#56 A HALFWAY SERIOUS UNDERTAKING

Welcome to LEJoG Day 56, and all the best to Joyce and Colin

Day 56 pre-amble

The final stretch of the Pennine Way, from Byrness to Kirk Yetholm, is without doubt a serious undertaking. Trailblazer suggests that it will take 10½ to 13 hours of walking, and it includes almost a mile of vertical ascent. The total distance quoted in the same guidebook is 25½ miles. In conversation with Colin yesterday evening, I mentioned the tendency of the book to understand mileages. He assured me this was another one. His own estimate, based on many years servicing walkers about to tackle the last leg, is 27 miles. No spoilers here: anyone who’s read the main page of my ‘Foot’ blog can see that my total mileage was 26. Just short of a marathon. And that my stop at Windy Gyle came at the actual halfway point.

And there you have today’s post title.

LEJoG Day 56 (Thursday 22 August 2019)

Byrness to Windy Gyle (13 miles)

Cumulative: 796 miles

Facts: Time on walk: 4 hours 30 minutes. Average speed: 2.89 mph. Weather: Overcast/grey early on (rain over breakfast); occasional rain; very windy, misty and wet for last ½ mile

Practicalities: The walk itself starts about 10 minutes from Forest View, retracing yesterday afternoon’s steps from Byrness church. However the real practicalities are down to Colin and Joyce.

Breakfast is at 8am for all guests. Same table arrangements as yesterday. I went for smoked salmon and scrambled egg rather than the full English. Reserved the latter for Friday morning, having every intention of sampling as much of the menu as possible. Meanwhile your boots have been dried and marked with your room number, ready for putting on in the porch/welcome area when you’re ready to leave. As it happens, no-one is undertaking the full walk to Kirk Yetholm today. Colin said it was rare, though slightly more common in younger men walking alone. Dave is one of the rare ones, if you want to read an account of the single day walk.

Those stopping at Windy Gyle are provided with an extra service. After reaching Russell’s Cairn, they need to walk to Trows Farm, which is not in the guidebook but is at the bottom of page 12 on my Pennine Way North Adventure Atlas. Colin and Joyce have prepared a laminated sheet with detailed directions for this mini-walk. These will take you from Windy Gyle to a specified pick-up point just after the farm buildings. You need to take a copy of the directions from the table in the porch. It’s non-negotiable – in fact you are also recommended not to even bother looking at your map if you have one. No-one has ended up lost yet, so once again their methods work. The final practicality is a packed lunch, ordered during last night’s evening meal.

I was last to leave, as is often the case. Indeed, at about 9:45am Joyce actually came to my room and asked how long yesterday’s walk took me. The expectation is that your total walking time from Byrness to Trows Farm (not Windy Gyle) should be the same as Bellingham to Byrness. She was clearly concerned that I might be cutting it fine. My reply of “5 hours” reassured her.

Unusually, I was the only guest being picked up from Trows Farm today. Some were going beyond halfway. My evening and breakfast companions were heading for Mounthooly Bunkhouse, and others for the second refuge hut after Auchope Cairn (see Day 57). Those stopping at Windy Gyle were staying in Kirk Yetholm rather than having an extra night at Forest View.

The walk

Start: Pennine Way sign opposite church, Byrness, 10:15am. End (LEJoG): Russell’s Cairn, Windy Gyle, 3:10pm. Pick-up point (actual end): Trows Farm, 4:10pm.

Left Forest View at 9:50am. One of very few minus points (possibly the only one) about staying there is the total absence of wifi. Thus I spent 15 minutes before the start of the walk proper updating my Fitbit food intake.

The start of today’s walk is a serious climb through forest, up Byrness Hill. Definitely steeper than any of the Redesdale Forest walking on Day 55, with the possible exception of the mid-section of Brownrigg Head. Some mud underfoot, as expected, but easier to avoid than a lot of the bog already experienced this week. In gradient and ambience, if not in length, it reminded me of Dent, the first major ascent on the Coast to Coast walk.

At the end there’s a scramble up to a rocky outcrop. And then you’re up in the Cheviot Hills for good, and stuck with them and not much else for the next 21 miles. As you might surmise from today’s header image, “stuck with” isn’t the right term. Sure there are mundane sections, but a lot of the time you’re exposed to rugged beauty. It becomes easy to take it for granted, so remember to make the most. This is probably the most remote scenery so far, not just on the Pennine Way but the whole of LEJoG. You will barely even see a settlement for the next day and three quarters.

