Friston Forest

On trembling knees we descended the slope to the main road which brings you out just by the Visitors’ Centre at Cuckmere, opposite the public car park. A short and increasingly hopeful walk along the road delivered us to the Golden Galleon – a welcome sight for the weary walker and oh, so very sympathetically priced. To add to our general delight, they had as guest ale Theakston’s Black Sheep – the very beer we drank a little too much of in Alston! Our faces warming and spirits reviving, we partook of some breaded mushrooms and a very welcome burger and chips, washed down by that rather lovely ale, and contemplated the horror of finding somewhere to pitch our tent in unknown territory in the dark (again! Will we ever learn?!) Stumbling out into the black, Jem came up with the rather clever solution of the grass along the bank of the Cuckmere’s meanders behind the car park.

It was a most fortuitous choice. Beautiful by night it was yet more so at 6.30 the following morning as we packed up our (rather damp) tent and prepared to be on our way. Dozens of geese flying overhead were our alarm call, a swan eyed us idly from its vantage point on the river, a white heron and a pair of cormorants flew by as we watched in speechless awe. Luck again, eh?

Eschewing the bus to Eastbourne, we opted instead for the five-mile yomp to give us an appetite for breakfast. It did not disappoint, but took us again through Friston Forest and Westdean, on into yet more and unutterably beautiful deep, dark wood (where we paused and employed our little stove for a well-earned cuppa) to Friston which was expansive but utterly deserted, with manicured lawns and empty houses – all a little eerie, out onto the farmland which was to take us the rest of the way back to town. Where we enjoyed a good ole English breakfast washed down with cups of tea. And caught the train home.

A weekend well spent, I am sure you’ll agree.

I have extracted a promise that next weekend we’ll do nothing. I mean, nothing. Except maybe watch a movie or two…


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Into the WILD! Days 2 & 3 – Hadrian’s Wall and on…

“To Hadrian’s Wall!”

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall

And off we yomped, alongside Haltwhistle burn with its tinkling waterfalls, leafy walkways and steep climbs. We took the pretty way. Oh, ok… we got a bit lost – all those bridges look the same on the map – and were rather bewildered as to how we had managed to get so far back from where we had intended to meet the Wall. Indeed, we spent a good hour by some quarry or other (whose name, mercifully, escapes me now) employing several methods including good old map-turning and rather natty orienteering, only to end up certain that we had, all doubt vanished, gone wrong. Oops. Great start.

But at least we now knew where we were. And Hadrian’s Wall was it. We fought our way through a herd of cattle (and have since read several articles about those who have recently been trampled to death by cross cows – a word to the wise: a bull on his own is far more dangerous than one with cows – he‘s far more interested in the cows; and never get between a cow and her calf – she’s likely to turn very nasty) and onto our rightful path. Contrary to what we had heard, the walk was almost entirely unpopulated. We encountered a mere handful of people and even those were mainly concentrated around the “hotspots”: those sites worthy of note that are accessible by car, requiring only a minimal amount of walking. It was the hilliest,  most breathtaking country; barren and beautiful with wide open views taking your eye further than any vista you can imagine. Those skirmishing Scots didn’t have a hope of the element of surprise.

Scouting for Scots

Scouting for Scots

Shoulders aching from the weight of our backpacks and knees groaning under the strain, we arrived in Greenhead at about teatime. The Greenhead Hotel is well acquainted with walkers – on this particular evening it was full of Ramblers – and has a menu to stick to the ribs of any hungry traveller. We ordered Cumberland sausage with mashed potato and onion gravy (which came with a token smattering of peas) and washed it down with the local Allendale Black Grouse. It was, with the noteable exception of our firm old favourite Theakston’s Old Peculier in whose country we had not yet set foot, the best beer we have ever tasted: smooth, black, almost Guinness-like and named after those very rare fowl to be found, I believe, only in those parts. We were lucky enough to see and hear them nesting in the grasses up on the wild hillsides.

