The Purposeless Pennine Way, in which I wonder whether after four Pennine Ways I’m finally a Wayfarer.
Day Fifteen, Bellingham to Byrness.
It was a lovely morning at Bellingham and I felt in no hurry. For some reason I’d managed to edit from my Pennine Way memories the stiff climbs and the tiring bogs between Whitley Pike and Rookengate and the long hard road through Kielder. I lazed about eating multiple breakfasts in warm sunshine on the slightly erroneous basis this would be an easy day.
Bellingham still had a traditional bakers that sold as well as hot drinks and pies a few Northumberland specialities, notably Sly Cake. This seems to be a thick sandwich of vine fruits between shortcrust pastry, like a giant Chorley Cake in a tray, perfect hikers’ grub. They also sold, or at least displayed, scary-looking ‘Pink Biscuits’ which for some reason I’ve never tried.
Wainwright was famously rude about the Pennine Way north of Hadrian’s Wall, considering it a spurious bolt-on. Personally I look forward to it. For one thing you’re in the Proper North at last. “I can’t understand how anyone from Yorkshire can say they’re ‘from the North’ “, said a Bellingham lady to me as I drank my coffee in the sunshine.
For another it’s a time of confident, excited anticipation. The massive dead weight of rucksack you dragged up Jacob’s Ladder has somehow evaporated into not exactly fairy wings but at least more of a hanky on a stick. The Compeed has fallen off your blisters, revealing miraculously tough skin underneath. If you’ve got this far without catastrophe or capitulation you’ll almost certainly go on to complete England’s most legendary hiking trail.
The Way is wilder and more isolated now, you’ve left the daywalkers behind at The Wall and henceforth will encounter rather few people. Apart from the odd baggage transfer softie, those you do meet will be gnarly backpackers whom you can now look in the eye as an equal. The trail may lack spectacular summits and picturesque ruins but it’s nonetheless profoundly interesting in its ecology, history and psychogeography.
Along Hadrian’s Wall I’m very much traversing a linear feature, progressing along a continuous sequential narrative, like a paragraph of prose. Further north, the relative remoteness imposes on a social creature with a strong survival instinct a strong sense of attaining milestones. You’re ticking off the changes of terrain and direction, shopping opportunities and other points of inflection often with relief and an increasing sense of achievement. The numbered waypoints on the guidebook maps become more meaningful in a featureless landscape, amplifying this feeling of stepping from stone to stone rather than flowing with the stream. The forests and the moors, anonymous and uniform, can feel more like gaps in the information. You walk them as if they’re negative space, patches of blank screen to be scrolled over between a series of discrete images.
[ … screen left intentionally blank …]
Everyone else had disappeared, I felt independent, happy and confident. At Hareshaw there’s another of my all time favourite Pennine Way houses and surely one of the most desirable small residences in Northumberland. It’s sheltered from north and west, compact and manageable and fully open to the sunny, sloping south with extraordinary views.
Passing Callerhues Crag I spotted in the distance ahead of me a solitary hiker. It was JR; as she’d left much earlier than me, this meant she was again walking slowly. As I approached it became clear she was working hard to maintain progress on her dodgy foot. It was like watching a tragic wildlife film in which a Cheetah cub has a thorn in its paw. Cue David Attenborough voice: ‘The young female is injured but she must keep going. She must reach her den by nightfall. She looks up, checking the sky for vultures. Her only hope of food is to find prey older and weaker than herself. She stops. Her finely-tuned senses have detected an elderly, fat Warthog, not far behind her’.
A yoga teacher, JR has an enviable working relationship with her own body. When I caught her up it was clear she knew what she was doing. I left her to it; my walking ahead would at least save her from wondering where the trail was. That was if I didn’t get hopelessly lost, as I’d done at this very point in June 2016. Luckily for my debatable status as Trail Sage, the path was much clearer this time and the visibility was perfect.
