Middleton-In-Teesdale to Langdon Beck. 9.1 miles. Miles to date: 687.9.
After yesterday's long slog, I had planned for today to be short and sweet.
So it proved: nine miles of riverside walking that didn't put a foot wrong. And while the sun didn't quite shine, it would have made little difference. The mix of meadows, waterfalls, pine woods, juniper and the growing sense of upland scale wove a tapestry of pure charm.
There's magic in these hills.
Despite being close to the walking dead by the time I got to Middleton-In-Teesdale, it ended up being a great stopping point. Not just because of the food – pizza! – or the beer – beer! – but mainly the company, There were a number of Pennine Wayers there, then as I tucked into my second pint, in walked Barrie.
I last saw Barrie a week and 90-or-so miles ago in Cowling, south of the Aire Gap. We chatted walking, Wainwright and characters we'd met over the past days. Then at breakfast who should take a seat at the next table along, but Malcolm, the 83-year-old walker/camper I met yesterday who was having a rare R&R night in a B&B.
I’m so sold on the Pennine Way by now that it could break both my legs and swallow me whole in a bog and I’d still have fond memories of it, but the social side has been unexpected, and an important way of keeping spirits high. Though it looks like Barrie and I’s paths will coincide for at least the next couple of days, Malcolm’s on a more adventurous tip. If I see him again it’s likely to be a long way on, if at all.
I hung around for a while taking advantage of the wifi. My walk for the day was taking me into the wilds where phone signal was going to be patchy and wifi – if available – slow. So I sat in the bar editing photos as it, bang on time, filled up with the 11am drinking brigade.
The first chap – big smile, infectious laugh and pint of the local – asked me where I was walking to.
“I’m on the Pennine Way,” I said.
“You'll finish in Kirk Yetholm?”
“Well…” I replied, “Not exactly.”
Here’s the thing. You get into numerous conversations like this on the trail, and, unless it’s a fellow walker who’s also clearly on a long distance walk, I tend not to talk about LeJog – not for any reason other than that before now it felt a little premature to be discussing it. I am, after all, only just over half way. Asserting with confidence that you are walking to John o’Groats when you’re still munching pasties in Cornwall seemed presumptuous and arrogant.
It felt the same in Devon. And in Somerset. And the Cotswolds. And… It’s only very recently that I’ve started imagining I’ll reach the Scottish border, let alone my dreamed-of end point.
Still, if pushed, I will talk about my intentions, if not my expectations.
The conversation then invariably goes like this:
“John o’ Groats. Wow. Are you doing it for charity?”
As if a walk of such length only makes sense if charity’s involved.
“No. Just for my own interest,” I reply.
At this point people either politely change the subject or make their excuses and walk away – no-one wants to encourage conversation with someone who should probably be sectioned for the sake of society and himself – or they ask more questions, about the best bits of the walk, whether I’ve got blisters, and, often, what I make of their neck of the woods.
There have been lots of fun moments too.
The rough-round-the-edges pub in Newquay where a surly silence from regulars changed to banter in the space of five minutes when I explained my walk. The locals started betting which of them stood the best chance of making the same distance. The lorry driver bowed out early (“I can barely walk to the cab,”) and the postman won (“I walk 14 miles a day anyway").
Then there was the canalside bar in Knowle where rain cancelled the summer party. An elderly lady walked up and asked what I was typing. Keeping a diary, I said. What about? About a walk I was doing to John o’Groats. After a short conversation she went back to her friends. Then at closing time 12 merry old ladies came and crowded round, wanting to shake hands, talk about Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, and wishing me well.
Anyway, back to Middleton-In-Teasdale and the chap with the big smile and infectious laugh. ”I’m off to John o’Groats,” I told him.
“How long’ll that take you?”
“About 10 weeks.”
“You don’t know exactly?”
“Don’t know if I’ll get injured. Or how far I’ll make each day.”
“Oh,” he nodded.
“Well, good luck,” he said, smile breaking out on his face. “Don’t break a leg.” This amused him no end, and before long he and his fellow 11am drinkers were all chortling away.
I had a half a mind to stay and join them.
Within five minutes of leaving Middleton-in-Teesdale, I knew I was in for a fine walk.
Lovely old trees overhung the wide River Tees while the path crossed meadow after meadow of wildflowers.
