…in which I embrace artisanal porridge, pay homage to a river hag, fulminate at rural economics and am bothered by the King Of The Hoolies.
Alston to Cross Fell, 11 miles. Jump to Journal.
Please, only camp on Cross Fell if you’ve some experience of summit camping, bombproof gear and a Plan B (e.g. a bivvy bag). If unsure of your ability to withstand wind much stronger than forecast please sleep well below the summit or in Greg’s Hut, thank you.
A short day distancewise so I indulged in the Alston hostel breakfast, which was excellent with good cafetiere coffee. If they don’t contact you about booking breakfast, I’d contact them. You may see a Red Squirrel while enjoying it. I’d bought camp supplies the night before from the supermarket at the garage, which was open until 10 pm (October 2016).
The resource situation at Garrigill was looking a bit tragic. In October 2016:
i. the pub was closed (in September 2018 the lovely old pub was OPEN AGAIN!)
ii. the Post Office was threatening to close but did sell me a lukewarm coffee (it was still open in September 2018).
iii. St Johns still had a BnB sign (no longer visible in September 2018)
iv. you could still camp at the Village Hall and the rumoured bunks in the attic may still have been available (September 2018 – yes, there is a website), and
v. you could buy an attractive selection of hardy perennials from a small nursery (still going strong in September 2018 😉 ).
Unlike in June, Greg’s Hut was clean and tidy; bless the Friends of Greg’s Hut and their lovely volunteers. I would need fuel for the stove to spend a comfortable night in here in October and had the weather forecast looked at all dodgy I’d have foraged a bundle of sticks from the woods leaving Alston. As it was, the forecast was absurdly benign. Almost unbelievably for Cross Fell, there was bright sunshine and no wind at all. Oncoming walkers with whom I broached my summit camping plan all agreed it looked like a once in a lifetime opportunity. In any doubt I’d have stayed in the hut as camping on Cross Fell can be life threatening. Most strong walkers starting out earlier would press on to stay in comfort and safety at Dufton, but this was the Perverse Pennine Way.
Straightforward. The only slight question mark is where exactly the PW turns ninety degrees southeast-ish off the C2C, up to the summit plateau. In fact there is a basic wind shelter marking the turnoff. The sharp-eyed will also spot a small marker stone indicating either Kirkland (past the cairn arrowed below) or the Pennine Way to the summit (upwards to the left).
The diverse, steepish and boggy ascent passes two large cairns then brings you to a distinctive triangular-topped third cairn on the edge of the summit plateau. From this first cairn I’d walk 100 paces on about 176 magnetic (October 2016) to the next cairn, then 115 paces on about 185 magnetic (October 2016) to the summit shelter. This worked for me but please double-check with your own compass and map. The yellow line on the NTG map does not seem to me a reliable reflection of what actually happens on the ground on Cross Fell, but please prioritise professionally-produced information over mine. These directions are for north to south Wayfarers, in case you’ve landed on this page randomly. For south to north see Pennine Way Blog 1.
With only a short distance scheduled I enjoyed a really decent breakfast among the cyclists, some of whom I suspected might soon be sweating mostly ethanol through their lycra. I’d cheekily expressed misgivings about hostel porridge to the cheery proprietress and she’d reassured me that hers was not at all the traditional grey slime but an artisanal oat-confection of the highest quality. So it proved, it was delicious, as was the coffee and everything else. I can hardly praise Alston hostel too highly. It’s dearer than the most basic YHA hostels, I know, but still – twenty-one quid expensive for a warm dry bed, with use of a kitchen and a drying room? You’re having a laugh – stay there, it’s great.
Again and again I checked the forecast for Cross Fell from every online provider, I could hardly believe it – sunny, no wind, what? Had I accidentally cached forecasts from August? I hobbled off along the beautiful South Tyne valley, blithely abandoning my plan to forage a bundle of firewood for the stove in Greg’s Hut.
The South Tyne was beautiful although by now in October sufficiently swollen that in some places any children inadvisedly paddling would have been consumed by its equivalent of the Tees’s Peg Powler. Recalling my own childhood river adventures in a collapsible rubber dinghy, I mused that a riverine hag must have been a useful excuse for poor supervision of siblings. ‘Where’s your little brother?’ ‘Ey Mam, Peg Powler took ‘im!’ ‘Oh well, can’t be helped, your father and I will have to make another one’. ‘Can I ‘ave ‘is pease puddin’?’
The Way here is an uplifting country walk, even the rustic shambles at the south end appears quaint and uplifting to my country mouse eyes. I approve of low-tech living and the goats here must be cared for, as they’re friendly and don’t smell. Back on The Cheviot I’d learned what uncared-for goats smell like.
Garrigill was less uplifting despite its tidiness and absence of feral livestock. I was sad to see that the pub in which I’d spent such a lovely evening just four months previously was closed. Even worse was a long chat with the gentleman in the Post Office, among his empty shelves. He assured me he would soon be closing for good; whether he’s since implemented this threat I can’t tell you, but he seemed serious. UPDATE: in September 2018 both the pub and the Post Office were OPEN).
