Pennine Way 2007

Author: George Tod

This walk is illustrated with photographs. Click on small photo to enlarge in situ, or click caption to enlarge into new window.
Part 7 - Langdon Beck to Alston

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Day 11 - Thursday 14th June - 12.6 miles - 900 ft ascent

Langdon Beck to Dufton - GPS 13.2 miles

I went down for breakfast at 8.00, which was a cold buffet, but there was enough there to fill up on. The weather was still unsettled, but the cloud base was fairly high with only light rain on and off at the moment. There was no rush to set off early, as it was only a short day’s walk with not much opportunity to stop on the way in the poor weather. My things were almost dry from the drying room, but it is seldom that everything dries out properly. Last night I had to re-wash some of the things I washed in Hawes because they were still damp and starting to smell.

It was eventually 9.40 before I set out into drizzly rain and a cool wind, wearing my usual shorts and polo shirt plus my waterproof jacket, as that is normally sufficient for walking if the rain is not too heavy, nor the wind too cold. However, it wasn’t long before the cold wind and rain started to get through to me and I had to put on my over-trousers. The way was easy at first, with fairly level walking following the river for a few miles until the obstacle course started around Falcon Clints. This is an area where the rocky hillside comes right down to meet the river, which means there are a lot of angular stones that have to be negotiated. Care is needed in dry conditions, but in the wet every footstep has to be chosen with extra care, as the stones become very slippery. I made plenty of use of handholds on the nearby rocks to give me more stability, as I didn’t want to risk taking a nasty fall.

The worst part lasts for only a short way, but there are a few other sections that still need care in the wet, and these weren’t the only hazards, as there were some manmade ones to contend with as well. There were several sections of duckboards and other planks all made of bare wood with nothing covering them to improve the grip. With a little bit of rot on the surface of the wood, these can be extremely slippery in the wet, and in most other areas these have been abandoned in favour of other types of pathway improvement. Another place where the pathway makers had gone awry was a section of flagstones that had been laid, or had sunk, below the level of the surrounding ground, making a very good course for a stream in wet weather.

Once round the clints, it was not long before Cauldron Snout started to come into view. This series of cataracts in the River Tees is very impressive, but here the flow of water is totally dependent on how much the tap is opened from Cow Green Dam, which stands just above. This means that the flow tends to be fairly constant regardless of the rainfall, except in extreme weather conditions when the flow may be adjusted. If care were needed on the clints, even more is needed when negotiating the rocks beside Cauldron Snout, as there are potentially far more serious consequences of a bad fall here. Again, on a dry day, it is relatively safe, although the rocks can still get wet with spray at times.

Above Cauldron Snout, there is a well-made track that crosses the river and follows Maize Beck for the next few miles, gradually ascending the hillside as it progresses. The route diverts off for a way around a Ministry of Defence area, before meeting up with the beck again. On the approach to High Cup Nick, there is now a nice new bridge across Maize Beck, leading to a very good, firm, grassy path on the southern side, which was luxury compared to what I remember of the boggy path on the northern side, especially in wet conditions like today. I had seen the two women from the hostel a long way ahead of me for some time, but I was gradually closing the gap and finally caught them up by High Cup Nick. The only thing was that the wind suddenly increased in strength to gale force just near the edge, making it very cold and difficult for walking. I did get a view, but only a brief one, as it was too dangerous to go where the best views were to be had, and I was too intent on making sure I kept on my feet.

I had hoped to take shelter just over the lip of High Cup for my lunch break, but I was in danger of being blown off my feet by the ferocious blast anywhere near the edge, so had to move away and keep on going, as did the two women. We did eventually reach a little hollow further along where there was some respite from the wind so I decided to take shelter and put on something a bit warmer by wearing my fleece under my waterproof jacket. This was easier said than done, as my hands were going numb with the cold, not so much because of a very low temperature, but more because of the enormous wind chill factor. Eventually I got things sorted out and was able to stop for a while to eat my sandwiches and have a drink, whilst the two ladies decided to keep on going as quickly as they could.

Another hazard was that the rain had made all the little streams down the hillside very full, so it was often quite tricky finding ways across without the risk of slipping on stones or treading into deeper water. At one point the water was coming over a rocky slope forming a little waterfall, which had to be crossed with great care. Again, there was not much chance to take in any views, but I did manage to do so briefly before hurrying on hoping for some shelter from the wind. I thought that as soon as the path descended a little way things would start to improve, but the improvement was only marginal and the gale force wind followed me all the way down to Dufton. The only thing in my favour was that the wind was behind me rather than blowing rain into my face.

