Pennine Way Stage 17: Once Brewed to Bellingham

Published 6 January 2016

Turret 39B on Hadrian's Wall, seen from above.
Walking along Hadrian’s Wall, with its turrets and milecastles.

We woke to the sound of rain hitting the hostel window. And hitting it hard.

Now this need not be always a sign that the day is going to be gloomy and miserable. The year before, I had gone on a walking trip in Cumbria. Every morning, at around 5am, I’d been woken by the sound of the poor weather outside, yet by the time I’d risen from my bed at around eight, the sun had come out and the Lake District was looking absolutely gorgeous, with barely a cloud in the sky. But let’s be honest here. That’s not something that happens often. And it certainly wasn’t going to happen to us at Once Brewed.

It was with reluctance that we left the warmth (and dryness) of the YHA and returned to the Pennine Way. But what better a way to start a day of walking than immediately leaping onto the path right next to Hadrian’s Wall.

We had another couple of miles walking in the company of Hadrian’s endeavour, with the trail taking us past the remains of more milecastles and turrets. At one point the wall went up a particularly undulating section, requiring the path to make some steep climbs up and then back down into a small dip, before rising up once more.

Sycamore Gap, where a tree grows in a gap in Hadrian's Wall
One of the most picturesque locations on the whole of the Pennine Way

Then, at one dip, the wall disappeared, replaced instead by a tree. Based on the number of photographs of this particular tree I’d seen in the Twice Brewed Inn and at Greenhead, the tree at Sycamore Gap must be one of the most photographed parts of the wall. Perhaps this was less related to the fact that it was in a rather picturesque spot, and more to do with the fact that the tree had been featured in the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. There was no denying we were in an attractive place though, and my camera lens clicked and whirred as I attempted to take my own shot of this local landmark. And all without Kevin Costner anywhere to be seen.

Sometimes the wall was in good condition, other times less so. There were, however, occasions when the lack of a wall wasn’t too much of a worry. There were other things to see. As we passed through the curiously named Hotbank Farm, a cow seemed to be looking distinctly uncomfortable as it lay down on the side of the ditch, some way from the rest of the herd.

For a moment we wondered whether we should head to the farmhouse to tell someone that there was a cow in distress, when suddenly it all became clear. The cow was about to give birth.

Retreating to a respectful distance away – naturally being careful not to appear threatening to the mother – we watched as a new calf was brought into the world. For a moment it lay still, before beginning to slowly roll down the side of the ditch; its mother nuzzling it and licking its face. It was soon jerking around and trying to get on its feet, and then it was up and away; its mum happy that all was looking good.

The ladder stile at Rapishaw Gap, where the Pennine Way leaves Hadrian's Wall
Leaving Hadrian and his wall.

The big moment completed, we pushed on to Rapishaw Gap where a ladder stile would take us over the wall, and a path would take us off onto the distinctly flat plains of the Barbarian lands to the north. But not the lands of Scotland. Whilst some sections of Hadrian’s Wall get reasonably close to the modern border, a lot of the time Scotland is far further away. From where we stood, we were forty or so miles away from the nearest Scottish town, and any Barbarians seeking to invade right now would more likely be coming from Northumbria rather than Scotland.

A mile of walking through rain sodden moorland was then followed by a complete change of character for the Pennine Way as it passed into Wark Forest. After the muddy, boggy paths of much of the last few days, the chance to walk on even wetter and boggier forest tracks, was more than welcome.

With just 62 people per square kilometre, Northumberland is one of the least populated parts of England. This meant that when the UK government decided to expand the country’s forests following depletion during World War I, the county of Northumberland was an obvious place to start tree planting. Wark Forest is the southern part of the much larger Kielder Forest; a massive entity that is the largest managed by the Forestry Commission, and that supplies a whopping 25% of all the wood produced in the whole of the UK. And all on an area of land that comes in at 65,000 hectares. To put that into the units that seem to be near compulsory to use when talking about area, that’s more than 91,000 football pitches. Kielder Forest in itself covers 13% of the entire county of Northumberland. And that’s ignoring all the other forests in the county.

