Fantasy Spa Baths

I can see the route from Cairn Hill to Windy Gyle stretching far ahead on the high, broad and ill-drained watershed between England and Scotland. It’s a deceptively long haul, made easier by intermittent lengths of flagstones ripped from the industrial heartlands of Northern England and returned to the hills where they were quarried a hundred, two hundred, years ago. I stride out, glowing from my early morning triumph, forgetting for a few minutes that I must make haste slowly. Rushing would exact a heavy toll on my energy, leaving me to struggle in the afternoon and regret such exuberance through the next day. The Pennine Way is an endurance event, not a sprint, and nowhere is that more true than on the Cheviots traverse.

Isolated and remote, the Way crosses the Cheviots in a series of doglegs, taking me from the fair fields of the Scottish Borders to the meagre settlement of Byrness, hidden in Redesdale’s gloomy forests. Even since paving tamed the boggiest sections, the distance of 25 miles renders this an awesome one-day challenge for most hikers. Once committed to the ridge, the intrepid walker rapidly becomes aware of his insignificance in the vast landscape. Northbound Wayfarers on Lamb Hill, when first seeing the peaks of Windy Gyle and the Cheviot, might feel their job is half done, until they spy the mountain refuge below Auchope Cairn, miniaturised by distance, which reveals that the journey still has many hours to run. Those struggling against injury or fatigue may find that reassuring glimpses down the steeper side of the ridge to the safety of Scotland alleviate their anguish; they can at least see where they might descend. By contrast the Northumberland side offers no visible hint of comfort, though small and distant havens do exist where walkers find overnight lodgings.

This morning the route to Windy Gyle seems devoid of human movement. If any northbound Wayfarers have spent the night at Uswayford or Windy Haugh, I’ll meet them in the next hour as they settle into their last day. As it happens I have the world to myself, which suits me well: few sights lift my spirits more than a deserted sweep of hillside, but even a noisy crowd would be preferable to my northbound encounter here with a disenchanted Derbyshire duo who had walked up from Alwinton.

At the time, Gary and I were working our way through a bad patch. We’d been walking for eight hours, and, although we hadn’t realised it, were in need of a longer rest than our standard five minutes per hour. We came upon the couple as she posed for a photograph beside a starburst of cotton grass, brilliant white against the black peat. They wanted to chat, and whilst we would have preferred to maintain our rhythm we halted and listened politely.

‘Are you doing the Pennine Way?’ he asked.
‘Yes.’
‘Going to Kirk Yetholm tonight?’
‘Yes’
‘Staying at the youth hostel?’
‘We hope so.’
‘We walked the Pennine Way last year. We didn’t like Kirk Yetholm Youth Hostel,’ she said.
‘And we found the village rather disappointing,’ he added. ‘Not much of a place to walk all that way for.’
‘The Border Hotel wasn’t our kind of thing,’ she chipped in, wrinkling her nose as if assailed by an offensive odour.
‘We didn’t think much to Kelso, either,’ he declared, ‘or Jedburgh,’ smirking in disdain as he hammered the final nail into the coffin containing the grim remains of his butchery of the Scottish Border region.

What had this unhappy couple expected? Glossop, perhaps? They must have liked something, since they’d taken the trouble to return and climb The Cheviot, but they never volunteered a single positive thought.

We told them we had to move on, and we tried to pull away on the long drag up Cairn Hill, but they stuck just behind us, keeping up their unsolicited tirade against the northern end of the Pennine Way. Eventually, sapped of energy by their carping commentary, I threw my rucksack into the heather and fell dramatically beside it. Gary, revealing for the first time that he has a demonstrative side, followed suit. We fished out our sandwiches and water bottles and endured a final one-sided conversation with the dissatisfied pair before they went ahead, leaving us feeling drained.

Such experiences may explain some humans’ devotion to pet animals. Our dog Suzy is a nine-year-old collie cross who, despite an instinctive hatred of anything pushed through the letterbox, is intelligent and well behaved. When out walking we involve her in all decisions. She selects the route of excursions through local fields, and during longer expeditions we include her in route discussions. We might occasionally be overheard saying things like ‘Well, Suzy, which way shall we go now?’ or ‘What do you reckon, Suzy? Shall we have a rest here, or shall we go a bit further?’ and even ‘I don’t know, Suzy. You’d think they’d make these stiles easier for older dogs, wouldn’t you?’ Suzy’s response is not always explicit, and our interpretations of her signals may at times be faulty, but her limited participation is far more welcome than the vocal intrusions of disaffected hikers. Also, compared with the hill-walker’s common habit of talking to himself, conversing with a dog seems less eccentric. Provided, of course, that the dog is present.

A few icy minutes at the cairn on Windy Gyle prove long enough for enjoyment of solitude where paratroopers have seen fit to daub name, rank and number on some of the flatter stones.

‘Well, Suzy, would you believe it?’ I say aloud. ‘Whatever made the silly beggars do a thing like that?’

