The Purposeless Pennine Way, in which while strolling along on what most people would call a holiday I meditate upon work.
Day Nine, Tan Hill to Holwick
The ‘campers’ breakfast’ at the Tan Hill Inn was perfect, and great value for a very reasonable seven pounds – I fear it’s gone up since. The only downside for me was the unsolicited ‘breakfast news’ on a large TV dominating the room. I’d learnt my lesson at Hawes and said nothing, particularly as this time I wasn’t alone. Also, to be fair, I was glad of the weather forecast.
A table of upmarket oldies were section-hiking the Pennine Way together in annual small chunks. They became positively animated in their discussion of what always seems to me such bogus ‘news’, in the manner of people who were all at Oxford together fifty years ago and have been running bits of the world ever since. My world, our world. The manner of people who rather than set out over Sleightholme Moor on foot would shortly settle into an Audi and whizz off to Whitehall or the UN. When their conversation did revert to the trail it was firmly objective-focused. Just to overhear them felt like a Monday morning.
In some ways I too was approaching the Pennine Way as a job of work despite my avowed purposelessness, and I’ll be glad never to have the job of typing that again. I did try hard to visualise both the trail and its walking as pieces of conceptual art, which of course they are, but at the same time it’s a tough old hike (harder than the Cape Wrath Trail in my opinion) and to attain its completely arbitrary endpoint does require a certain stubborn focus.
It’s a profoundly physical experience; exercise quite unlike weekend football or evening squash, a relentless day after day physicality that otherwise only those doing hard labour for a living can truly know. It’s appallingly tactile; for days on end you’re in close touch with the elements, intimate with water, mud, sweat and seemingly infinite quantities of sheep poo, intimate with your gear and with every stitch of your tiny repertoire of clothing. Between undoubtedly wondrous highlights there’s quite a lot of connecting tissue. You see ugly things, even dead things, though hopefully not including other hikers. Not dead, I mean, I can’t promise not ugly.
It’s voluntary work, of course, and on a zero-contract contract other than with yourself. And it’s shamefully easy compared to the daily existence of those who lived high in these hills, as many did, in years gone by, scraping precarious livings, labouring harder than I can even imagine and only marginally staving off hunger.
Tan Hill reminds us of this heritage with maps on the breakfast room wall of the old Arkengarthdale mine workings. At what’s now a leisure destination for bikers, hikers and Instagram likers, people lay daily in darkness, filth and freezing water grubbing coal with pickaxes from a scrappy seam, braving dodgy shafts, collapsible tunnels and the terror of firedamp. The Pennine Way was a workplace then, alright, and Tan Hill’s coaltown rats had every right not to like Mondays.
Even in the driest summer the words ‘dry stroll’ and ‘Sleightholme Moor’ can’t be used in the same sentence. It was a moderately boggy stroll, but still very easy. I got to the green bridge unbelievably quickly, shaking off into the warm sunshine my memories of stepping through sheets of April ice to go up to my knees in peaty slush. I won’t be walking the Pennine Way in April again anytime soon.
There wasn’t another soul about, not one, and there were no birds either other than Grouse; all the noisy waders I’d seen at Sleightholme Beck on my previous June visit had gone, I hope just seasonally. All was quiet, until from a good mile away I began to hear the intrusive roar and rumble of the traffic on the A66.
Which one is never entirely displeased to hear as it means, amazingly, that the halfway point on The Way has been reached. For some reason, northbound the first half always seems to take forever, the second half no time at all. I’m getting fitter by then, I suppose, and also I dare say the novelty is wearing off.
At Race Yate I paid a courtesy call to the spot among unpromising reeds where I’d camped in surprising comfort in October 2016, despite pitching my tent in virtual darkness having carelessly run out of post-equinoctial daylight. I was pleased now in pre-equinoctial daylight to see it had been, by my standards, an almost competent choice of campsite.
For many Wayfarers, including me, this is one of the nicest and most relaxing sections of the trail. It’s wild but unchallenging, quiet but unisolated; you walk through beautiful and varied landscapes, you see lovely views. It’s a good long leg-stretcher but you’re still essentially on a pleasant country walk from a pub to a pie shop.
Sadly there was no sign of any bunk barn availability at Clove Lodge, which leaves accommodation for non-campers on this section problematic. (Update 2020, I believe the wonderful bunk barn is open again).
