Pennine Way Stage 13: Dufton to Garrigill

Published 11 November 2015

The Dufton village water fountain, sat on the village green.
Dufton’s water fountain.

Even on a cold and rather dull morning in March, Dufton was a hard place not to like. What is there not to love about clusters of houses and cottages neatly arranged around the village green, with a red circular fountain and water trough taking pride of place in the middle, and all overlooked by the 481m high Dufton Pike?

It ticked all the boxes. Beautiful location? Check. Fantastic village pub? Check. Conveniently sited youth hostel, able to accommodate lots of people for those times when you hold an absolutely huge party in your new house? Check. Looks great even in dismal weather? Check. Excellent public transport services and a shop selling milk that you can pop out to when you’ve run out of the stuff?

Err… Hang on…

Well you can’t have everything, can you?

Sign saying 'Please remove your boots'
Don’t leave those boots on!

We’d arrived at Dufton the previous evening, two and a half years after our last visit. We’d even been given the same room in the youth hostel. The Stag Inn seemed a little quieter, although on the other hand there was someone smoking the place out by putting their soggy boots in one of the compartments of the large cast iron range that dominated the pub’s main room.

A sign in the bar promoted the pub’s annual Easter events, including an egg hunt, a “Chicken Race” (please bring your own chicken) and even a delayed “New Years Day” Buggy Race, If only we’d been there a week later.

To make the whole visit even more idyllic, over breakfast the next morning we were treated to the view of a red squirrel taking nuts from the YHA’s back garden. Did we really have to leave this place? Well yes we did. We were back in Dufton for a reason. We were about to finish the Pennine Way. In eight days time we’d be in the Border Inn in Kirk Yetholm, raising a celebratory pint having finally done the whole thing. This was what we’d been working towards for the past three years.

What’s more, our final stretch of the Pennine Way would involve the mighty Cheviots, Hadrian’s Wall, a stay in a remote farm and would all start off with a climb up the highest point on the whole trail. Yes it was a wrench to leave Dufton, but there was so much to look forward to.

Pennine Way signpost near Dufton with two arrows - both for the Pennine Way.
Another obligatory Pennine Way signpost photograph.

Although there’s been a settlement at Dufton since ancient times, the village that’s there now owes much of its existence to lead mining. Several mines nearby were opened in the 18th century by The London Lead Company, which, despite its name, was based in Middleton-in-Teesdale. The Quaker owned company built most of the current cottages, industrial buildings and even a water supply system.

Even the route by which the Pennine Way left the village had a mining link, following a lane once used by miners on their way to the small mines on the fells ahead. Of course, the mines are all gone now. The bottom fell out of the lead market in the closing years of the 19th century, and soon most of the mines had closed, leaving many a household without employment, and requiring Dufton to find a new role in life, which it did in farming and tourism.

“There’s a sheep stuck in that ditch over there,” cried Catherine, pointing at said creature in the field adjoining the track, which was bleating forlornly. “They can’t get up if they’re stuck on their back,” she added. “We’d better help it. Who knows when the farmer might spot it.”

Before I knew it, she was marching across the field determined to rescue a sheep in distress. This proved easier said than done. The sight of a human with a large red rucksack on her back was more than enough to send the animal into even more of a tizz and panic. With a heaving and a lot of grunting – and a fair amount of fighting back – we somehow managed to turn the sheep the right way up, and let it run off before we checked ourselves for damage, which mainly consisted of a heavy coating of mud from the churned up field. Oh well, chances were we would be getting muddy anyway.

Abandoned farm buildings at Halsteads, near Dufton
The abandoned buildings of Halsteads.

Dusting ourselves down, we returned the path, heading past an abandoned farmhouse – complete with a rusting, abandoned tractor – and we began the climb that would eventually take us to Cross Fell.

As we began to rise, we looked back at the land we were leaving behind. Dufton sits nestling in the Eden Valley; a lush green and attractive looking place; the sun peering down over it, through some cracks in the clouds. On a good day, even the Lake District is visible. Ah, lovely.

