The Pennine Way

Walked in August - September 2007

Day 13 – Thursday 6th September

Byrness – Kirk Yetholm
Pennine Way Distance: 25 miles. Cumulative: 256 miles

Last day. And it would be a long one, so we woke early, made sure we had enough food from the honesty cupboard to last us all day (the money we left and the list of what we’d taken was substantial to say the least), had a hearty breakfast of porridge and coffee and packed everything up, setting off at about six thirty. It was a bit chilly, but it seemed to be shaping up to be a bright, sunny morning as we walked across the green, up to the main road and turned right, walking along the road a way before turning off onto the signposted Pennine Way path. We remembered what the Scottish chap we’d met near Slaggyford had told us, about there being a number of false paths up Byrness Hill, and made sure we chose the steep one, giving us a straight line up, climbing through brush and numerous massive cobwebs, the dew dotting our clothes as we went. After a short scramble over some dangerous rocks we were on the brow of Byrness Hill, and stopped briefly to take a couple of photographs of the gorgeous view, including the tops of some of the houses in Byrness. Nearby was what is described in the guidebook as the lower courses of a stone fire lookout tower. It looked like a huge campfire that had burned out, and I imagined it would be a very welcome sight to anyone who had been unfortunate enough to be caught out there at night.

View from the top of Byrness Hill
View from the top of Byrness Hill

We turned and walked on, now greeted by our first view of the Cheviots, a vast, mighty purple and green range of hills that seemed to undulate off into the distance in all directions. We were now in one of the most desolate and unpopulated places in England, but were cheered by the fact that we were now closing in on our goal (relatively speaking), and that the weather had been so good to us. In fact the Sun remained in the sky for the rest of the day, and we were very thankful for it. With a light breeze to keep us cool, we pressed on at a fast pace, knowing we had a lot of miles to cover, and not wanting to hang around or get caught out if we had some long, slow climbs ahead of us. We crossed over Houx Hill and Ravens Knowe and passed a forest to the left of us at the wonderfully named Ogre Hill. We didn’t see any ogres, but at the bottom of the boggy slope, we climbed over a stile and crossed into Scotland for the first time. We were now in another country, visitors, and a sense of achievement hit us, ahead of our ultimate target.

We turned right soon after the border fence and walked down to Chew Green where we found a multitude of long, green mounds that were the remains of Roman marching camps. We decided to stop here for a rest and something to eat, dodging sheep and their numerous doings to find a clear spot on the grass. It was incredibly calm and quiet there, and we were already certain that this would be one of the best days of the trip, since the walk uphill earlier had been brief, and it looked now like we wouldn’t be going much higher than we already were, except when we reached the Cheviot itself. The weather was perfect, the temperature was perfect, and although we were still in some pain, we were generally fit and able with enough food and water to last us until we reached journey’s end. The nearby sheep didn’t seem particularly bothered with us. Although it was a fairly remote area, they were probably used to Pennine Way walkers and probably treated us with as much indifference as we treated them. We noticed what looked like a road and a fence not far away, and checking the guide found that this was the only section of this part of the walk that had vehicle access. A possible site of extraction then for people having second thoughts about the many miles ahead.

We set off again, turning left at the edge of the Roman camp, then right soon after to take an old Roman track called Dere Street, and eventually finding more boggy ground that made us thankful the weather had been so dry the last few days. We dreaded to think of the trouble we might have had if there had been lots of rain. Just before Lamb Hill we came to the first of two mountain refuge huts we’d encounter on the Cheviots that day, and went inside to check it out. First we had to disperse a small team of sheep that had been trying to work out how to get inside, but once they were out of the way we went in and found that the hut was basically little more that a large shed, with benches around the side that you could sit (and if necessary, sleep) on. People passing through had left little bits of food and small items like matches and sometimes gas canisters for other walkers to use. I lifted a tin of beans to eat later on, and a gas canister which I realised later was probably meant to stay there for people to use in the hut. Oops. I took the spade that was standing in one corner and went outside to dig a hole. Once I’d finished, Darryl did the same and returned the spade to its corner inside the hut. I don’t think I need to elaborate on this apparently unusual action, suffice it to say that we were quite ‘relieved’ after finding that spade.

