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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:

alston

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.

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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.

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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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Training Days and Kit Reviews

Filthy weather...

Filthy weather...

An opportunity then, to say hello and review a couple of pieces of kit. As an astrologer (with Saturn in Aries for those in the know) there’s nothing I like better than to tramp off into the wild and walk a few hundred miles (with frequent beer stops). As a Libran, I like to drag Al along too, and not just so I can delegate all the decision making.

The photograph shows me wearing my new coat, new boots and new rucksack, all of which are replacements for older or unsuitable items, or replacements for those things which my ex-wife decided to keep after we split (which means pretty much everything I owned).

Very shortly we will be setting off on our next great adventure. It ought to – in theory – encompass the following itinerary:

  • A half hour walk to the train station in our village.
  • A train journey to London.
  • Across London on the tube to Victoria.
  • A coach journey to the Toon (Newcastle).
  • A train journey to Haydon Bridge
  • A night’s camping on the bank of the South Tyne River
  • A day’s walking along Hadrian’s Wall
  • A week’s walking South down the Pennine Way for a hundred miles
  • A night spent at the White Bear, home of the Theakston Brewery where they sell Old Peculier (in pints! On tap!)
  • And all the way home again…

As a result we need gear that is lightweight and affordable, so we have spent a few weeks planning and organising on this basis. I aim to review all of the clothing and equipment we buy over the next few days and weeks and obviously, I’ll wait until I’ve used the new kit before writing it up.

With a view to getting fit for the gruelling trial ahead we spent last weekend walking. On Saturday, rather than taking the car to the supermarket we walked a circuitous route to that Cathedral of Despair, Tesco and we carried the groceries home in rucksacks encompassing maybe ten-miles all told in some extremely variable weather. My Green Party tee-shirt didn’t fare so well being made of rather heavy cotton (and you should never wear cotton while hiking because it doesn’t breathe well), so I was uncomfortable toiling up some of the hills in the sunshine. The way home was characterised by some fairly torrential rain, which actually I didn’t mind, especially with my new boots and coat.

Karrimor mens Mount Mid weathertite Hiking ShoeThe boots I bought because my old Caterpillar walking boots were fairly worn out and too big for me in any case after I lost a fair amount of weight a couple of years back. I wasn’t sure about needing new boots but, boy, am I glad I decided to go for some new Karrimor Mount Mid Weathertite Hiking Shoes. We followed this trek up with a 14 mile, village pub crawl on Sunday and I was impressed with the boots to say the least. They are extremely comfortable and at only £30 (down from £75) you can’t really go wrong with these. The only very minor problem I’ve had with them is that they rub a little on the toes of my right foot but I think I can fix that with judicious use of a broom handle. I bought a good pair of walking socks (at the aformentioned Cathedral of Despair) and they were very much improved as a result.

The boots have radically improved my sure-footedness on difficult and uneven terrain and they are totally waterproof. When it rained very heavily the water would run down my legs into the tops of the boots however, but this would be fixed with wearing trousers rather than shorts of course. A pair of gaiters would do the same job too. All said, I cannot recommend these boots enough, extremely well-made, comfortable and durable, and for the price, what’s to think about?

Let me take this opportunity to agree with Jem. These boots are a blooming marvel. I have heard, on many an occasion, the words of wisdom: “Make sure you wear new boots in” but these just don’t need it. Straight on and off for a trek with no sign of a blister or rubbed ankle. Nothing. (Sadly, I don’t think we can say the same for the aforementioned socks – false economy frankly – but I’m sure Jem will fill you in). I have to say, I am glad we did get them a bit mucky first, though, if only to avoid the rather un-cool “virgin boots in the Pennines” factor 🙂 Oh, also available in two colours, so not too “his ‘n’ hers” either.

Trespass Packa Unisex Tech Pack Away JacketThe coat too is a marvel. It’s one of those pack-away, compact, lightweight marvels made by Trespass and it cost me a rather precise £16.63. It weighs in at a mere 330g and is about the size of the body of a wine bottle when packed away. As for the features, it’s waterproof with taped seams, breathable and windproof, and so at that weight and price it’s ideal for the journey ahead and I found it to be very comfortable. Of course, bearing in mind the price it’s not premium quality, as with all pack-away jackets the hood leaves a lot to be desired, but I’ll be wearing a hat in any case, and it would keep the rain out if I had to use it. Sizing is not so easy since it’s a unisex jacket; Al, who is slim and gorgeous but rather tall at nearly 5’10” and a size 10-12 got the small and it fit perfectly: if you’re shorter or more petite then an x-small size would be the way to go. As for me, at 6 foot and – despite a liking for beer and chips – with no noticeable excess around the middle, the medium fits just right. I’m not entirely sure what kind of gargantuan freak you’d need to be to merit the xx-large.

Once again, totally in agreement. Snug enough to provide a layer of warmth as well as weather-proofing, it is also roomy enough for an extra layer underneath in chillier climes. Perfect cover from ear lobe to upper thigh. However, as already mentioned, the hood, like most, is not brilliant. It has elasticated adjusting strings, meaning you can create a hole the size of an orange to breathe through (but not see much), or it’s too loose and flies off. Needless to say, though, it wasn’t until we got home and were packing them away again that we noticed the velcro adjustment. Doh! Would probably have helped a great deal. Our plan, though, is simply to wear a hat / cap underneath and leave it relatively loose for some extra, albeit none too reliable, cover. Oh, and one last word: packed away in its snugpack, it’d probably make a pretty passable lightweight pillow, too…

I’ll add any supplementary news about the gear as it gets tested, along with reviews of our further travels and other good stuff as and when it occurs. Tomorrow we’re planning an 18-miler to the beautiful coastal harbour at Rye.

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