Just as I was looking forward to enjoying one of my stash of pies in the sunshine on Whitley Pike, clouds suddenly obscured the sun. It started to rain, a cold, stinging rain and most unpleasant. I mooched about searching for shelter, as I was hungry. There was none, but then as suddenly as it came the rain departed and the sun appeared again. Just one of those showery old Pennine Way days.
JR reappeared; good news as it meant she was walking more freely. Eyeing my pies, she observed “I did notice your pack had grown by about a foot”. She’d been managing her wear and tear issues partly, she explained, by every so often walking backwards to free up musculature, also to gain a different perspective and take more interesting photographs. What I can’t grasp is how she doesn’t just trip over. I suppose I should have expected this from someone who routinely stands on her head, a stunt I never try not just because I’m uncoordinated but due to a residual childhood fear my brain will fall out of my ears.
Past Padon Hill, another happy campsite of mine in 2016, there’s a steep little pull up to Brownrigg Head that’s followed by a notorious but enjoyable boggy section. (Update 2020, I hear a terrible rumour this has now been flagstoned!)
Previously was always followed by a dramatic plunge into the darkness of a dense forest. I always look forward to this sudden and striking transition from open, airy ground to a shady kingdom of trolls. It’s one of my mental milestones, a point of inflection along the Way that I’ve always found memorable. Now I was taken aback to see that the forest had entirely disappeared!
I was stumped (ha ha). I sat on a stump and contemplated this remarkable and moving sight for some while. JR caught me up again and seemed very affected by the ravaged landscape. She’s subsequently looked into the matter and found it’s to be replanted with more ecologically favourable trees.
We were joined by three Australians and a Scot, walking The Way with baggage transfer and luxury indoor accommodation. This must be a very much more punctuated, discontinuous approach to trailwalking than backpacking. They were swapping diurnally between two quite separate modes of existence, experiencing the trail as a cast in stone, point to point itinerary. For them everything was plotted out, all pre-booked, from meal to meal, bed to bed. Hot meal to warm, dry bed.
A book that’s influenced my trailwalking is Lines: A Brief History by the social anthropologist Tim Ingold. One of his themes is the difference between wayfaring and transport. He starts his discussion from Paul Klee’s famous distinction between a ‘line that goes out for a walk’ and a line that is ‘more like a series of appointments’.
“The Wayfarer”, writes Ingold, ” is continually on the move. More strictly, he is his movement”. The Wayfarer and the Way are one and the same. The Wayfarer is sustained “both perceptually and materially, through an active engagement with the country that opens up along his path”. For the Wayfarer life happens while travelling. Transport, on the other hand, is destination-oriented.
“The wayfarer has no final destination, for wherever he is, and so long as life goes on, there is somewhere further he can go. For the transported traveller and his baggage, by contrast, every destination is a terminus, every port a point of re-entry into a world from which he has been temporarily exiled while in transit”.1
Walking is not necessarily a hallmark of wayfaring, Ingold observes, noting that Australian aboriginal people drive vehicles gesturally as ‘organs of wayfaring’ whereas a marching army is a form of transport. I may have been underestimating the three Aussies.
Since discovering Ingold’s book I’ve tried quite hard to avoid marching, along a trail or indeed anywhere, but it’s quite hard to avoid falling into a marching mindset along the forest roads through Kielder.
Stopping to look at plants helps. I found some Crocosmia among what I think are the ruins of an old house, judging by the other garden species growing among them.
JR wondered about one of the mysterious Pennine Way diversions that are signposted off the forest road. It looked a bit overgrown. ‘Oh, they’re fine’, I said, recalling a pleasant detour along one of them on my previous southbounder.
We ended up pushing through soaking wet shoulder-high bracken, then we were faced with crossing a steep-sided and deep ditch that was quite unsuited to a woman with a bad foot. One of my better bits of trail sagery.
As we were gingerly slithering into this ditch I was startled by a large creature bounding across it in a single leap, just to my right. I honestly thought it was a deer, but no. Suddenly before us on the trail was a tall and rather beautiful boy with shorts, trainers, a tiny pack and enviable curly blond hair. It was as if Apollo had materialised on the Pennine Way. I looked behind him for hounds, a retinue of diaphanously-clad nymphs and hopefully Bacchus bringing up the rear with refreshments. I know, I know, in Kielder Forest.
