Pennine Way Stage 15: Slaggyford to Greenhead

Published 25 November 2015

A Pennine Way signpost outside our B&B in Slaggyford.
A Pennine Way signpost outside our B&B in Slaggyford

It was a rare night on any of our Pennine Way travels that we didn’t stay somewhere reasonably close to the trail. Yes, there were a couple of nights which had a bit of a trek. And there was one night that involved a car and a motorway. But generally we stayed within a mile or so of the path itself.

And that’s fine. But sometimes there was something even better. Those were the days when we could simply step out of the door of our B&B or hostel, and find ourselves instantly on the Pennine Way.

Our B&B at Slaggyford provided us with one such morning. The B&B even had a Pennine Way signpost right next to the front door. A front door that, incidentally, had doves nesting near it. One particular dove had taken it upon herself to build her nest on top of a small ornament mounted on the wall, right above the front door. Not the most obvious place to bring up your young chick, although she seemed happy with the arrangement, and barely batted an eyelid (or whatever the dove equivalent is) as we opened the door and stepped out onto the pavement right in front of her.

Two Pennine Way walkers first thing in the morning? She’d obviously seen it all before.

A very muddy Pennine Way near Slaggyford
Lots of mud!

The Pennine Way once again ran almost parallel to the South Tyne Trail, and would be doing for a couple of miles. And yet again, the other trail looked far nicer than our own. Within minutes of leaving Slaggyford we were heading along yet another veritable mudfest, whilst mere metres away lay a pristine path, in perfect condition.

“Maybe we should think about taking a detour over there,” I suggested to Catherine as we squelched and slid around on the Pennine Way.

It seemed like a good plan, although the silence I received in reply suggested the sanctity of the Pennine Way route was frankly far more important than the fact that we might be getting a little dirty.

The South Tyne Trail, seen from the Pennine Way near Burnstones
The South Tyne Trail, seen from the Pennine Way near Burnstones

At least at Burnstones our torment would be over, for it is here that the two trails begin to diverge. The South Tyne Trail goes off towards the town of Haltwhistle, whilst the Pennine Way heads in a slightly different direction towards the village of Greenhead. That didn’t mean we’d left the railway behind completely. We would be walking within half a mile of the old railway line for a few more miles yet, but at least it wouldn’t be right next to us, taunting us with its path of finest stones; smooth, easy going and problem free.

We were well on our way to what is perhaps the historical highlight of the Pennine Way. For at Greenhead, the trail arrives at the remains of Hadrian’s Wall and many other Roman fortifications that have long since passed into decay. To get there we had to follow part of an old Roman road named Maiden Way. That, incidentally, is probably not the name the Romans gave to the road. The actual Roman names for all their roads in Britain have been long lost. The names we use now to describe them are derived from the Anglo-Saxon language, given to the roads after the Romans had left Britain for good. Even then, we don’t quite know why the Anglo-Saxons chose that name, although its likely that it was named for “Maiden Castle”; this being a name given to many castles and forts and believed to mean “impregnable looking castle.” So, nothing about unmarried women at all.

Muddy paths on Lambley Common
Striding over the mud on Lambley Common.

These days you won’t find soldiers marching down the road. They stopped bothering with it many years ago. However, the path has found itself a new role marking the boundary between moorland and lush green farmland; the two divided by a dry stone wall.

The Maiden Way ran along on the moorland side of the boundary, and any hope that following an old Roman road would provide us with good walking conditions were swiftly discarded as we began to squelch our way over bogs, and jump majestically over giant puddles. Stiles were especially affected. One was surrounded by so much water that it was physically impossible to even get close to it without finding ourselves up to our knees in water. In the end we had to resort to climbing over a barbed wire fence in order to cross over into the next field and stay dry.

A stile crossing a fence, with a huge puddle in front of it.
Come to Lambley Common for all your mud needs.

The previous night we’d been told by a local that there’d barely been any rain recently; at least until – just our luck – a few days before our arrival when the heavens had opened in style. The moors certainly were showing the affects of the downpours. A substantial amount of the path had been turned into mini-ponds, some of them even had some wildlife in them.

“What’s that in there?” I said, stopping abruptly and staring intently into the murky water.

Catherine stopped and wandered over to peer over my shoulder.

Frogspawn in a puddle, near Burnstones
Is that frog spawn?

“That’s frog spawn, isn’t it?” I added.

“Yep, I think so.”

“So the local frogs have been up here and decided that this small puddle is the perfect place for their young to grow.”

“That certainly does seem to be the case,” and we stared at each other and marvelled at the wonders of nature.

Ruined buildings and trees at High House
The ruins of High House.

Our guidebook was as equally dismissive of this section as it had been of our walk between Alston and Slaggyford, which seemed a little harsh. True, this wasn’t the stand-out scenery of the Yorkshire Dales or Kinder Scout, but there was nothing intrinsically bad about it. It even featured a ruined barn at High House. How can a stretch of a walk which includes a ruined barn possibly be bad? I just can’t imagine. It’s really just not possible. The barn seemed like a perfect place to stop for some lunch. And it was for about five seconds, until a strong and extremely cold wind began to blow in our direction, instantly persuading us to move on.

Despite it being a Sunday, we had the area to ourselves. Not once did we exchange pleasantries with a single other person, in that way that walkers do, and the only other walkers we saw all day were two people in the distance who were walking on the South Tyne Trail. Instead, our company came mostly in the form of sheep, some with recently born lambs who lay close to their mothers in the grassy fields.