Logging road in Wark Forest
A logging road in Wark Forest.

Yes, it’s a big forest all right. And one we’d spend a fair amount of time in later in our journey. Our introduction to it lasted a mere mile and a half before we were ejected out onto a patch of moorland known as Haughton Common. Bordered by the spruce trees on three sides, it seemed a quiet and distinctly empty place, hardly encouraging anyone to linger, and we pushed on as quickly as we could. Yet despite the emptiness, there was life here.

On the other side of the Common, we could see another walker heading towards us.

Any Pennine Way walker who has set off from the bright lights of Edale will be used to seeing other walkers. They’re everywhere. Even on the most miserable day, you’ll still find some mad fool decked out in waterproofs doing a day hike round the hill tops. You’ll always see someone out there, no matter what day it is, or whether its bright sunshine or pouring down with rain.

Yet the further north you head on the trail, the fewer people you begin to see. Because it’s a slow reduction, occurring over many, many miles, the change is almost imperceptible. At least it is until you spend a whole day out walking and realise you haven’t seen anyone since you paid your B&B bill at 9am that morning, and now it’s half four in the afternoon.

It’s a change that is completely inevitable. The Pennine Way starts within spitting distance of several major urban conurbations, but slowly and surely it gets more and more remote. There’s a blip when you approach Hadrian’s Wall due to it being a major tourist attraction, and then you leave it behind and are alone again.

The remote Haughton Common
The remote Haughton Common

We’d obviously set off too early for most of the visitors to the Wall that day as we hadn’t seen anyone at all since we’d left Once Brewed, and obviously once we left it, we hadn’t seen a soul. Until now that was. And they were walking, slowly but surely towards us.

There was a fence and a stile in the middle of the moor, and we were all heading towards it. As we walked towards it, we wondered who would get there first? Us or them? The tension was mounting as we got closer and closer; all would soon be revealed in spectacular fashion when all three of us pretty much arrived at the stile at exactly the same time.

Now I can’t speak for our fellow walker, but we certainly hadn’t varied our pace in any way, in order to make this amazing coincidence happen. And it was an outstanding coincidence. The only three people out hiking in the area – perhaps for many miles around – all meeting up at the same stile, creating a mini-traffic jam as we each tried to cross from one side to the other.

Like us, he was walking the Pennine Way, although, unlike us he, was walking north to south. Having set off from Kirk Yetholm a few days earlier, his plan was to head as far south as the weather would allow him to get. He was hoping to get to Edale, but cautious given he hadn’t particularly had particularly great conditions so far. Well, absolutely. What kind of fool would walk the Pennine Way in March after all?

After learning from him that the paths ahead of us were just a bit boggy, and him learning from us that the paths ahead of him were, well, just a bit boggy, we wished him good luck, bade him farewell and headed on our way.

Catherine huddled in a sheepfold on Haughton Common
The Haughton Common sheepfold.

A little way ahead of us sat a sheepfold, designed in such a way to ensure that any sheep, or passing humans for that matter, could take shelter from any strong winds that happened to be blowing at the time. Our guide book enthused about the structure, letting us know that “this makes an acceptable stopping point for lunch, though the desolation of the place may cause you to hasten on your way.” High praise indeed. But still, it was lunchtime and we hadn’t seen many better places to stop and rest so we popped inside to find that yes, it was indeed pretty sheltered.

Unfortunately it was also almost completely full of sheep poo. It seemed that every sheep in the area had popped over to for some rest and shelter, and had naturally made use of the area for other purposes too. There was barely any space free to sit down on that wasn’t covered in greeny-brown pellets. Not that it really mattered, as no sooner had we reached the sheepfold than it started raining again. And the last thing you really want when eating your sandwich, is for it to get soggy and wet.

