Pennine Way Stage 20: Windy Gyle to Kirk Yetholm

Published 3 February 2016

Walking up Clennel Street.
Clennel Street

“Now I’ve got a bit of a proposition for you,” said Ian – one of the couple who ran Barrowburn – with a look on his face that some people would use if they were about to suggest that we all popped to the nearest patisserie and each eat three chocolate éclairs there and then. In reality he was offering us a lift part of the way back to the Pennine Way, which for some walkers would equate to the same thing.

“Yesterday you got here by coming down the Border Country Ride, didn’t you?”

We nodded to say we did.

“Now we can drop you off on that bit, or we can take you a bit further on and you can walk up Clennell Street instead. You’ll get up on the ridge about half a mile on from Windy Gyle. It’s entirely up to you. Some people don’t feel right about missing a bit. But you’ve got to walk a bit anyway to get back from here.”

Very true indeed. Either way, even after kind offer of a lift, we’d still need to walk a mile and a half walk up hill before we’d get back to the Pennine Way; there was simply no way to get closer by car.

“And you’ll be able to see Windy Gyle from where Clennell Street takes you”

Cocklaw, where Clennel Street meets the Pennine Way
Cocklaw, where Clennel Street meets the Pennine Way.

Ah well. Now that he put it like that, well let’s just say that it clinched the deal.

Some people may, at this point, talk about respecting the integrity of the walk – that the Pennine Way walker should do every inch of its route if they wish to claim they’d done the whole thing. But then we’d got lost and gone wrong on the very first day we’d set foot on the Pennine Way, and on one summit we made a substantially wrong turning that had resulted in us ending up several miles further down a valley than we should have been. Right near the end was probably not the place to suddenly start getting obsessive about covering the whole of the Pennine Way with 100% accuracy.

As we ate a hearty breakfast, I struggled to really believe that this would be the last day we’d spend walking the Pennine Way. After it being a part of our life for over three years, we were almost done. And best of all, it looked like it was going to be a fantastic day to complete it. As we headed up the ancient drovers road of Clennell Street, the sun was shining brightly and the winds calm. This was perfect walking weather on which to end our Pennine Way adventure, and so unlike most of the walking days we’d had so far.

Having done most of the trail in spring and autumn, the weather hadn’t generally been on our side. But here we were, walking on August Bank Holiday Monday, basking in the sunshine. As we arrived back on the ridge we looked back to Windy Gyle where we’d been the previous day and saw the amazing sight of its trig point shimmering. Just shimmering. It would have been hard to ask for more.

Slabbed path on the Pennine Way in Northumberland
Slabbed walking

It was gone eleven by the time we’d finally rejoined the Pennine Way, rejoining another row of paving slabs over the heather topped ground.

Despite it being a Bank Holiday, there was no one around. Only months later did I remember that it was only a holiday in England, due to Scotland having their August bank holiday at the beginning of the month, rather than the end. This also wasn’t the most populated part of the world, however I expected to see more people than just the two fellow walkers we spotted in the distance who were joined by their enthusiastic dogs who bounded over the tufts of heather with glee.

After a short rest, we walked on over the slabs that covered Butt Roads and King’s Seat. In the distance we could just make out the Hanging Stone whose macabre name make it sound more impressive than it actually looks. The name is said to have been given when a packman’s pack slipped over the edge of the rock; the strap going tight around his neck.

Just beyond we came to a three armed signpost, each arm rather oddly informing us that the Pennine Way went in every direction it was pointing. This slightly confusing state of affairs was because we’d reached the optional detour to the rectangular, almost boxy summit of the Cheviot. Whilst not a compulsory part of the Pennine Way, the majority of Pennine Way walkers do decide that they haven’t walked anywhere near enough on their trip, so head off to make the two mile round trip to visit the final major peak on the trail.

Pennine Way signpost at the point of the Cheviot turnoff, with arrows pointing in three directions.
But which way is Pennine Way?!

