My last Pennine Way post, all about an eventful evening up at England’s highest pub – Tan Hill – en route to completing the Pennine Way proved popular. So here’s another excerpt from ‘Anorak on the Pennine Way’ (which of course is available on amazon).
Chapter 9 – ‘Cross on Cross Fell’
“Getting lost is just another way of saying ‘going exploring.” – Justina Chen Headley (North of Beautiful)
The past few days had been utterly wonderful. Graham and Cherie had been a pleasure to walk with, my Achilles problems seemed to be behind me, and I looked forward to a right good slog up and over Cross Fell and beyond. Breakfast was consumed quickly, ‘unpooeyed’ trainers laced up, and I was on my way up to Knock Fell, the first of three summits along the same ridge – the final one being the all important Cross Fell. Lunch could be had at an old hut on the way down before an undulating stroll in further uncharted territory for me, the South Tyne Valley
A quick check the previous evening had confirmed that the compass was packed, thankfully, as the when I woke to see view of the tops obscured in mist I realised I might need it. Hopefully the sun would burn that off as the morning progressed – after all, things were going swimmingly and the finish line was mere stone’s throw or two away.
After a regulation youth hostel breakfast, served with the efficiency you would expect, it was time to continue my epic journey. It was a pleasant morning down here in the bottom of the valley, even if not so further up the hill, and there was nothing but the sound of bird-song to keep me company as I made all my checks on the village green before departing for good. Maybe the smell of my kit had rendered the possibility of anyone else passing my way right now pretty remote. However, once I had made my move, Dufton disappeared into the distance quickly as I strode out confidently in the direction of the hills ahead.
Following a gradual ascent at first, the climb up Knock Fell gradually became steeper, almost a hand and knees job at times, which I found I quite enjoyed. I’d not had a good slog up a hill on my own since Pen-Y-Ghent, and it was nice to have to work hard, makes you feel that your long adventure is more than a mere jaunt in the countryside. And then I looked up and saw the mist. The sun wasn’t, as I’d hoped, burning it off. Now Paddy Dillon is most insistent that this is a difficult place to navigate in the mist. It’s a doddle in clear weather, but in mist you could end up anywhere. I checked my jacket pocket, confirming that the compass was still safely tucked away, and headed on up past a number of cairns, as well as Knock Hush. This is one of several man made watercourses up here, the likes of which miners made good use of in order to wash away the soils to reveal bare rock in times past. Life as a miner was harsh here in the past as it had been back in Swaledale. Then it was onwards to the Old Man of Knock, who was waiting for me nearer the top – not actually an ageing gentleman who preferred to spend his twilight years up here, but a large well-known, imposing cairn marking the way to the summit of Knock Fell. After another short pull, there was at last the cairn that marked the top of the hill. This marked the lowest of several summits along this broad ridge – and all you have to do to get to the next summit at Great Dun Fell is to stay on the ridge. Given that there is a huge radar station on top of Great Dun then it’s pretty straightforward, unless of course there’s this pea-soup mist to contend with. In my case, that radar station could have been anywhere, I’d not seen any concrete proof so far that it actually existed.
Now, being a Geography teacher with a great sense of direction, I pride myself in not allowing myself to get lost. Ever. I have an acquaintance who is always getting lost on the hills; he can see what’s on a map but he can’t read a map. He knows what contour lines are, but can’t work out what they tell him, and ten minutes after setting off on a walk really hasn’t the faintest notion where he might be on his map. His usual excuse for getting lost is that the map is wrong and why haven’t ‘they’ (the people that designed the map) done something about it. So I avoid like the plague spending any time on the hills with him. I, on the other hand, am something of an expert in this line of work. Why else would I have got here so easily, with the only mishap of any note being that slight deviation on Kinder? No chance of me erring up here y’know. Plus, despite having left the GPS at home, I have the trusty compass to supplement Dillon’s instructions, and the precise ordnance survey 1:25000 scale map. I surely can’t go wrong.
So at the top of Knock Fell I sat down, enjoyed a quick snack, made a simple compass bearing and headed off in a straight line across the summit to search for Great Dun summit and some radar station. After a hundred or so yards the faint path faded away and I continued in my straight line for a minute or two longer. Being still enshrouded in the very deep mist, it was therefore pertinent to take another compass bearing. So I again sat on a rock and got out the compass. Text book stuff this.
At least I would have got the compass out had it been there. It seemed that it was no longer nestling safely in my jacket pocket, or any pocket come to think of it. Ok, something of a problem, but not to panic – let’s just see what Paddy Dillon would say about this…
No Paddy Dillon either. Not in the rucksack, not in my jacket pocket, not anywhere to be had. Missing, absent without leave.
It then dawned on me that Paddy and the compass were, in all probability, waiting for me to return on that same rock I’d taken the original bearing several minutes ago. Slightly not so text book stuff anymore. So should I return to that rock?
Yes….but hold on. In which direction, exactly, is that rock?
