Alston to Dufton
Updated: Jan 20
Pennine Journey – Day 11 – 20 miles
148 miles in and today was the day I felt like I'd finally found my stride.
The shift from walking occasionally to long distance walking every day is a significant one.
First there were the aches and pains associated with getting used to a big rucksack (first on my waist, then my shoulders). Eleven days in and it feels second nature to swing the pack on and walk. Next were the blisters (three or four on various toes and one on the back of heel) that threatened to impede progress north. All gone now as my feet adopt to the new regime. But the main reason I knew I’d hit my stride was that today's 20 mile leg didn’t feel a mile too far. I strode out from Alston at ten, and I strode, smile on my face still, into Dufton at five for a pint at the village’s ever-buzzing Stag Inn.
The day starts beautifully, with six faultless miles to Garrigill. Like yesterday, the route follows the Rver South Tyne ever-further up South Tynedale. Within moments of leaving Alston civilisation is far behind; it’s just me, isolated farmsteads, morning-dewed meadows and Maytime trees, the river tumbling with youthful zest in the river basin below. Swallows dance over stone barns, bluebells stud pathside banks, lambs play and cows graze while views expand across the valley to ever-bleaker moorscapes. With big clouds billowing, shadows form on the higher hills, reinforcing the transition between sunneyed lowlands bathed gold and the dark, shaded expanse rising above.
It is over these moors the Pennine Journey tracks today, following the Pennine Way almost to the summit of Cross Fell.
Almost because while the patriarch of the Pennines – the highest point on the range and the highest point in Cumbria outside of the Lake Distirct (Cross Fell is higher than Pillar) – was AW’s goal, a storm forced him to change plans and take what is now the A66 over the Hartside Pass down to Melmerby, where he spent a night of unexpected luxury in a newly refurbished hostelry. (Wainwright addresses his road walking head-on in ‘The Eighth Chapter’ thus: “I do not belong to those hardy trampers whose prestige would be damned if they were to walk ten yards on macadam…. Every road leads to food and shelter, but many a mountain track end in a bog.” And it's hard to argue with that.)
I meet my first Pennine Wayfarer tramping north a few miles into the long crossing of Alston Moor. He is to be one of many on what turns into a surprisingly sociable day. I ask him what time he set off from Dufton.
5.30 is his response.
5.30?! It’s nearly midday now and he’s a long way from Alston. The fact that he’s in good shape and keeping a fair pace illustrates the scale of these hills. The Pennines hills are not – generally – higher than those in Lakeland. But bigger, yes, with footprints on the ground that extend not just miles, but sometimes tens of miles.
A case in point; the summit of Cross Fell is seven miles from Garrigill. And they’re seven long miles. From the east it’s the frustrating kind of peak where you can see the summit from near-valley level, but the distant hill – crowning a mass of moorland that extends in three directions – grows closer only by margins.
Part of it is the scenery. Bar the track winding on and on, the old miner's trod that threads steadily up as it swings west along the flanks of screed Cross Fell, there’s little to engage the eye. It's all morass and prairie in receding shades of ochre and buff under fast-sprouting clouds that send a shower of hail a little after lunch, rain-shadow veiling faraway valleys, sunbeams chased by a succession of ever-sproutier cumulus.
Of the area's once-thriving mining past little remains; a capped shaft here – dropped stone returning no echo – a tumbledown outhouse there, flourspur stars studded purple in the granite grey underfoot. They are remnants of a past when these moorlands echoed to the sounds of industry. Now the miles of marsh fade into the hazy distance, grouse and curlew the sole voices. As the track climbs higher – Cross Fell still miles distant – there’s a chill in the air.
I pull on gloves.
Mile 10-and-a-bit and I reach Greg’s Hut, tucked into a sheltered hillside fold so that it only welcomes you rounding the bend. The Hut – originally a blacksmith’s shop, then a home for miners working the Katelock lead mine and finally a bothy, renovated in 1968 in memory of Birmingham Athletics Institute Climbing Club and Ski Club member John Gregory – has been a refuge for Penine Wayers on the far side of Cross Fell for generations, serving many a walker who has run out of light or energy on the long tramp through Milburn Forest. It’s not difficult to visualise its tiny stove throwing a warming glow onto benighted wanderers as snow whips past outside.
Today it’s to be my lunch stop, a refuge from the ice wind.
I enter the porch and there’s the unmistakable smell of weed.
I enter. Two Geordie lads in their early 20s are thrusting paraphernalia into their packs in a half-panic.
