Bless you all and welcome to LEJoG Day 53

Day 53 pre-amble

Right, while first making it clear that I have no wish to mock Catholic sacraments…

I wish to make a confession.

It has been 11 walking days since my last confession.

That is, since the last time I strayed from the official route of the Pennine Way. On that day, by using the Hebden Bridge Loop. Today that impure act was repeated, as I followed the South Tyne Trail for the first six miles from Alston to Burnstones. In truth, Father, it was an easy decision: Trailblazer described the original route as “bizarre and pedantic”, other blogs seemed to agree, and the South Tyne Trail was straight and flat.

So I did not complete the Pennine Way in full and will always have that black mark against me. Of course, I’ve been very strict with the start and end points for LEJoG itself, and that’s more important. It does seem a shame though – perhaps one day I’ll fill in the missing sections of the PW. Can’t see me hurrying back though, due more to my numerous other intended conquests than any negative value judgement.

I apologise, incidentally, to anyone misled by the title of this post into thinking that it would refer to something more salacious, in the vein of those bawdy ’70s British sex comedies starring cheeky scamp Robin Askwith. No hidden agenda: I really do have nothing more interesting to confess than my transgression against the Pennine Way. However, if you really do want to read about X-rated impure acts committed by the comically repressed British, may I suggest the true story on the home page. Though even that is, for want of a better phrase, a second-hand confession.

LEJoG Day 53 (Monday 19 August 2019)

Alston to Greenhead (16 miles)

Cumulative: 745 miles

Facts: Time on walk: 5 hours. Average speed: 3.20 mph. Weather: Cloudy, overcast, windy, intermittent drizzle before A689. Occasional sun, mainly later in afternoon.

Practicalities: On Saturday 17 August I took a train to Newcastle-upon-Tyne and stayed at the Motel One for two nights. Managed to spend quite enough money just eating and drinking, without going wild on the Bigg Market or Diamond Strip. Actually I wanted to, but decided to save money for my post-Pennine Way holiday in Amsterdam. Much of my spare time was spent walking around the city and following the second Ashes Test. An exciting finish looked possible while I was sampling beers in the Newcastle Tap. But we had to wait another week for the miracle.

Here’s a couple of bridge photos from Sunday afternoon:

Tyne Bridge

Tyne Bridge

Millennium Bridge

Gateshead Millennium Bridge

Anyway, come Monday morning I went to the coach station and caught the Wright Brothers aeroplane bus to Alston. This takes around an hour and a half and costs £13. It’s part of a popular seasonal route from Newcastle to the Lake District. I think it’s worth doing if you fancy visiting Newcastle rather than spending a night in Alston. As you will discover from Days 53 to 57, if you are completing the Pennine Way in chunks, Alston is probably the last town on the route which is reasonably easy to reach from a major city.

The walk

Start: Bottom of Front Street, Alston, 11:00am. End: Holmhead Guest House, ¼ mile from Greenhead, 4:20pm.

The opening section along the South Tyne Trail you’ve heard about already. Frankly I could not face a meandering route “through fields, farms and over countless stiles and gates” (per Trailblazer). Indeed, by this stage, such a prospect was close to nightmarish. Day 49 was still fresh in the memory, for one thing. For another, I figured the next five days would throw up their fair share of patience-testers. Why put yourself through this crap unnecessarily? And thus did I justify my National Trail walker’s sin to myself.

This does not, of course, mean that the South Tyne Trail was especially interesting – just fast. My standard walking speed on level roads is a mile every 16 minutes (3.75 mph). With a lightweight pack I maintained this for most of the first six miles today. Walking parallel with the South Tynedale Railway offered the flattest walking since the disused rail track beds of Day 37. There were a couple of little stations along the way (Kirkhaugh and Lintley Halt). Somewhere between the two a fairly busy train passed me and the conductor gave me a wave. Clearly he wished to cement South Tynedale’s reputation as “the friendly railway”.

There was a minor navigational issue at Slaggyford station. The path seemed to end abruptly. I asked a gardener at a nearby house and he told me to walk along the rail track itself for a couple of hundred metres until the path re-emerged. Having been solid from Alston to Slaggyford, for the next mile or so until Burnstones the path became grassier and muddier in places. Still preferable to a regular farmland path though. Almost missed the turn off where you leave the South Tyne Trail, descend a small embankment and then turn left (back on yourself) to the Pennine Way sign across the road.