Have you seen American Werewolf in London? Then you’ll get the idea of the kind of foolhardiness that was our next rather rash decision. A couple of beers under our belt and our Ordnance Survey Explorer map in hand, we decided to follow the advice of our little book and head for the nearby Access Land on which we would wild camp for the night. Access Land, for the uninitiated, is land that is generally used only for grazing and upon which wild camping is just about tolerated; as long as you pitch up near nightfall and are well away by first light. Our little book told us of a spot called Glencune Burn which, apparently, was just such a good spot and with a good hundred miles to go, we thought we’d try to get slightly ahead of itinerary. Perhaps we should just write an article on How Not to Do It…? Point 1: Stick to your plans. Or, if you really want to stray from them, make sure the replacement plan is well-researched and thought out!

Bravely, we set off for Blenkinsopp Common.

There is one word to describe the next few hours: bog.

Perhaps there are two, actually: bog and poo.

We fought through waist-high grasses, our feet disappearing ankle-deep in peaty bog, sheep poo and cowpats. The jovial mood produced by the pub’s fare was rapidly disappearing and hurtled headlong down the pan when we realised that part of that bog was Glencune Burn. You wouldn’t have a hope of pitching a tent there: it wasn’t possible to even stand without sinking… Disheartened, but not entirely discouraged, the only thing for it was to press on in the hope of finding somewhere more suitable. Which is when the path disappeared entirely in the midst of a vast field of cows and their calves and the biggest, stockiest, scariest, most evil-looking ginger bull you’ve ever seen in your life. He did not take his eyes off us once. The ground was threatening to swallow us whole, but it was anybody’s guess if it would take us before the bull did, or indeed one of his lady-friends protecting her littl’un. The sun was almost down; we had no visible means of escape; it was utterly impossible to camp here and panic began to set in.

Blenkinsopp Bloody Common

Blenkinsopp Bloody Common

It is hard to convey how dismally grim this part of the walk is. I’ll admit now that I was having grave misgivings about our “holiday” at this point: if it was going to be a week of this kind of soggy, miserable hell, I might well be catching the next bus (or cow, or donkey or whatever) home.

We scrambled through that field, hoiked our backpacks over the stone wall and took a breather while the adrenalin kicked in and abated. It was almost dark, we were off the beaten path and we had nowhere to camp. Our first night going it alone looked pretty doomed.

My beloved companion, sensing my impending mother-of-all-strops, put his best foot forward and launched us off to find a suitable spot to pitch our tent… to not much avail, frankly. However, on finding and following a vehicle-worthy track, what we did manage to do was find a signpost directing us back onto the Pennine Way. At which, of course, all panic dissipated and, safe in the knowledge that we were back on target, we set about pitching our tent on the edge of a field, out of sight of human or animal, in the proper wild camping style. We set it up quickly, got into our thermal jim-jams, inflated our bedrolls and snuggled into our sleeping bags just as the last light disappeared. Still without gas or fuel for our Kelly Kettle, there was no warming cuppa to send us off but we fell asleep almost immediately after our first rather epic adventure.

It was the most comfortable night of our holiday (with an obvious exception yet to come) and in the morning we discovered why.

All night it rained. It lashed down on us, we only vaguely aware of it in our snug and cozy tent. And it truly was: snug and warm and cozy. And so comfortable.

As we dressed, now a little nervous that, far from stopping the rain seemed to be strengthening in its determination, and stepped outside the tent we discovered that the “field” we had slept in was, in fact, a bog. The explanation for our night of extreme comfort was that we were, in essence, sleeping on a waterbed. We were drenched. I mean, soaked through. Our waterproofs went on over the top of saturated clothing; Jem was carrying a tent double its usual weight thanks to the water it was laden with. We were gone, dripping wet, and back on the Pennine Way before 6 o’clock in the morning.

A bit grumpy, frankly. And wondering if this was what the entire week had in store.

