Byrness to Kirk Yetholm
Updated: Jan 28, 2020
Pennine Way - Day 16 - 25.4 miles - 'Scotland'
At around 10.30am in the remote Coquet Valley I passed through a nondescript wooden gate and entered Scotland. Ten hours later, after 25 miles of walking and 4,500ft of ascent, I plodded into the tiny village of Kirk Yetholm, the end point of the Pennine Way.
After the obligatory completers' photo at the Border Hotel I sat down with my long-awaited free half pint and, as Friday night diners and drinkers cheered on localish hero Andy Murray, I raised a glass instead to this first big milestone of LeJog. 800 miles and seven weeks after leaving Land's End I have now walked the length of England.
If all else fails I can fall back on that.
I woke at four.
Generally speaking LeJog is an insomniac’s dream. So knackered is your body by day’s end that nothing stops sleep. By the time the ten o’clock news comes on I’m out by the fifth pip, sure as general anaesthetic.
But not last night.
Because I had The Fear.
The trek through the Cheviots is not usually undertaken in a single day. Most LeJogers follow Andy Robinson and quit the Pennine Way for the Dere Street roman road to Jedburgh, cutting off the wilderness journey. I thought this eccentric: if you’ve committed yourself to the Way for 250+ miles, why wouldn't you complete it? Plus I've loved the Way. Plus I wanted Wainwright's free half pint.
Pennine Wayers, meanwhile, invariably split the day into two – sometimes three – legs, stopping at one of two climbers’ huts nestled among the Cheviot slopes, walking off the trail and down into one of the valleys for a remote night’s B&B, or taking advantage of taxis or minibuses to pick them up from valley escapes a few miles off route.
None of these options appealed. No chance was I going to shiver away a night in some hilltop bothy as the rain lashed down when a bed awaited just a few miles further on. And adding miles to the day to get out of the Cheviots – only to retrace them the following day to rejoin the Way – wasn’t something I wanted to do.
Plod on seemed the only option.
It didn’t help that Pennine Way cheerleader-in-chief Wainwright thought the idea certifiable.
“This is a long, hard walk,” he writes. “Damned long. Damned hard… The casualty rate is high.”
It’s not that I mind long days. Nor, particularly, the distance or the height. If I get my head down I can keep on walking.
My fear is the wilderness.
Unlike on any other leg of LeJog, the crossing of the Cheviots is a true wilderness walk. There’s a reason for the climbing huts: escaping the mountains is difficult, with valleyhead habitations – often no more than remote hill farms – many miles off route.
Which means at the halfway point you either continue, or you retreat. There are few other options. It is you versus the hill and the elements. And while some people love that aspect of walking, I’m not among them. The idea of being helpless in the middle of isolated nowhere may be Ray Mears’ thing; it is not mine.
There were two straws of comfort I would clutch like liferafts as I headed into the upland unknown. Firstly the weather looked settled. There was a 20 per cent chance of light rain over lunch. Other than that, the BBC said we’d get as fine a weather window as you can expect in the hills. Secondly, Scots David had left at 4am to get a headstart on his journey to Hut 2. Which meant that somewhere out there I'd pass a friendly face.
Breakfast was a time of quiet industry.
When I got up all of our walking boots had been dried overnight, then carefully lined up in the conservatory, room numbers chalked onto the toes. On a table alongside 12 sets of sandwiches were arranged side-by-side, again with identifying labels: “Room 3”, “Northumberland Room”, “Bunk”, “Tent”.
Joyce and Colin run the Forest View with a kind of brisk military precision. Their job, they believe, is not so much to be hosts as walking support staff, ensuring their guests are well rested, fed and prepared for the long trip ahead. Because they provide the last stopping point for many before Kirk Yetholm, the couple are dealing with people in all kinds of states: those bristling with excitement, those sad their time on the Way is coming to an end, those who’re unsure whether they’ll make the distance and those, like me, who’re nervously leafing through the maps trying to work out the lie of the up-coming land.
They do an amazing job.
Most of the B&Bs and hotels on the Pennine Way couldn’t give much of a monkey’s about the long distance trailer. You’re walking cash and that’s pretty much it.
