The Pennine Way

Walked in August - September 2007

Day 7 – Friday 31th August

Hawes – Mellwaters (Bowes)
Pennine Way Distance: 22 miles. Cumulative: 126 miles


At the best of times, even in sunshine, this crossing of Sleightholme Moor is like walking in porridge. After heavy rain it is like walking in oxtail soup.
- Alfred Wainwright

We woke later than usual, and were a lot less inclined to rise since we were in proper beds and finding things generally very comfortable. Because of this laziness it was getting close to nine o’ clock by the time we had breakfasted, washed, retrieved our clothes from the drying room and dressed. The eight hours sleep I’d had made me feel psychologically as well as physically refreshed, and Darryl looked like he too had made the most of our (comparatively) luxurious stopover. We reluctantly left the hostel and set out on the road once more in the crisp, clear morning, walking up toward the high street which was already buzzing with activity. There were a couple of shops we’d have liked to have looked in, but we were already running late, so Darryl dashed into one to get a newspaper, and we were soon on our way again.

Hawes is the highest market town in Yorkshire and is home to the Dales Countryside Museum and the ‘cheesy’ Wensleydale Experience. Nevertheless we were just passing through, so we once more had to forgo tourism and just walk away into the distance. Turning down a road away from the town, we crossed Haylands Bridge over the River Ure and began making our way up and out of the dale, at one point forcing ourselves through yet another torturous squeeze stile. We passed the thirty metre high Hardraw Force waterfall which was accessible via a private path by the side of the Green Dragon Inn. Either we forgot about it, or didn’t feel we had time to pay a visit, but either way we walked on past the Inn and over the bridge, turning right near a house and passing a signpost that indicated the town of Thwaite was eight miles away, on the other side of Great Shunner Fell. The path began to get rough and steep, and soon the clear, crisp morning became dull, misty and specked with a light, cold rain that seemed to blow horizontally at us. The ground changed from grassland to moorland, and we soon appeared to be approaching a cloud line. Surely we couldn’t be that high up?

Looking back to Hawes and Gayle
Looking back to Hawes and Gayle

This was our longest ascent so far, and seemed to drag on forever. The wind picked up, as did the rain and we actually started to get quite cold and wet, pulling our hoods tight to our heads and just pressing on, keeping to the stone slabs while we had the luxury of them, and hoping that each brow we came to would be the top of the fell. At a couple of points, the slabs disappeared and we had to scramble over rocks or hillocks, and we were very relieved when we finally reached the summit and stopped at the cross-shaped wind shelter for a drink of hot chocolate and some biscuits.

The cross-shaped wind shelter on Great Shunner Fell

The cross-shaped wind shelter on Great Shunner Fell

I took several photographs from the top of Great Shunner Fell, mainly of Birk Dale and Thwaite Common, while Darryl heated some water in the mess tin for the chocolate. The cloud system seemed to be almost level with us, and we could see below it into the valley where the weather looked a lot warmer. As we would discover the next day (in a much more dramatic manner) some fells had their own weather systems. You could walk up a mountain in the hot sun, and the weather would change until you found yourself in dense fog or rain, until descending the mountain again to find that the sun was still there, and had been all along.

While we were resting, two elderly gentlemen came up to the shelter from the opposite direction. They had come from the direction of Thwaite or Muker, and it appeared to be something they did on a regular basis, as they were hardly out of breath and were smiling. We chatted to them as we packed our things away. They were impressed by what we were doing, particularly going all the way to Bowes that day, and they wished us the best of luck. We pressed on, away from the wind shelter and down the other side of the fell, heading out of the cold drizzle. A muscle in my left thigh had started to hurt and the pain didn’t want to go away, so I hoped it wouldn’t escalate into a bigger problem. My stomach wasn’t feeling too good either, and I was wondering where my appetite had gone as we turned North-East and progressed downwards to Beacon Cairn and the marshy ground beyond. There were slabs for most of the way now, making progress swift, but it still took us a good while to get down Shunner Fell and onto the narrow stony track that took us down into Thwaite.

We found a nice tea room at the Kearton Country Hotel and sat at a table outside. I went in and ordered two ham baguettes and two cream teas. While Darryl guarded the packs and waited outside, I went in to use the lavatory. Rather than asking walkers to take off their boots, the owners of the tea rooms and the restaurant next door provided plastic boot covers, like little plastic bags that had elastic around the edges so they could be stretched to cover the footwear. After attaching these odd little foot-condoms, I found the toilet, achieving yet another look of disapproval from an elderly waiter, and closed the door, hoping I hadn’t brought down the tone of the place with my scruffy appearance.

Rush hour Thwaite
Rush hour Thwaite

Returning to our table outside I sat down to eat. My appetite still hadn’t returned, but I was able to devour most of the ham baguette and the lion’s share of my cream tea, knowing that we may not have another chance to eat for the rest of the day, if previous days were anything to go by. I took a photograph of a friendly robin which flew down and perched on the wall behind us to say hello. It was only in retrospect that I realised he might have wanted something to eat. Hopefully we dropped a few crumbs for him to retrieve after we’d left.