Tan Hill to Middleton is easily achievable if you’re still in good shape, but if you’re footsore and fed-up by this point it can feel a bit ambitious. Bowes is an option, of course, but I was too preoccupied to consider it. Apart from a friendly chat with the kind proprietor of the little trail tuck shop by Collin Hill, I was on a mission. A pie mission.
McFarlane’s, the legendary butcher and piesmith at Middleton on Teesdale, closes at five and thanks to my extravagant breakfast at Tan Hill I was cutting it fine. For the sake of one of their stunningly good pork and apple pies I literally ran quite a lot of the way down into the town. Lose calories to gain calories, I figured, as I staggered into the shop sweating profusely at four forty-five.
‘Ha ha, we’re open til seven’, they said cheerily. Luckily for my small remaining safe margin of blood pressure this was a joke. I bought arguably a slightly reckless number of pies. Also a tremendous corned beef and potato slice, to eat immediately. It was then necessary to buy further provisions in the Co-op; Dufton is always a bit of a movable feast, there might be food, there might not be, then there’s Cross Fell to consider, and then who knows what there might be to eat at Garrigill?
All in all, you do need to do the shops at Middleton although tragically the lovely old Post Office and sweetie emporium where I traditionally posted home my surplus gear has closed. Luckily by my fourth Pennine Way I’d just about eliminated surplus gear, other than one redundant pair of warm socks, a hangover from memories of April. This time I walked the entire trail in skinny mesh-top running socks (Higher State ‘Freedom’s) which proved durable and dried very quickly.
Wary of wild camping in popular Teesdale, I was aiming for Low Way Farm at Holwick where you can camp legitimately for just a fiver. The weather looked ominous but locals were still out walking dogs. Helpfully, several told me I still had quite a way to go.
The site was unsigned and virtually invisible from The Way, I only just spotted a camper van behind a wall. By now it was absolutely teeming down with rain. A man who from the smell coming from his enviably watertight palace on wheels was boiling an entire steer on his camp stove, or perhaps heating a Desperate Dan-sized Cow Pie in his camp microwave, told me to ‘pitch oop, summun’ll coom’.
I pitched oop, on grass so wet if I’d rolled around on it naked I’d have been rendered quite hygienic, albeit hypothermic. Rain hammered on the flysheet. Then it stopped quite suddenly, the sun came out and with the light-headed relief that accompanies such ineffable transitions on a trail, I ate a McFarlane’s pork and cranberry pie. It was awesome.
Yet another life lesson from the Pennine Way: wise man doesn’t beetle about virtuously putting tent up in shower of rain like idiot cross between Bear Grylls and Doctor Foster. Wise man calmly waits for better weather, eating pie in toilet.
No one came so conscientiously I walked up the track to the farmhouse to pay, it seemed a long way after hiking from Tan Hill. There was nobody home, but the café kitchen door was open and on the bench were a dozen freshly-baked Victoria sponges, their aroma was overwhelming. I could have eaten an entire cake and nobody would have been any the wiser. Not about who did it anyway; counting cakes is normally a core skill for café proprietors.
As I was about to poke a fiver through the letterbox there crunched around the corner on the pristine leather driving seat of an upscale Range Rover what would in my childhood have been known as ‘The Farmer’s Wife’, now of course more correctly as Joint CEO, Low Way Agricamping and Catering Solutions LLP.
“Sorry”, she merrily explained, “I’ve just bought a new ram and couldn’t wait to try him out”. Suppressing an immature grin, I enquired whether by any chance she might now be driving her swish vehicle down the very long track back to the campsite. I tried to imply there might be more fivers down there for her to harvest but she had bigger cakes to ice. Bounding off energetically to her next agricatering assignment she cheerily apologised over her shoulder that taxi service wasn’t included.
I trudged back to the tent. Damp, claggy fog descended. Some Last of the Summer Wine types failed to light a stinky barbecue, filling my skimpy shelter with kerosene fumes. Bundled against the cold, one of them started to mangle a guitar and ‘sing’, like a drunk, busking Michelin man. The rain returned. Luckily I had scotch.
Having run a rural business myself I’m always impressed with how much creativity, energy and focus it takes to generate what most would consider a reasonable income from a family farm. Even in a tourist area, trade is still seasonal and dismayingly unpredictable. Quite rightly, my fiver bought me only a few seconds of that enterprising woman’s valuable time; her farm isn’t a bucolic hobby but a busy workplace.
