…in which I deter Picts with my sleeping bag, observe a rare raptor and converse with a small amphibian.
The Mystery Sheepfold to Black Hill, 16 miles.
Hadrian’s Wall is resource-rich with loos at Cawfield and Walltown car parks and at Greenhead the lovely tearoom where the soup and toastie deal is not to be missed and their takeaway cakes are ideal camping grub. Allbran fruit loaf is exactly as my Mum made fifty years ago and you’ll rarely get more calories (or flavour) per gram of cake than from the legendary apricot and custard slice.
Black Hill is a morass and at first site dismayingly unsuitable for camping. Luckily the trig point is on a low spine of dry, rocky ground. Watch the bogs on the way and take care not to fall down any of the concertina’d mini-cliffs (only chest high but capable of breaking bones) on the northwest side. You can pitch a tiny tent to any orientation in damp but grassy patches among the rushes around and about the trig point but there’s no shelter from any direction.
The adjacent wall could provide shelter in a dry summer perhaps but in October the ground by it was unfeasibly marshy. Other than by this wall the whole of Black Hill would be completely exposed on a windy night, so check the forecast. There is a view but it’s not life-changing, you’re barely gaining an hour compared to bunking at Greenhead and it’s not so very far to Alston next day.
The southern section of Wark Forest is straightforward and well signed although often appallingly boggy among the trees.
Hadrian’s Wall is straightforward too of course but from the top of the quarry face at Walltown the best route southbound isn’t obvious. I went all the way to the bottom and turned right through the woods. This turned out to be a longer route well to the south meeting a small lane at about 670 669. Stone steps led back up into the wood and a path led back to The Way as it enters the main car park but it was a pointless diversion and in June you’d miss the orchids too. Two thirds down the slope at about 672 661 The Way actually goes off down to the right in a hairpin back on itself (this is what fooled me) before heading west again along the north side of the water.
From the Greenhead tearoom get up onto the railway bridge and turn right. Carry straight on up the old abandoned A69. At the top just push on through vegetation between the hedge and the stock pens to re-join The Way at the top of its wooden steps down onto the present A69. Cross with care. A few yards uphill on the south side of the road is a fingerpost leading you thankfully away from the nasty traffic. Then it’s the Gap Shields dogleg – don’t miss the left turn at about 641 643, in October 2016 the fingerpost here was missing but a short stone causeway through the swamp was useful as a waymarker, albeit useless as a causeway as it was surrounded by water. Damian Hall claims there are two old buildings in this field but I can only see one. Don’t panic, it’s the correct field, just squelch upwards.
If you reach the ladder stile on Black Hill in fog (in which case, well done navigationwise as the path is basically a featureless mire) and you want to camp but can’t see the trig point, just follow the wall to the right and the trig point is roughly 200 paces from the stile on about 225 degrees magnetic (October 2016). Mind the mini-cliffs. Unfortunately there’s a deep swamp immediately in your way which I could find no way across without diverting thirty yards or so. Take care not to become disoriented while picking your way through all this boggeration.
My long-anticipated night in the ha ha not at all spooky sheepfold was windier than anticipated and not just due to the cauliflower. The trees had rustled and muttered all night; at least I think it was the trees.
The path to and from it was astonishingly boggy (it had been bone dry in June) and became worse on re-entering the trees. Emerging from Wark Forest onto a dry gravel track with Hadrian’s Wall distantly ahead is one of the Pennine Way’s small moments of sublime joy. We need to take care and time to savour these. Preferably to celebrate them with some kind of pie, or failing that a Snickers bar. I was running on Lidl equivalents; I like my celebrations cost-effective.
Above Cragend the sun came out so I made a feeble attempt to dry my tent while munching the last of the ham and pease pudding sandwiches from Fountain Cottage. Then I braced myself for the The Wall and its inevitable cargo of pensioners’ tour groups, DofE kids, language school outings and multinational history buffs. In June it had been something of a zoo up here. At 8.30 am in October I had the place to myself.
I met one Wayfarer, a nice forty-something Geordie who’d done his homework on gear and pack weight as he seemed in surprisingly good nick and still hadn’t lost the power of speech. Forty-something is a good age to do The Way. Two elderly American gentlemen with their typical blend of directness and courtesy, a gaggle of chatty ladies, a young couple on a late holiday; that was about it. Stopping for a brew, I tied my sleeping bag to the ancient stones to dry in the breeze, figuring a bright red quilted banner might repel a few Picts. At the most picturesque section of The Wall my phone battery expired.
Purists walk round the golf course outside Greenhead but I’ve done three Pennine Ways and never once bothered with it, so I’ll keep quiet if you will, OK? I can walk round a golf course any day at home. Full of soup, cheese and ham toastie and cake I ambled up the old road, chatting with a blackberry picker and marvelling at the embedded carbon in the massive tonnage of abandoned asphalt. Why can’t it all be recycled? As for all the grids and kerbstones, how much would each of those cost in B&Q? It must still be adopted highway because at the top I came upon contractors cutting trees back, from an abandoned road that goes literally nowhere. The profligacy of the motorcar economy is staggering.
Talking of trees I find the stunted avenue south of Greenhead moving. I’d wondered if these snaggly, misshapen mini-Ents were Hornbeams but the leaves were insufficiently toothed. I’m sure they’re Beech, which explains their struggle so far north. Most of them are now full of honey fungus, invisible in June but apparent from the fruiting bodies in October. Raptors are scarce on The Way so I was pleased to see a Buzzard flap lazily from an isolated tree past the powerlines. Odd, it was flapping rather long-wingedly, rather largely in size. Hang on, it was flapping in a strangely harrier-like way. There was a bright white patch at the base of the tail – a Rough-Legged Buzzard, awesome! A description species in Northumberland hence, I was told via Facebook, a record from an observer without binoculars won’t be accepted, but who cares?
Black Hill was a distressing morass so it was a relief to discover not only that the trig point is on high ground but also it has several small but almost perfectly-formed camping pitches around it. I slung the Stealth up and enjoyed my Greenhead cakes and my last tin of beer from Bellingham Co-Op in warm sunshine. It was wonderfully quiet once the roar of the road died down. My only visitor was a small, friendly frog at dusk. Improbably there was no wind all night; I slept damply but soundly.