Naked In The Heather

Far to the north of Hadrian’s Wall and dangerously close to the Scottish border, uppermost Redesdale exudes the underlying menace of a foreign land. When viewed from the watershed, its elongated basin seems to brim over with millions of conifers, whose dark green needles filter and release ragged eructations of white mist, which rise like moist smoke signals in a random and indecipherable code. Below the canopy, the feeble grey light reveals a lifeless gloom of withered limbs waiting their turn to join the litter of the forest floor. Outside the plantations, riparian vegetation grows tall and rank in the midsummer warmth of wet meadows. Always I feel that the Reivers are hiding, watching, waiting for me to make an unguarded move.

Byrness crouches amongst its trees like a shy animal. Having served as a construction camp for the Catcleugh Reservoir, the settlement – to call it a village would overstate its size and nature - has evolved into a forestry community, where passing trade on the A68 trunk road and the Pennine Way inject a little variety into its otherwise dull monoculture. An essential overnight stop for most Wayfarers, Byrness is home to voracious midges and is no place to linger.

Arriving there in 1963, we sought bed and breakfast at the Byrness Hotel, which we understood to be our only hope for many miles. A grim trio we must have looked to the smartly dressed man who confronted us at the door. Neil, our natural leader, for once seemed to be lost for words, but Obie pleaded our case for shelter with a forthright question: “Does tha do bed an’ breakfast, mate?” We tried to look appealing despite our unwashed and unshaven state as we were scrutinised through a long and nerve-racking silence until, with unconcealed distaste, we were booked into a twin-bedded room with a camp bed which I, as junior member, had to acccept. Late that night we discovered that the Border Bar was directly beneath us, and our sleep was interrupted far into the early hours by the shouts and laughter of tireless drinkers.

I hear the Sheffield lads moving out early and wonder if they have all they need for their long day. The basic requirements on the Cheviots traverse are sufficient drinking water and plenty of complex carbohydrate - in a word, bread. Gary and I had also carried a substantial supply of cake and chocolate. The night before, we filled rolls with cheese and jam for our picnic, and we fried bacon to make breakfast sandwiches. We laid out cereal packets, dishes, mugs, spoons, coffee and sugar; we even filled the kettle to speed us towards an early departure. We left our remaining food for Martin, the Australian journalist who had stayed with us in youth hostels ever since Greenhead; he was planning to camp halfway along the ridge. As we closed the door of the hostel at 5.32am, we exchanged a solemn handshake in silent acknowledgement of the size of the challenge and our unspoken shared uncertainty, and then set off slowly through the dripping forest to mist-shrouded Byrness Hill.

In contrast, the weather for my 1963 traverse was glorious. By that time, we had acquired the fitness to finish the course, but our failure to make advance arrangements for provisions at Kirk Yetholm forced us to shorten our route and omit the highest parts of the ridge. It was an opportunity missed, a lesson learned too late for that expedition.

I pack my rucksack, make a brew, and am tying my boots when Miss M’s friend shows up. He tells me the party was noisy, and the birthday boy was already out of it by the time they arrived. They found him sitting in a chair, head tilted back, face decorated with tomato and cucumber, sauces and salad dressings. Glad to have my head rather than his, I make for the Border Services Café, formulating Plan B in case the festivities have carried away my caterer. Perhaps some kind landlady will agree a breakfast deal to keep me going on the fifteen miles to Bellingham.

I needn’t have worried. Breakfast is quickly ready, and I enjoy it at my leisure, knowing the day won’t prove too hard. The other great uncertainty - my physical condition after the twenty-five-miler - has already been answered: I feel great. I phone Hetherington, speak with Mrs Nichol, and book my bed. All that remains is for my feet to get me there, subject to agreement from boots and leg muscles. Like Senator George Mitchell in Ulster, I allow the dissident factions their say and then breathe a sigh of relief as they grumpily move forward together.

Bidding a fond farewell to the café, I splash through puddles on the forest track, disturbing birds beside Redesdale’s riverbanks. As I turn onto the narrow waterside footpath the summer seed-heads of tall grasses, bowed down by their overnight drenching, discharge a wet tribute onto my bare legs and into the top of my ankle gaiters. The proverbial early bird might catch the worm, but it doesn’t always pay to be the first person on the trail. My Thought for the Day is ‘A Friend Is Someone Who Is Always In Front Of You, Shaking Off The Drops’.

Such is the prelude to my day of solitary walking to Bellingham. Solitary? That’s hardly the right word. Although unaccompanied, I am continually aware of wildlife. Roe deer, their browsing disturbed by my noisy but harmless footfalls on the Forestry Commission’s gravel road, bound away through scrub that has grown over the stubble of timber harvested since 1963. Curlew, sandpiper and lapwing mew in brightening skies above dark and dour heather-clad domes, which maintain an aloof contemplation of matters more profound than a tramping hiker can hold in his head.

