Posts tagged Blenkinsopp Common

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.

alston2

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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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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