South Tyne Trials

At breakfast the Dutch father’s almost imperceptible nod sanctions his attentive flock to recite their silent grace, and perhaps to pray for deliverance before driving north of the border. The travelling women have yet to surface, wasting a bright morning before they board a bus to their next unintended destination. I feel so different from them; I’m enjoying my route, and I’m heading home.

Early sun gilds the south face of Hadrian’s Wall where it sits atop the solidified wave crest of the Whin Sill, an igneous rock formation that crops out as crags also at High Cup and in Teesdale. Together the Wall and Sill form a distinctive landscape feature, and for much of a northbound journey the Wall presents a target and a turning point. After just three days of walking I can turn my back on it, hurrying away from the ancient wonder that I’ve three times marched along without really seeing.

Close to this very spot Obie and I had rebuked Neil for his obsession with photography, rather than sharing our impatience to vanquish the Pennine Way. Whilst we two were conditioned to using nothing more than one twelve-exposure film in our Kodak Brownies throughout a holiday, Neil’s extravagance knew no bounds as he repeatedly expended precious minutes fishing his SLR camera and light meter from the innards of his rucksack before firing off each one of a then staggering total of seventy-two shots in a fortnight.

The memory reminds me that I haven’t changed to this day; I seldom carry a camera, and instead of pausing to absorb something of this relic of world heritage, this small fraction of our Romano-British legacy, I’m submitting once again to the stronger pull of a race through higher hills. What right have I to censure the travelling women?

For reasons that haven’t crystallised in my mind, I now want to do a fast Pennine Way. At the end of the previous day, I realised I was strong enough to have walked further. A quick mental calculation persuades me I can get back to Edale in a total of thirteen days, which was the duration of our 1963 walk. That symmetry appeals to me. I’ll give it a go. But today I shall follow my inclination and commemorate the Railway Age by hiking the South Tyne Trail.

Sheep bleat as steely-eyed collies hurry them along Featherstone Lane, birds sing lustily in the hedgerow, and the occasional vehicle rushes by, but I saunter slowly, enjoying the exploration of a route that runs roughly parallel to the Way. Some writers of Pennine Way guidebooks malign the walk through the South Tyne Valley and those who, driven perhaps by an obligation to use existing rights of way, established the official route on lower ground rather than over the tops.

‘It’s a mish-mash,’ commented Stuart, a hiker at Alston Youth Hostel. ‘They’ve got to get you from Alston to the Roman Wall somehow, so they send you on this unrelated series of public paths, up hill and down dale, instead of making a decent day of it.’

I empathise with the criticism, and I also suspect a further cause of the widespread dissatisfaction: for the only time on the Way, the northbound hiker must spend his day walking down a river valley, a pastime he scorns after many hard sessions up hill and down dale, crossing the grain of the country. He’s strong by now, and he relishes tough stages.

For each of us, a personal truth lies at the heart of the matter. All but the Official Route Purists could opt for the high moors as an alternative, just as I choose with optimism to follow the old railway line. Mine should be an easy day, more pleasurable than my northbound passage over the unprepossessing wasteland near the former Lambley Colliery or the rural dereliction, bogs and straw-coloured tussocks of Blenkinsopp Common.

A graceful bridge spans the swirling brown, foam-flecked river at Featherstone. Droning insects and warm sun tempt fly fishermen to chance their arms and invite me to sit and dream, but my destiny lies a mile or so ahead at Rowfoot where I pick up the South Tyne Trail.

At once my feet feel at home on the grassed-over track bed, maintained at bowling-green standard by grazing sheep, and so begins a pleasant southward stroll between pastures and through leafy tunnels where hawthorn and ash have roofed the narrow, steep-sided cuttings, until I step onto the dizzy heights of Lambley Viaduct, recently refurbished to prolong its graceful life above the rough and urgent river. Its straight parallel lines contrast with the mixed woodland that clothes the deeply incised valley, providing the unusual experience of looking down onto the crowns of mature trees. Zigzagging slowly across, peering over each parapet in turn, I marvel at the elegance of the structure and admire the vision of those early engineers who conceptualised the moving of goods along rails, up and down gradients, over deep valleys, beneath mountains. What did ordinary people make of such momentous innovations? Today we take intercontinental air travel for granted and have become blasé about the modern miracles of moon landings, computers and cloning. It’s hard to imagine the impact of the railways on the mindset of ordinary men and women less than two hundred years ago.

