The Pennine Way
Day 10 – Monday 3rd September
Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.
The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why.
- Roman Wall Blues – W. H. Auden
As in Hawes, the difficulty in getting up early while in a nice, comfortable bed was considerable, and hard discipline was called for. Once up we got dressed, retrieved our washing, sorted out our packs and ate what little we had left for breakfast, intending to stock up on food once we reached the village of Slaggyford which, according to the map in the guidebook had a post office. As we set out we considered finding a supermarket or shop in the town to buy food from, but since we were running late we decided to risk it and hope that Slaggyford would be good enough for our needs. Alston is the highest market town in England at over a thousand feet, and well worth a visit according to many sources. But again, for us it was just another nice place to pass through, so we walked across the gravel drive of the hostel and looked for the nearby bridge to take us over the river.
Crossing the bridge over the River Tyne, we turned right, with Alston now to our right, and continued up a long gravel track which soon became a path as it passed Harbut Lodge. Behind the fence to our right, several dogs started barking and trying (it seemed) to chew their way through the fence and hedge to get at us. We left them behind and carried on up the track, through the long grass and down to a stream where we crossed and found a muddy path that led us up into pasture and sheep-fields. A farmer was driving around in his truck, moving a large herd of sheep around as we passed, though this clever chap also had a dog with him, so he was clearly leaving nothing to chance. Up ahead we came to a field with several black cows in it. As we reached the gate to the next field, I put my hand on a nearby post, and felt a powerful jolt. For a second I thought I had pulled a muscle in my leg, but when I lifted my hand from the post I noticed a thick wire had been nailed to it, a wire that ran around the circumference of the field. Ah… that’ll be the electrified fence I thought. As Darryl caught up to ask what was wrong, I looked around and saw that all the cows in the field were staring at me as though I was some kind of idiot which, in all fairness, I was.
After traipsing through more pasture, we came back to a road and continued along it, seeing the nearby railway line across a field to our right. I was starting to get an odd, niggling feeling in my left thigh, and hoped it wasn’t going to progress into something serious. Soon though we passed a caravan site, and soon after that came to the delightfully named Slaggyford. There was little activity in the village, but we did pass a man mowing grass on our left, so we stopped to ask him where the post office was.
“What Post Office?” Was his less than inspiring response.
We showed him the little symbol marked on our map.
“Oh, that closed down about six months ago,” he informed us, apparently unaware of what an effect such dire news might have on a tired, hungry and irritable pair of long distance walkers.
“Is there anywhere else we could get something to eat?” Darryl asked. “We’re not fussy.”
“Well,” he replied, “there’s the pub down the road in Knarsdale, but they won’t be open until twelve.”
With this information we pressed on, wondering if we could wait the hour or so for food, gaining much needed energy but losing a lot of time and distance. Since the pub was in the general direction we were heading in, we decided to walk there and make our final decision when we reached it. For all we knew the owners might be prepared to open early for us. As we walked down a long lane we saw an elderly man (though he looked very healthy for his age), trimming the hedge near his house with long shears. A Border Collie ran about nearby, diving through holes in the hedge to keep itself occupied while its owner busily culled the foliage. As we passed, the old chap turned and asked us if we were walking the Pennine Way.
“Trying to,” I said cheerily, and explained our bad luck in trying to find supplies in Slaggyford. The man nodded in understanding, saying, in a soft Scottish accent that he had to drive to a supermarket several miles off our route to buy food. He confirmed there was a pub down the road and said it was worth trying it even though we’d be early. He then told us that he used to live in the Cheviots, and told us how tough the weather could be there sometimes, but how beautiful the mountains were. He gave us some advice concerning how to keep to the Pennine Way on the mountains after leaving Byrness. We thanked him and wished him well, wondering if we’d be meeting more Scottish people as we walked further and further North, since we’d heard a couple of Geordie accents in Alston.
By the time we reached the pub we were dying for sustenance. There were two couples sitting outside, but the pub looked closed. We asked them if it opened at twelve, and when they confirmed this in a very definite tone, we got the impression that they were the staff or owners, and had no intention of opening up just for us. Still, it wasn’t the end of the world, and we thought we could make it to Greenheads before getting in too bad a state. Besides, we’d already endured hardships that would test the toughest of people, particularly the horrendous mountain weather of the day before, so it was time to concentrate on covering the distance to the next town and ignoring how hungry and thirsty we were. Water, in fact, wasn’t a problem. We had enough to last a few hours, it was food that we could do with, since we’d had a small breakfast, and every step we took burned off more calories and angered our stomachs further.
We pressed on and had to leave the road and turn left to get back onto the Pennine Way, after which there was more plodding along roads and the edges of fields, Darryl asking me at one point if I had any food left. I assured him I didn’t, having eaten the last of it (a banana and a chocolate bar) for breakfast. Reminding ourselves of our lack of sustenance just made us more dejected, so we tried to put it from our minds. When we reached Lambley Common we decided to stop for a break.