Like the 5:30 riser they too are on the Pennine Way – 10 days in, a few left to go. They’ve walked through snow on Great Shunner Fell, shivered in cow byres above Hawes, slogged through torrential rain over Bowes Moor, even spent the night in an old chapel, but they’re still smiling and plodding on. More than that, they’re loving their old-school boy's own adventure, a chance to explore bleak places one reefer at a time…
No sooner are they gone than two other gents enter. We get chatting. They're walking the Pennine Way in stages – stage four now, of five – on a journey that’s taken half-a-decade to date. It’s a thoroughly civilised affair, two old mates meeting up each year for a few days wandering the Pennine hinterlands. They’re not rushing things (“How long has it taken you to get from Garrigill?" they ask me; “Two hours” I reply: A pause… “We’ll do it in four.”) and every evening is an excuse for a glass or four. The only down side? “We have to stop walking the moment our bodies start getting into it.”
I leave them to their extensive lunch break in Greg's Hut, heartened not only by the number of people on the Pennine Way, but also the mix of ages.
When I last walked the Way most of my fellow journeyers were retired, making me question the Way’s future. Much as I loved it, it had the feel of a heritage journey, its miles of moorland no match for flashier young upstarts like AW’s Coast to Coast. But my worries are proving unfounded; most of those I’ve met this time around have been younger, filling gaps between work or uni and their first job with a walk up the backbone of England. They are exactly the kinds of walkers who made so much use of the Way in its pioneering days. Maybe the ponderous, tough Pennine Way is finding new life as an antidote to the lure of the solve-it-all quick-win.
Where the Pennine Way heads south at the Yad Stone, cresting a rocky crown to reach the summit of Cross Fell, the Pennine Journey continues west where, immediately above Scoop Band I’m blindsided by a panorama of Lakeland.
There, 20 miles distant, are the hills of home, stretching across the horizon in familiar array. Below opal blue they serrate the western sky, shifting like mirages in the heat haze. Further north Criffel stands aloof above a sparkling Solway. I’d known the view would open out over the Cross Fell shoulder, but I’m still blown away by it. I pick out Clough Head south of the great valley gulf through which the A66 threads beneath the towering ramparts of Blencathra. I haven’t been away long enought to be homesick, but I can still feel Lakeland's pull.
The first miles in Eden are not as easy as they might be.
You’d think with so many linear features – walls, tracks, boundary fields – it would be hard to go far wrong. But some of these fields are vast, and traces of a path through the rushes non-existent; the folk of this part of the Eden Valley are clearly not great walkers. As a consequence I am pretty much glued to the GPS as I cross west of the intriguingly-named Hanging Walls of Mark Anthony (possible cultivation terraces from medieval days and probably not what the name – or OS – says they are) and manage to lose my way repeatedly as the path intersperses fields with open moor. A beautifully hedged lane, with layered ash, thorn and hazel that looks generations old, takes me into Milburn.
Milburn is likely a medieval fortified village, its large village green protected by a continuous rectangular frontage of St Bees sandstone houses checked in each corner by narrow access lanes. In the days of the Border raids villagers could bring stock onto the village green then close off – and defend if needs be – the entrances. A kilometre east of the village lies the fortified manor house of Howgill Castle, its pele towers testament to the area's bloody history: Rievers were not unusual guests in these parts.
Milburn is a beautiful village – every house impressive and everything beautifully maintained – including its 40-foot Maypole, one of very few in Cumbria.
Today the village is celebrating. Old and young, dressed in vintage clothes, are competing in a welly wanging competition that the adults – local brew in hands – are taking very seriously indeed. From a house looking over the Maypole a sound system is pumping out '80s classics while villagers dance in a garden alongside. BBQ smoke drifts over the green.
Onwards along more barely-used paths, ungrazed meadow grass a foot long in places showing no sign of footsteps. These are fine old ways – at one point reaching St Cuthbert’s Church, a secluded hillside chapel aloof from the valley lane – ways that barely anyone seems to tread. They’re missing out.
And so – rejoining the Pennine Way at an ancient holloway – into Dufton, the Eden village build with London Lead money. It’s not quite as fine as lovely Milburn, but with its cropped village green, Lyme-lined thoroughfare and sandstone houses it’s a close run thing.
And if the merriment in Milburn was centred on the village green, here it’s the Stag Inn, where levels of Saturday evening conviviality are so high the barmaid can barely hear customer orders. There are still places in Cumbria where locals can enjoy the craic, and here the craic is in full and generous flow.
I order two pints. One of lemonade, the other of lager, and sit in the sunshine, laughter spilling from the pub door.
148 miles into the walk and I've finally found my stride.