Keld to Middleton-in-Teesdale
Updated: Jan 28, 2020
Pennine Way - Day 9 - 21.9 miles - 'Moor'
There are two moments each day that give the long distance walker unique satisfaction.
The first is taking off their boots at journey's end.
The second is the first glimpse of the night’s stopping point.
When a day is particularly tough each is even more satisfying.
Today was one of the tough ones. When the small County Durham market town of Middleton-in-Teesdale finally appeared over the flanks of Harter Fell I gave an audible whoop. For it had been a long time coming.
Unlike the brooding anxiety that had hung over yesterday’s breakfast room, this morning’s was an irritatingly upbeat affair.
This wasn’t, sadly, thanks to an uplift in the weather – the rain was still hammering at the windows of Keld Lodge – but due to one of those inexplicably bushy-tailed morning people who was holding court as we ate our Weetabix, regaling us, in high tones, about everything from how good his boots were to the heat qualities of the drying room while cutting his sausages into small pieces.
Usually I like the morning banter. But my breakfast reading was making it hard to get into the happy zone. I loaded BBC weather: “Northerly breeze, extensive low cloud and persistent rain.” Again. I closed the laptop and opened Wainwright. Tan Hill, my first objective of the day, was, he wrote, “always very juicy underfoot, after rain it becomes a ribbon of water.” The subsequent crossing of Sleightholme Moor, was, he continued, “a journey of despair”. Even in sunshine it was like “walking in porridge. After heavy rain it is like walking in Oxtail soup.”
After two-and-a-half days of persistent rain I’d hoped for a break to tackle this notoriously boggy stretch, but if anything I was hitting the moors just as they reached saturation point.
I decided the morning’s reading material weren’t helping my mood. I’d have been better off digesting the collected works of Thomas Hardy and Sylvia Plath. So I sat back and listened as Mr Happy, in nasalled tones, told the weary assemblage that on the first day of his walk his wife had packed him so many sandwiches (“Eight rounds! Of sandwiches!”) that he’d joked with her he would need a Sherpa to carry them. Which, as far as I was concerned, wasn’t actually a joke as he was using one of the Sherpa van services to carry his stuff.
Things didn’t improve while packing to leave. Today was to be the day I reached the Pennine Way halfway point, where I swapped my Pennine Way South OS map for the North edition. But for some reason the North map, which I’ve carried faithfully for a few hundred miles, was nowhere to be found. Given I’ve been relying on the paper maps rather than the OS App in the rain, I would be doing half the walk blind. With the first outdoors shop at my end point of Middleton-in-Teesdale the only thing I could do was hope that the rain eased.
The other guests at Keld Lodge were an interesting bunch.
The first was a lady spending a few days in Swaledale to mourn the passing of her dog.
She’d been visiting the valley for over 40 years, latterly with her collie.
But a month back, aged 105, the dog had finally lost its fight with cancer, so she was now returning to the places they once walked.
She came from Hebden Bridge.
Ah, I said, I loved Hebden Bridge.
She looked nonplussed. “Why?”
“The buildings… the people… the energy…”
"It is," she told me in forthright tones, "not what it used to be."
Turns out that the riverside town has been invaded by elements of the, ahem, Metropolitan Elite – media types who’ve migrated north to work at the BBC’s massive broadcasting hub in Salford. It was the same old story, she said: they’ve bought London money north, pushing up house prices and gentrifying the streets with a contagion of Latte and tofu shops. The battle for the town's soul was lost when Farrow & Ball moved in.
At the same time the deprivation that characterises so many northern towns that have lost their industry still exists on the fringes, with a drug problem that's escalating. The area was, she reminded me, not christened Happy Valley for nothing.
I still liked Hebden Bridge.
The other guest, meanwhile, harbours a big dream.
He wants to walk the entire coastline of Britain.
Although the 5,500+ mile walk has been done before – by a few people – it is a massive undertaking that demands not just months of commitment, but often years.
He first had the idea, he told me, when he was in his 30s. He bought all the maps. Started planning a route. Then life got in the way: work got busy, kids came along… It was only when his wife mused aloud over the Christmas turkey one year that he’d never even start the walk, let alone complete it, that he found the motivation to finally pull on the boots.
A week later he set off on the first leg of his Big Walk.
I have no complaints about Keld Lodge. The rooms are clean, the food good, and in terms of facilities it’s got everything a walker needs. But it had a perplexingly sleepy vibe that I couldn’t quite work out.