The next point in our How Not To Do It is about being prepared. If you are 1) in the middle of nowhere with 2) no realistic idea of where you are going to end up, it is as well to have about your person the wherewithal to nourish yourself. We had been clever enough to buy a pint of milk in the Haltwhistle Sainsburys the day before, but of course had no gas for our stove. We had been clever enough to bring along a Kelly Kettle (a fabulous invention in the right circs) but had no fuel for it. And, as you will no doubt have surmised, everything within walking distance was drenched. We had no food (“It’s all about weight – we’ll buy it as and when we need it”), no fuel and were cold, wet and hungry. Water we had in plentiful supply, thanks to our Aquapure (something I would heartily recommend to anyone undertaking a similar expedition), teabags and milk, but no means of heating the water. And we were gasping for a cuppatea. About an hour or so into our day’s walking, we decided to stop and attempt the Kelly Kettle. I am not kidding when I say it took an hour of fire-lighting, half the fuel from a lighter, several storm matches and, in eventual desperation, a night-light candle to get it going and hot enough for what turned out to be the hardest won cup of tea I have ever drunk. But boy! Was it worth it.

What we also had, I forgot to mention, was a bag of “muesli” (but not as we know it). Thanks to Jem’s rather delicate tum, it was wheat-free which, I guess, means that it uses rice flakes instead of wheat. The result is something that is utterly inedible unless you give it a good old soak first, but when you find yourself in the position in which we had landed up, it was manna. We had muesli, a cup of tea and on we went.

What followed was basically more bog, with intermittent rain showers and a few mouthfuls of beef jerky, until we reached a place called Slaggyford (great name, right?) There, both our map and our little book informed us of an old railway track, now called the South Tyne Trail, which would take us all the way to our next destination: Alston. The temptation was too great. “What?! You mean… avoid all this bog? Walk the last 5 miles along a path??” No blooming competition. Soggy and weary, as soon as we set foot on the South Tyne Trail out came the sun. Waterproofs were daringly removed, dry kindling gathered for the kettle and yet another abortive mission to light it. We had a second bowl of rabbit food doused in milk and found ourselves walking alongside a single-track steam railway. I blush to confess that this was the first time I used my Shewee. I shall not go into the sordid details here, but suffice to say I agree with all the positive feedback it has received. It is yet another modern miracle and I salute the person with balls (ahem – figuratively of course) enough to run with the idea.

On our last legs, having walked an entire day on two small bowls of muesli and some beef jerky, we shuffled into Alston and straight onto a set for Mad Max, aka our campsite. A site full of static caravans (basically a trailer park) on the edge of a parking place for skips full of debris and burning plastic it had roughly three pitches for tents amid the madness. But it was very friendly and felt far safer and more like home than the previous night… First mission: dry the tent. Dutifully we hung up the inner and pitched the outer. Second mission: blister plasters on. Third mission: hobble on blistered foot and hurty knee up the hill into town for supplies (See? We learn from our mistakes – Tracker bars, chocolate Digestives, more milk, nuts and fruit, Snickers, Twix and Choc ‘N’ Nut, Soreen Malt Loaf – prepared!) and find somewhere suitable for a drink and a hot meal. The Cumberland Inn served us with Black Grouse‘s cousin Allendale Wolf beer and the Angel Inn gave us Black Sheep and home-cooked lasagne, not to mention the company of two delightful elderly ladies visiting the area for an art course. It was deservedly very busy, that pub. The evening flew by and the night passed uneventfully. Thank God.

Tomorrow… How the hell do we get out of Alston??


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Into the WILD! Days 1 & 2 – the trek up North

Early on the morning of Saturday 15th July, backpacks as light as we thought we could manage (oh, how we laugh at that now!) we set off on foot from our home in Crowhurst to the station, a little under a mile away, bound for our week-long walk from Hadrian’s Wall to Masham; a total of around 110 miles give or take a few… 65 litre packs on our backs, we arrived at the station about 20 minutes later sweating, shaking, cursing and more than a little concerned. 20 miles carrying this? Already we were pondering what to discard there and then. But the train arrived and we duly boarded.