Of those that make it, few ever seem to have a good word about the place. They will tell you that it’s a dull, boring peat bog quagmire with few, if any, redeeming features to justify the detour. As Wainwright summed it up,

“most walkers will arrive at the west top of Cairn Hill, where the detour starts, already tired, and will, if favoured by survival and after due passage of valuable time return to the said west top of Cairn Hill none the richer.”

For many a Pennine Way walker recalling their experience, the trip up the top of the Cheviot would have been a dull journey, battling through the stale smelling bog water; boots covered in peat. You don’t even get a view when you finally make it to the top as the summit is a plateau. And as it’s the highest point for miles around, there’s little that can be seen. It’s probably not even worth taking your camera out of your bag because there will be little worthy of a photograph. Besides, you might drop your camera in a bog and never see it again. Some have measured the peat bog on the Cheviot to be up to two metres in depth. This is certainly not somewhere you’d want to lose your camera by any means.

The turnoff for the Cheviot - with decking for a path for the main route, and a slabbed path going towards the Cheviot.
Follow the decking or the slabs – it’s your choice

Common sense and reason said there was no point in going. But despite it, sometimes you just have to. Don’t you?

Thankfully these days accessing the top of the Cheviot is a bit easier thanks to a row of stone slabs that snake their way over the ground. The main challenge is merely a case of walking from one to the another, trying to avoid inexplicably losing our balance, lest we landed head first in the black stuff.

As we headed up to the top, the hill seemed to come to life. All of a sudden, voices with distinct Geordie twangs filled the air, and there were people everywhere. Well, on the paving stones anyway. Other paths joined ours, and soon we were part of a a steady stream of people heading up to the Cheviot; a sizeable proportion of the population of the North East seemed to be making the most of their bank holiday by paying it a visit.

Sitting at the summit, sheltering under the trig point that had been plonked on a large stone tableau, more and more walkers continued to appear, most using the paths, but one woman began to bound enthusiastically over what appeared to be some horrendous peat bog, heading for goodness knows where.

A woman storms off into the peat bog from the summit of the Cheviot.
Foolhardy bog-striding on the Cheviot

Shaking our heads at her reckless abandon, we headed back from whence we came, now joined by a middle aged man wearing a Newcastle United shirt and a woolly hat.

“I wanna see the Hangin’ Stone” he told us in a thick Geordie accent, looking all around him just in case he missed it. “It’s on me map somewhere round here.”

“Yeah, we saw it earlier. Doesn’t look much.”

“Oh well, it’s on me map! I’m lookin’ forward to seein’ it!”

Quite what he spoke about in that half hour that he managed to spend with us, I can’t honestly tell you. What I do know is that we barely got two words in. There was just a constant stream of words coming from his mouth. Somehow he managed to talk both non-stop, and nineteen to the dozen at exactly the same time. It was a feat that took quite a lot of skill, and I can’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone say so many words in so little time ever before in my life. It was so constant that Catherine and myself ended up walking in some sort of daze; a situation that continued until we passed Philip, one half of the retired couple we’d seen the day before. He was heading up to the Cheviot solo as Jean, his wife, had sensibly decided to skip it and have a rest at the turn off not far below.

Standing next to the raised trig point at the summit of the Cheviot
Just chillin’ next to me trig

The day before we’d found out that we were staying at the same B&B in Kirk Yetholm as Philip and Jean, although they were staying there for two nights. We had a quick chat with him whilst our new Geordie friend remained strangely silent; his desire to see the hanging stone perhaps not as strong as his desire to be around other people.

We left Philip to continue his quest to the top of the Cheviot, and set on again for the main path, knowing that here at least, we’d be able to leave our loquacious new friend behind. The hanging stone was back where we had already been, and if our Geordie friend continued walking with us, he’d be going nowhere near where he wanted to go. We would be free! On the other hand, someone else probably was going to suffer, and as we approached the crossroads we knew who that person probably would be. Jean was stood there, resting against a fencepost. Her fate was sealed, and there was little chance she’d be able to escape.