A close-boarded fence at the far end of the viaduct brings me to a halt; it’s too tall to see over, and there’s no gate. A glance round the side reveals that the former track bed ends in Lambley Station, now a private residence. The only way forward is to descend by steps to a path which runs under the viaduct, then climb back up to the track a couple of hundred metres beyond.

‘This is a mess, Suzy,’ I mutter. ‘Whatever will the cyclists say?’

Casual riders will no doubt shrug their shoulders and turn back; determined through-travellers will spit and curse, then carry their steeds along the obstacle course.

The Trail curves lazily through pastoral scenery, with subtle rather than spectacular changes of landscape. Gradually the valley narrows, and I sense the invisible bulk of heather-topped fells, lurking beyond the convexity of the wet lower slopes that are home to curlew, snipe and lapwings. Display boards outside one farm announce that the land is managed for avian benefit, an admirable concession to pressured nature; birds are the most prominent natural fauna of the Pennine Way, except in the forests where midges take precedence.

Near Knarsdale, the Kirkstyle Inn advertises its presence on trailside fence-posts. On a hot day the small signs conjure up enticing images of cold drinks, welcome shade, and fresh sandwiches, and I’d persuaded Gary to divert the half-mile during our northbound march, but my plan for a quiet swallow was thwarted. Outside the pub stood eight leather-clad figures armed with clipboards, recording a seemingly endless line of vintage motorcycles, all of which halted briefly at the checkpoint before puttering their blue-smoke trail north along the minor road. I’d forgotten how much those old black machines differ from the space-age speedsters of today; but whilst they may be quaint, quiet they ain’t; nor do they smell sweet.

Gary was unperturbed; he was in his element. He chatted with the bikers while I ordered two pints of orange squash. It might not be your traditional manly tipple, but it’s better to walk on than beer.

‘What are you going to charge me for those?’ I asked the landlord as he ran the cold tap. I’d paid from ten pence to fifty pence in different places over the previous year for a shot of orange cordial and a pint of mains water.

The landlord kept his head down, concentrating on the complex technicalities of turning a tap rather than looking me in the eye.

‘Well,’ he said with an unconvincing air of regret, ‘It’s disgusting what I have to charge out here. The cheapest drink in my bar is a mixer at seventy-five pence. That’s what it costs to put your bum on a seat. This drink would be more than twice that size, so I ought to charge you at least one pound fifty each, but I’ll say two pounds for two pints.’
Two pounds? Astounding!
‘Well,’ I responded philosophically, ‘I’ve never been charged anything remotely approaching that much, so I’ll give you a pound for the two drinks and a pound for your cheek, and once I’ve used your toilet you’ll never get my custom again.’

I dropped the coins on the bar and took the glasses to a roadside bench, where I made a point of eating my own food rather than buying one of the landlord’s sandwiches. And for good measure, I left a banana skin beside the seat!

South of Knarsdale the South Tyne Trail flirts with the Pennine Way which descends from the moor. Where the official route dodges over stone walls and rides the dips and hummocks of ill-drained pastures, I stroll straight and even along my chosen path. But after Slaggyford, things change; the Trail seems less well trodden and becomes overgrown and boggy. The neat post-and-rail fences and kissing gates of the northern section are superseded by makeshift combinations of hurdles and recycled field gates tied together with string, scenically enhanced here by an informal water feature, there by a trampled mess of wet soil and sheep shit.

If such rustic improvisations are an inconvenience to those on two feet, they must rank as major obstacles to those on two wheels. I’m sitting on the side of a cutting, pondering this state of affairs over my packed lunch, when a young couple ride south on mountain bikes. As the male leader speeds by I raise a hand, which he acknowledges in kind. His companion follows at a distance of about a hundred metres, her lovely legs pumping vigorously on the pedals.

She smiles and shouts, ‘Do you sell sandwiches?’
‘I don’t sell them, but I could give you one!’ I reply, and am shocked to hear her call over her shoulder, ‘Can we discuss that after the sandwich?’

Actually, only the first sentence of that conversation took place, because my mouth was stuffed with bread and cheese.

A new narrow gauge railway occupies the old track bed from Kirkhaugh to Alston, effectively sidelining the Trail and pushing walkers and cyclists into the long grass on the brink of the embankments or onto a narrow path hard by the toe of the cuttings. I soon tire of this.