And then there was where we were going. Dull, rocky, grey, hard, gloomy. It was hard not to think that we were going in the wrong direction.

Catherine studies the map whilst standing on moorland, next to a huge area of snow.
Checking the map before going into the snow.

Even in great weather, there’s a high chance of cloud covering the top of Cross Fell and its neighbours. And whilst the conditions weren’t terrible for us, they certainly weren’t brilliant by any means, and we quickly found ourselves walking through dense cloud trying to work out exactly where the path was going. This was a task that was made even harder when we reached a large section that was under a blanket of snow. Rather naively, snow was the one thing that we hadn’t planned for on the trip; the idea that there may still be some on these cold, windswept fells at the end of March, simply not having crossed our minds.

Given we’d both grown up with the edges of the Pennines on our doorsteps, we probably should have known better, however ten years living in London where snow is rare and barely lasts a day or two when it does fall, had perhaps made us complacent. There was obviously going to be some snow up in the hills at the end of March. Oh well. We’d remember next time.

A trail of footprints in the snow suggested the route to follow, and after cross-checking with the map, it seemed like they were going the way we needed to go. And thankfully the snow was relatively short-lived, and our ascent to the giant cairn at the summit of Knock Fell – the first of several fell tops we’d reach on our way up to Cross Fell – continued without too much further incident.

The path to neighbouring Great Dun Fell was less clear. The fell is covered in cloud two thirds of the year; it’s so prevalent that for many years the University of Manchester had a meteorological station here, in order to study clouds. Naturally on a cold, gloomy March morning, the chances of us seeing anything at all were pretty slim, and the fog grew thicker and thicker just at a time when the path was getting more and more indistinct.

Snow covered road on Great Dun Fell with car tracks visible on top of the snow.
This looks like the right way!

Progress was slow as compasses were regularly consulted, and maps checked against what little scenery was visible. Every time some validation that we were indeed on the correct path was obtained, was followed by a small celebration; the most obvious being a tarmacked road, which lead to the fell’s summit. Most of the road was covered by heavy snow, with the only sign that it existed being the row of tall poles lining the edge of it, for use in aiding cars in just such circumstances. Tyre marks suggested the poles had been useful for someone recently too.

The summit of Great Dun Fell is home to an air traffic control radar station, including a dome structure, and a couple of large transmitters that slowly began to loom out of the cloud as we got closer to the top. Fences around the complex prevented us from getting a good view of any of it; the cloud making visibility so low that we could still barely see the large dome building even when stood at the perimeter fence just a few metres away.

Radar station on Great Dun Fell, barely visible through heavy cloud.
Thank goodness radar stations don’t need to visually see things.

With little incentive to stick around, we pushed on the short distance to the summit of Little Dun Fell, which, despite its name, is only a mere 8m shorter than its neighbour. Its summit cairn was suitably small as well with the top marked by a tiny pile of rocks, giving the impression that the local cairn builders simply couldn’t have been bothered by it.

The top also housed a small stone shelter, and we took the chance to escape from the bitter winds, and have some food; our feet resting on a small pile of snow that had somehow managed to survive whilst the rest that had fallen on the fell had long melted.

Our guide book told us that the view from Little Dun Fell was disappointing. Well of that there was no doubt; we couldn’t see anything at all. But, the book went on, it was all made up by the “prospect of Cross Fell which now takes on Goliath proportions.” We had to take its word for it.

A walker checks a map next to a huge stone cairn on a cloudy hilltop.
Anyone seen the path? It’s around here somewhere…

If you thought the chances of getting a cloud free summit at Little Dun Fell were low, the situation at Cross Fell is even worse. It’s rarely out of cloud, and it’s not unheard of for the winter snow to remain on top until July; there’s even been reports of fresh snow appearing in June. All this on a fell top where the path is nearly invisible, resulting in a tricky navigational challenge.

