The Pennine Way. Dufton to Castle Nook Farm, Kirkhaugh
Day 10. 20 miles
I awoke at dawn, unzipped my tent and poked my head out. Somewhat predictably, I couldn’t see the fells that were my first targets this morning, covered in the far and high distance in thick fog. This stage of the trail is hard enough as it is without fog to navigate through, and it was with a little knot in my stomach when I stepped back on to the Pennine at 7:45 after a lovely hot cup of tea to put some fire in my belly on this chilly morning. Whilst enjoying my drink I closely studied the landscape ahead and was grateful to see the cows that had blocked my progress last night had buggered off and were nowhere to be seen, and so I had free reign through the last remaining fields before the climb to Knock Fell began. As it transpired, once those fields had been put behind me and the high ground and the thick fog was reached, the navigation actually wasn’t too tricky. Whilst the fog was down to a mere visibility of thirty feet or so, the path was evident and the occasional arrow post showed the way. Additionally, my depleted water reserves gained a boost when the trail headed above Knock Hush. As I filtered some water for a brief few moments the sun began to break through which raised my spirits no end, but before I could even put my bag back on the curtains were drawn again, and it was with only foggy views that the steep but mostly easy-going climb to the stone statues at Knock Old Man were reached, with another short plod thereafter to hit the summit of Knock Fell. With what had in reality rarely felt like too much of a tough climb, and yet with the toughest part of the day completed, in regards to elevation, I pushed on to Little Dun Fell.
By this point the cloud at the summit had completely burnt off, though it completely still covered the valley below where I’d just emerged from. Having walked for an hour with barely any visibility it was a treat to be now surrounded by gorgeous views at the top, and I felt almost pleased that the walk up there was in the clouds due to how much I appreciated the scenery now. In the distance I could now make out my next target of Little Dun Fell which lay beyond the radar station, and ahead of there, Cross Fell. To approach the radar station meant a short walk up the service road before disappearing into the boggy section of Dunfell Hush, and then intermittent flag stones led the way to Little Dun Fell, the climb to which was ahead of me and being slowly shrouded in what looked like a tsunami, such was the effect of the fog that drifted across the mountain. It was stunning to observe though a pain in the arse being as it was bang in the middle of the Pennine Way. As it transpired, once I began the walk up to the summit of Little Dun Fell, the clouds had thinned out and only Cross Fell remained before my planned summit stop for a belated breakfast. Though, naturally, by the time I’d conquered Little Dun Fell and began the climb up to Cross Fell, the fog up there was so thick that the summit of Cross Fell was completely invisible.
What I could see immediately in front of me was a mostly evident path up the shoulder of Cross Fell and though the approach is somewhat rocky, once on the flat top the small cairns were just about obvious, before much like on Great Shunner Fell days ago, out of nowhere appeared the trig point that signalled my arrival at the highest point on the Pennine Way at 2930 feet, and the beautifully made summit shelter lay just beyond. The views, normally a beautiful panorama, were non-existent but I donned my down jacket as the wind chill was significantly colder than at any point previously on the walk, and stopped for a break at the shelter. I enjoyed firstly a chicken pasta I’d bought the day before in Middleton in Teesdale and then I brewed up a hot chocolate. After speaking to a friendly couple of fell runners, it was nearly an hour I’d spent up there. And still there was no bloody view. But, the area was swarming with flies which somewhat hastened my departure.
I don’t know how, but when we were up here previously we made a complete mess of trying to find the route off the mountain. As I recall, it was bitterly cold and for ten minutes we splashed through varying areas of bog and marsh before we hit the stone path. How we missed the two fairly sizeable cairns that signalled the way down to the road to Gregs Hut I have absolutely no idea. Today, the route off was a breeze and with the added bonus that the fog on this side of the mountain was non-existent, it meant the hut was quickly in view and so once on the rocky path that signalled the start of the Corpse Road to Garrigill, I was secure in the knowledge that the next few miles would be without any problems navigationally but that my feet and legs would take a battering. This is simply a case of getting your head down and getting the miles out the way as quickly as possible. The time was passed here by spending much of the walk down with Eva, a friendly Italian lady living in London, adorned in head to toe lycra walking gear, including gloves, and who told me that since the start of her Pennine Way she had survived pretty much just on cereal bars. There was to be fair very little of her, but even so, I wouldn’t have made it past the first day or two with a limited diet like that. Due to this chatty descent, Garrigill was reached in no time at all and due to there being no reason to stop in the lovely little village on a Saturday lunchtime, being as there is no pub nor now no shop to speak of, I decided to head straight on to Alston which was another four miles but a pleasant, flat and uneventful lope down the South Tyne River and where I promised myself a slap up meal at the end of it.
Alston is a lovely town, though the Pennine Way itself doesn’t actually go through there, it merely skirts around its south side and then up past the farm and fields adjacent to the A689 which the path crosses a couple of times. Just outside the town centre there is a very well stocked Spar at the petrol station just 100 yards from the leafy path the trail emerges from and much like the feeling when arriving at May's, it’s not easy to resist the many temptations the shop offers. Therefore I stocked up on snacks, pastries and breakfast items for tomorrow before heading across the road to the lovely Alston House Hotel where I got stuck into a massive lasagne and salad, and an even bigger and more calorific slice of chocolate cake. Whilst packing up to leave, I got talking to a friendly couple who themselves were keen walkers - the size of my rucksack is usually an instigation to a conversation - and somehow the talk got around to cows. They too had got previous with them, being completely circled and only being able to escape closer contact by swinging their bags close to the cows heads. Knowing I’d be imminently approaching copious farmland and fields, there was a tightening in my stomach, and it wasn’t due to the ridiculous amount of food I’d just consumed.
Despite having already covered approaching twenty miles today, the glorious late afternoon sun and the need to work my dinner off meant I decided to carry on walking and try and find a decent spot to spend the night. Easier said than done. Whilst it would be easier to just stick to the main road, the path pedantically heads almost in a loop through the farms that lie either side of them which from a camping perspective were perfect except for the slight problem of potentially being discovered on the lower land, and the higher fields were covered in either animals, or the shit they’d left behind. A steep detour down a thistle-covered bank near the remains (or what is left of them) at Whitley Castle was necessary to escape the cows blocking the gate I needed to pass through - seriously, they must have a sixth sense I’m passing through - then I sensibly stuck to the fence in the next field to enable a hasty escape if the herd that was eyeballing me in the next field decided to make a beeline in my direction. I only wish I was making all this up about how often the ruddy things got in my way.
Contemplating the thought I might have to wait until nightfall to pitch up somewhere where I shouldn't - and dusk was still a couple of hours away yet - once I arrived at Castle Nook Farm I ended up talking to the young farmer who’d at that moment arrived back on his quad bike from rounding up the sheep. During our chat I mentioned my camping conundrum when the lad nodded to the field across from his farmhouse on the other side of the road. “Aye, the grass is a bit long and there are some sheep that shouldn’t be there, but it’s yours if you want it!”. Bless his heart. I accepted his offer with watery eyes, headed over and after trampling a good few square feet of grass down that initially came past my knees, I pitched up whilst being surrounded by scores of irritating midges.