“Out for a hike?” I enquired after regaining my composure. Yes, from Edale. This was his day nine. Day NINE from Edale. Out of curiosity I tried to keep up with this athletic apparition. He slowed to half his normal speed to humour me and on hearing I was a trail veteran asked advice on where to camp. We settled on Chew Green, although I felt the distance might be ambitious. “Oh, I’ll be there in a hour”, he said, riffling the pages of the trail guide with one hand and consulting the map while still striding along as fast as I could possibly manage. If I try that I fall over my own feet and my trail guide flies into a swamp.
Matching his pace up the hill wore me out and I was forced to bid him farewell, leaning on my sticks as he loped off over the horizon. “You don’t need to wait” called JR but when she caught up I explained that, exhausted, I’d had no choice. “Well”, she snorted, “he’s only about twenty-two. He’s just a baby”. I grinned at this as JR is all of twenty-nine, half my age. In the forces babies of that boy’s background are in charge of expensive planes and tanks and can order others to their deaths. But, as usual, her observation made perfect sense.
I’d forgotten how many milestones, how many destinations, I’d passed between twenty-two and twenty-nine. Every year in my twenties brought detectable changes in my personality and knowledge, and most of them brought points of inflection in my mode of living. Between fifty-two and fifty-nine I fear I’ve changed very little. In fact I often feel as if in my fifties I’ve learnt nothing and forgotten much. Even though this is partly by design and from my policy of considered purposelessness, it’s disconcerting to think back at my historical rate of island-hopping across former decades, bobbing on life’s turbulent waters past jobs, homes, activities, journeys and relationships.
Of course Continuous Personal Development is very much the fashion even for us oldies, especially if you’d like to spend a bit of money on doing it, thank you very much, here’s your Diploma in Creative Writing, oh, and your credit card receipt. One must develop, one must invest in learning, shop for adventures, crash, burn, grow, then treat one’s many friends to an uplifting alternative pre-paid package funeral in a novel location with a vegan feast and edgy entertainment (shame one will miss it).
It’s precisely to evade the drudgery of transportation between ‘milestones’, ‘events’ and ‘achievements’ that I’ve grown to love repeatedly wayfaring the same old trail; to amble through the same old woods and hills, in the same old quiet way, living in the moment and in the movement. But that didn’t stop me suddenly feeling a bit pathetic. Not least because, among the bracken thickets of our ill-considered detour, I’d copped a sudden chest pain.
JR accompanied me down to Byrness, which was good of her as despite my nonchalant start and the ample daylight this is quite a hard day for an oldie. The chest pain and trying to keep up with the young lad had drained me. All in all, I didn’t feel too bright, so much so that for only the second time on the entire Way I took a wrong turning which JR kindly corrected.
Unexpectedly at the Border Forest caravan park there were friendly new signs on the fence saying ‘Pennine Way walkers may camp here for £8’. We looked at each other. ‘Yes!’ Typically, the Sheffielders, unseen all day, were already pitched there in good order and preparing for a mile’s walk each way to Forest View to sample Colin’s ale. I’m ashamed to say I declined their kind invitation.
JR sensibly camped next to the ladies’ showers but I’d dumped my pack near the entrance so I had to walk back. Down there at the bottom of the site I found a little campers’ kitchen with a microwave, power for charging phones and worktops at which you can cook a meal standing up. I messaged JR with this happy news. She replied “I’ve just walked here from Bellingham, why would I possibly want to stand up?”
Day Sixteen – Byrness to Windy Gyle
The next day started amusingly when one of the Sheffield lads tried to dry his underpants in the campers’ kitchen microwave.
The sun was sneaking around and down into the trees as I walked through Byrness. The climb up to the Cosmic Portal (the little tumbledown gate onto The Cheviot massif) was steep as always but pleasantly dry.