The first thing that struck me was how empty it was.
I had been under the impression the Lodge was fully booked, not least because when a knackered and sodden bloke stepped out of the storm as evening fell he was turned away.
But despite me being in Room 11, the only guests I ever saw were the Coast to Coaster, the dog walker, and Mr Happy. Just three - not 11.
I’d half expected, at this celebrated walkers crossroads, for the lounge to be packed with trail-grizzled ramblers swapping anecdotes about cows, marshes and the benefits of walking poles.
But no. I sat in silence in the lounge, then the lobby, then the dining room wondering whether it was something I’d said.
At 8.30pm the bar lady came into the lounge and called last orders.
I looked at my laptop clock just to check I hadn’t lost a few hours.
“Yes. Then I’ll be closing the bar and going to bed.”
I looked again at the clock. 8.30pm.
I ordered a beer and bade her goodnight.
Then I sat in the lounge as slowly every lamp and light clicked off on carefully programmed time switches.
When, at 9.15, the hotel finally faded into pitch darkness I felt my way upstairs, banging into a few walls as I went.
For the third day running I performed the unwanted morning routine of pulling on layer after layer of waterproofs and then, armed with only half the day’s maps (the equivalent of half a walking stick, or half a pair of sunglasses), I stepped out once more into the rain.
With Wainwright’s miserable prose in mind, I had chosen to avoid the Tan Hill bogs by using an unfenced tarmac road that runs pretty much parallel to the path. Pennine Way purists might judge me harshly, but the day ahead was dominated by moorland crossings. Avoiding a few extra miles of bog seemed like common sense.
The only pitfall I could see was that I might be precluded from the kind of walker’s conversation that goes something like this:
“I did Tan Hill in the rain. It was so boggy I had to empty water from my boots.”
“Ah, that’s nothing. I did it in a storm. Bog was so bad I lost a boot.”
“A storm? You had it easy mate. Did it in a blizzard in ’93. Boot went through a frozen marshpond and I lost a leg.”
It’s the kid of conversation you can’t join by saying: “Yeah, I read it was boggy so went up the road instead.”
At the top of the road lies the Tan Hill Inn. This is, famously, the highest pub in Great Britain, at an altitude of 1,732ft.
Given the desolation of the surroundings, and the kind of guaranteed income its height no doubt brings, I’d expected the Inn to be a soulless place, but stopping for an obligatory drink I found a warm and welcoming hive of activity, fire burning in the grate, that not only hosts open mic nights but also folk festivals. For Pennine Wayers trying to break the long slog to the Tees valley it offers accommodation too, and I can imagine there have been more than a few good nights as blizzards blow outside and the guitars and squeezeboxes come out.
I half considered ordering a pint but was worried that the cosy combination of fire and ale might tempt me to stay for a second, and third...
From there no outcome was good. Either I’d surrender to a day by the pub fire. Or I’d find myself making the bleak crossing of Bowes Moor with impaired vision, wobbly limbs and only half a map.
So I ordered a mug of tea for £1.20 and took a selfie instead.
But I'll be back, Tan Hill Inn. Oh yes.
Bowes Moor lived up to its reputation.
Every step was wet, every few yards a deviation was required to ford a fast-flowing stream, and even though the rain was easing the landscape was unremittingly stark.
But for the birdlife – the curlews and sociable little lapwings – there’s nothing on these vast moors but peat, heather, moss and water.
I'm sure some wanderers find pleasure under the open skies, scudding clouds revealing then cloaking dark, distant peaks surrounding the massive upland bowl, but I'm not one of them.
In a walk that has had its share of bleak moorland walking, this section won hands down. Not least because the limestone slabs that offer dry passage for hundreds of miles in the early stages have not reached these parts yet. (They’d probably just be swallowed in the mire anyway.)
A mile into the moor, following the life-saving line of white posts hammered into the murk, a movement in the grey. A small owl flapping on the vents just a dozen or so metres from me. It stuck around as I sloshed and squirted my way over the water skeins. When it flew off again the surroundings felt even emptier.
As the miles slogged by, evidence of the Moor’s real use. Shooting butts for those who take pleasure from blowing the native grouse into a thousand feathers.
Notices everywhere proudly sing the praises of the “conservation” projects to maintain this “important habitat”. It’s not hard to decipher the doublespeak. Heather is burned because grouse love the tender new shoots.