I reached Dufton Youth Hostel at 2.35, after less than five hours walking, as I had just kept going with just the one brief stop. The hostel was open when I got there, so I was able to go to my dormitory and then have a shower and get changed, leaving check-in until 17.00. The two women were already there and, after getting changed had gone over the road to the pub. I was quite surprised that I was not all that wet, although the rain had not been very heavy, it was the wind that was more of a problem. It would appear that the particular layout of hills and valleys around here can cause extreme localized weather conditions, in particular high winds, when nearby places are not affected to anywhere near the same extent. There is even a name given to the wind; the Helm Wind. A few things in my rucksack had got a bit damp but in general I had fared pretty well.

The two women, Sue and Maggie had decided that they were going to miss out tomorrow’s walk over Cross Fell. This was partly because Sue had been finding that she had some sort of allergic reaction that caused her legs to swell up if she did a lot of mileage in one day. This had happened when they took the wrong route on the way to Tan Hill Inn and ended up doing a 20-mile day, six miles more than they should have done. The other reason, of course was the weather, which was not likely to improve tomorrow. They were having their luggage transported by the Sherpa van, so had arranged to travel in the van with their luggage to Alston.

A chap who was doing the Pennine Way north to south arrived at the hostel, having come over Cross Fell in appalling weather conditions of heavy rain, wind and mist. He had been camping all of the way so far, but after two nights of bad weather everything was damp so he needed a night in the hostel to dry things out. It ensued that I was the only one eating in the hostel, as Sue and Maggie were going over to the pub, the other chap was self catering, and the only other hosteller was an elderly man driving down from Aran to Cambridge, who said that he was not very hungry. I had tomato soup, fish cakes, chips and peas and fruit pie.

Outside the hostel, in the back garden was quite a wildlife centre, with rabbits on the lawn and a couple of playful red squirrels climbing around by the shed roof, and a lot of birds around the bird feeder. Although red squirrels have been almost wiped out in many parts of the country, this is one area where they still have a hold, although I have heard that they are making a comeback in some other places now.

I went over to the Stag Inn and joined the other three Pennine Way walkers for a drink. The chap who was walking north to south was on his fourth walk of the Pennine Way, which he seemed to have taken up doing on a regular basis since his divorce a couple of years ago. He had the air of a schoolboy who was excited about everything, talking about things in a giggly sort of way. Sue was also divorced, always bright and cheerful, and liked a drink or two, whereas Maggie’s favourite tipple was a nice pot of tea. Her face was set in a permanent scowl with only the occasional hint of a smile, not that she was unpleasant in any way, but with her accent from the Todmorden area, her face seemed to say “Eh but its grim up north!” Whether Todmorden has that affect on other local people, I do not know, but it seemed to have left its mark on Maggie.

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Day 12 - Friday 13th June - 19.4 miles - 3,200 ft ascent

Dufton to Alston - GPS 19.7 miles

I had a reasonable night’s sleep except for hearing things flapping and blowing around all night in the strong, gusty wind. It didn’t seem quite as bad as it was yesterday afternoon, but I had no doubt that it would be pretty bad on top of the high fells of today’s walk. My plan for the day was really just one for survival, the aim being to battle my way to Greg’s Hut against all the elements and to take shelter there for my lunch before completing the rest of the walk over the fells and down to Garrigill, where things should get easier for the rest of the way to Alston. To avoid having my map-case with guidebook flapping about in the wind, it would be better to make use of my GPS for route finding, so I took the trouble to enter the grid references of various points along the way to Greg’s Hut as waymarks, which should guide me there no matter what the visibility. From there onwards, it was just a matter of following the well-defined track over to Garrigill.

The drying room had been quite good, so most of my things were quite dry to start off the day. I put more waterproofing on my boots and then went down to breakfast at 8.00. The forecast didn’t look too bad, but then it was printed off at the time when there was a force 8 gale blowing yesterday and yet it was showing 20 mph winds for that afternoon, so I didn’t have a great deal of confidence in it with the same wind speeds predicted for today. However, the forecast was for Penrith, the nearest reasonable sized town, and this would not take account of the Helm Wind around here.

