Finally finishing the Pennine Way – Day 2: Barrowburn to Kirk Yetholm
“Now I’ve got a bit of a proposition for you” proclaimed the man from Barrowburn B&B with a look on his face as if he was going to suggest we popped to the nearest patisserie and eat three chocolate éclairs there and then. In reality he was offering us a lift part of the way back to the Pennine Way, which to some walkers would equate to the same thing.
“Yesterday you came down the Border Country Ride, didn’t you?” We nod. “Now we can drop you off on that bit, or we can take you a bit further on and you can walk up Clennell Street instead. You’ll get up on the ridge about half a mile on from Windy Gyle. It’s entirely up to you. Some people don’t feel right about missing a bit. But you’ve got to walk a bit anyway to get back from here.”
Very true indeed. Either way, his lift would still result in a mile and a half walk up hill for us as there’s simply no road access.
“And you’ll be able to see Windy Gyle from where Clennell Street takes you”
Ah well, that clinches the deal.
Some people may, at this point, talk about respecting the integrity of the walk – that the Pennine Way walker should do every bit of its route. But then we’d got lost and gone wrong on our first day on the thing. On one summit we made a substantially wrong turning and ended up several miles further down a valley than we should have been. Right near the end was probably not the place to suddenly start getting obsessive about covering every single mile.
Right near the end it was. Over eating a hearty breakfast, I struggled to really believe that this would be the last day we’d spend walking the Pennine Way. After doing it in sections for over three years, it was almost over. And it looked like it was going to be a lovely day to do it.
As we headed up the ancient drovers road of Clennell Street, the sun was shining brightly and the winds calm. Perfect walking weather on which to end our Pennine Way adventure, and so unlike most of the walking days we’d had so far.
Having done most of the trail in spring and autumn, the weather hadn’t generally been on our side. But here we were, walking on August Bank Holiday Monday, basking in the sunshine. Arriving back on the ridge we looked back to Windy Gyle where we’d been the previous day; it’s trig point shimmering in the distance sun.
It was eleven when we finally rejoined the Pennine Way and put our best foot forward once more on the paving slabs sourced from the floors of Lancashire’s former cotton mills.
Despite it being a Bank Holiday, there was no one around (only months later did I remember that it wasn’t a holiday on the other side of the border fence – the Scots got their day off at the beginning of August rather than the end.) True this wasn’t the most populated part of the world, however I expected to see more people than just two walkers and their enthusiastic dogs which bounded with glee over the tufts of heather.
After a short rest, we walked on over the slabs of Butt Roads and King’s Seat. In the distance we could just make out the Hanging Stone whose macabre name make it sound more impressive than it actually looks. The name is said to have been given when a packman’s pack slipped over the egde of the rock; the strap going tight around his neck.
Just beyond we came to a three armed signpost, proclaiming the Pennine Way went in each direction. We’d reached the turn off for the rectangular, almost boxy summit of the Cheviot itself. Whilst not a compulsory part of the Pennine Way, most do make the two mile round trip to visit the final major peak on the trip.
Few seem to ever have a good word about the place. Ask most about it and they’ll tell you it’s a a dull, boring peat bog quagmire with few, if any, redeeming features. You don’t even get a view when you finally make it to the top as the summit so flat, and the surrounding hills shorter, that little can be seen.
Some have measured the peat bog to be up to two metres deep; certainly not somewhere you’d want to drop your camera. For many a Pennine Way walker recalling their experience, the trip up the top of the Cheviot would have been a dull journey, battling through the stale smelling bog water; boots covered in peat.
Thankfully these days it’s a bit easier thanks to the inevitable stone slabs laid on the ground in recent years. For us it was merely a case of walking from one to the another, just hoping we didn’t inexplicably lose our balance and end up going in to the black stuff head first.
As we approached, so too did things began to change. All of a sudden, the hills seemed alive with Geordie twangs. There were people everywhere. Well, on the paving stones anyway. The path from the Pennine Way went straight over the summit and down the other side, whilst a handful of other paths linked with it. Clearly the road access was better further on, and it seemed like a substantial amount of the population of the North East was roaming that summit.
Sitting at the top, sheltering under the trig point plonked on a large stone tableau, a steady stream of walkers continued to appear, most taking the paths, but one woman began to bound enthusiastically over what appeared to be some horrendous peat bog, heading for goodness knows where.
Shaking our heads at her reckless abandon, we headed back from whence we came, now joined by a middle aged man wearing a Newcastle United shirt and a woolly hat, who talked none stop and to the dozen, both at the same time in his thick Geordie accent.
“I wanna see the Hangin’ Stone” he proclaimed several times, looking all around him just in case he missed it “It’s on me map somewhere round here.”
“Yeah, we saw it earlier. Doesn’t look much.”
“Oh well, it’s on me map! I’m lookin’ forward to seein’ it!”
Quite what he spoke about in that half hour, I can’t honestly say as I kind of dozed off until we passed by one half of the retired couple we’d seen the day before. He was heading up to the top whilst his wife had a rest at the turn off not far below.
The day before we’d found out that we were both staying at the same B&B at Kirk Yetholm, although they were doing two nights there. After a quick chat, our Geordie friend hanging around patiently (his desire to see the hanging stone perhaps not as strong as his desire to talk to people) we headed on and met his wife at the bottom.
