The North Wind Doth Blow

Rain hammers on the conservatory roof, driven by a strong north wind, as I breakfast alone in the warm, comfortable dining room. Mandy brings tea and toast while commenting with a shake of the head on the latest televised pronouncements of Government Ministers and weather forecasters, whose London words ring false in the context of sodden farmland and wind-bowed trees beneath Northumberland’s leaden sky.
My spirits soar when Mandy returns, stage left, with three rashers of bacon, grilled tomato, fried bread, beans, sausage, black pudding, and two fried eggs. Despite my appreciative remarks to her departing back, I seriously doubt my capacity to eat it all, but I haven’t got where I am today without demonstrating mental and physical resolve, so I summon up the spirit of 1963, which helped us tackle an equally gargantuan feast at Middleton in Teesdale. I get stuck in, approaching it slowly like a Cheviots traverse, chewing thoroughly, pausing between forkfuls, drinking tea, introducing morsels of dry toast to the congealing cholesterol, enjoying a sensation of spreading warmth and well-being, and finally revealing the willow pattern on the plate while the rain blasts the windows like buckshot.

Having triumphed over breakfast, I pay my dues and make ready to depart. Alan stands in the living room, wearing his working clothes.

‘What will you do today?’ I ask.
He glances out at the grim weather.
‘It might be a good day for leading that hay in,’ he replies.
His answer throws me; in my mind, haymaking is associated with dry warm weather, and at first I suspect his tongue is lodged firmly in his cheek. Then the penny drops.
‘You’ve got it wrapped?’
He nods, and I remember seeing the glistening black cylinders in the fields as we rode to the inn.
‘Well,’ I say, ‘no point me waiting for it to fair up. I’ll say thank you again, and goodbye.’

We shake hands, and I march down the road to rejoin the Pennine Way, conscious of leaving something behind for what could be far too long a time.

My boots splash across wet fields, past the farmhouses of The Ash and Horneystead, and slosh down a muddy path onto the footbridge over the swollen Warks Burn. I’m sure the inventor of Newcastle Brown Ale, that icon of the Northeast, drew his inspiration from such foaming peat-stained rivers. Through reeds and sodden pastures, the indistinct path leads over the next hill to the pretty dell of Fawlee Sike waterfall, a torrent today where Gary and I had enjoyed a leisurely lunch amongst the wild flowers. After squelching across a flat and soggy heath, I reach the forest margin, where I quickly reconfirm all my long-held beliefs about wet vegetation.

Aside from catastrophes such as falling in a river or being overwhelmed by a tsunami, nothing soaks the feet faster than a walk through wet grass. Marching through puddles and fording streams are child’s play in the desert compared with the insidious effect of crossing drenched meadows. As I trudge through rank grasses rooted in the boggy soils of firebreaks, I become exceptionally well irrigated below the knee and, in contrast with some unfortunate areas of the western United States where forest fires are raging out of control, far removed from all danger of combustion. Rain relentlessly lashes my rucksack, and I paddle south, sparing a thought for any poor souls heading north into the gale, water running down their faces and seeping inside their waterproofs. So much for doing the Pennine Way from south to north to keep the weather behind you. The only good news for the northbound brigade is that, having seen not a soul the previous day between Byrness and Bellingham, I’m sure nobody will be attempting the Cheviots traverse.
Route finding this morning is straightforward, a far cry from 1963 when we relied on maps that were based on surveys made before the forests were planted, and which were therefore fairly useless. Back then we blundered in a generally northerly direction, relieved to see occasional ‘PW’ signs and simple arrows, painted freehand in white on trees and fence posts. Today I enjoy myself despite the dreadful weather; my legs are going well, and the gentle gradients hardly slow me down. It seems no time at all before Hadrian’s Wall directs me west, past the strangest place-names along the Pennine Way: Once Brewed Youth Hostel and Twice Brewed Inn.

The Inn is named after an incident involving General Wade, the famous builder of military roads. The general liked his ale strong and was disgusted by the poor stuff served here. He ordered the landlord to brew it again by the time he returned a week later, or prepare himself to be hanged. The name of the youth hostel, the nearest building, is a play on the ancient name of the Inn.

In the long-ago days when the northern section of the Pennine Way was poorly served by hostels - nothing at Baldersdale, Langdon Beck, Alston, Greenhead or Byrness - Neil made our advance booking at Once Brewed, which, according to our reading of the handbook, provided neither meals nor shop. In Alston we bought enough provisions for two days then marched down the South Tyne Valley and stopped for a pot of tea at a hotel at Greenhead. After that we pushed along Hadrian’s Wall and found the hostel had - a shop! We cooked dinner before walking to the Twice Brewed Inn, which was undergoing structural alterations and felt more like a building site than a pub, the dust of plaster mingling with the fumes of ale and tobacco. Neil and I noisily monopolised the dartboard playing Shanghai, while Obie argued vehemently and practically about Britain’s transport policy with a hitch-hiking student who smoked what was, to us, the ultimate foreign rubbish, Camel-brand cigarettes. We returned to the hostel on a bitterly cold early September night, climbed into our rope hammocks, and slept like logs.