“Afternoon gents. I couldn’t trouble you for a crumb or two...”
“Afternoon gents. I couldn’t trouble you for a crumb or two...”

We struck up a conversation with an older hiker who was sitting at a nearby table. We were amazed to learn that he used to live next to the farm just beyond Hebden Bridge that we’d been looking for on day three. A wild camper at Crowden had mentioned the same place, and we again cursed our bad luck at missing the place, something that cost us a lot of time and effort and forced us to camp at the midge-infested Blake Dean.

We left the pretty little tea rooms, hoisted up our packs and strode off up the narrow main street out of Thwaite, which incidentally means a clearing in the trees (from the Norse). We walked up a walled path, crossed a number of stiles and turned to the left to start climbing up Kisdon Hill. We must have made a mistake at some point as we found ourselves on the wrong side of a stone wall in a field. Rather than go all the way back to the gate, we decided to chance it and climb over the wall to our left. The wall wasn’t in the best condition, and though Darryl found a fairly safe place to scramble over, I soon found myself sitting on top of the unstable brickwork with no clear way over, wondering if I was about to initiate an unscheduled demolition. Somehow I managed to get down without bringing the wall down with me and we carried on up the hill, weaving between several tumbledown walls and barns until we were on the shoulder of Kisdon Hill, looking down into the green, upper Swale Valley and back toward the receding Thwaite and Great Shunner Fell.

The gorgeous Swaledale
The gorgeous Swaledale

The path grew more and more rocky and uneven, keeping our progress slow and painful and making me swear at regular intervals, the punishment to my feet, coupled with my indigestion, gradually lowering my mood all the while. I couldn’t help but appreciate the scenery though, and when we reached Kisdon Force, one of several waterfalls near the confluence of the Swale and East Gill Beck, we had a break. We had just crossed a footbridge, continuing along the Pennine Way instead of detouring to Keld which was now very close although we couldn’t see it through the undergrowth. We were also at the point where the Pennine Way meets Alfred Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk. A lot of Pennine Way walkers choose to stop in Keld for the night, and we would have done so too if we hadn’t been behind schedule. Instead we had another long leg of the journey to do before nightfall, but we tried not to dwell on this too much. I took a few photographs of the nearby waterfall, and one of Darryl sitting against a tree like Frodo Baggins enjoying the rest.

East Gill Beck
East Gill Beck

Frodo Baggins
Frodo Baggins

We were soon up and on the trail once more, climbing up a steep, rocky path that led to East Stonesdale Farm, then onwards and up a long, grassy, wet track bordered on both sides by meadows, then onto pure pasture, rising higher and higher, with the wind gaining more and more of a presence as we went. Looking down into the valley to our left, we could see the odd vehicle or building, and they seemed miles away, like we were climbing onto the roof of the world. It was late in the day though, and we were tired, so our perceptions could have been a little muddled. We kept ourselves going with thoughts of Tan Hill Inn which was up ahead somewhere, but ever elusive (like almost every landmark we’d come across so far), with its warm fire, food and drink. It would have been so nice to have stopped there for the night. We craved to end our day’s walk and collapse with a pint or two, but we knew this would make completing the walk even more difficult, perhaps even impossible. Still, we had time to stop for a while, not doing that would have been a complete travesty.

We marched over Stonesdale Moor, negotiating wet, boggy patches and small, unstable bridges, occasionally meandering with the force of the wind, and wondering where on Earth the bloody pub was, until it eventually appeared in the distance. We spotted one or two other likely candidates before Tan Hill Inn, but these just turned out to be boring old farmhouses. Useless. As we got closer and closer to the Inn, the Sun reappeared to cheer us up, the wind refused to die down though, so we had to fight every last step of the way to the car park.

Tan Hill Inn
Tan Hill Inn

The charismatic Tan Hill Inn, at five hundred and twenty eight metres above sea level, really is a sight for sore eyes. It sits all alone in the barrenness above the Yorkshire Dales, offering a very welcome respite to all who pass. There appeared be some light building work underway when we visited, but the pub was still, thankfully, open for business. Staggering past the pub’s trademark snowmobile, and avoiding the sheep sleeping on the step, we opened the door, dropped our bags in the porch and made our way to the bar. The open beams and stone-flagged floor, show Tan Hill Inn’s age, but it is still a very well-maintained and modern business in what it offers. You’d think, considering its location that it might be like a pub in a horror film with suspicious locals, eyeing you over their shoulders, and whispering to each other not to say a word about ‘you know what.’ Instead we found the busy Inn as familiar in its atmosphere as any country pub, and made ourselves comfortable right away, not far from the roaring log fire. We noticed a couple of tents on the grass outside as we came in, and the Inn offers rooms for the night. The temptation to call it a day was again overpowering, but we fought against it, knowing we could lose everything.

Darryl had a pint of cola, then Black Sheep bitter while I just had cola. We chatted about how far we had to go before nightfall, and Darryl worked out that we could get to the campsite in Mellwaters near Bowes by about eight thirty. This meant we had to get going in order to make the six or so miles to Bowes before dark. I didn’t get my beer at Tan Hill Inn then, regrettably, but I made a promise to myself to return some day.