We stopped and dropped our bags down onto the coarse grass near a fence, being careful to avoid any animal droppings, and sitting down with similar care. Darryl had a drink of water, while I looked in the top of my rucksack, remembering that I had left some Kendal Mint Cake in there a few days ago, having grown utterly sick of the stuff very soon after trying it. I was chuffed to find nearly a whole bar and held it up, surprising myself further when I saw a bag of yoghurt-coated banana pieces beneath it.
“What?” Darryl asked, bewildered. And it wasn’t a particularly positive ‘what?’ either. “I thought you said you didn’t have any food!” There was a brief moment of um-ing and ah-ing, before I came up with the rather sorry and ill-advised excuse:
“Kendal Mint Cake isn’t really food though, is it?” And then, realising this was a silly thing to say added: “I forgot I had it in there. Only found it just now.” This was better, though not exactly brilliant, and too little too late. There were one or two choice swear words from Darryl’s direction, before we both got angry and at length reached the inevitable ‘oh you have it all,’ ‘no, I don’t want it, you bloody have it’ etc, etc, etc. All this was regretful, but inevitable since we were both tired, hungry and fed-up, ‘fed-up’ being a very unfortunate and ironic term in this case. There ensued a silence. We both knew that falling out was not just awkward but near-impossible in our current situation. We had relied on each other constantly the whole trip, not just for navigation and help, but for conversation, humour and moral support. We couldn’t carry on if we were angry, it just wouldn’t have worked. So somehow we reached neutral ground, divided up the food (although I still wasn’t keen on eating the Kendal Mint Cake, so gave most it to Darryl while I had the yoghurt-coated banana pieces), and pressed on letting bygones be bygones. I think we both thought it was a real shame that we had argued and fallen out, if only briefly. Up until that point we had been getting on extremely well, surprisingly in fact, since sometimes even the best of friends can get sick of each other spending day after day together. It was a lesson learned however, and we both endeavoured to stop it from happening again.
So with some sugary rubbish now in our system we moved on over Lambley Common, and it was while nearing the edge of it that my left thigh muscle cramped, or I pulled it, I’m not sure which, meaning I now had to limp for practically the rest of the day. Now that I was favouring my left leg and putting more pressure on my right, my right foot started to get sore, and would blister by the end of the day. Terrific. Darryl once again tried to save us a few miles by finding some roads off the route that would make our journey to Greenheads shorter, but even doing this, I still had a hard time and slowed us down, the pain increasing terribly when going downhill, which we did a lot. One unpleasant thing we encountered several times that day (besides the awful hunger and physical pain) was the regular waft of decaying animals that assaulted us every mile or so. In fact, the unseen cadavers could well have been olfactory mile markers for all we knew since they seemed to be so regularly placed. Still, it was one of the many accepted smells of the country, and not the worst thing we would have to endure that day. Darryl’s blisters, like my thigh, were causing constant discomfort, and after we had walked up and down what felt like a hundred hills, we emerged onto a busy dual carriageway, limped up the road, and found ourselves gratefully entering the village of Greenhead.
It didn’t take us long to realise there were only two choices of places to eat. A small tea room and a pub. We headed for the pub, which was actually the Greenhead Hotel, not for the alcohol (although we did indulge… had to really), but more for the promise of a nice big meal.
We walked in, dropped our bags in a corner out of the way
and ordered two large plates of tasty food. Darryl opted for
a meat pie while I had Chicken Kiev and chips. We’d had
chips a few times on the walk already, and I was actually
beginning to get quite tired of them by this point.
Nevertheless we devoured the food, drank up and were
thinking about heading out again when the owners of the
hotel (and of the nearby youth hostel) dropped by to chat to
the staff. They told us that we wouldn’t have an easy time
of it toward our destination, since once we were on the Whin
Sill and Hadrian’s Wall, it would be up and down constantly.
The ups didn’t bother me too much, but the downs were
already getting me… down. Still, it was good to have a
heads-up, and at least we wouldn’t be tackling it all on an
empty stomach. The waitress also told us that Once Brewed
and Twice Brewed which were two locations along Hadrian’s
Wall, got their name from the fact that Roman alehouses used
to be located on the sites, and that the ‘once’ and ‘twice’
referred to their distance from a certain point along the
We left the hotel and walked across the road to the tea rooms where we bought some flapjacks and scones for the remainder of the journey. Once ready, we headed up the road and rejoined the way not long before it passed Thirlwall Castle, which was built from stones taken from Hadrian’s Wall. The going from here wasn’t too bad to begin with. We seemed to reach the wall fairly quickly, and though the ground in the grassy ditch beside it was undulating, it was nowhere near as bad as the couple at the hotel had implied. But it was early days yet, so we didn’t get too complacent. We passed several people as we marched along, all out enjoying the day which had brightened up a little since lunchtime. Over the brow of the hill we caught sight of actual remains of the wall in the distance, since the grassy ridge it had sat upon was all we had seen so far. We turned right off the ridge, onto a road, then left into a picnic area and tourist spot. Soon afterwards, we were walking up onto the first of many steep ridges that formed the mighty, unforgiving Whin Sill. There were signs of Roman remains everywhere, though the wall itself in many places was worn away almost to the soil, giving little indication of its former majesty. There were remains of Roman forts too, but because many of them were on privately owned land they were, in many cases, overgrown and indistinct.
