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 8 - Alston to Bellingham

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Day 13 - Saturday 16th June - 16.5 miles - 1,800 ft ascent

Alston to Greenhead - GPS Not measured

Breakfast was at 8.00, and I ate with Sue and Maggie, who had come here with their luggage on the Sherpa van. There were a few other hostellers, but they were all self-catering. The combination of spin drier and drying room had done a fine job, and all of my things were dry, with the exception of my boots, which I never really expected to dry out properly. I then discovered at the bottom of my rucksack several things that had soaked up any of the water that had managed to get in. The water had run past things at the top without wetting them too much, but then collected at the bottom and soaked into the things down there. I sometimes wonder whether it would be better to have a hole, or holes in the bottom of a rucksack liner so that there is an escape route for the water that inevitably gets in during prolonged periods of wet weather. It was a pity that I hadnít noticed this last night, as I could have got them dry along with everything else.

The weather was overcast as I set off at 9.10, but it was a great relief to have hardly any wind and no rain. I called at the petrol station just across the road for a couple of things to supplement what I had left for lunch, then headed across the bridge and along by the river, from where there were some quite good views across to Alston and the hills beyond. After a mile or so the route heads up the hillside and along, giving wider views across the valley of the River South Tyne. Although this is not one of the most spectacular sections of the walk, it still offers some good scenery, which still looked fine even in these overcast conditions. Walkers often fail to appreciate this area after the grandeur of High Cup Nick and Cross Fell, as I did on my first walk of the Pennine Way, but now I was enjoying the walking here, and not just because the last couple of days had been spoiled by awful weather.

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Alston from across River South Tyne
River South Tyne
River South Tyne Valley
South Tyne Valley
River South Tyne Valley near Eals
Near Eals

I met up with Sue and Maggie and walked with them for a few miles before stopping for a rest just past Lintley, having walked about five and a half miles. The route here can be bypassed for a few miles by walking along the track of the disused railway line, but I tend to find these rather tedious, even though the walking is easier and drier, so I stuck with the original route. The path meandered about, going by the river a little way, then along the road to Slaggyford before heading up the hillside to Merry Knowe, where it clambers over stiles in and out of peopleís back patios. In most places where this happens, planning permission is sought for a footpath diversion, but here they seem quite happy with the situation, even putting up laminated signs saying ďPennine Way Straight Over WallĒ.

At Burnstones, the way climbs further up the side of the moor, and I found a pleasant spot by a small waterfall to stop for lunch, just catching a glimpse of Sue and Maggie a little way ahead. For a while now there had been a number of ominous black clouds hovering about with a few bright patches in between, and there had been a few spots of rain, with a band of rain visible just across the valley. I set off wearing my waterproof jacket, which was enough to cope with any light rain for the moment. Earlier along the way, the ground had been fairly waterlogged, but around here it was getting progressively worse, and my boots were starting to feel wet as I squelched though all the water.

I had a few problems following the route in places, as the waymarking was not as good as many parts of the route, but I managed not to lose my way to High House, where I caught up with Sue and Maggie. They were now slowing down a little, so I went on ahead, finding my way around a legal footpath diversion and up to Greenriggs. The scenery had deteriorated somewhat after leaving the River South Tyne valley, and the rain kept coming and going, but was never too heavy.

At Greenriggs the problems really started. The ground was very badly waterlogged and some boggy parts had been flooded. Over a stile there was water several inches deep, which meant working a way along by the fence and hanging onto the wire to keep from falling into the water. Having managed to detour round the water, I had now lost sight of the path, so went first one-way and then another to try to find it. I eventually managed to see a stile that looked characteristically like one belonging to the Pennine Way, so was able to regain the way for a while, but it was not long before I lost it again, as it was not very well defined. Eventually, I decided that I would enter a waymark about half a mile ahead, where the Pennine Way should be and just keep going over the rough ground until I got there. I came to a large area that was completely waterlogged, where a small stream had burst its banks and flooded the surrounding area. By this time, my feet were so wet that I had nothing much to lose by wading right through the middle of it all rather than wasting a lot of time trying to find a way around. The water came up to my knees in places, but at least I was able to head in the direction I needed to walk.

