Three days of walking I’d rather forget about

Published 9 May 2021

Heavy cloud on Great Shunner Fell
Anyone got any idea where we are? Please?

Some years ago someone messaged me on Twitter saying that I seemed to be always doing lots outdoors. Always out and about, having fun. Probably with good weather and things.

I remember reading that and thinking about how we’d spent pretty much the past six weekends stuck at home having done nothing exciting. Given that, I wasn’t entirely sure where they got this impression from.

What appears on social media, or indeed on this website, is a window onto our lives. And in my case it’s often a narrow window. There’s a lot that’s not visible. That’s more hidden. When I post up photos for my Sunday Picture series, it’s usually the ones where the weather has been beautiful. The scenery stunning. When everything was perfect. Why? Because they’re the best photographs. The best memories.

But not every day is like that. When you’re out doing a walking trail you have to be prepared for the rough as well as the smooth.

So with that in mind, here’s three days that – to be honest – I’d much rather forget about.

Bellingham to Byrness on the Pennine Way

Such lovely countryside the Pennine Way offers.

We walked the Pennine Way in stages, mostly in spring and late autumn. This proved to not be the best of ideas, and quite often the weather was poor. But we got through with a smile on our faces and joy in our hearts. Mostly.

Despite the weather we generally didn’t do too badly on the Pennine Way. Spirits were high in our battle against adversity. But the section from Bellingham to Byrness, walked at the end of March, did test the limits.

Most of the day featured rather featureless moorland, and soggy ground. It was hardly exciting. And it wasn’t going to get that much more thrilling.

Much of the moorland the Pennine Way goes over is very boggy. The authorities recognise that and have put down slabs and boardwalks, partly to help the walker and partly to reduce erosion. As you go further north the paved areas reduce but you can get by.

Until you get to Brownrigg Head anyway. True the autumn weather meant the ground was absolutely saturated. But it was hard to imagine this place ever being dry. The paths were like a complete mudbath. Which is just what you want when you’re going uphill. The stiles were broken and slippery. One was so broken and mangled that I braved climbing over a rickety barbed wire fence instead. And when we got to the top, the ground was so wet that if you lost the path, you could end up up to your waist in the stuff. Conditions were so bad it took well over an hour to walk a mile on flat ground.

Then we arrived at a forest. Good wide tracks, well made, we’d be alright? Well later on when we hit a section of Forestry Commission land. But not this one. If anything the path was even worse. Even worse, for ages we couldn’t find any land stable enough for us to sit down and have a rest.

By the time we got to Byrness, we were exhausted, covered in mud, and ready for nothing but some beer, a good meal and bed. Which was handy as Byrness is a tiny place with next to nothing exciting or interesting in it. There’s no pub, school, or shop. The petrol station has long closed. There was little to do but wait for the next day. Although that didn’t help as bad weather overnight then saw us snowed in. Still, as my father-in-law says about such things… you remember it.

I’m just not sure I want to.

Thames Barrier to Crayford Ness on the Thames Path Extension

The River Darent, not far from the end of the Thames Path Extension. One of the best photographs I could find from this walk.

The Thames Path runs from the source of the Thames all the way down to the Thames Barrier in East London. Given the trail is all about following the nation’s most famous river, it’s a peculiar place to stop. But no, whilst the river goes on and on to the sea, the trail stops at the Thames Barrier.

Every now and then someone comes along with some grand plans to extend the path all the way to the coast. But the furthest anyone has got is Crayford Ness, ten miles on from the Barrier.

It’s called the Thames Path Extension. Although local signs just call it the “Thames Path”, replacing the National Trail acorn logo with a picture of a traditional Thames barge. It’s rather a nice logo. But a nice logo doesn’t make a nice walk.

See, there’s a fair argument for the Thames Path terminus remaining at the Barrier. For what comes after is a bit grim.

You firmly enter into industrial Thames. Decaying piers, warehouses, Crossness Sewage Sludge Incinerator. Yes, okay there’s some nicer bits like the Victorian Splendour of Crossness Pumping Station. And at Woolwich there’s the Royal Arsenal, once a munitions factory and now a housing development. But mostly it’s grim, boring, or both.

And then you get to Crayford Ness. The trail ends on a patch of scruffy grassland, next to scrap yards skip hire places and portacabins. And you can’t even stop there as you’re at least two miles from the nearest public transport.

The London LOOP follows a good chunk of the Thames Path Extension, starting off in the town of Erith. When I came to do the LOOP some years later, I decided that there was no way on this earth I was going to retrace my steps to Crayford Ness. It just wasn’t happening.

To this day I can’t think of much pleasant to say about the Thames Path Extension. I’d be quite happy never thinking about it ever again.

Borrowdale to Patterdale on the Coast to Coast

Yeah, maybe not the best weather to be out on the fells in.

As a catalogue of catastrophe, this was a day that would be hard to beat. It was a failure even from the planning phase. For starters, our guidebook declared this day of walking was 14 miles. We knew that would be hard going, but thought we could do it.

There was an error in the book. The route was more like 18 miles. 18 miles over difficult terrain. Had we realised we would probably have split this section into two days. But had it been good weather, we may well have succeeded.

It wasn’t good weather. It may have been June, but the weather didn’t care about that. Indeed we were walking the Coast to Coast during some truly horrendous weather in the Lake District. It rained most of the day. The route took us over fells that were saturated with water beyond belief. Streams and becks were swollen, new watercourses were being created all over the place. Oh and I’d discovered a few days earlier than I’d not packed my waterproof trousers. Instead of mine, I had Catherine’s old pair that were several sizes too small for me. I’d planned to buy some more when we got to Grasmere, but was soaked to the bone by the time we got there.

By the time we got to Patterdale we were mere containers for water. We were soaked. We found that pretty much everything in our rucksacks was drenched. My notebook was a soggy pulped, and because I’d written in fountain pen, most of the words had washed away.

The youth hostel we were staying in was cold and soggy (it’s been refurbished since and is much nicer). And we didn’t get there until 7:30 meaning we’d missed the evening meal. We were told the nearby pub served food but they stopped serving in an hours time. So rather than resting and relaxing and warming up, we had to frantically shower, find what few dry clothes we had, and rush up the road else we’d have had no food.

When we got there, we sat in the pub mostly in silence. And all I could really think about was, urgh, we’ve got to do all this again tomorrow.


Vic Flange

9 May 2021 at 10:16 am

Commiserations on the last one. I haven’t anything quite so bad on my walking ventures…yet. Yet.

As for walking the PW (or any trail) in March…that’s just tweaking Fate’s nose and saying, “Go on, then. Let’s see what you can do.” It would have to have been an exceptionally dry winter for it not to be muddy. I did start the North Downs Way at the end of March (2019) but it had been remarkably rain-free in the preceding weeks.

As a LOOPer, yeah, it’s a bit industrial as you say but all part of the rich tapestry. And I spent a lot of time looking up and down the river, admiring its widening expanse as I got closer to Crayford Ness rather than looking at the scrap metal and freight containers.

Vic Flange

9 May 2021 at 1:25 pm

Re the top picture: my guess is Cross Fell.

Andrew Bowden (Rambling Man editor)

10 May 2021 at 9:05 am

Yep, it was indeed Cross Fell! And really I have absolutely no idea why we decided to part of the Pennine Way in March. I suspect (and it was a while ago) it was to do with having some annual leave we needed to use up.

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