These hay meadows – once common on upland farms – are increasingly rare. Official figures have them covering less than 1% of farmland.
Because they’re managed without fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides the resulting species-rich habitat is a haven not only for plants, but also insects, butterflies and birds. Step (carefully) off the path and you’ll find not only buttercups, clover and orchids, but wood cranesbill, globeflower, ragged robin and adders tongue fern.
To the walker they’re a bounty of colour, even in these austere uplands, laying down blankets of yellow, pink and blue.
The path runs along a delightful riverside terrace, mossy wall one side, old oaks and ashes on the other.
Onwards and the landscape changes. The meadows and farms become fewer as the river picks up pace over rapids and cuts through limestone gorges topped by Scots pine and oak. There's a wilder, alpine feel as the path flanks riverside copses and overhanging trees. Mist hugs the rocky mountaintops above.
Then – foreshadowed by a growing rumble – the first of the day’s falls: Low Force, serious volumes of water from the last three day’s rain powering over the drop. I stroll across the suspension bridge and walk down to the foaming waterside, grateful that on this short leg I have time enough to explore.
Further on it’s all change again as the trail enters juniper glades – gnarled old roots and twisted boughs that form aromatic bonsai forests.
It’s a rare treat; juniper is declining rapidly in Britain. Even this stretch of woodland is under threat, dead fronds and golden branches the terminal signs of Phytophthora austrocedri, a disease that is slowly stripping valleys of these delicate old trees.
The sense of scale increases as the path climbs through bracken and aspen, upper stretches of the Tees valley forming a dizzying upland bowl of fells that rise high into the clouds.
A second, deeper roar announces High Force, the bigger sibling of the falls downstream. Standing on a precipitous clifftop 100ft back, the scale is something else. While Hardraw Force back in Wensleydale may have a higher single drop, the amount of water being churned over the 71ft fall is on a different scale. There had to be some benefit to three days of rain: this is it.
The upper stretches of the Tees have an Alpine feel to them.
Sweet-smelling Juniper glades.
The glades are dying: golden trees show Phytophthora austrocedri has reached this remote upland.
The landscape gets bleaker as the river widens. Fewer trees, fewer flowers, fewer walkers. Clouds, grey, smother the valleyhead. Tiny distant hillfarms recede into the murk of what feels like the end of the road. A raven's view from here is Birkdale Farm, England’s highest farm – and one of its most remote. In winter drifts can reach above the front door. It’s cold: I pull on another layer.
But the sense of austerity is illusory. There’s life everywhere if you look for it. Over every new juniper hill there are rabbits, who dive for their burrows when you crest the horizon. As I climb a stile there's a flurry of movement ahead: a stoat doing mad things on the paved pathway. And, ever present on the river, swallows doing their endless dance.
For once: thank the Lord. In this case Lord Barnard, the Earl of Strathmore, who, alongside local farmers and Natural England, is partly responsible for this bounty of wildlife. Together they have created one of England's largest nature reserves: 88 square miles of varied upland habitat that is not only home to a rich variety of ecosystems and species, but is also at the forefront of research into the effects of climate change on the natural environment.
Valleyside farms on Langdon Fell.
The mist was clinging to the peaks at the head of the valley.
Stoat! I spent a happy ten minutes watching it chase its tail.
Beautiful old farm house on The Looms.
Finally, as vegetation gives way to open moorland again, my stopping point for the night appears on the hillside. A tiny, spartan place in the back of beyond, woodsmoke curling from its chimney into the grey above.
It’s basic – shared loo, shared bathroom. But it knows how to treat walkers right. There are big, soft towels. There’s a shag-pile carpet that’s a treat for the toes. There’s a welcome fire in the grate. Every room's got a view. And – stroke of Trip Advisor genius – there are two Tunnocks Caramel bars in the goodie tray. The bar’s buzzy too; Barry’s rocked up and the jukebox is playing Fleetwood Mac.
The Trail doesn't get better than this.
The Tees heads west into the high country below Cronkly Scar.
The Langdon Beck Hotel. Wonderful location. Huge breakfasts.
Tunnocks Caramel Wafers. Instant 5-star Trip Advisor review.
Next: Day 48 – Langdon Beck to Dufton.
Previous: Day 46 – Keld to Middleton-in-Teesdale.