Day 11. 23 miles
Today broke me, it was bound to happen. Day upon day of essentially endurance walking takes its toll, and today was the day when I completely overdid it. I felt pathetic doing so, traipsing painfully along Hadrian's Wall, wailing inside my head, and occasionally out loud when no one was around to hear it. When centuries ago the Roman Army here would carry bags of fifty kilograms on their backs, three times my pack weight and without hip belts, chest straps, back padding, and over a millennium later, there is a person doing a walk for the fun of it and knowing that at the end of the day there would be a comfortable YHA to spend the night in, a hot shower and a carnivorous and warm meal at the Once Brewed Inn. I’d forgotten how tough todays stage is. Most people would end in Greenhead and embark on The Wall in its fullest length (well, as far as the Pennine allows) the following day. My pig-headed stubbornness insists I carry on, mile after mile. Admittedly the pre-booked YHA meant I had to press on, but there are other days when I didn’t have that set target, and perversely the wild camping aspect to this adventure means you sometimes feel compelled to push on. Why do the extra miles tomorrow when I may as well do them today? This was often a question I pondered to myself over this fortnight.
This day began as yesterday ended, surrounded by little sodding midges. Such was my irritation of their presence that I didn’t bother hanging around in my field for breakfast. I simply packed up and after a quick cereal bar to kick start me into action, I headed off again along the Tyne and through more farms and fields. It’s a good job I’d bumped into the kindly farmer last night, otherwise I think I’d have ended up sleeping under one of the beautiful viaducts seen along this part of the walk. I have a thing for Victorian bridges, and stations and tracks and trains. What a crying shame these gorgeous architectural wonders have no longer any use, the lines that run along them closed by Beaching in the Sixties.
Following the train line and the Tyne, I was eventually spat out on to the quiet main road that leads up to Slaggyford. Last time out we were confused by the route, diverted as it has been by a now-closed field that the original trail headed through. Now, it is a case of some lane walking before turning off onto a quiet street with houses and a little park and play area, and up to a track that was slightly uncomfortable to walk on and less than picturesque, too, before the route takes a turn for the better and heads through a succession of lovely fields. I stopped briefly to filter some more water and take a break in the early morning sun. It was a beautiful day again. Lovely for walkers and lovely for those pesky cows as well, blocking a gate soon after my five minutes stoppage were up as I was skirting around Merry Knowe. I took a detour and slid down a thistle lined bank to escape them. The first of two cow-related diversions today. The last field or two before reaching the moorland part of the day led to Knarsdale Hall, a manor house with lovely gardens and even better is the beautifully sprawling viaduct that is practically in its front garden. I admired and appreciated this thing of beauty and thought again what geniuses the Victorians were. Then civilisation was left behind and it was on to the moors where I’d be for a good few hours yet.
The early moorland walking was mostly easy enough, through long grass and heather en-route to Glendue Burn. A nightmare, I’d imagine, in sopping wet conditions but the path was as dry as a bone today, and though the lovely sun steadily started to disappear and gloomy clouds emerged, it never looked like it was going to rain. I was quite pleased, in fact, for the break in the weather as on stretches like this, it can be sweltering with the sun on your back. Meanwhile, I met my first “north to souther” of the walk, a friendly man in his fifties I’d guess, who was also solo and mostly wild camping. He’d booked himself a treat of a B&B in Edale for the end of his walk, going along as I noticed with a considerably smaller pack than mine and with no doubt less weight too. When meeting the long haulers on this trail, the two consistent subjects discussed were weather conditions and pack sizes. With the latter, the bag that was literally dragging me down over the first two or three days had now become a part of me. My body had gotten used to the weight and vice versa. Short of lightening the load, albeit slowly and gradually by using up my snacks and original dinner options, there was nothing in there I didn’t need and everything I needed to survive. It was a case of getting me, and my bag, to Scotland and my body simply had to deal with it. Evidently it didn’t take long for the two to accept each other, and any discomfort felt from there on in, like at the arse-end of today, was simply caused by me doing too much, walking too far.
I didn’t know I’d be going too far at the time, of course, I’d learnt to take each part of the trail once step at a time, to use a well worn cliche. Each mile presents a different challenge. Now, it was on the Maiden Way, trying to follow an increasingly indistinguishable path. Lost as it eventually became in the dry heather, and naked to the eye also were the stiles I’d need to hop over either side of the A689. I went too far west but not far enough thankfully to make me cross, which taking a wrong turn usually does. It was easy enough to reach Hartley Burn, but a slow plod among sheltered and tree-lined ground to slide down a bank and then back up steeply the other side to then head across a field to Ulpham Farm. I’d caught up with a couple of older guys who had passed me leaving Slaggyford, and I think whom I’d given cause for them to think I’m a loony (which would be very perceptive on their behalf) when filtering water earlier at Knar Burn I’d been recording some outrageous voice messages on my phone, unbeknown that they were walking twenty feet behind me. Anyway, we exchanged pleasantries as the younger among the pair informed me they were stage walking the Pennine and were aiming for Greenhead, which at this point seemed enviably close.