We shot her an apologetic look as we bade our farewells, knowing that chances were that she’d be stuck in a one-way conversation for at least half an hour until Philip returned from the Cheviot. We later learned that that was exactly what had happened, until he finally headed off on his own to complete his quest. Whether he did finally make it to the stone, and what he made it when it got there, we never did find out.

Auchope Cairn, on the Pennine Way
Auchope Cairn

Auchope Cairn didn’t get a particularly glowing write up in out guide book. “[It] must be the most exposed and uncomfortable place on the whole ridge” the author commented. “There is a small stone shelter which provides some protection from the wind, but it is a better idea to descend by the north-west path and make for the more complete shelter provided by a mountain rescue hut.”

Based on that recommendation, it didn’t seem a particularly obvious spot to stop for lunch, although Catherine was having none of it as she extolled the virtues of the views of hills and valleys that were presented in front of us. The mountain rescue hut would be dark and we wouldn’t be able to see much, she had said. Besides, it’s a nice day. How could the cairn really be that bad?

As we began to unwrap our sandwiches, that question was swiftly answered as a strong wind appeared suddenly out of nowhere, and started battering us. Suddenly sitting in front of a great view was not quite so appealing, and it wasn’t long before we were finishing up and scurrying off down the path towards Auchope Shelter.

The Schil
The Schil – the last big summit of the Pennine Way

Dropping down a few hundred metres in height certainly helped keep us warmer, but it also a symbolic descent. Although we still had a few hills to climb, our general trend was now downwards. There was just one last big hill to tackle first. The rocky summit of the Schil sits on the border, and we were still on the England side. Sitting at the top, we looked back at the ridge we’d followed for the last two days, and admired the Cheviot in front of us as much you can for a rather boxy hill.

It would all soon be over. Not far off the Schil’s summit we made the last crossing into Scotland and followed the path slowly but surely to Kirk Yetholm. The hills began to fall away, replaced by fields and pasture. Farming was the order of the day now, shown at the bottom of Latchly Hill, as we were slowed down by sheep being herded in to a field. We joined a small country lane that would take us gently to the end of the trail, occasionally looking back to see what we’d left behind.

In our abortive trip a few months before, we’d made it to Kirk Yetholm in the end, only by bus. On that bright and sunny April morning, I’d stood where we stood now, looking at those same hills, then covered in snow, wondering what we’d missed. Now we knew.

Before we knew it, we were standing outside the Border Hotel; the finishing point just outside. Posing for the obligatory celebratory photographs, we headed to the B&B to dump our stuff and freshen up before celebrating in style.

The two of us standing outside the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm.
Grinning like loons outside the Border Hotel

In 1968 Alfred Wainwright walked the Pennine Way in order to write his book, The Pennine Way Companion. For most of his travels the weather was appalling which must have contributed to his rather negative view of the whole endeavour. He was so unimpressed with what he saw that he made arrangements for those who finished the walk, to receive a free pint in the Border Hotel. By 1979 this was reduced to a half pint, but Wainwright continued picking up the tab, even leaving money in his will to cover the costs. It cost an estimated £15,000 during his life, and although his money has long run out, the tradition continues to this day, now sponsored by a local brewery.

What the exact criteria are for claiming it, we never asked. Having not walked the whole thing in one go we didn’t feel right taking up the offer, although you could argue doing it over three years takes far more commitment than someone doing it in just three weeks. Still, we paid for our own, although doffed our caps to the picture of Wainwright which hung at the end of the bar, as we supped and read the contents of the pub’s Pennine Way signing in book.

If three years felt like a long time to do the route, that was nothing compared to some others. Reading through the book revealed that one walker had taken seventeen years to complete it. Woes were common. One woman had even lost her camera to bog. I’d had the worry that it would happen to me several times, although thankfully it always escaped.

But the best comment came from Bob Griffiths. It simply said “Big hills. Big rain. Big smile.” We nodded in agreement to that, and got another pint in.