There’s nothing natural about these upland plateaus. They’re heavily managed so that shooting parties can enjoy their sport. At least the more honest information boards identify shooting as an important contributor to the rural economy.
The reason today’s walk was so long – 21 miles, crossing four seperate valleys – is because there is almost no accommodation on this stretch.
There are a couple of options if you take the so-called Bowes Alternative – an add-on to the Way that gives the walker an overnight stopping option in the castle town of Bowes. But if you continue over Clotherstone Moor there’s nowhere to stay until Middleton-in-Teesdale.
The story I like most about the Bowes Alternative (surely the title of a sci-fi B movie in the making?) is that it was added to the Pennine Way as an afterthought to widen the accommodation options for walkers doing the Tan Hill to Middleton-in-Teesdale stretch.
Back in the day walkers tackling the long, boggy leg could opt to stay at the remote YHA in Baldersdale. But the Pennine Way routemakers worried that if the YHA got too busy walkers would need an alternative. Hence the Bowes Alternative, which added a few B&Bs to the mix.
The unforeseen consequence of this piece of generous routemaking was that the alternative reduced the numbers using the Baldersdale YHA.
Already in a perilous financial state, the hostel was served an early death sentence – like others on the Pennine Way route – with the 2001 outbreak of Foot & Mouth. Sieged within the exclusion zone, visitor numbers dropped to zero. Shortly after the hostel closed its doors for good. It is now, naturally, a holiday let.
The outcome is that the Bowes Alternative has now become, for many, the main route of their journey while the more direct route over Clotherstone has become the scarce-used alternative.
But my route was not Bowes.
Instead up and down, up and down, crossing valleys and moors as things turned ever greener and the trail entered the hidden valleys of Deep Dale, then Baldersdale, then Lunedale that, bar Pennine Wayers, see few tourists.
These are valleys on the Cumbrian border that visitors to the Lakes have never heard of and will never visit. With the weather improving, there was plenty to enjoy: rolling pastures, wildflower meadows, hillside farms and big stretches of water.
Patches of sunlight rolled across the landscape making for fun photography.
At mile 11, sheltering behind a dry stone wall, coffee on a small stove, I meet Malcolm.
Malcolm is walking the Pennine Way and camping.
Nothing unusual there.
But Malcolm is 83. And only took up long distance walking in retirement.
These days, he says, he likes to mix camping with the occasional night in a B&B.
But he was in fine form, and loving the trail.
A mile later there’s a shooting hut in the middle of a nowhere valley. A wooden sign indicates ‘Shelter’.
I let myself in.
Inside there are chairs and a wall of messages left by previous Pennine Wayers. Observations. Records. Good luck messages. A few from LeJogers too. I add my name. If you’re ever passing, look out for it.
Both the meeting and the messages give buoyancy. The solitude of the trail is heightened on these lonely moors. Chance meetings with others, and knowing how many have gone before, puts a spring back in your step.
Even if every step is a squelch.
The route goes on and on. Climbs, paths around reservoirs, stone tracks, farm fields, terrain that has been ploughed up by cattle requiring flying leaps with a heavy pack. And though my new boots aren’t hurting as such, 20+ miles always hurts a little. Sore feet. Tired limbs. And still miles from Middleton-in-Teesdale. This is definitely one of the Trail’s tough days, with lots of effort required and not much in the way of payback.
I’ve been thinking about how I would sum up the Pennine Way if asked about it. What is its essential character?
It’s difficult, because the Pennine Way offers so much. There are moments of superlative beauty, like lovely Swaledale. There are the wow moments, like Malham Cove. There are the classic climbs – Kinder Scout, Pen-y-Ghent. And so many varied and gorgeous towns and villages.
But my overriding memory of the Way will, I think, be these bleak uplands.
It is a tough trail. A demanding trail. A rough and sometimes stubborn trail. I think of the gritstone of the early days and that feels about right. It is gritty. It is, at heart, a very northern kind of walk.
Finally, as my feet make it clear they’re done for the day, I walk down the long, grassy flanks of Harter Fell and cross the bridge into Middleton-in-Teesdale's town centre. My hotel is just a few minutes further on, where I take off my boots as fast as I can and collapse onto the bed.
Some days are like this. At least I’m 21 miles closer to my end point.
Better than that, tomorrow is just seven miles. And seven lovely miles too.
The forecast even suggests sun.
Maybe if there’s a Mr Happy type in tomorrow’s breakfast room I’ll manage a smile.