Thirty-seven years later, Gary and Martin and I took the option of an easy day along the Wall. We left Greenhead Youth Hostel straight after breakfast with the intention of walking to Housesteads Fort and Vindolanda, but a cold rain set in by the time we reached the bothy at Peel, and, as the hostel was then due to open its welcoming doors, we rejected an afternoon’s outdoor archaeology. Instead we invented our own tale of the Roman occupation.

We speculated that Hadrian might have visited this awful outpost of his empire to check how his local manager was doing. We envisaged the quaking subordinate suggesting tentatively to his Emperor that he’d be more successful in meeting his annual objectives of keeping the marauding Scots at bay (and therefore earning his performance bonus) if the offenders could see where the Roman Empire started and finished. Perhaps he hazarded the thought that some minor capital expenditure on a fence would be productive, and perhaps a few warning notices so no one could claim in court that they hadn’t known whose cattle and treasure they were stealing.

We imagined Hadrian pursing his lips as the rude wind blew up his toga.

‘Fence?’ he might have said to himself, ‘Hadrian’s Fence? Hadrian’s Warning Sign?’

Then he would have told the local manager that he wasn’t thinking strategically enough. Instead he, Hadrian, Emperor of Rome, would decree that the world’s largest defensive structure be erected forthwith. He doubtless announced that the work must be completed for an arbitrary sum by an equally arbitrary date, as visiting potentates are apt to do. He would then have retreated to warmer climes, leaving the hapless local manager to argue with the engineers and bean-counters about exactly what the Emperor had said was needed, how much it would cost, and when it could be done.

The local manager, who had probably joined the Legion for a steady job with such simple fringe benefits as putting to death a few primitive savages, almost certainly grew increasingly irritable under the pressure of work. His soldiers and slaves must have suffered in consequence, enduring such novel punishments as spending the winter months in a wet hole digging the Vallum, in retribution for archetypal Latin crimes like staring insolently at their beleaguered boss’s wife. Yes, we felt sure that all human and corporate life had been acted out in that inhospitable landscape, where the grapes wouldn’t grow and the Lambrettas had yet to show.

Gary and Martin and I checked into the hostel, admitted by a young man who, despite the weather, looked exceptionally relaxed and happy, not to mention self-satisfied. While we brewed tea, I told my fellow Wayfarers what the hostel had been like before its conversion into a huge cheap hotel filled mainly by school parties during the week. We were gazing out of the window, watching the rain steadily soak the lawns and bushes when, from the direction of the staff quarters, a vision of loveliness appeared.

‘Hello,’ she said, her radiant smile greeting us like long-lost brothers. ‘How are you doing today?’

Suddenly we were doing incredibly well. She was young, she was pretty, she was tall and she was slender. Her recently washed ringlets were drying fragrantly. Her wool jumper looked clean and fresh, and an ankle-length floral skirt flowed round her long legs. Prettily painted toes peeped from her sandals. She was absolutely gorgeous; she was everything we were not; and we soon found out she was the girlfriend of the guy who had booked us in. You didn’t have to be a genius to work out that each was the reason for the other’s smug expression.

She knew she made an impression on men, but we didn’t mind her enjoying that satisfaction just as long as she stayed and talked to us. We were even prepared to sympathise with her about the work she had to do out of school hours to satisfy the bureaucrats who stifle so many committed teachers with their systems of measurement, which do little to elevate the quality of pupils leaving school. When she announced she’d have to drive back home through the awful weather we said we were sorry, though in truth that was on our account rather than hers. Then she left us briefly to brave the elements and load her car. Breathless, knowing this would be our final audience, we awaited her return, and we gazed spellbound when she walked in from the chilly car park, her thin white jumper pushed forward by prominent nipples. Had she been a dentist instead of a teacher, she could at that moment have examined every one of our fillings, so far had our jaws dropped. She was the best reason we could think of for being at Hadrian’s Wall, and half an hour later she had driven away.

That evening, after a surprisingly good meal provided by the youth hostel catering service, we walked to the Twice Brewed Inn. Along with three others, we hammered on the door until the landlord opened up, and while Martin watched the Euro 2000 Football Final between France and Italy, Gary and I read the Sunday papers and listened to two men arguing about Britain’s transport policy as they puffed at ancient pipes filled with rank tobacco.

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