Pennine Way Stage 14: Garrigill to Slaggyford

Published 18 November 2015

A very muddy pair of walking boots

For many Pennine Way walkers, the trip from Dufton is a twenty mile epic, arriving at the bustling market town of Alston. This is then followed by a further sixteen and a half miles the next day in order to reach Greenhead.

Such an itinerary means that the walker arrives at Garrigill, sees a lovely village with its welcoming B&Bs, and can do nothing but sigh as they’re forced to plod on for another four miles. They have no choice. Their itinerary demands it. Their accommodation is waiting up the road. Although, it must be said, maybe the sight of a boarded up pub might hurry their progress on a little.

There is, however, another way, by breaking at Garrigill and then stopping somewhere between Alston and Greenhead for a second night. It’s not straightforward thanks to the dearth of places to stay, but do your research and you may find one of those rare places in the Knarsdale area.

And that’s exactly what we planned to do. We had our bed booked at a small (and now, I’m afraid to say, closed) B&B at Slaggyford, a mile or so before Knarsdale, and had a leisurely stroll to get there. With just nine miles to tick off before the day ended, and nine pretty easy miles at that, we could afford to take it easy and relax.

So whilst some walkers might be rushing and hurrying on the stretch to Alston, we could linger and take in the sights that the section had to offer.

Rusting machinery in Garrigill

“Oooh! A scrapyard,” Catherine exclaimed as we passed a plot full of rusting machinery tucked behind a fence on the edges of Garrigill village.

Perhaps there was something to rushing through to Alston after all.


The Pennine Way’s journey to Alston follows the South Tyne River, one of the two rivers that come together to create the Tyne River. Cunningly – or perhaps, rather unimaginatively – the other river is called the North Tyne.

The South Tyne would be our bedfellow for most of the day up to Slaggyford. Not always directly next to it, but close enough to see it. And as if there wasn’t enough water with the river, it began to rain.

The South Tyne River near Garrigill

I leaned against a tree and struggled into my waterproofs as fast as possible, rejoicing in my decision to buy a new pair, which – unlike my previous set – could be put on without having to take my walking boots off. The previous ones had always been a nightmare, purchased on the basis of an amazingly low price. It was only when I’d tried to get them for the first time in anger that I realised the folly of my cheapness, and the sheer utter stupidity of the design. When you’re out in the countryside and the heavens open the last thing you want to do to is undo your boot laces, remove your footwear and struggle into the trousers, then put your boots back on again, often whilst desperately trying not to fall over into the large pile of mud that you suddenly realise is right behind you. Clearly the person who had designed my old pair had never been out in the countryside when it was raining, yet alone tried to put on their creation whilst rain battered their head.

Mind you, even when my old pair were on, it barely made a difference. Using the cheapest, naffest fabrics, breathability had barely been on the manufacturer’s agenda. Walking in them was like walking in your own personal sauna. It didn’t take long before the resulting sweat would got me wetter than I would have been if I’d just let the rain soak directly into my normal clothes.

Fields near Alston

Grateful as I was for my new waterproofs – which generally did their best to keep water out – there was still one thing that expense hadn’t solved. The rain still hits your face, generally meaning that you spend all your time looking at the floor, rather than at the views in front of you. As such, the rest of the walk to Alston passed by in a blur of muddy fields and numerous stiles. This was farmland, and the local farmers clearly delighted in making their fields as small as possible, requiring regular crossing between them.

I tried to imagine doing this on a long day walk from Dufton. Of reaching the end of the moorland on the edges of Garrigill, and then suddenly realising that you had another four miles to walk, with field boundaries to traverse every five minutes. I couldn’t think of anything that would make me more weary; more desperate to collapse on a bed at 6pm and not get out of it until breakfast time the following morning. And I thought we were having it bad.


Main street in Alston with an ICI Petrol station

The Pennine Way doesn’t feel any need to linger at Alston. It bypasses the town, preferring simply to pop in at its southern tip, and then dart off across the road bridge over the South Tyne. But it was nearly lunch time and it seemed rude not to pay a visit, so we wandered up the road to the town’s main street.

Entering the town gave the impression of a place that was perhaps stuck a little in the past. A filling station sign advertised that you could purchase “ICI Petrol” with your “Access Card”, which was impressive given ICI had sold its petrol business in 1987, and Access cards became defunct in 1996.

The rest of the town seemed to be on better form. Most of it was built in the 19th century when the town was booming due to the lead mining industry, although when that declined the town survived by focussing on the farming industry. Interestingly, despite being a town at the heart of the North Pennines – and the highest market town in England at that – it barely seemed touched by tourism.

We pottered around the town’s main shopping street, and popped in to the outdoor shop to find some gaiters. Whilst our new waterproofs had kept us reasonably dry in the legs and body, our boots were still getting muddy and wet, especially when we were walking on the moorland. We optimistically thought gaiters may assist. And after purchasing some, we headed back outside to find somewhere for lunch.