The trek to our destination – Hadrian’s Wall or thereabouts – was nothing if not an adventure; this largely due to the pallaver of the supposedly simplest part of our route: from home to London. Ordinarily a 1 hr 45 minute train journey, in the event (thanks to works on the line) we took a train to Wadhurst, a bus to Tunbridge Wells, then a train to Tonbridge, another to East Croydon and, finally, yet another to London Victoria. So, four trains and a bus later we had covered a measly 60-odd miles. Hah!

After a well deserved sausage from Banger Bros at Victoria Station, the next leg was equally gruelling but for very different reasons: a 7 1/2 hour National Express coach trip from London to Newcastle. If there is one thing I can recommend, nay, insist you take with you on such a journey (and indeed they will stand you in good stead on a campsite, too) it is earplugs. Initially, it appeared we were to be subjected to Radio 2 the entire way, but with enormous sighs of relief, the radio was silenced. Only to be replaced by, from the seat in front of us, the insistent beeping of a man sending text messages without predictive text. Endlessly. Most politely, Jem leaned forward and asked him if he might consider turning off the sound on his phone… He kindly complied, but no sooner had our shoulders slumped into a relaxed posture, than the hungover 18-year old at the back of the bus with a voice like a braying donkey took a phone call that lasted (in spite of her protestations that her phone battery was dying) for the next hour. I quote: “Oh my GOD! Robbie! Who do you think you are? What makes you think you have the right to know? I don’t believe you!” and more in the same deep philosophising vein. Her outraged, one-way conversation was then replaced by  the incessant yattering at a volume of more decibels than you’d need to employ to make yourself heard from one end of the park to the other, let alone when sitting next to your compadre, from the seat behind. Oh. My. God. Headaches all round. And the heat (take copious amounts of water) and the smell each time someone opened the loo door… But we did manage to employ the time usefully and read Trail magazine, which informed us of the wonders of the Isle of Harris (next summer?) and, oh so fortuitously, contained an article on precisely that which we were off to attempt: wild camping. It contained both useful information and handy tips, such as what kind of natural shelter to look out for, areas to avoid or aim for, how to judge it on the map, what supplies are essential (headtorch, poo shovel – nice! – faff-free food) and so on.

We had the misfortune to arrive in Newcastle just at the end of a match. The only fortunate part of this scenario was that the Toons had won and their Army were therefore in extremely good spirits. Nonetheless, entering the station concourse to find it lined with stern-looking giants of policemen was more than a little alarming. We changed our plan to stop there and have a beer and something to eat and, instead, took a train a little further down the line until we could link up with the one to take us to our final destination for the night. Our sanity, whilst awaiting said train, was saved by a charming old gentleman who asked all about our kit, where we were headed and entertained us with tales of his own experiences of walking with friends back in the ’70s – our end of the platform was a football-free oasis.

At Hexham we alighted for a drink or two, having wolfed a pasty back in Newcastle, at the Station Inn. It was here that we discovered how very much friendlier people are north of the Watford Gap. Indeed, the barmaid gave us such a warm welcome (and the establishment was so warm and cozy) that I was tempted to throw in the towel before we’d begun and opt for the B&B option (Beer & Bed…?) But, foolhardy pair that we are, we left in good time to make our connection and arrived in the small town of Haydon Bridge a little after 10 p.m. with 14 hours of travelling behind us. A 10-minute walk with ominously aching shoulders and the beginnings of blisters took us to our campsite, through an avenue of static caravans to the Reception area.

