John O’Groats to Land’s End, part 2: Northern England
It started raining almost as soon as I crossed the border. I could have stopped and enjoyed the symbolism, but instead I carried on, making my first departure from the Pennine Way almost as soon as I’d joined in to take some shelter in the little outcrop of the Kielder Forest that led down into Byrness. I didn’t realise at the time, but this was a signal about how my relationship with the Pennine Way was going to be over the coming weeks — followed occasionally, but mostly avoided in favour of a better idea.
Back in one of my blog entries at the time, I suggested that if anyone ever told you that you ought to try walking the Pennine Way then you should immediately head to your nearest stockist of outdoor products and purchase a couple of very sturdy walking poles. Not the expensive lightweight carbon fibre ones, but some good solid ones made of steel or aluminium. You should then proceed to use these poles to beat the person who made that suggestion to you repeatedly around the head until they admit it was a bad idea.
Here’s the thing: the Pennine Way is the first National Trail in the UK, and it came about when the idea of the sort of person who might do a long-distance walk was pretty clear. They were a hiker, not a walker, the sort of person who’d have a very sturdy pair of boots that would have flecks of mud tracked deep into them from countless walks, the sort of person who’d own a very sturdy frame rucksack and waterproofs, along with a decent tent and good cooking equipment. They’d be the sort of person who saw nothing wrong with the idea of walking miles through peat on a grey day just for the joy of being out in the country. That’s the sort of person the Pennine Way was designed for, and while it does some interesting things, it also goes out of its way to give you a tour of every peat bog in northern England, and then does really odd things like engage in some very weird contortions to avoid entering Hebden Bridge at all. After doing the West Highland Way and even the Great Glen Way, it felt much more like a trudge than a walk, and while I wasn’t in any urge to become a walking machine following main roads, there were plenty of more interesting things to be discovered following back roads and byways than there were to be following the Pennine Way.
My touchstone in this anti-Pennine sentiment was none other than Alfred Wainwright, chronicler of Lake District fells and patron saint of grumpy old men complaining about the modern world, who walked the Pennine Way as his first big excursion after finishing his guides to Lakeland, and absolutely hated it. It reminded me of school cross-country routes and disappointing walks that ended up on top of long flat hills with no clear peak to mark the end of your climb, and following it felt like I’d be deliberately following a bad idea just to say I’d done it.
That said, the Pennine Way wasn’t the only walk round there that confused me in its appeal. I followed some of the Hadrian’s Wall Path as I headed towards the youth hostel at Once Brewed, and the Wall itself is still majestically impressive as it snakes across the landscape — but what on earth prompted the creators of the Path to recommend that you walk it from east to west? For a start, it means you begin the walk at Wallsend which just seems pointlessly confusing, but more importantly it means you’re going to spend the week or so it takes you walking into the wind as you head across relatively high ground. It’s great for getting advance warning of when a patch of heavy rain is coming in — which enabled me to just get into my rain jacket just as the rain started falling — but not great for travelling at any sort of speed when the wind is blowing you backwards at every opportunity.
However, let’s not let this become an entry of ‘Nick rants about long distance trails’ because there are so many other things for me to complain about. No, in truth there weren’t many, and almost all of those were weather-related, because even though being in Scotland for most of August had kept me away from the really hot weather that would have made walking in England a struggle, by the time I got there, summer had drifted away and autumn with it’s lovely colours and frequent rain had taken its place. Looking back, the fact it started raining on me almost as soon as I crossed the border was clearly a sign I should just have turned around and made my walk a John O’Groats to John O’Groats one which would have had the value of being original, though I don’t quite know how damp.