“Anyway,” I said to Catherine as we set off once more, “It’s far too desolate for my liking.”

Signpost for Willowbog Bonsai, at the side of a road.
Willowbog Bonsai – for all your bonsai needs. Or something.

Another forest section was over almost as soon as it began, and it was followed by a trek down a road that took us past an establishment that proclaimed itself to be “the North East’s premier bonsai nursery.” That’s for growing miniature trees, not miniature humans of course.

With the rain continuing, we huddled under some trees on the edge of another stretch of forest in order to eat our lunch, and made our way on another section of boggy moorland. It was becoming abundantly clear that we’d picked the wrong time of year to be walking the Pennine Way. The weather had been getting worse by the day, the scenery certainly wasn’t looking its best and the ground clearly wasn’t coping well with the influx of water bashing down on it. But we’d made our bed, and we’d have to lie in it. It was Kirk Yetholm or bust. Or more accurately, Kirk Yetholm or drown trying.

This unfortunately required an afternoon wandering around in some dreary conditions with waterproof jacket hoods hoisted firmly over our heads, and rain seeping further and further into our boots. There was little we could do other than just plod on and take what moments of respite that could be provided.

Lambs greet Catherine on Lowstead Farm

One such – rare – moment came in a field at Lowstead Farm. The Pennine Way had taken us through a number of fields, one of which was the home of two very friendly lambs which jumped up at us, and frolicked around our legs as we tried to walk; all under the gaze of their mother who seemed to be watching with a distinct look of maternal pride.

Leaving the sheep to their field, we pushed on down tracks and roads to Shitlington Hall – in reality a rather grandly named farmhouse – and then to nearby Shitlington Crag; names that only the highly immature would find amusing. Honest. The crag is a local landmark; a series of sandstone boulders that stand dramatically, and provide a perfect subject for photography. Not that I was daring to get the camera out to take a photograph. The rain was beginning to ooze through my waterproofs, and despite the fact that I was keeping my camera in a case that itself was in an inside pocket, things were beginning to look distinctly damp and soggy. I was beginning to worry that if things got any worse, I may not only be having to dry out my clothes that night, but also my photography equipment.

Shitlington Crags, with moorland in the background.
Shitlington Crags

By now our boots were so wet that cold water was freely running around inside them, and every time a foot went down, there was the sound of sploshing and squelching. We stomped miserably through the wet fields, desperately wanting the day to end; to find ourselves in our cosy B&B with a nice cup of tea, and quite possibly a biscuit.

At long last the town of Bellingham came into view. We arrived at a road where a sign informed us that the town offered such essentials as petrol, a giant knife and fork, caravans, tents, beds, toilets and a large, rather curly letter I, and that seemed good enough to us. Even then, it would take us another half hour of walking in order to get to all those exciting features.

We crossed over the swollen River North Tyne – sister river to the South Tyne that now seemed so far away – and made our way towards the town, seeking out our B&B and the location of any convenient pubs.

River North Tyne at Bellingham
The River North Tyne.

“Is it this place, which has a jacuzzi,” I asked Catherine as we walked past the first B&B we’d come across, and which was happily boasting its many exciting facilities on a large sign.

“No, I don’t think so. I think it’s this one,” she said, pointing to a small cottage whose main sign, in contrast, revealed that the building was for sale.

“Oh my goodness, you’re drenched!” came the call from the landlady as the front door was opened. “Come inside into the warm!”

We were ushered inside, and shown to our room so we could change into some dry clothing; all the soggy wet stuff, which was most of what we’d been wearing, was then swiftly dispatched to dry next to the B&B’s substantial boiler, which seemed to be more than up for the challenge.

It had been one of those days when you just want to crawl under a duvet and not come out again until breakfast, but somehow we managed to muster enough enthusiasm to head back outside into the rain and find some food. Bellingham seemed to have three pubs and a Chinese takeaway. Yes we were going to be spoiled for choice. Well, at least it seemed like we would.