At last I picked up the path again and was able to squelch my way along for the rest of the way over the hill and down towards Greenhead. Before reaching the main A69 road, the route went through a field of cows along with their calves and a bull. The cows were unusually inquisitive and were also being protective of their offspring, so I tried not to antagonise them, nor upset the bull, though he was the only one who didnít seem to be taking any notice of me. Nevertheless, I thought it prudent to take a roundabout route to the next stile. The road was very busy with cars travelling at high speed, so I had to wait for a good gap before going across, as I didnít feel in the right state to make a dash with boots still half full of water, and my feet feeling rather sore.

A little further on the way crosses Greenhead golf course. Oddly enough nobody was playing golf, probably because they didnít have tees that were long enough to hold their golf balls above the level of the surface water. Finally I dropped down off the golf course and along the side road leading into Greenhead. The Youth Hostel at Greenhead is now an enterprise hostel, owned and run privately by the owners of the Greenhead Hotel, though still advertised through the Youth Hostel Association. I checked in at the hotel and then a girl showed me across the road to the hostel, just as a heavy downpour started. Although I had not met any heavy rain all day, this had not been the case here, where torrential rain had flooded four cottages which had needed the fire service to pump out the water.

The only plus point about the bad weather was that the central heating in the hostel was on, so I had a large radiator on which I could hang my things to dry, rather than having to rely on the variable efficiency of hostel drying rooms. I returned to the hotel to have a very good meal of braised rib of beef together with some John Smithís Smoothflow, as the real ale was still settling and wasnít ready to serve. Sue and Maggie arrived about half an hour after me, having been caught in the latest downpour that I just managed to avoid. When I had finished my meal a chap came into the bar to warn anyone who was staying at the caravan site that it was flooding and they may need to move their cars. Looking out of the window, there was a stream running down either side of the road, and this was forming a huge pool at the bottom of the hill, though apparently it was nowhere near as bad as earlier in the day.

I was feeling rather weary after the trials of the last few days, so went to my bunk to lie down. The heating hadnít been on for long, but it had been enough to give a head start in getting my clothes dry. I nodded off on my bunk and before I knew it my watch was saying 23.00 and it was then time for bed anyway.

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Day 14 - Sunday 17th June - 21.4 miles - 3,100 ft ascent

Greenhead to Bellingham - GPS 23.5 miles

I had a good nightís sleep and dragged myself out of bed at 7.00, hoping to get as early a start as possible. Normally I have breakfast wearing my evening clothes, then change and pack everything, but today I decided to have breakfast in my walking clothes so that I could then just put on my boots and be off. Most of my things had dried except, of course, my boots. Normally the heating would not have been on if it hadnít been for the exceptional weather conditions and I would then have had to rely on the drying room with only a fan blowing round cold air, and a dehumidifier, which in my experience are pretty useless at drying things unless the weather is quite warm.

Breakfast was in the hotel and a lot more expensive than Youth Hostel breakfasts. A fried breakfast including one round of toast was £5, but everything else was extra Ė tea, fruit juice, extra toast, cereals etc., so I just made do with a full breakfast and tea. Sue and Maggie were in there as well as an elderly lady who was walking the Pennine Way from north to south. She was walking in trainers, which had started to rub having got wet, so she was wondering whether to buy some boots in Alston. I told her that, although boots keep out the wet a bit more, in the conditions that prevailed at the moment nothing short of a pair of waders was going to keep her feet dry, and Sue and Maggie confirmed that their boots had got soaked as well.

