The Purposeless Pennine Way: Episode Five, in which while trudging in enjoyable company, I duplicitously meditate on the downsides of companionship.
Day Twelve – Greg’s Hut to Alston
A light sleeper and a cold one, I’m unlikely to enjoy my best ever night in an unheated stone hut containing a snorer whose rhoncial reverberations had literally rattled our shared platform. On the upside, former occupants of our unpalatial shelter had kindly left not only porridge oats but, miraculously, golden syrup, so that was breakfast sorted. I was the first to leave, casting a concerned eye at thick clouds swirling over and around a completely invisible Cross Fell and feeling sorry for the Norfolk sibs who, southbounders, would soon be heading for the summit. I’d given them my very best directions, so they’re probably still up there.
I’m running out of expressions for ‘it started to rain really quite heavily, no, really, much heavier than normal in any sensible location’. But that’s what it now did. Hammered down. I slopped and sploshed down the Corpse Road, fossicking fluorspar and then finding to my dismay that presumably for the sake of the shooting the lower track had newly been ‘improved’ into something more like the Corpse Motorway, using incredible quantities of rolled stone.
The mist swirled around me, the rain battered onto and annoyingly through my tired waterproofs. It wasn’t altogether nice, but in happy compensation southbounders had brought wonderful news – the pub at Garrigill had reopened! The thought of a pint and possibly even lunch was enough to reanimate even my cold, clammy corpse. Not only that, still smarting from the YHA’s sabotaging my Dufton Day Off and Dry-Out Decision, I’d exploited the surprisingly good phone signal at Greg’s to book a bed at Alston Hostel instead. This was going to be a nice short day, with a warm, dry end. Nonetheless, after the companionship of the hut I felt suddenly very alone.
When I’m not walking with my partner, a portable and congenial domesticity, my second best option to date has been to walk alone. Although I’ll chat superficially with anyone I’m shy of longer term interaction. Though I often feel painfully lonely on a trail it would be a big and difficult step for me to ask anyone to walk with me. As when any habitual outsider presses his nose to the bright window of others’ enjoyment, I’m intrigued, fascinated but also dismayed by the idea of a trail buddy. I’m afraid of my cognitive dissonance; others are rightly afraid of my Dad jokes and questionable hygiene.
At Greg’s it was entertaining to watch contrasting approaches to companionship, the Norfolk and the Sheffield, both of which, having lived in both places, I’m familiar with. The Norfolk siblings often walked apart; when the sister arrived she hadn’t seen her slower brother for several hours. Although affectionate and caring, they spoke to each other only on practical matters and were content to sit in calm silence, the natural mode of Norfolk natives – I should know, I live with one.
Sheffielders, in contrast, are in general among the most genuinely and generously conversational of the English, telling your their life story before they’ve known you ten minutes and expecting the same back in a way that can feel intrusive to more guarded folk. The Sheffield lads were inseparable, they often walked almost touching and kept up a continuous conversation, goodness knows what about, at a volume occasionally slightly distracting to quieter walkers in their vicinity.
As someone lacking geocultural roots, a social chimera, I like a bit of both. My ideal trail buddy could deliver an hour’s meaningful conversation, then pause to examine wild flowers while I plodded on, contemplating issues raised, or other thoughts entirely. We might enjoy a convivial lunch together, then walk separately for the entire afternoon. When one fancied a shower and a hostel, it would be no problem if the other preferred to wild camp further up the trail. In the old days this kind of loose buddydom would have been problematic, but now mobile phones make it entirely feasible.
Nonetheless from watching more companionable walkers I fear many would find it unsatisfactory, even challenging. I’m famous for abandoning companions I’ve tired of. I once impulsively clambered onto a random train pulling out of a Romanian border station in January, shouting to my bemused travelling buddy on the snowy platform below “I’m going to Vienna for a coffee, catch me up”. That was forty years ago, I haven’t seen him since.
It seemed a miracle to be back in the George and Dragon, so sadly abandoned on my last Pennine Way, especially as my anticipation had been heightened by having to wait forty minutes for it to open, at midday. Somehow the Sheffield lads turned up just as it opened, having also cunningly missed the worst of the rain.
