Day 53: Forest
Bellingham to Byrness. 16.2 miles. Miles to date: 776.7.
There is something Hansel and Gretel about Byrness (pron. Burnuss), stopping point for tonight on my penultimate night of the Pennine Way.
The cluster of terraced houses among the towering pines was built for foresters when Kielder Forest was in its infancy in the 1920s and 30s. But most of the jobs have gone now, a sacrifice to efficiency, and with them the people that made up this tight-knit community. The café has closed. And the petrol station. And the hotel. The YHA shut its doors earlier this year. For Sale signs are the only signs of colour fronting the weather-beaten awnings.
Just five miles from Scotland this is a border village that people don't stop in. Juggernauts thunder by on the A68, while timber-stacked hauliers keep a constant ferry in and out of the seemingly endless forest, taking newly-felled timber to processing yards a hundred miles down the road.
At the petrol station nature is reclaiming the forecourt, cow parsley blooming at the hand pump. Before meeting the woods, conifers were self-seeding on the moor. It's as if this great wood is slowly expanding its boundaries. Without the foresters' attention it will one day swallow up Byrness.
The penultimate day on the Pennine Way has few fans. "The journey is completely without merit," writes the original LeJog blogger Mark Moxon. "It feels like typical Pennine Way purgatory," writes Andy Robinson in his End to End Trail, "and you may start to wonder what you've done to deserve it."
Wainwright is, typically, unimpressed as well. "Not so good," he writes, in classic understatement. But in the introductory notes he goes further – suggesting that this entire stretch of the walk be annexed. For the sake of accuracy, he argues in his Pennine Way Companion that the Pennine Way should only walk the Pennines – not the Cheviots. Hence its northern section should end not in Kirk Yetholm but on Hadrian's Wall. "Then it would really be the Pennine Way, the whole Pennine Way and nothing but the Pennine Way."
The detractors have a point. As Scotland nears, the route becomes lonely and hard. The heather moors are often pathless and if you don't sink to your ankle in marsh each time you put a foot down you're either lucky or it's been dry for a whole seven days in a row – which, from my experience on the Way, is unlikely.
The sole pleasure to be found on the rolling heights is quiet and solitude. For mile after mile there is not a single manmade feature to be seen. No farms. No villages. No roads. Not even walls and fences to pen the pastures.
On Whitley Pike I sit down for lunch and there is silence but for the beating of my heart.
Sweeties! I stocked up on a quarter of fruit drops before hitting the trail.
Vast tracts of not-very-much are the defining feature of this near-last leg of the Pennine Way.
Big skies, prairie wilderness below.
On the outskirts of Kielder Forest pines are self-seeding.
Then, after squelching across a last few lonely moors you enter Kielder Forest.
Although the Greenhead > Bellingham stretch gives you a foretaste of this sprawling wood, it's only today that you enter its heart.
Kielder Forest is the largest manmade forest in England covering 250 square miles. Planted in the 1920s and '30s by armies of unemployed labourers from the northeast its function over time has changed. Where once its supply of timber was considered to be a strategically important state asset, the woods are now being managed to increase biodiversity and attract visitors. In 2008 the area was awarded dark sky status: the night skies above these barely populated lands are the darkest in the country. There is as little light pollution here as in Death Valley, USA.
It all adds to the sense of isolation. And while earlier in the day you were crossing open moorland that had, at least, the benefit of airy panoramas, here's the way is confined to forest paths and tracks, spruce and pine looming either side as ahead hills fade to the distant horizon all cloaked with trees.
The temperature rises as the Way pushes ever deeper into the wood. I'm sweating in the sullen, humid air. The silence adds its own weight. It's like a swamp in here.
The approach to Kielder.
Yet more bog. Every step was ankle-deep in water.
Miles of trees.
Distant Cheviots: tomorrow's goal.
Into the Rede valley and a lifting of oppressed spirits: a riverside walk not mentioned in the guidebooks along a busy stream along which the plantations have been thinned out.
Here there's air and wildlife: butterflies and bees on a colourburst of wildflowers while aspen and rowan crowd the riverbank. It's the verdancy of nature untamed; were it not for the daily trickle of Pennine Way walkers this path would have been reclaimed decades ago.
The Forest View B&B in Byrness is a converted terraced house. It is closed when I arrive. But there's a little walkers' porch with tea, coffee and bottled water. I down a litre and take a seat in the garden. Birds hop across a carefully mown lawn.
At four the owner appears and opens the rooms.
Then slowly but surely the place fills up as the dozen or so walkers who set off from Bellingham this morning complete the day's leg.
At six o'clock the bar opens – a home-made tabletop in the corner of the converted living room that has four draft beers on tap. The owner's wife comes round and takes dinner orders from a menu with three items.
Then at seven thirty all walkers take their seats in a small communal dining room to eat together.
There’s Cliff, the expat, reconnecting with his old homeland.
There’s a Belgian couple looking for hills. They’ve camped through hell and high-water.
There’s David, the octogenarian Scot who’s leaving for the Cheviot at the crack of dawn.
There’s Ash, who I bumped into on day one somewhere above Edale, and his daughter.
There are others who I've not met en route but who started the Way at pretty much the same time.
And there’s Barrie, who I’ve spent the most time with.
It's a reunion of sorts and a review all in one with the motley assembly sharing food, stories and beer. And because there’s nowhere else – at all – to stay in the middle of the woods, the night has the feel of a last night. We’re all stopping at different places tomorrow. Most of us won't meet again.
As the owner continues pulling pints in the corner it’s hard not to get nostalgic. For in the end the Pennine Way is more than a walk. Maybe that’s why notorious recluse Wainwright never got it. Even the Belgian campers – who were seeking wilderness in England and found it – were having a ball, wolfing down ice cream. it's their first taste of civilisation in three weeks.
Yes, it’s about the trail.
But it’s about people too.
When I leave the Pennine Way tomorrow I will miss it.
Byrness: the village in the wood.
Motley assemblage of Wayers.
Next: Day 54 – Byrness to Kirk Yetholm.
Previous: Day 52 – Greenhead to Bellingham.