Finally finishing the Pennine Way – Day 1: Byrness to Barrowburn
The last time we’d tried to leave Byrness to finish the Pennine Way, the hills were full of snow. I was therefore glad to see they were snow-free when I’d arrived back there in August. And even more to see them similarly white free the next morning as we got on our way to climb the steep but steady hill out of the forest and on to Byrness Hill. On a clear day it provides the walker with a fine view of the forested landscape below, showing the walker a sweeping panoramic of much of their previous route.
Looking back is, in some respects, preferable, for this astounding scenery is, rather perversely, blighted. The hill leads on to the Ottorburn Ranges, owned and used by the Army for training purposes. Indeed the Ministry of Defence owns 20% of the land in the Northumberland National Park. Thankfully live bullets are no longer used in the area, however the concept of a national park filled with unsightly warning signs, just seems wrong.
Still, that was the least to be worried about as a rather fine path soon degenerated in to one of the Pennine Way’s trademarks. Peat bog.
If there can be one overwhelming and defining feature of the Pennine Way, it’s peat bog. Thankfully the worst of it has generally been paved, however the further north the Pennine Way goes, the more sporadic the paving gets, and in some areas where its desperately needed, it’s amazingly absent.
No more so was this noticeable than on the delightfully named Ravens Knowe where even the sunshine couldn’t disguise a wet, muddy quagmire of a path.
As Catherine went wide, very wide, round it in an attempt to escape the worst of it, I opted to bounce from grassy hummock to grassy hummock, spending as little time on the ground as I could. This went amazingly well until I ended up with a large patch of dry but barren-looking earth in front of me, surrounded by the wet stuff. Putting my best foot forward, I was soon greeted with that sinking feeling. Literally. Before I knew it, both my feet were being sucked down, fast.
“Hang on! Hang on!” shouted Catherine from several miles away as I stood with fear and panic in my head, and an awful lot of water in my boots.
Now I’ve (so far) never been stuck in quicksand however I have a suspicion it shares some similarities with the bog I was stuck in. My first attempt to struggle out, only saw me sink down further and soon I was up to my waist in the stuff with absolutely no idea how to get out. There was nothing to push against with my feet; just more dank smelling ooze. Catherine was busy shouting at me that she was coming, whilst simultaneously being stranded by other bog patches.
Not wanting her to be trapped too, I tried to get her to stay away whilst I worked out what on earth I was going to do.
Truth be told, I’ve no real idea how I actually got out. I think I had some kind of feeling that leaning forward would help. Indeed it would have distributed my weight over the bog, thus reducing the chance of me sinking, which just goes to show that my GCSE in Physics did have some practical application in my life. For years I’d considered knowing that a stiletto heel would do more damage to a polished floor than a full size elephant, to be rather useless. Now those same principles may have just saved my bacon.
As well as leaning forward, I’ve an image of pulling myself forward out of the bog, although frankly I’ve no idea what I used to lever myself on that pull. But somehow I managed it and stood there, half my body soaked and covered in peat bog, feeling rather cold.
“Is the camera all right” asked the caring love of my life who’d finally made it over to me from her hundred mile diversion.
They say that the grass is greener on the other side, and having ascertained that the camera was, indeed, all right, I decided to test out that hypothesis.
For most of the journey to Kirk Yetholm, the walker finds themselves on the mighty border ridge, following the Scotland/England border fence lovingly maintained by landowners on both sides. My bog falling spot was mere metres away from one such part of the fence and in an attempt to move to some relative safety, I leapt over and found Scotland had far stabler ground.
It was soon necessary to pop back to England once more, however the worst was over and the path became paved. So much of the Pennine Way passes over bog, and so much of it is now paved. Not through any desire to keep the walker safe and dry of course, but in order to protect the fragile landscape from erosion caused by eager walkers. Even so, the paving isn’t guaranteed to protect the walker from all the worst that the hills can offer as I found out a mere half hour later. Having finally dried out, I was happily admiring the view when I failed to notice that several planks were missing from the duct boards I was walking on, and promptly put my foot down in to a deep pool of water.
After another brief stint walking in and out of Scotland, we arrived at Chew Green. Once the site of a Roman Camp and Fortlet, the few remains and earthworks are now mostly colonised by sheep, who watched with vague interest as I took the opportunity to wring out my sodden socks. They might have even wondered why I was wearing thin trainer socks rather than the walking socks I thought I was wearing in my boots, and to be honest I wasn’t sure of the reason myself.
There had been a strong wind blowing since we’d got up on the ridge, and the blue skies from earlier the day had been blown off to somewhere else. In their place, grey clouds with an ominous look about them had arrived and no sooner had we struggled in to our waterproofs, the showers began. Ah, this was more like the Pennine Way I really knew…
As we dipped in and out of Scotland, the wind and rain whipped our faces in a most delightful way; every drop stung against our faces. It was a delight to finally make it to the mountain rescue hut at Yearning Saddle where we could at least shelter from the elements and have some lunch.
