Saturday, 4 July 2015

The Pennine Way - 4th July 2015 - Dufton to Garrigill - Calm after the Storm

Dufton Pike

The predictions had been correct as for the second time on the trip, I spent the night in the tent with a thunder storm for company, only this time, there was a fairly strong wind as well. The storm seemed to go on most of the night, although I’m not sure when it started exactly, I just remember being woken in the night by the tent flapping in the wind and the sound of the thunder and the flashes of lightening. In the back of my mind I was making contingency plans for the next day as the route would be crossing the highest point of the trail over Cross Fell at around 3,000ft above sea level,a mountain notorious for bad weather. In fact, the summit of Cross Fell is the only place in the country that has a named wind, the Helm Wind, which if it is blowing makes the summit a place to avoid at all costs. I had already decided that if the storm hadn’t blown itself out by morning I would have a rest day, the first since setting out from Edale, which now seemed like a lifetime ago. At some point, I must have drifted back off to sleep and when I woke again at around six am, the storm was still very much alive, the thunder and lightening accompanied by strong winds blowing through trees in a nearby copse accentuating the ferocity of the storm. I poked my head out of the tent to see if Rowan and Gordon were packing up only to find that they had already left! I couldn’t believe that they had set off so early in such bad weather on today of all days! I certainly did not envy them being up on the highest fells of the walk in a thunderstorm. I wrapped my sleeping bag around me as the storm howled and wondered what I would do in Dufton for a whole day as apart from the campsite, the only other facilities were a cafe and a pub. I decided that I would stay in the tent in the morning if the conditions didn’t improve before going to the cafe for lunch and then go to the pub for dinner in the evening. In between, it would be reading and listening to music. I decided to wait until 10am before making a final decision and I dozed fitfully as the thunder crashed around the tent. At around 08.00 I woke again to the sound of calm and left the tent to visit the toilet block. The storm had gone! The sky was a featureless, flat grey colour and it was still a bit breezy but it was clear that the worst had passed. I washed and returned to the tent and began packing up and was packed up and on my way by 09.30am, which was probably the latest start of the whole walk but I was just grateful to be underway. I left the pretty village via tracks and paths that skirted fields initially, with the conical shape of Dufton Pike adding some interest to the landscape while off in the distance, on the track ahead, I could see a group of four walkers heading up toward the summits, which were invisible in their shroud of clouds. I have something of an aversion to meeting other walkers when I am walking alone and will often take action to avoid meeting them if at all possible. It isn’t that I am particularly anti-social but when I am hiking alone, I inhabit a sort of ‘bubble’ of my own creation by trying to turn off any internal dialogue and simply try to ‘absorb’ my surroundings. I like to try and become a part of what I am walking through and meeting other walkers inevitably means conversation, which destroys this. 

Knock Old Man

I noted that the four walkers were a long way up ahead so I wasn’t concerned about catching them as I climbed up towards Knock Fell but as the walk progressed, it became obvious that I was reigning them in fairly quickly. I crossed a stream and climbed up the far bank and the four were now clearly in sight and it was obvious that I would soon catch them. I had noticed since the start of the walk that I had been feeling stronger as the days progressed and my walking pace had increased naturally. This was something that Alan had commented on and indeed neither the weight of the rucksack nor the steepness of the hills seemed to have much effect on me. I had put this down to the amount of training I had done in Tenerife where I had hiked with a rucksack roughly equivalent to that I had expected to carry on the Pennine Way. Also, because I had managed to lose a substantial amount of body weight, I had taken up trail running once or twice a week in the hills above the village where I live. Tenerife is a very steep island so carrying the rucksack and running in the hills obviously gave me a great advantage when I started the trek. As the trail steepened and began to disappear into the mist on the climb onto Knock Fell, the walker bringing up the rear of the group stopped and turned to see me approaching. He stood aside with another walker, who I took to be his wife and said, ‘You may as well go by as you are walking much faster than us’. I stopped for a while and had a chat with them and discovered that they were doing the Pennine Way in sections and this particular stretch was a section that they need to do to ‘fill a gap’ they had missed in the past. I wished them well on their walk and left them to join their two friends who had stopped for a rest and headed off into the mist. 

