Dufton to Appleby-in-Westmorland
Updated: Jan 20
Pennine Journey – Day 12 – 5 miles
There’s only so much the map can tell you.
On Day 7 what looked on the OS to be a delightful riverside stroll through woodland was a nothing-slog through conifer plantations.
Today a short ramble along a river and through woods to Appleby-in-Westmorland its pure magic, the path weaving an enchanted way through mossy fairytale ravines, along meadowed rides under big skies and through oak glades heavy with the scent of bluebells.
The shortest walking day of my Pennine Journey is different to others in that I've got company, in the shape of partner-in-crime for my Countrystride podcast Mark Richards and Cumbria and Lakeland Walker magazine editor John Manning.
We’d arranged to record an episode of Countrystride talking not only about the Pennine Journey, but also John’s life of walking and, latterly, editing two of Cumbria’s biggest selling magazines.
It was to prove a fascinating recording, with John talking about everything from walking the Pennine Way as a young man – a walk that changed the direction of his life – to his views on how we might protect Lakeland for generations to come (ban cars!, or, failing that, set up a number of US-style ‘reserves’ within the National Park, areas given ultimate protections, in which the land might recover free from human interference).
Dufton – its name means the settlement of the dove – is a portrait of Pennine paradise.
As the sun steadily rises over the red-stone terraces, the village wakes. BBQ smoke rises lazily through the lined Lyme avenue that dissects the green as a couple ready food for an afternoon of celebrations. In what was once the post office the smiling owner of the diminutive village tea shop opens its doors to a waiting congregation of walkers who settle beneath parasols and order coffee, sun on skin, echoing laughs from village kids playing down unseen backlanes. All the while swallows duck and dive in the flawless blue above.
Dufton, John notes, holds a special place in his heart. It was here, as a teenager, after walking the superlative Pennine Way leg from Middleton-in-Teesdale to High Cup, that he fell in love with walking. By the time he reached trail end in Kirk Yetholm he'd decided to make walking and writing his career. Decades later he'd go on to walk the Pacific Crest Trail. His description of the magnificent dropaway of High Cup, as approached from the east, made the hairs on my arms stand upright. That same iconic walk made the same impression on me two years back; a proper wow moment above one of the geological wonders of the country – a wonder that barely anyone's heard of.
Such is the charm of today’s walk that Dufton is all-but forgotten within the first quarter mile.
As the path drops steeply from the village it finds Dufton Gill, nestled between towering sandstone crags. Here the stream carves a cloistered channel through ancient quarries, once worked for the fine red stone found in local homes and walls. The quarry has been reclaimed by nature – vertiginous ashes breaking the rutted walls, mosses softening the red, and, 200 feet above, ancient oaks a towering canopy that makes the damp, silent valley bottom feel like the understorey of a rainforest. You can almost make out the shadows of wood elves and nymphs among the gnarled roots and the beds of wood sorrell.
The path climbs at Greenhow, a trail over meadows no less rewarding. Such is the clarity that every peak can be identified along the 360 panorama, from the nearby Pennines to the distant Lakland fells. Cresting higher we see the Solway, and later a a short, shy glimpse of majestic High Cup.
There’s interest on a smaller scale too: a field of long-ago felled oaks, weathered stumps hard as iron. A supply of timber for housing? Or simply an ancient copse that for lost reasons outlived the rest of the Great Wood? A few hundred metres further on there's a dry stone wall of unusual intricacy: a layer of limestone, then a layer of red sandstone repeated three times. Such detail would have costed; a landowner with money to spare and a flair for fine design. A movement in the marsh and John spots lapwing chicks: pom-pom balls on lolly stick legs wading clumsy in hide-and-seek reeds. Then Mark makes a find: a cast iron pump that can be used by cattle to draw water from the stream, water flowing as the cow nudges a simple lever down with their nose. There's nature and heritage each step of the way. I check the time; we’re walking at less than one-mile-an-hour.
Then we come to Flakebridge Wood. The original Flake Bridge – bypassed on the Pennine Journey – is, Mark tells us, named after an old wooden ‘stake’ bridge that would once have forded Swine Gill.
We enter the wood at a sea of violet; bluebells in every direction, cascading down the slopes, blazing beneath the oaks and beeches and willows. The hot air is thick with perfume and the ferny understorey resonant with the sounds of canopied birdsong and nectar-seeking bees.
We hadn't been expecting this slice of Maytime heaven – even in Eden – and our pace slows again as we revel in the blue, so far from the madding crowd that we have the whole secret wood to ourselves.
As if even that wasn’t enough, the final furlong to Appleby-in-Westmorland – during which we deviate slightly from the official PJ route – is along a fine valley ride, trees cloaking banks on either side, sheep-cropped grass making for bowling-green walking. Still the sun blazes down – hotter now; I’m down to shorts and tee-shirt.
Out of Stank Wood and we’re just a stone’s throw from Appleby-in-Westmorland, the grand old market town loved by Lady Anne Clifford, matriarch of Mallerstang, and which today is – for better or worse – known most of all for its annual Horse Fair.
I wander the streets, cross the grand old bridge over the meandering River Eden – which I will over the next three days follow upstream to its source in the Pennine hills – and find a table outside a mainstreet pub that’s catching the last of the day’s sun.
I buy a beer and settle down, eyes closed, warmth on my skin, early evening shadows lengthening, and let my mind gently wander; the deadlines of work and the everyday half-forgotten concerns from another world.