Turnpikes, Toll Gates, Fly Agaric, the South Tyne and the Pennine Way

There was a wonderful cloud inversion as we drove up Hartside on the way to Garrigill, for a walk along the Pennine Way and the South Tyne Trail. One of the best we’ve seen for a long time, hiding the levels of the Eden and the Solway. The high Pennines around were high above the clouds, a hard frost giving a ‘first taste of winter’ look to this wild northern countryside.

Garrigill (c) John Bainbridge 2018

The road to Alston has one of the steepest climbs in the country as it ascends to Hartside – the once familiar cafe now a sad ruin after a recent fire. Interestingly, it was turnpiked in the 18th century at the expense of the Commissioners of Greenwich Hospital in London, mostly because they owned a lot of moorland around Alston.

Turnpikes were effectively toll roads, built at the expense of private companies. I suppose, given that there was no real income tax at the time, it was the only way roads could be funded. Companies did it for profit, of course.

On the South Tyne (c) John Bainbridge 2018

The snag was that people had to pay for travel, no matter how poor they may be. Some rich travellers didn’t like to pay either. It wasn’t unknown for wealthy gents to leap the toll gates on their horses. George Templar of Stover, Devon, made rather a habit of it.

But in a round about way, the creation of toll roads might have preserved some of our old ways, our ancient tracks which are now rights of way. Cunning travellers, seeking ways to avoid paying at the tollhouses, would seek out any useful untolled track that took them in the right direction. Hence, old stretches of road, footpaths and bridleways gained a new and surreptitious use.

We had intended beginning our walk from Alston, but they were resurfacing the road through. Instead, we started from Garrigill, so familiar to walkers of the Pennine Way, who come down tired and thirsty from the wilderness around Cross Fell.

Fly Agaric (c) John Bainbridge 2018

Garrigill a pretty little village, one of the remotest in England. It was once named Gerard’s Gill. During the productive years of the lead-mining industry over a thousand people lived in Garrigill. It has shrunk by several hundred since.

We followed the Pennine Way along the South Tyne, which also bears the route of the South Tyne Trail. A pretty walk this, along a particularly beautiful stretch of river. The autumn colours were at their best, and it was pleasing to see a considerable amount of fly agaric – associated so much with fairies and witchcraft. It’s a powerful hallucinegenic and dangerous. Witches, they say, used to make their flying ointment from it. We hadn’t seen any for a long time. It gets its name by its ability to attract flies, of course.

Above the path are several farms bearing the name Skydes, High, Middle and Low – interesting name, perhaps Norse? There’s a Danish word which is similar, meaning fire or fusillade or shooting. If anyone has a definite explanation of the word please let me know…

The Old Quaker Meeting House in Alston, dating back to 1732 (c) John Bainbridge 2018

I never walk the Pennine Way without thinking of the many people who have walked it – not least Tom Stephenson who created it – I met him once a long time ago – and Wainwright, who wrote a guidebook, but didn’t like the trail very much.

Whatever your views, this stretch is a delight, wooded riverbank and surrounding high moorland.

We came out in Alston, the highest market town in England (though the folk of Buxton would dispute that claim) – a nightmare on this day as they were tarring the main road through. A pleasant place, which has been used for films and television. It was used in a recent production of Oliver Twist – appropriately for Charles Dickens visited the town in 1838 while researching his next novel Nicholas Nickleby.

Like Garrigill, it was a boom town in lead mining days. Silver was mined here too, the ore often being sent down for minting in Carlisle. Its market dates back to 1154.

Seeking a slight alternative back we took the well-established track to Nattrass Gill, passing through Annat Walls farm – where an old farmhouse has become a barn. Wonderful, these old buildings. So little changed. You could easily film a period drama in any one of them.

Nattrass Gill (c) John Bainbridge 2018

Nattrass Gill is a waterfall running through a wooded ravine, crossed by a narrow footbridge. It was a scenic spot beloved by Victorian tourists, though there were fewer trees in those days. The stone steps were put in to facilitate their access. A pretty spot, rather dramatic. Were in nearer the roads it would be thronged by modern-day tourists. Pleasant that you have to walk if you want to see it.

From Bleagate Farm – it gets a mention in documents dating back to the 1300s – we were retracing our steps of the morning, along the South Tyne back to Garrigill. The frost of the morning had lifted and there was bright sunshine, adding a delight to the autumn colours.



On Cross Fell – and the Fiends Fell was friendly…

For a walk including the three highest summits in the Pennines you need a good clear day. Because the long ridge of tops on the western edge of the north Pennines offer magnificent views across the Eden Valley to the Lake District in one direction, and over the wild fells of the Pennines in the other.

The Summit Shelter

Cross Fell (2,930 feet) is not only the highest point of the Pennines, but – if you exclude the Lake District mountains – the highest summit in England.

It’s a fell that lives in myth as well as history. In its past history it was known locally as Fiends Fell, the abode of demons. It’s the home of the ferocious Helm Wind, the only named wind in Britain, which has been known to sweep down from its heights and devastate the Eden valley below. St Augustine is said to have blessed the hill to take away its curse, hence the word Cross – though some point out it means cross as in angry.

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On the Pennine Way

Seeing it most days in the distance, in all its moods, I can well imagine it as the sort of place where trolls might live. Cross Fell has an average of 110 inches of rain every year, and the snow has been known to deck its long ridgy top for 140 days a year.

But it was in a benevolent mood when we climbed it the other day, offering no more than a pleasant breeze to take away the heat of a scorching day. We were glad of the slight wind, for we notched up twenty miles through some of the loneliest country in England.