Wind shelter on Cross Fell

The path now climbed steeply through the mist alongside a stream and part of me was glad that the conditions, despite the views being obscured, were at least calm and dry while part of me was ruing the fact that if the weather stayed like this I would not see any of the scenery from the highest peaks of the walk. Knock Old Man and Knock Fell are the first of a series of peaks in a ridge walk culminating in the infamous Cross Fell, which at a little under 3,000ft is not only the highest summit on the Pennine Way but the highest outside of the Lake District. In fact, it is only a couple of hundred feet lower than Scafell Pike, which is the highest peak in England. A large shape loomed out of the mist and resolved itself into the shape of a very large cairn off of the side of the path which signified that I was on Knock Old Man. This was soon followed by a smaller, scrappier cairn on the top of Knock Fell. As I squelched around on the summit the path momentarily disappeared and I drifted slightly off course, which I soon rectified with my GPS unit, which I had switched on when I entered the mist. It wasn’t long before I was back on the trail again and picking my way along in the silent, opaque world when I became aware of a shape in the gloom ahead of me. Having assumed it was another rocky cairn I surprised when I realised that it was wearing a rucksack and after a few more paces saw that it was a walker wearing a bright yellow jacket standing reading a guidebook and looking confused and lost. Suddenly, he heard me approaching and in what seemed to me a tone of relief said’ ‘Are you all alright?’. I assured him that I was and he admitted to a certain amount of uncertainty regarding the route and having seen my GPS unit, asked if it was okay to follow me, which I of course agreed to. He didn’t seem to have any other maps than those in the book, which of course neither did I, but I had taken the precaution of loading the whole route onto my GPS unit for just such an eventuality as this as I didn’t want to rely on the maps in the book alone. These maps were perfect for fine conditions but in whiteout conditions on a mountain top were not sufficient for navigating. Besides the guidebook and GPS, I had a conventional compass, an electronic compass on my watch, which also boasted an altimeter. Of course, the GPS unit has all of this and more so I wasn’t too worried about getting lost. In fact, during the whole 260 odd miles of the Pennine Way, I never strayed more than a few metres off course and this was usually when I wasn’t paying much attention. Once I discovered that I was not on the way, it took only a few minutes to switch on the unit and find my way back onto the correct route. We followed the GPS track until we reached the tarmac access road to the radar station on the summit of Great Dun Fell whereupon we both agreed to follow it to the top instead of leaving the road to follow the Pennine Way, which veered off right across moorland a few metres further along. By now, the wind had picked up and was blowing cold and strong across the tops as we approached the radar station and passed through the gate into the compound. I quickly realised that we should have turned right just before the gate and I was marvelling that we were standing right next to the large white ‘golfball’ radar dome that Alan and I had first seen days before from the summit of Great Shunner Fell but I could now not even see it's outline in the whiteout. We descended from the station and by now the wind was so strong that I had to stop and put on an extra layer as I was cold and we continued steeply up onto the summit of Little Dun Fell. From the summit cairn, we continued through our empty, white world as the way climbed comfortably along the top of Cross Fell to the impressively restored, cross shaped, summit wind shelter. The mountain was originally called 'Fiends Fell' and had a fearsome reputation for dense fog and strong winds accompanied by the howling noise of the Helm Wind. The mountain was blessed by St. Augustine and renamed Cross Fell. The barman in the hotel in Middleton in Teesdale had told me a story of a young female hiker caught in a fierce thunderstorm on the summit who was so terrified that she hid in a ditch for over an hour to let it pass. I can imagine in conditions such as those it would indeed be a pretty awful place to be but apart from the fog and an 'ordinary' wind, we reached the impressive reconstructed shelter with ease. 