There’s a long but lovely story to tell. In brief, it’s been rescued by a local who’s somehow managed to buy the freehold, thank goodness. He has a lot of work to do but already his ale is excellent and his small menu of freshly-cooked food suits a hungry hiker. He’s also put back into service a few basic but good value BnB rooms.
While comically trying to discourage the fire from filling the room with smoke, he told me his parents had owned the pub when he was eighteen and employed him to run the bar. He’d been heartbroken when they had to sell it, and had told his then girlfriend ‘some day I’ll own this pub’. That was a fair few decades ago and girlfriends have come and gone, but now he does own his pub. I swear as he told me this tale his eyes moistened. It may have just been the smoke, but all good luck to him.
Full of improbable but excellent chicken goujons and homemade chips, not to mention ale, I strolled off down the pretty South Tyne.
It was also wonderful to be back in warm, friendly Alston Hostel. Some hikers call this place expensive at £28 BnB but not me, the bunks are comfy and the breakfast excellent, they thoughtfully try to put Wayfarers in quiet dorms and they have a proper drying room unlike a BnB that would cost you twice that. I refuse also to claim my YHA discount at this independent hostel, why wouldn’t I buy these kind, hard-working people a pint? I’d rather put £3 towards feeding the Red Squirrels, several of which I saw from the sitting room.
My roomie was a recently retired financial analyst, and if they don’t know good value who does? A summit bagger, he was hunting for a retirement home within easy reach of Scotland and The Lakes. I didn’t dare ask his budget, but with a house in Milton Keynes under offer he could probably have bought half of Alston. Having washed everything I could while retaining enough dry fabric for a respectable visit to the Spar shop, I hung it all in the drying room and scampered to said emporium for a lavish supper of reduced items, cooked back in the cosy hostel.
By the drying room I was pleasantly surprised to see a familiar grinning face. Stepping off the train at Edale, ten long days previously, I’d encountered a determined- and well organised-looking young woman in hiking gear. Yes, she intended to walk the Pennine Way. Yes, the whole thing. Yes, by herself. Yes, camping (any more daft questions?) Her first night would be off trail but then her intended timescale would require her to overtake me. Every so often during the first week I found myself looking back, wondering where she might have got to.
You meet a lot of people trying to walk the Pennine Way, many of them overburdened and underprepared; many fail. By the time I got to Teesdale I’d started ruefully to suspect that she too might have fallen by the Wayside. That would have been disappointing, both for her sake and because from our five minutes’ conversation I’d for some reason convinced myself this was someone who would succeed. Hence I was disproportionately pleased to see JR walk into Alston Hostel, vindicating my judgement. Also because in our previous brief encounter I’d instantly warmed to her. We spent a happy hour reminiscing about our own very individual Pennine Ways, so far.
Talking with JR, I started to wonder, very tentatively, whether here might be a trail buddy I could tolerate, that it might even be pleasant to walk a while with a young person who was not only understated, self-contained and interesting but could casually throw rather impressive asanas while chatting. To be on the safe side, avoiding the possible complications of companionship would necessitate getting up early and setting out alone the next morning. This I duly did.
Day Thirteen – Alston to Greenhead
Leaving Alston, I encountered one of the freakiest locations on the entire Pennine Way, a very strange wood full of fowls and small crosses, presumably graves. I couldn’t believe I’d never noticed this before, but then I was repeatedly finding that as I (mostly) knew my way up the trail and so didn’t have my nose buried in a map all the time, I was seeing completely new things at every turn. The Way was repaying my repeating it by giving me new gifts, although I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about this one.
This happened again at Gilderdale Burn. I’ve been rude in a previous blog about the apparent nonexistence of ‘Isaac’s Tea Trail’, but here on the bridge was a sign I’d never noticed before. To be fair, the bridge had been refurbished since my last visit and one of the screws on the sign was suspiciously new.
And again, I’ve been rude about uninspiring signage at Whitley Castle (Epiacum) but goodness me, here, unless I’ve just never noticed them, were smart new signs full of interest. I actually stood and read them, and then, would you believe, I was seduced for the first time into entering the fort itself, not least because the sign explained how I could get directly back onto the Pennine Way at the far end without retracing my steps.