Our next hurdle was to erect our tent in the dark. The (frankly rather grumpy) owner of the campsite had apparently stayed up (good Lord! Till 10! What a party animal!) to let us in. He gave us the codes for the bathroom, pointed us to our “pitch” – a patch of grass next to the loos and alongside the river and then, in a rather doom-laden voice, announced that its level had risen three feet in the last hour. Oh, good. Looked like we’d be washed away in the night, then… It takes no more than ten minutes to pitch our tent. It’s a modern-day miracle: weighing in at less than 2kg (1.9 to be precise), it is ultra-lightweight and incredibly cozy. We got it pitched, strung up a washing line for our minging socks, changed into our thermals for bedtime (not the most attractive of attire, but boy did they keep us warm… oh… and amused), and headed to the loo block to perform our ablutions. Only my code didn’t work. Deep joy. I hung around until Jem reappeared and he stood guard while I used the Gents instead. Considering we arrived after dark and were due to set off first thing, I found myself wondering precisely what we were paying Poplars Riverside campsite for. In the event, we didn’t leave until after 9, and there was still no sign of our ‘landlords’… Thankfully, the following morning, a kindly caravan camper spotted me attempting once again and fruitlessly to enter the code I’d been given and came to my rescue. Amazing how just the one letter makes all the difference, isn’t it? He’d even copied it out in front of us!


The Lovely Jem and Haltwhistle Burn

We awoke to the stunning view of a swollen river and the sound of happy ducks, our tent being buffeted in a high wind. Then, toothbrushed, packed up again and realising we still needed to get gas for our little stove before we could even have a cuppatea, we headed off to find a route up to Hadrian’s Wall. The necessity for gas in mind, we decided to alter our itinerary somewhat and take a train to Haltwhistle where there was, our little book informed us, a camping shop. Need I go into the dramas that enriched our lives that morning? Perhaps I shall just list them: 1. The train was announced as cancelled, just as it pulled into the station (the conductor said it had happened all along the line) and was, as a result, our very own private means of transport. 2. The camping shop was closed – after all, it was Sunday. 3. The wind it did howl… We found a rather lovely cafe called La Toot which doubles up as a gift shop and whose owner was obliging enough to divert from the menu and make us a cooked breakfast. From. The. Gods. We will remain eternally grateful for that sustenance – it was to last us all the way to Greenhead.

After a rather disgruntled Jem had had a hissy fit and fistfight with the map, attempting to manhandle it into its case outside the Haltwhistle Sainsburys (where we bought some pork pies and a packet of Smash – more to follow on the joys of Smash) we headed off in the general direction of Hadrian’s Wall… after going a bit wrong (doesn’t that bode well?) and engaging the help of a willing local. From this point, dear reader, we were walking.

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Crowhurst to Rye… 20 miles across 1066 country

The longest and most challenging of our walks so far (actually, ever, for either of us), this was our “ultimate fitness test” before the Pennine Adventure begins. Our longest day’s walking will be 19 1/2 miles from Alston to Dufton, so if we could walk to Rye, we’d be okay for that yomp. (Let us, for now, gloss over the fact that the days either side of that particular walk will see us marching 16 1/2 and 13 1/2 miles respectively – not much chance of a rest-up… gulp). This walk followed the 1066 Country Walk, which we picked up just beyond Battle and which culminates in Rye.

We set off shortly before 11 on Saturday morning, a backpack between us containing a bottle of water, some of Jem’s home-made sausage rolls (with added red pepper – scrumptious), some beef jerky and a cereal bar or two, not to mention our aforementioned waterproof coats (which, in the event, we only needed to keep out the chill at the end of the night). We also decided (given my hurty knee – altogether now… “Awwwww!”) to give our new walking poles an outing. Mine are a gorgeous pink (which in my world of blue is a wonderful thing) but are sadly lacking the funky little compasses that Jem’s splendid blues ones sport in their handle.

Brakes Coppice Park to Crowhurst Park

Initially, we planned to cut out a little of our route by getting a train to Battle first but having realised that if we just walked across country from home it would make no difference to our journey, we did precisely that and it was beautiful from the outset. A little country lane took us past Brakes Coppice Park campsite, which we have not visited but can certainly advise couldn’t be in a much more secluded and beautiful spot. We walked through stunning avenues of immensely tall trees and a well-signed footpath (much of which was rather steeply uphill) brought us out past Crowhurst Park – a holiday park of pine lodges and leisure centre with stunning views, but a little crowded together for my personal taste – to the main Battle to Hastings road. Where we came a little unstuck. It has been hammered home to us on several occasions now how very much people tend to dislike maintaining a footpath (or indeed even leaving the sign up) when it passes across or very close to their land. Harumph. Grumble over. But after to-ing and fro-ing countless times, disappearing behind a Church and an abandoned pub in our hunt, we finally found several notices warning the daring rambler to close gates and keep dogs on leads and on no account to even think about bringing an unauthorised vehicle anywhere near them.

