Valley Of Death

Morning washes moist and grey over the Eden valley. Cross Fell and its lofty neighbours have closed their curtains overnight, and even the modest summit of Dufton Pike is screened from view. My cheery greetings fail to lift the veil of gloom from school-bound children, whose reluctant and surly responses suggest they learn human interaction from their bus drivers rather than from their teachers. I draw no acknowledgement at all from the women watering their hanging baskets and walking their Labradors. Perhaps the ravages of Pennine Way Virus are making me look deranged and dangerous after all.

I plod steadily uphill between high-growing grass verges and dry-stone walls, then over close-cropped sheep-pastures and into the disorientating low cloud and drizzle that has crept down from the open moors. A northwest wind blows mean and chill on my left shoulder. This is poor weather for a visit to High Cup, arguably the scenic highpoint of the Pennine Way. If I hadn’t spent many hours there last year I’d be bitterly disappointed to miss its visual drama, a tremendous horseshoe of an abyss framed by algae-coated grey crags that define the abrupt junction of mountain and valley, earth and space, life and death.

The official route pushes the walker uphill, away from the cliff edge, but I favour a lower track, narrow and rocky, hanging on the brink. Where a stream gushes down the hillside before dissipating its identity in the mist-filled void, a dead sheep lies across my path. It is recently deceased, having not yet reached the state of putrefaction that from time to time assails one’s nostrils in the hills. The corpse reminds me that Gary stumbled upon a dying badger as he walked up Teesdale. The ghosts of those unfortunate animals hover like evil omens on a dark cold day. I take extra care with my footing. The smooth wet rock is slippery. Even a minor injury would be unwelcome on this lonely moor, where there is no certainty anyone will pass by. I shiver at the reminder of my own mortality.

Although remote, the Maize Beck crossing of the Pennines is easy, and even in 1963 we encountered no difficulties apart from the then ubiquitous peat bogs, which Neil explored in depth and commented on explicitly at high volume. We just beat the evening mist, which began to form above our heads as we stopped, enthralled by the magnificence of the situation, to gaze westward in wonder from High Cup Nick.

Today I don’t so much as pause in the wind-blown drizzle. I circle round horses and foals grazing their shrouded upland and pick up the line of rectangular stone waymarks which lead me east over the watershed and into Teesdale. To left and right, tussocks of mat grass colonise the ill-drained acidic soils, but my boots compress the neat turf, and I lengthen my stride as ragged clouds sweep me along.

After fording Maize Beck the Way heads down the valley before striking off left and uphill. Path restorers have made best use of the natural slope, cutting a ditch to intercept the surface and sub-surface flow of water, permitting walkers the pleasure of a softer footfall on drained peat, now safeguarded from damage by heavy use. The advantage over hardcore and paving slabs is welcome, if short-lived, for harsher repairs prevail around the old mine ruins of Moss Shop.

At Birkdale last year the yard was packed with bleating sheep awaiting the shearers, and a Border Collie escorted me through the two gates which penned his flock. At first today all seems quiet, but parked vehicles and the sound of voices tell me that, despite farming’s dire economic situation, this remains a working establishment.

Before the building of Cow Green dam, Birkdale’s isolation at the end of a long rough track was legendary. Now most of the approach road is surfaced, which must make life somewhat easier. That, however, is no justification for Cow Green, which is a monstrous desecration of the Upper Teesdale wilderness, a concrete abomination that detracts from the wonder of the cascades at Cauldron Snout. We should never have built it. We ought to have pursued the more expensive option of Kielder Water and the associated bulk transfer schemes to Teesside. Cow Green despoils and diminishes the grandest wild valley in the Pennines. It is a disgrace on our purported values as a civilised nation.

Two walkers head towards me, facing the weather, leaning on wooden staves, capes whip-cracking over their rucksacks. I see from a distance that they are broad and bulky men with bushy moustaches, and as they draw nearer I hear snatches of loud conversation in an unfamiliar tongue. The intonation resembles English, but their utterances are indecipherable. I don’t know why, but at first I wonder if they might be Belgian. We allow each other generous leeway, passing on opposite sides of the track while exchanging wary looks and curt hellos. It is then I realise they are from Scotland. I might look like a demented killer, but they certainly sound more dangerous to me.

