…in which after surviving foggy muck and logging trucks I sup unexpectedly in a Forest Fun House of hallucinogenic improbability.
Bellingham to Byrness, 15 miles.
Unless you’re super-fit and speedy, this day is probably too long to hang around for breakfast in Bellingham. I’d stock up from the Co-Op the night before and get cracking early. Carry lunch too as there’s nothing until Byrness and thereafter the only options for the following days will be whatever takeaways might be offered by your accommodation, if any. From the Co-Op at Bellingham I personally carried three breakfasts, two lunches and one dinner, plus snacks. If you’ve made it this far you’ll be fit enough for a bit of pack weight. Co-opted into this menu was the emergency food I’d carried all the way from Edale. You’ve probably gathered I don’t like to be foodless. The only resource en route is a useful toilet at Blakehopeburnhaugh, but the tap here is not drinking water.
In June 2016 the Byrness Hotel was still apparently in business but in October 2016 it was most definitely closed, in fact Byrness generally had a post-apocalyptic air. The petrol station is also long-gone although in October there was a portaloo by the church. What this was in aid of or how long it might stay there I can’t tell you. There is another BnB option at Byrness, so I was told, and it may be possible to camp at the Cottonshopeburnfoot site but I’m only mentioning that for the fun of typing the name because the only serious option at Byrness is the eccentric and totally wonderful Forest View Inn, amiably and engagingly run by the legendary Colin and Joyce. It’s an annoying extra trudge of almsot a mile from The Way but, hey, you need to stay there. In fact it’s compulsory.
As it’s a former youth hostel you can still book either ‘Inn’ rooms or dorm beds via the YHA system, but as there’s no members’ discount off independent hostels you might as well call and book direct. Both the ‘Inn’ and the ‘bunkhouse’ are former forestry terraced houses. There’s hot drinks on arrival (air ambulance donation requested) and the bunkhouse has its own self-catering kitchen for brews and even cook-ups but why bother with the latter when you can book one of Joyce’s famous two or three course supper club dinners? There is a booking curfew and a small set menu to pre-choose from but these meals are memorable and sociable occasions. Not only that, Colin runs a small but perfectly-formed real ale bar in the sitting room! His ales are not only in perfect condition and at pub prices, they are served though proper handpumps and optionally even in vintage dimpled mugs!! Colin and Joyce are heroes of The Way and deserve support.
Probably the hardest bit of the whole day is getting the heck out of Bellingham in the first place. In June I wandered vaguely around the town for ages and only got to the top of the road that rejoins The Way by accident. Only on subsequently walking back into town from the north in October did I realise that the road that runs past Demesne Farm actually is The Pennine Way. From the town centre, turning right at Lloyds’ Bank and crossing over the bridge brings you to Demesne Farm. Coming out of Demesne Farm the next morning turn right, don’t go up Russell Terrace and don’t go back into town. Pass the Heritage Centre on your right (this has a cafe but that’s no use to us at this hour). Go round a left-hand bend with an old postbox in the wall opposite. Pass the new Hareshaw Linn Caravan Park on your left and carry on some way uphill. The Way is fingerposted up a farm track off to the left immediately before the completely mysterious huge mounds.
Things are then pretty straightforward until the B6320 but the next section of moorland up and over Whitley Pike can be very confusing in poor visibility. ‘Head towards the butts’ says Damian Hall, well, he must have had a bad attack of Spine Racers’ multiple buttvision by this point as said butts are entirely undetectable by my Earth senses. Very importantly you need to pay careful attention to the exact direction pointed by the northbound fingerpost at the road (photo below).
The NTG reference to the circular stone sheepfold is unhelpful. If you find yourself at said circular sheepfold you’ve come along an alluringly well-worn path from the road in the wrong direction. Instead, at the gate (above) you need to aim carefully in line with the fingerpost along the less-used track that heads off to the right and then passes just to the left of the mystery hummocks (there’s a lot of them about). You must find the pipe bridge at 843 895. Otherwise even with a compass you’ll be blundering exhaustingly through thigh-deep soaking wet heather on a trajectory vaguely parallel to, but not actually on, The Way, which is in fact well defined up here but bizarrely easy to miss in fog. How do I know? Ahem…
There’s a useful marker post which OS Locate told me was at 841 900, in which case the yellow PW line on the NTG map is possibly a bit off track. The bearing from this post northwards is about 352 degrees magnetic (October 2016), this takes you up to the saddle whence a clear track leads down to another pipe bridge over Black Sike.
There’s another opportunity to get joyfully lost at Whitley Pike. Looking over the stile northwards there’s an alluringly obvious path slightly leftish on about 280 degrees magnetic (October 2016). That is not the Pennine Way! You need to take the less obvious right fork on about 340 degrees magnetic (October 2016). This looks counter-intuitive but in fact it quickly swings round to about 305 degrees magnetic (October 2016), becomes reassuringly flagstoned and takes you merrily down to the cattle grid.