After a night at Once Brewed, i reached Haltwhistle relatively early the next morning, reaping the benefits of my avoiding the Pennine Way strategy to not only get to visit the town that’s supposedly the midpoint of Britain (and possibly the midpoint of my walk, but it was hard to tell) but also the start of a really great walk down the old route of the South Tynedale Railway to Alston. Railway paths are a bit of godsend because they tend to be relatively flat while also taking you on a route that’s a good distance away from cars and traffic. It also took me from Northumbria into Cumbria, which meant I was back in the county of some of my ancestors. Well, the county that their old counties had been subsumed into, but still having a hint of that family heritage about it. It also meant I was gaining height and heading to the highest point I’d reach on the walk, topping out around 600m on the way out of Alston on the way from Tynedale into Teesdale, which also took me away from my brief sojourn in Cumbria and into Durham.
This was one of the signs that things were going to be different in England than they had been in Scotland. There I’d been in, or at least next to, what was close to wilderness and spent days walking through areas that were broadly similar, watching the signs counting down the distance to places that were a long distance away. Now I was in England, things were passing by quickly as I weaved down around the Pennines, watching places almost fly by as I walked south, and also seeing things get slightly more familiar as they got more crowded. In Scotland, towns had been a nice break after a couple of days walking, now I was passing through or by two or three in a day, which had the advantage of making it easy to get supplies and sustenance, but never having that feeling of being as alone as I had many times in Scotland.
There were times I was during that stretch of walking. I only saw one other person — a man out walking his dog — as I headed over Ilkley Moor but generally that sense of being alone in the wild had gone, as even when I was out in the country, there was always that sense of there being something around be, be it power lines, nearby roads and railway lines, or just people. Never anyone bad, just a lot more of them than I’d become used to, and I probably gave a few of them a shock as well as I wasn’t in the sort of places one expected to see a long-distance walker, complete with heavy backpack and walking pole heading through.
There was also a sense of being out of season in a lot of places I passed through, especially as September wound on. In Scotland, I’d been conscious of there being lots of tourists around, especially as I passed through the really popular areas (Edinburgh and the West Highland Way). As I moved through England, places were more empty with fewer people around. I’d got used to busy youth hostels with people crammed into communal areas, but now they were feeling more and more empty, which led to a rather spooky night in the hostel at Haworth, which is a converted old house out on the moors rather than in a town. With few people there, a room to myself, a win blowing outside and a building with lots of sweeping staircases and long wooden banisters, even without the location it would have been spooky. Having all that in Bronte Central made me wonder if I’d look out the window to see two lovers chasing each other through the dark night.
Amidst all this, there was another bad day which may have led to the one time I got ill during the whole journey. I’d reached Richmond and set out hoping to get to Masham that evening, dreaming of being in the town with the Theakstons brewery for an evening, assuming it would be a good place to find somewhere to stay. Unfortunately, on my way out of Richmond, I ended up taking a wrong turn somewhere (possibly not helped by the mild amusement I felt at seeing a place called Constable Burton) and it had started raining, getting progressively heavier, making me want to keep my head down and plough through the miles without checking the map. So, it came as no surprise that when I did get a chance to check my position I found myself in the wrong place, on the wrong road, and with Catterick Garrison between me and where I wanted to be. For a time I was tempted by the idea of cutting across the open terrain I could see between me and where I wanted to be, but then I realised that mysterious men in hooded coats with big backpacks on them walking by big Army bases are getting closed to being invitations to shoot on sight.
All that getting lost and getting soaked meant that by the time I got to Bedale, i was done for the day, and not in the mood for walking on the next few miles to Masham, as I’d planned. And I don’t know if it was the soak-dry cycle I’d been on during the day, or the curry I had that night, but the next day…well, let’s just say that i wasn’t in a fit state to walk anywhere more than a few metres from a toilet. I was pretty much fine the day after that — though there was a time when I needed to collect a few leaves from the trees I was walking by before I ducked in behind one of them — and I suppose I should be grateful that I managed to get through the walk without picking up any illnesses or injuries that could have really scuppered my trip. I was coming into contact with a lot of people, while taking part in extended exercise that was probably weakening my immune system, and yet I managed to avoid getting any coughs, colds or anything like that and the few physical problems I did have were small ones that I managed to walk off. The only two I remember of being of any significance were a twinge in my hamstring after three days of walking that my first rest day managed to resolve, and then a slightly worrying, but fading quickly, bout of shin splints that I got the day after my day off ill when I — in a moment of strange madness — decided to jog down the hill into Pateley Bridge, and realised just why people don’t go running on the road in walking boots with a rucksack on.