Walking over Hartleyburn Common on the Pennine Way
Hartleyburn Common.

After a dalliance with farmland, we arrived on Hartleyburn Common; a large expanse of hair moss and thick green grass. We were on the common, and its neighbour, Blenkinsopp Common, for over an hour, but it felt far longer. The flat landscape offered few views, just repetitive visions of moorland stretching out in front of us.

Finally, on the edge of the common came Black Hill with its views of farmland below. We were edging towards Greenhead, and Hadrian’s Wall country, but first there was a golf course to walk through. Yes, here in the heart of Hadrian’s Wall country, in a rural location where the nearest and largest town around has a population of a mere 3,000 people, can be found the 18 hole Haltwhistle Golf Course. It’s quite possibly the only golf course to be sited on an old Roman camp, with ramparts, ditches and the works. You really don’t get that kind of thing in a golf course in Surrey now, do you?

Most of our Roman exploration would take place on the next two days, but our journey into Greenhead would take us past one piece of Roman remains: the Vallum. A long ditch, built sometime after Hadrian’s Wall, the Vallum’s purpose has never been fully explained, although it is believed by many to be a boundary marker; that the long ditch formed the southern boundary of a military zone, which ran northwards to the wall. Perhaps just installing a fence wasn’t deemed to be obvious enough to people. Although it would, I am sure, have been far easier to erect. We walked along the ditch, sorry, the Vallum, a short way before leaving the Pennine Way for Greenhead and our accommodation. There would be plenty of time for Romans in the morning after all.

We were staying in another converted chapel, this time in a hostel that was based in the buildings. The former Methodist chapel had opened to worshippers in 1885, before finally closing its doors in 1974. In prime walkers country, the building hadn’t remained empty for long, and was swiftly converted into accommodation by the YHA who opened it up for business in 1978.

Fallen down signpost pointing to Greenhead Hostel.  It is sited in front of a railway line.
Tunnel into the ground for the hostel!

The YHA had however caused us some mild panic. We’d booked our beds two months earlier, making the booking by phone due to the YHA’s online booking system not working properly for some reason. Whilst on the phone we learned that the hostel had had some flooding problems, but they assured us that they were working on it and fully expected to be re-opening by the time we’d arrived. However they promised to let us know if there was a problem.

There we left it, until days before we left London when I was scouring the YHA website trying to find out the hostel’s address and contact details, so that we’d have them with us in case of any problems; something I did for everywhere we planned to stay. I fired up the website and found the Greenhead page.

“This location has now closed.” said the YHA website rather bluntly.

Woah, wait a minute, what? Closed? What? Why? How? Why had no one told us? Where on earth were we going to stay?! Could the flooding really have been that bad that they’d simply walked away from the place?

I began to run around the room in circles; flapping my arms around for good measure. This was a problem. This wasn’t good. Would we be able to find somewhere to stay in time? It was March, a time when many B&B owners head off on their own holidays due to it being rather quiet out there.

Within minutes I was frantically searching the YHA’s website, wondering how a hostel could be closed so quickly. And found nothing. Not one thing. At least I couldn’t, until I logged in to the website’s forums. And there it was. Buried in a page that was completely invisible unless you’d bothered to sign up to the forums and had then logged in.

Greenhead Hostel
Greenhead Hostel.

“For members and guests information. From January 1st YHA Greenhead will cease to be involved in the YHA’s Enterprise scheme.”

I clearly wasn’t the only one going “Huh?” with a confused look on my face at this completely cryptic, incomprehensible message. Another user had left the reply:

“Err…. sorry, but what on earth does ‘cease to be involved in the YHA’s Enterprise scheme’ mean? Something to do with Star Trek? Why is it ‘leaving the network’?”

It turned out that the YHA, in their wisdom, had decided to flog the hostel a few years earlier. It had been put on the market, and sold to the owners of the nearby Greenhead Hotel who had kept it open as a hostel and had initially decided to operate it under the YHA’s franchise scheme, which is strangely called “Enterprise” for reasons that I’m sure seem obvious to someone, but not me.

For whatever reason, Greenhead had then later decided to leave the YHA network; the decision being implemented a few months before our visit. The place was still open as an independent hostel, however the YHA had decided to paste up a completely incorrect and misleading message on their website.

All they had to do was put a message up saying “Greenhead Hostel is no longer part of the YHA” and all this would have been at least a little clearer. And for that matter, would have saved me from wearing a circular hole in the carpet due to worry and panic. At least it was all, finally, explained but it did cause some unnecessary angst.

Back at Greenhead, we checked in to the hostel and found our room. The place smelt faintly of fresh paint, and was completely deserted. There was not even a member of staff on site; we’d had to get our key from the hotel over the road.

It was the first night open after being closed for the winter season; the first night as an independent hostel, and we were the only two people wandering around a place that could accommodate 40. It was an eerie feeling, wandering around empty corridors, passing rooms that would no doubt be full later in the year, but for now seemed like they were sleeping.

We contemplated doing all those things that you can do when in a large building by yourself; running around the corridors screaming, jumping on all the beds, re-arranging all the pans in the communal kitchen. That sort of thing. But instead we had a cup of tea before heading across the road and had a pint in the hotel. Those pans really could wait until the morning.

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