Up The Cheviot

Loud Jock the folk guitarist snores basso profundo and Hairy Geordie yodels a sleep-talking descant of obscenities as grey morning filters through the skylight’s grime. I slide from my bunk and tiptoe out of the dormitory. Downstairs I brew sweet coffee while chewing on bacon butties, fried the previous night. I take sandwiches from the fridge and stow them in my rucksack, fill my water bottles, tie my boots and say farewell to Kirk Yetholm Youth Hostel. The time is five o’clock on a July morning, two-and-a-half days after the end of my long and much interrupted journey from Edale. Pushing aside my doubts, I set forth, slow but purposeful in my stride, southbound in silence along the Pennine Way.

By a cottage doorstep sits a pair of leather plant-pots, permanently retired from hill walking, green algae round their rusted eyelets. Gary had remarked on them as we walked down the lane two days earlier.
‘That’s what I’m going to do with my boots,’ he said.

As I head south Gary is surely lying in bed, enjoying a weekend of rest before returning to work. I wonder if he carried out his threat: his boots became saturated within an hour of leaving Byrness on our final day, victims of the rain-drenched grass and soft black bogs on the first mist-shrouded Cheviots ridge.

‘They’ve had it. They’re eighteen years old,’ he told me. ‘They’re ready for gardening leave.’

Looking at the worn-down heels, I had to agree.

Glide paths of yellow sunbeams brush the frayed underside of low clouds, washing pale watercolours onto pasture and mown meadow. Early day dissolves the valley remnants of night mist and hovers indecisively between sun and shower. Horses and sheep, hearing tungsten-tipped trekking poles tap on tarmac, stop grazing and look my way. Cows stare vacant-eyed over a hawthorn hedge. A cat, interrupted near the end of its night patrol, glares malevolently and creeps away to sulk. Dogs bark as I pass by, disturbing their owners as surely as Jock and Geordie are disrupting the much-needed rest of seven Wayfarers who yesterday finished their northbound journey.

I ford the Halter Burn and work my way uphill. Lapwings rise ahead, wheeling beneath the ragged shroud which hides the summits of White Law and Black Hag, stark names that forewarn me of other monochrome challenges lurking more than two hundred miles to the south: White Hill, Black Moss, White Moss, Black Hill. I feel small and alone in the face of a huge challenge.

Dew-soaked grasses of upland green and sombre brown extend a gentle welcome to soles still sore from their northbound duty, destined now for the hard and distant rocks of Grindsbrook or Jacob’s Ladder, the heavily trodden Pennine Way routes of Edale. I consult map and compass, checking against the risk of an involuntary diversion along St Cuthbert’s Way as my feet begin nagging: ‘Visibility’s poor. Watch your navigation. You’re on your own. We can’t afford you going wrong. This will be a long day.’

The ridge between the Halter Burn and The Cheviot juts into the Border Region, forming a magnificent opener or end-piece to the Pennine Way. Rounded summits, smothered in peat, clad in heather and tussocks of mat grass, plunge steeply to hidden streams in deep valleys. The southbound walker must rise to the confrontation, whilst those completing a northbound odyssey feel relief and exultation as they reach through weariness to claim their prize.

Most guidebooks describe the ridge as the final stage of the journey, because the majority of Pennine Wayfarers travel south to north. In doing so, they defy the letter - but not the spirit - of the announcement in 1951 by the Right Honourable Hugh Dalton MP, Minister of Local Government and Planning, that he had officially approved the route of the Pennine Way from Kirk Yetholm to Derbyshire. That’s from north to south, from Scotland to England, from top to bottom of the page, the way a story unfolds. For once we can’t blame a government for the south to north bias; responsibility must therefore lie with the early guidebook writers. Whatever the history, I am heading south over White Law towards the mist-shrouded dome of Black Hag.

Gary decided at Byrness that he would descend at Black Hag.

‘I’m going down the valley,’ he insisted. ‘I’ve heard about White Law. It’s a nasty piece of work at the end of the day. That’s my plan, and I’m sticking to it.’

I couldn’t shift Gary from his decision, and it felt right to walk into Kirk Yetholm together, but I later wished we’d stayed on the high ground. The valley route concluded our walk in a relieved whimper, whereas the ridge would have ended it with a fanfare. I resolve that, if I make it to Kinder Scout, I’ll cross the plateau from the Downfall and descend to Edale via Grindsbrook, rather than taking the easier option of Jacob’s Ladder. I’ll sign off with a flourish, paying tribute to a great trail in a dramatic finish.

But that involves just a little too much forethought, and there’s nothing quite so hard to achieve as the right amount of preparation and planning. It lies somewhere between the extremes of “None At All” and “Paralysis By Analysis”.

Back in 1963 we operated pretty close to the “None At All” end of that continuum. Having decided to walk the Pennine Way, we engaged in no further examination of our options. The expedition would be, quite simply, an extended version of our Easter trips to the Lake District. If that meant long walks between youth hostels, then so be it; we would just have to get on with it.

