Pennine Way: Snowed In at Byrness

Published 20 January 2016

Pointing to the location of Byrness on a Pennine Way information board, as the snow comes down in Byrness
Near but so far.

The next morning I woke and hesitantly opened the curtains to see what awaited us.

“What’s it like out there?” asked Catherine, waking up as the light filled the room.

“White,” I replied, glumly. “Very, very white.”

Snow was coming down heavily, and Forest View’s small garden was deeply coated in the stuff already.

Downstairs we pottered around, preparing breakfast and wondering what on earth to do. Kirk Yetholm lay 26 miles away. We’d intended to walk it in two sections, stopping overnight at a remote farm along the way. But to get there would require us to head up onto high ground. To compound matters, the hills didn’t provide the best conditions even in good weather. The previous night, one of Forest View’s other residents had told us she’d been up on the hills where the Pennine Way went the day before and had put a foot wrong and ended up to her waist in bog. Now that same section of path was covered in snow, and who knew how much of it was up there.

Snow falling on the village of Byrness
A snowy Byrness village.

Even without the potential problems caused by deep bog being hidden under a heavy coating of the white stuff, navigation would be extremely difficult, and we certainly weren’t equipped or experienced enough to walk in such conditions. True, we were assuming that everywhere would be bad. We had absolutely no idea what it was like outside Byrness. It could all be fine a mile away. Stranger things have happened, although it seemed highly unlikely. If Byrness was cut off, chances were that the higher ground would be even worse.

As we dawdled around wondering what to do, Colin arrived to tell us that the roads were pretty much closed; the busy A86 had ground to a halt and would remain so until the snow ploughs managed to get through.

And then the phone calls started.

The first was for two women, fellow Forest View residents who had been planning to drive some forty miles to the remote Mounthooley bunkhouse. Roads were impassible, proclaimed the owner over the phone.

Then a few minutes later, the owners of our B&B at Barrowburn Farm were on the line.

“You’re best not even trying to get here,” was their comment. “We’re completely snowed in. It’s very deep.”

Well, that was that then. That just left the question of what on earth we were going to do now.

YHA sign buried in the snow at Byrness
YHA sign buried in the snow at Byrness

The snow ploughs arrived by mid-morning, and whilst the snow was easing a little, it was still coming down. The hostel’s four other residents – two women, and a man and a woman – decided to brave the roads as best they could, but for us there were few options. To say that the chances that the daily bus and coach services would be running were pretty slim, was an understatement. There was little choice. There was no way round it; we were stopping at Byrness another night.

According to our original itinerary, the following night would see us stay at the youth hostel in Kirk Yetholm. Obviously given the snow, there would have been little reason to actually head there. But as it happened, we had plans. Waiting for us at Kirk Yetholm would be Catherine’s parents, her brother and his wife. A table was booked for us all at the Border Inn that evening. A table booked for a dual celebration. We’d toast our success in finally completing the Pennine Way, and we’d also raise a glass to celebrate Catherine’s mum’s 60th birthday and her completion of Ben Nevis. True, there’d be nothing to celebrate about the Pennine Way, but it has to be said that birthdays generally are generally not affected by the weather.

Really, there weren’t many options. It was Kirk Yetholm or bust. But it certainly wasn’t going to be Kirk Yetholm by foot. We’d have to make separate arrangements.

As it happened, Colin and Joyce needed to get to the town of Kelso the following morning, and they were confident the roads would be clear enough for them to get down there and – most importantly – get back home too. And for us, we’d be able to get the bus to Kirk Yetholm, and the pub, meaning we’d be able to meet everyone.

But that was tomorrow. Today we’d be in Byrness, and as the snow continued to fall, we sought a way to occupy ourselves.

Playing Bohnanza card game at Forest View in Byrness
Playing the Bohnanza card game.

