The Pennine Way. Once Brewed to Bellingham
Day 12. 15 miles
Today I encountered a new problem of the animal variety. So far on this Pennine Way I’d been chased by cows, of course, eyeballed by horses and eaten and drank around my tent with the company of hundreds of midges - if not more. Today, I had flies on my back, many of them. Christ, they were irritating and determined, and relentless. I guess it’s nice to be wanted. I felt quite flattered afterwards. Then I was told there is somewhat of a fly problem up here, and then I just felt used.
I did, though, wake up in the peace and comfort of the YHA and got stuck into a buffet breakfast before slowly packing and beginning the day at a later than usual time of half nine. It was already baking hot, uncomfortably so. I had a litre and a half of water but I must have drank getting on for half of it within half an hour. Walking in that weather is hard, more so when on a trajectory like Hadrians Wall with it’s roller coaster like track, and there were three crags to navigate up and down on - Peel, Lough and Hotbank - before exiting the wall at Rapishaw Gap where I was wet through already with sweat, and then headed along the good old flagstones with long grass either side onwards to Wark Forest. I stopped to talk to a retired couple walking the trail in one hit as well. I’d not encountered them before and it got me thinking about the randomness of spending a fortnight on a trail with people who had likely started at the same time, yet it had taken almost ten days to run into them. Equally, people I’d seen earlier on such as Kate and Eva I’d not seen for a week; their names only cropping up when bumping into fellow wayfarers, each one finding their own Pennine Way path and completely different to my own. The couple now were taking a break having started their day in Greenhead, and it was somewhat of a surprise when I bumped into them again an hour or so later, being as I’d left them behind en-route to Wark Forest. The approach to which is along an old service road where quite soon into it I had two irritating flies behind me that I couldn’t shake off, and it was a sign of things to come.
Wark Forest, even in mid-summer, is a mud bath. I can’t imagine at any stage of the year when it wouldn’t be. The thousands of conifer trees, all densely packed together have to grow great heights to reach some sun light meaning the bottom of them is pretty much permanently in relative darkness. For the walker, this means fifteen minutes or so of traipsing through deep bog and mud, clambering onto sharp and sticky branches to avoid landing in it horizontally and going wide of the path, such as it is, to avoid sinking. It’s with some relief when you emerge into daylight but admittedly considerably heavier than you did at the start, being as your boots will be covered in mud. And, if you’re anything like me, also being chased by scores of buzzing flies. They weren’t on my skin, but they were following my every step like a magnet and for the first time I began to panic. I had visions of being engulfed by them, forced to the floor and being eaten alive by the sweaty human loving vermin of Wark Forest. The faster I walked, the faster they chased. I stopped beside a strange drystone walled enclosure with only trees and overgrown grass inside. I removed my bag and soaking wet t-shirt to see what it was the pests wanted. Not the t-shirt, they still wanted me, me and my sweat. I put on a dry replacement and headed off. Still they followed, more of them in fact. I started to jog hoping I’d leave them behind, and consequently completely lost the path. Where I should have been, at the edge of another forest to head through, I was instead completely parallel with and around a quarter of a mile off track. I climbed over a wall and headed towards the path by slipping and sliding through grasses and heather and weeds, and roots, and found the woods I needed to be in, and this time easier to walk through than Wark Forest before. Still the flies were there, hundreds of them. Were they going to be with me the whole way to Bellingham? What an arrival that would be, into the village, just me and a legion of annoying admirers.
I tried to think logically. I didn’t have any insect repellent, but I did have sun lotion spray. Out that came and an equal amount went on me, with the rest sprayed in the flies direction. This seemed to do the trick, disappearing as they did and hopefully chocking on my factor thirty, and happily my walk through the second forest was much calmer, and without both the flies and the panic I had previously experienced. I emerged onto a minor road to find the couple from earlier who I’d spoken to when they were enjoying a break. How the hell had they got there before me? I had completely left them out of sight earlier. They told me they’d got themselves lost but somehow found a shorter way to this spot that didn’t involve the second forest. They’d had flies alright but seemingly not as many as I did, and maybe following the exertions on Hadrians Wall I should have had an extended break to dry off like they had done when when I was sweaty but fly free. Nevertheless, they did mention a falconry centre just minutes from where we were talking that sold food and drink, and so I made my way there and welcomed by a friendly lady with an owl on her shoulder. “Would I like a demonstration?” Funnily enough, I didn't, but I happily took a load of water and a mars bar. I also washed myself down in the gents, and reflected on one of the more stranger occurrences in my life. Talking afterwards, I learnt that there is a big fly problem among the forests and I’m not the only one to experience what I did, and certainly from talking to fellow walkers during the next few days, most people who had come that way said the same thing.
Whilst the rest of the day wasn’t easy, it was a bloody stroll in the park to what had gone before and due to my pace in trying to escape from those pesky flies earlier, I’d done well over half the days mileage in next to no time. This pace more or less continued due to the second half of the day being in my eyes less than enjoyable, with bad terrain, little to no outstanding views to enjoy and just the absolute desire to reach Bellingham and take advantage of all the amenities available there. From the falconry centre it was a lope for a while down a tarmacked lane and then through fields and farms that eventually led to a cumbersome walk that took an equally steep descent and ascent either side of Warks Burn. This led to Horneystead Farm where I again ran into my friends from earlier, taking advantage of a tuck shop and some garden seating that the kindly farmer had provided to passing walkers. I gave it a miss though, my sole ambition was simply to reach Bellingham, and after some field walking that led to the gorgeous little cottage at Low Stead, it was then on to a long stretch of lane walking that was painful again on the joints, but helped to tick the miles off.
Naturally, and typically when you’re not enjoying yourself, one or two more challenges presented themselves. Firstly a gradual ascent up to Shitlington Crag and if the path is in doubt, aim for the tall pylon on the horizon, and once there what should have been a gentle lope across to the road into Bellingham instead became a wide diversion though more thistles and nettles to avoid the you-know-whats who had predictably dumped themselves slap bang in the middle of the Pennine Way. They must have expected me. And after all of that, the final stretch is along the absolute death trap that is the B6320 that for the vast majority of it doesn’t have a footpath and so to avoid being crushed by the traffic that is hurtling along at a hundred miles an hour, the walker has to clamber into the thickets along the side of the road. An additional problem that you can’t see properly whether it is safe to come out, without gingerly poking your head out on to the road. It’s an accident waiting to happen and why on earth the trail can’t be re-directed or have the footpath extended is beyond me. The bridge that signals the arrival into Bellingham is crossed and providing you haven’t been turned to road kill, you should be in a good position to head off the road for a short spell of river walking, before finding your way into the town via the back lanes. I arrived in to sunny Bellingham and headed to Demesne Farm just next to the to the town centre where for a few quid you can pitch your tent and enjoy a hot shower, too. No wild camping tonight; Bellingham has pubs, a bakery and a butchers that needed to be explored both post-walk and pre-walk in the morning. I pitched up, and then enjoyed a meal in the bar in the Cheviot Hotel. The couple from earlier were there too. We didn’t recognise each other in our civvies.