Using Catherine’s patented technique of checking the map and compass every two minutes though, the chances of us getting significantly lost were pretty low and we made it to the summit without any major complications. With it came a double celebration, for Cross Fell is not just any old fell. Standing at 893m above sea level, we’d reached the highest point of the whole of the Pennine Way. As if to celebrate, a small crack formed in the cloud, revealing a patch of blue underneath.

We’d done well indeed.

A small building on a hilly landscape, near some snow.
Greg’s Hut – a perfect place to warm up from the snow!

After spending the morning walking through dense cloud, it took some adjusting to being back in normal conditions again. The cloud began to part almost as soon as we began to descend from Cross Fell and navigation also got easier as we joined a rough track that led us to Greg’s Hut.

Originally a cottage built to support the local lead mines, it was abandoned after the mines closed and may have remained so were it not for the sad death of John Gregory in a climbing accident in the Alps in 1968. A group of his friends got together and adopted the hut, and renovated it in his memory, opening it up as a bothy and naming it Greg’s Hut. To this day the Greg’s Hut Association continue to maintain what is the highest bothy in England; possibly the highest in the whole of the UK.

We popped inside for some shelter, joining the 600 or so other visitors recorded in the bothy log book, before heading on our way, passing by old mine workings and spoil heaps. The sun made a brief appearance, and looking behind us revealed that the cloud had now lifted from Great Dun Fell, giving us a clearer view of the radar station than we’d had when we were stood right next to it. We had looked back at just the right point too; a little further on and the fell would be completely hidden from our path.

Several miles of moorland were now ahead of us, covered with patches of snow at regular intervals. We were once again following an old miners track, and it was hard not to think of the long journey the miners had from their homes in the valleys, and the hard life they lived. The stone path was certainly hard enough on our feet, cushioned as they were by modern boot technology. Walking in clogs over these moors on a weekly basis, must have been quite a trek.

Purple stones on the path
Purple stone, ta la la-la lah.

Remnants of the mines could be seen dotted all over the place; old workings, occasional huts and spoil heaps all present. Another remnant was under our feet. Small purple stones were regularly dotted over the track, part of the waste of the old mines. The stones contain fluorspar. When dry they appear clear and opaque, but give them a good dose of water and they glow their mysterious, yet attractive colour.

It took almost eight miles from the top of Cross Fell, but eventually we arrived at the welcoming sight of Garrigill, meaning our day was ending.

There was a depressing sight to greet us at the village green however. There’d be no welcoming pint of ale to celebrate a long day’s walking; the village pub was empty and boarded up. Its closure hadn’t been a surprise to us; we’d been warned by the owner of our B&B when we booked, and had arranged to eat an evening meal in our B&B instead. We’d even had to break the news of the pub’s closure to the warden at Dufton Youth Hostel who had, on hearing we were heading to Garrigill, told us it was a “cracking pub.” The boards would come off and the pub would re-open again nine months later, but even that would be relatively short-lived.

A boarded up George and Dragon Inn in Garrigill
The former George and Dragon Inn, Garrigill.

It just felt wrong not to be supping a pint of ale in the evening. Walking holidays in Britain have often been equated to a multi-day pub crawl, and it’s rare on the Pennine Way that you couldn’t end the day with a pint in your hand. But alas, Garrigill’s nearest pub now lay three miles away in Alston; far too far away for these two weary Pennine Way walkers to reach.

Pubs are the beating heart of most communities in Britain, and Garrigill felt like it had something ripped out of it. There was little else to do, so we spent most of the evening in our room at the B&B watching TV and feeling rather cooped up and just ever so listless.

We resolved however to make up for it the next day, for then we’d be passing through the town of Alston. And with just nine miles to walk, we’d have plenty of time to check out the sights, and, of course, a good lunch. Perhaps in a pub, with a pint or two. Frankly, it was the least we could do.


Gareth Gee

30 July 2018 at 5:08 pm

Just arrived in Garrigill and, I’m pleased to report that the George & Dragon pub is open again and apparently doing well, with real ale to be had, food in the evenings too, and great reviews on Trip Advisor, etc. Haven’t been in the pub yet but am renting a related AirBnB property nearby, which is run by the pub owners. So far, all good.

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