Pennine Way Stage 18: Bellingham to Byrness

Published 13 January 2016

Hazel Burn on the Pennine Way, clouded by mist
A very misty Hazel Burn.

“I’m sorry to ask this, but when you booked I’d forgotten that I have to take my husband for a hospital appointment first thing in the morning. Would you be all right having your breakfast about 7am?”

How do you say no to a request like that? You’d have to be a pretty heartless so and so to refuse. Even if it did mean setting our alarms for an utterly unearthly hour of the morning. I mean, we were supposed to be on holiday…

Radio 2 was blaring out of the radio as we stumbled, bleary eyed, into the dining room in order to eat our freshly cooked breakfasts; Moira Stuart was far more composed than we were as we sat silently, both wishing we were still in bed, whilst she read out the headlines as we sat in silence.

It’s not that I’m particularly bad at getting up. Far from it. Unlike Catherine, I can raise myself out of bed before seven with relative ease. It’s just that my brain doesn’t start running on all cylinders until at least eight. Before that, I pretty much run on autopilot. Grab coffee, pour cereal into a bowl, shave; that’s about as much as I can muster. Wander downstairs to a B&B’s dining room and exchange morning communication with the landlady? Not a chance. The B&B’s owner could probably tell from the look on our faces that this was going to be a rather quiet breakfast.

She’d kindly arranged for her mother to pop by so that we didn’t need to leave the B&B whilst she drove off to wherever the nearest hospital was, but inevitably we about to have an early start. With fifteen miles to do, this was perhaps no bad thing, although we were hardly enthusiastic about it. After stocking up for lunch in Bellingham’s small Co-op, we headed on our way.

Signpost for Byrness, at the edge of Bellingham
This way to Byrness!

The Pennine Way signpost at the edge of the town summed up the day ahead. The signpost itself was nothing special in itself. There were many of them like it on the Pennine Way, showing the next major milestone – usually a village or town, but occasionally a summit – with the distance in miles next to it. For most of the signs the distance would be three miles, five miles, whatever. Something to focus on and show progress. Once you got there, you’d find another signpost telling you how far it would be to the next point.

But the sign at Bellingham simply said “Byrness – 14¼”. Yes, the next place of any real significance on the Pennine Way would only come once we’d spent all day walking. There was simply nothing of any note in between. We’d be passing through no towns, going near no villages and – although we didn’t yet know it – the only soul we’d see would be a forest ranger in his Land Rover.

First order of the day was a climb up a hill, and as we did so we couldn’t help but notice that we were walking into cloud. The mist was soon everywhere, giving the moors a rather eerie feeling. Trees especially. Every now and then, there would be a small clump of them, usually surrounded by a small drystone wall, which would loom out of the cloud; the bare skeletal branches of a tree just coming out of winter, giving everything a rather spooky and ever so slightly sinister feeling.

Remnants of old mines and quarries, the occasional grouse butt, a house hidden behind trees and a completely deserted B6320 road were just some of the sights, but generally there was nothing but heather, tufts of grass and the odd puddle. The rest of the time we could have been anywhere, walking through wilderness. Even the path itself was pretty indistinguishable at times, often looking like it was little more than a sheep trail. Anticipating navigational problems for walkers, the authorities had added a few small signposts at regular intervals, which were just about close enough that in good weather you’d be able to see next one. For us though, it was more “follow what might be a path, and hope for the best.”

Andrew Bowden stood on Whitley Pike on the Pennine Way
Standing on Whitley Pike.

We somehow made it to the top of Whitley Pike, which, at a height of only 356m, is not exactly one of the Pennine Way’s tallest summits. It was at least marked by a small cairn with a wooden post stuck in it, which did give us something to look at. Well, sometimes you have to take your excitement where you can get it. A short way on, we crossed over a small tarmacked track where, next to a cattle grid, someone had put up a sign made out of a square of wood painted white. On it was, simply written, two words. “Thank You.” Why? Who knows for nothing else in way of explanation followed.

The guidebook had optimistically suggested that a good place to stop for lunch could be found a mile or so before Whitley Pike where there was a cairn with a signpost stuck in it. We passed it at half ten, which was just a touch early for the munching of sandwiches. Now, as lunchtime approached, rain started pouring heavily and there was a part of me that really began to wish we had stopped and had a far too early meal break. We did, after all, have an excuse for we had eaten our breakfast much earlier than normal.

Moorland and a path leading to Redesdale Forest
To Redesdale Forest.