‘Well, Suzy,’ I say, ‘what a faffing awful route you’ve brought me down!’

The unsatisfactory situation persists most of the way to Alston, which I reach in disillusionment, wishing I’d reverted to the Pennine Way where the new railway begins. In the cafe I catch up with the young cyclists. Glugging tea and gobbling toasted teacakes, we swap uncomplimentary views about the South Tyne Trail. Like me, they consulted the Tourist Information Centre before setting forth and received unjustifiable encouragement about their prospects for a straightforward ride.

‘Where are you heading?’ I ask.
‘We’re cycling round the North Pennines for another two days. We’ll probably stay at Langdon Beck tonight, then we’re going back to Falkirk.’
‘Falkirk? I’m surprised you’re not from Sheffield.’
Their mouths drop open.
‘We are,’ says the girl.
‘So’s nearly everybody else up here.’

Alston enchants the eye with its steep cobbled street and a host of fascinating houses and shops, but it flatters to deceive. The chemist doesn’t open on Tuesday, so I’m forced to defer replenishing my foot protection system until Middleton in Teesdale, two days away, and the outdoor shop has never heard of Mountain Suds or any other multi-purpose biodegradable soap.

‘Perhaps hikers up here don’t bother to wash,’ says the shop assistant, with an air of indifference.

Having failed to obtain satisfaction from either retailer, I approach the service till with a sense of foreboding. A year ago, I met a hiker whose plastic card had been swallowed at the bank in Kirkby Stephen, leaving him desperately short of cash. Luckily for me, the Alston equipment behaves impeccably, and I sit at the market cross to ponder whether to stay in town or move on. It feels too early to stop for the night; I don’t much fancy the youth hostel again; and the pubs are something of a mixed bag.

Back in 1963 we found bed and breakfast at the Victoria, but I wouldn’t now want to frequent what has become a basic bar with a braying television and a pool table. And I suppose they charge more than the fifteen shillings (seventy-five pence in today’s money) we paid for bed and breakfast. In fact the best memory I have of Alston in 1963 is the discovery of whisky and dry ginger, which lightened our hearts and our pockets, further reducing our already slim chances of reaching Kirk Yetholm with enough money to buy a bus ticket home. Also on the positive side, we were able to have a bath, the second in three days; few youth hostels provided showers in the early nineteen-sixties, and no self-respecting man would have been seen dead with a deodorant. Need I say more?

I set out on the delightful valley path to Garrigill. There are perhaps too many high wall stiles to make this an appropriate end to a hard day, but my journey from Greenhead has been anything but strenuous. The late sun casts a warm light, the grass is soft and the scenery exquisite: dappled water between tree-lined riverbanks, small meadows alive with flowers, sombre views of the encroaching mountains.

In contrast, for those heading north, most of the miles from Dufton to Alston feel hard, as the foursome I meet a mile out of town could doubtless testify. Father is leading, followed closely by two boys who are passing through that awkward pubertal phase when the body, face and hair have not yet agreed on how they will eventually look.

Behind them, peering over a wall through thick glasses, is Granddad, and from the length of time he remains motionless I deduce he must be having a pee. The others see me looking at him; I know that they know that I know, and I sense they are the kind of family who do not comment on the private performance of bodily functions.

Granddad takes his time but finally clambers over the stile, a befogged look on his face as he plods slowly to rejoin his family. I scrutinise the four of them, fascinated by the cast of their features, their almost identical expressions, the old-fashioned traditionalism in their clothing and rucksacks. There is something - well, different - about them. I can’t explain why, but I’m convinced I am in the company of members of the hereditary ruling classes.

‘Don’t tell us it’s far,’ says Father, with a smile that could easily be read as a threat.
I glance at his brood and at Granddad. They look whacked.
‘No,’ I say, ‘not far now. Maybe twenty minutes.’
The boys sigh as if they’d hoped it was two minutes.
‘It’s a lovely path,’ I assure them. ‘Have you come from Dufton?’
They have.

I say that I sympathise with them for their long day and the foot-punishing descent from Greg’s Hut to Garrigill.

They don’t reply, in much the same way the Queen doesn’t extend a conversation with someone she meets on a walkabout. Dismissed by Father’s humourless smile, I stroll away, secure in my conviction that they don’t come from Sheffield and relieved that I won’t have to share a dormitory with them at Alston.