Just like Scotland is very big, so too are the Pennines a lot longer than you probably think they are. Having first encountered them crossing the border, I was still walking beside, around and across the spine of England when I discovered that while the Pennine Way might have been a horror show, the then-relatively new Pennine Bridleway was anything but. Of course, part of the clue to it being easier was in the name — while the Way was there for walkers and hikers, the Bridleway was accessible to horses and — probably much more importantly nowadays — people on bikes. This meant it was relatively flat, the paths were well-cared for and well marked out, and all in all, it was a very enjoyable experience to walk along it, not least because I was coming to the end of the Pennines and they were generally becoming lower and flatter. That part of the walk still gave me some interesting discoveries, be it finding myself on the edge of Saddleworth and discovering there are some places very angry forty years later about the county border being moved and putting them in Lancashire rather than Yorkshire, or just that when you create walking and cycle paths out of old railway lines in that area, you often have to route them through long dark tunnels too, which gave a very interesting experience at the end of the day walking the Tissington Trail, and also marked me finally leaving the Pennines behind and entering into the Midlands.
Having had sections for Northern England and Scotland, I should now have a separate one for the Midlands, shouldn’t I? Except I decided to keep this at three parts long, and the problem with the Midlands is that you can never really be sure where it starts or finishes. For some I was already there by the time I was in the lower Pennines, for others it wouldn’t count until I made it to Birmingham itself. So, the division will be between North and South, both because it does mark a symbolic midpoint in the journey across England — getting home to Redditch — and because both parts of the journey took me roughly the same time, about three weeks.
So from the edge of the Pennines, I made my way down through Staffordshire to Lichfield, where I could stay with some relatives and have the relief of dropping off my rucksack for my brother to pick up and take back to Redditch, as I was close enough to home to do that now. The only thing between me and Redditch was the small matter of Birmingham sitting between the two. I’d done that trip before by train across the city and by road around it, but never on foot.
Walking across a city is something that’s relatively easy, especially when you’ve come from weeks of walking across countryside and having to stop and check the map to be sure of both where you are and where you’re going. Once you’re in a city, both of those are much more obvious all the time, with myriads of signs telling you both where you are and where you’re going, often repeatedly. Even without the signs, a city like Birmingham has a structure to it that you can follow to find your way through it. Roads flow from the outside to the centre like rivers, drawing others into them as they get closer and closer, so following the way they grow takes you to the heart of the city surely enough and as you walk you can see the buildings around you get denser and higher. Walking from Lichfield to the centre probably wasn’t the best day for a city walk, as the rain had returned to soak me, rendering Birmingham even more grey than it usually is, and the walk one of those get the head down and keep going type of days.
The next day, though, was much better. Picking up again in the centre of Birmingham, I was able to leave the roads behind and follow the canals out to the south, specifically the Worcester and Birmingham Canal from the Gas Street junction in the heart of the city, all the way down to Kings Norton where it disappeared into a tunnel. Not that I’m afraid of walking through tunnels (even if this one is pretty long) but at that point it was going in the wrong direction, and I needed to follow Icknield Street down into Redditch. It was a walk through the transport and industrial history of Birmingham, the canal the reason why Birmingham had developed so quickly in the Industrial Revolution, bringing all the parts together to this point, the old routes still followed, with the railway running alongside the canal for much of their length in the city. Then, out of the city and onto an old route out into the country, a long straight line of road that was soon so quiet as to make me forget I’d been in the heart of the city not long ago.
And then all I had to do was find a way across Redditch, as I realised not having lived in the town for well over a decade had left me unsure of which way to go to get home once I’d reached the edge of town…