The top of Byrness Hill is also where I turned 180 degrees to take the photo for Day 55‘s header image. To be honest the immediate vista in front of me was obscured by heavy cloud and therefore not as inspiring. The path northwards towards Ravens Knowe is obvious and easy. As shown on OS maps of the area, you are close to artillery ranges and will therefore see several Ministry of Defence signs, warning of military debris. I overtook the two women from Forest View just before the summit of Ravens Knowe. Never saw any of the other guests today.

Coming down, there are duckboards over a boggy area, and then you approach a particularly unprepossessing gate. This, would you believe, marks the first time you leave England for Scotland. It could hardly be more bathetic. However it was uncanny that, just as I reached the gate, the very Scottish Altered Images featured on the episode of Chart Music I was listening to.

Welcome to Scotland, LEJoG Day 56

Welcome to Scotland (photograph courtesy of VisitScotland*)

The first mile or so of Scottish walking is, unfortunately, one of those mundane sections I mentioned earlier. The country will of course make up for that later, but as a deceptive first impression this must be akin to seeing, say, Highlander II before you’ve watched a Connery Bond film.

First you cross a stream, then you turn right and head through longish, wettish grass past Chew Green Roman Camp. If the prospect of an interesting historical landmark sounds vaguely exciting, I’m here to burst your bubble as you will not see the fort at all. My only view of it came when Joyce was driving me back to Trows Farm the following day. She made a point of confirming that Chew Green is not visible from the Pennine Way. And by the time you reach its circumference, you’re back in England anyway.

You now join Dere Street, an ancient Roman road linking York with Scotland, and (not surprisingly) proceed north. Some LEJoGgers, notably Mark Moxon, follow this all the way to Jedburgh and therefore don’t complete the Pennine Way. Now I may be a non-purist, but there’s no way I was ever coming this far along a National Trail and not finishing it. Dere Street is straight and easy walking – the point at which it leaves the PW is only around a mile after Chew Green. Just before that I said hello (not literally, I’m not a wannabe Dr Doolittle) to these chaps…

Wild goats, LEJoG Day 56

Wild mountain goats, near Dere Street

There’s a signpost near the junction with Dere Street saying “Lamb Hill 2 miles”. It seemed a long two miles, and was the worst section of the day. The path is suddenly much less clear. It would be quite easy to find yourself wandering through very thick and long grass if you don’t keep a careful eye on the ground. There are also one or two streams (e.g. Rennies Burn) and depressions with quick descents and sharp ascents to negotiate. And finally there’s a lot more boggy ground than has hitherto been the case.

Lamb Hill itself isn’t much of one. At its foot is the first of two refuge huts on the final leg, where some people stay the night in order to break up the 25 to 27 miles. I stopped for lunch at the top, by the trig point, which was actually behind a fence. It’s worth mentioning that, by now and almost all the way to Windy Gyle, you are following this fence which marks the border between England and Scotland. As long as you stay on the right hand side of the fence, as I did, you can assume you’re in England. This is clear on the OS mapping in the Pennine Way North Adventure Atlas, where the thick pink line represents the Anglo-Scottish border.

After the descent from Lamb Hill (511m), there are a couple more of these moderate summits to attain. First is Beefstand Hill (562m) and then Mozie Law (552m). Neither are particularly taxing, certainly not compared to some of the hills to come on Day 57. Following Mozie Law though, there is a series of up-and-downs which start as reasonably comfortable undulations but culminate in the steepest ascent since Byrness Hill. It’s much shorter though, so again nothing to be concerned about. At this mini-summit is a six-pointed signpost:

Six point sign, LEJoG Day 56

The six-pointed signpost, starring plenty of Pennine Way Kilroys

You’re very near the end now: it’s only just over half a mile to Russell’s Cairn. But what a half mile this was. I don’t know if it was just due to the weather I experienced, but I rank this as one of the toughest and most perturbing bits of walking I’ve done outside the Lakes. First, the climb up to the Saddle was not especially steep, but into a headwind it felt twice as long. Then my phone battery died even though it said there was 20% left, which felt a little bit like the ominous opening scenes of a horror movie or the clumsy foreshadowing of an average episode of Casualty. After a year I was starting to think I’d been right about that programme the first time).