Scottish poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie wrote a perceptive critical review that encapsulates my own discomfort with books like The Wild Places1 by Robert MacFarlane, who sadly doesn’t bake delicious pies but is standard bearer for an outdoor writing genre which despite fluency and rich content I struggle to enjoy. Cheerfully admitting, as I do, to unfair prejudice, Jamie writes: “when a bright, healthy and highly educated young man jumps on the sleeper train and heads this way, with the declared intention of seeking ‘wild places’, my first reaction is to groan. It brings out in me a horrible mix of class, gender and ethnic tension. What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male!”
I walk alone, I’m male and English and occasionally I even verge on enraptured. However I’m also mortified to think I’m strolling naively through places and structures bearing mute witness to other people’s historical and contemporary labours to scrape a tenuous living from unsympathetic terrain. Especially as a PhD pensioner with all the time in the world to walk, my financial independence traceable ultimately to my elite (and free) education. In her Love of Country2, one of my favourite books about the Hebrides, Madeleine Bunting writes “Elitism and the sublime have long been intertwined – the true experience of the latter has always required education and/or wealth”.
The Pennines are a cultural landscape and even their most remote moors are not ‘wild’. Apart from anything else if they were, as we know from pollen deposits, they’d be covered in scruffy, windblown trees. For better or worse people worked hard, and still do, to clear those trees, to build those picturesque walls and to dig those annoyingly hazardous mineshafts that someone else should jolly well do something about.
Jamie again: “Class comes in here. For a long time, the wild land was a working place, whether you were a hunter-gatherer, a crofter, a miner. But now it seems it is being claimed by the educated middle classes on spiritual quests. The land is empty and the saints come marching in”.
Day Ten – Holwick to High Cup
I woke into a wet world. I stuck my head out, cold condensation from the flysheet usefully rinsing what’s left of my so-called ‘hair’. Even with my ineptitude at judging weather I could see another deluge was imminent. I tore the tent down and scampered in relays with all my stuff into the small but sheltered pot washing bays that other than basic BYOP loos are the only facility at this very minimal campsite.
Just in time. I enjoyed hot cocoa and a Co-Op breakfast sandwich standing up, and indeed standing back from the splashing as lumps rather than drops of rain battered the tin roof. Then it stopped quite suddenly and off I went to my appointment with one of The Way’s highlights at High Cup, where I’ve long wanted to camp out.
It was September so despite looking pretty poorly from Phytophthora the females among the Juniper bushes were covered in aromatic berries, thousands of them.
Souvenir gifts for my loved one are always a problem when I travel; she’s if anything even more averse to pointless shopping than I am. From the very bush we’d sheltered under from heavy rain during our last visit here together I picked her a small bag of the tiny blue-black fruits, to perfume her G&Ts. It’s probably an SSSI, which might make berry-foraging illegal. Sorry.
Pushing through the soaking bushes I encountered an interesting and friendly geologist researching, off his own bat, his forthcoming book on the geology of Teesdale. Subsequently at Cow Green an engaging and informative young woman from the North Pennines AONB was interested to hear this as she was herself up there chaperoning a Spanish film crew, making a film about geology.
It turns out the whole of the North Pennines is so interestingly geological it’s now an official UNESCO Global Geopark.
I couldn’t believe there were no Dippers on the Tees. In 2018 we were all supposed to be trying to see 200 birds; not being much of a twitcher I’d been hoping for a Dipper here to get me past an amateurish 193. I eventually bagged one on the South Tyne north of Garrigill but the last time I’d passed Falcon Clints there were loads. This was worrying, as was the state of some of the boardwalks along here.
The river was so low after the dry summer that I was able to get unusually close to Cauldron Snout. This exploit did involve some terrifyingly slippery rocks but the resulting video got a few likes on Facebook. Sigh. I was supposed to be purposeless! The so-called ‘scramble’ was a doddle as usual, even in the rain, and although the red flags were flying there were no whizzing shells to enliven the tedium of the shooting track up to Maize Beck.
There’s plenty of flat ground at High Cup, enough in fact to hold the High Cup International Festival of Tentage with extended families of Bedu, Sami, Mongolians and Apaches frantically trying to hold down each other’s beit shaars, lavvus, gers and teepees in the raging hoolie.
Yes, my tent festival will for ever remain a fantasy, for into and up over High Cup the King of the Hoolies rageth, unpredictably but often persistently, all the way from his tempestuous domain over the wild Irish Sea.