Perhaps as they’d taken the trouble to carry a broad-tipped indelible black marker pen from Edale, they felt obliged to use it. In that context, I find myself wondering whether they’d also carried guns.

I consume another snack before dropping to Windy Rigg and meeting my first walkers of the day, a man from Newcastle with his canine companion. Then the hills become crowded: two more hikers stride along with their dog, and at the junction of the Pennine Way and The Street sit Geoff from Ponteland and Bill from Whitley Bay, tucking into an early lunch.

‘Canny day,’ says Geoff.
‘Grand,’ I agree. ‘Going far?’
He waves his sandwich in a circle, sprays out the unintelligible name of their starting point, then splutters crumbs into the air as he announces ‘Windy Gyle’, all of which leaves me little the wiser.
‘Yerself?’ enquires Bill through a mouthful of cake.
‘Kirk Yetholm to Byrness, then to Derbyshire.’
‘Canny walk,’ Geoff acknowledges with a nod while reaching for a bag of crisps.
‘We’ve done the Pennine Way in bits,’ says Bill. ‘When we walked the Cheviots we stopped overnight in the Refuge for a few bevvies. We like a bevvie, yer knaw.’
He brandishes a beer can by way of illustration.
‘Why aye,’ Geoff agrees. ‘Have yer been in the High Force pub? That’s a rare place. Brew their own ale, yer knaw.’
‘I’ve heard good reports.’
‘We had a smashin’ night in there,’ Geoff goes on, polishing an apple. ‘We come out when the pub shut, then we went and pitched the tent on an island in the middle o’ the Tees.’
‘Sounds risky,’ I say, imagining two drunks being swept away, tent and all, by a nocturnal freshet.
‘Wor, bloody terrible,’ Bill agrees, his eyes widening at the memory as he seeks comfort in a chocolate bar. ‘Yer’d never do it sober. The bloody midges bit us all over.’
‘Yer’ll be goin’ to Bellingham Youth Hostel?’ Geoff enquires.
‘I guess so. I stayed there on the way north last week.’
‘Yer’ve come north and now you’re goin’ south?’
‘Crazy, isn’t it?’
‘No, no. Sounds great if yer’ve got the time.’
‘Tom an’ Alison at Bellingham, they’re grand folk,’ Bill says.
‘I’ve met Alison.’
‘She’s Tom’s wife,’ Geoff says. ‘Canny lass.’

So she is. When Gary and I reached Bellingham, I’d just washed my clothes and was moving towards the spin-drier when Alison arrived on the scene. Now I do realise that my face sometimes takes on a hesitant, even gormless, expression, but I could imagine no reason why she leapt to the conclusion that I couldn’t operate such a simple domestic appliance. She muscled straight in, insisting on showing me how, while lambasting me for being a frameless male. I responded that if she had a decent bone in her body she’d cease her nagging and invite me home to soak my suffering feet in her bath, instead of inferring I was at odds with a crumby machine.

‘Come if you must,’ she said, ‘but I can’t guarantee what the goose will say about it.’

Having established that the bath was outside, fed by cold water and used by livestock, I contented myself with the hostel shower, leaving my feet to yearn for more sophisticated and sympathetic treatment, which they didn’t receive until they reached Edinburgh three days later.

‘Tell Tom and Alison the two Geordie lads send their regards,’ says Geoff.
‘Hell, the Pennine Way’s alive with pairs of Geordie lads. How will they know which ones you are?’
‘They’ll know,’ they retort with confidence. ‘We’re the ones what rent the hostel every February.’
‘I’ll tell ‘em.’

I leave them munching energetically and apply myself to the gentle slope of Mosie Law.

The next section of the walk is much changed since 1963. Underfoot conditions in the Cheviots are naturally soft, too soft when many feet pound the saturated and fragile surface, but paving renders the walk possible for a wider cross section of people and much easier for everyone. Tussocky grass, heather and peat hags previously made this ultra-arduous as a one-day stretch.

Over the rounded, heathery domes of Beefstand Hill and Lamb Hill a straggling line of ten middle-aged to elderly men, all of studious appearance and carrying binoculars, ambles slowly towards me. We exchange civilities in passing, and I press on across the deserted headwaters of Rennies Burn towards Broad Flow. After eight hours on my feet, I experience a replay of my northbound journey and suddenly feel very tired. Finding a convenient patch of springy heather, I check it for sensitive or malicious wildlife then sit down and eat some lunch, take a drink, put my hood up and lie back to dream about soaking in a Jacuzzi, a cold drink in my left hand and my right arm around…

…I have long been an enthusiast for sleeping in the heather. It started one December when I was recovering from a dose of flu, and I decided a few days in the Lake District would do me good. The hiking didn’t come easy; I struggled against the combined handicaps of a lack of fitness and the toxins still circulating in my body. One dry cold afternoon while climbing Sail from Buttermere I knew I could go no further. I lay down in the heather and shut my eyes, and I felt as if I were floating weightless between the earth and the sky, cradled by nature, enveloped and protected by the winter hills. The sensation lasted no more than a few seconds, but when I opened my eyes I felt reinvigorated. That proved to be a turning point in my recuperation, and over the next couple of days my strength returned.