Beyond the farm lay Greenriggs, recently purchased by a slightly unkempt but very friendly Geordie who I met in his yard whilst passing through, and whom I gave a fiver to for a couple of drinks, such was my gratitude for there being a little tuck shop en-route. I smirked knowingly when he asked if “I liked torturing myself” when I announced it wasn’t Greenhead that I was heading to, but Once Brewed. Maybe I do have elements of masochism after all. Though, I didn’t enjoy making the acquaintance again of two horses that Alex and were briefly chased by two years ago in the field beyond the farmhouse. Much like the cows, I gave them a very wide diversion and attempted to be as inconspicuous as possible by stealthily heading through long grass on the far side of the field, and it was with much relief when I reached the boundary wall and entered the common. We’d completely lost the path two years ago that swings from the yellow marker post by the fence line on Round Hill to Highside Farm where I’d now emerged from. I’m not sure how as the path today was more than obvious and thankfully didn’t require hopping in and out of deep bogs like it did originally. Much like many parts of the Pennine, horrendous weather can reduce walkers to a shambles, and Blenkinsopp Common is no exception, and in fact its reputation is known in some quarters as the worst couple of miles on the whole walk in bad conditions. The benign summer this year thankfully made this section more than tolerable and in almost no time at all I’d reached the second Black Hill of the Pennine Way. Not as hard work as the southern version but with as nice views, in this case the first sighting of Hadrian's Wall in the far distance that lay in wait. I also knew that Greenhead was on the other wide of the A69, which is reached via a large conifer lined forest and a golf course.
Before the main road was reached, my second diversion of the day due to cows took place. Beyond the northern Black Hill the path leads around a field and under some pylons that heads down to the A69 and cuts out having to walk down the road to reach the steps on the other side. Naturally, I ended up having to take this route due to the three cows ahead that weren’t budging off the path and who I definitely didn’t want to walk next to. Their friends in the field, several dozen of them, seemed to be rather angry when I walked past the other side of the gate during my diversion, and they may have got a few choice words in their direction as I stomped past. Equally annoying was the lumpy walk on the other side of the road that led down to the golf course and across to the other side of Greenhead, bypassing the village altogether. I did contemplate heading there for a break but time wasn’t on my side and by this point, I just wanted to get on the wall and down to Once Brewed. I made the wall alright, but “as quick as possible” went well out the window. A very steep climb I could have done without led to Walltown Quarry, which knackered me to such an extent that in the carpark and next to a bench, I laid down my weary body and closed my eyes for half an hour. I was completely bushed. Some people actually camp here, with it’s toilet facilities and cafe (the latter was closed for refurbishment when I was there. I pushed on, and so I wearily donned the bag and headed off again, still around five or six miles to go of not easy terrain at all. Walltown Crags was accomplished and I was appreciative of some easier walking through some woodland and on to a couple of farms, beside a wall but not Roman nor Hadrians - that was still to come.
The final part of the day from Burnhead was what burned me out. Each part of the wall means a climb and a descent, several times over. The historical significance of the area was somewhat lost on me as I just wanted the day to end, my feet were killing, my calves burning and essentially I had turned, not for the first time, into a pathetic sweaty mess. I took what I thought was a lower route around the south side of Cawfield Crags, not the most comfortable of walks either. I mugged myself right off here as I just had to endure a steep climb back up to Caw Gap. Normally an incredibly busy part of the wall, thankfully mostly deserted at this late part of the afternoon and just as well, such were the exasperated profanities that spilled out of my big mouth. Onwards to Winshields Crag and in the distance I could see the end. I could make out the brand spanking new YHA and the pub next door where I’d enjoy a massive roast dinner that evening. The walk there, though, seemed to take an eternity. I came off the wall at Steel Rigg carpark and headed for ten minutes down the road to Once Brewed. I checked in to my room at about 5:30 and stood in the shower for ten minutes. I washed some clothes in there too and then turned on the radio to listen to TMS and the cricket world cup final. 90 runs needed to win - it seemed unlikely. By the time I was ready to go out Aggers and Co. were in bedlam land, and I walked the two minutes to the pub to watch England win the World Cup. My beautiful roast dinner went down a treated being as I sat with tired limbs and body, and therefore I basked in the cosy feeling that comes with knowing I'd really earned it.