The barren Sleightholme Moor
The barren Sleightholme Moor

Leaving the warmth and safety of the Inn, we hit the Brough-Reeth road, leaving the Pennine Way for a while so that we could make up the miles on a good, smooth surface. And we did indeed manage to get an amazing pace going, fuelled by our brief stop and refreshments at the Inn. We were now in County Durham, leaving the Yorkshire Dales behind and more or less at the half way point of the whole walk. Sleightholme Moor to our left was vast and featureless, an almost barren wasteland, and it was hard to believe that places like this could exist in Britain. We felt utterly isolated and alone, and we quickened our pace even more to try and get back to civilization as fast as possible. That’s not to say we didn’t appreciate the peacefulness and beauty of the seclusion, but we were constantly concerned about replacing our food and water supplies, considering how much of them we could use up during a day.

We marched on, wary of the failing daylight that was now even more against us as we were very high up, and the sun would be leaving our location earlier than it would somewhere closer to sea level. Near the delightfully named Great Cocker (and I’m still not sure exactly what type of geological feature this is) we turned left onto the Sleightholme Moor Road that would let us rejoin the Pennine Way near Hound Beck. Being tired and concerned that we might not get to our campsite before dark, we were unable to appreciate the unusual and amusing names of the other features around us such as Cocker Top, Little Cocker, Cocker Hag, Bog Moss and Rushy Moor Bottom. Focussed now, and definitely marching rather than walking, we headed up past Sleightholme Farm and Skitter Hill, and on to Intake Bridge at Bog Scar, a modern wooden bridge over Sleightholme Beck that had a clever self-closing gate at each end that while not particularly taxing to humans, is no doubt confusing and quite possibly vexing to nearby sheep with thoughts of emancipation. We walked along the side of Bog Scar, Darryl re-checking the guidebook, me having horrible thoughts of having to wild-camp. We trudged on, moving ever closer to our destination, able to hear traffic now on the busy A66 meaning Bowes was almost in sight. But the light was now gone, and though we could indeed have camped almost anywhere nearby without being disturbed, we really wanted somewhere safe where we could get a shower. We finally homed in on the farmyard, marked as a campsite on the Ordnance Survey map in the guidebook, which we now had to view via a torch, and struggled on for the last quarter of a mile.

When we reached the outskirts of Mellwaters Farm we looked around to see if there were tents or obvious signs of camping facilities, but couldn’t see anything. Entering the farmyard itself, all seemed very quiet, too quiet for a campsite, considering it wasn’t quite nine o’clock. We approached one building (which later turned out to be a vacant holiday cottage) and knocked on the door. There was no answer, so we found another building which looked like it could be part of an administration block and knocked again. At length a light came on, and an elderly lady opened the door. We had the feeling we’d disturbed someone in their private residence (which wasn’t far from the truth) and explained our predicament, and that we were looking for the campsite. The lady explained to our distress, that the farm had ceased being a campsite five years ago (déjà vu) and that they only rented holiday cottages to the elderly and disabled. She obviously didn’t want to leave us stranded, as she called her husband and asked him if he’d phone ahead to the campsite in Bowes (a mile or so down the road) to ask if they could let us in. They both disappeared for a while, and when she returned some minutes later she asked if we were determined to camp out in the open. At first the question struck me as odd, then I slowly realised what she was implying. I hoped she was going to let us camp in their field, but what actually happened was even better. The cottage opposite where we were standing was vacant and in the process of being redecorated, but she said for five pounds we could spend the night in there. Her husband would even put the heating on so that we could be warm and have a shower. We didn’t need to think about this proposal, we accepted immediately and followed her and her husband into the cottage which was very big, and very welcoming.

The man mentioned that they had told Ordnance Survey several times to take the campsite symbol off the map, and that every now and again people would knock on their door asking for a pitch for the night. We imagined it must be frustrating for them. He even said that a group of RAF soldiers had staggered into the farm some weeks ago on an exercise and in a pretty bad state, though they apparently hadn’t done half as much work as we had. This cheered up us, and made the fellow our new best friend. We were given soap and towels and the couple seemed to really warm to us, which made us feel so grateful and humbled since we were complete strangers and they could have easily turned us away. We used the huge bathroom with walk-in shower, ate, brewed some hot chocolate and slept in the living room, since there were no beds in the cottage at that time. Darryl slept on the sofa and I laid out sofa cushions on the floor. The heating must have been on full blast as it was very warm that night, but very cozy and comfortable. Some of our clothes hadn’t dried completely in the drying room of the youth hostel in Hawes, so we draped them over the emersion heater in the airing cupboard, which worked like a charm. It was easily one of the best nights of the whole trip, and one of the more memorable thanks to the amazing kindness of strangers. Ahead of us now, only a couple of miles away, was the halfway point of the Pennine Way.

Camping indoors at Mellwaters
Camping indoors at Mellwaters

 

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