Westgate to Hexham
Updated: Jan 19, 2020
Pennine Way – Day 7 – 22.5 miles
I chat to Barbara, my B&B owner, at breakfast.
Things aren't what they used to be, she says.
Barbara has been in the trade three decades and in that time her B&B guest profile has changed. First of all it was overseas visitors on driving trips, taking in the Durham Dales as they sped north to Edinburgh – one-night stops to see a bit of rural England. Those visitors dried up years back, she says; they all head to the Lakes or Yorkshire Dales now.
Then it was workers, travelling north and needing a bed for the night. Travelodges put a stop to them.
So now she’s pretty much shut up shop bar repeat-booking guests she’s known for years and the odd (and occasionally odd) wayfaring walker. You can tell a lot about people by their means of travel, she says. And the changing tastes of the times have not been kind. People prefer the uniformity of a Travelodge now. Followed by coffee at Starbucks.
I can see where she’s coming from, but wonder if the tide has already turned. Isn’t AirBnB a kick-back against exactly that uniformity? A search for something more ‘authentic’ and local? Shove her (lovely) farm-stay home on AirBnB and I bet she’d be booked til’ 2025.
Either way, Lands Farm is a fine B&B run by good people that offered me a more-than-welcome refuge after a miserable half-day yesterday. Pennine Way Journeyers take heed!
The slopes above Westgate are cloaked in fog, boots meadow-sodden within minutes of leaving the village. Then onto the crest of Northgate Fell, where ashes loom from the mist, telegraph wires trailing into the white. Around the vast pothole of Heights Quarry muffled blasts and stonecuts shake through the cloud. As the path contours around drab Heights Pasture there's evidence of the area’s lead-mining past: a middle-of-nowhere cutting, then an embankment. A house beside the ghost line at High Bishopseat has split in two, half of it falling down the hillside, hints at grand old days past.
Ghosts from the past creep closer the nearer I get to Rookhope.
The village was once a thriving outpost of the North Pennines lead and fluorspar mining industry. Mining in Weardale peaked during the 18th and 19th centuries when the behemoth London Lead and Beaumont Companies dominated the local economy. At the lead boom's height 28 smelting operations were active in the region, many using the skills of immigrant Cornish miners. Weardale fluorite, meanwhile, was considered among the finest in the world. Fortunes changed at the tail end of the 19th century, when the decline in lead prices on the world market saw companies abandoning their seams. In 1999 the final commercial mine in the dale – Groverake – closed.
Rookhope encompasses the region-wide rise and fall in mineral fortunes. No cosy Dales village this. Instead in the shadow of the towering shaft head at Groverake – a beacon of the dale – is a settlement sidelined by history, its best days gone, yesterday's waste piled high on the hills, not just mine spoil, but rusting tractors and farm trailers from the only other industry left. The population statistics tell their own stark tale: in its heydey Rookhope was home to more than 1,000 souls. Now it is less than 300. W. H. Auden, that notorious lover of Pennine desolation called Rookhope "the most wonderfully desolate of all the dales" – an ambiguous seal of approval.
Attempts, though, are being made to turn things around. Beautifully presented information boards, both in the village and on the surrounding hills, present proud depictions of the valley’s past. There’s a local shop (not just for local people), where the gently-spoken owner chats at length about wildlife – last week he heard the first cockoo of Spring – before noting that business is slower this year than it was last. And there’s a public loo that is clean and free, which is more than can be said for the loos in any of the multi-billion pound London stations.
Maybe there is (Rook) hope yet.
The journey onwards continues in historic footsteps as it ascends Boltslaw Incline on a Sustrans Cycle network route used by Coast to Coast cyclists (not today though; in ten hours walking I pass not a single fellow traveller). The Incline, and ruined valleyhead engine house – used to winch wagons onto the moor – has a national claim to fame: the railway spur that transferred wagons from the Incline to Consett, 20 miles northeast, was Britain’s highest length of standard gauge track.
Then it’s back to moorland, miles of the stuff, immaculately managed too, with clearly defined allotments of recent burning showing someone somewhere is investing considerable time and (taxpayer's) cash into keeping their grouse fit for purpose. A single pine tree that has escaped the gamekeepers' flames exacerbates the bleakness, burned heather scars receding over the charred miles that weave and wave into the nothing-distance.
Little, it turns out, has changed since Auden wandered here.
I shiver, grateful that the mist has rolled back and the rain's holding off. Crossing here in a downpour would be miserable.
