Monday 25th August: Alston to Greenhead: 18 miles
Bank Holiday Monday high up in Alston. Within the eerily deserted hostel, we finally saw (we presumed) the warden, who was quite occupied with his own thing – I later learn that the place was about to change hands.
With no breakfast on offer, we took an early walk into the town to find some food. First we went into a roadside Spar (I think it was attached to a petrol station) for some hot pies etc. Then, heading into the town, where there was a good row of shops on the main street, a steep cobbled dog-legged rise. We went to the Co-op for some sandwiches.
Alston was an old mining town, the highest town in England. The architecture was mainly sturdy 19th century stone buildings that could handle cold bleak winters, which gave the place an out-of-time feel. It had a huge gothic town hall that impressed me but oppressed also for some indefinable reason (was it too big to be happy in this age?)
After vacating the hostel, we were soon out of Alston and headed north, following the course of the South Tyne.
As is often regretted, the path kept mostly at a distance from the river – it initially went along unremarkable sheep fields, then a more stimulating section on the river plain that skirted by the South Tees Railway.
Time Team Action (Part Two)
Early on, through the sheep fields, we approached the Roman earthworks at Whitley Castle (historically known as Epiacum). There was an archaeological dig taking place (which is why Stewart from the Time Team was in town the night before). They were digging and combing around some pits, looking for traces of Roman village life in the settlement outside the fort. They asked us across and chatted to us about their project – very interesting!
After an amble over the fort, whose big grassy earth banks I found were more of a physical distraction than a mental one.
There was a brief stretch along the South Tyne river bank, picking up from the attractive passage from the previous evening.
Our encounter with the archaeologists had given us a bit of a pick-up, so approaching Slaggyford we were quite lively, instead of trudging gloomily.
The Village of Scarecrows
We stopped for lunch on a bench at the back of the village green. Slaggyford was a small, quiet place, with cars passing through occasionally.
It had held a scarecrow festival on the previous weekend: various impressive efforts (in particular a realisation of the three little pigs and their big bad predator) were dotted around nearby.
Out of Slaggyford, there was further a mile of pasture (dipping in and out of the undergrowth beneath the viaducts of the now disused railway).
Then we climbed a little to get back onto the open moor of Hartleyburn Common, and followed along the Maiden Way.
Dull stuff, keeping to a straight path bordered by stone walls and wire fences, but there was a nice view over the river valley.
Off the common, the next two miles were a familiar walk over grazing fields, with a sharp dip and rise at Hartley Burn and a climb past a farm at Uphalm.
Getting to the road, we skirted by a house at Greenriggs and then unsuspectingly came across the hardest hour of the whole journey.
The Nightmare of Blenkinsop Common
Blenkinsop Common appeared an innocuous mile and a half on the map, but it was the hardest terrain I encountered – a sodden, reedy morass. For once, there was no visible path (no flag stones here). So I had to turn to my compass in surprise and try to navigate through.
This didn’t work – we tried to follow a gradual arc to the left (as per the markings on the map), but after twenty minutes of wandering around, increasingly in shorter and shorter circles, we decided we were lost. We were drained, becoming rapidly more and more irritable and the wind had picked up and was now buffeting us around. We started to get worried – it had gone six o’clock and we were three miles from home.
I reckoned that if we managed to find the fence that our path eventually should run to, we would have our bearings back. This didn’t immediately work; the problem was, if you’re moving forwards to find an object, what if you fail to get to it or see it, against a reasonable estimate of the time or distance to get there? You would probably be even further lost.
Eventually, we sighted the trig point on the other side of the fence. We’d finally found we where and we could haul ourselves off the common. At this point I’m half-exhausted from the ordeal.
Back on sheep pasture and then farm track, we dragged ourselves down to the A69, a mile’s walking that felt like three. I decided that I wouldn’t bother (or even manage) with following the route as mapped into Greenhead, so me and Mark just followed the A69 (a very busy road) for half a mile. We were worn out again: walking 21 miles then 20 then another 18 on successive days was a challenging thing (easy to forget when writing this).
The hostel at Greenhead was an old village hall type of building, which had fallen off the YHA network and appeared to have been picked up by the hotel owner from across the road. The place was deserted (apart from, he said, a French girl that we didn’t see at all) and it looked as though nobody had been in there all summer. Another night in a deserted building was a bit depressing.
This was Mark’s last day with me, so we had a final pub meal and couple of pints. We were too tired to be able to do much in the way of celebrating though.