When I set off at 9.00, it wasn’t actually raining, but there was a lot of cloud around, though it was almost clear of the fells, but not quite. However, there were still some very strong gusts of wind. With everything packed as well as I could against the elements, I set off wearing just my shorts and polo shirt underneath my waterproofs, thinking that the heat I would generate from climbing nearly 3,000 ft would be more than enough to keep me warm. Making my way along the lane from Dufton by the side of Dufton Pike, the wind was blowing ferociously for much of the time and there was a trail of branches broken from the trees lining the way. In places there was some shelter afforded by parts of the hillside, which moderated the wind a little, but by now it had started raining steadily making it more unpleasant.

After a couple of miles it was apparent that the heat I was generating by climbing was being more than compensated for by the combined chilling effects of the wind and the rain. Rather than letting myself get into the situation where I was getting very cold and losing the dexterity of my fingers, I decided to stop by a wall for shelter and put on extra clothing. I was not very high up at this point, but it was obvious that I was going to need as much extra warmth as I could get. There was going to be a problem with my legs, which normally are OK just with my over-trousers to keep out the wind, but today this was not adequate and I needed to change from my shorts into my evening trousers for a bit more insulation. Of course, this meant getting myself almost undressed in the process, but with the wall offering shelter from the wind and rain I managed to achieve this without too much difficulty. I didn’t have to worry too much about getting caught with my trousers down, as there weren’t many people about, oddly enough. The next thing was extra warmth for my body, so I dug deep into the bottom of my rucksack and pulled out THE JUMPER. I have been carrying this jumper for years, both on long distance walks and day walks and I cannot remember the last time, if ever, that I have worn it, so it must have been carried for at least 2,000 miles as extra ballast in my rucksack. Now was its turn to earn its keep, so I put it on under my waterproof jacket, still keeping my fleece in reserve in case things got really bad. Fortunately I had brought a woolly hat and some mittens as well, though I only decided to include these after experiencing a spell of very chilly weather shortly before my walk commenced. The woolly hat went under the hood of my waterproof jacket and I tightened the cord around my face to keep things in place and to keep out as much of the wind and rain as possible. The mittens were made of the same material as a fleece, so were not waterproof, though they still provided quite a bit of insulation even when dripping wet.

One problem I would have to face later would be that my trousers would inevitably get wet and I had no others to wear in the evening, but it was far more important to look after myself now and worry about my trousers in the warmth and dryness of the Youth Hostel. With the extra clothing under my waterproofs I felt a lot better equipped to face the elements, and I packed away everything including my guidebook at this point, leaving only my GPS for navigation. I was now starting the main ascent of Knock Old Man, which is a steady climb, but with the wind whistling down the hillside blowing rain straight into my face it made things a lot more difficult. The wind strength did vary as I progressed, with some parts of the mountainside offering more shelter than others, but there were other places where the wind was funnelled down small valleys with even greater intensity than it was elsewhere. It was a slow and hard climb, and I just kept looking at my GPS to see how much altitude I was gaining and how far it was to my next waymark.

For most of the ascent, I was still below the cloud level, so I could look back and see Dufton Pike and Knock Pike, though these were not the ideal conditions for admiring the view. At about 700 metres, I started to enter the cloud and my visibility then dropped to between 50 and 100 metres. It was not too long before the shape of the large cairn marking the edge of the summit plateau loomed out of the mist ahead. As I reached it, the wind became even more ferocious and my face felt as it were being used as a pincushion by the raindrops that were being blasted into it at high speed. My old guidebook showed the route going over the plateau to the summit itself, and there was a reasonable path leading there, but when I turned to head for my next waymark on Great Dun Fell, there was no path leading in that direction, so I had to head across rough ground until I picked up the main path again. I should have remembered this from last time I was here when I had discovered that the well trodden path appears to omit the summit and takes a shortcut along the edge of the plateau. However, it wasn’t too long before I reached the path and then headed for Great Dun Fell.

Although the wind was stronger up here, the change in direction of the path meant that the wind was coming from the side rather than straight into my face, thus making it a bit easier and more comfortable to make progress. Now that I was on the main path again, it was just a matter of pressing on and watching the various summits I had waymarked on my GPS come and go. The next was Great Dun Fell with its large dome housing a radar station, which I didn’t see at all. I could see the perimeter fence and part of a building but the dome was lost in the mist. Little Dun Fell was next and, as I was approaching the summit, a most violent gust of wing stopped me dead in my tracks. With a great deal of effort I managed to force my way forward into the wind until I reached the summit where it eased a little.