The wind was definitely a bit mad and after the Hebridean Way I knew all about how little sleep I’d get if I pitched out in its full force. After some searching I found a sheltered nook but the ground was uneven and after struggling to orientate the tent optimally I found I was trying to push one peg, the last one of course, through a buried rock. Trying to overcome this by brute force I spectacularly sliced my thumb open on a titanium v-peg (these are dodgy things, actually, they can snap as well as cut you).
I was forced to unpeg the whole caboodle and shift it six inches, whence it was then necessary to staunch my copiously bleeding wound by pushing my hand into a pile of wet horse muck. I do love wild camping. Still, when the clouds deigned briefly to lift their grey lid off the Lake District the views were extensive and another small ambition had purposefully been realised.
Wild camping can be hard work alright, and it’s only one of the species of labour involved in hiking a trail ‘properly’. Not that I’d want to prescribe what your own ‘hiking properly’ might mean to you.
And then of course in a blog, a public journal, one can easily end up labouring too, as a Pennine Way proselytiser, a Pennine Way polisher. Hopefully this blog is a bit truer to my own personal experience, a reflection of my perverse enjoyment in celebrating the ordinary ugliness of an outdoor exploit, rather than striving stereotypically to rejoice in its sublime aspects.
Those more sublime aspects I try to share through the work of taking and posting photos. My writing may be slapdash hacking, but my photos are considered labour in both the taking and editing, even though I don’t lug a fancy camera around for results that would be indistinguishable at the 940 pixels resolution of my WordPress theme from these budget smartphone shots. As a photographer I’m always looking out for shafts of light, scraps of quirkiness. As you can see, the Pennine Way doesn’t always deliver them, but then it rarely delivers any expectations on a plate, let alone in a titanium mug of Supernoodles eaten by headtorch on a pile of wet horse poo in a hoolie.
Day Eleven – High Cup to Greg’s Hut
I awoke into a wet world. You’d tell me if this blog was getting predictable?
I’d slept angularly but soundly in my uneven but unwindy nook and the styptic properties of manure had prevented my sleeping bag from filling with blood. My purposeful purpose in sleeping at High Cup had been to experience sublime dawn views of the distant Lake District, ravishingly illuminated by golden morning sunshine.
Imagine my dismay upon emerging into the suspiciously damp outdoors to discover that the views were unextensive. Sorry, predictable.
There was nothing for it but to pack up and walk on. In the wrong direction. Yes, so much for knowing the way. The fog was so confusing I ambled off south instead of west. I could have ended up on a long detour and possibly even into the Danger Area had I not rapidly realised that I was failing to descend to the rocky stream, as anticipated.
A sneaky peak at the GPS and I was set fair, but also sobered to realise that I’d forgotten one of the golden rules of wild camping off trail at altitude – you should always take a bearing from your tent back to the trail, and set your compass to it before you retire for the night.
It was Sunday morning so I started to meet people, quite a lot of people actually, heading up to High Cup in all kinds of hiking attire from the alarmingly casual to the hilariously over-specified, and all hoping to savour the famously extensive views. Chortle.
Meanwhile I was heading into town, to find – ta daaaa – a café! The really good and friendly Post Box Pantry with tea, phone charging and a sumptuous Full English. Chortle with knobs on.
I was ahead of schedule, insofar as I had one. It felt thoroughly like a Sunday, which on a long distance trail amounted to an unusually accurate coincidence of feeling with reality. Why, I asked myself, did I not wander casually along to the lovely hostel which, as I’ve written elsewhere, all Pennine Wayfarers should support and book myself in for a well-deserved day off? This is why not…
Right, I thought, you dog in the manger bar stewards, I’ll show you, who needs to allegedly ruin your private party by sharing a tiny corner of your stuffy old hostel anyway? I’ll just jog the heck over Cross Fell in the healthy fresh air instead, see if I don’t. I stomped off to the highest point of the Pennines in high dudgeon. It started to rain.
It rained more, and directly into my face as I was ascending a steep slope. Clouds descended, the trail ahead was largely invisible. Dun Fell Hush finally appeared, a reminder of terrifying labour that must surely have stripped away the lives of men as implacably as it did the soil.
Suddenly the clouds wafted clear of the radar station, revealing a conflict between this high-tech workplace and the labours of the farmer. One of his sheep had died hideously, it’s horns stuck in the fence. Having laboriously climbed up all that way just to have my elite sublime rapture compromised by the banality of common death, I undertook the further work of sharing a photo of this horror on Twitter (I won’t share it here). Someone remuneratively employed to manage a social media account earnt their wages by replying that it wasn’t their fault.
