The Pennine Way. Keld [Frith Lodge] to Middleton-in-Teesdale
Day 8. 19 miles
Waking up this morning, the one thing I wished not to happen was to look out the window from my warm room and see black clouds and torrential rain on the horizon. I breathed a sigh of relief that though conditions were overcast, it was as dry as a bone and my fears, brought on by what happened when up here in 2017, were unabated. Back then, we had Baldersdale as our end point and it didn’t stop raining for the duration. My waterproofs at the time weren’t particularly resistant to anything more than a light drizzle and it was easily the worst five hours of walking I’ve experienced. The only plus point was that we completed the walk in double quick time, chiefly because there was nowhere to shelter, and no point in stopping. Upon arrival in Baldersdale, soaking wet and with boots like overflowing buckets, I ended up inside an empty barn, stripped stark bollock naked whilst trying to find some half dry clothes to put on. Of course, by that point the skies were completely clear.
Thankfully, todays departure was under far less dramatic skies, though it’s still not easy to leave Frith Lodge. A lovely and copious breakfast is provided, a packed lunch if you need one, and for the third time I left Neil and Karen wondering why I didn’t have a day off and an extra night there.
The three miles or so across the moor to Tan Hill were mostly uneventful. I did somehow manage to immediately lose the path after leaving Frith Lodge and ended up knee high in some long grass, but once back on the trail it was simple enough to reach the highest pub in the country, which is visible long before you reach the main road in front of it. Once there, if it’s raining cats and dogs, it’s more than likely that Sleightholme Moor will be a boggy imitation of hell and like we did two years ago, it is best to head down the road and then enter the moor on a much more appealing lane which eventually re-joins the Pennine Way a couple of miles down. But on a dry day like today, whilst the moor is still squelchy in places, in reality it isn’t too bad to walk through, more so if you don’t seriously lose your way and instead manage to follow the marker posts that have been kindly laid to help with the navigation, and once the green bridge is reached at the track that runs through the moor it's then through a couple of farmers fields. Naturally, the first one had suspicious cattle eyeing me up but they generously allowed me to follow the line of the wall and over a stile into the next field. So long as you’re not taking the Bowes Loop it’s full steam ahead through the moors to Baldersdale, and somewhere in between the moors and the reservoirs of Baldersdale, you can slap yourself on the back for reaching the halfway point of the Pennine Way. This milestone is sadly not at one of the more picturesque locations on the trail, but at an ugly and litter-strewn underpass underneath the A66, and with a message on an arrow post with the immortal word “SUCKERS” carved on top of a more sincere message congratulating walkers on the milestone itself.
As it was, this sucker hot-footed it away from the horrible and noisy duel-carriage way and onto the wilderness of Bowes Moor that eventually leads to Clove Lodge in Baldersdale. I bumped into a cheery Belgian lady en-route who upon carrying her own body weight in her rucksack, having seen me approaching she told me she was hoping to exchange her own oversized bag for something less back-breaking until she saw the size of mine. I’m not sure how long she’d been on the trail for, possibly a while going by her walking pace, which at the point I first saw her ahead was, shall we say, unhurried. Though I was surprised to hear her admit she planned to take the road from Middleton to Alston to avoid the climbing in-between of High Cup and Cross Fell. “You’re missing the best bits!” I told her but this fell on deaf ears, and I left her behind to reach the now re-opened Clove Lodge, which made me happy upon hearing the news and helpfully splits the days up if you don't fancy the extra mileage to Middleton-in-Teesdale. When I arrived at lunchtime there was no one to be seen but a builder, but the bunkhouse had a self serviced kitchen and home made cakes, of which I took a couple of in exchange for a donation into the honesty box. If only that had been open two years ago when we reached this point soaked to the bone and shivering.
Half a mile or so onwards from Clove Lodge lay Upper Birkwith Farm and somewhere I’d been looking forward to reaching more than I ordinarily would have been, for no other reason than seeing the house and meadow that belonged to, and now named after, Hannah Hauxwell. I hadn’t realised her significance when passing this way previously but from watching documentaries I’d discovered not months before, I’d learnt of a remarkable lady whose solitary life as a single farmer living on the poverty line during the harsh winters here in the seventies and eighties had led to her being discovered by TV producers. Hannah became famous in her own right and thanks to donations from generous and sympathetic viewers, was able to install electricity into her farmhouse and purchase more cows to generate a healthier income for herself over the years before her retirement in 1988 when she subsequently found a part-time job of becoming a host on a couple of television travel series. Her story is a humbling one, and the meadows around her old house at Low Birkwith which are now owned by the Wildlife Trust are named in her honour and thanks to her organic farming practices, contain rare flowers and plants whilst also attracting numerous wildlife. It was by now a really beautiful day with sunshine and blue sky, and seeing Hannah’s old house and barns lying next to a calm and glistening reservoir, must have made her existence up here in this landscape that much more bearable.
I still had seven miles to go to reach my end point at Middleton-in-Teesdale and so the rest of the afternoon was spent slowly and happily and enjoying the lovely scenery whilst traipsing across sun kissed fields and hills. A couple more farms were also passed through before reaching the high land with extensive views down to Middleton and beyond. There were options to wild camp up there, but I’d needed to stock up for the next couple of days as there are no shops until Alston is reached, and only the pub and cafe in Dufton are options where a meal can be enjoyed. Therefore I eventually found my way into town on what was a particularly quiet late afternoon, too late for the butchers where I’d planned to fill my boots on pastries, but definitely in time for a fish and chips dinner. I still hadn’t a clue where I was going to spend the night but I found that I really didn’t mind, and that somewhere would eventually present itself. I finished a lovely dinner, paid a visit to the Coop and then knowing I’d need to return in the morning and not wanting too long a trek to reach there, I found a field above where the Pennine Way leaves Middleton, just beyond the auction house and though where I pitched up was in close proximity to a road and with a chance of discovery if a farmer appeared on his or her quad bike, it seemed as an ideal a spot as I could muster – low and flat ground yet beneath a small mound that hid me from anyone passing on the path, sheltered from the wind and on an evening like tonight’s, nice and warm as well. It was only 7:30 when I decided to pitch up, a bit risky with a few hours of daylight left, but I was so tired that I just wanted to get my head down and to heck with the consequences, thankfully of which there were none. The road behind the field did have a fair bit of passing traffic which gave me a few jolts, but I enjoyed a hot chocolate and a snack before bed and then I ended up dozing off with the tent doors open when I’d planned to stay up for the sunset.