One of the pubs seemed to be completely deserted; from its run down exterior we weren’t even sure it was still in business, yet alone whether it served food or not. A second, with a mock Tudor frontage, looked like a reasonable choice and we stepped inside to find a pub with low beams and a roaring fire. We sidled up to the bar to ask the ultimate question.

Walking through a field with a road sign marked 'Bellingham Services' in the distance.
Petrol, knife and fork, caravan, tent, bed, toilet and a big i await.

“Are you doing food?”

We are indeed,” came the call from behind the bar. “Monday night is curry night! It’s chicken curry tonight, served with rice and naan.”

Ah. We looked at each other, sensing there may be a slight issue.

“Anything vegetarian?” asked Catherine, who had ceased to eat meat some years earlier.

“Err, no,” said the barmaid, with a look of surprise on her face that suggested no one had ever asked her this before, and that this not-eating-meat thing was some sort of strange and unusual concept that was completely new to this part of the north east of England.

Well that was that, and we headed out of the door and down the road to the third pub.

The place was mostly deserted, with just a handful of people huddling round a fire that did little more than glow enigmatically in an otherwise cold room. Next to the bar a large TV screen blared out an episode of Emmerdale.

“Are you doing food tonight?” we nervously asked, as we disrupted her viewing.

“Of course,” she replied, handing us a ridiculously large menu, and we breathed a huge sigh of relief that we wouldn’t have to resort to eating chop suey sat on a bench outside the Co-op that night. “Do you want to eat in here, or in the dining room?”

The main bar was hardly the life and soul of a party, so unless most of the village was in there, it seemed unlikely the dining room would be any major improvement, and the thought of spending our evening in a large room alone by ourselves was even worse.

“In here’s fine,” we replied, taking a table as close to the fire as we could get without seeming like we were being overly friendly to the two other customers.

Everything about the place suggested the food would probably be disappointing; a view compounded by the fact that it would be the only pub on the whole of the Pennine Way where we were unable to order a pint of real ale. A sign outside had advertised them, however the bar’s sole handpull was completely empty, requiring us to resort to pints of over-cold Boddingtons instead.

It wasn’t exactly a bad pub – although the Boddies was pretty dire – but the TV screen piping out Emmerdale and Coronation Street just seemed to zap all the life out of the place. The only person watching it was the woman behind the bar who spent most of her time glued to the screen; the few customers who ventured in using up very little of her time. Most weren’t even in to drink, and there instead to pick up a take-away pizza that seemed to be the pub’s sideline, and which probably yielded higher profits that night than anything else.

It was just all so disappointing. This was to be our last pub until we reached Kirk Yetholm. The next evening would be spent in a tiny, pub free village, and the one after in a remote farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. What we wanted from our penultimate pub of the trip was a cosy village inn, and what we’d got was a standard town pub that could have been anywhere.

True, after we’d eaten our food we couldn’t have headed to the curry pub down the road, or maybe even seen if that third pub had bothered to open its doors. But what would the point be? It seemed to be a day that had been set up for disappointment. Terrible weather, miserable pub and no ale. At least tomorrow would be a fresh day. And one that see us leave Bellingham with no requirement ever to come back.



6 January 2016 at 6:51 pm

65,000 hectares. That’ll be an area that’s 0.031 times the size of Wales. Apparently. Bad luck with the weather. And the pub. :-(

Paul Jennings

1 May 2023 at 9:37 pm

I’ve just done this section April 23 and I’m happy to report that the pubs have got (slightly) better. The Black Bull is under new management and is now quite nice , as is the Hotel Cheviot – friendly bar staff and hood ales.
The one to avoid is the Rose & Crown – proper locals pub and not friendly. Leave them to it and venture elsewhere. A new B&B called Fountain Cottage and cafe is great for food and comfort beds. Also friendly people!

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