Sue and Maggie had had a bit of an argument about the heating and drying room last night, as by the time they arrived the heating had already gone off and without heat in the drying room it was useless. They had said that they had paid their money and expected to be able to dry their clothes to which the landlord replied ďYes, but how much have you paid?Ē The heating costs a fortune to run, as it is driven by bottled gas, and the building is an old converted chapel and requires a great deal of heat to get it warm. In the end it was agreed that they could put their things in the tumble drier instead. The real answer to the problem would be to have some form of heater in the drying room that didnít rely on all the rest of the heating being on and would, therefore, be far more efficient and economical, but the setup was a legacy from the Youth Hostel Association from whom they had only just taken over.

I said farewell to Sue and Maggie as I set off at 8.35 - they were only going as far as Once Brewed today then Bellingham tomorrow, so I would not see them any more as I would be ahead of them from now onwards.

After finishing the walk and publishing the account on my website, I had contact with Sue by e-mail. It appears that they decided to pack in the walk at Greenhead shortly after I left them, having had their spirits dampened by the awful weather of the previous few days. Maggie decided to hang up her boots completely and planted pansies in them (an idea she got from Langdon Beck Youth Hostel), whilst Sue decided that she was going to come back again sometime to finish off what she had missed of the walk. She told someone when she got back that the experience had scarred her soul, which I thought was a very profound way of expressing it, but I was pleased to hear that she still had the fighting spirit and wasn't going to allow the bad experiences to get the better of her.

The Pennine Way now shares this part of the route with Hadrianís Wall Way, and I made my way to the ruins of Thirlwell Castle, where I nearly took the wrong route, having gone up past the castle, but I soon realised and went back down. This part of the way is quite strenuous, as it goes up and down over all the steep crags, but the effort is well rewarded by the lovely views. The wall adds historical interest as well, but this would make a marvellous walk even without the wall.

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Thirlwall Castle near Greenhead
Thirlwall Castle
Walltown Quarry and Crags on Hadrian's Wall
Walltown Quarry
Cawfield Quarry and Crags
Cawfield Quarry

After a couple of miles of crags, the way got easier for a while until the next section of wall and crags at Cawfield, where I stopped by the flooded quarry for a break at 10.30 with nearly five miles of hard walking done. The weather had been quite good so far with some patches of sunshine, but generally fairly cloudy. There were a lot of midges about because of the humid conditions, especially by the water. Continuing along more of the crags there were fine views back and forth along the Whin Sill, the layer of hard rock that comes to the surface here, forming the crags on which Hadrianís Wall was built. By now there were large numbers of people walking the wall. Earlier, I had met several Hadrianís Wall Way walkers who had obviously set off from Once Brewed, but now there seemed to be lots of people who were just out for the day, which was not surprising, as it was Sunday.

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Hadrian's Wall on Cawfield Crags, overlooking Cawfield Quarry
Cawfield Crags
Crag Lough and Highshield Crags from Cawfield Crags
Highshield Crags from Cawfield Crags
Hadrian's Wall on Highshield Crags, overlooking Crag Lough
Highshield Crags

It was hot and sticky weather for all this strenuous walking, and I was constantly mopping the sweat from my brow as I went along. There were various marquees set up in strategic places for visitors, but I didnít bother to look in as I wasnít particularly interested in the touristy side of things, and I didnít have a lot of time to spare Ė I was far more interested in the splendid scenery. At 13.00, I at last reached the parting of the ways where the Pennine Way departs northwards to the dreariness of the forest, leaving the rest of the wall for others. I have to say, though that I wouldnít fancy walking the whole of Hadrianís Wall Way, as only a small part of it goes through particularly fine scenery, the start being through industrial areas and council estates in Newcastle, and for much of the way there is not even any evidence of the wall to be seen.