From Little Dun Fell, there was a section of stone slabs over some of the more boggy ground, and I tried to avoid these, not because of my general dislike for them, but because I was finding them dangerous. With a powerful side wind and with some of the slabs having a camber in the wrong direction, my feet were nearly slipping on the wet surface. Fortunately it was possible to walk on the ground to either side without too much difficulty, and in other places I was able to place my feet on the edge of the slabs where vegetation was growing over them, giving me better grip. Where neither of these options was possible, I just had to exercise great care in where and how I placed my feet.

This left just one final climb onto Cross Fell, the highest fell of them all. Cross Fell has a large circular plateau with a craggy lip around the edge, though the Pennine Way route enters the plateau where there is a gentler ascent. The wind had eased off a little now, though the temperature was quite low at this altitude so I was starting to feel cold, especially as quite a bit of wet had got through into my clothing, and I was not now generating as much heat by climbing. The weather forecast for Penrith gave temperatures of 9 degrees Celsius, but here, being the best part of 2,000 feet higher, would be about 4 degrees less. Taking into account the wind chill factor, which must have been at least 20 degrees, made it feel as if it were way below freezing.

After the walk, I looked up the weather data shown for Howhill Weather Station near Garigill, only a few miles away. Surprisingly, this showed worse wind chill for the next couple of days than for yesterday and today, whereas my experience was just the opposite, though this just indicates the very localized nature of the Helm Wind as it swirls around the fell tops and funnels down the valleys. Some more searching on the Internet showed that the maximum mean hourly wind speed recorded on Great Dun Fell was 106 m.p.h. on 12th January 1974, with a highest gust speed of 133 m.p.h. on 17th January 1993 - not good days to be walking the Pennine Way! There was also an average of 114 days of gale force winds a year between 1963 and 1976. The Helm Wind occurs when an easterly or north easterly wind blows up the gentle slopes on the eastern side of the Cross Fell Range. The air cools as it rises to the summit and it then drops rapidly down the steep western slopes creating strong gusts of wind in the gullies leading down into into the Eden Valley. When the cool, descending air meets warmer air down in the valley, it is eventually slowed down to the normal wind speed. However, the cooling of the warm, moist air by the cold wind causes condensation, which rises in the form a ridge of cloud call the Helm Bar. The places most affected by this phenomenon are those on the western side of the fells, such as Milburn and Dufton, whereas places like Penrith, some miles further west are not affected at all, though the sound of the raging winds can still be heard there.

The way across Cross Fell is marked by a series of large cairns a few hundred yards apart, as the stony ground means that the path is hardly visible. This would normally be fine, but in the mist it isn’t possible to see from one to the next, so it is just a matter of aiming in the right direction and waiting for one to come into view. The summit has a large shelter in the form of a cross, but I saw little point in trying to shelter there when it was only about a mile to Greg’s Hut, the mountain refuge where I was planning to have my lunch. The route off Cross Fell seemed to deteriorate from a wide path into virtually no path at all, and I found myself walking over rough ground for a way before I picked up a feint path that joined the track to Greg’s Hut. It is all so much easier when there is good visibility, as there is a much better idea of where everything is, but I knew that if I just kept going, even if I had lost the path, I would soon meet the track.

It was a great relief when the hut finally came into view and it was not long before I was able to go inside and be sheltered from the wind and rain. The only trouble with mountain refuge huts is that, although they appear to offer shelter from the elements, the temperature inside is often lower than that outside, as the walls chill down overnight and are slow to keep up with the rise in temperature during the day. It was not long before I was shivering with cold, so I looked into the possibility of lighting a small fire in the stove. All the materials were there, but I first tried to light a cigarette lighter and, with my wet hands that were going numb with the cold, I couldn’t get it to light. There were two boxes of matches, one of safety matches and one of ordinary ones, but both lots were too damp to light, so it looked like it was going to be a hopeless task. Into the bargain, I needed to relieve myself and my numb fingers were unable to unfasten the zip of my trousers that had got wet and was jammed. Things were not looking too good, but I had some sandwiches and a few other things to eat, resigning myself to staying cold and having to keep my legs crossed.