At Cauldron Snout the weather remains poor, so I concentrate on the awkward descent, scrambling over the rocks and stopping only briefly to look back at the awesome surge of water. The Sheffield lads in Byrness Youth Hostel regarded this and High Cup Nick as the highlights of their walk. What amazed me was that they’d been surprised to stumble upon those magnificent sights. For goodness sake, what do these people read? When I first walked the Pennine Way, I was so full of Kenneth Oldham’s book that I knew what was around every corner - when we were on the correct route, that is.

Between the dripping cliffs of Falcon Clints and the River Tees I tramp under a cold rain. This is the worst weather I can recall in all my visits. Even though the path is generally level, and boardwalks or paving bridge some of the boggy stretches, this section is never easy, as a couple approaching me confirm by their exaggerated care in moving from rock to slippery rock. I greet them with the cheerful observation that it would be a good day to spend in the café. The woman scowls and volunteers her heartfelt agreement, while the man simply glowers. I bet she’d already given him a hard time for dragging her into the middle of nowhere on a foul day to see some damn waterfall.

A little further down the valley I stop for lunch. The Tees tinkles along its wide bed, stony and shallow in the broad valley floor, its animated chatter like women’s voices heard through a closed door. Why hurry, river? What’s my hurry?

My thoughts drift towards where I’ll stay after Middleton in Teesdale and Keld. The twelve-day journey keeps running through my mind. It will involve successive days that are long by my standards, and I’m not sure I’m up to it. If I make the attempt, there will be no coasting from now on. I still can’t decide between leisurely progress, such as I’d wanted after my 1963 walk, and a race against the clock for an irrelevant Personal Best Time.

Why do twelve days matter?

East of Widdybank, broad meadows await the mower, and waving wind gusts ripple the seed-laden surface. A redshank hovers a few feet away, its piping call distracting me from its young who are camouflaged amongst the rounded pebbles of the riverbed. Teesdale is a wonderland, and I wouldn’t dispute Wainwright’s assertion that it is the finest of the dales.

But this is a journey better made heading upstream, where the scenery draws the gaze towards increasingly spectacular sights amid rust-coloured expanses of hillside culminating on the heights of Mickle Fell, trackless miles away. Such broad sweeps of wilderness soothe the mind into emptying itself of all thoughts before refilling with the nutrients that sustain it through dull lowland days.

Climbing the spur above Cronkley Farm, I make my way along the well-worn path between untidy juniper bushes to witness the violence of nature and the depredations of humankind. Natural and man-made rock outcrops are juxtaposed on the north bank of the Tees. Brilliant heather lights the former, whilst banks of shattered rock fail to screen the latter and its crushing plant, warning notices, dust and noise, all regrettably essential to employment and to the continuity and credibility of a community.

Above High Force, an intrepid family of man and woman and boy teeter on the brink, seeking a closer view of the thundering downfall. Spectators crowd the paths below, having ventured down from the car park to absorb the dank atmosphere in the shaded amphitheatre, but on the Yorkshire bank I walk alone in a rare burst of sun. I don’t stop to stare, nor do I yearn for Geoff and Bill’s recommended brew across the river. The Twelve-Day Demon has taken control.

My brisk march takes me along the well-maintained path where the hills fall back from the river, according me space as do slow runners being lapped by the race leader. Amongst hawthorn and ash trees at Low Force, I enjoy an unimpeded choice of informal seating and take a solitary mid-afternoon snack. Then, unaccountably, despite having visited the place only a year previously, I take the wrong path and find myself on the road at Holwick.

‘Well, Suzy,’ I say. ‘Would you faffing-well believe it? I don’t think we’ll go back. Let’s try going down the lane and see if we see anything different.’

And we do.