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Milecastle 39 on Hadrian's Wall
Milecastle 39
Looking back to Crag Lough, Highshield Crags and Cawfield Crags from Hotbank Crags
Highshield Crags from Hotbank Crags

I had my lunch break overlooking Broomlee Lough and took the opportunity to take off my boots and socks as my feet were feeling the effects of being saturated yesterday, which did them more damage then they had suffered for the whole of the rest of the walk so far. Both big toes had blisters underneath and there were several other sore spots as well. Because my boots had still been wet when I set off this morning, my feet had gone wrinkly again, so a good airing would dry them out a bit and help with the rest of the walk. I did a bit of surgery on the blisters, cutting them with a small pair of scissors to let the fluid drain out. A pin prick doesnít work very well, as all the white blood cells form a clot almost immediately and stop the fluid from escaping. A definite cut works far better, though it needs the scissors (or a knife) to be very sharp for it to be accomplished both easily and painlessly.

I couldnít stay too long as I still had over twelve miles left to walk, albeit faster and easier walking, so I set off again at 13.45. The views of the Whin Sill were not over yet, as it was nearly two miles before I entered the forest and there were good views in either direction on the way. Even when the forestry started there had been some clear felling with more sympathetic replanting, so the views were not lost completely for a while. I got onto a wide forest track, which had quite a good surface for walking, and I was able to make good speed along there. The partial drying of my boots and socks had helped my feet quite a bit and there were signs that parts of my boots were starting to dry out, though the thing that was holding this back the most was the padded inner lining that had soaked up a lot of water.

After a while I started to wonder why I hadnít come out of the forest into a clearing for a while, as I should have done, so I checked with my GPS and found I was over half a mile off route. I couldnít see which route I was actually following, as the wide track I was on must have been built after my guidebook was printed. There was no way I could make my way through dense forest to get back on the right track, so I just had to carry on and see if I could find somewhere to rejoin the Pennine Way. To help with this, I entered into my GPS the grid reference of the point where the way met up with the road, and was quite relieved when the way I was walking was taking me in that direction anyway. After a while the track swung round to the east, so I knew it would have to meet the Pennine Way at some point before long, and sure enough it did. The Pennine Way is a much narrower and greener track than the wide forestry road that I was on, though it had fortunately not cost me much in the way of time and effort, as I had enough distance to cover already without adding any more.

By the roadway, I stopped for another rest with eight miles still to go, and was off again at 15.55. The next part of the way, though not through forests, was still uninspiring. It wandered up and down over gently rolling countryside, offering only limited views, though the going was mostly easy and it was reasonably firm underfoot considering the recent weather. I had met one or two Pennine Way walkers coming towards me today, but so far none going in my direction that I knew of. With about four miles left to go, I stopped for another short break Ė my feet were rather sore, but didnít feel too bad whilst I kept walking, as the pain from my blisters was numbed after a while. Following a rest, however, the pain returned for about half a mile or more, so I would be very glad to get to Bellingham to give them a proper rest.

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Bellingham from Ealingham Rigg with Callerhues Crag above
Bellingham from Ealingham Rigg

The last stretch into town first of all involved a climb up to Bellingham Rigg, which is not very high but a bit of a haul at the end of a long day, although the climb wasnít really the problem, it was more the state of my feet. From there I could see my destination of Bellingham, and it was just a matter of dropping down to the road and following that for the last mile or so into town. I phoned home whilst I was walking along the road, as it gave some distraction from my feet and helped to make the time pass more quickly. My B&B was right in the centre of town, and I found it very easily, arriving at 18.45. By now my feet were feeling very sore and it was a great relief to be able to remove my boots and socks and have a refreshing shower.

After a nice pot of tea, I went off to get a meal, trying first the Rose and Crown, which didnít serve food on Sunday and then the Cheviot Hotel across the road that was serving meals, but only in their restaurant upstairs. As I was going across to the Cheviot Hotel, I was joined by Steve, a cyclist who was staying at the same B&B, so we went in together and I had a very good lasagne plus a bread and butter pudding along with a couple of pints of one of the local bitters. My feet were hurting quite a bit as I walked along, so when I got back to my room, I investigated further and found two more blisters that needed bursting. All this had come about by walking with wet feet, so I was hoping that I could get at least one pair of socks dry by the morning to help matters, as my boots were now a little less wet.

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