Next, as I rounded the Saddle the wind was ridiculous: strong enough to cause false steps and (without CM on my phone) loud enough to feel ever more ominous. Without access to GPS on the phone as a back-up, I was relying on my map and compass. Although I’d been sure I was on the correct route, the diversion to Russell’s Cairn seemed to take an absolute age to appear, and I started having serious doubts about my navigational prowess. I’d passed a man and boy on the way up the hill: stopped a few times to see if they were following but never saw them again. It was a lonely and eerie few moments.

And then the rain started to come down more heavily, and the mist descended. I wouldn’t say I was panicking exactly, but I really wanted to see that sign to Russell’s Cairn. Conditions were reminiscent of Kidsty Pike on Day 5 of the Coast to Coast, and without a phone I was running through worst-case scenarios in the event of injury.

Finally, a gate, and a hill climb on the left. No actual sign though: there was a collapsed sign but the arrow was blank and it was impossible to tell if it had ever read “Pennine Way”. Instinct has to take over here: you have to know this is the route you need to follow, and it’s moments like this that remind you never to leave home without a compass. It was a climb that left me slightly breathless, mainly due to adrenaline and strong wind rather than gradient though. The sense of relief on seeing the trig point was immense: there was also a slight self-satisfaction at having been right.

After the walk

Stopped at the cairn for 10 minutes to eat a protein bar and dig out the directions sheet. My tribulations weren’t yet over, though. The first stage of the descent was easy enough, but I had to look for a second sign (towards Trows Farm) which had collapsed since the directions were written. I missed it… which meant I continued SE when I should have turned SW. It didn’t take long to find the right path again, and after a few more metres of descent the farm came clearly into view, so it was more or less impossible to go wrong. But in very strong wind it was still a frustrating moment, and one which causes the walker to understand how quickly things can go wrong if for whatever reason you don’t have full command of navigation in difficult surroundings.

Pick-up time was 4:30 – 5pm. I arrived at the farm at 4:10pm. Oddly, I got my battery working again, so I continued with the podcast I’d been listening to in the hills. Joyce arrived in the Land Rover at 4:35pm. Now, during the evening meal and breakfast she’d been an unsmiling, efficient presence, so I had some trepidation about how well I’d be able to sustain conversation during the 20-minute drive back to Forest View. I needn’t have worried. She was a delight to talk to, full of helpful information, historic background and anecdotes, and obviously still thrilled by compliments after all these years serving Pennine Way walkers.

There’s almost too much to recollect, but here are some of the main points:

  • Colin and Joyce at Forest View were instrumental in promoting the Pennine Way during the 1990s and 2000s, and in encouraging B&Bs in the more remote northern areas to band together and help secure their collective future by doing the same. This led directly to a surge in the number of people completing the Way.
  • They are retiring at the end of October 2019. Because of the vital importance of Forest View/Byrness as a pinch point, they would not sell until they were sure the new owners would meet their stringent criteria and continue to provide the same level of service to walkers. Their successors will be shadowing Colin and Joyce for several weeks in September/October.
  • Most walkers at this time of year are teachers (due to the academic summer holiday). Joyce has grown to recognise the type immediately, e.g. she knew the larger, more talkative table last night comprised entirely of teachers and that the female half of the couple I was sat with was also a teacher. She did sound surprised that I was walking in August and was not a teacher, though. In general, it’s only in September that people from other professions turn up.
  • I mentioned that I’d done the Great North Run three times before giving up running in favour of walking – she said the route passes her birthplace in South Shields.

More of Joyce during the drive back to Trows Farm tomorrow.

Ordered tonight’s evening meal as soon as I was back at Forest View. A busier evening, with (I think) 14 guests, and half a dozen being picked up at the halfway mark tomorrow. As it happened, all three of my dinner companions were… teachers. Didn’t pre-order a pudding but felt I was disappointing the wonderful Joyce by not having one two nights running, and also every other guest was indulging, so I succumbed to chocolate cake. Back to my room straight after the meal again.

Postscript – My Listening Pleasure

Re-visited Chart Music 11 (“David Van Day’s Public Enemy”) and 13 (“The Demon Prince of the Third Division”). Finished the latter in my room before dinner.

Picture (actually taken on the morning of 23 August 2019, while resting after the climb from Trows Farm) shows the Cheviot Hills, looking east from Russell’s Cairn, halfway between Byrness and Kirk Yetholm. A fantasy landscape on a glorious morning – almost looks like a painting, doesn’t it?

Next: Day 57 (23 August 2019) in which I just keep on pushing my legs over the borderline. For good this time.

*girder-heavy irony (irny?)

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