Young soldiers were running along the Pennine Way with full packs and weapons, I kept having to step off the path in a hurry. Their sleeves were rolled up and their brawny bare arms glowed red as carrots in the bitter wind. Just ahead of me one slipped on a flagstone and fell heavily with a sickening thump. Rather than lying in the swamp whimpering for the helicopter, as I would have done, he somehow rolled over on his pack, still holding his weapon, rolled back upright and carried on running. Very impressive.
A Warrant Officer was running with a dumpy short-legged hound on a lead. ‘Remind me not to book your dog-walking service’ I said as they passed me. ‘A ten miler’s nothing for ‘im, ‘e loves it!’ Then suddenly after all this activity the hills were eerily quiet again. I was glad of the Sheffield lads’ intermittent friendly company along this section.
So far this time the Pennine Way had failed to present me with a gift, normally I acquire some random useless item that’s been lost along the trail. At Yearning Saddle one of the Sheffielders spotted inside the hut a snug Musto woolly hat and kindly presented it to me. He was insufficiently nesh to require a woolly hat, he explained. Thanks.
If I was feeling a bit unengaged with the journey at this point it was partly because this section of The Cheviot just isn’t very engaging, unless the weather is beautiful, which it wasn’t. Showers blew across, some of them cold. Clouds fell and rose, views came and went. The Roman fort at Chew Green is nothing much to write home to Rome about, especially in mist and cold rain. Even though I’m supposed to be living in the movement rather than for the destination, along here I always rather look forward to reaching the huts. I like sheds.
I was also strongly aware this particular Cheviot traverse would be punctuated by a destination, dominated by a fixed point objective. It was my avowed ambition to sleep out on Windy Gyle. Having wimped out of Penyghent, I wasn’t going to miss this one.
What on Earth was the purpose of sleeping out on a summit? Ostensibly to see the view, to acquire information, novel data. But according to Tim Ingold knowledge built up by acquiring observations from a series of stationary loci is not a wayfarer’s knowledge but that of a surveyor or cartographer. He calls this an occupant’s knowledge, rather than an inhabitant’s.
At this point I was focused on occupying a summit rather than inhabiting the trail. In the weather conditions I was also distracted by uncertainty as to by what means of shelter I might render this forthcoming occupation survivable, let alone enjoyable. Thus do our forward purposes and their hypothetical means of attainment distract us from our immediate ongoing lives.
The wind was really picking up now but the forecast showed just two spells of rain, one at teatime, one in the night. This was a relief as there was nowhere on Windy Gyle’s exposed summit to pitch the tent other than right out in the teeth of the gale.
Over many years the top of Russell’s Cairn has been adapted into a hikers’ wind shelter. By far the best option would be to hunker down into this in my bivy bag, pitching a tent on a cairn of stones being obviously unfeasible. I subtly improved the shelter, blocking gaps through which the hoolie had until then been howling with stones picked from what would become my sleeping hollow. After a bit of work it was surprisingly snug, and a good job too as the wind kept strengthening. Ha ha, Windy Gyle, who knew?
Dark deeds were done on this hill in days of yore and the name of the cairn itself commemorates an egregious murder (see historical explanation). Its structure is allegedly Neolithic, hence undoubtedly infested with stone age wraiths and ghoulies. As I was planning to spend a very dark night alone on top of the cairn it was lucky I’m an atheist and don’t believe in the afterlife. Any ghoulie that says ‘boo’ to me has to go straight to ghoulie gaol and not pass ghoulie Go.
Just as I was finally getting my rocks in a row, a familiar grinning face popped over the edge of my bouldery boudoir. “Welcome to the Windy Gyle Hilton”, I told JR, “sorry the coffee shop is closed”. “I thought I’d better call in and check your air conditioning”. The teatime rain had arrived but she held a plastic bag over her head while telling me her day’s news. I felt very alone when she sensibly departed in the gathering dusk to find a less extreme campsite further down.
I hunkered down out of the gale, it started to get dark. Then the daylight was suddenly resurrected at the last minute, treating me to a brief sun et blowière over Scotland.