It was another beautiful lane taking us down into some woodland (where a dog sailed over a gate to get to us, thus proving it utterly ineffectual), past some of the most beautiful wild-flowered meadows (complete with rather picturesque beehive) and onward through the uncultivated countryside.

When we reached Westfield, the first place with a pub, we decided virtuously to wait until we got to Icklesham before succumbing to the temptation of a cold pint of beer on this hot and sweaty walk. We were actually to rather regret the decision as Icklesham seemed to get further away rather than closer. But it was a positive delight when we did get there (in spite of the rather rowdy clientele in the very beautiful, olde worlde Queen’s Head). Squirreled so effectively away that we managed to walk straight past it, the Queen’s Head has (I hope this description is not yet getting boring) stunning views, a play area for kids, a perfectly good looking menu and sensibly advises that it welcomes children but they should not come to the bar and adults are cordially requested to remove them before 8.30pm. All very sensible.

Feeling decidedly hazier, we crossed the busy road to rejoin our 1066. It was pointed out to us by a very friendly and keen-to-be-helpful chap driving past us and off we yomped again. This part of our walk took us past an over-laden plum tree (not on anyone’s land as such and therefore easy and delicious pickings), through extensive orchards (I am always impressed when landowners do both mark and adhere to the original footpath and this one surely did) which we surmised must be a cider orchard and at the end of which we espied a rather beautiful black windmill atop a hill. Here we stopped for a picture and, as we did, encountered said friendly, keen-t0-be-helpful gentleman walking his dog. He informed us, in his helpful way, that the windmill belongs to Sir Paul McCartney and that the ground floor is used, occasionally, as a recording studio. It was, allegedly, as a result of the land belonging to “McCartney” that the field was full of rabbits…. I’m afraid I failed to follow that logic. Nice spot, though…

McCartney's Recording Studio

And on we went. Through vast fields full of sheep, past the odd chained up sheepdog causing the lovely Jem to fair leap out of his skin, over a traditional unelectrified railway, to Winchelsea. On the approach to Winchelsea, the views were… okay, okay, you come up with another word…? Breathtaking. That’ll do. From one of the very few benches we encountered, we looked out over Pett Level to the sea. It was, all praises be to the gods of the weather, the most glorious of days and, although rather sweaty (quick drying, high wicking tee-shirts to be reviewed upon our return, when we’ve had a chance to test them) we couldn’t have asked for more.

The descent (and it really is a descent) from Winchelsea towards Rye was nothing if not painful. My knee, in spite of having worn a support which seemed to do little more than give me a rash thanks to the tightness and sweatiness of it all, was becoming excruciating on the downhill. Uphill and on the level, it was just peachy, but downhill… not. Really very not. Jem’s calves, too, by this stage were causing him some considerable discomfort, but the end was in sight. We were grateful for our walking poles, although we did only discover within two miles of Rye that we could tighten the handles and put considerably more pressure on them. Doh! Duly noted for those trekking days, huh? Jem has also just read that one walking pole is about as much use as one shoe. Daily rambles are one thing, but climbing the Fells – you need two. The last stretch to Rye was a feat of enormous effort and stamina, I have to confess, on both our parts. When we emerged blinking into the town, the signpost proclaiming one more mile to the centre almost forced a sit-in. I threatened, bottom lip wobbling, to sit and wait for beer and food, but Jolly Jem kept my smile in place and on we trekked for a pint in the Mermaid Inn, one of Rye’s oldest establishments, I believe used for smuggling in them there olden days, and also quite possibly haunted. But I might be making that up… It is situated in Mermaid Street, a picturesque cobbled street of pretty cottages covered in climbing flora and home to a very cool black cat. Truth be told, though, it was a little upmarket for two sweaty walkers and, our first drink duly consumed (they even decanted our bag of dry roasted peanuts into a little bowl for us – there’s posh!) we headed down to the waterfront where we found the much more downmarket Baileys. There we had another beer and a massive cheeseburger with chips each. Probably not the best burger we’ve ever eaten (that honour would have to go to Cafe Belge in Bexhill – I swoon salivating just thinking of it) it was from. the. gods. on that particular evening. We engendered much curiosity with our walking poles slung through the straps of our backpack and utter disbelief that we could, would or might even have wanted to walk so far in one afternoon.