Having welcomed you back to its bosom, the Way wastes no time in heading uphill and raising the heart rate. Once you’ve attained the ridge to the west of the A689 and South Tyne, the next two miles are shared with the Maiden Way. Heading almost directly north and very straight, this is a pleasant section. There are some wet patches but nothing remotely comparable to what comes later. Around halfway along the Maiden Way there is a sharp descent to Glendue Burn, and a reasonably straightforward climb away from the opposite bank. The second half along Lambley Common is wetter, but again I stress it is not the squelch-fest awaiting you beyond Greenriggs.

The sign that takes you NW off Maiden Way is quite easy to miss. You are descending towards a farm and main road which looks like the obvious route. It would be tempting to carry on regardless (believe me, this is not part of an attempt to cram in more risqué British comedy references). Instead you pass a stone marker (where I stopped for lunch) and head for a ruined barn on the far side of the A689. You’re now walking east-west rather than north-south. This section saw the last rain of the day, but it also heralded the start of the boggiest terrain of the entire walk so far…

The half mile before Hartley Burn was very wet, but not especially muddy, particularly given August’s poor weather thus far (2019 was a very different summer to 2018). In fact the descent from High House ruin to the stream itself was remarkably dry.

Hartley Burn bridge, LEJoG Day 53

Another bridge… this time over Hartley Burn

The bank on the far side was much muddier and I almost slipped a couple of times. From here it was back to farmland (via a large ditch) and Ulpham Farm directly ahead. Then a minor road crossing, past the house called Greenriggs, through a field of cows and horses and on to wild moorland.

First there was Round Hill, where you are recommended to walk counter-intuitively. Head due west to a fence and then due north, rather than proceeding directly NW. Such guidance worked really well here – the path is very faint indeed. First of all the book is useful in suggesting you head for the fence line or use the distant conifer plantation to set a bearing. Secondly some of the grass has been sprayed white to help you find your way. But whatever the simple pleasures of successful navigation, there’s no escaping the fact that this is a deeply dull and barren section, even by the standards of Pennine moor. At least many of the other comparable trudges were surrounded by photogenic views or satisfying conquerable mountains: I’m afraid this is not the case here.

The Trailblazer map is annotated at this point with the words “for some this is among the worst sections of the PW”. This walker is one of the “some”. As if the dismal landscape isn’t enough, once you’re through the wall north of Round Hill, say hello to the worst bogs on the Pennine Way. Certainly on my journey anyway. I guess this is my payback for getting away with a dry day on Sleightholme Moor?

Anyway, the approach to Black Hill (only 289m, less than half the height of the Peak District version) was an absolute horror show. The grass was always wet and the peat at least soft enough to take the entire foot on every step, sometimes leaving you shin-high in clag. There were nowhere near enough duckboards. Beyond the summit of Black Hill it was just as grim and wet but slightly less peaty and claggy.

It comes to something when a farmland path through a field of cows serves as respite, but I was happy to take that as long as the grass wasn’t saturated. Even better, after this eastward path came the bliss of a concrete track heading north to the A69. Quite surprised to cross a busy road on the level rather than a footbridge, but there was plenty of road visible in both directions. From there it’s a straightforward walk past and briefly through a golf course, then a descent to join a marked path for Thirlwall Castle.

Thirlwall Castle, LEJoG Day 53

Thirlwall Castle

Just beyond the castle was my accommodation at the excellent Holmhead Guest House.

View from Holmhead, LEJoG Day 53

View from Holmhead Guest House

After the walk

Checked in at Holmhead – after the bogs I was glad it was one of the places that insists you remove your boots before entering. I was the only guest this evening, which is quite unusual apparently. Holmhead is situated about ¼ mile north of the village of Greenhead. Walked to the Greenhead Hotel for my evening meal. The food came highly recommended. On the whole it seemed like fairly standard pub fare but my choice of chicken breast fillets wrapped with bacon and stuffed with haggis was one of the best meals I’ve had on the Pennine Way.

Quiet evening at the guest house. No TV in the room – had the residents’ lounge to myself but nothing worth watching. A lot of books on the shelves which suggested that Alan and Judy might be my kind of people though.

Postscript – My Listening Pleasure

Still on a Janelle Monae tip, but this time dipping into her earlier albums: The ArchAndroid (from start to just before Slaggyford) and The Electric Lady (to Maiden Way). Very much like the former, yet to fall for the latter.

After that, listened to a lot of squelching.

Picture (taken 19 August 2019) shows a footpath sign on the far side of Hartley Burn saying “NOT Pennine Way”. Although this sign was several miles after I left the South Tyne Trail and rejoined the Pennine Way, I thought it was a suitable complement to my self-confessed waywardness.

Next: Day 54 (20 August 2019)… in which the Romans didn’t do much for me.

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