Inside the fort a row of bright plastic bollards compromised my ability to ‘imagine I was a legionnaire’. They made me a bit cross and in this unreasonable frame of mind I enquired of two ladies who seemed to have something to do with them what they might be all about. A Victorian stone wall was being removed, the senior lady patiently explained, as it had been preventing visitors gaining a proper view and holistic impression of the Roman site.
‘What did the Victorian Wall Preservation Society make of that?’ I enquired provocatively. Rather than getting defensive she smiled and engaged with me in the same mischievous vein. We ended up having a most amiable discussion about rucksacks, one of my more successful conversations with the heritage industry. The farmer was in a good mood too, I should think, since as the owner of the thousands of Victorian stones removed he’d be turning a pretty penny flogging them to garden centres.
At Slaggyford there’s still no Pennine Way sign at the vital turn-off, but drinking water is still kindly provided at Yew Tree Chapel. The former hot drinks sign on the house opposite has disappeared.
At Kirkhaugh the pretty little house I’d seen for sale two years ago and longed to own was finally occupied. Next to it a chap was standing in an alarmingly small stone pen, in close contact with three beautiful Swaledale rams, their magnificent coiled horns worryingly level with important parts of his anatomy. He explained he was grooming them for a show. “They look pretty calm about it”, I said. “Just you wait til I pull a burr out of a fleece!” He told me the house had been for sale for nine years (!) but had finally been bought by people from Dorset. We discussed the wonderful number of Swallows noisily gathered on the wires above him, he believed they’d had very late but very successful second broods. Good news.
Above Knarsdale the Trail Pixies have provided another nice new ladder stile, the amount of refurbishment ongoing on this trail is very heartening. Further on past Burnstones is a rather less useful ladder stile!
It was Tuesday so I had a bad feeling about the Kirkstyle Inn but there was no phone signal at Knarsdale to check. Rather than risk the detour I stomped on, sausageless, and it turned out my inkling was right, it’s closed on Tuesdays. Phew.
At Greenriggs the Trail Pixies have tamed the legendary swamp with flagstones! I could hardly believe it.
I felt a bit sad, another piece of conversational currency gone for ever. Another small thrill diminished. Tell kids how bad the old Pennine Way was, they think you’re fibbing. Etc, etc, etc. Talking of conversation, at this point the Sheffield lads, late starters but fast walkers, caught me up. I was pleased to have a bit of company for a while although, duplicitously, I did find myself thinking stuff like this…
If the purpose of escaping to the hills and walking in our wildest, emptiest places for a long, long time is to find and experience peace and space, why do so many who seek this experience then compromise it with vocalisation, often more or less continuous? Many ‘outdoor people’ must actually in their hearts abhor peace and space. Making great efforts to access it, they then fill it with words, and not even purposeful words. I’m always up for a thoughtful or humorous original observation, a considered opinion, a correction of my map-reading, delivered empathetically and sotto voce. So often on trails though what I hear is continual, intrusive verbalising for its own sake. Sometimes I literally hide behind rocks to avoid it.
I’m a communication enthusiast – obviously, I write a blog – yet to me an excessive flow of words often obstructs other communication. One of the most distinctive outcomes, purposes if you like, of walking a very long trail in the hills alone, and wild camping, is a sharpening of the animal senses attenuated by habitual lack of use. You re-learn to read the weather, to identify people at distance from their body language, to parse and predict aches and pains, to tell the rustle of heather in darkness from a goat eating your guy-rope. You learn to recognise from an expression when a fellow walker after ten days of solitary thought is sitting on that cairn to reach for something deep within their soul, not to hear about the film you saw last month.
It takes peace, space and subtle stimulation for this enriched instinctual world slowly to unfold. You’ve made a big effort to access unusual experiences by walking this trail, so you tell me, at great length, why then sabotage possibly the most unique of all with constant chat, as if you’re not even in the hills but in the pub?
