LEJoG Day 52: Come with me if you want to live
Day 52 pre-amble
Cross Fell (pictured) is the literal high point of this stage, this high-themed week, the entire Pennine Way and the whole of England outside the Lake District. Today was the low point of the week though, a long and not especially rewarding slog.
LEJoG Day 52 (Wednesday 24 July 2019)
Dufton to Alston (20 miles)
Cumulative: 729 miles
Facts: Time on walk: 6 hours 45 minutes. Average speed: 2.96 mph. Weather: Windy and cloudy but generally warm. Very warm on lower ground between Garrigill and Alston; also quite humid by then.
Practicalities: None, except buying extra drinks from the Post Box Pantry. Oh, and obtaining a packed lunch from YHA Dufton.
Start: YHA, Dufton, 10:05am. End: Bottom of Front Street, Alston, 6:20pm. Again this was the linear end for LEJoG as I will proceed on the South Tyne Trail rather than the Pennine Way for the first few miles of Day 53. Actual end: Angel Inn, Alston, just 50 yards up the hill.
Poor weather had been forecast for today, so I was well-equipped with my Berghaus jacket and rain cover from the start. The first half mile is on narrow roads past Coatsyke Farm, then there’s a gentle climb on a muddy path along a narrow hedged lane to Cosca Hill. Nothing out of the ordinary or difficult so far.
The real slog begins with a perfectly straight, shallow ascent towards the foot of Brownber Hill (on your right). From there, a steeper but short section takes you away from the hill in the direction of Swindale Beck. After descending to cross a stream, you enter a nature reserve and then commence the long ascent of Knock Fell. The first section of which is frankly grim, as steep and slow as Dale Head on the Newlands Horseshoe. I stopped to east sandwiches and get my breath back at the point where the climb began to flatten out. Best not to remind yourself that you haven’t even completed 4 of today’s 19½ miles. Good views south to Brownber Hill and Dufton Pike though.
Though the ascent of Knock Fell is never again as steep, it is relentless and unforgiving. Some summit paths have shallow gradients where you barely notice you’re climbing at all – Black Hill on Day 41 fell into that category. And some have gradients which are only slightly more testing, yet they can feel demoralising. Knock Fell is like that. You’d prefer something more imposing, because at least you’d know why your respiratory system is working so damned hard.
Stopped again at the summit, just for a drink and breather. About half of the day’s total ascent is already out of the way, barely five miles in. That’s got to be a good thing, he thought to himself, yet to experience the crippling enervation of the Corpse Road…
The next target is Little Dun Fell. With a slight change of bearing away from the top of Knock Fell, it’s fairly easy to find the access road to the radar station that dominates your view of the next summit. The path leaves the road after rounding a bend, and there’s a climb past Dunfell Hush (see link for the appropriate definition of ‘hush’, one of which I was not previously aware). The golf ball radar station is soon directly ahead.
Radar station on Little Dun Fell
The path drops before rising to the summit – the final climb is steep but very short. Definitely the easiest of the three fells in the first half of today’s walk.
Our Dutch friends from YHA Dufton had started a couple of hours before me: they were having lunch on Little Dun Fell, sheltered from the wind that had by now whipped up. Cross Fell lay ahead and I was determined to reach the high point of the day before having my own lunch. Again the path drops, more so than on Little Dun Fell, so the ascent of Cross Fell is considerably tougher. But still not as testing as that first section of Knock Fell.
That may be true – however, because of the energy already expended in the previous few hours, the ascent of Cross Fell was the most tiring of the three. Stopped to eat my packed lunch at the appropriately cross-shaped shelter (see header image and below).
Shelter and lunch spot at Cross Fell
Trig point at Cross Fell (looking west across the Eden Valley)
The Dutch couple passed again here. They might have stopped to join me but expected to be able to climb inside the shelter – I think they were disappointed to learn that what you see is what you get. I stayed for half an hour. 8 miles from Dufton, 12 miles to Alston. Not yet halfway, but now the fells were behind me, how bad could it be?
Well, you are warned several times by the Trailblazer book, in both the main text and the annotations to the maps, that the Corpse Road between Cross Fell and Garrigill makes “the heart sink” and “[is] enough to make those who cross Cross cross.” They’re right. They’re exactly right.
First there’s the initial descent from Cross Fell to the Corpse Road itself, where I almost lost my bearings due to the lack of a clear path. Then, almost immediately after the Corpse Road begins, there’s Greg’s Hut, where I passed the team from the Netherlands for the final time. The path, heading due east, is rough with stones. It’s not flat. It’s not even descending consistently. Instead it undulates, which feels frustrating and wrong when you know you have so much height still to lose.
