…in which abandoned at the Emperor’s wall I quest alone through the trolls’ forest towards a giant’s Chinese takeaway.
Once Brewed to Bellingham, 15 miles.
Zero until Bellingham, recognising which the generous owners of the farm at Horneystead, themselves long distance walkers, have established a ‘Pennine Way Pit Stop’ in one of their sheds. Rather than following the Way around their farmhouse rapidly in case the advertised bull appears, bravely enter the gate instead. You’ll find an Aladdin’s cave in the yard round to the left. The barking dogs are friendly and so is this place with water, hot drinks and a kettle, biccies, a fridge full of cold drinks (observe the donation pot), a place to sit either in or out of the weather and a walkers’ swapshop with first aid stuff and all kinds of other bits and bobs free for the taking or leaving. There’s even a tumble dryer, which they don’t mind you using to air your sleeping bag. Remember to set it to synthetic (!) and to drop a few bob in the pot for electrickery.
Bellingham is a proper town, multi-pubbed, multi-shopped and with cafes and a Co-Op that opens quite late. There’s also, wonder of wonders, a competent and generous Chinese takeaway that opens until 10.30 every day except Tuesdays when it doesn’t open at all. So unless it’s a Tuesday you don’t have to worry about dragging your lame carcass into town well after dark, there will be hot food. I ate mine not with chopsticks but with proper cutlery and cold beers bought from the Co-Op, in the large, beautifully-equipped and WiFi-enabled kitchen of the bunkhouse at Demesne Farm. Here, even in June, I had a dorm room all to myself. You can also camp here, the owners are nice and it’s directly on The Way although there’s no way of knowing that on the ground – see Day 17’s navigation.
Assuming you spot Rapishaw Gap with its obvious fingerpost, navigation through Wark Forest is then surprisingly straightforward as long as you stay alert. Watch out for fingerposts and habitually take bearings from the map so you know more or less the correct heading in case of confusion, especially at unexpected path diversions. For some reason I came unstuck in here walking north-south and had to resort to OS Locate, but south-north I’ve twice had no problems.
Don’t turn left down to the road after Horneystead, cross the field to The Ash. The Way has been considerately engineered round the back of somebody’s garden at Lowstead, then there are waymarkers round Linacres, follow the signed track, don’t go down into the dip. Keep following the tarred track all the way to the road at about 824 785, don’t try to cut the corner by venturing into the appalling swamp north of it. Ha ha, who would do that?
The route into Bellingham is also simple but interminable. It seems to take for ever to get down from the Shitlington mast into a town that looked so close from up there.
After the lovely riverside walk watch out for the unsigned left turn opposite the garage that takes you past the blue-plaqued St Cuthbert’s Well and uphill alongside the church into town. This is The Way, although it doesn’t really matter if you go straight on instead. Why the NTG refers to ‘Cuddy’s Well’ (p. 162) I’ve no idea.
At Rapishaw Gap Wheatears sang and displayed, setting up house for their second broods. A young Romanian outdoor leisure leader living in Leeds shepherded her own noisy flock of British pensioners along the ancient border barrier and shared with me her worries about Brexit. Kid, you’re up north now. Comparing the Wall country to North Northumbria is like the Broads compared to the Breckland; both are of the same county yet very different. Wark Forest is a wetter, hillier version of the latter, a sparsely-populated lost world, its terrain largely obscured by a patchily-harvested tree farm. Just into this forest, one of my lightweight trekking poles broke suddenly and irrepairably, leaving me facing The Cheviot with just one pole and just one good knee.
The unharvested trees are impenetrably dark, the haunt, surely, of trolls. Passing Wayfarers glance briefly into the hugger-mugger pines, shudder, and move on. In fact Northumberland from here northwards has something of the troll kingdom about it with its dark dells, extravagant mosses, ancient stones and strange watery light.
One of the strangest places on The Way is the mysterious sheepfold at about 794 733. On seeing it again I remembered it vividly from 1999 and, as had happened on Cross Fell, I conceived an urgent desire to camp there – see Pennine Way Blog 2.
Horneystead brought back more memories. I’d staggered up to the farm on a freezing April evening having, unless I’ve erased an entire day from my memory, pushed up all the way from Alston in a single ambitious slog – I was young and silly. It was getting dark but luckily the lady of the house was outside feeding chickens. Very kindly, she’d let me sleep in a derelict caravan in their barn and, with touching apologies for the limited menu, sold me bread buns and eggs. The latter I’d boiled on my trusty (but heavy) Trangia while playfully guessing which of the numerous chickens surrounding me had laid them. The caravan was furnished with a pile of extraordinarily aromatic horse blankets. It was one of the coldest and indeed horsiest nights I’ve ever spent but always thereafter remembered and appreciated. This time her pit stop swap shop nearly received a donation of an ugly Rohan hat but some mysterious force stayed my hand.
There was a #firstworldproblem technological crisis in the bunk barn as a fellow-Wayfarer had pinched the WiFi code and gone out forgetting to put it back. Myself and the two other occupants, amazingly all three of us from Norfolk, had cheekily to ransack his room for it. The Happy Valley Special mixed meats chow mein was one of the best value takeaways I’ve ever bought, honestly, I had trouble finishing it. I should have supported one of the pubs too, but I was a bit past my booze-by date. There’s always next time.