Cross Fell and Cross Purposes

Never rush through Garrigill.

On my first visit in 1963 we stopped for mugs of tea after our cold transit of Cross Fell. When I walked north in the sun I persuaded Gary to do likewise, and the lady at the Post Office supplied a huge pot with plenty of milk and a jug of hot water, all for a ridiculously low price in refreshing contrast to what the newspapers were calling ‘Rip-Off Britain’. I just wish the tiny cottages in this friendly down-to-earth village changed hands at a price the local lasses and lads can afford. I must return while people still pass the time of day as if they’re interested in you.

There could be little doubt that meals in the Tucker household would be served on time, and sure enough, at exactly eight o’clock, Roy and I are sitting at the well-ordered table and digging into our cereal before Mr Tucker bears in his precision product of bacon, egg, potatoes, tomatoes, sausage and fried bread, each perfectly shaped and set in its appointed location on the plate, an engineer’s and clockmaker’s breakfast. Mrs Tucker hands over my packed lunch, and I set out on a warm and sunny morning, labouring slowly up the stony road towards Greg’s Hut.

Any southbound traveller inclined to disregard my advice against dashing away from Garrigill must understand that his idyllic stroll through the upper reaches of the South Tyne valley is most definitely over. Gird up your loins and grit your teeth, because the next five miles or so are surely among the worst on the Pennine Way. Not that they lack interest; the views are long, with scenery on a grand scale; the sense of loneliness is profound and liberating; moorland birds call from their camouflaged positions in the heather or soar above in mockery of man’s earthbound perambulations; and the peat-covered basin of Black Burn is a daunting wilderness you would struggle to cross without the assistance of a solid path. But the walking is uncomfortable, even early in the day when your feet have been refreshed by overnight rest. The loose stones on the Land Rover track are sharp and unkind, and by the time you leave this wretched roadway you almost long for a session of old-fashioned bog trotting. Much of the Pennine Way has changed through heavy use and subsequent repairs since the early nineteen-sixties, but the Old Corpse Road is the same awful grind. Its very name strikes a chord of gloom, and soles yearn for an end to their suffering. The long-departed contractor responsible for this punishing surface no doubt tried to allay the fears of the Doubting Thomases of his day with the familiar words, ‘Never fear, lads. It’ll soften wi’ time.’

Huh!

Breathtaking views of Cross Fell, the Dun Fells and the upper Tees basin compensate for the physical pain. The distance over the lonely moors to Cow Green Reservoir seems less forbidding than similar prospects in the Cheviots, though off-route walking here would be more arduous. Even so, the thought crosses my mind that the Reservoir, on my schedule for next day, looks temptingly close, but I return my nose to the grindstone and plod along the official route as the sky clouds over and the wind blows chill.
Greg’s Hut shelters me from the blast, and I take a mouthful of water and a Chunky KitKat before writing in the log book to complement my previous note. A surprisingly large number of entries have accumulated in a week and a half, most of them semi-literate and rude. Maybe mine would have been little better in 1963, had there been a book available for the scrawl of a young chauvinist in rebellion against the wider world. At the time, I had just started to find my feet, speaking out against the way we were taught at school. Teachers smiled tolerantly at my outbursts and polemics; I suppose they knew as surely as I did that the protests meant little, that I would settle down and comply.

Which I did.
So did my peers.

We attended university, found steady jobs, and then subordinated ourselves to mortgages, marriages and families. We did what was expected of our generation. Tom Stephenson would have had us enjoying the high Pennines, but our parents had forged a steadier destiny for us in response to their painful experiences between 1930 and 1945.

The final climb from the Old Corpse Road to the summit plateau of Cross Fell exchanges hostile stones for a boggy slope. A lone camper lopes confidently downhill towards me.

‘Where’s the path gone?’ he asks with a grin.
‘You’ll soon pick it up,’ I reply, ‘then your feet will wish you hadn’t.’
He is northbound to Kirk Yetholm, his overnight stop planned for Alston. I point to the little town on the distant hillside.
‘Oh, is that all I’ve got to do?’
‘That’s all. You’ve plenty of time for a pot of tea at Garrigill.’
He strides away, and I tramp slowly upwards. On the edge of the plateau I meet another walker.
‘I’m doing the Pennine Way,’ he announces.
‘Me too,’ I say, adding, in case he thinks I’m lost, ‘North to south.’
‘Why?’ he asks abruptly, and I give him a short explanation. He takes a step back and looks at me in what I think is amazement but might be apprehension.