Here our paths must diverge. The hanging stone was in the opposite direction after all, however there was a tang of guilt as we did so, knowing he’d probably spend half an hour trying to chat to our fellow Pennine Way walker. We later found he did, before bouncing off. What he made of the landmark he was seeking, was something we never did find out.
Auchope Cairn didn’t get a particularly glowing write up in the Pennine Way’s official guide book. “[It] must be the most exposed and uncomfortable place on the whole ridge” the author proclaimed. “There is a small stone shelter which provides some protection from the wind, but it is a better idea to descend by the north-west path and make for the more complete shelter provided by a mountain rescue hut.
It didn’t sound like an obvious place to stop for lunch, but Catherine was having none of it as she extolled the virtues of the views of hills and valleys that were presented in front of us. Besides, it’s a nice day. What could possibly go wrong?
Tackling our packed lunches, the answer became abundantly clear the wind suddenly appeared and started battering us. Sat at a particularly high and exposed part of the ridge path, it wasn’t long before we were finishing up and scurrying off down the path to pass by my preferred lunch option of Auchope Shelter just down the road.
Dropping down a few hundred metres in height certainly helped keep us warmer, but it also a symbolic descent. Although we still had a few hills to climb, our general trend was now downwards. There was just one last big hill to tackle first; the rocky summit of the Schil sits on the border, and like most of our walk, we were still on the England side. Sitting at the top, we looked back at the ridge we’d followed for the last two days, and admired the Cheviot in front of us.
It would all soon be over. Not far off the summit we finally crossed in to Scotland and followed the path slowly but surely to Kirk Yetholm. The hills began to fall away, replaced by fields and pasture. Farming was the order of the day now, shown at the bottom of Latchly Hill, as we slowed down by sheep being herded in to a field. We joined the small country lane that would take us gently to the end, occasionally looking back to see what we’d left.
After our aborted trip a few months before, we’d made it to Kirk Yetholm only by bus. On that bright and sunny April morning, I’d stood on the same road looking back at the Cheviots covered in snow, wondering what we’d missed. Now we knew.
Before we knew it, we were standing outside the Border Hotel; the finishing point just outside. Posing for the obligatory celebrated photographs, we headed to the B&B to dump our stuff and freshen up before celebrating in style.
In 1968 Alfred Wainwright walked the Pennine Way. He was so unimpressed that he made arrangements for those who finished the walk, to receive a free pint on completion. By 1979 this was reduced to a half pint, but Wainwright continued paying, even leaving money in his will to cover the costs. It cost an estimated £15,000 during his life. Wainright’s money has long run out, however the tradition continues to this day, now sponsored by Broughton Ales.
What the exact criteria are for claiming it, we never asked. Having not walked the whole thing in one go, it didn’t seem right to take up the offer, although you could argue doing it over three years takes far more commitment. We paid for our own, although doffed our caps to Wainwright whose picture sits on the wall next to the bar as we read the Pennine Way signing in book that the bar keeps.
If three years felt like a long time to do the route, that was nothing compared to some others. One walker had done it over seventeen years. Woes were common. One woman had even lost her camera to bog. But the best comment came from Bob Griffiths. Big hills. Big rain. Big smile.
We nodded in agreement to that, and got another pint in as we settled in for the duration and waited to get some food.
The owner of our B&B (who, bizarrely, had one lived a mile or so from our house in London) had been most keen to ensure we had a table booked, even if it was a Monday, and whilst we’d been out on the hills, we’d learned that one had been booked for us.
The message was relayed to us by the retired couple (who I’m going to have to call Phillip and Jean because I can’t just keep calling them “the retired couple” – it seems dreadfully impolite) when we’d met them earlier, and whose names I’ve embarrassingly long forgotten. It was a slightly confusing message. We knew the B&B owners had booked a table for us all, but we didn’t quite know whether that they’d booked two tables for two, or one for four.
At the B&B things seemed a little clearer in that we found out it was a table for four. But we didn’t quite get why, nor whether Philip and Jean were expecting that either. Having a meal with two random strangers wasn’t something we were particularly used to but being too polite, we had just decided to sit around the pub until they arrived and see what they did. If they turned up and went “Oh, we’re all together are we?!” in a confused way, we’d work something out.
They didn’t. Indeed I couldn’t help but think it was all Philip’s idea. A retired teacher, he was a happy and very chatty bloke. Between the pair of them, they’d walked most of the major walking routes in the country. Even the Thames Path. But what most struck me was just how few people they’d seen on the Pennine Way.
Being the granddaddy of UK walking routes and the one everyone knows, I’ve always had this image of the Pennine Way as being a busy route. Admittedly we’d seen few walking it on our many travels, however we’d never done it in summer when most people would be doing it.
Philip and Jean however had done it in August, near the peak of the walking calendar. In that whole time they’d managed to see eight others walking the route, including ourselves. Even the signing in books had looked sparse to us when we’d viewed them.
But we’d done it. Our names were in there. And I was proud to have completed it.
As we headed back to London the next day, battling with a real world of delayed trains and signalling problems at York, I couldn’t help but feel that there was now something missing. It had been with us for three years of our lives, and now there was a gap. A 267 mile Pennine Way shaped hole. Strange as it seems, I was missing it already.
Sighing, I knew what that meant. It was going to happen. Someday I’d end up doing it all over again. Although preferably without going up to the waist in bog that time.
To see more photographs of our trip, check out the Flickr set.