But there are exceptions. Woodland House in Cowling is one, Forest View the other. These are places run by walkers, for walkers – less B&Bs, more trekking lodges. To the weary souls who pass through them the accommodation – in all senses of the word – is appreciated; you couldn’t help but notice the hundreds of cards and postcards from Pennine Way completers on Forest View noticeboards thanking Joyce and Colin for their hospitality.
As breakfast, and our time in this forest refuge, came to an end, the walking boots disappeared pair by pair as we left in ones and twos, each with our own goal.
Before my last long walk, 20 or so years back into the foothills of the Himalayas, I was given advice by my host, Dr Gyan Lal Shrestha.
Dr Gyan was a man of many enthusiasms. One of them was green energy villages: self sustaining rural hamlets that would plant and harvest nuts with high oil content to serve the villagers' fuel needs. The other was finding a cure for baldness, which – after one too many throat-burning rice whiskies, and in hushed tones – he would tell you he had found, a discovery the would surely make him one of the world’s richest men.
Dr Gyan was completely bald.
Anyway. Dr Gyan gave me some advice before I left Kathmandu to walk from the road end of Jiri to Everest trekking hub Lukla: Bistare, bistare janus.
It roughly translates as Slowly, slowly go. His words always come to mind when I’ve got a long slog ahead.
Thinking of Dr Gyan (he never did bring his world-changing baldness cure into production), I filled up on water, stocked up on Snickers bars and pulled on my pack. Then – just to ensure I wasn't getting my expectations up – I turned to Wainwright for the last word. “Gird up your loins as they have never been girded before,” he writes by way of farewell.
So I girded – it didn’t hurt too much – and I set off, slowly, into the Pennine Way hills for one last time.
Wainwright’s right. It’s not an easy day.
But it’s a goodie.
I’d not argue that the Pennine Way saves the best for last. But it pulls together the highs and lows of the previous 260+ miles in one final grand-scale epic of a walk.
There’s open space. There are panoramic views. There’s bog in abundance. There are flagstones and boardwalks, slowly sinking into the marsh. There’s blanket peat, cloudberry and cotton grass. There are grouse and curlews. There’s even a moment of granduer at the cliffs and waterfalls of Hen Hole.
But most of all there’s wilderness. More so than on any other day. And more so than anywhere else in England. You can stand on one of the fine Cheviot viewpoints – Cairn Hill say – and see no sign of civilisation bar a far-off forestry plantation or two: just grassy hills that roll on and on into distant grey. It’s all gone here: the infrastructure is finished in these harsh border foothills that it feels like neither England or Scotland care much about.
At mile five I meet Scots David just inside his homeland. He'd meant to be much further along. But despite his dawn departure he'd wasted miles and hours by dropping into the wrong valley. He was in low spirits with a long day ahead.
“Where’s the welcome to Scotland sign?” I ask him.
He chuckles. “At least we know if you ever invade all yer tank’s ‘ll get stuck in the bog.”
When I said goodbye to him there was no-one I knew of ahead.
The Way itself sticks, as best it can, to the ridges, keeping tight to the border fence that divides Scotland from England. After its initial foray into Scotland north of Ogre Hill the Way retreats and stays on the English side until just before Black Hag on the final stretch to Kirk Yetholm, as if it can’t quite bear to leave England behind.
At mile 12, on the airy shoulder between Windy Gyle and towering Cairn Hill, the rain started.
Within five minutes it was clear the forecasters had got it wrong. As my T-shirt soaked through I realised I was in for one last Pennine Way soaking. Five minutes after that I was bogging along in full waterproofs and gloves, fingers already numb as horizontal rain swept the hillsides and the clouds choked swiftly in.
Though it was not what I wanted or had planned for, it felt like an apt send-off. I’ve walked through more miles of torrential rain on this walk than I care to remember. The rays of sun have been few and far between. It wouldn’t be right to complete the final leg without a farewell soaking. There seemed, at least, a reassuring familiarity about it: wet boot in front of wet boot, on flagstoned path, as mist whipped the hills and the thirsty bogs soaked up yet more water.
Then, just after mile 20 and on the descent from The Schil, the sun broke through.
Godbeams wandered the hills north and faraway sun lit the distant North Sea gold. By the time I descended the lovely green lane to Piper’s Faulds it was… hot. In a way it has not been since that first sweaty day on Kinder Scout three weeks back.