If by some mischance you do take the left fork off Whitley Pike in fog (ahem…) the alluring path will quickly peter out into trackless tussocks, sikes and mires. This baffling patch of boggeration is Kiln Rigg. Realising (hopefully) that you need to head to the right, you’ll end up eventually on a road. Turn right. Which road you’ve turned right on depends on whether you then first come to a cattle grid or a T-junction. If a cattle grid, you’re home and dry. If a T-junction, turn right again and follow that road to the cattle grid. Look at the map, it will make sense.
All this fun takes place (or, forewarned, it hopefully doesn’t) within 1k square 9182, so look at the map beforehand if unsure. OK, look at the map beforehand anyway, it’s on NTG page 167.
You may be thinking, quite reasonably, ‘how come he can give such assured directions if he got so lost?’ Aha, having got absurdly lost up here in thick fog in June I carefully checked it all out on my return north-south on a fine sunny day in October. If you’re tempted to detour up Padon Hill for the view, the alternative return route northwest mentioned in Wainwright no longer exists on the ground as far as I can see.
The rest of the day is pretty straightforward although the stretch between Brownrigg Head and Rookengate is quite extraordinarily boggy even by Pennine Way standards. You might notice off the forest road signs enticing north-south wayfarers onto woodland detours. Fear not, you haven’t missed much by sticking to the track.
At about 7705 019 The Way turns right down the slope towards the church – straight on is a private house (NTG p. 171, L.).
Despite an excellent sleep in the peaceful bunk barn I was thrown into poor humour by my vague dawn wanderings around the residential streets of Bellingham, followed by a dull road then a dull farm track. Subsequently the stretch from Blakelaw to Hareshaw is a scenic walk quite uplifting to the spirits, but everything went a bit pear-shaped, or rather sheepfold-shaped, after the B6320. I took the wrong path from the road, kind of suspecting as much but wanting to see the famous sheepfold for myself. Fog descended like an appalling claggy duvet. I turned north too soon. I found Whitley Pike by luck more than judgement, then went wrong again! Ridiculous. I fumed up the steep climb to Brownrigg Head then fumed even more as my uselessly-leaking boots filled with water and stayed filled. There, is that enough schadenfreude for a Pennine Way journal?
On the long drag down through the forest I was overtaken again by my incorrigibly noisy friend from Cross Fell; he had waylaid two nice lady Wayfarers who were too well brought up to either club him into silence or feign death themselves. I sat by the Wayside as they passed, ‘my dodgy knee’s come on’ I explained, ‘don’t worry, I’ll be OK after a rest’. After he had safely disappeared (but was still extremely audible) I pressed on, narrowly avoiding actual death under the wheels of several enormous forestry trucks. Watch out for these, they take no prisoners. Peacefully, I enjoyed the pretty woodland and riverside walk to Byrness church.
By the river in a cloud of midges I met a woman with top-spec Swarovski binoculars so I naturally assumed there was a good bird about, as we wildlife types say. It turned out she was the proud owner not only of the caravan park but of a number of Belted Galloways (did I mention they’re my favourite cow?) grazing thereby, one of which was about to give birth and hence was under surveillance. We had a nice chat about Belted Galloways, agreeing that everyone should have a favourite cow.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the Forest View Inn. Frankly, I wasn’t expecting a lot as when I’d stayed at the YHA hostel here in 1999 it had been run by a beer-breathing and grumpy troll. He could only very reluctantly be extracted from watching the footie in his den, allegedly in a nearby house but more likely some cave, to let walkers into the place and would then just leave them to their own devices. In April, this had meant I’d had the entire cold and uninspiring building to myself.
Post-privatisation at Byrness things couldn’t be more different. Colin and Joyce are true heroes of The Way. Most hospitality industry professionals and pundits consider long distance walking a dated aberration unless part of some money-spinning highly-organised ‘race’ or ‘event’. Colin and Joyce have taken low-key, informal Wayfaring through an obscure village in the middle of nowhere on board and built a small, unique and quite wonderful business around it.
Above all an evening at Colin & Joyce’s is the social highlight of The Way. Gathered here will be all the various oddbod Wayfarers that for more than two weeks you’ve been overtaking, been overtaken by, been overhearing and artfully avoiding or been noticing and rather hoping to bump into. There’ll also be a couple of spooky types you never even knew were on your trail, oo-er, and a couple of super-athletes claiming improbably to have been in Alston the night before. Colin’s excellent ale will cure even Way-induced catatonia and open floodgates of shared reminiscence, not to mention of shared trepidation at the final hurdle ahead. There is WiFi, so your Facebook friend list will immediately and permanently expand. You can rudely shut noisier Wayfarers in the conservatory.