Early on this Cheviots afternoon, I am remotely conscious of the wind rustling dry grasses against my hood, and I rejoice silently at my freedom in these wild and open spaces. I alone will choose between the many options that influence the shape and duration of my expedition. I love the feeling of being answerable to no one but myself, to go where I will and do as I please at a moment’s notice.

But hang on! Who am I fooling? I feel duty-bound to phone Anne each day, and any family problem would see me taking the quickest way home.

Emergencies excluded, however, I do indeed have the game in my hands, and it feels great. So I fall asleep and return to the fantasy I’d described to Gary on the way north, in which I relax in a Jacuzzi, a cold drink in my left hand, my right arm around…

…Gary stopped me at that point, advising me of the advantages of bromide and the risk of blindness, but Gary is back home so I dream on. My imaginary friends Virginia, Olivia and Amelia have joined me in the hot tub and are expressing their appreciation of my witticisms and their fascination for my muscular fat-free body, when I wake with a start. Three young women are peering down at me. They look uncannily like Virginia, Olivia and Amelia, but their expressions are more worried than worshipful.

‘Hello,’ I say, struggling to sit upright.
Their faces show instant relief.
‘Oh, hello,’ they all reply with youthful smiles.
‘I was just having a rest.’
‘Oh, good,’ says Olivia, looking even happier. ‘Where have you come from today?’
‘Kirk Yetholm,’ I reply, trying to sound matter-of-fact but hoping for some recognition of my status as an athlete, notwithstanding the varicose veins and recumbent posture.
‘Wow!’ they say, not wanting to disappoint me. ‘That’s some walk. Are you doing the Pennine Way?’

I outline thirty-seven years’ perambulations.
Olivia nods. She now seems relaxed and at ease, but sweet-faced Amelia looks puzzled, as if trying to formulate a question.

‘We’re doing the Pennine Way as well,’ Virginia announces. ‘We’re going to the refuge below Auchope Cairn for the night, then we’ll finish in Kirk Yetholm tomorrow lunchtime.’
‘When did you start?’
‘Seven years ago.’
‘Seven years?’
‘Yes. We do a long weekend each summer.’
‘That’s a coincidence! Exactly a year ago I was at Keld, and I met three women doing the Coast to Coast at the rate of one weekend a year. I think they came from Hathersage, or maybe it was Baslow.’
‘Coincidence indeed!’ Virginia declaims. ‘We’re not quite from Hathersage or Baslow, but we did all live in Sheffield when we started out. Now we’re spread further apart.’
I visualise them spread further apart. Then I say, ‘I was just dreaming my favourite Pennine Way fantasy.’
‘I’m glad you were dreaming,’ Olivia says with a laugh. ‘We were worried you might be dead.’
‘Next time you take a nap,’ Virginia instructs, ‘wear a sign saying “Not Dead - Only Sleeping”.’
‘I suppose in the interests of accuracy I’d have to write “Not Dead - Only Sleeping Just After I Wrote This”,’ I respond, and we all laugh together. This is an improvement on talking with Geoff and Bill, and ten times better than saying ‘Good morning’ ten times to ten bird-watchers.
Amelia still looks puzzled.
‘What was your fantasy?’ she enquires.
‘Amelia! Don’t ask a man that sort of question!’
‘Well, actually, it was quite innocent, as far as it had got. I was soothing my aching muscles in a Jacuzzi, and there were these three…..well, never mind that bit. Not that there’s much chance of finding a Jacuzzi on the Pennine Way.’
‘Ah!’ they cry in unison, ‘There is!’
They begin fiddling through their waist pouches, like frantic kangaroos in search of a lost joey.
‘Here!’ says Amelia, winning the treasure hunt and triumphantly waving a tattered and much amended Pennine Way Accommodation Guide. ‘Here it is. Hetherington.’
They describe their night at Hetherington.
‘That’s it!’ I shout. ‘I can get there tomorrow if I don’t feel too shattered from today’s effort. What is it - an hour or so beyond Bellingham?’
‘Yes,’ they say, smiling in the delight all Pennine Wayfarers feel at being able to pass on such valuable knowledge.

I have little to offer in return, other than information about a trickle of water a mile ahead, a rarity up here on the ridge that will save them a long descent to refill their bottles.

We talk about the wear and tear on our bodies, the appalling hardness of the road from Greg’s Hut to Garrigill, and the pleasures of life in the open air. Finally we wish each other well and I watch them start off, leaning forward into their rucksack straps and swinging their arms as they head into the heart of the wilderness for a short but cold night.

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