Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Pennine Way - 8th July - Byrness to Kirk Yetholm - The Final Frontier

Climbing Byrness Hill

The alarm on my watch went off at 4am. I lay still for a minute or two listening but couldn’t hear much apart from the occasional rustle of a sleeping bag as someone nearby turned over in their sleep. I ran through in my mind what I needed to do before I got out of the tent.
First, I had to replace the compeed plaster on my heel, the small blister that developed all those miles ago on Hadrian's Wall seemed to have gone but I didn't want to take any chances. This done, I started packing small items away and then I got out of the tent to go to the bathroom. The midges were out in force and it seemed that packing up was going to be uncomfortable. It then occurred to me to take everything into the communal area in the conservatory, it had to be open because there were numerous people besides me who had ordered early breakfasts and I could see the various cereals and other items on the table inside waiting for us. I tried the door and it opened so I began ferrying everything indoors but was still being eaten alive so I sprayed myself with deet, which made them retreat enough to allow me to get everything inside. I'd just finished packing my rucksack and was about to start breakfast when the door leading into the house opened and I was surprised to see Tony standing there. This pleasant, likeable man, who I had found lost in the mist on Knock Fell all those miles ago was also attempting the Cheviot crossing in one rather than splitting it into two days. I had expected to be away by 5am without seeing anyone but now I was forced into conversation but it was too early for talking so I set about making breakfast while passing a few pleasantries. I was on time for my planned departure of 5am when Tony dropped a spanner in the works. ‘Will you wait so that I can set off with you?’, he said. I now had a dilemma. I didn’t want to wait but I also didn’t want to appear rude. It also seemed a little pointless as Tony was by his own admission ‘a plodder’ and walked much slower than me, having once described me as ‘a Porche’ after I had sped off up a hill leaving him trailing way behind me. ‘Well, I was planning to leave at 5am’ I said slightly irritated. ‘That’s okay, I’ll only be ten minutes’ he said. I was trapped! I paced up and down making it plainly obvious that I was ready to go, much to the amusement of another walker who had now joined us in the communal area and knew of the disparity in our walking styles. Tony, who was obviously still waking up sat staring into space barely eating his breakfast. I watched him for a couple of minutes before saying, ‘I’m off in a few minutes Tony’. This seemed to spur him into life and he disappeared up to his room to collect his gear. As I waited, pacing up and down, Rowan and Gordon burst into the communal room from the camping area with coats on and hoods up trying to avoid the clouds of midges. I quickly appraised them of the situation, which Gordon found highly amusing and when Tony returned, proceeded to bait him with comments urging him to get a move on. In typical Tony fashion however, this went straight over his head as he fiddled with straps on his rucksack before deciding that, as he had forgotten to put his sandwiches in the pack, he had to remove it and start the whole process again. By this time I was almost out of the door and I said a final farewell to Rowan and Gordon and set off down the road. We followed a track running parallel to the road before climbing up and crossing it to the first Pennine Way sign. The weather was overcast but calm and there were no signs of anything untoward as we climbed steeply through the forest to the summit of Byrness Hill. 

Tony on Byrness Hill

Almost immediately, as we climbed the hill, Tony was starting to lag behind and I knew that I would just have to leave him, as I had when descending Cross Fell. I reached the summit of the climb to be faced with open rolling moorland and in the distance, a wall of approaching cloud that was quickly moving towards me and it wasn't long before the rain started to fall. As the visibility diminished, I occasionally turned to see Tony's bright yellow jacket as a small oasis of light in the general gloom becoming smaller and smaller as I pulled away from him until eventually he was swallowed up by the mist. I felt slightly guilty but knew that there was no way that I could walk for a minimum of ten hours at his pace. We were on our own now and had to deal with whatever the day’s trials had in store for us alone. The conditions were now quite awful, with rain driving in from the west and a thick shroud of fog covering anything of interest so my world became mostly an internal one. The other problem was that the peat beneath my feet was now waterlogged, the district had obviously had much rain recently, unlike other areas on the Pennine Way I had passed through so far and I was struggling to find any solid, dry ground to walk on where there were no flagstones or duckboards. I suffered a moment’s confusion in a valley where the route turned left uphill and upon checking my GPS unit, it appeared to have suffered some sort of failure. I had no maps other than the sketch maps in the guidebook so was relying on the route I had stored on the GPS unit. I began retracing my steps into the valley but common sense made me stop my mild panic and I stood and restarted the unit. With great relief, the unit fired up and again showed me my position in relation to the trail and I was relieved to see that I was still on track. My other problem, and one that bothered me more than the rain was that I was feeling quite cold. Despite moving quickly, I was getting colder, which started to worry me a little. I was wearing just a base layer and a waterproof jacket, which would have been ample for any other part of the walk as it had been very warm throughout but it seemed that the conditions had taken a turn to colder weather and I needed to put on another layer. The problem was that there was no way that I was going to stop out in the open to perform this operation. Removing my jacket here would have been an act of real folly as the wind was now blowing and I was worried that I would lose crucial heat if I stood in the open even for a minute in just a base layer. 

