The Pennine Way Revisited - 1994

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 2 - Kirk Yetholm to Byrness

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Day 1 - Sunday 12th June - Kirk Yetholm to Uswayford - 11.5 miles on PW + 2.3 miles to Cheviot Summit and back + 1.5 miles to B&B - 3570 ft ascent on PW + 280 ft to summit

N.B. The calculation of mileage is a somewhat inexact science and that of ascent is even more so; different figures tend to come out depending what methods are used. The figures I have given are based on my own measurements and my own counting of contour lines, but should only be used as a rough guide. Where accommodation has been used within about half a mile of the route I have included that in the main figures, but where longer detours have been required, those have been shown separately.

Accommodation: B&B Uswayford Farm - 20 dinner B&B

After a reasonable night's sleep, I had breakfast at about 8.30 a.m. using some of the provisions that had been left over by the Holiday Fellowship, so I didn't need to use some of the things I had brought with me and was able to "save my bacon" for another day. The first three hostels from the northern end have no meals service, so there is a need to carry a few things in reserve, especially for Byrness where there is nowhere, other than a cafe at the petrol station to buy provisions.

I set off walking at 9.30 a.m. on a very pleasant morning. A sign on the back of a seat by the roadside up the hill out of Kirk Yetholm proclaimed "Blessed are those that love the hills", which I thought was very appropriate for the start of the walk. It was warm work climbing, especially carrying a full pack, so it was not long before my shirt had to come off. The day's walk would only be about 15 miles including the two and a half miles walk to Cheviot summit and back which could be done without carrying a pack, so there was plenty of time to take it easy and have plenty of rests. This is much appreciated at the start of a walk whilst one is still building up to the daily walking routine carrying considerably more weight than on one-day walks. After climbing onto the first ridge at about 1500 ft there was a pleasant breeze to take away a little of the heat generated by climbing.

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College Valley from The Schil
College Valley from The Schil
College Valley from Mountain Refuge Hut
College Valley from Mountain Refuge Hut

As I was approaching The Schil I met a couple of Pennine Way walkers coming towards me. They had spent the night at Uswayford Farm where I was heading, and were completing the walk in 18 days. The Schil was a convenient stopping place for lunch, although in this warm, dry weather anywhere would have been fine, whereas in wet or windy weather the Cheviots offer very few places where there is any shelter. This is why the mountain refuge huts are so invaluable.

After lunch and a pleasant laze in the sunshine, I set off again and made my way to the mountain refuge hut, which is just before the ascent to Auchope Cairn and Cheviot Summit, and commands a beautiful view down College Valley. I called in to write in the visitors' book and found that there were not a great deal of other entries over the past few days, so I could only assume that the number of walkers was quite small. There were a few day walkers about, as it was a fine Sunday afternoon, but there was no sign of any other Pennine Way walkers for the rest of the day. The climb up to Auchope Cairn was hot work as it is quite steep and the sun was at its strongest. I chatted with a couple for a while on the way up, which was a good excuse for a rest, and then soon reached the plateau. The two and a half mile round trip to the summit of Cheviot is optional, and there is not much of a view to be seen from this very flat-topped mountain but, as I had plenty of time and the weather was fine, I decided to take it in. Normally it was very difficult going over boggy ground, but now it has been almost completely paved with the large stone slabs which have appeared in great profusion over the past couple of years on the Pennine Way and some other popular walks. With no pack to carry and a firm path underfoot the walk was no effort at all; even without the paving it would not have presented much of a problem as the ground was so dry.

The triangulation column on Cheviot summit looked even stranger than on previous occasions. It used to sit on a big chunk of concrete which stuck about two or more feet above the peat, this presumably having been bared by erosion since the column was erected. Now it has been built up to about double that height on concrete blocks. The only reason that I could think of for doing this would be to bring the height back to what it was before most of the erosion of the summit started, although it is just as well that the Ordnance Survey no longer tend to use the columns as they would have needed a step ladder to put a theodolite on top. As well as having a stone path right up to and beyond the summit, there are obviously other conservation measures afoot, as there were several large rolls labelled as hanging basket material at the summit. These are used to give grass seeds something stable in which to establish themselves, as it is otherwise almost impossible to get anything to grow on what often turns into a sea of liquid peat.

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The Cheviot from Clennel Street
The Cheviot
Uswayford Valley and Farm
Uswayford Farm

The weather remained beautiful for the rest of the day and the few clouds which drifted over at about 4 p.m. soon cleared away again. I arrived at Uswayford at 5.35 p.m. and was welcomed with a cup of tea. In the shelter of the valley, with little breeze, it was very warm indeed, even though it was still about 1200 ft above sea level. Apart from being a convenient halfway point along the Cheviots, the valley of Usway Burn is beautiful and is well worth visiting in its own right, especially on such a beautiful evening. The view from the living room and bedroom windows of the farm are marvellous, and the walk along the side of the burn very pleasant.

The accommodation had been upgraded quite a bit since I stayed three years previously. There used to be ten beds squeezed into a large and a small bedroom with little space for anything else, but now there are only four beds in the large room and two in the small one. The rooms have been fully refurnished and decorated and there are such luxuries as a television set in the bedroom and a pay-phone on the landing.

