Report: Stuart Grant
Walk Date: June / July 2012
I didn’t know back in January when I was making plans and booking accommodation that 2012 was going to enjoy the wettest summer since records began. As it turned out, there was rain on more days than not but I stayed dry more than wet, much of the rain being drizzle or light showers. I was caught out in a thunder storm about a mile out of Gunnerside and was very grateful to the residents of Satron Cottage who invited me in to shelter, gave me a cup of tea and offered to drive me the remaining stretch if the storm persisted. The rain soon passed, so I walked on without compromising the completeness of the journey on foot. Human kindness is a wonderful thing. Compare this with my B&B in Gunnerside who ‘couldn’t really help’ with my damp clothing.
The weather has made its mark on some of the paths. Many are overgrown with nettles and brambles, and the walk out of Garsdale Head (p173) wasn’t the only place where shorts were not such a good idea. As it happened, this was one of the rainy mornings so I had every reason to be wearing leggings. In other places, particularly cattle pasture land, the ground was extremely muddy. The paving slabs at Greenriggs (p123) have either sunk or been relocated, leaving something like a pond in front of the gate; just when I was congratulating myself on dry feet after crossing the moor. I understand this is being investigated. Some of the more subjective descriptions such as ‘a delightful riverside path’ (p125) are probably more appropriate after a dry sunny season, and not when the undergrowth is shoulder high and soaking wet.
I used the guide book in conjunction with the OS maps, but found at times that where there was most doubt on the ground, neither gave a clear answer. Some signposts have disappeared, and some have new labels. The project to monitor and waymark the route should resolve these differences. I now have a notebook heavily endorsed with helpful notes which I will send to the authors and I’m happy for this to be shared with anyone intending to embark on this journey. Having said that, I went wrong only three or four times and never seriously. Credit is due to the writers. The greatest puzzle was at Bog Scar (p55). I met some Pennine Way walkers here, and they too couldn’t make sense of their route description, putting their guide, my guide and the OS map at odds with the ground. I don’t remember this problem when I walked the PW five years ago, and suspect a new fence has appeared. We managed, but only by steep scramble up a muddy bank.
I made some positive decisions to vary my route from the guide:
Firstly, and as one of the other reporters has mentioned, there is currently no accommodation in Blanchland. The atmospheric Lord Crewe Arms closed its doors in around February this year, and isn’t expected to re-open before 2014 (after new ownership, a rethink and a refit). I diverted at the lone tree (p86) and took a good path to Edmundbyers. This added a small amount to the distance of day 7, but added five miles to day 8. The paths across the moor back to Blanchland are good quality and (I would say) safe in mist but it did make the section to Hexham long and tiring.
Secondly, I stretched day 8 so that I reached One Brewed. An alternative would have been to use the Hadrian’s Wall bus service – AD112 - from/back to Housesteads. I didn’t find this extra distance (about three miles) a problem, and although day nine then became very short, I used up some time by visiting the Roman Army museum at Carvoran.
Thirdly, on the advice of the local farmers, I didn’t take the paths directly east of Hanging Shaw (p76). They said the stiles were there, but I may have trouble using them (for unspecified reasons). This may have been a polite way of saying ‘keep off my land’, but it was done very nicely. Their alternative suggestion of taking a good track north to around GR869309 and dropping back south eastish to GR878302 was straight forward and probably saved a lot of anguish. Waymarking the official route should not only make route finding easier but will hopefully resolve the access issues through these troublesome gates and stiles.
I cut out a couple of what seemed to me to be unnecessary loops, probably putting back some of the short stretches of road walking excised by the test walkers (p12). One of these was just before the above, taking the option of the farm track from Cronkley Bridge (p75).
In the same way that I decided to take the road option rather than squelch across Sleightholme Moor, I positively decided not to test the existence of a footbridge across Crowdundle Beck (p139). My host that night thought it had been replaced, and I’ve since pointed towards irrefutable confirmation on the PJ website (see Older News).
A word of warning about a footbridge on day sixteen that is missing. The strip of land (p176) should lead to the bridge across Sally Beck, but there is currently no bridge. I was left looking forlorn at the FP sign at the side of the A683 pointing back at me. Rather than retrace steps up the boggy, cow trodden strip I’d just descended, I waded across. I had nothing to lose as I was already soaking wet from a morning of non stop rain and wet ground. However, be warned that the current was strong. A sensible alternative is to take the minor road to Rawthey Bridge, follow the A683 for a short way and pick up the bridleway after crossing the River Rawthey at Cross Keys. So despite my precautions on day twelve, I still had to paddle.
I don’t want to identify particular overnight accommodation for praise in case this implies criticism of other places. But, having noted that one of the other reporters floundered a bit at Westgate, I will say that the route passes by the front door of a very welcoming B&B just short of the bridge into the village. The same applies at Milburn; the village itself has no accommodation, but about a mile into the next day, the route passes the gate of a farm B&B. And of course, day fifteen takes you to the door of food, drink and bed (though there are other places to stay at Garsdale Head).
I found some easy days to be hard going. Greenhead to Alston (day 11) was one such, despite the benefit of a stretch of disused railway line. This was amongst one of the most demanding days in terms of navigation, making it a tiring day. The same applied, as forewarned, to day thirteen (Milburn to Appleby). In contrast, day sixteen had the potential to be one of the most enjoyable, despite the poor weather in the morning and the beck wading, and despite the luke warm description (p173). It’s all in the eyes of the beholder.
Finally, be warned about the last stretch on day seventeen – the Waterfalls Walk. The falls are very impressive, but there are a lot of steps up and down as the path meanders alongside the River Dee. More importantly, this is private land and if you happen to arrive too early in the afternoon it’ll cost you £5 to use the route. It was gone 5pm by the time I reached Beezleys, by which time the ticket office was closed (and the gates still open). I’m told that the official route is being re-routed to avoid this, taking the road to Ingleton instead.
To sum up, this is a walk of highlights and low spots. Some of the route has no intrinsic pleasure but links one pleasant section with another. In my view, some of the best stretches are those already covered by the Pennine Way, though that itself has its dull spots. Such a mixture is inevitable in a walk of this length. And that leads me to ponder the actual length of this walk. Ignoring the variations I applied, and with respect for the helpful diagrams, some of the miles seemed extremely long despite setting a reasonable pace. I’m assured that 247 it is, and as I haven’t checked measurements against the OS map, my doubts may be no more than a feeling. Be prepared to feel tired at the end of some days.