I’ve always thought one of the most pleasing pieces of roadbuilding in Great Britain is the transition from three to four lanes on the M74 just north of Greta.
...Hear me out.
Immediately after a driver stuck in M6 jams south of the border crosses into Scotland the motorway adds a lane, the traffic speeds up and there’s a bigger than strictly necessary ‘ Welcome to Scotland’ sign.
Whether the motorway widening is accident or design to make the Sassenachs feel like their north-of-the-border cousins are doing things a bit better you can’t know for sure. But you can take an informed guess.
As I descended to the village of Kirk Yetholm in its beautiful pastoral backwater valley I felt the same way. The summer I left behind in Crowden was in full swing in Scotland.
Skylarks sang, swallows swooped, and hay fields bathed in the warm evening sun. I walked, heavily, to the Pennine Way end point at the Border Hotel in shorts and T-shirt worrying not about whether I was waterproof enough, but whether I needed to dig deep and find my barely-used bottle of suncream.
As you walk north, the end point of Kirk Yetholm takes on a near-mythic character. A kind of Oz for the blistered traveller.
The Border Hotel was everything I could have hoped for. There’s Wainwright memorabilia all over the place. There are walking boots that Wayers have abandoned here planted with flowers. And though it’s not the end of the journey for me, the welcome was warm enough to be so. The bartender gave me my Pennine Way completer’s certificate and took my photo at the Way’s End sign.
More importantly I was poured my free half pint of the local.
This fabled reward was offered by Wainwright to anyone foolhardy enough to complete the whole trail. Whether this was a bafflingly out-of-character gesture of generosity or a marketing masterstroke by the great man, by the time of his death in 1991 it is estimated he’d forked out £15,000 to thirsty Wayers. Shortly after that his estate, horrified by the losses (revenge of the Pennine Way for Wainwright's harsh assessment?), handed responsibility for the half pint to a local brewery.
Either way, the first toast had to be to AW.
The second toast was to the Pennine Way.
All said and done, I’ve had a ball on it.
For whatever reason, the thought of walking it had never crossed my mind before I started planning LeJog. My grandad’s lovely first edition of AW’s Pennine Way Companion had sat unread on a shelf for the best part of 20 years.
My own reticence probably partly explains why there are so few young people (I flatter myself) on the trail. Bar the Belgian campers and a gap year couple I met in Kielder, everyone – bar none – I've met has been retired.
Is this because it’s pretty much impossible to get three weeks off work nowadays?
Has the Way simply gone out of fashion? Losing out to competition from the new generation of trails?
Or has the sun set on this kind of long, ponderous walk? Are younger adventures queuing up instead for outdoor activities that are faster and more extreme – 100-mile runs, Iron Man events, Three Peak Challenges, the Marathon Des Sables? For the Pennine Way cannot be completed in 48 hours. Or rushed. Bistare bistare janus.
it’s probably a little of each. But more than that, the Pennine Way is just not on people's radars.
Which is a shame because it's a remarkable walk.
Whether by accident or design, there is a poetry to it that makes it so much more than the sum of its parts.
This is not a beautiful trail like the wonderful South West Coast Path.
Or the pleasant walk in the woods that is the Cotswold Way.
It is gritty, tough and bleak.
It is wet, often cold and frequently unremarkable.
Its rewards – when they come – are scattered and few. High Cup. Swaledale. Malham Cove. Upper Teesdale. Fountains Fell.
It can be miserable, say the detractors! There’s often nothing to see (unless you look hard)! The distances are long! You are forever fighting the Pennine crosswind!
They're not wrong. W H Hauden got it right: this is no walk "for those who like their landscape cosy”.
Despite all of this, it is a fine walk.
For on this of all walks you get out what you put in. Hard graft is richly rewarded.
Wainwright patently didn’t get the Pennine Way.
Nor do I.
For there is something intangible that threads through each mile which is as enduring and certain as the fire that burns in the Tan Hill Inn; a fire that is never allowed to die out.
Its charms can’t be explained. But they’re there in the big-scale landscape that has shown me an England I knew nothing of. On a scale I didn’t know you could find in this country.
I will miss it all – the moors, the quiet, the villages, the secluded backwaters and the company of other Wayfarers – very much.
But that chapter’s over now. Chapter two begins.
Bring it on, Scotland.
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