It wasn’t that nice up there, if I’m honest, but out of the wind at least it wasn’t cold. So much so in fact that after an hour I had to untangle the whole caboodle in pitch darkness and remove an entire layer of clothing. It rained heavily in the night. A warm, wet, sheltered bivy brings only one outcome – I awoke at dawn in a claggy plastic bag full of condensation.
Day Seventeen – Windy Gyle to Kirk Yetholm
From my remote rocky eyrie on Windy Gyle, the dawn over The Actual Cheviot looked unpromising.
To be fair, I wasn’t looking my best myself…
I scuttled off, past the trig point at King’s Seat and up to Cairn Hill junction where I once more contemplated diverting up to The Actual Cheviot. Was this not an important milestone that must purposefully be attained?
I was pleased to attain a further milestone, the friendly little refuge hut that may actually have saved my life in a blizzard back in 1999.
One of the army instructors had told me how once in a similar blizzard he’d had to hole up in here with twenty young soldiers. Twenty of them, standing up like vertical sardines, all night. In that vein, I was pleased to see the Order of the Day had been posted…
With excellent timing a diabolical squall passed over, shaking and drenching the hut. I made more cocoa, later discovering that poor JR had been trudging down to KY in the teeth of the weather. It was my good fortune that it began to clear as I reached the top of The Schil.
The Pennine Way’s high option into Kirk Yetholm presents you with one more punishing climb, but it’s worth it for the valedictory views.
Then it’s more views all the way down to the legendary metropolis. Well, unless you’re walking down just an hour earlier when JR tells me she could see absolutely nothing.
So there we all were in the Border Hotel, all five of us, finishing the Pennine Way. Five?! Where did they all come from? Me and JR, an elusive Dutch couple and the hitherto unsuspected Melton Mowbray Mitch, Midlands Man of Mystery. The Mancunian baggage transferers and the luxury Aussies were on their way down too. This must be costing the pub a fortune in free halves but they’re much appreciated. I didn’t mention I was on my third. The Nag’s Head at Edale doesn’t seem to have joined in the party, so southbounders are at a disadvantage.
The Sheffielders were there too, having slept in the hut. One of them had fallen out with JR, his intrusive questioning crossing her comfort line. I was dismayed for my young friend. This should have been a time of celebration for her after achieving so much and for the last few days through considerable discomfort. She and I put the world to rights over our beers until the barlady had the presence of mind to call “there’s the bus”. JR had literally to run for it, on her bad foot. One companion spoilt her party, another nearly made her miss her ride home. Trail buddies, huh?
I felt strangely at home.
Obviously the Border Hotel is not my ‘home’ and on this occasion it wasn’t even my destination. But as a man with no geographical roots other than a vague second-hand generic Englishness it’s an ephemeral joy for me to feel ‘at home’ anywhere. Moreover my real purpose on this Pennine Way had been largely attained. I had in fact felt ‘at home’ along almost all of this familiar trail, even though I was patently at no point along it in any way ‘a local’. Unlike Armitage I couldn’t bolt onto my Pennine Way the spurious objective of ‘walking home’, yet it felt as if I’d been walking my home.
According to Tim Ingold wayfarers are not locals but inhabitants. He writes: “wayfaring is neither placeless nor place-bound but place-making”. Wayfarers are “not failed or reluctant occupants but successful inhabitants”. In other words, The Way is made by The Wayfarer.
“Wayfaring, I believe, is the most fundamental mode by which living beings, both human and non-human, inhabit the earth”, writes Ingold. “For the wayfarer the world as such has no surface. Of course he encounters surfaces […]. And woven into their very texture and thence into the country itself are the lines of growth and movement of its inhabitants”.
The purpose of my wayfaring had been simply to grow and move, to inhabit the texture of my country.
My Pennine Way had not been a purposeful purchase or a tick off an adventurer’s list, but an authentic Way of Life. As long as we have breath to breathe and a Way to fare along, growth and movement can continue.
Hang on, what do you mean the Border Hotel wasn’t your destination?
The Purposeless Pennine Way, September 2018.
1 Ingold, Tim, 2007. Lines: A Brief History. Oxford: Routledge.