2nd refuge hut just visible from Auchope Cairn

I needed to get to the first refuge hut, which I knew was around two miles away. I sped along as quickly as I possibly could and was relieved when the hut came into sight and I burst in through the door, grateful to be out of the rain and wind, if only for a short while. I peeled off my waterproof jacket and instantly felt icy fingers of cold envelop me as I quickly put on another layer before putting my waterproof back on over the top. I knew I needed to eat but I really didn’t fancy anything in the rucksack until I remembered a chocolate waffle that I had picked up from the breakfast table before setting off. I quickly unwrapped it and hungrily ate before shouldering my pack and setting off once again into the driving rain. I needed to get moving quickly as my teeth were beginning to chatter after standing for the five minutes or so in the refuge hut and I was relieved that as soon as I began climbing Lamb Hill, I began to warm up with the extra layer of insulation. As I squelched my way through more wet peat, I realised that time had taken on a strange elastic feel. The book gave the time to the first hut as four hours, I had taken 3.5 but time seemed to have lost all meaning as I seemed to have been on the trail for hours and yet when I looked back, it felt as though only minutes had passed since setting off with Tony. I guessed that the very early start was partly to blame but as the hours ticked by, this feeling only increased. One minute, I had been going for 3.5 hours and then, in what seemed like a few minutes later, another hour had elapsed. My next target was the second refuge hut, which was 4.5 to 5 hours from the first and I mentally locked onto this as my motivation for ploughing on through the wind, rain and mist, not to mention the endless bogs. I was thankful that there were long stretches that were paved but even these were often inches under water but as my feet had been saturated since almost the beginning, I just waded through them in the knowledge that I wouldn’t sink up to my knees in a peat bog, which was now really the only consideration as I had long given up worrying about being wet. After what seemed like only a few minutes since the refuge hut, but in reality must have been 1.5 to 2 hours, I saw the summit of Windy Gyle up ahead. This gave me a massive boost psychologically because I knew that this was around the halfway point and was also where I originally considered finishing for the day and dropping off of the ridge to a campsite when I intended splitting the day into two. Gordon and Rowan would be leaving the ridge here and camping at Barrowburn Farm but I had to start all over again. 

Nearly there!

I passed a fingerpost on the summit that announced that The Schill, the last hill of the day on the low route option was still seven miles away and I knew that the next refuge hut was still a good 2.5 hours away. I ploughed on in the rain, struggling to find any decent ground to walk on when I suddenly became aware of a flagged path across the border fence to my right. The route across the Cheviots mostly follows the Scotland/England border and crosses and re-crosses it several times during the day and it now looked as though I was on the wrong side. I consulted the guidebook that noted that either side at this point was okay to follow but for me there was no contest. I crossed some rough ground and stepped over the fence onto the ‘luxury’ of the paved path. This I gratefully followed as it passed a trig point on King’s Seat whereupon, a short time later, it ended at the bottom of an awful ascent in squelching peat. I tried in vain to find some decent footholds but the path, such as it was, was just a wide, black scar up the peaty hillside and I had to stop frequently as this made for very tiring climbing. 

Into the valley, the end in sight!

It was along this section that the rain suddenly stopped! The cloud had lifted and I now had views of the hills around me for the first time and I had to admit to myself that they did look very attractive. My spirits rose a little but as I looked off into the distance, I could see that there was still a lot of low cloud and rain about, so it seemed that I was experiencing in a ‘hole’ in the weather rather than a full-blown clearance, which was better than nothing and it helped me regain my pace after the awful ascent in the peat. Soon, I arrived at a junction, with a path signposted to ‘The Cheviot’, the highest point in the whole range. Even had the weather been good, I had already decided I wasn’t going to take this optional side-route as it added an hour onto an already very long day and the summit, which wasn’t part of the main route, apparently had nothing to recommend it apart the ‘peak-bagging’ aspect. In the circumstances, I just gave an ironic laugh as I passed the sign and turned towards Auchope Cairn, which would signal that I was close to the second refuge hut. I arrived at the cairn and a vast panorama of hills spread out far below me. The refuge hut could just be seen way below, looking like a tiny matchbox, and The Schill was clearly visible away to the east. I began my extremely steep descent, taking care not to slip over in the slippery wet peat and tried to admire the views into the huge, steep rent of Hen Hole, a massive ravine off to my right. As I descended at speed, my foot went from under me in the peat and I cursed as I picked myself up and continued descending. 