We were not the only ones seeking respite from the weather and the hut was full of fellow walkers. True there were only six of us in total, however it was a small hut. We stepped inside to join a couple doing a circular walk, and a retired couple doing the Pennine Way who we’d chatted to earlier in the morning. The wind battered and howled against the sturdy wooden building, however as we munched and lunched, the rain stopped and the blue skies began to slowly re-appear. Not that the wind stopped though.
Everyone else had left when we finally stepped out of the hut once more and headed on along Lamb Hill before climbing up the endearingly named “Beefstand Hill” which gave us our first view of the mighty Cheviot hill which, along with a range of hills named in its honour, dominates the landscape.
Strange names seemed to be a feature of the area as we marched on over Mozie Law and Plea Know, although the names aren’t what the area are best known for. I got a glimpse of them in the distance; a herd of wild goats roam the landscape. Where they came from, no one knows. How long they’ve been there, no one is sure. About all that anyone knows if that they’ve been resident on the Cheviot hills for a centuries.
Frankly I’ve no idea what a Gyle is, however Windy Gyle certainly lives up to the first part of its name. If we’d thought that the breezes were a tad on the stiff side earlier, well that was nothing to the battering we got as we tried to take in the amazing panoramic views from its summit.
The summit itself was a large pile of rocks known as Russel’s Cairn, on which someone had ceremoniously plonked a trig point, which at least provided a something to hold on to as we struggled to stay upright in the face of the wind.
It was also where we’d leave the Pennine Way for the day as we headed off on the long detour to our B&B.
With no road access or habitations in the area, Byrness to Kirk Yetholm is one of the trickiest sections of the Pennine Way to organise accommodation for. Some hardy souls opt to camp, or bivvy on down at one of the two mountain rescue huts. Others even attempt to do the whole 27 mile trek in one day.
The majority of walkers make the most of deals with B&Bs in Kirk Yetholm, or with the hostel in Byrness who arrange to pick you up a few miles down the valley.
For me, one of the joys of long distance walking is moving from one place to another each day. The thought of going back to somewhere you’ve just come from, or indeed getting to the next place a day early, well it just seems right. But thankfully for the Pennine Way, there are some alternatives, staying in remote farmhouse B&Bs. They’re not very well known, but they exist.
One of the most famous is Uswayford Farm, however its owners had retired in 2009; a fact I found out after repeated phone calls went unanswered and I headed on to the internet in search of answers .
However a few miles along in the Coquet Valley, lies Barrowburn Farm with its tea room, camping barn and, most importantly, B&B.
From the Pennine Way it’s a three mile hike mostly following the Border Country Ride bridleway. We headed down in to the valley, gently loosing height and passing by more forests and the intriguingly named Murder Cleugh.
A small tombstone memorial now marks the spot where, in 1610, Isabella Sudden was murdered by a Robert Lumsden. The memorial, we were later told, was created by a local resident who, in his retirement, does masonry and has erected several such markers to see that local history is not forgotten.
A spectacular rainbow welcomed us as we got close to our destination. A huge arc, it was one of the biggest and finest I’d ever seen, with both ends fully visible. It was truly a sight to behold, lasting just until we’d arrived at Barrowburn where we were promptly welcomed with a cup of tea and a cheese scone.
Rather starkly furnished with bare floors and a rather old looking bathroom with a hot water tap which spluttered as it dispensed its wares, Barrowburn perhaps wasn’t the most glamorous B&B to stay in, however the welcome was warm, and the views fine.
I’ve never stayed somewhere so remote. Besides a smattering of farm buildings, a phone box and a road, there was nothing for miles around. As we ate our tea, I looked out of the window and sat engrossed by the clouds sailing through the valley.
It was quite hypnotic; an amazing view to see. With most walkers safely tucked up in the comfort of the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm, or raiding Byrness hostel’s beer cupboard, I couldn’t help but think that it was the finest view most Pennine Way walkers would never see. And we were lucky. Very lucky indeed.
Next time, we arrive in Kirk Yetholm. To see more photographs of our trip, check out the Flickr set.
 – the following morning we found out a more detailed story. Or at least, the local gossip. Apparently Uswayford was bought by a couple who planned to reopen the B&B. They had moved in in the autumn of 2009, with the man intending to commute the 60 mile trip in order to work in Newcastle.
By all accounts, they’d been completely unprepared for the harsh winter conditions the area suffers, and had been snowed in with limited food and diesel for their generator, and no wood for their fire. Even worse, the last few miles of road to their house was privately owned, and they had no way of clearing it.
As soon as the snows had passed, the removal men had turned up and the house was empty once more with no one locally knowing what had happened, although it had been heard that the couple had split up. By all accounts the house remains empty, although certainly at one point the phone remained connected…