Mermaid Street

Sore and aching, and just one more beer for the road from the Old Bell Inn – much more spit ‘n’ sawdust and rather full of unutterably bored-looking teens – we headed for the station. Once on the train we were informed that we couldn’t get as far as home that night. Trains run till all hours in the opposite direction, but who wants to get from Hastings to London after 10 on a Saturday night? We did. Or at least part way. Sigh. So we hopped out into the middle of a very scary Hastings night, with drunken arguments and much chip-consumption going on all around us, and found a very affable and affordable taxi driver to take us home where we tumbled with gratitude and relief into our bed for a very well-earned sleep.

On Sunday, we did nothing. I mean, nothing. At all.

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Thetford Forest Campsite – Puddledock Farm

Situated just off the A1075, in turn just off the A11 in Norfolk, Puddledock Farm is a campsite for sore eyes. Well, after the dramas we had getting there it was, anyway.

My virgin camping trip – it had been threatened many times in my life, but I had managed to avoid all sleeping under canvas thus far – a most spacious 6-man tent had been donated to us and, with funds at an all-time low… well… it would have been rude not to.

Four hours into our journey from East Sussex, having just turned off the A11, my beloved Jem turned to me (I the designated driver) and asked “You did pack the bedrooms for the tent, too, didn’t you?” I grinned at him – he is ever the joker – and said “Very funny. They’re in the bag with the rest of the tent, aren’t they.” Apparently not. Apparently, they were in a pile next to the bag containing the rest of the tent. In the garage. Where they had remained. After 6 pm on a Sunday evening there isn’t much open in Thetford, apart from a McDonalds. So… To cut a long story short, four small boys were deposited with accommodating grandparents holidaying nearby and a rather sheepish Al and her long-suffering Jem drove all the way back, loaded up tent rooms, slept for five hours and headed back to collect small boys.

The Tent

The Aztec Palacio 6 is, indeed, palatial. With three bedrooms, each accommodating two people, we were set up: grown-ups on an air bed in one, a five- and seven-year old in the middle one, and a nine-year old with his two-year old brother in a travel cot – yes, in a travel cot – in the third. Arranged around three sides of a square, the bedrooms leave an enormous living space inside the tent; essential when it’s just too wet to be outdoors.

We had committed the cardinal sin of not having practised putting it up before setting off so, with four small boys in the car (“Have you nearly finished?!”, “How much longer?!” etc) we set about erecting it. I guess it took around an hour this first time, but I reckon we could have it up in about half the time in future. Colour-coded poles and colour-coded hooks for the bedrooms make life a whole lot easier. In wet weather, the huge amount of space and very high ceiling mean that you can cook inside, albeit in the doorway, without any problems. In fact, if anything it provides a little much-needed warmth in such circumstances.

As far as we see it, there were only two drawbacks, really: the first is that it could do with another opening other than the main canopied entrance. The air-flow is not brilliant as a result. Secondly, the groundsheet doesn’t reach quite as far as the aforementioned entrance which makes for damp feet on that first loo-run of the morning, scrabbling bleary-eyed for shoes.