Click to Reduce

Inside of Greg's Hut on Cross Fell, with the much appreciated stove
Inside Greg's Hut
Greg's Hut on Cross Fell
Greg's Hut

My hands had dried out a bit by now, so I had another try with the cigarette lighter and managed to get it to light, as I was no longer making the flint wet with my hands. There was a supply of screwed up newspapers and kindling wood, as well as thicker pieces of wood, so I soon got a blaze going in the iron stove, though a lot of smoke was blowing back into the hut caused by wind coming down the chimney. Once the fire got going a bit, it was possible to press my hands on the top of the stove and get a bit of warmth into them, eventually bringing enough life back into them free the zip on my trousers. A sign said, “Please write in the visitors’ book”, but it was a while before I had enough dexterity to manage a pen, and even then my writing was very shaky.

In all, I spent an hour in the hut before I decided I would have to press on. My main objective had been to reach the hut, thinking that from there I would soon start to drop down and be more sheltered and warmer, but I had forgotten that the track from the hut stays at quite a high level over the moors for four or five miles before dropping down into Garrigill. Fortunately, the wind had now dropped considerably and the rain had eased off, so it didn’t make me as cold as I had been before, though I was still in and out of the mist along the way as the track went up and down close to the cloud base. Much of the way was rather stony underfoot, but it was generally possible to walk on verges or to pick out more even parts of the track most of the time.

It seemed never-ending as I kept on going over the bleak moorland, just hoping that round the corner I would find the way start dropping down towards Garrigill, but eventually my hopes were fulfilled and Garrigill came into sight. As I was approaching the bottom of the track, I saw a chap walking up towards me. This struck me as rather unusual in the bad weather, as he didn’t look like a walker, nor did he have a dog with him. At first I passed him, but then he turned round and said he recognised me - he was one of the three Dutchmen I had met at Tan Hill Inn. He had had a problem with his knee, so had taken a taxi from Dufton to Garrigill, whilst the other two had set off over Cross Fell, and one of these was the 80 year-old. The chap I met was expecting them to have reached here by now, but they had set off half an hour later than me and, judging by their slow rate of progress from Tan Hill, they could still be quite a way behind even though I had spent an hour in Greg’s Hut. It was more than likely that they would also have rested there for a while, but I was still somewhat concerned for their welfare, knowing how bad the conditions had been.

In Garrigill I called at the phone box to ring home and let Jean know I was safely over the fells, as I knew she would be worried, knowing what the weather conditions were like. All that remained now was a walk along the South Tyne Valley to Alston. The first part of this walk followed close to the river bank, and was quite pleasant, but then it crossed over a footbridge and followed a route up the opposite hillside, losing sight of the river for most of the way and crossing countless fields and stiles, making a generally uninspiring walk whatever the weather conditions. I had been on my feet for virtually the whole of the day, as even in Greg’s Hut I spent most of the time on my feet trying to get the fire going or thawing out my hands, so they were now starting to feel the effects, and I was looking forward to reaching Alston so that I could get warm and dry and give them a rest. It was not just my feet that were feeling the effects of today’s walk, as my wet clothing had been rubbing, making me quite sore in places, so it was a great relief when Alston came into sight; first the graveyard (for those who hadn’t made it over Cross Fell), and then the Youth Hostel for those who had.

I reached the hostel at 17.50, dripping wet and very glad of the good drying room, which even boasted a spin drier so that I might stand a chance of drying out my washing. The Youth Hostel Association website didn’t show that meals were available, but this was a mistake, so I was able to order breakfast. They also do evening meals, but nobody else had ordered one, so I opted for the pub to save the warden the bother of making things just for me. After a long hot shower to warm me up again, I sorted out my things to find out what had got wet and what had not. Most of the things in my rucksack appeared OK, or just slightly damp, whereas the things that I had been wearing were mostly soaking wet, including my jumper that now weighed a ton, but went into the spin drier with the rest of my washing. The only thing I could do with my trousers was to wear them, which was the quickest way to get them dry. To give them a head start, I delayed going to the pub until after 19.30, but then when I got to the Blue Bell they had already finished serving meals so, after a quick pint of Black Sheep, I went across the road to the Cumberland Arms Hotel for a steak and ale pie, before returning for an early night, as I was rather weary from the day’s efforts.

One thing that illustrates how much difference the weather makes to the amount of fluid required is that, in the whole of today's walk, which involved nearly 20 miles of walking and over 3,000 ft of ascent, the only drink I had was a 250 ml carton of fruit juice. I had plenty of drink with me, but just didn't find the need to have any more. On a warm, sunny day, I could well have had ten times the amount and still been thirsty at the end.

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