…in which I squelch in circles around swamps, ingest circular sausages and fail to circulate with cyclists.
Black Hill to Alston, 14 miles.
This day was carefully scheduled as an excuse for lunch at The Kirkstyle Inn which is just 450 of my paces from where The Way meets the A689 at Burnstones Viaduct, Knarsdale. The pub is bang on the join of the NTG maps on pages 146 and 147 and is signposted down the side road east from the A689. Check their website for closing times which vary seasonally. This is a truly great little pub and a must-visit.
At Slaggyford there’s tap water at Yew Tree Chapel and possibly hot drinks from the house opposite (signed ‘tea, coffee, 50p’ in October 2016). The Way then takes us into Alston where resources are numerous. From the hostel the most useful is the large Spar supermarket at the adjacent petrol station, open until 10 pm (October 2016) with a wide range of convenience food to warm in the self-catering kitchen and drink to wash it down. Watch out for trip hazards along the dark path. I recommend the very friendly Alston hostel. Given their proximity to a supermarket and pubs it makes no sense for them to offer evening meals, so they don’t, but their breakfast is excellent.
Oh my, this day involves Blenkinsopp and Hartleyburn commons where I always get lost. OK, maps out, pay attention. These directions are southbound, in case you’ve arrived here randomly.
Head south along the fence, don’t go off to the left. Cut the corner and cross the wall by means of a ladderstile (below).
Find the marker post at the fence (above). OS Locate puts it at 645 619, which is a gnat’s south of where the NTG map (p. 149) unhelpfully suggests cutting the corner. On the ground, The Way hugs the fence then turns more or less a right angle away from it at this marker. If you cut the corner you’ll plough through a morass of gigantic tussocks threaded with deep puddles.
Aim for this ladder stile (below). OS Locate tells me it’s at 652 616, a smidge west of the location shown on the NTG map (p. 149). The house below it is Greenriggs. If you can see down in front of you a farmhouse with a large Ash tree, that’s Ash Cleugh and you’ve gone too far west, in which case you’ll need to pick your way back through appalling bogs to this ladder stile. Next time I’ll probably try to walk a bearing from the marker post at 645 619 towards Highside. On approaching Highside the ladder stile should be visible just down the slope to the right. Famous last words.
Looking eastish from the ladder stile (below), you can see how the buildings of Highside are not far away on the skyline.
Over this ladder stile and down the slope it’s just a matter of paddling through the small but challenging swamp onto another ladderstile into what is effectively the back garden of Greenriggs. Navigation along the Maiden Way to Knarsdale is then straightforward.
At Knarsdale The Way heads up to Merry Knowe, though it’s tempting to walk along the A689 from the pub and even more so from the campsite at Stone Hall Farm. To be honest the Merry Knowe loop is just a country walk through farmland, apart from the pretty crossing of the Knar Burn which might be worth the effort in summer.
You need to head all the way up to and then actually through the buildings at Merry Knowe. Go over a low and awkward stile in somebody’s garden wall (above), right down their drive, left around to and then through the middle of some farm buildings and then find fingerposts on the far side. Round the far end of the farm buildings works too. Then just follow your nose directly down the slope, ignoring paths signed off to elsewhere.
At the bottom of the slope The Way passes under the old railway, rather than along its course as might seem more intuitive.
At Slaggyford rejoin the A689, then tediously walk along it to a turn-off down a tarred track to the left (below). This is the Pennine Way although not signed as such.
From Lintley either the low or high path will get you back to the A689 at Castle Nook. Here excitable signs entice you over the road to Whitley Castle. I mistakenly followed a track upwards much too high here and cost myself a lot of unnecessary climbing. The Way skirts barely to the west of the fort at quite low elevation, there’s hardly any climbing to be done. Why I did so much remains a mystery. Things like this happen on The Way. Isaac’s Tea Trail is undetectable by my Earth senses, but after Gildersdale Burn then another field simply head down to the road keeping just to the left of the tumbledown wall and then of the barn. Don’t then miss the dark tree-lined track off the road again towards the river, unless you really, really like the A689 by this point. It’s still quite a trudge to Alston.
I felt pleased when I found the marker post on Hartleyburn Common, a landmark that had eluded me in June. To celebrate I then got lost, straying too far west and ending up heading down to Ash Cleugh. Don’t do this, the bogs on the way back to the correct route suck. Their drainage hilariously converges into a mini-delta that squats swampishly right next to the back wall of Greenriggs, the stile over which we must wetly attain and drippingly ascend. At this point one swears to only ever walk the Pennine Way in wellies in future. In fact sometimes on this trail I think carrying wellies might be the way forward.
It was a joy to reach the Kirkstyle Inn just as it opened, what planning, eh? I like their Northumberland sausages, a simple meal but effective. They offer more sophisticated dishes too, all nicely and freshly cooked, and are particularly helpful to gluten-free folk. By October rather than keep a range of ales in poor fettle they whittle down their pumps to just one, from which a bracingly hoppy and spankingly fresh pint of Yates was rapidly dispensed and which perfectly and profoundly refreshed a Wayfarer a little jaded, shall we say, from four nights’ wild camping.
The stove was warm, the locals were chatty and it was only when I sleepily realised the landlord had dusted the same glasses several times over that I looked at my watch and discovered it was half an hour past their closing time. Oops. Nobody had said a thing, which was nice.
I forced myself over the uninspiring Merry Knowe loop, having taken the road in June, then under amazing stone viaducts over silver-railed pixy bridges.
At Lintley I had an interesting chat with a building contractor working on the railway restoration which, it’s hoped, will eventually resurrect the entire line all the way to Haltwhistle. He said restoring the Victorian stonework to safe condition will be a heck of a job and expensive to boot. I wondered if there was any mitigation for the wildlife that’s adopted the derelict line as its home, he didn’t know. Living myself next to a heritage railway that routinely sets fire to a SSSI I know too well that people will throw endless money at chuffing steam engines while burbling Curlews burn, unfunded and unmourned.
It was Friday night so Alston hostel was full of jolly, boozy cyclists lubricating their parts for a weekend spin. Like most single-activity groups they were an animated but insular lot, you’d think Weekenders might offer bona fide Wayfarers a slug of their copious wine, but no. This lovely hostel needs to be busy as it’s now independent from the YHA and hence run more flexibly and innovatively by nice people who deserve support. Not only did they give me plasters for the wounds eaten into my hands by my trekking pole straps and even find me safety pins for my baggy tent inner, thoughtfully they had put me and the only other Wayfarer in our own room, as far away from the cycle circus as practically possible.
My roomie was a rangy, laconic outdoor instructor from Washington State, ambling up The Way in about ten days; in as far as his schedule seemed at all planned. I admired his Hyperlite Cuben pack, observing that it had clearly been round a few corners and must be an old friend. ‘Nope’, he said, ‘bought in March. Course, it’s been out in the Cascades a while. Oh, and two months rough camp in Alaska, I guess.’ ‘Oh’, I said.