The Campsite

The campsite was brilliant. This was not what I had been led to believe camping was like. There was, a short walk away, a fabulous block containing a men’s area, a women’s area, a family area and a covered area containing four or five metal sinks with plentiful hot water for washing up. I cannot vouch either for the family or the men’s area (though I am reliably informed it was the same), but the women’s contained about five toilets, five separate cubicled basins for tooth-brushing and general primping and five showers: push-button operated and free with, once again, an abundant supply of hot water. They also, for those concerned with such things, had a hairdryer. And the whole block was so warm, clean and dry. Most impressive. I mean, wow.

On our arrival, we explained that we had four children with us including one particularly shouty two-year old (that’d be Bert) and we were directed to family row. Backing onto a playing field and children’s play area complete with all kinds of equipment for monkeying about on, we were surrounded by other families who really wouldn’t give a stuff about noise. Indeed, the pitch next to ours was home to a similar number of boys to us who offered the use of their footballs within a few minutes of our rolling up.

The whole site was extremely secure as well. Jittery at the best of times, even I relaxed enough to let my five-year old pootle off to the loo by himself. There is, after your initial registration, a coded barrier to let you in and an automatic one for your departure. I only really kept the two-year old close (and that more for everyone else’s protection than his own – you getting a picture of the little bruiser?)

There is a shop onsite which is not massively well-stocked but will keep you from starving and also keeps some handy equipment (including bottled gas) to hand. Relatively new to the ins and outs of such posh camping and after bemoaning the fact that our milk kept going off, we discovered (after the event) that they would have frozen our freezer packs if we had but asked… Duly filed away for next time. Two days a week, as well, a fish ‘n’ chip van sits in the car park from around 7.15 till they run out. Wonderful idea? We thought so. Until poor Jem got rained on prodigiously whilst queuing for fully an hour and a half for fish and chips that were at best mediocre. The following night, having bought some mince and a jar of cook-in chilli sauce, we cooked a family chilli con carne with much greater effect, on top of which we made many a mouth water throughout the site as it bubbled happily on our stove.

The stove is an all-singing, all-dancing Campingaz stove bought from Amazon at the reduced price of £40 (from £60). Being a bit of a skinflint, I balked a little at the price, pointing to “perfectly adequate” others, but was assured that we would need two burners and that a grill is a great little gizmo. Sure enough, he was right. It was fantastic. I cooked bacon, scrambled eggs and toasted bagels for six every morning with this little beauty (as well as the previously mentioned chilli and rice). It is big enough to hold a big frying pan and a big saucepan at once. The only thing I would have taken, had we thought about it, is some kind of windshield for it. We ended up using the box it came in, which served perfectly well. I am very glad to have had my head turned on this one.

Not that we used it – we were only there for four nights – but there is also a laundry room, which contains a wall of leaflets packed with local information. Our mission being to keep our holiday costs as low as possible, we avoided the likes of Banham Zoo, Grimes Graves etc, but we did allow ourselves one rather large treat…

Days Out

On our last full day there, having visited the local mammoth Tesco’s the day before to stock up on pork pies, coleslaw, chocolate biscuits and miniature bottles of wine, we set off to Duxford Imperial War Museum.  It took us around 45 minutes – an hour to drive there. Once in, it cost a whopping £16 per adult, but children were free. Yes, you heard right. Children. Were. Free. And that 32 quid lasted us the entire day. Quite apart from the constant taking off and landing of planes such as you’ve only ever seen in very old movies, Duxford is home to around 6 hangars full of planes, tanks, displays, works in progress, cafes… It is small (and big) boy heaven. It’s probably girl-heaven if you’re into that sort of thing: enough for me to see the massive enthusiasm oozing from each of the five males in my company. I think by far everyone’s favourite was the last on the runway: the Land Warfare Hall. The exhibits are set up to resemble real-life situations. You can see Monty’s train carriage containing his bathroom and bedroom, use telephone handsets to listen to voices from the past… Most impressive and well worth a whole day out. As usual with such things, probably far better to bring your own nourishment. For a family of 6 cafes are pretty prohibitively priced.

3 boys and a P51 Mustang

3 boys and a P51 Mustang

(More to follow… tired fingers :-))

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