To Kirk Yetholm

In June 2000 I restarted my northbound journey at Dufton and bumped into Gary. He’d set out from Edale with a tent that he’d subsequently wrapped in a fertiliser sack and mailed to his wife in Lincoln. Gary was self-reliant and experienced, a wiry ex-service man a year or two older than me. We didn’t walk together much until the last couple of days, and even then we never felt joined by an invisible umbilicus. We suited each other well.

By the time we reached Alston, Gary was pondering how to tackle the Cheviots traverse.

‘I think I might dump most of my gear at Byrness and travel light,’ he said.
‘I haven’t thought about it yet,’ I replied, ‘but on the basis of today’s walk, I won’t try to do it all in one day.’
Next night at Greenhead we chewed it over again. We’d had a hot trek through the South Tyne valley, and I felt whacked.
‘I’m still not ready for a big one,’ I concluded. ‘I’ll try to get a bed halfway along, at Uswayford or Windy Haugh, perhaps.’
‘I don’t fancy dropping down and having to climb up again.’
‘You did it at Dufton.’
‘Exactly!’

Gary had experienced his worst day between Dufton and Alston.

Leaving Greenhead, we opted for a half-day hike along the Hadrian’s Wall Roller Coaster as far as Once Brewed Youth Hostel. I found when making the short, steep ascents that I’d started to get my walking legs. That afternoon, Gary and I planned a joint one-day attack on the Cheviots. We would go shopping at Bellingham and prepare food and drink in advance so we could make an early start. We’d walk slowly uphill and take it steady on the level and downhill stretches. We’d rest every hour, and we’d eat and drink regularly. We’d always know our exact position and what remained to be done, and if we ever felt tempted to increase the pace, we’d save it for the last mile.

The plan worked: instead of the fourteen hours we’d allowed for the traverse, we clocked eleven and three-quarters, partly thanks to more extensive paving and boardwalks than we’d expected.

Despite that success, by the time we were sitting in the Border Hotel at Kirk Yetholm, writing heartfelt inscriptions in the Pennine Way Finishers’ Book, legs aching and feet sore, I’d rejected the idea of turning round and going through it all in reverse.

‘That’s it,’ I declared over the first pint. ‘There’s no way I’m walking home. I’ll be on the Edinburgh bus tomorrow. I’ll check into a hotel, soak in a bath, sprawl out in a double bed with nobody snoring and farting except me, then I’ll see what the next day brings.’
‘You’ll feel better after a night’s rest,’ Gary said with a smile.

A couple of pints later, in conversation with Carl and Mark, two campers we’d last seen in Bellingham, I was still saying I wouldn’t be walking back to Edale. By then, I wasn’t sure what I believed.

Next morning we rose early, nursing thick heads, and caught the first bus to Kelso. Gary headed for Berwick and the train south, while I continued north to Edinburgh. I exchanged my seven nights in the constraining bunks of rural youth hostels for the luxury and privacy of an en-suite room. But after twenty-four hours absorbing the magnificence of Edinburgh’s physical setting, the grandeur of its buildings and the novelty of its multinational visitors, I found myself missing the empty spaces of the Pennines. I felt refreshed and ready to grasp my opportunity to do something special.

I phoned home.
‘Hi. How’s things?’
‘Fine, thank you. Where are you?’
‘Edinburgh. It’s been a lovely day.’
‘It’s been awful here. Cold and grey and drizzly.’
‘Everybody OK?’
‘Yes, so far as I know. That postcard you sent – was it Hadrian’s Wall?’
‘Yes. Why?’
‘Suzy’s been chewing the mail again.’
‘Right. But you’re OK?’
‘Absolutely fine.’
‘Right. Good. Look, er, I’m catching the bus back to Kirk Yetholm today. I’ll start walking south tomorrow.’
‘How long will it take you?’
‘I don’t know. Two to three weeks, I guess. Depends how I’m going, really.’
‘Take care.’
‘You too.’

I took the afternoon bus and disembarked in Kirk Yetholm, laden with provisions for the Cheviots traverse.

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