… in which I boil porridge in a slippery-decked shed, am guided through clouds by a random goat and feebly battle bullet-proof salamis.
Lamb Hill to Padon Hill, 15 miles.
There was a portaloo at Byrness church and there’s a permanent toilet and picnic tables at Blakehopeburnhaugh but the tap there, although handy for washing hands and footy for washing feet, is not drinky for drinking. Erm, that’s about it.
I’d hoped for coffee at the hotel but it was looking distinctly closed, its sign removed and the builders busy (October 2016).
After the Lamb Hill fiasco I was a bit concerned that my wild camping idea would prove a dead loss. I was pleased to find that Padon Hill is an excellent campsite although a little off The Way. There’s a sloping but even and peg-friendly grass pitch twenty yards or so south of the monument, perfectly sheltered from northerlies although exposed to the south and east. I had a great night’s sleep here, thank you kind landowner (tips hat). If you prefer to stick on The Way and feel able to push on a mile or so further there’s also a grassy pitch thirty yards east of the summit of Whitley Pike. However this is a very active grouse moor, it’s damper and although ideal in a westerly it’s very exposed to south, east and north. It also has less of a view, which is the whole point of summit camping. If there’s nothing to see you may as well camp somewhere sensible.
The Way pretty much sticks to the fence, wandering a little but keeping it in sight (on a decent day) until leaving it to head down Dere Street to Chew Green. You can just carry on along the fence if you’re not bothered about Roman forts, although Chew Green would make an excellent campsite if you can get that far and you’re not conscientious about sticking pegs in heritage. Leaving Chew Green, The Way temporarily abandons the fence again to rise a little above the barely detectable headwaters of the River Coquet before turning south and crossing it at the junction of the fences at the foot of Ravens Knowe (see Pennine Way 1 for photo). Here the actual border fence heads off west but fear not, there’s another nice friendly fence to guide you orthogonally southwards.
If in doubt at Byrness Hill, again head rightish towards the fence. From the map you’ll see how The Way kinks sharply southwest from the cairn (an intriguing hotchpotch of builders’ rubble). If you head directly down the shoulder of the hill instead, the deceptive path that may have lured you will quickly peter out into exhausting, trackless tussockation. You’ll end up having to make a tiring detour back northwest through bracken along the top of the slippery slope in order to relocate the cosmic portal (aka tumbledown gate) that leads down to Byrness. The Way is a quite distinct path at that point. If you’re not on a quite distinct path, you’ve probably gone wrong.
Don’t go right round the bend (!) when you see a dog poo bin at the entrance to the caravan site. Carry on past the bin and cross the river to find the little gate on your right that leads away from the caravan site onto the riverbank path.
The hike along the forest road is straightforward apart from the ever-present risk of death under the wheels of a thundering truck. You’ll see a diversion through the trees advertised off to the right. I took this and found it worthwhile. Although the road is comforting, the detour was actually a slight short cut rather than a cruel trick of the forest pixies and I was rewarded by a few late blackberries which, given the lack of supplies at Byrness, were a useful dietary supplement.
I woke at a crazy angle on my bed of unfeasibly springy heather in my soggy, saggy (but thankfully ungoaty) tent. After my first hilltop night in a new and incompetently pitched shelter, everything was too strange and too wet to breakfast sensibly. I stumbled down to the hut, which, to my annoyance, turned out to be literally ten minutes away and to be surrounded by tent-friendly grass. I cooked up Pennine Porridge in dry, unspringy comfort and was loath to leave, which wasn’t a good sign on just the second day.
Fog drifted over the massif but the path (and the fence) were easy to follow albeit very wet underfoot. Every so often an acrid stink of goat would waft out of the mist; I knew they were about but couldn’t see them. Not at least until the ford southwest of Wedder Hill when quite suddenly a billy materialised from the swirling cloud onto the path in front of me. He was slighter than last night’s monster but no less impressively horned and for a while he stood there regarding me. Then, with a ruffle of his mane as if to say ‘well, come on then’ he trotted off along The Way ahead of me like the mascot of a very small Ruritanian regiment, looking back every so often to make sure I was following.
For almost a mile, virtually onto Dere Street, I was led along the Pennine Way by a goat, barely twenty yards in front of me and seeming to believe I needed guiding out of his territory. He only left me when a small herd of fifteen or so nannies and kids appeared out of the fog. Clearly they were his family as he picked his way elegantly off through the heather to check them over. Their sour collective stink on the wind made me gag.
Byrness wore a post-apocalyptic air, the steep track down was astonishingly muddy, far worse than in June, and the famous and much-photographed portable telly that’s been sitting by the path for years had virtually disintegrated. Considering it was nothing but an annoying piece of litter, this struck me as strangely sad. One feels emotionally vulnerable setting out alone on The Way. The hotel was very much closed, but hopefully for refurbishment as there were signs of life. The long-defunct petrol station, still with its tragically alluring ‘tea and cake’ sign, had sunk further into dereliction. The caravan site looked cheeringly busy though, mostly with oldies enjoying out of season rates. ‘Hurrah for oldies’ I muttered, emotionally.
At Blakehopeburnhaugh the sun came out. I spread my gear and soaking socks on the picnic tables to air while I failed to gain entry to a pack of Morrisons’ cheap Hungarian mini-salamis. A northbounder appeared from the forest; you can tell Wayfarers instantly, even when they have suspiciously neat beards. He offered to help open my salamis, bless him, but I’d just managed to extract one reeking pseudosausage through a small rent in their all-terrain membrane I’d hacked with my Swiss army knife. I ultimately donated my second bullet-proof pack of these breath-fouling greasy excrescences to the emergency stash in Greg’s Hut.
Keeping a wary distance from my socks and my salamis, he fell to folding and sorting an extensive and, to my eyes, cumbersome and unnecessary collection of OS maps. ‘What’s with all the maps? I enquired, showing him my NTG, which is all the maps you need in handy book form. ‘Oh’, he said, ‘Oh well, anyway, I like maps’. He was staying in BnBs, which explained the grooming, and had found one in Byrness, Colin and Joyce being on holiday. I wished him well, perhaps a little emotionally, feeling he would probably be the last through hiker I would meet. In fact I would encounter half a dozen more that very afternoon, one more on Hadrian’s Wall and a final straggler on Fountains Fell. Then I would have the Pennine Way entirely to myself.
The forest between Rookengate and Brownrigg Head is one of the most absurdly boggy stretches of the entire Way, laugh out loud boggy. Padon Hill by contrast is a calm and soothing place, not spooky nor bleak. The monument feels friendly somehow and is on a human scale; neither dour nor oppressive unlike, say, Stoodley Pike. After Lamb Hill I’d been downcast about the whole wild camping plan; a night here was reassuring and comfortable.