Pressing on up the beautiful valley, I measure my day’s progress against the character of the South Tyne River. Here it splashes over rocky platforms, slides down chutes and burbles over ledges, coyly giggling its way from the hills of its birth towards the brawling strength of its youth at Lambley, its early adulthood at Featherstone, destined for old age in Newcastle and death in the North Sea, its molecules recycling endlessly through geological time. Late that summer afternoon, when office workers have shut down their computers and returned home and most hikers have already completed their daily mileage, two sore feet carry my own middle age contentedly into Garrigill.

Three young girls leaning on a wall say ‘Hello’ and ask if I am camping.
‘No. I’m staying bed and breakfast.’
‘Ivy Farm House is really good,’ says the middle one.
‘So’s the Post Office,’ says the biggest.
‘Are they? I’m heading for Sharon Cottage.’
‘That’s good as well,’ they assure me, as I follow the road into the quiet village.

Mrs Tucker opens the front door and beams a smile of welcome. We shake hands, after which she shows me my bedroom and points out the bathroom, from which I hear the sound of running taps. She then leads me back downstairs to a pot of tea and a plate piled high with chocolate biscuits, where Mr Tucker introduces himself and his work.

‘I’m a retired engineer,’ he says. ‘I read a book about clock making and decided to have a go. This is my first effort. It’s taken me a year, and I’ve nearly finished. I’ve just been shaving a touch off the door so it closes properly.’

He is stroking the wooden case of a grandfather clock. The dial is inscribed ‘C Tucker fecit AD2000’. A glass panel on one side reveals the internal mechanism.

‘How much of this did you make?’ I ask.
‘All of it,’ he replies, ‘except the little wooden spindles.’ He points to the decorations on each side of the clock face. ‘I didn’t fancy using a metal-working lathe for wood-turning, so I bought those from the DIY store.’
‘I’m impressed.’
‘I started a year ago. The first thing I tried was cutting out the hands from a rusty piece of sheet metal. I thought if I could do that then I should be able to do the rest.’

The intricate tracery of the pointers is so far removed from my mental image of rusty sheet metal that the mere suggestion of a relationship is distasteful. I inspect the wooden case and look through the glass panel.

‘Did you cut the gears?’ I ask.
‘Yes,’ he asserts with pride, ‘and when I found that the cutters were going to cost over forty pounds each, I made those too.’

We chat as I drink tea and munch chocolate biscuits. We’ve covered his interest in cars, his family, and the industrial archaeology of the North Pennines, when without warning he leaps into action to Hoover the wood shavings and dust arising from his final adjustments to the clock door. A split second later Mrs Tucker appears and smiles benignly at her suddenly busy husband and at the sweaty stranger dropping crumbs on the floor of her country cottage. She asks what I’d like in my packed lunch, and once we have reached an understanding she gently draws our audience to its conclusion by advising me that the bathroom is now free and the George and Dragon pub begins serving meals at 7.00pm. I doubt that Her Majesty could have dismissed me more graciously.

I luxuriate in a hot bath, scrape the day’s whiskers from my face, and head for the phone box.

‘Hi. How’s things?’
‘Fine, thank you. Where are you?’
‘Garrigill. It’s been a lovely day.’
‘It’s been awful here. Cold and grey. And windy.’
‘Everybody OK?’
‘Fine. Your sister phoned. Situation as usual all round.’
‘Say no more. Are you OK?’
‘Fine, thank you.’

While making other phone calls, I notice a man wandering about the village green. He looks lost and forlorn and is first into the pub when the door opens. I put two and two together and conclude he and I will be sharing the bathroom at Sharon Cottage. I follow him and find I’m right. We sit together with our drinks as we read the menu and place our orders. His name is Roy, and he tells me he is cycling C to C.

‘Ah, going Coast to Coast.’
‘No. C to C. It’s on the signposts. That stops people getting confused with the Coast-to-Coast.’
‘Right,’ I say, adding to show my understanding, ‘C to C and Sea to Sea but not Coast to Coast.’
‘C to C,’ I agree, abandoning my misfired attempt at verbal agility.
‘I’m a bit deaf.’
‘Me too.’

As we eat, we talk about our travels. Roy has done a lot of hiking, including the Pennine Way. He is a few years older than me but looks as fit as a fiddle. I ask about his cycling route. He tells me exactly where he is going and at which villages he plans to stop, as though reciting an itinerary learned by rote. But when I enquire where he stayed last night his expression goes blank, then he puts his head in his hands and says in tones of despair, ‘I don’t know. I just can’t remember. I’m always like this.’