All this was starting to feel far too purposeful, so just for the heck of it I called out “brightening up!” to a couple of miserable-looking chaps picnicking out of the wind. My joke then felt a bit silly as that’s exactly what it did.
I bounded up to Little Dun Fell where the views were not exactly extensive but at least coyly revealing themselves from under increasingly diaphanous clouds.
Even Cross Fell tipped its cloudy hat as I approached.
It was wonderful to be up there again. I could even have allowed myself a sniff of the enraptured sublime, had I not been distracted by memories of the BBC programmes.
Another of the few bits I’d liked was footage of the dry stone wallers building the lovely new summit shelter, to mark the 50th anniversary of The Way. Such hard work, even just to get to their work, but they seemed to be enjoying it even when the bushy-tailed presenter, in one of television’s most pointless and annoying tropes, had to be allowed to pretend to add a stone himself.
I was disappointed to find the stones I’d myself added two years ago, my tiny cairn of fluorspar creatively adorning the dome, had all gone. Blown off by the Helm Wind perhaps, pinched, or virtuously removed by the increasingly active stone pile police. I personally see no harm in adding a tiny pile to a big one.
The weather forecast wasn’t ideal for a summit camp, to say the least, so I slithered down to Greg’s Hut in which I decided to fulfil a long-held ambition of spending the night, even though I had no fuel for the stove so it wasn’t going to be warm. There was nobody else there so I figured this might be a chance to access the sublime by writing a poem, possibly on a theme of ecstatic shivering, or of elegant mortality among damp stones.
I was rescued from this virtuous work by the arrival of two chaps from Sheffield, then a brother and sister from Norfolk. As I live in Norfolk and prior to that lived in Sheffield, this was a bizarre coincidence. One thing I always dread in a bothy is the arrival of party animals with high-octane intoxicants and an all-night leisure agenda; from the empty vodka bottles littering Greg’s I’d say this is an occurrence not unheard of up there. Luckily we five were all tired Wayfarers, up for nothing more laborious than an evening of low-key, convivial sobriety and an early night.
Greg’s Hut is a remnant of the days when the whole of Cross fell was a workplace. Lead miners slept where hikers do now; there was a forge in the sitting room. 13,000 tons of ore were dug out of Cross Fell, all by hand, between 1811 and 1911. This shelter where now the leisured classes sleep for nothing was dearly bought with labour so hard it would seem to us superhuman, minimally paid and culminating if not in disabling injury, in a pitifully short, unhealthy and unpensioned retirement.
Much of the conversation that evening was about our jobs: welder, electrician, maths teacher and two of us retired but with former careers to account for. It was striking how we established our own and each others identities through our types of and relationships with employment, the next safest topic for English people after the weather, which was of course also discussed. Walking in one of the remotest places accessible to us within our small country, we’d brought not just our weather with us, but our workplaces.
I was tired, after all, I’d done a hard day’s work, all that walking and climbing not to mention all the searching for the sublime. Actively seeking and recording memorable images, striving for a respectable distance, constructing the day’s output for friends and family via Facebook. Mindfully using my body, as per Alexander technique (without which I wouldn’t be walking long distance trails). Cooking Supernoodles. Trying to remember what the heck I once did for a living. It was no wonder I needed an early night after all that work.
And tomorrow would bring the interminable tramp down the Corpse Road, hopefully without the hard labour of bearing a cadaver although in the event that was a close-run thing, given the volume of one of our number’s snoring.
As I’d been saved by human company from the hard labour of writing poetry in Greg’s Hut, the best I can now do, emphasising the Purposeless Pennine Way’s core values of repetition and of cementing memories, is to trot out once again the sonnet I knocked up last time I was there.
Kirkland Corpse Road
Winding like a post mortem scar
The corpse road, pale as rot, a thread
Spun lilac with fluorspar.
Nailed boots heavy as the lead
They are worn to win crush and tramp
Crystals. Shoes round necks for church.
What took her off were sleeping in the damp.
Rain knocks unanswered, bearers lurch,
A weight shifts as if still living.
No laughing matter, no fuss,
Grimly borne in hope of God forgiving
Sins and someone doing it for us.
Washings drip through a coffin crack.
A young and lively miner props the back.
1 MacFarlane, Robert, 2007, The Wild Places. London: Granta Books
2 Bunting, Madeleine, 2016, Love of Country, a Hebridean Journey. London: Granta Books.