Perhaps my disclosure hints at a streak of mental instability. I laugh in an attempt to reassure him of my humanity, but the sound catches on a frog in my throat and emerges as a growl. With a wary eye on me, he blurts out that he is not alone, that there are others right behind him, and that he’s left his tent in the car driven by the wife of one of his companions, with whom they’ve arranged a rendezvous later that day. But even before he warns me off, I’ve decided against savaging him, preferring instead to share my best tips: tea at Garrigill, bed and breakfast at Hetherington, shopping at Bellingham, and going slow on the Cheviots traverse. As I lavish my wisdom upon him he starts to relax, but he is clearly anxious to end our conversation and rejoin his walking partners as they march by.

‘They’re from Sheffield,’ he says, nervously watching them disappear over the edge of the plateau.
‘I could have told you that,’ I say with a leer, adding the parting threat, ‘See you on another trail, somewhere, someday.’

Near the triangulation pillar on Cross Fell’s flat summit, five faces smile for the camera. Although they look slightly more cosmopolitan than the average group of Pennine Wayfarers, I greet them with a cheery ‘How many of you lot are from Sheffield, then?’

Two admit it straight away. Another couple confess they live in Bolton but were born in Sheffield. The fifth is a young man from Germany, and for a moment I wonder if he might tell me his grandfather used to talk about flying over the city, but perhaps his fluency isn’t up to the barmy banter of Way-crazed veterans. I leave them in subdued conversation, probably muttering about me; after all, southbound Wayfarers are rare, and few can have offered them a more appropriate opportunity to use the expression ‘Silly bugger!’

In 1963 Neil and Obie and I negotiated the Dun Fells and Cross Fell in bitter wind and low cloud without the benefit of a map. Working from the Ramblers’ Association leaflet and my copy of “The Pennine Way”, we relied on the compass to take us north past the stone shelter and over the plateau edge. We descended east of the official route, through rocks and scree, stopping briefly to gobble a sandwich before arriving, shivering, at the Old Corpse Road. The lack of a map hadn’t hindered us, but that happy outcome was a triumph of good fortune.

Dropping below the edge of the wind-seared stony plateau, I escape the northerly blow and stop for lunch before crossing Little Dun Fell and Great Dun Fell. There is no sign of the bloodthirsty midges and belligerent wasps which curtailed a warm summit picnic twelve days ago, and I enjoy a short rest, taking in the views. South lies the upper Eden Valley with Wild Boar Fell, Mallerstang Common and the Howgills. East are the headwaters of the Tees and Cow Green Reservoir, to the west the Lake District. Cross Fell, like Hadrian’s Wall, is a turning point on the Way. It is the highest mountain, and it provides my last sighting of The Cheviot and my first view into the Yorkshire Dales. I will spend next day in Teesdale and the following day crossing the minor valleys between there and Swaledale, after which I’ll be more than halfway home.

‘Come on, Suzy,’ I say. ‘Let’s go down that hill and get warmed up.’

Dufton, approached through pastures and meadows along a track lined by stone walls and hawthorn hedges, provides a peaceful retreat from the natural violence of the high fells, and most mortals make an overnight stop on the journey between Teesdale and Tynedale. With its tree-lined green surrounded by warm red sandstone cottages, its post office-cum-store, campsite, youth hostel and bed and breakfast houses, the village is a delight. The Stag Inn is an irresistible port of call for any long-distance walker, offering an intriguingly variable welcome, good ale and great food, including Lamb Henry, a shoulder joint to satiate the hungriest carnivore. Treat Lamb Henry like the Cheviots traverse or a Hetherington breakfast: approach it slowly, and remember the wisdom of the saying, ‘When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time’.

The popularity of the village is illustrated by the coaches and minibuses parked alongside the green, and the busy mid-afternoon trade at the teashop and pub.

I arrive not a moment too soon; I have just ordered T4241 from the harassed tea-shop owner, deserted for the week by her holiday-making co-proprietor, when one of the bus parties returns on foot. They identify themselves as members of the Newcastle branch of the Ramblers’ Association, enjoying a day of low-level hikes in the Eden Valley but now desperate for their mid-afternoon fix.

Already sprawled in warm sun around the outdoor tables, a similar group from Manchester, who have travelled by train to Appleby before walking to Dufton, are almost ready to set off on their homeward journey. Goodness knows what bloodletting would have ensued had these gentle characters been rival bands of football supporters from the two cities.

I share a table with two women, one in her late thirties and the other about twenty. They seem detached from the larger groups, and at first I think they look sufficiently drained to be long-distance walkers. I couldn’t be more wrong.

‘How’s your walk going?’ I ask.
‘Quite tiring. We’ve still got to get to Appleby station,’ says the older one. ‘Then I’m escorting this young lady back to Styal Women’s Prison.’

I can’t spot the trip-wire, so I grin, waiting for the punch line. Both smile politely, holding my gaze. I realise I have no option but to believe them. The rest of our conversation is somewhat stilted, because I can’t help wondering, but know I mustn’t ask, what the prisoner has done. Quite apart from etiquette, for all I know she may be a frenzied killer of hill-walkers; she looks sweet and gentle, but an injudicious enquiry might tip her over the edge.