As Colin bustled around doing his morning chores, and with the snow continuing to come down heavily, we could think of little to do other than sit in the hostel playing games. We’d brought with us a German card game called Bohnanza, which kept us occupied for a bit, but after an hour or so we started raiding the hostel’s small game selection. This include Scrabble and a thrilling game known as Farmyard Donkey which proved so tedious that only the knowledge that there were many hours of the day remaining before we could go to bed, kept us playing it.

By lunchtime we were thoroughly sick of cards of any form, but as luck would have it, the flurry of snow falling had reduced to merely a light snow shower. Feeling thoroughly cooped up, we headed pulled on our still slightly damp hiking boots, and headed outside.

There were a couple of simple looking circular walks in the forest, accessible from the Pennine Way. It wasn’t quite the fifteen miles we’d anticipated doing, but it was better than nothing.

Daffodils drooped their heads in the grounds of the village church; a reminder that this was nearly the end of March. A sign at the front of the church announced it was one of the smallest in Northumberland.

The Church of St Francis in Byrness, topped with snow
A snowy church in Byrness.

The world was in monochrome; the bright snow set against the darkness of pretty much everything else. Up ahead we could see the low clouds hogging the hillside. Visibility on the Pennine Way would undoubtedly be poor, and that was before you even considered the fact that the paths would be impossible to see.

We wandered on back to the Kielder Forest. It was deserted. Everywhere was deserted. The few people in the area were all no doubt safely tucked up indoors, probably sat in front of roaring fires. The roads were still in poor condition, with just a handful of vehicles doing their best to get through to wherever they were going. There was a caravan park nearby. Someone of them even had awnings erected. But if there was anyone staying there, they weren’t providing much sign of it.

We potted around as long as we could, before deciding that this was all too cold for us, and headed back to Forest View for a cup of tea, and many, many games of Scrabble.

Fields and powerlines covered with snow in Byrness
Fields and powerlines covered with snow in Byrness

The next morning was the first of April. The sun was shining brightly; the sky a bold blue. Perfect walking weather; the kind we’d been hoping for ever since we’d arrived at Dufton several days earlier. But sadly we weren’t going to Kirk Yetholm on foot today.

As Colin and Joyce drove us out of Byrness and over the border into Scotland, we looked out of the car windows at the world around us. The higher ground was still covered in snow, but as the road began to descend to the valley, it was completely notable by its absence. The towns and villages we passed through looked like they hadn’t had a single drop of the stuff.

We potted around the town of Kelso for a bit, admiring the ruined abbey buildings from afar as the abbey site was closed. Apparently it opened in April. Well this was April – the first of the month – but the place was having none of it. A trip to Floors Castle, built by the 1st Duke of Roxburghe in 1721, was another option but as we got there a sign informed us that it too was closed. If we wanted to visit, we’d have to pop back the following day. With several hours to kill, and the town’s two main tourist attractions firmly closed, we ended up doing a self-guided walking tour of the town, based on Scottish playwright and novelist Walter Scott and his connections with the town. This included such landmarks as the site of a tree which once inspired Scott. The tree was no longer there, having disappeared several years earlier.

Kelso, on the banks of the River Tweed
Kelso, on the banks of the River Tweed

After some food in a café, which seemed to have an extensive sideline in dubious looking CDs and VHS tapes of Scottish folk songs played on the bagpipes by a rotund man in a kilt, we decided we’d exhausted Kelso’s possibilities and headed to the main square to catch the bus to Kirk Yetholm.

After a short journey, the bus pulled up outside the Border Hotel, next to the official finishing point of the Pennine Way. We’d made it then, just not under our own steam. We were still a little too early to check into the hostel, we wandered up the Pennine Way a little to see the hills we should have been walking over.

It didn’t take us long for the Cheviots to come into sight. There they were, covered heavily in a blanket of white snow. We stared at them, feeling a sense of defeat.

“We’ll have to come back then,” I said, finally.

“We will. Perhaps when the weather’s a little better?” replied Catherine.

“Yep. That might just be a good idea.”

And with that, we turned round, and headed back to the village to party.

Staring at the snow covered Cheviots from the road near Kirk Yetholm
Staring at the Cheviots from near Kirk Yetholm

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