The Angel Inn, Alston

Alston provided one of those rare things on the Pennine Way: choice. Wandering through the streets we counted at least five lunch options, one of which doubled as a curry house. After much consideration, we picked the Angel based purely on the basis that it had been there since 1611 and had a reasonable sounding menu.

The pub had presumably had some work since it first opened – it didn’t exactly look like it had been built in the 17th century – but it was cosy, warm and comfortable. We settled down at a table with two pints, and ordered some food.

It was whilst we were sitting down that we began to notice something rather curious about the Angel’s other customers. A window seat was taken up by two seventy year old women supping – of all things – bottles of Smirnoff Ice, whilst at the bar sat a rather spaced out woman who spent most of her time staring into space although at one point she got off her stool, and half-staggered, half-crawled towards the pub’s toilets.

We were beginning to feel like we were extras in some sort of bad sitcom; even more so when a group of three lads came in, looked around, engaged in a few minutes of banter with a couple of other people sat at the bar, then headed straight out again without even ordering a single drink. Ten minutes later they were back, and repeated the whole exercise for a second time.

Banter was clearly in order. As we finished our food, the group at the bar spent several minutes trying to wind up the landlord who was sat doing paperwork at a table near us, whilst the rest of the staff rushed around. That he barely raised an eyebrow at the noise heading his way suggested this kind of thing happened here regularly. Watching it all, I resolved that in the highly unlikely event that I was going to write a sitcom set in a pub, I’d head to the Angel for further research.

Trees in a field near Alston, seen from the Pennine Way

Much as an afternoon in the Angel was proving increasingly tempting, we had to get on our way and we had much to look forward to once we got back outside. After all, our guide book told us “if there is to be disappointment on any section of the Pennine Way it is likely to be found on the long walk from Alston through Slaggyford and by Lambly to Greenhead.”

High praise indeed.

There’s a hint of inevitability that, when you create a walk snaking 256 miles up the country, you’ll hit some dull sections. But the guide book seemed to be especially harsh on what was to come. I mean, this was a book that had barely blinked about the boggy, dull morass coming down from Tan Hill. Could the few miles that lay ahead of us be really that bad? There was only one way to find out.

It turned out that it perhaps wasn’t the finest part of the Pennine Way, although it also didn’t feature a scrapyard. The route took us through a succession of waterlogged fields, each entered by a stile surrounded by copious amounts of mud. Each field seemed to be little different to its predecessor; some soggy grass and the odd sheep who seemed indifferent to our presence. At least they were until one particular field where all the sheep seemed to magically gravitate towards Catherine, who ended leading them Pied-Piper style as far as she could. Desperate attempts to shoo them away failed, and it was only when we reached a footbridge over a stream, that they abandoned their pursuit.

Sign on a gate saying ‘Isacc’s Tea Trail’ [sic]

A brass plaque attached to a gate welcomed us to Northumbria, and cryptically added “Isacc’s Tea Trail” underneath. Yes, that’s right. “Isacc’s”. Not “Isaac’s” but “Isacc’s”. The typo must have been a slightly expensive mistake to make.

It turned out that Isaac’s Tea Trail had been following the Pennine Way since Alston. The 36 mile circular walk has apparently been described by someone as “England’s last great undiscovered wilderness trek”, although who knows who that someone was, because it was one of those quotes that never seems to be attributed. Perhaps it was Geoff at the local council who said it. Or maybe Martha who works in a lumber merchants. That was probably likely given the lack of a source. If it had been Julia Bradbury or Wainwright, you can bet their name would be plastered all over the posters. But if your killer quote came from Lyndsey in accounts, that might be something you feel the need to hide. And with a billing like that though, it was clear that Isaac’s Tea Trail was the walk to do if you thought that the Pennine Way was too urban.

The Tea Trail is a walk named after former lead miner Isaac Holden was hit by a double whammy of falling ill and then losing his job when the mines closed, and falling ill. So Isaac found himself a new career as a door-step purveyor of tea. After converting to Methodism, he began combining his tea business with raising money for the area’s poor, and building wells, libraries and a “penny savings bank”; the latter being one of a number of institutions at the time where the poor where encouraged to save money in order to avoid a life in the workhouse.

Horribly churned up and muddy field

The man clearly deserved a walking trail after him. Less pleasant in our minds was the farmer just over the county boundary whose field was a veritable sea of mud. It looked like someone had spent a happy afternoon driving their tractor around in circles whilst manically cackling “I’ll show those walkers, mwhahahahahahaha!” It was more than possible that the hugely churned up field wasn’t a deliberate act, but it certainly didn’t give the impression that the landowner was particularly friendly to people crossing their land.

If there was a desire to put people off using the footpath, it wasn’t going to be helped by the presence of Whitley Castle nearby. Built by the Romans, probably to protect Alston and its nearby lead mines, only the ramparts now remain, resulting in there being just a series of grassy mounds to explore, although exploration would be punctured by the dry stone walls which criss-crossed the old fort; a sign that for centuries, history was just that. Something that was in the past, and not particularly worth worrying about in the here and now. Although to be fair, the place does just look like a big lump in the ground, so perhaps that’s not totally surprising.