On Cross Fell

As we began to descend, I was partly celebrating that the summits had been crossed without major incident but this was tinged with regret that I had missed out on some of the best views of the walk. As we gently descended to the Corpse Road that would take us all of the way into the village of Garrigill, we suddenly dropped out of the clouds and the whole northern terminus of the Pennine range spread out ahead of us. The hills rolled away seemingly forever to the horizon, totally empty and devoid of any signs of man but this was in reality the last display that the Pennines would be among the last views of the Pennines as because of access problems, the Way didn't follow the final hills of the range but instead veered away to the South Tyne Valley as the walk left the hills behind for good. I silently marvelled at the fact that I had walked the entire range since starting from Edale what now seemed a lifetime ago and as I quietly congratulated myself, my footing went from under me as I stepped in a soggy patch of peat and although I nearly regained my equilibrium, I finally landed in the soggy, gooey mess on my right side. Because I had landed in peat, I wasn't hurt but I was now covered down one side in the black, sticky, mud-like goo, as was my rucksack and guidebook. I swore loudly as Tony helped me up and I tried to wipe as much of the peat off before we stopped briefly to have our photos taken by a cairn just above the Corpse Road on the slopes of Cross Fell with the wilderness of the far northern Pennines stretching out behind us. We reached the Corpse Road, which I could see stretching out in an apparently endless ‘ribbon’ across the moors as it made it’s way to Garrigill, seven miles away. The surface of the old road is notorious for its roughness and is known for taking it’s toll on walkers as they make their way along it.

Greg's Hut

'Golf Ball' on Great Dun Fell

 We passed a bothy, a walker’s shelter known as Greg’s Hut soon after joining the road and it quickly became obvious that I walked at a completely different pace to Tony who was soon lagging behind me. As I deliberated telling him that I was going to make my own way now that we were out of the fog and the way was obvious, the decision was taken out of my hands when Tony said that I may as well go on ahead as he said he was a ‘plodder’ and wouldn’t be able to keep up with me. Relieved, I said ‘goodbye’, and off I sped, feeling extremely energetic as I skipped over the rough surface of the road. I was feeling jubilant, my idea of laying in my tent for the storm to pass had paid dividends and although I hadn’t had any views on the mountaintops, the passage over them had been fairly straightforward and I now felt like a greyhound released at the start of a race and although I wasn’t in any particular hurry, the simple act of moving quickly along the Corpse Road was extremely liberating and I sped on, pausing briefly to chat with three female walkers, before continuing on my way. The surrounding countryside felt lonelier and emptier than any on the walk to date and feelings of solitude washed over me from every direction. I knew that from here on, the terrain, the eight miles or so along Hadrian’s Wall apart, would be lonely and empty until the finish at Kirk Yetholm. 

The Corpse Road to Garrigill

The appearance of the tiny village of Garrigill in the valley below signalled the end of the long descent along the Corpse Road and I stopped for a while to chat to a couple resting at the side of the road who were very interested in the hike and asked me numerous questions about equipment and the weight I was carrying. They had walked parts of the Southern Upland Way in Scotland, a long distance coast to coast walk I had completed in 1999 and were impressed that they had finally met someone who had walked the whole trail as despite being one of Scotland’s National Trails, it is very underwalked. I bade them goodbye and headed down into the village where I called into the pub to see if they had any rooms for the night but one of the drinkers at the bar informed me that the pub did not provide bed and breakfast but if I followed him across the road, would show me where I could enquire about staying in the bunkhouse. We arrived at the house to discover that the woman in charge of the bunkhouse was out horse riding but the man got the key from her husband and I was soon settling into the bunkhouse above the village hall. There were eight bunks in all but I seemed to have the place to myself and downstairs I had full facilities including a kitchen and showers. I spent some time sorting out my gear including washing off the peat from my clothes and rucksack and charging all my electrical gear, making full use of all of the electric sockets in the building. Later, I returned to the pub for dinner, which for the first time since setting off, I ate alone, which is always a little dispiriting in a pub full of people but the food was good and the landlady friendly and I returned to the bunkhouse for a comfortable night’s sleep having made my choice from the eight available beds.

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