First view of Kirk Yetholm

On my arrival at the cairn, the rain had begun to fall again and this, coupled with the fact that I was now quite hungry, caused me to descend very quickly to the hut and I gratefully accepted the shelter on offer to eat the sandwich I had purchased from Forest View (was that only this morning?) as well as a large flapjack bar. I flicked through the visitors book and added my comments before looking out of the door at the curtain of rain sweeping across the hills towards the Schill. I took a deep breath and plunged out into the elements once more heading for the last significant hill I would climb on the whole Pennine Way. As I left the refuge and set off along the steadily rising path to The Schill, I suddenly saw a shape in the mist, which materialised into a pretty, young blonde girl. At first, I thought I was hallucinating but no, she was there. She was some way off of the path walking through the bogs looking very relaxed and comfortable with a notepad and pen in her hands. I looked and over and said ‘Hello’, to which she responded and continued on her way. The girl's demeanour seemed completely at odds with what I had been going through as she appeared completely relaxed and did not seem to be equipped for an unpleasant day on the hills at all as she strolled along taking notes. 

The Border Hotel and the end of the Pennine Way

I had already decided I was taking the lower route option to the finish, thus avoiding the climb over White Law, so I was now boosted by the thought that I just had to get over the large protuberance in front of me. I was now only three hours away from Kirk Yetholm, three hours from the end of the Pennine Way that I had started a lifetime ago with Alan in Edale. I knew now that I was going to finish regardless of what the elements threw at me but I had to make one last effort. The summit lay around two miles away and I covered the ground quickly along the slabs. The ascent was again in sodden peat but not as bad as the previous one had been and after a few brief pauses on the way up, I was on the summit, which I left without pausing. The rain was still pouring down and as the path descended from the summit, I had a momentary panic when I saw another steep slope ahead but after consulting my guidebook, I realised that my route veered off to the left at the bottom of the descent, so I wouldn’t have to climb it. Reaching the bottom of the descent I climbed over a stile off to my left, crossing from England into Scotland for the last time and shortly arrived at a split in the path. 

My way, the low level route, went left and was signposted ‘Kirk Yetholm 4.5 miles’. I gratefully took this path and suddenly, it was over! I still had the miles to do to the end but the path descended into the valley, the rain had stopped, the bogs had finished and I was still in one piece! I had done it! As I strolled down into the valley, I mentally went through the whole walk in my mind from the sunny day in Edale at the start, to walking with Alan to Middleton in Teesdale and all of the wonderful sights I have seen since and it began to dawn on me that this walk that had dominated my thinking for two years was almost at an end. The path skirted around a farmyard before following a track along the valley floor, eventually turning into a tarmac road. The sun even made an appearance as I strolled along in a bit of a daze, trying to put thoughts of today’s experiences into some sort of order. The road began to climb as it passed over the very last incline before the very final descent into Kirk Yetholm, when I was forced to stand aside in the narrow lane to allow a Range Rover to pass. The vehicle pulled level with me and stopped alongside me. The window in the car wound down to reveal an elderly couple and the woman in the passenger seat said, ‘Have you just done the Pennine Way’. ‘Nearly’, I joked. I spent a good ten minutes chatting to this friendly couple who informed me that they had done the walk in the nineties with their son and that it was the ‘best holiday they had ever had’. We exchanged various views about the walk but although I enjoyed talking to them, I was anxious to get to the end. Eventually, they wished me well and I continued up the hill until, at last, Kirk Yetholm came into view in the valley below to my right. I stopped at a conveniently situated bench by the side of the road, took off my waterproof coat and made myself look as respectable as anyone who had spent the last ten hours wading through peat bogs could and was just about to set off when the elderly couple came back from the opposite direction. They stopped again and jokingly offered me a lift and I waved them off as I strode into the village to the Border Inn, the official finishing point of the walk. It was done!

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