What we needed was some shelter, and the forests we that would be walking through in the afternoon did seem to offer the best option. So when we got the top of Padon Hill and saw Redesdale Forest ahead of us, there was the sound of rejoicing. All we had to do was get to the trees.

First though the Pennine Way would require us to spend a couple of miles walking alongside the edge of the forest, and any notion that this was going to be easy walking was quickly discarded when we discovered that to get there required us to walk up what must rank as the worst path on the entire Pennine Way.

The steep uphill path was a complete mudslide, and pretty much unusable. True, we weren’t exactly walking the Pennine Way in the finest weather going, but it was hard to imagine this veritable quagmire ever being nice to walk on. There are some paths that, even in the height of a red hot summer, will still be absolute mudbaths. And it didn’t take long to realise that this would be one of them.

There was little alternative but to try walking on top of the crumbling remains of a mostly collapsed drystone wall. It was either that or go up to our knees in bog and mud by sticking to the proper. Even the stiles were a nightmare. One was so treacherous looking – all broken, mangled and wet – that I took the decision to brave climbing over a rickety and very pointy barbed wire fence instead.

“This is horrendous,” I muttered after spending several minutes just to travel a few metres.

“Yeah,” Catherine nodded in agreement. “Sure it will be all right when we get to the top.”

Brownrigg Head - heather moorland
Brownrigg Head.

Well, you would think so; but the top of Brownrigg Head had other ideas. Whilst everything looked very simple on the map, on the ground the path was almost invisible to see through the matt grass and heather. And for good measure, it was heavily waterlogged. Put your foot in the wrong place and you’d find half your leg would suddenly disappear, quite possibly never to be seen again.

The route the path took was positively torturous, twisting and turning with regular intervals, and its poor condition meant it took us over an hour to walk a mere mile and a half on what the map informed us was flat ground.

On the plus side, we did see a deer lurking momentarily at the edge of the forest. Which was a great sight, although perhaps nowhere near good enough to make up for the complete torment we had been put through in order to see it.

“It’ll be fine when we get into the forest,” said Catherine, although I could tell by the look on her face that she wasn’t particularly confident that it would be.

And she was right to not be so. What we’d been desperately hoping that we’d join some relatively stable forest track, but instead, as soon as we got into the trees, things got even worse. In our wildest dreams, we couldn’t even think that that was even possible but it was, suggesting we probably needed dreams that were just a bit wilder.

Signpost in Redesdale Forest
Signpost in Redesdale Forest.

A glance at the map showed that we’d be spending the rest of the day in forests. Tallying up revealed we’d done about ten miles already, but still had another five left. If it was all going to be in conditions like this, the going was going to be very tough. We were both hungry, and even though the rain had stopped, there was absolutely nowhere that was even vaguely dry where we could sit down and eat our lunches. And as for sheltering under trees, well that wasn’t going to happen as most of them seem to be growing in the middle of sizeable lakes.

We staggered on, tired and frankly rather emotional. And then we came to a gate. And next to the gate was a sign.

Battered signpost welcoming people to the Kielder Forest
Welcome to Kielder Forest!

Forestry Commission.
Kielder Forest.
The Forestry Commission welcomes Pennine Way walkers.

A nice greeting. But what was even nicer was that passing through the gate resulted an instant upgrade in path quality. For it turned out there were two sides to Redesdale Forest. The nasty and horrible bit we’d been walking through was a private enterprise which clearly hadn’t invested much – if anything – in the quality of its paths and tracks. The Forestry Commission had, on the other hand, built big sturdy ones; ones that were more than capable of surviving a winter onslaught of rain, and that would make walking along oh so much easier. Even better, a check of the map revealed we’d be in Forestry Commission land for the rest of the day. We sighed a huge sigh of relief and even let out a little cheer.

Now there are times on a walk when the thought of walking several miles on stony forest road is not the most appealing prospect in the world. But this was not one of those moments. Given the state of the ground, we had absolutely no desire to leave a track that would keep us dry, and we stuck to it resolutely. We didn’t even both following the Pennine Way when it took short-cuts through the trees. The time saved would be counted in minutes, and the waterlogged land may even have made the short cuts taken even longer.

The final piece in the jigsaw puzzle came at half two, when we finally found a spot we could shelter on the edge of the trees in order to escape the rain and munch on our sandwiches.

Long, flat, well made logging road in Kielder Forest
I think we’ll go this way, thanks.

As we huddled in the shelter of conifers, a Forestry Commission worker drove by in his van, and decided to stop and say hello.