Wild remote places, despite the absence of conventional distractions, are rich sensory environments. They’re especially rich in sound but also in the lack of it, in the so rarely encountered auditory negative space that can frame and highlight new constructs and connections in our minds. Ethnomusicologist Steven Feld uses the term acoustemology to denote a union of acoustics and epistemology, an investigation of “the primacy of sound as a modality of knowing and being in the world”. “Soundscapes”, he writes, “no less than landscapes, are not just physical exteriors, spatially surrounding or apart from human activity. Soundscapes are perceived and interpreted by human actors who attend to them as a way of making their place in and through the world.”
Long distance trail walking has a distinctive, subtle acoustemology all its own. By importing our endogenous, domestic soundscape onto a trail, or, even worse, importing somebody else’s soundscape via the dreaded headphones, we surely fail in the purpose of properly making our place on and along it?1 Not that we have a purpose. Ahem.
Black Hill was still reassuringly boggy, and with reassuring suddenness the weather turned foul up there. The Sheffield lads took the first obvious track down to the A69 rather than the official long detour and, typically, got to Greenhead ages before me.
It was ten past four when I reached the tea room, desperate for tea. They closed at four. Fortunately I looked sufficiently wet and pathetic for them to sympathetically sell me tea anyway, and several cakes. When I ran a café I hated it when folk came in after closing time.
Little did I know there was no need to buy tea at all! Once I’d accessed the hostel after putting my tent up on its small lawn I found there was free tea to be had inside. Camping at Greenhead Hostel is great value as you get to use not only the hostel’s showers but the huge common room and kitchen too. And, if you’re very lucky, and manage to look really pathetic, a nice lady fellow-hosteller will give you cherry pie and custard. Thank you!
There’s also an adjacent pub, of course, which was quite convivial with me, the Sheffield Lads, the Cherry Pie Lady, the Antipodean Lesbians, the Mancunian Baggage Transferers (staying in the pub) and several other Wayfarers, although not JR who’d enigmatically vanished again. At Greenhead you only need to get into your tent to go to sleep, and a good job too as it was pouring down yet again.
Many hikers proclaim their purpose in walking is to acquire new companions; they seem to randomly pal up on trails or in the pubs along them, then stay buddies for life, walking (and talking) together year after year. They even walk in groups, or hook up via Hiking Singles. Terrifying. Wainwright famously claimed that no man ever sat on a summit and plotted murder (thanks JR for the quote) but he obviously never climbed a hill with The Ramblers. Whenever I’ve walked in a group I’ve so rapidly tired of the blather and waffle that by lunchtime murder has been more on my mind than future friendship. A sly trip with a trekking pole on a steep descent, a subtle elbow over a cliff. It’s best not to pursue this line of thought when wild camping alone in the hills, especially if you’ve seen the film Sightseers. Actually, did I tell you about that film I saw, it was awesome…
It’s not just noise that can be problematic. A very long walk uniquely allows you to settle into your own natural rhythm, to let your body set its own pace, to sleep, wake and eat when it chooses. After a week of so of this, while focusing on your breath, the wind, the click of your poles; suddenly, almost without noticing, you can slip into a soul-nourishing meditation. For someone like me who can’t be bothered to meditate intentionally this is a startling experience; having to adapt to someone else’s rhythm tends to sabotage it.
Day Fourteen, Greenhead to Bellingham.
It had poured with rain all night; luckily my Trekkertent Stealth although prone to condensation is impeccably waterproof.
The rain had stopped now, though, and in fact the day looked set pretty fair. By the time I reached Walltown Crags the sun was on its way out.
As I climbed higher the weather improved further and eventually it blossomed into a classic Hadrian’s Wall day. Finally I was able to take a few half-decent holiday snaps…
I got to Rapishaw Gap sooner than I expected in the benign conditions and stopped for lunch. Somehow the Sheffield lads, who’d left much later, appeared below me by some mysterious route. They stopped for lunch too.
Then, out of nowhere, JR appeared above me. Kindly she joined me for a chat and lunch; I had a sandwich and cake from Greenhead, she had raw mange-tout peas and tomatoes. Perhaps cowed into unaccustomed sociality by the intimidating view of the Real North ahead, all four of us then set off together on a brief experiment in group hiking. This didn’t work out. Different paces, different rhythms, different needs for conversation, or the lack of it. Amicably, what Gwyneth Paltrow might call conscious ungrouping occurred. I examined wild flowers. JR vapourised spookily into the trees. The Sheffielders forged ahead at their habitual high speed; the last JR and I saw of them they were heading off over a hill in the wrong direction. Somehow they still got to Bellingham before us.