The views are similar to the section between Round Hill and Bloworth Crossing on the Cleveland Way and Coast to Coast. The surroundings feel remote and all looks barren, but interestingly so. This far along (1 mile or so) I was still thinking it couldn’t be as depressing a trek as the book made out. And at least the weather had stayed dry.
Important background information: in May I fell quite hard on my right knee near the top of Coniston Old Man. On a flat path and due to nothing more dangerous than a buried stone jutting about an inch out of the ground. In June I did two Body Pump sessions without my knee support. My right knee had never been quite as flexible since. Knowing I had many miles and a lot of ascending and (worse) descending to do today, this was just the second time I’d worn a knee support during a walk. The first being Snowdon about three weeks earlier.
That knee started to hurt on Corpse Road. There’s a point where the path changes direction from east to north and (according to Trailblazer) you “see it snaking away into infinity”. I wouldn’t say this sight had quite as profound an effect on me as it did on the authors, but it was the first time I fully grasped that they knew what they were talking about.
This road never gets easier. It never becomes more pleasurable. It never throws in a curveball (it barely has any bends whatsoever). There’s nothing interesting to look at that you haven’t already seen in the first mile and a half, unless you count the small pool where I rested at around 4pm. It will test your physical stamina. It will test your mental strength. If you’re in my position, it will do nothing positive for your sore knee. It will however try your patience. And it will absolutely refuse to give you even the slightest happy memory or indeed anything worthwhile in return. The Corpse Road can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, remorse or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you
are dead arrive in Garrigill.
Garrigill is where I made my fifth and final stop of the day, finishing my malt loaf on the village green. The Pennine Way takes you out of the village by road, then the footpath on the right follows the South Tyne river. The riverside path was pleasant, although the weather was now much warmer and quite sticky. It would have taken something monumental to distract me from the thought of finishing as soon as possible.
After leaving the river, what I got instead was stone walls, farms and barns. If you’ve read Day 49 you will know this wouldn’t be my first choice. By the time I reached the last half mile of narrow path to Alston I was troubled not just by a sore knee and humid conditions but by gnats and flies infuriatingly resistant to insect spray. Yes I was desperate for the end, which came around ¼ mile after hitting the main road into Alston.
After the walk
Changed out of my waterproofs and removed the knee support. Quite disturbed to see that it had cut into my leg and seared some red marks into my skin (they scabbed over a few days later). There was a note on the door of the Angel Inn saying it was closed until 7pm and asking me to ring ‘Mick’. There was no Mick on the end of the line, so I tried the door and he turned up, telling me he’d left the sign up by mistake. Three days in a row waiting for accommodation to open would have been a bit much.
The Angel Inn had decent food this evening and at breakfast, but that was about it. The shower wouldn’t run warm in the evening; there were flies all over the place at dinner; the toilet flushed properly but a yellow/brown stain appeared in the water overnight; every time I used water in the bathroom there was an ugly noise from the pipes; the floorboards squeaked. I was so underwhelmed I changed my plans to stay here again before Day 53. Too polite to write a damning review on booking.com however.
The morning after
Weather was much warmer, almost hot. In fact this Thursday would prove to be the hottest July day on record in the UK. There were warnings on my train later about enforced slower speeds due to hot weather conditions, but I didn’t really sense how hot the day was until I got off the train in my home city and was hit with a blast of warm air that reminded me of the 40-degree heat I experienced in Olympos, Turkey in 2008.
Caught a bus out of Alston to Haltwhistle, then paid for a train ticket to Newcastle. Booked the follow-on train from my phone: had about an hour in Newcastle station. It would have been oppressively hot to walk today. Given that most of June and a lot of July had been wet, it looks like I picked the right week to walk the Pennine Way.
That’s something I guess.
Postscript – My Listening Pleasure
Second listen to Chart Music #41 (see Day 48 for details), between start and Cross Fell. Then Chart Music #36, one of my favourites of the last 12 months, for ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’, the sheer quality of the charts in October 1979, the ITV strike, Andy Peebles, what the Dooleys tell us about British society and culture, etc. I needed it on the Corpse Road, let me tell you.
Picture (taken 24 July 2019) shows the shelter and trig point at Cross Fell. It was not a golden day for photos, it must be said.
Next: Day 53 (19 August 2019)… in which my second choice post title was “Bog Standard”. Mmm, what an appetiser that is, eh readers?