A sharp descent into Ramshaw is a guided tour of yet more industrial heritage; not just ghosts this time, but giant physical structures. First the twin chimneys that rise on Buckshott Moor – spires that rise inconceivably from the heather, mining's lost cathedrals. Then reservoirs, dozens of them caught in moorland hollows, holding back water for long-breached watercourses. Warning notices on barb-wired enclosures warn of disused shafts.
There is a melancholy in wandering too long through this landscape-scale graveyard, where the sad lament of the present is lost among the deadened sighs of the past.
I am grateful to reach the woods beside the burgeoning River Derwent.
It is all change at Blanchland, the historic, honey-stoned village that sits astride the Northumbrian border.
After the morning's melancholy the settlement is an unanticipated tonic. I wander the streets, admiring the fine houses (45 of them listed) around a cobbled square, roses draped over uniform-painted doors; the post office with its historic mailbox; the 12th century Lord Crewe Arms – behind whose vast fireplace Jacobite Rebellion leader General Tom Foster hid in 1715. Every charmed corner is a film set from bygone England; there's not a stone out of place.
Blanchland has the feel of a Cotswolds gem – Burford, say, or Lower Slaughter – which has been lifted wholesale and transplanted a few hundred miles northeast. As I shortly discover in the village tearoom, it also sports the prices of Burford, or Lower Slaughter.
AW was entranced by Blanchland: "Your imagination is indeed impoverished if you can enter this picturesque village for the first time and not thrill at the spectacle it affords." And while his nocturnal enthusiams were not to last until morning ("Blanchland in the morning is not the same as Blanchland in the evening,") he falls under its easy charm.
Honeyed stone and honecksuckle air, but even here you can't escape the lead. In these cloistered streets the bosses of the London Lead Company set up shop to commandeer their lucrative North Pennines activities, before moving to in Middleton-in-Teesdale in 1815, my stopping point just two days since.
Most Pennine Journeyers choose end the relatively short walking day from Westgate in Blanchland. And as long as you didn't drink too many cups of £3.50 tea, it would make a charming stopover.
But partly due to work commitments and partly to throw a few challenging days into my PJ I’m continuing north, destination Hexham.
So I finish my soup and tea in the White Monk tearoom, take out a small mortgage to pay for it, then pull on the pack and get back on the road.
The reality of the walk from Blanchland to Hexham is one you can't second-guess from the map. Parts that look entrancing end up disappointing, while sections I'd written off hold unlikely rewards.
Blanchland Moor – dour, and wet now, drizzle that has mounted on the climb to Pennypie Fell turning to wind-blasted rain as I cross its darkened flanks – leads to the dark shelter of Slaley Forest, in which a dog owner is calling, with increasing desperation through the muted darkness, for her lost charge.
The path through Steelhall Wood along the banks of Devil’s Water is disappointing: the woodland here is almost all plantation, oppressive and close, and with growth so prolific that river views are far between. There's still enjoyment to be had: the Water alongside is a constant bubbling companion and after days enjoying the melody of moorland birds the song under the far-above canopy is of a busier, lighter cadence. Occasional forays into woodland clearings find isolated dwellings where hens and roosters pick alongside carefully-tended veg patches. It feels like stepping back in time.
If the proliferation of conifers hiding the Devil’s Water begins to tire, there are sporadic reminders of what can be that lift the spirits. At Nunsbrough Wood, a diminutive Woodland Trust copse north of Pethfood Bridge, ancient oaks jostle with flourishing beech, May leaves a bursting green, amidst the heady perfume of wild garlic. Rotting piles of trunks, neatly stacked havens for insects, show this out-of-the-way wood is both loved and nurtured. Letah Wood, a mile up the road, is a steep-sided valleyside-wood of untold age thought to be Northumberland's last wild daffodil refuge.
A last steep descent to West Dipton Burn drops the Pennine Journey into a wide valley-floor flanked by alders. The steady incline on its far bank through more woodland demands energy right until the end, when, topping one last hill, Hexham comes into misty view far below.
I walk into the ancient town on knackered feet (22-and-a-half long miles since lonely Weardale) and wander the wet streets and hidden cobbled wynds – a Scots word, a reminder of how close to the border we are, and of this area’s shared, often antagonistic, history – to find a Wetherspoons.
It’s a rowdy affair, even at 6:30, with one drinker singing half-remembered songs to his companions, families a few tables down feeding their kids, and a Geordie, unsteady on his feet, who comes up to greet me as I put down the pack: “The wanderer returns,” he grins. I barely understand him, which is partly down to the accent and mostly the alcohol. He offers the same greeting every time he passes me on his way outside to smoke – which is approximately every ten minutes.
I keep up the smiles even though my legs are done for and all I want is to get dry, lie down and sleep.