In the high days of The Way, he told me, there would be forty Wayfarers at a time drinking his pop and eating his ice creams on the pretty green. Now there was just me buying his lukewarm coffee. ‘It is October’, I pointed out, but it seems the decline has been universal and year-round. Apparently, throughout the summer in the Good Old Days there’d always be a large, jolly encampment of Wayfarers by the river at Garrigill, which the PO would provision. Everybody in the village, he told me, now gets their groceries from supermarket delivery services. Looking at his stock I couldn’t help feeling this might be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I asked him about the pub and he told me a depressing tale I can’t repeat but which was all too familiar to me as a former owner of a rural enterprise myself. I wondered aloud whether the loud indie rock soundtrack had helped the pub’s cause with locals, at which he admitted he’d never actually been in there himself. I did a double take – the pub was two doors away. The words ‘not even to network?’ died on my lips as I realised ‘network’ was probably a soft southern concept in these parts. I asked whether the bunk barn was still in use and how it might be accessed. He had no idea. It was lucky his shelves were empty, as my triple take would otherwise have displaced his merchandise.
I live in the countryside and for a while I took on a derelict and bankrupt rural retail business myself. I restored it to a going concern not by ingenious reinvention or unusual skill but by just applying basic modern business practices that anyone with half a brain can read about and copy. I’m sorry to say that a big part of the problem with these rural businesses in my personal experience is that they are often owned by people with no imagination, negligible networking skills and no inkling of twenty-first century service promotion and delivery. A retail entrepreneur who had not even networked with service and accommodation providers within a fifty yard radius of his doorway, let alone in the virtual space. Let alone with potential customers. Unbelievable.
I stomped irritably up the Corpse Road, the modern equivalent of which must be the Internet connection to the Insolvency Service at Newcastle. My humour was not improved by the active shooting. Vintage army trucks trundled along, driven by cheerful estate staff in ties-and-tweeds fancy dress as gamekeepers (real keepers wear Realtree). From the back, expensively-attired punters waved their guns and shouted at me in some Latin tongue (Italian, I’m guessing) and in what didn’t sound a respectful or companionable way. Sinister black four-by-fours clustered on the skyline, their unrural polish catching the sunlight. I played the old game of wondering what their collective noun might be – a Pose of Rovers? I half expected to encounter an Exploitation of Deliveroos. Legally set traps were not interfered with, certainly not by me, I needed the tips of my trekking poles to hold my tent up.
At the old mine I fossicked a pocketful of fluorspar, having conceived the mad idea of placing a tiny mauve mini-cairn on top of the summit shelter.
At Greg’s Hut I brewed tea and ate reduced item pies in the warm sunshine, blessedly above the shootline. Several walkers had yomped over from Dufton or even further, none considered the weather forecast to be anything other than preternaturally benign. I headed for the summit, the path up from the Kirkland waystone in places doing an excellent impression of a small river.
The ground at the summit shelter was very stony – who knew? – and I broke two expensive titanium pegs getting the Stealth up. It looked worryingly floppy so I borrowed rocks from the nearby informal cairn to gain extra tension. Never, by the way, borrow rocks from any built structure, be it a wall, a summit shelter or an engineered cairn. Dry stoning is such hard work and the stones are very carefully placed; it’s mean and rude to disrupt such labour even temporarily. But I don’t mind borrowing rocks from informal, loose cairns.
I graciously received visitors who admired the tent, commented on the temperature (which was rapidly plummeting) and scrounged my chocolate biscuits. One chilly-looking chap even accepted my offer of hot coffee – talking of rural enterprises I’m thinking of opening a cafe up there.
It was a silent night, stony night, all was calm, all was alright until about eight o’clock. Then, quite suddenly and in pitch darkness, the King Of The Hoolies paid a courtesy call. The wind screamed around the shelter and for two hours my tent was pressed completely flat on top of me. It was, shall we say, a little intimidating.
Thank goodness for high-tech ultralight high tear-strength fabrics. Well done Trekkertent and their Scottish stitching pixies. Rocks – they rock. This hoolie rose from nothing and was not in any way forecast. By midnight it had given up trying to pick me from the summit like an itchy scab and had left me in peace again, but it’s not always such a part-timer. If you’re considering camping on Cross Fell, think on this – the Hoolieking is in residence up there, and he don’t much care for houseguests.
At moments of stress I find it helpful to concentrate on a poem. Faced with a small but non-zero probability of becoming a corpse myself, I cobbled together in my battered tent a corpse road sonnet:
Kirkland Corpse Road
Winding like a post mortem scar
The corpse road, pale as rot, a thread
Spun lilac with fluorspar.
Nailed boots heavy as the lead
They are worn to win crush and tramp
Crystals. Shoes round necks for church.
What took her off were sleeping in the damp.
Rain knocks unanswered, bearers lurch,
A weight shifts as if still living.
No laughing matter, no fuss,
Grimly borne in hope of God forgiving
Sins and someone doing it for us.
Washings drop through a coffin crack.
A young, lively miner props the back.