The Great Divide

I climb the southern flank of Teesdale with a sense of regret, stopping to look back at the wide valley topped by dark moors that await their summer purpling of heather. High fells slumbering through calm days overawe a Pennine Wayfarer, their massive bulk mocking man’s claim to stewardship. Like craggy-faced farmers leaning on their crooks while the ephemeral populace gads about on trivial journeys which contrast with the unchanging rote of breeding and rearing, selling and shearing, the hills set in context the insignificance of my efforts. Beautiful in fair weather, Teesdale fulfils its destiny when the wind roars, rain gusts across the fells, and the river rages in its rocky bed, pounding the bones of earth’s skeleton to gravel and sand. I can’t wait to go back.

Across the intricate mosaic of cattle fields, through gates and stiles, today’s roller-coaster route crosses the tributaries of the Tees: Lunedale, Baldersdale, Deepdale, and finally the River Greta. Beyond that, Sleightholme Moor separates me from the Tan Hill Inn and the descent to Frith Lodge on the valley side above West Stonesdale. This will be further than I walked on the corresponding day a year earlier, which I found moderately demanding, so I wonder how my fitness will hold up.

I’m over the first two rivers almost before I know it, striding through waving hay meadows, up easy slopes, across boggy pastures and onwards to the moors of heather and sphagnum. The tributary valleys are less dramatic than Teesdale itself, but even in July the land tells its tale of a living hard-won through raw and sodden winters.

On this sunny day, I’m happy to pause and chat with northbound walkers. Two day-hikers from Baldersdale Youth Hostel confirm that Angela and Ray still feed their guests in magnificent style. Then comes a lone Dutchman, camping his way north, bemused by my two-way trip, wondering if he has understood me. A mile further on I swap experiences with an English couple who are carrying tents from Edale to Kirk Yetholm.

‘This is my mid-life crisis,’ he says with a self-deprecatory laugh.
‘Mine’s not a mid-life crisis,’ I reply. ‘I had that before I gave up work. I used to dream of walking away, gazing ahead from a hilltop, not knowing where I’d stop for the night. Now I think about walking home, and it feels great.’

Their reactions are gender-typical: she smiles in recognition of my final sentiment, whilst he looks thoughtful before nodding slowly without seeming to comprehend. Women are homemakers and home keepers; men are more inclined to roam.

Growing wart-like on the horizon stands the day’s penultimate objective, Tan Hill Inn, but first I must cross the A66 trunk road. The busy dual carriageway trumpets its presence long before I see it, and as I draw near I’m forced to kick my way through an inexcusable wind-blown litter-drift of plastic bottles, paper cups, crisp packets and cigarette cartons, waste products of the disgusting thousands who carelessly roar across our outstanding countryside on polluting journeys between their self-made slums. I quickly head through the underpass and away. The traffic howls defiance after me as far as Sleightholme Farm, but I don’t care. I am halfway home.

At the bridge over Frumming Beck I take a break for lunch before the long slog up the faint and boggy trail to Tan Hill. Visibility is excellent and ground conditions generally good; the path is easy enough to follow and the distance slips away unnoticed. Things were different in 1963: we deliberately steered a more northerly course in an attempt to cut time and distance from our day. It was a bad decision, a self-inflicted slog through heather and mat grass and swamp, but what else should we have expected when following a bearing across a section of moor named on the map as Bog Moss? The memory raises questions in my mind: Where are the tussocks now on the Pennine Way? Where is the challenging heather, to trip you or force you to lift up your knees like Mother Brown? Where are the bogs you sink into without warning?

Gone, disappeared under the assault of thousands of pairs of feet and hidden beneath boardwalks, slabs, and hard-core.

Thank goodness!

Tan Hill Inn is an ugly and obstinate survivor, external functionality serving it better in its bleak location than would any amount of aesthetic elegance. Amidst cold and damp surroundings tinted by dull moorland colours, incompetent motorists accustomed to the ordered tarmac outside Tesco struggle to park their vehicles. Car ownership has proved the lifeline for England’s highest pub.

‘I’ll never go in there again,’ I declared last year, but I’m well ahead of time, and tonight I’ll be far from a pub. The path is downhill from here, so I go in despite myself.

My initial gripe is that they don’t serve tea. You can have coffee from the percolator, but if you ask for tea - and here is my real objection - you get an off-hand refusal that comes straight from the ‘Stuff-U Manual of Customer Service’. The customer certainly isn’t king at Tan Hill.

I am the only hiker. Four elderly women sit at a table drinking coffee out of plastic cups; I bet they’d prefer tea. Pairs of males occupy three other tables. Slowly I become aware of their body language and start to tune in to their whispered conversations. It’s obvious that none of the males know each other well. My curiosity aroused, I pretend to scrutinise my map while eavesdropping shamelessly. After a few minutes the light dawns: they are all gay.

What a meeting place! Middle of nowhere, fresher air than in the public toilets, and only a few sheep to watch you head off into the grey misty yonder, should you both consent to a chilly sexual congress. The only time I’d happened on anything similar was on the south-west side of Bleaklow one Sunday, where two unusual looking characters were marching determinedly up a minor track from the A57, clad in sneakers, jeans and T-shirts, not what most of us wear off-road in the Dark Peak.

I’m pretty sure nobody will approach me, but, were there to be a baggage search, I might have difficulty persuading the authorities that my jar of Vaseline, used for greasing the cheeks of my backside to prevent soreness when walking, serves no deeper purpose. I drink up and leave, just in case the next likely lad through the door has a rendezvous with a gay hiker.

Seriously, whatever anyone says about Tan Hill Inn, I question the credentials of people who display notices like ‘The Price Of Drinks Can Vary With The Attitude Of The Customer’ and ‘Our Dog Is Not A Vegetarian’. I felt inclined the previous year, on encountering a couldn’t-care-less response to my request for a mug of tea, to say, ‘Look, you and I have the opportunity of a face-to-face discussion on this issue. There again, if we allow our standards to slip, it could become a conversation between arseholes.’ At the time I said nothing. In view of the clientele on my latest visit, I’m glad I avoided a phrase that could have been misconstrued.

Leaving the Tees catchment near Tan Hill, the Pennine Way enters Swaledale. I notice little improvement, exchanging a dour slog over Sleightholme for the austerity of Stonesdale Moor, but I feel content, because ahead lie the exquisite delights of the Yorkshire Dales. One of many cases for re-routing the Pennine Way must be to take in more of this National Park. But you have the Dales Way and the Coast-to-Coast Walk for that experience, so stop moaning and get back in line! You’re not here to enjoy yourself! You’re doing the Pennine Way!

Great Shunner Fell and its neighbouring summits announce their presence like distant smoke signals, black over pale brown, welcoming me to tomorrow’s challenge. Contented, another day almost completed, I cross Lad Gill and head along a wet path of bruised reed stems. In an unguarded moment my right foot plunges below ground level, meeting little resistance. Instinctively I jam my poles into what is, luckily, slightly more solid earth, and haul myself out of a wet and smelly pit, my feet making sucking noises, my mouth uttering blasphemies, my nostrils inhaling noxious gas. I have discovered a resilient descendant of the lost bogs of the Pennine Way in its hidden enclave on Stonesdale Moor. A heavy shower sweeps across the valley to add insult to injury, making a pitiful attempt at cleansing my filthy limbs, as I plod odoriferously to my overnight stop at Frith Lodge.

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