Carefully choosing my words, I ask if they’ve enjoyed their day, to which they reply they’ve had a good time but will be glad to get back on the train. Although I address my questions to both, only the older one speaks. She asks me about my walk. When I explain, she says how much she’d like to walk the Pennine Way but doesn’t suppose she’ll ever do it.

‘You can do it if you take it slowly. Rushing it would almost certainly finish you off.’
‘How tough is it?’
‘I don’t know how to answer that. As tough as you make it, I suppose. You’ve got to give it a go and find your pace, rather than dashing off and trying to do the whole thing at speed. I did that when I was a teenager, and honestly it isn’t the best way.’

While we talk, the prisoner is toying with a postcard. She now enters into a whispered conversation with her escort. She seems to be trying to decide whether to post it, and after a few exchanges she writes an address and the words ‘Wish you were here’ and signs it. Then she stands up and pops it into the mailbox. I can’t help noticing that her handwriting is beautiful. Perhaps she’s doing time for forgery.

I decide it’s time to vacate my seat for the benefit of the Geordie hordes. I’ve made good time from Garrigill, and enough daylight remains for me to walk to Langdon Beck. I quickly dismiss that idea. I have no need to rush. But why has such a thought come to the fore? Why not relax for a few extra hours, content in the greenery of the Eden valley?

We were happy enough to arrive here on a September evening in 1963, having completed the remote Pennine crossing from Teesdale.
Reaching the village without a map, we first had to ask where we were and which road to follow for Knock, another village two miles distant and, bizarrely, the location in those days of Dufton Youth Hostel! Neil phoned the warden and told him we were on our way, but we might be late for dinner and would he please save some. After all, if others as hungry as us were in the hostel there would be precious little remaining for latecomers! We then legged it along the lanes at a furious pace, arriving on the stroke of the dinner gong, only to find we were the sole residents and the warden had delayed the meal half an hour for our benefit.
We spent the rest of the evening playing cards with the warden and his girlfriend, who clearly wasn’t married to him and equally obviously didn’t intend sleeping alone. That seemed almost as shocking as the revelations associated with John Profumo’s affair with Christine Keeler, which filled the newspapers in that momentous year. Younger readers can research the social and political background for themselves; the rest of you know what I mean.

With memories unfolding in my head, I wander aimlessly beyond the houses and come across a man leaning on a field gate.

‘Are you wi’ that lot?’ he asks, gesturing towards a late straggle of Dufton-bound ramblers.
‘No. I’m walking the Pennine Way. North to south.’
‘Not many do that. There were some Dutch folk through last night. They’ll be at Langdon Beck or Middleton by now. Where are you stayin’ tonight?’
‘I’ve nothing fixed yet,’ I say. ‘The youth hostel, probably.’
‘We could put you up, me an’ t’ missis,’ he says. ‘Just along t’ road.’

He points the direction.

I feel uneasy. This is the first time I’ve come across a bed and breakfast hustler. I’ve read advice on dealing with taxi touts in New York, and I’m inclined towards caution whenever someone pushes an apparently good offer. Although I feel safe in this rural haven, my tea-time companions have made me cautious, and the image of a crazed assassin of the fells surfaces in my mind.

‘Nice place we’ve got. Comfortable. Good breakfast.’

I weigh him up. He’s wearing an old checked shirt over light-coloured tweed trousers, which were probably one half of his best suit many years ago but are now discoloured by the rigours of farming. Then from the corner of my eye I notice a dark patch running from his crotch down his inner thigh. I make a determined effort not to look directly at it, but I have an awful sense that the stain wasn’t there a minute ago. My unconfirmed intelligence suggests one of two possible conclusions: either I failed to notice he’d spilled tractor oil and is fast becoming a candidate for scrotal cancer, or he’s just peed himself.

He senses my hesitation and makes his best and final offer.

‘Wife’ll look after yer. Bit of home-fed. Know what I mean? Only fifteen pound.’ And then he winked at me.
‘I really want to be in the village, and I’m struggling for money,’ I lie, ‘so I think it’ll have to be the youth hostel, but thanks anyway.’

In the best tradition of News of the World reporters, I make my excuses and retreat to the safety of numbers around the village green. That night I have reason to regret my lack of adventure, as I lie awake, serenaded by the demented ravings of a sleep-talking inmate of the youth hostel. Then I remember my earplugs and eventually doze off, wondering whether my interlocutor of the afternoon has lured anyone back for a bit of home-fed. I dream vividly about being roasted and eaten by a touring party from the Sheffield Chapter of the Avengers of Lamb Henry, led by the Mad Murderess of Knock Fell.

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