Big Hills, Big Rain, Big Smile, written in a Pennine Way signing in book at the Border Hotel.
Bob’s lasting words in the Pennine Way signing in book at the Border Hotel

When we’d made the booking, the owner of our B&B (who, in one of those weird twists that life throws at you, had once lived a mile or so from our house in London) had been most keen to ensure we had a table booked at the pub for our evening meal, even if it was a Monday. And whilst out in the hills, we’d learned that one had been booked for us.

The message was relayed to us by Philip and Jean, when we’d met them earlier. It was a slightly confusing message. We knew the B&B owners had booked a table for us all, but we didn’t quite know whether that they’d booked two tables for two, or one for four.

On arrival at the B&B we found out that it had been a table for four that had been booked, although we didn’t quite get why, nor whether Philip and Jean were expecting that either. Having a meal with two random strangers wasn’t something we were particularly used to but being too polite, we had just decided to sit around the pub until they arrived and see what they did. If they turned up and went “Oh, we’re all together are we?!” in a confused way, we’d work something out.

They didn’t. And within minutes I began to suspect it had been Philip’s idea all along. A retired teacher, he was a happy and very chatty bloke, although thankfully not in the same way as the lone Geordie we’d encountered earlier.

Between the pair of them, Philip and Jean had walked most of the major walking routes in the country, from the Coast to Coast, to the Thames Path. But what most struck me from their conversation was their comment about just how few people they’d seen walking the Pennine Way.

Grass growing round old boots in a B&Bs garden in Kirk Yetholm
A parade of old walking boots, in a B&B’s garden in Kirk Yetholm

Being the grandaddy of UK walking routes and the one everyone knows, I’ve always had this image of the Pennine Way as being a busy route. Admittedly we had seen few walking it on our many travels, however we’d put that down to the fact that we’d been walking it at odd points of the year, rather than in summer when most people would be doing it.

Philip and Jean however had walked the whole thing in August, right at the peak of the walking calendar. And in that whole time they’d managed to see eight others walking it. And that included the two of us. Even the signing in books had looked sparse to us when we’d viewed them.

We chatted away about anything and everything; us all sharing our experiences and looking back at what we’d done. And we had done it. Our names were there, bold as brass, in the Border Hotel’s signing in book. As they were in those of the Pen-y-Ghent Café many miles – and for that matter, some years – earlier. Back at a point when we hadn’t even realised we would be walking the whole thing.

As we headed back to London the next day, battling with a real world of delayed trains and signalling problems at York, it felt like there was now something missing. It had been with us for three years of our lives, and now there was a gap. A 267 mile Pennine Way shaped hole. Strange as it seems, I was missing it already.

Sighing, I knew what that meant. It was going to happen. Someday I’d end up doing it all over again. All I could do was hope that I wouldn’t end up up to my waist in bog the next time.



3 February 2016 at 9:51 pm

Well, great stuff. And a belated congratulations!

I was a little surprised by your comment:
the majority of Pennine Way walkers do decide that they haven’t walked anywhere near enough on their trip, so head off to make the two mile round trip to visit the final major peak on the trail.

The Trailblazer guide takes the opposite view that most walkers don’t bother with the Cheviot summit. I didn’t. But then I opted to do Byrness to Kirk Yetholm in one day. It wasn’t that bad at all, which I put down to having walked there from Horton over the previous eight days – excellent training.

Thanks for the read. I love having the insight into a fellow walker’s endeavours.


11 December 2020 at 11:08 am

What a great read! After using your guides to do the South Downs way and the Thames Path this series of blogs has confirmed what my next challenge is going to be!

Rosemary Clapham

24 June 2021 at 6:04 am

Thanks for your entertaining and enlightening trip reports. We are thinking about walking the Pennine Way in May/June 2022. Hopefully by then Covid has calmed down so that we can travel. After reading your report though I am wondering what we are getting into with all the bogs!

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