Faded sign advertising the Kirkstyle Inn to be the last pub till Greenhead

Another rallying cry could be found on the path just a short way away. “Kirkstyle Inn (Knarsdale)” said the sign. “Last pub till Greenhead.”

No pub on the Pennine Way for 11 miles after the Kirkstyle? This was important news. Especially as we would be in need of refreshment after this long and exhausting day. We just had to get there, and preferably stay mud free, which was proving to be easier said than done. Our brand new gaiters were already proving their worth, and were absolutely coated in brown muck thanks to the churned up fields, as well as stiles and gates which were inevitably surrounded by large pools of muddy water. It was almost impossible to stay even reasonably dry, yet alone clean.

As if to taunt us, right below us there was clearly an easier way. For it’s not just the Pennine Way which passes through the area. Running roughly parallel is the South Tyne Trail, which ran flat, straight and looked pretty mud free.

We’d been able to see the South Tyne Trail in the distance for most of the afternoon, but now as we arrived at Kirkhaugh we were suddenly within metres of it. And would remain so for several miles. Its simplicity came from it following an old railway line that had closed in 1976 after the decision to close it was, yet again, suggested in the Beeching report.

The South Tyne Trail on an old railway viaduct, seen from the Pennine Way

Whilst the South Tyne Trail follows an old railway track, it also runs alongside a railway too. Attempts were made to buy the old railway trackbed at the time of closure, but they were to no avail, and barely had the railway been closed than workers were out lifting the track. Undeterred, the preservation movement did succeed in returning railways to the area, creating a narrow gauge railway running from its base in Alston. For a few miles the railway and the path run alongside each other, with a fence in-between for safety reasons.

No doubt had the Pennine Way not pre-dated the railway’s closure, it would have been diverted along the old railway line instead of the rather random and ramshackle route over farmland it actually follows. All of which means that the Pennine Way walker can only look on at the simplicity and dryness of their neighbour, and wish they’d had the foresight to follow the old railway instead.

A prime example of the difference between the two came just before the hamlet of Slaggyford. After spending much of the day looking down on the South Tyne Trail from the sides of a hill, suddenly we were heading below it; our path taking a turn to pass under an old railway viaduct. For good measure, our route consisted mostly of slippery mud, heading steeply downhill. It was clearly not the best of routes; something confirmed by the presence of a single gaiter strapped to a gate, which had clearly been lost in a desperate tussle between hiker and path. And if there wasn’t enough mud to look at, the area also seemed to be strewn with rabbit corpses just for good measure.

Despite only having had a relatively short distance to walk for the day, the conditions underfoot were such that it had been a pretty tiring day and our arrival in Slaggyford was more than welcome. We were staying in an old chapel, beautifully converted into a fantastically decorated building, complete with former chapel features. Even the chapel’s old pulpit had found its place in the refurbishment. Despite being incredibly wet and covered nearly head to toe in the old brown stuff, we were warmly greeted and swiftly plied with tea and biscuits. The response of Pennine Way B&B owners to the bedraggled, muddy people who arrived on their doorsteps never failed to amaze me, especially those that were – like our abode for this night – immaculately decorated. I always faintly expected that someone would open the door, take one look at us, shriek “Eeurrrgh!” before promptly slamming the door in our faces. It never happened. Although it would be hard to imagine any accommodation provider on the Pennine Way staying in business for long if they objected to a little mud here and there.

Yew Tree Lodge on Slaggyford

There was however a slight downside to our glorious home from home: the lack of a pub. This was to our surprise as we’d understood there was one nearby. Our pre-walk research – which had mostly consisted of typing “Slaggyford pub” into a well known internet search engine – had returned the Kirkstyle Inn on the results page. The online map on said search engine had even showed it to be within a short distance of our B&B.

There was just one problem. The internet was wrong. The Kirkstyle Inn may have had Slaggyford in its address, but it was actually over a mile up a busy road from the village itself, with no pavement to walk on.

Still, the last pub before Greenhead was one that would need to be savoured and enjoyed. And it could perhaps only be enjoyed after a little effort had been exerted in order to get there. Although as it happened we put no effort in. By sheer coincidence, a friend of the B&B’s owners had been visiting them, and was going to be driving past the pub at exactly the same time we wanted to go. Talk about good timing.

Despite being in the middle of nowhere, the Kirkstyle was heaving. Pints were being supped, and food was coming out of the pub’s kitchen quick and fast, and we only just managed to blag ourselves a table as we settled down for the evening. Clearly that faded advertisement on the route of the Pennine Way was paying off for the owners. And we certainly weren’t going to argue. We may have been on our second pub of the day, but we still had the previous pub-less evening to make up for.

View all 33 of my photos from the day walking the Pennine Way between Garrigill and Slaggyford

See You In Kirk Yetholm

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