Now if you’ve ever been lost in thick mist you’ll know that once you become a little disorientated, it is damn hard become re-orientated again. I didn’t make it easy for myself either. My first idea was to head back in the general direction that I may have come – but after a while it was obvious that I was not reaching the intended feature. No summit cairn, no rock, no sign of a footpath, or anything else other than random stones, rocks, and lashing and lashings of black peat.
Then it began to rain. Quite heavily in fact.
I wandered around aimlessly for a while longer, looking for maybe another walker, a chance encounter with someone I might need to point me in the right direction, but with not an ounce of luck. Maybe an hour after making that compass bearing I was no closer the next summit, or Cross Fell, or Alston, than I had been an hour ago. Furthermore, there was little chance of me getting any closer to said destinations while I was still wandering around aimlessly up here. It wasn’t quite Mark Thatcher adrift in the Sahara out here, but neither did I wish to become another Amelia Earhart, who vanished forever without trace in her aeroplane. If I was going to get stuck I wanted to be found alive and well please.
At least I was well equipped if I was going to be lost for some time. I had full waterproof cover, of which I was making full use of right now, a bivvy tent and plenty of warm clothes and spare food, so in theory I could survive for quite some time should it be necessary to sit down and give up. It might be a problem if I suddenly find myself waist deep (or worse) in a peat bog. There was, after all, nobody who actually knew I was lost up here, my friends and family were going about their own lives regardless, and I couldn’t call for help because the old mobile phone signal was non-existent in this neck of the woods.
So, only one thing to do that made any sense. Sack the hill. I had a couple of ‘get out of jail’ cards I could play that would at least take me to somewhere I could find on the map, even if it was no closer to where I wanted to be. Once I knew I where I was I would be able to get myself back en-route, wherever that was, and despite the fact that Paddy had run off with the compass.
Get out of jail card #1: Head downhill. It’s safer than being on top, and you can see more than a couple of yards ahead because there’s currently no mist down there. It might not even be raining down there. Its common sense really.
So downhill I headed. Or I would have done had I been able to find downhill. No matter which direction I headed in the land just would not go downhill. In and out of bogs, peat hags, more bogs, further peat hags, things were starting to get a little irritating. It’s not as if I was still going up the hill, I wasn’t, I just seemed to be in an endless landscape of nothingness. Here I was right on top of a hill in the pissing rain, unable to find a way down. Never in all my years had I found myself in a position such as this – I mean, how hard is it to find downhill?
Without panicking, and in my utterly discombobulated state, get out of jail card # 2 was called for instead. Follow water. Water naturally heads downhill. Find a stream and it should, unless the usual laws of nature don’t apply up here, take me down the hill and eventually to some place where I could gather my thoughts and reschedule my day.
So, some minutes later, after wandering around like a right wally, I found a tiny stream, fresh and exuberant after emerging from some nearby spring. As tiny as it was, this would lead me back to the rest of humanity. I seemed at the time that I had discovered the north of England’s most twisty, winding little stream but it did, slowly, start to get a little wider and did at least begin to head slightly downhill. I really could have been anywhere by now, but at this stage of the day I cared not where I was as much as I did how long it would take me to work out how to get back to where I should have been. Frustration was starting to set in, but the stream was getting larger and I was beginning to think that some time later in the day I might be back on track. It was difficult going, with only short stretches of easy walking, much of time being forced to walk ankle deep along its channel in order to avoid particularly mudded banks – but I was consoled in the fact that it was at least taking me somewhere.
And then suddenly, right in front of me were the occasional mudded remains of human footprints in the peat on the edges of this ever growing watercourse. No sign of a footpath as such, but confirmation that there had been mankind in these parts in the not too distant past. As the stream took on the shape of a small river, the mist began to lighten somewhat, but not enough to allow me to work out where I might be…..and then, out of nowhere, a bridge.
The small, isolated wooden structure I had come across posed another dilemma. This obviously housed a public right of way as there were clear signs of a small, not particularly well trodden, footpath leading into the mist in each direction. There was also a sign warning that this was ‘Cow Green reservoir catchment area’.
What! This was most worryingly well out of the way. While this bridge was undoubtedly on my map somewhere, the catchment area of this huge reservoir rendered any accurate assumptions most inaccurate. Besides, the rain was preventing me from making anything like a studious perusal virtually impossible.
So, do you continue to follow the stream that seems to be taking you on a relentless journey, seeming to a huge reservoir I thought I’d seen the back of, or do I head off to the left – or to the right – where I might at last find humanity waiting, or where I could easily lose my way once again should the path vanish. Decisions, decisions, and nobody but myself to offer guidance. I decided to play safe (or as safe as you can get up here) and follow the stream a little further as it crashed through a narrow gorge before widening into a shallow bowl.
There was also something else to consider at this point. Legend has it that that when a storm breaks over Cross Fell, and the Tees, of which this was undoubtedly a tributary, is in spate, the swirling patches of foam are known as ‘Peg Powler’s Suds’. And you know what that might mean.