Refuge hut near Lamb Hill
Refuge hut near Lamb Hill

We could see the sea now, and not far away, although out of sight, was Holy Island, formerly Lindisfarne, and Berwick upon Tweed, from where we would be catching our train home to London. We crossed Lamb Hill and further on Beefstand Hill, then passed two couples and a shirtless man who had jogged up from somewhere in the valley. Climbing over a stile, then up a steep path we came to the top of Windy Gyle and caught up with the man, chatting a while before having a break for lunch. He told us that he always carried a mobile phone with him when he was out on the hills, because once he had fallen, injured himself and had almost been unable to walk back down to his car. I’m still not sure how much help the phone would be, except to inform his loved ones that he had fallen and critically injured himself… somewhere, and wouldn’t be seeing them ever again. How anyone would be expected to find him I don’t know. The birds would have picked his carcass clean before rescue ever came.

There were a few other people milling about near the cairn on the top of Windy Gyle, and it seemed odd to us that we would have company here, considering the location was so remote. I took out my mess tin and stove and cooked us up the scavenged beans, adding several lumps of cheese to it to have with some bread. We’d eaten several mouthfuls before I thought it might have been a good idea to check the date on the tin of beans first. We had some biscuits and a drink, then regained our feet and pressed on in the direction of the Cheviot, which looked like a huge humpback whale looming before us. From Windy Gyle we joined Clennell Street, once a busy border crossing and a track that must have felt the pounding of thousands of Roman feet once upon a time. We had now come to another English/Scottish border, and we stayed on the English side, wondering how, despite our fast pace, we never seemed to get any closer to the Cheviot. Yet another Pennine Way mirage.

We followed the wire fence past King’s Seat, and through a boggy area, which was thankfully paved with flagstones, toward Cairn Hill. Again this was a long, relatively uneventful stretch, and we just had to put our heads down and march on to get the miles done. Darryl played some music through his iPod for a while which spurred us both on a little and when we finally reached Cairn Hill we joined a long boardwalk that had been thoughtfully built across the horrible quagmire below. We tramped across the long, wooden walkway until we came to a signpost and a choice. We could either carry on across what was now the Cheviot itself, sticking to the route, or take a detour of a mile to see the actual summit. It was quite possibly one of the easiest choices we’d ever made, and I’m sure one or both of us actually laughed as we left the signpost and the detour behind and continued along the boardwalk.

We kept our speed up and soon came to Auchope Cairn, where there was a view of the long, steep descent ahead of us, down to the second mountain shelter. It really was quite an awesome view, and we weren’t at all surprised to find that this staggering descent was no less arduous and treacherous than some of the worst climbs we’d had on the whole walk. Keeping ourselves steady and slow was hard, and we often found that it was safer to walk diagonally down the slope, zigzagging, a bit like tacking in a sailboat, to stop ourselves from gaining too much momentum.

View towards the Schil from Auchope Cairn
View towards the Schil from Auchope Cairn

Thankfully we reached the mountain hut intact, and took another break, having a look inside to see if there was any food worth requisitioning. There wasn’t a lot of grub, but there were interesting maps and sheets of information on the wall that some thoughtful person had left, and I once again wondered what it would be like to spend the night in such a place. I imagined it could be very cold, and the benches or shelves depending on your perspective looked less than comfortable. Outside I had a can of Coke and a Mars Bar, relishing the precious calories and needing every last one of them since our destination was still several miles away. Darryl pointed out two men hiking toward us, using their walking poles like ski poles, as if their legs just couldn’t cut it on their own. They stopped for a couple of minutes to chat to us and told us that they had just started walking the Pennine Way from North to South, having done South to North the previous year. They couldn’t think of a precise reason why they had decided to do it, it had just been an impulse, and I think Darryl and I could both relate to that. What was our reason for doing the walk after all? It couldn’t just be for fun as there were plenty more relaxing ways of having fun. It could have been for the challenge, but that alone wasn’t worth two weeks of our time. Adventure perhaps? It had certainly been an adventure, and we had surely known it would be before we had started. Nevertheless, as we said goodbye to the duo and continued on in the opposite direction, we both wondered if there had been something else, some other reason, perhaps subconscious, for pushing us forward, for moving our feet toward the start of the walk.