Nevertheless, the Way is undeniably lonely, although the moors, trackless on my first visit, now bear the scars of expensive footpath restoration. To my irritation, repairs are still needed on the short descent from Brownrigg Knowe, surely the worst section in two hundred and fifty miles. The path leads under low conifer branches that snag the rucksack. It descends a steep and boggy slope with foul-smelling iron-stained groundwater, where the fallen remnants of a broken wall lie half-submerged in the morass. It is a short stretch without pleasure, immediately following the tribulations of a hot passage through humid forests with midges chewing the skin, and water in my boots from pools of overnight rain on the flat plateau.

‘Suzy,’ I say, ‘this is a faffing awful place. No wonder there’s nobody else up here.’

Provoked into a symbolic demonstration of rebellion, I hang my soaking tee shirt on the wire fence and, imbued with the sense of freedom which inspires the committed naturist, I drop my shorts and pants and stand exposed to the warm breeze, airing my sweating body in the midday sun, while I swallow great draughts of water and munch a Chunky KitKat.

During the morning, I glanced back several times at the hills of my previous day’s adventure, tracing the route from The Cheviot to Byrness Hill. When walking north towards the same skyline, Gary warned me, ‘I don’t want to know anything about the hills we’ve got to climb tomorrow. Just don’t tell me.’

I now reflect on two successful traverses in four days, a short period that has changed my perspective of the northern end of the Way. I turn my back, letting recent experiences on those same peaks and ridges fall away behind me. In little more than twenty-four hours, I have said goodbye to Scotland, the Cheviots and the Redesdale forests. I am ticking off the milestones, gathering pace on my homeward trail.

Descending from the moors I cross sour ground that once was turned over by miners and then abandoned to the centuries-long economic winter that followed their short harvest of prosperity. I plod through boggy pastures where rusty brown springs sustain sheep and lambs, cows and calves, and after a satisfactory six hours I shamble, mud-stained and itinerant-like, into Bellingham, where the smarter, clean-booted Sunday afternoon folk are enjoying their countryside excursions. The Snack Bar, my first port of call when northbound, is closed, so I ask where I might get a mug of tea and, for my pains, I am told to go to the Old Workhouse.

Such an instruction would have chilled the blood a century earlier, but to my delight the building now houses tearooms and a Tourist Information Centre. I enquire about the South Tyne Trail, which follows a former railway line and might offer an alternative to the Greenhead-Alston section of the Pennine Way. The well-meaning woman behind the desk phones her colleague at Haltwhistle to make sure she is giving me the most up-to-date picture.

In the tearoom, I explain pedantically that I want enough tea for two thirsty people but only one cup. The waitress writes ‘T4241’ on her pad and promptly returns with a huge brown teapot and a large jug of hot water which she places triumphantly before me, saying, ‘There. Tea for two for one. All right?’

After forty-five happy minutes soaking up the sweet liquid I order my poor feet back to the road. The Old Workhouse has met all my needs, and I reflect on it with fondness. It looks rather a grand structure for a small country town, and the architecture evokes a benevolent civic hall rather than a feared institution whose inmates bore a stigma of disgrace. I’m well aware that self-important and tyrannical bureaucracies are still able to create apprehension and confusion in those they are supposed to serve, but the locus of fear has changed with the passing years. Nevertheless, some of us raised in the era of the Welfare State find it all too easy to lapse into feckless dependency, a deficiency for which society has yet to establish universally fair solutions. For my part, I have just enjoyed a pleasant recovery from a recreational walk which my grandparents’ generation would have undertaken only as a necessity. I’m prompted to contrast that experience with my mental image of strict but well-intentioned administrators sitting round a table in the very room where I imbibed tea, prudently disbursing funds for the benefit of the destitute.

Could I have felt equally content in Bellingham a century ago? I doubt it, but I like the shape of things here. The row of traditional shop fronts proclaims a character lost from too many larger and less isolated settlements. I feel that Bellingham might take me in if I were in need.

A father and teenage son with rucksacks and grocery bags tramp towards the youth hostel. They can only be Pennine Wayfarers. What an epic, to walk from Edale to Kirk Yetholm as father and son. How would the relationship develop? Would it be strengthened or destroyed? How would the son feel about it? David and I never risked such a long venture, although we survived a week’s hostelling in the Lake District when he was fourteen. Now he would be too fast for me. The Pennine Way would be small beer after his treks in the Americas, but it’s still a physical and mental challenge for me, one I can enjoy in my belated Age of Irresponsibility, my long-delayed Gap Years.

The daughters and granddaughters of girls who wolf-whistled at our filthy mud-caked legs thirty-seven years earlier are parading in the market place, watching the world go by, waiting to be spotted by a talent scout. I resist the temptation to ask after their mothers and walk instead across the bridge above the broad, brown waters of the North Tyne River, where a man and woman carrying backpacks trudge into view.