I was the only one staying there that night, which surprised me a little, but apparently June is a very quiet month for walkers, despite the fact that June and September are recommended as being the best months for the weather. There is a busy period in May and then it is quiet until colleges and schools finish in July.

I reminded Mr and Mrs Buglass that I had been there three years earlier with a man of 69 called Bernard whom I had met along the way. They instantly remembered him as the one who was travelling light by leaving his false teeth at home! He is the sort of character that you don't forget in a hurry. We all wondered how he was getting on now, but that is one thing you never know with people you meet in passing. I am very bad at keeping in touch, so I tend not to bother exchanging addresses with people I meet, as I know I will never follow it up by writing to them.

I had dinner of soup, beef with vegetables, and rhubarb pie which went down very nicely despite the fact that I was not feeling very hungry because of the heat. Afterwards, as it was such a lovely evening, I went for a stroll up the valley. Two streams converge a little way up from the farm. One is near the path I had followed on the way down, so I followed the other one a little way up to a waterfall, above which the valley looked less interesting. I therefore returned to the other stream and followed that upstream instead. There were lots of fish, mainly about four or five inches long, and occasionally one or two could be seen leaping out of the water. Further upstream was a duck with her brood of little ducklings which were ushered under the river bank because of my presence, with mother duck keeping guard nearby. The nearby forested hills are the home of a number of deer and I saw several including one male who was making a loud barking noise. The area also hosts a good bird population and I was fascinated by some which I think were grey wagtails as, when they landed on stones in the stream, they gave several very distinct wags of their tails, almost as if they were trying to gain their balance. One advantage of this time of year is the long daylight hours which make evening strolls like this possible. It was still quite light when I returned and went to bed after watching television for a while.

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Day 2 - Monday 13th June - Uswayford to Byrness - 13.8 miles on PW + 1.5 miles from B&B - 1600 ft ascent on PW + 280 ft from B&B

Accommodation: Byrness Y.H.A. - 5.90 bed only (no meals service)

I woke briefly around dawn and then again to the smell of fried bacon to find that it was nearly eight o'clock, the time I had asked for breakfast, so I rushed round and made my way downstairs. Mrs Buglass told me that it had been reported in their county magazine, The Northumbrian I think, that they were the most isolated habitation in Northumbria, which probably means they are one of the most remote in England. They farm sheep on a thousand acres stretching up towards Cheviot. Their nearest neighbour, a lone farmer who doesn't get on much with people, lives three miles away and the nearest ones they call neighbours are four miles away, whilst the nearest shop is over twenty miles away. These days the roadway to the farm is of a reasonable standard but when it was just a cart track they were once cut off by snow for four months. Nowadays they make a lot of use of a vehicle which is like a four-wheeled motorbike for rounding up sheep and generally getting about the farm.

The morning was very warm and sunny again and I set off at about 9.30 a.m. to retrace my steps for the mile and a half back up onto the Pennine Way. As I walked up the valley I met up with Mr Buglass bringing the sheep in with his dogs, so I crossed over the stream to avoid getting in their way. There was hardly any movement of air on the way through the forest, so it was warm work climbing back uphill until I reached the ridge again, where there was a bit of a breeze to cool me down a little. I rubbed on some sun tan cream as I was quite red with the exposure from the previous day. At least I wasn't as bad as a couple of chaps that Mrs Buglass told me about who set off from Kirk Yetholm and were so sunburnt when they reached Uswayford after walking without shirts that they had to abandon the walk and go home. My shoulders were a little sore and my nose and cheeks very red, so I decided it would be best to keep them covered up as much as possible to avoid making things any worse.

A short way further on I stopped by a cairn on the side of Windy Gyle for a rest and a drink and I spent a little while looking around with the pair of compact, lightweight binoculars I had brought with me. I stopped again at the summit of Windy Gyle for another good look at the fine panoramic views. It was a very clear day and I could see a distinctive ridge of hills to the south standing out above a sea of mist which covered the low lying land before them. Consulting the map showed them to be Cross Fell, Great Dun Fell and Knock Fell, with Knock Fell being about 53 miles away. I strained through the binoculars to see if I could make out the 'golf ball' radar station on Great Dun Fell and I could just about make out a small dot, although it wasn't very distinct.

Windy Gyle, at just over 2000 ft, was the highest point on the day's walk. The remainder of the walk was over a series of hills, progressively lower in height, leading down to the forestry village of Byrness. Much of the walk over this part of the Cheviots previously involved a lot of 'bog-hopping', but now the ubiquitous stone paving slabs are appearing over all the worst parts and also over a lot of places where they are not really needed. Considerable stretches of path had already been laid and there were other stretches where the slabs had been lifted in by helicopter and left on pallets ready for laying. Even without the slabs, there would have been little difficulty walking after the long spell of dry weather, but when it does rain on the Cheviots it tends to do so in considerable quantity turning the path into a quagmire, so a firm stone path will make progress in those conditions much easier. The only trouble is that some of the feeling of the wild remoteness of the area is lost once a stone path is laid - the Pennine Way becomes a bit more like the Pennine Motorway! I feel it would have been a lot better to put down a few slabs as stepping stones through the worst of the bogs and to have left most of the less boggy areas untouched, especially as there is no real erosion problem over much of this area.