With these thoughts in mind we pushed on, climbing again gradually, until we reached the last peak of the day, and indeed the trip. The climb to the top of the Schil was relatively short, but steep, uneven and punishing. We were made to work hard for our last climb, and every uphill step reminded us of how tired and in pain we were. At the top we had a rest near some rocks, batting away a succession of large, ugly flies that, in all fairness, had no one else to bother. The views from the top of the Schill are beautiful and, if you can ignore the insects, would give you a good reason to stay there for a good while. We were eager as ever to finish the walk though, and set off without great delay, now heading downhill, but with our feet in constant, dull pain and our spirits and morale slowly dwindling. Soon after leaving the top of The Schil we were presented with another choice, the high or low path to Kirk Yetholm. Again it was a decision that didn’t require a lot of debate, as the low route was shorter and therefore (hopefully) quicker. A short way further on, and back in Scotland now I should add, we encountered another sheep that seemed keen to play chicken with us, but again we just ignored it and it got bored, wandering off into the bushes to hide and wait for the next unfortunate walker. The path twisted around a couple of hills, and each time a new view opened up we hoped to catch a glimpse of Kirk Yetholm as it seemed tantalisingly close on the map, but we were thwarted every time. Staggering down one narrow path we saw a farm and a small yard containing several horses. The Sun was starting to set and turn the sky a pink colour, and as we wandered past the quiet farmyard the horses seemed to regard us with suspicion, or perhaps incredulity, wondering where on Earth we had come from, and what on Earth we’d been doing. Walking on along the road we passed a small settlement which unfortunately wasn’t our destination, and followed a road for the final mile as it curved first to the right, then the left, then took us up a steep road which we were now certain would yield, at the top, our first sighting of our destination.

A quiet and unassuming Journey’s End
A quiet and unassuming Journey’s End

And there it was, innocent and quiet in the darkening of the day, nestling amid fields, lights already on in several houses, birds flying overhead and more horses nearby, their heads bent to the grass to eat. We took a photo from this high point, then moved on, not wanting to be immobile for too long because our feet would start to throb again. We took our time now, knowing the end was imminent and there was no need to rush to beat the dwindling daylight. Down the tarmac road we passed a couple of cottages on the right, then we were suddenly by the green, and on the right, a sight for sore eyes, we saw The Border Hotel, beautiful in its significance and quite charming in its actuality, greeting our tired, desperate eyes. We walked in, leaving our bags by the front door and scarcely caring if anyone dashed by to steal them while we weren’t looking, though dashing away with them would be near impossible unless they had a flatbed truck.

We cross the finish line at The Border hotel, Kirk Yetholm
We cross the finish line at The Border hotel, Kirk Yetholm

Inside the Border Hotel we were treated to a free drink, a tradition still upheld by the owners, though not a responsibility, and asked about ordering food. We decided we would go to our hostel which Darryl had phoned earlier in the day, drop our stuff, get washed and changed and return to sit down and have a nice, big meal. First we took our certificates of completion, an official piece of paper that would always remind us of our achievement and convince us, in our old age, that we had really, genuinely done it.

We found the hostel not far away, down a small track from the green, and were shown to our room, which again we had all to ourselves. Again the hostel was well run, clean and comfortable, offering two exhausted walkers more than they could possibly have asked for. We showered, changed into some clean clothes and set off back to the Border Hotel, where we ordered more drinks and walked through to the restaurant. It was very busy inside, and the food we saw being served and eaten looked excellent. There was a mix of accents around us, including Geordie and Scottish. To the other diners it may well have been a typical Thursday night, but for us it was a very important moment not just in our trip but in our lives. We had completed a staggering walk, having encountered a succession of tough obstacles and having fought with long days, tiredness, pain, demoralisation and thoughts of jacking it all in. We’d done it, and this was a time to celebrate.

Looking at the menus, we remembered that the wild camper at Crowden had recommended the Border Hotel’s steak pie which was meant to be incredible. It didn’t seem to be on the menu, so we asked a passing member of staff about it and he informed us that the steak pie was part of their Winter menu which didn’t start until the next day. Typical. Nevertheless after scanning the menu we both decided to go for the roast lamb, giving us a chance to get our own back on all those staring, chicken-playing animals we’d encountered along the way. When the food came it was delicious. The meat slid off the bone, mingling with the rich gravy and mint and hardly touching the sides as it sank down our grateful gullets.

We had another drink or two in the bar after the meal to continue our celebration, neither of us really believing that it was all over, and that we had actually done it and had finished on schedule. When we decided we ought to leave, we got up and moved our worn bodies out of the Border Hotel and hobbled back to the hostel feeling like two wounded soldiers arriving home after a long tour of duty. The only thing we had to worry about now was catching the bus to Kelso in the morning, which was around nine o’clock, so we would have a bit of a lie in. All was quiet in Kirk Yetholm as we turned off the light and climbed into our bunks, tired but satisfied, pained but jubilant.

 

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