We left the village of Dufton in a blazing heatwave, following the Pennine Way as it wound around Dufton Pike to Cosca Hill.  The walk up to Knock Old Man is the steep bit of the walk, but the views over the Eden valley and its guardian pikes – Murton Pike, Dufton Pike and Knock Pike – were stunning. Not as green as usual, for the heatwave has seared them an almost autumnal brown.

The Golfball

This is wonderful walking country. It’s true what they say – if the nearby Lake District didn’t exist, these north Pennines would be thronging with fellwalkers. We did see a few people doing the Pennine Way, but nowhere near as many as would have been there once upon a time.

Until Knock Old Man is passed, the secrets of the high Pennines remain hidden from view. Then, as the ridge is achieved, the vista over remote country to Teesdale comes into view. Like Dartmoor on a grander scale, I thought. Miles and miles and miles of wild mountainous land.

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Summit Fever

The only thing to remind you that you are in the 21st century is the golf ball radar station – air traffic control – on Great Dun Fell, which looks like it has wandered in from a science fiction film. The private road leading up to it is the highest bit of tarmacced road in England. We followed the ridge towards it, seeing nothing alive but the odd moorland bird, and a stoat scampering along the path as we went.

On then over Little Dun Fell to the head of the Crowdundle beck, which I know quite well in its lower stages. Once you’re up on the ridge, there’s little climbing left to do – just a gentle ascent through a rocky band and then a stroll along the ridge to the top of Cross Fell, with its rocky cairn and shelter in the shape of a cross.

It’s worth the climb – so much to see, right across to Ullswater and distant Derwent Water, Blencathra, Helvellyn – too many summits to name.

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On the top

If the Fiends Fell could talk, what stories it might tell. Of the Romans who marched from fort to fort in the valley below, the Vikings who settled the pastoral landscape beneath, probably scaring their children to sleep with their tales of trolls on this great height. And of the many walkers who’ve come along the Pennine Way, making their own memories of the long and high range of hills along the way.

We took a long and circuitous route back to Dufton through Knock, stopping all the while to gaze back at where we had been – past the golfball radar station, up to the top of Cross Fell’s long plateau. After even a brief moment, it seems almost unbelievable that you were ever up there.

A wonderful day’s walking.

And a big thank you to the Trolls of the Fiends Fell, for granting us a special dispensation of good weather and clear views.

Pictures (c) J and A Bainbridge


A Circuit of High Cup Nick

It is one of England’s iconic landscapes, one of the great attractions for walkers on the Pennine Way, a superb example of geological splendour – the superlatives come thick and fast when you regard High Cup Nick. As impressive at a distance as it is up close.DSCF0086

I see it quite often as we travel around the Westmorland Dales, the great gash breaking into the frontier of the northern Pennines.

Everyone in my part of Cumbria calls it High Cup Nick, or more often just the Nick. But that’s not really its name. Properly, it is High Cup Gill. Only the gap in the rocks at its head is really High Cup Nick.DSCF0066.JPG

I first walked up to the Nick many years ago, taking a route around its southern rim and then  following the Pennine Way back to Dufton, where I was staying. In more recent years, we simply walked out along the Pennine Way and back again. We thought it might be interesting to circuit the Nick and Gill once again, in the opposite direction to my first expedition. And once the first long hill is climbed, there’s very little altitude to make.

It’s no wonder that Tom Stephenson wanted the Pennine Way – his “long green track” to pass this way. To do any sort of Pennine route that ignores such a magnificent place would be very odd.DSCF0091.JPG

And it was along the Pennine Way we walked up from Dufton on a beautiful, sunny Sunday, with incredibly clear views across the valley of the River Eden to the distant Lakeland fells.

You are scarcely over Did Hill before the Gill starts to open out on your right-hand side, climbing up to Narrow Gate, where the path between the drop into the Gill and the higher slopes of Dufton Fell is, as the name implies, a narrow one – over 700 feet of drop to the waters of the High Cupgill Beck – a modest water in scale, given the great cleft it flows down. Further along is Nichol’s Chair where a Dufton cobbler originally sat on top of the rock pillar and made a pair of shoes… why?DSCF0092.JPG

Then the Nick itself is reached, one of the most photographed places of the wild Pennines. They’ve all sat here – those great fellwalkers of the past: Tom Stephenson, Wainwright, A.J. Brown, William T. Palmer – no doubt lost in as much admiration as I was.

The Nick, with its edging cliffs of Whin Sill is breathtaking.

We had a tea break by the waters of the beck, just where it tumbles down into the great chasm. As I’ve said, such a modest little beck. You can step across it in a good stride. You’d think the Gill’s beck ought to be an Angel Falls or a Niagara, not this attractive but modest flow.

Keisley Bridge

Do many people walk the Pennine Way any more? This was a beautiful morning, but we saw very few people walking, and the few we did see seemed to be just out for a day’s ramble?

We wandered down the southern edge of the Gill crossing Middle Tongue Fell, a very easy bit of moorland walking, then descended Middletongue Crag, easier than it sounds, to the farm of Harbour Flatt, then along the lane through the hamlet of Keisley back to Dufton.

A very pleasant lane, fresh with the earliest greenery of this late springtime and lined with primroses and the blossom of the may.  We passed Keisley Bridge, repaired in recent years. I had last sat on its parapets many years ago when I explored this countryside for the first time. It’s a peaceful little spot with only the occasional car to disturb the harmony of a pleasant day.

I was pleased that High Cup Nick had lost none of its magic for me – one of those English places that everyone who loves these islands should see at least once in their lifetime.

All pictures (c) J and A Bainbridge