Then, as the mist began at last to clear, and the rain began to relent, there was a sight of a fellow walker, a few hundred yards off in the distance. A saviour, the first human being I had seen since waving goodbye to my hosts at the youth hostel several hours earlier. I could track him down and seek directions, I wasn’t too proud to admit that I was I was lost, I didn’t care if he laughed, and if he was friendly enough I might even kiss him. Old Peg wasn’t going to have her wicked way with this hardy wayfarer after all.
But before I had chance to break into anything more than the Grillo shuffle it suddenly dawned on me where I was. I was walking, sorry, shuffling, down the middle of the Maize Beck, and there, just on my right was a small Pennine Way marker post pointing in the direction of High Cup Nick a mile or so further on. I was back where I had been the day before and had, it transpired, just passed the ‘old’ Pennine Way bridge on the disused route over Maizebeck Scar. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, as I had managed, somehow, to survive crossing one of the wettest, most boggy moorland stretches in the country. All I could do now was retrace my steps back down into Dufton, except without the exceptional views I had enjoyed less than twenty-four hours earlier. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry – back on track (of sorts) but facing a lengthy trek back to where I had been at the start of the day. I didn’t linger at High Cup Nick – not much to see today anyway – and the path downhill from there seemed even more eternal than it had before I sorrowfully sloped back into the village without having walked through any piles of cow poo. But what now? There was no chance of attempting the same range of hills again, the mist had not risen enough to allow me to get any further than I already had without the compass or guidebook, so I would have make emergency plans.
Being a small, rather out of the way country village, Dufton is not the kind of place where you can casually jump onto the next bus and head off in the required direction. No, I would have to locate the nearest town before I could even think about trying to get back onto the section of the trail I wanted to be on – which wasn’t that far away as the crow flies, but which had a bloody huge set of hills in the way.
Appleby-in-Westmoreland is about three and a half boring miles walk from Dufton. It probably isn’t boring really, but to me, on this particular day, it was very, very tedious. If only because it was a walk I really did not want to be doing. I was drenched, very tired, and most depressed as I crawled into Appleby, along the road, in search of the railway station. That bit wasn’t too hard, as remember I’m really good at reading maps and not getting lost.
Now. Consider this. Appleby railway station is on the famous Settle-Carlisle line, so popular among tourists in this part of the world. If you catch a train in the direction of Settle you can actually stay on the train a little longer and alight later at Keighley station. Keighley station being my local station of course. Being this fed up, I could quite easily take the easy option, sack the whole thing and head home into the arms of my family. So easy. After all, isn’t that what was expected?
But this was definitely not an option. Not now. Maybe this day was supposed to end this way in order to test my resolve. I’d come this far, had those bloody fantastic days, some cracking company and had been enjoying every minute, even the bits that had proved painful, and there was no way I was going to jack it all in because I’d taken the wrong turn, bruised my own ego, and had to take emergency action. Why, it was just part of the adventure. The proper and correct thing to do was catch a train- in the opposite direction of course – to Carlisle – and take it from there. It was, by now, late in the day but I just might be able to get to Alston, or Greenhead in good time. It was obvious that I wouldn’t be able to get some of the South Tyne Valley done, but as I’d done several miles extra in the wrong direction it felt as if at least in spirit I’d covered that ground, or at least an equivalent distance.
It wasn’t until I got on the train that I realised I had a further problem. I reeked. I really, really smelled bad. If I’d thought the smell of cow-poo the previous evening was hideous enough, today it was the whiff of stale sweat, mixed in with the peaty grime of the moors, and washed in with the rain and damp I’d encountered for much of the day. This was far worse. The gore-tex trainers were saturated, they were after all this time now beginning to show their age, and had I a mirror handy I would surely have considered myself a pretty sorry, and most shocking sight.
Fumbling around in my by-now grimy looking and muddied rucksack, I found myself a spare top (clean, dry type) to change into. Unfortunately someone had moved into the nearest toilets and was staying there for quite some time, so the only option was to change in my seat. Another slight problem lay in the fact that an elderly lady was sat reading her book in the opposite aisle. She would surely not approve of this.
But for the first time today I had a stroke of luck. Said lady was not actually reading any more. No, she has dropped off mid-page, giving the impression that she was concentrating intently on the words in front of her, when in fact she was in mid-snooze. So it is not just the books that I have penned that can be used as a cure for insomnia! I seized the opportunity to make a double quick replacement of clothing, and hey presto, I was just a little bit less smelly than I had been seconds earlier. She never noticed a thing. The smelly bottoms would have to wait though. That would be pushing it. Should sleeping lady wake to find a man in his underwear sat opposite her then a right nasty scene might have materialised.
Once we had pulled into Carlisle I made haste for the men’s’ toilets and removed the smelly bottoms. That would have been an arrestable offence in many men’s’ lavatories across the country, but even the most ardent of constables would have recognised my predicament had he seen the sight of me, or even had he walked within a hundred yards or the smelliest gentleman in Cumbria. Changing pungent clothing I was, ‘cottaging’ I was most certainly not. Then, after a good wash down to supplement the uniform change it was time to work out what to do next, or rather where to go next.
Anorak on the Pennine Way is available for kindle here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00ECHGTUW