Had more hostels existed, we could not have increased our thirteen-day duration because Obie’s employers closed down for only two weeks. As a result, we faced a tough schedule. We booked and paid up-front for hostel accommodation and food, not only to guarantee our places but also trading on the human foible that we invariably finish something we’ve paid for - a meal, for instance, no matter how awful it is - rather than waste our money. Had we researched more thoroughly we might have realised that, on some of our nights in self-catering hostels, we’d still be on the hills when village stores were putting up their ‘Closed’ signs. On such days hunger forced us into pragmatic decisions about the route, ensuring we reached a shop to buy the provisions we should have ordered in advance. There were few alternatives in 1963: even if pubs had offered food, our budget would not have covered such pleasures; for us it was youth hostel meals or self-catering, and that was that.

Skimped planning was not our only error. We were too optimistic about our physical ability to complete successive days in excess of twenty miles over testing terrain. We under-estimated the energy-sapping conditions and the navigational challenges that awaited us on the moors of Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. Amazingly, despite all those failings, at no time before or during the journey did anyone voice doubts about our ability to walk all the way to Kirk Yetholm.

I start my southbound journey wiser than I was in 1963, with sufficient provisions to cross the Cheviots to Byrness but no arrangements for the night. Several hours ahead, on my descent from the hills, I must find dinner and breakfast. At least this time I’m not constrained by money, and I know of various options. Selection must wait. All I can do now is walk.

My route skirts the misty summit of Black Hag, and the wall-stile that precedes the ascent to The Schil becomes the first stopping point for a drink, a banana and a Chunky KitKat. Drizzle blows chill from clouds scudding a few feet above my head, and while the lowland behind me enjoys an early bathe in watery sunlight I contemplate my impending entry into a grey world.

My feet adopt the gloom of the overcast. They have yet to come to terms with my boots, stiff leather monsters that I favour over most walkers’ choice of softer fabric. The boots are too immature for this venture; I’d just started breaking them in when my ‘Old Faithfuls’ split beyond repair, only two weeks before departure. Even after six days on the northbound leg, punctuated by blister repairs and cursing, the most I can say is that feet and footwear have grudgingly agreed to proceed together along my chosen route, despite their profound mutual dislike.

Every serious walker needs to promote a happy love affair below the ankles. Unfortunately, the current relationship can at best be summed up in the ambiguous phrase ‘rubbing along together’. I could use Dad’s help; he would tell them a story and get them to act out their proper roles, instead of falling out with each other.

I sit down and try a different combination of socks and insoles. When I stand up and take a few tentative steps, for the first time in weeks my feet sigh in relief.

‘That’s more like it,’ they say. ‘He’s learning. We’ve walked all those miles in conflict, but at last the penny’s dropped.’ United in ecstasy, boots and feet soar to the cloud-swathed summit of The Schil.

Gary had said at Byrness, ‘I’ll not believe I can do it ‘til I’m on top of The Schil. That thing’s going to be terrible.’ He shook his head in anticipation of the last climb of the long final day. In the event, our ascent was an anticlimax, and as we headed down I overheard him reflecting on his success.

‘Brilliant,’ he was saying softly to himself. ‘That early start. Having the breakfast all ready. We never looked back.’

The Schil raises its grey cap in deference to my conquest and a hopeful sign for better weather, but ahead looms The Cheviot. Dark, massive and overpowering, its northeastern profile climbs steeply into cloud with no hint of a favourable change of slope. My interim objective, however, is the Mountain Refuge shelter, where Gary and I had met a party of Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award candidates, resting while a supervisor brewed tea to reinforce them for the steep climb to Auchope Cairn, by far the hardest ascent on the Cheviot section for the southbound Wayfarer. Waiting at the Cairn, their other minder was spying on them through binoculars. He had asked us to convey a message, which we dutifully did with the words, ‘The man at the top of the hill presents his compliments and suggests you get a faffing move on.’

They laughed, and I continued, ‘You’ll recognise him when you see him. Big macho type. Thinks you should have heavier rucksacks.’

They hardly raised a smile at that, but when I asked if they were enjoying themselves they all said ‘Yes’ without a second’s hesitation. Perhaps they thought my question was part of their test.

This morning there’s no sign of life at the Refuge, so I pant slowly uphill into the mist. Greyness blots out all reference points. Water droplets hang on the short grass. Invisible sheep bleat loudly. The wind blows cold through my sweat-soaked shirt. I pause frequently to catch my breath, once to fortify myself with chocolate. With a sense of relief, I find the jumble of shattered rock that is Auchope Cairn. The time is exactly 9.00am. The majority, certainly the worst, of the day’s climbing is done. I have come through the first skirmish, and I feel fine.

There’s no reason to hang around in the cold wind and low cloud so I march along the boardwalks bridging the black bogs and cotton grass, thankful for an easy path across the sodden dome. Turning sharp right and descending to the well-drained soft brown peat on the flank of Cairn Hill, I emerge into sunlight and stop to lounge in dry heather while I eat another breakfast, an essential part of my day’s discipline. When I set off again the Cheviot is cloudless, and I half regret not visiting its summit, despite the opinion of one Wayfarer at Kirk Yetholm that it makes Black Hill look fascinating.

But there’s no going back. From that point onwards my eyes are drawn inexorably south to the distinctive skyline of the Cross Fell range, a five-day walk away. The Cheviot, for so long the focus of every northbound journey, is already dismissed and receding into history. Reflecting on four-and-a-half hours well spent, I wonder what is happening in Kirk Yetholm. Are the police looking for me, the absconding prime suspect, after the sleepless inmates of the dormitory ganged up to suffocate Hairy Geordie and Loud Jock?

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