Alongside the road I see an ugly scar where stone was torn away, now slowly healing. The quarries are abandoned, but new life has yet to hide the sites of despoliation.

In the fields I see sheep and cattle.
Around the buildings I see residents and holidaymakers.
On the road I see death.

I have never been so aware of the slaughter of wildlife. Every few steps I tread on flattened rabbits, their bodies mangled to matted fur and crushed bone. Only the long hind legs and distinctive ears identify what life-form hopped briefly onto the tarmac. Hundreds of flattened corpses dot the next four miles, as if an exterminator had herded the small creatures onto the hard surface and made them stare into the lights of an approaching convoy of death-trucks.

I speculate how many rabbits live in Teesdale, if along this stretch of road so many have died. My conclusion is that there are millions. I am just coming to terms with the road-kill figures, reminding myself that the percentage is more relevant than absolute numbers, when I am saddened by the mutilated remains of a blackbird. Then a thrush. And in a field I see the wing tip of a crow, reaching in vain towards the sky. Saddest of all, knocked into the verge by a speeding car on some pointless journey, the speckled breast of a tiny bird of the high pastures, whose brethren help make this journey such a pleasure.

I trudge despondently into Middleton in Teesdale, trying to console myself with the thought that here at least someone will have swept up the dead. After visiting the Post Office and chemist, I call at the Tourist Information Centre to get the low-down on such crucial matters as the location and opening hours of the fish and chip shop.

‘Oh dear,’ says the lady, ‘I’m afraid it doesn’t open on Thursday.’
I feign horror, so she raises my spirits with the news that the King’s Head and the Chatterbox will be serving meals from seven o’clock. She asks where I am staying, and I tell her.
‘Oh, Mrs Sowerby,’ she says, in tones which verge on reverence. ‘She’s marvellous. Never advertises but always has guests. You’ll be all right there. It’s spotless.’

Encouraged to know I’ll be well looked after, I stop at the bakery-café, my first chance for refreshments since Dufton. It’s a great shame the farms at Birkdale and Widdybank and Cronkley don’t cater for hikers; I’m sure they’d earn our undying gratitude and make a bob or two. The girl in the café here is friendly and obliging, even at a time of day when she might prefer to shoo customers away instead of serving new ones. She brings my T4241, and I feel guilty for not spending more.

The only other clients, seated at the far end of the room and seemingly unaware of my presence, are the family I’d seen above High Force. They’ve survived their adventure to put money the way of a local business. The young lad whispers to his mother before getting up and making for the toilets, and once he’s gone the woman reaches over to the man and gropes his upper thigh, squeezing him and making him chuckle. He looks round and catches my eye for the first time.

‘Would you like me to leave?’ I ask with a grin.
He laughs, and she hides her face.
‘She’s embarrassed now,’ he calls, and they put their heads together, speaking soft and low. When their son returns they make ready to leave, and I discreetly accord the closest possible attention to the slow pouring and stirring of a cup of tea, avoiding them the embarrassment of eye contact as skilfully as a Kirkstyle landlord.

I drink up and visit the newsagent for a local rag.

‘We don’t get no evening papers up here,’ say the couple, who are just getting to the end of their long day. ‘We’re lucky to get dailies sometimes. If you want one, I’ll unfasten this bundle.’
‘No. Please. I don’t want to put you to any trouble.’
‘Ah, it’s only a bit o’ string,’ he says, already untying the knots, and I select the paper on top of his returns pile, wondering where else I would have enjoyed such considerate service.
‘Where are you staying?’ the woman asks.
‘With Mrs Sowerby.’
‘Oh, she’s lovely is Mrs Sowerby. Been doin’ it for years. She’ll look after you. She’ll make you welcome.’
‘Thanks for that. Where would you say is the best place to eat?’
‘Well, you’ve got the King’s Head or the Chatterbox, but I don’t think the Chatterbox is open tonight.’
‘What time do you open tomorrow?’
‘Five o’clock. Do you want a call?’