‘How long have you been at it?’ I ask.
They give me a wary look, exchange glances, then say, ‘Fifteen days.’
‘How many to go?’
‘Three. We’re staying at Bellingham tonight, then Byrness, then Windy Haugh and Kirk Yetholm.’
‘Then is it straight back to Sheffield?’
They gawp at me.
‘Is it that obvious?’ she asks anxiously.
‘Just a wild guess,’ I reply.

I am becoming convinced that members of the criminal fraternity of South Yorkshire are even now preparing claims for stress brought on by overwork, as they harvest rich pickings from the deserted residences of their biggest city.

After crossing the boggy pasture on top of Ealingham Rigg I stop at the outcrop of Shitlington Crag to finish a packed lunch that originated two days earlier in Edinburgh’s Tollcross shops. The afternoon is waning, and a softer light floods the broad scoop of the Houxty Burn valley. Far beyond the Burn, dark forests smudge the skyline, and straight ahead the Way crosses a succession of modest ridges and shallow valleys that culminate on Hadrian’s Wall. This sparsely populated and peaceful treasure is visible only to the traveller on foot, but most northbound Wayfarers, their feet and stomachs obsessed with thoughts of Bellingham, may be unaware of the southerly view as they hasten over the Rigg, eager for their first sight of that day’s destination.

Beside the Burn, a small terrier and a Labrador challenge my right to free passage, taking the trouble to race from their garden and across a large field to bark and snarl. I prepare to swing my trekking poles in self-defence, but once I turn onto the footbridge the dogs seem satisfied, and I depart towards Hetherington for my eagerly awaited encounter with the spa bath.

But first, I have to take a shower.

Cloud spreads from the northwest, and, although I hope it will spare me, my number is undeniably on this one and it intends taking no prisoners. A grey curtain draws across the hills and plantations, and where ash and hawthorn trees form a canopy over the narrow lane I put on my coat and wait for the worst to pass.

What an age it can take for a shower to blow through. I stand there for twenty minutes, while the drips grow more persistent and merge into streams. Eventually the deluge eases off, an improvement that allows me the relative pleasure of getting wet but not soaked. I march to my destination, arriving in the early evening to stand dribbling in the porch where I divest myself of gaiters and boots and coat, while Mrs Nichol holds open the inner door and directs operations.

‘Give us yer coat an’ I’ll hang it over that radiator,’ she says, ‘an’ put yer boots underneath. Here’s the breakfast room, up there’s the bathroom, and next to that’s yer bedroom. Come through to the conservatory when yer’ve got yerself organised.’

I lie in the Jacuzzi, wondering what Amelia, Olivia and Virginia are doing. If only they were here, scrubbing my back, cooing in my ear, whispering to each other, giggling, searching for the soap. But reality seldom matches fantasy, and I have to clean the bath myself, lest my landlady finds the sides lined with greasy tidemarks and pubic hairs.

Alan and Mandy Nichol prove to be great company, and they make me feel like a son returned home after a long absence. We talk about their lifetime in farming, our respective families, local history, horses, places we’ve visited, the Pennine Way, and their guests. So welcome do they make me, I am almost reluctant to accept Alan’s offer of a lift to the Battleshead Inn, three miles away in the village of Wark, for my evening meal. Once there, however, I order soup and bread, steak and mushroom pie with chips and peas, and a pint of local ale. Everything is wonderful: good beer, thick homemade broth, and best cuts of beef in homemade pastry. I eat appreciatively, chewing every mouthful, extracting the flavour, relishing the texture, drinking slowly, watching the changing scene.

The pub fills with a mixture of holidaymakers and locals. Most of the visitors look at the menu, scan the room for the toilets, whisper amongst themselves, and then withdraw into the restaurant. Local males standing by the bar noisily relate the key points of meaningless disputes and boast about who drank most beer, or who threatened or thumped whom. When Alan arrives to pick me up, he introduces me to mild-mannered Cyril, now retired and passing his time making wooden garden furniture. But Alan is too late; I have already met Cyril, who had amazed me by carefully adjusting the angle of his bar stool to avoid turning his back on a complete stranger, a charming old-world courtesy alive in a part of England few will ever know.

Back at Hetherington the Nichols press me to have a whisky, which I reluctantly accept on the proviso that it won’t be a ‘Farmer’s Measure’ - I’ve seen enough of those to fear the resultant hangover. The hospitality is wonderful, and I promise to spread the word with northbound Wayfarers. I explain how I came to know about them, and they tell me the three girls spent a late night there and seemed in no rush to depart next day. I respond that I can appreciate such reluctance, and at breakfast time my understanding reaches new heights.

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