“There’s snow forecast tonight,” he said as we chatted away. “No idea how bad it’s going to be, but it’s going to come down.”

We nodded. We’d seen the forecast ourselves, although had tried our best to ignore it. The forecast had started saying there would be a couple of small snow showers, but as the days had progressed the amount of snow predicted seemed to be increasing dramatically. But what could we do, other than hope for the best.

Bidding him farewell, we set off for the few remaining miles that would take us to Byrness; the final stretch providing little more challenging than a damp path and a ford of a heavily swollen river. We arrived on the edge of the village next to a small stone church, a hotel and a boarded up petrol station with signs inaccurately informing drivers that it was the last place to fill up before Scotland.

The rest of Byrness lay a short way down the A86, down which cars and lorries thundered along. Much of the village was originally built in the 1930s by the Forestry Commission to house the army of workers required to maintain its new plantations in the area. Over the years, changes in forestry practises meant that fewer staff were needed and the houses began to be sold off to private owners, two of which were converted by the YHA into a youth hostel for Pennine Way walkers.

The track to the village of Byrness
Follow the track to Byrness.

For many years the place had a dire reputation, with a rating of a mere single star. In an old copy of the Pennine Way Association newsletter we’d seen, one correspondent had charitably proclaimed “no-one I know has ever eulogised about Byrness hostel, it really is rather basic.” But with the nearby hotel only having three bedrooms, there wasn’t much choice for many. The nearest alternative accommodation was many miles away, with no easy way to get there. There was certainly no point pressing on and going further along the Pennine Way. The trail wouldn’t go near another village for another twenty-six miles. The hostel may have been dire, but at least it was there.

And then in 2006 the YHA decided to get out and put the two cottages on the market. It was part of a massive program that saw 17 hostels under threat of closure, six of which were on the Pennine Way.

The other five hostels were all in areas where there was a reasonable amount of alternative accommodation, but in Byrness the closure would have been a complete disaster for Pennine Way walkers in a part of the world where facilities were already sparse. Byrness had no shop, no pub, the local GP had closed, as had the village school. The petrol station had gone, the local milkman had retired and the only public transport connections was a daily National Express coach and a daily local bus service.

Thankfully though, along with four other threatened Pennine Way hostels, Byrness was saved. It was sold to new owners Colin and Joyce who had a plan to completely upgrade the place, and boost the place up the accommodation ratings as far as possible. Whilst remaining a YHA franchise, the hostel was completely renovated and redecorated, and re-opened under the new name of Forest View. And as Colin showed us round, there was clearly pride in what they’d achieved, with particular focus on the much needed drying room which was heated by a shiny new biomass boiler.

“We’ve also got a small shop for supplies,” Colin added as it took us towards the lounge. “And our famous beer cupboard.”

A key was whisked out and inserted into a small hole in the wood, and within seconds doors were thrown back to reveal a cupboard absolutely jam packed with beer and wine. Most of it consisted of bottled ales, providing a choice that was frankly far, far larger than the average pub.

“We’ve had people taking photographs of it and posting them on the internet!” he added.

What could I say? I was tempted to take a photograph of it myself.

“You know there’s snow forecast?” he added, changing the subject.

We nodded grimly, although slightly assured that whatever did happen, we would be fine on the alcohol front.

There was a fire roaring away in the dining room, and we settled into its warm embrace. Pretty much everything we’d been wearing had been drenched by the time we’d got to Forest View, and after a miserable day we gladly settled down for a much needed hot meal, followed by attempts to make a (slight) dent in Colin’s beer supplies. But there was a hint of uneasiness as we headed back to our room to settle down for the night.

Checking the weather forecast on a phone in Byrness YHA
Trying to check the weather forecast on a pre-smartphone era phone.
Checking the weather forecast on a phone in Byrness YHA
Trying to check the weather forecast on a pre-smartphone era phone.

It wasn’t to be the best nights sleep. With no TV or radio, we’d had to resort to using the patchy mobile signal in order to get some information on the state of play. As the evening had gone on, the forecasts had changed. There were now weather warnings in force. Severe ones.

Looking out of the window revealed little sign that anything was likely to happen. Just the ever present cloud and a little rain. Everything just looked completely normal.

As our heads wearily hit our pillows, we knew all we could do was simply wait and see what the morning brought us.


Robin Wright

5 May 2023 at 5:35 pm

Great stuff, we set off from Edale in three weeks time with Bobby our cocker poo, and so will be on this leg early June, ,hopefully abit drier !

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