I assure them 8.30am will be early enough for me to collect my Chunky KitKats, and I go to meet my landlady.

Mrs Sowerby opens the door.

‘Come in,’ she says. ‘The kettle’s on.’

We go into her cosy living room where she pours a brew thick enough to float a spoon.

‘Is it strong enough?’ she asks. ‘I don’t drink tea myself.’

We talk about the Pennine Way, my experiences, her guests, the town, our respective families, the people who speak so well of her, and life long ago in Teesdale. She is good company.

‘I’m getting to the end of my career,’ she says. ‘I was here before the Pennine Way, you know.’
I tell her I walked the Way in 1963.
‘Why didn’t you stay here?’ she asks accusingly.

I can’t remember. Maybe her house was full - likely, because she’d raised seven children – but I remember that we asked someone about B&B and they directed us to The Grove.

There we had our first bath since leaving home. I wonder if they ever got that bath clean. It was probably declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest, in recognition of the many layers of muck and grease and the strange growths they subsequently supported. After bathing, we ventured out for fish and chips, two helpings each, eaten from a newspaper in the street, before tackling the local beer. It was Saturday, and the pubs were heaving. We sat with our pints at a small round table, but after a while Neil was accused of staring at one bloke, so we beat a strategic retreat. In another pub a semi-drunk joined us in conversation, and I pacified him using Obie’s cigarettes. The jukebox played ‘She Loves You’ by The Beatles, then topping the charts. We ate an unconventional dessert of cheese and onion cobs before returning for a deep sleep in soft beds. Next morning we were served the biggest breakfast on the Pennine Way in surroundings so far removed from a youth hostel dining room that we could hardly believe we were on the same planet. It was the perfect start to a sunlit hike up Teesdale and over the moor to the Eden Valley.

‘Well,’ I say to Mrs Sowerby, ‘despite missing you in 1963, I’m here at last, and ready to get cleaned up.’
She shows me upstairs, explains in words of one syllable how the shower works, looks me in the eye while telling me some of her guests don’t take in her clear instructions, checks that I understand, then leaves me to my devices.

After the shower I walk to the phone box.

‘Hi. How’s things?’
‘Fine, thank you. Where are you?’
‘Middleton in Teesdale. It’s been a poor day, cold and damp.’
‘It’s been awful here. Bitterly cold. How many miles today?’
‘Don’t know exactly. About twenty, I guess.’
‘Yes. Everybody OK?’
‘Fine. Your niece thinks she might be suffering skull cramps again.’

Cold northwesterly draughts whistle round Middleton’s grey stone buildings. The town feels harder than Dufton and yet at the same time more outgoing. At the King’s Head I eat soup and tagliatelle in a restaurant that used to be a pub. The food is excellent. From time to time, minibuses pull up, disgorging a dozen youths who begin marching in single file through the front door until their leaders realise this is no longer a cheap pie-and-chips joint. Where they go I don’t know; the obvious haunt for outdoor-pursuit groups to satisfy their hunger has closed since my last visit.

I return for a brew and a gossip with Mrs Sowerby. We talk again about the little town and about how children should be brought up. When her daughter arrives and carries in the shopping, Mrs Sowerby terminates her lecture about the perils of drinking water out of streams and sends me straight to bed. Instantly I fall asleep.

Breakfast-time approaches without a sound in the house, and I fear the Valley of Death effect has spread to the town. I have completed my ablutions and packed my rucksack before hearing Mrs Sowerby march to the bathroom. When I go downstairs at the appointed time, she is fully in control. She hasn’t succumbed in the night, nor does she seem likely to. She might struggle with a full house, but the Pennine Way rarely visits that upon her nowadays. Perhaps one of her four daughters would help out if it came to the crunch. I thank her for a pleasant stay and go to buy my Chunky KitKats.

‘How did Mrs Sowerby treat you?’
‘Very well, thank you.’
‘I knew she would. She’s a marvel. Well into her eighties, you know.’

I’m glad to have met Mrs Sowerby.

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