I start to wish I hadn’t asked. Then I remember Mrs Tucker mentioning that her other guest had cycled from Threlkeld.

‘Was it Threlkeld?
‘That’s it,’ he says and sits up, restored to normality. He shows no surprise at my suggestion so I guess Threlkeld must be a standard stopover for C to C cyclists.
‘Threlkeld. Lovely place. They had two little kiddies. The youngest, he can’t have been any older than four, he took my hand and led me upstairs to my room. That was lovely. But I’d forgotten. And I can’t drive and navigate, you know. I mean, I can’t look at a map and then follow the right route. I can’t take in more than one instruction at a time. If I go anywhere new, I have to have somebody sitting next to me, telling me exactly where to turn. I’m hopeless. The wife plays hell, but I can’t help it.’

He stops talking, and we sit side by side on the bench, well fed, relaxed, the sunlit window behind us. An invisible blanket of peaceful post-dinner reverie cossets me as I watch the trickle of customers crossing the stone-flagged floor to the bar, when a loud crack next to my left ear makes me jump to my feet.

‘Missed it,’ Roy says, examining his palms. ‘Bloody midges! I hate ‘em.’

I start breathing again, only to suffer a second heart-stopping interruption, and this time the ear-splitting clap is followed by Roy’s sigh of satisfaction as a minute body and its immortal soul are consigned to eternity.

Tune arrives. Tune is an obsessed Border Collie. She pesters regular customers, staring with pleading eyes until they flick a beer-mat into the air, whereupon she leaps to make the catch, showing scant regard for anyone who gets in the way. When a mat becomes torn and soggy, she refuses to chase it further and sits waiting for a new one, at which point her owner and other locals chide her, saying she’s running too quickly through her daily ration. She reminds me of Oliver Middleton’s dog.

Oliver ran a barber’s shop in a terraced cottage, its front room adapted with minimal effort for basic tonsorial functions by painting over the window glass and installing a wall mirror and washbasin, the latter serving merely as a plinth for the ashtray that held Oliver’s perpetually smouldering cigarettes. I remember being taken there as a young child: I sat on a wooden bench, wedged between my Granddad and a large anonymous man in a rough overcoat that smelt of damp wool and rubbed harshly against my bare leg whenever its owner changed position during the interminable wait for a haircut. The only illumination came from an unshaded pendant bulb. Around two walls, men sat waiting their turn, yellowing the ceiling and ancient advertisements for razor blades and hair oil with clouds of nicotine-laden smoke. Oliver stood cutting and, occasionally, shaving with a cutthroat razor. Behind him, amongst clippings and tobacco ash, Shep the Border Collie lay motionless, half an eye on the slow proceedings.

Whenever anyone lit a cigarette or fired up his pipe to add to the tobacco fug, Shep pricked his ears and opened both eyes. Knowing customers flicked their spent matches into the air, and Shep sprang into action, leaping and twisting to snatch his quarry, crash-landing against whoever got in his way, to lie like a filthy hearthrug with his prey in clenched teeth. Some laughed and said things that I took to mean ‘Silly animal’; others muttered that an accident was sure to happen. Oliver, still cutting or shaving, growled ‘Shep!’ but by that time the damage, if any, had been done, and Shep was pursuing his pointless obsession of chewing the life out of a dead match.

To be fair, I never heard of any injuries or fatalities caused by a slip of Oliver’s scissors or razor, nor did I see a disaster in the pub at Garrigill, but I’m sure most workplace safety officers, along with other representatives of the Nanny State, would zealously impose a regulation forbidding such antics. The Devil makes work for idle hands, and Shep and Tune were dogs without useful purpose in their alien environments.

Roy returns to the bar for his third refill of Stella. I wonder if he is secretly a drinker with a cycling problem and recall with envy my own days of imbibing copiously and not needing to pee until breakfast time. I stay put with the dregs of my single pint until it is almost time to leave, finally treating myself to a shot of Lagavulin before heading back to Sharon Cottage to plan my route. As a result of pre-dinner phone calls, my daily mileages are fixed as far as Keld, but after that I might try to improve on the standard distances quoted in the guidebooks. I am becoming as obsessed as Tune, but my interest has nothing to do with beer-mats. My target has changed since leaving Greenhead. My mind is now on a twelve-day Pennine Way.

Next Page >>