For the next hour or so JR and I swapped places and paces, greeting each other politely. After a while I realised she was quite footsore and I resolved to maintain at least visual contact into Bellingham. She didn’t need me to, it just seemed friendly. We ended up walking together, more or less, and she was delightful company despite my showing off by leading her to where I’d forded a then very low Houxty Burn in June 2016. It was now completely impassable, we had to walk a dogleg to the bridge which I should have aimed directly for.
I like to think my ecology background gives me added value as a Trail Buddy, so I cheerily misidentified several plants and on seeing a large bird with grey wings, black-tipped, disappearing up a burn I exclaimed excitedly “oh wow, a Hen Harrier!” Pause. “It’s a Heron” said JR. “Oh. Er, yeah, so it is.”
We stopped for tea at the Horneystead pit stop, where I regaled JR with my theory of purposelessness. “Ah well,” she said, “at least you’ve HAD an interesting life”. At Linacres we realised we wouldn’t get to Bellingham until after dark and so had better book the campsite. I couldn’t work out how to make a phone call on my phone, something I never use it for. “You’re as bad as my Mum”, said JR, not unkindly.
Approaching Bellingham it was pitch dark and I was pleased to realise I might actually be useful, as I knew the way along the unlit riverside path to the campsite. I’d failed to appreciate that JR is of the next generation; she has unlimited mobile data and a total command of Google Maps, an app that routinely baffles me. Give the woman a smartphone, she can navigate the souks of Ouagadougou in a sandstorm. I tagged along, feeling old and redundant. Also grateful that despite the pain from her bad foot she’d gifted me several hours of kind, funny company.
In the Cheviot Hotel, which does great food until late, thank goodness, I met an Outdoor Activities Instructor, strawberry blonde, compact and tidily built, I got the feeling all five feet nothing of her could wrestle me to the ground in an instant if I upset her. The latter was a bit of a worry because I’m afraid I get a bit snippy when I meet an OAI, despite their indisputably great work with urban youth, etc. I dislike my Outdoors being packaged and sold and I’m particularly resistant to off-the-peg, commercialised ‘Adventures’ and ‘Fun’. ‘Fun’ was the issue; having walked the Pennine Way from Kirk Yetholm she was so far most unimpressed, it wasn’t exciting, it wasn’t adventurous, it was just going for a walk, a waste of her valuable time.
Selling the Pennine Way isn’t my job but I did offer a few aspects of my own entirely satisfactory experience of walking the whole thing multiple times. She seemed unconvinced. The multiple times bit seemed particularly to surprise her. She strode off to her tent, leaving me drinking yet again with the ever-friendly Sheffielders, who I fear despite my multiple wayfaring credentials found me a bit nesh.
The next morning I was packing up my tent when the Outdoor Activities Instructor informed me, purposefully, that she was abandoning the unenjoyable and insufficiently thrilling Pennine Way in favour of ‘Fun’. Justification followed, unsolicited, in terms of belated compensation for suboptimal life experiences to date. “I’m due some Me-Time. I’m buying a cheap plane ticket to somewhere warm”. In other words, I thought, yet more destructive shopping for temporary happiness, but again it isn’t my job to police other people’s choices so I confined my comments to “you’ll get sunburn”. “I NEVER get sunburn”.
JR stuck her head out of her tent, so I told her of this development. Immediately, emphatically and with her trademark grin she exclaimed “the Pennine Way isn’t SUPPOSED to be fun!” And that’s why in my head I’ll always be JR’s Trail Buddy, a cheap commitment as she doesn’t want or need one, and more to the point it’s overwhelmingly unlikely I’ll ever see my young friend again. That’s the fun of the Pennine Way for you.
1 Feld, Steven 2003. A Rainforest Acoustemology. In Bull, Michael & Back, L. (eds) The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg pp. 223 – 239.