View from the Whin Sill with few traces of the wall itself
The downhill sections (and there were a lot of them) were playing merry hell with my pulled muscle and burgeoning blisters, and Darryl was fairing little better. We had decided to head for a campsite at a farm called Winshields which was only a few miles away. Unfortunately those miles were up and down a series of steep hills, meaning we weren’t going to get to the campsite very quickly.
I am sorry to say that by about six-thirty we were completely sick of Hadrian’s Wall. It was a beautiful sight, and would no doubt be an excellent place for a day’s walk, it’s just that this particular day had been preceded by nine other days of walking, and we were, to put it bluntly, knackered. Just before we reached the disused quarry past Burnhead, we turned off the route and the wall and walked down a small road that led between the remains of more Roman camps, toward the B6318. The Sun was threatening to set as we made our painful way onward, and the air felt colder than it had on previous days. My right foot was now horribly blistered. It was as though it was now trying to catch up with Darryl’s feet, but because he had so many, my foot was trying to overcompensate by concentrating on one big blister that had formed at the base of my big toe. It was agony. We had stopped earlier to dress our feet and I had put a gauze pad and a plaster and tape on it, but the pain hadn’t eased. Applying pressure and dressing, it seemed, just made blisters worse, while popping them and dressing them lightly seemed to be the way to go. We turned to look back at the wall at one point and saw a man and a woman who had passed us some time ago, now far ahead along the Whin Sill. They had told us earlier while we were keeping pace with them that they were staying at a Bed and Breakfast or Youth Hostel down the road, and were keen to get there. Clearly they didn’t have any blisters holding them back.
We reached the B6318 and turned left, walking a long, long way until we finally spotted tents in a field on the left. When we got to the farmhouse we couldn’t see anyone around, but there was a sign saying that we could pitch up and pay in the morning, so we did. The field in front of Winshields farm is actually on a slight slope, and there’s only one or two spots that are level. Coupled with this, it gets very, very cold at night, being at the convergence of two weather fronts, and the nearby trees are full of crows that can make one hell of a racket if they want to, and usually do.
When I got back from the shower stall which from the outside looked like a small shed, I found Darryl talking to an older chap called Tom. Tom had driven to the campsite and parked at the top of the field, practically the only place where the ground was genuinely flat. His tent was full of rugs and furs that would not only keep him comfortable but also pretty warm during the night. I was tempted to comment that it looked like a harem in there, but thought better of it. He was a very interesting and funny chap, made more likable by the fact that while he was chatting to us, a robin flew down, hopped about behind Tom’s legs, then jumped up onto his car seat through the open door, and up onto the steering wheel where it perched a while, twitching its head and watching the three of us talk.
It was getting dark now, and as Tom headed off down the road to the Once Brewed Inn, Darryl went for a shower. After he’d returned and dressed, we both followed in Tom’s tracks and walked the half mile down the road to the Inn, where we looked forward to a nice drink or two and something to eat. Sadly we were too late to order food, so had to make do with crisps, but the beer was great, our first proper drink of the whole trip. We sat opposite Tom and chatted away for an hour or so. He told us about his profession as a chiropodist and all-round foot expert. He was also fascinated by water and was a lover of the great outdoors and nature. He gave us some interesting advice concerning the treatment of blisters. This is why I won’t divulge his surname, in case he’d rather his clients not know about this unusual strategy. Basically he advocated (though I bet he never did it much himself) urinating on blisters (your own obviously, not someone else’s). It had to be done first thing in the morning, he said, because this was when urine was likely to be most sterile. He claimed that the urine would give the blister a sterile, protective coating, better than any cream or spray. We believed him (seriously) but it was something we’d only try if all (and I mean ALL) else failed. Our socks were getting smelly enough as it was.
At about ten-thirty we staggered back to the campsite from the pub. Not because we were drunk, but because our feet were really killing us and had started to throb thinking they’d finished their day’s work. As we walked Tom pointed out a couple of constellations in the sky. I couldn’t remember seeing a clearer night sky (not since moving to London at least) and was genuinely chuffed to spot the Big Dipper, though I think I incorrectly identified it as The Plough. It may well have been the other way around, but it’s scarcely important. Tom laughed at the way Darryl was hobbling and started calling him Papillon which I thought was quite amusing. When we got back to the campsite Tom recommended that Darryl and I sleep in the same tent since it was now very cold indeed. We thought about it, but since our tents were pretty small anyway, and I had a tendency to snore, we thought we’d just wrap up warm and brave it out. Tom said goodnight and slipped into his Turkish harem, sinking beneath furs and skins, never (almost) to be seen again. I said goodnight to Darryl, tramped across the noisy gravel to the toilet and back, then climbed into my sleeping bag, allowing the narcotising effects of the beer to work their magic.