On the first day of the walk I met very few people, and that was on a beautiful, sunny Sunday. This day I really felt that I had the whole of the Cheviots to myself, which gave me a marvellous feeling of peace and solitude. The only unwanted intrusion was from the flies, which were in abundance because of the weather, and then the peace was briefly shattered by an RAF fighter which came almost within hand-shaking distance.

I stopped for lunch at Mozie Law with the weather getting hotter and hotter. Taking off my T-shirt, which I had kept on all morning, I found that my chest was bright pink. Obviously, the nylon shirt I was wearing was letting too much sun through, especially where it had an aerated patch across part of the front, so I put on a liberal layer of sun cream and changed to a different shirt. It would have been much nicer to have been able to walk without a shirt, but I didn't dare risk getting more sunburned than I already was.

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Catcleugh Reservoir near Byrness
Catcleugh Reservoir

My next stop was at the mountain refuge hut near Lamb Hill at 1.30 p.m. where I met the first walkers of the day. They were a couple of women who were just setting off from there heading for Uswayford Farm. Mrs Buglass had said she was expecting two women that night, but she didn't think they were on the Pennine Way; in her letter one of them had signed her name as Lady somebody, so I had commented that she would have to be on her best behaviour, to which she had replied that they would have to take her as they found her. Soon afterwards a couple of day walkers came by as well, but didn't stop. Once again, the visitor's book in the refuge hut hadn't got many entries over the past few weeks. As I set off again, I could hear gunfire from the M.O.D. training area nearby and hoped that I wouldn't get caught up in the cross fire, although it is supposed to be safe outside the marked areas. It was still very hot and made worse from time to time as the breeze kept dropping. The scenery is less impressive at the southern end of the Cheviots but there are still some lovely valleys going off on either side of the ridge. As the ridge is rather flat-topped it is often necessary to make a little detour to one side or the other to get a proper view, although it is not possible to go too far to the east because of the M.O.D. area. I made a detour to the west which was well worthwhile, and I also went to the east as far as the warning notices by a cairn. Littered around the cairn were several .303 cartridge cases. They were all blanks, but about five of them had not been fired.

My feet were starting to develop one or two blisters, mainly because they were sweating and had gone soft and wrinkled, but none of them were too bad. I had also had to put a folded hanky in my left boot to stop my ankle bone from rubbing, as it had got rather sore from walking too fast a week or two previously. This was working quite well and the problem at least was not getting any worse after two days' walking, provided I walked carefully and steadily.

I eventually reached the Youth Hostel in Byrness at 5.50 p.m. only to find that the door was locked. This is a hostel without a resident warden and there was a sign in the window giving directions to the warden's house around the corner. I set off round there and met the warden coming the other way with two other hostellers. She opened up and booked us in and then left us to it until the morning. The other two had come by car and were doing a few days' walking in the area. I had a shower, which is always very refreshing after a day's walk, but even more so in such hot weather when the sweat has left a layer of salt all over. Then, after making a cup of tea, I washed some of my things to put in the drying room. Although this is only a low-grade hostel it possesses a wonderful invention to help with the drying of clothes - a mangle. Although it was a bit the worse for wear, it did an excellent job of extracting most of the water so that they could dry much quicker. This is something that many of the higher-grade hostels never seem to think about, although one or two do have spin dryers. When clothes have to be wrung out by hand they are very seldom dry in the morning, even in a good drying room. In this case it was an old-fashioned solution which was every bit as effective as a modern invention, with no running or maintenance costs.

I rang home from the nearby telephone box and then set off in search of food. The cafe belonging to the petrol station was closed by this time, so I went across to the pub where I had jumbo sausage and chips for 2.50 plus a couple of pints of Newcastle Exhibition on draught, sitting outside in the pleasant evening sunshine. The chap serving behind the bar was rather disorganised to say the least and looked like an absent minded professor with his thinning hair ruffled about and his boy scout shorts. He couldn't get the beer to pull properly and spent ages fiddling with the pump and going into the cellar. I ended up getting about three quarters of a pint in my first glass with a promise of a top-up later. I had finished the glass, and my food had arrived before he had finished messing about and dealing with a few other customers, so I asked the girl who came with the food for another pint. She went straight to the pump, adjusted the sparkler on the nozzle and pulled me a pint with no difficulty at all in about ten seconds flat. I told her that I still hadn't paid for the first one and hinted that it had not been full, but it seemed too complicated at this stage with another full pint and my meal to eat to worry about topping up the previous pint, so I didn't press the point. I looked around the pub to see if there were any other Pennine Way walkers but couldn't see any about - it definitely seems a slack time this year.

I returned to the hostel and passed some of the time away on the rather rickety snooker table in the common room. The surface of the wooden table was so uneven that the balls rolled around wherever they pleased, so there was no science involved at all, just luck, not that I am much good at snooker anyway. After that I went off to bed for an early night.

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