IN Teesdale at 6am there is just enough light to make sense of the shapes in an untidy tent. The clouds that brought heavy rain during the night have departed and the sun will rise soon. The valley is still in shadow and lights burn in farmhouse windows. It’s cold. Windy and cold. But a new day brings fresh adventures . . .
Hot tea is one of the few pleasures associated with crawling from a sleeping bag on the side of a windy hill. Actually, it’s the only pleasure. Stuffing high-energy, super nutty granola in your mouth is a necessity. Getting washed is a painful habit. A second pan of tea is an indulgence. (Click pictures for high-res versions. The image below is a bit blurred because it was taken at 6.23am with one hand through a tent flap)
My second day of walking will, if all goes to plan, take me within a few miles of Hexham. It will be a long march over rough ground – about eighteen miles of moorland, hill tracks and short sections of road. My objective is Hangman Hill, a heathery protuberance in the wild Northumberland landscape. There is no particular reason I chose this place except its name.
I like the thought of spending a night on Hangman Hill. If you’re reading these words it means I’ve survived unscathed and not dangling from a ghostly gibbet or locked in one of those iron cages like a sheep thief, having my eyes pecked out by ravens. This part of the North-East was pretty rough in the old days, lots of bad lads and ne’er-do-wells meeting their maker on the gallows tree. Mind, it’s still pretty rough in the Bigg Market on a Friday night even now.
An old rustic poem sprang to mind when I first saw the name of the hill on the map:
Hangman, hangman, hold it a little while. I think I see my friends coming, riding many a mile . . .
Who wrote that then? Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Hogg? I shall look it up when I’ve got nothing better to do. Anyway, it’s 7.45am and leaves are falling all around. Time I was on my way.
I spent the night in the lea of the highest intak wall in Teesdale, and the land beyond is rough heather and bog rising to the summit of Fendrith Hill (697m, 2,286ft). An old quarry track leads – somewhat indistinctly for the most part – to ancient workings at Church Bowers, a peculiar name for somewhere on a bleak mountain top that possesses neither church nor bower. But there you go. This is County Durham, land of the prince bishops and provider of archbishops, after all.
It’s cold on Fendrith Hill. A terrific wind roars out of the the north-west, and despite bright sunshine there is a definite sense of winter approaching. From the quarries I head into the wind across open moorland raked with peat sikes to a road linking Teesdale and Weardale – a cattle grid marking the summit and border point.
A couple of miles clumping down the metalled road leads me past a rather splendid former British Rail goods wagon shunted onto a lonely stretch of moor – another for my burgeoning collection of abandoned railway goods wagon pictures – and to the quiet village of St John’s Chapel.
What I adore about the villages of the Durham dales is that they are functional and provide the basics of life. In search of sustenance, a very nice young lady in the St John’s Chapel Co-op directs me to the chilled cabinet where the Lucozade is stocked, and there next to the drinks is a steak pie. So I buy a bottle of Lucozade Energy and a steak pie. Heaven on earth, or what? This surely is the land of the prince bishops. The pie would have been nicer warmed up, though.
In St John’s Chapel I cross my second big river – the Wear. Here, near the valley head, the Wear is nothing but a stream that a man full of pie can cross on stepping stones. It’s youthfulness gives little hint of the stately river that flows serenely around Durham Cathedral, or the wide tidal reaches where many of the nation’s great ships were launched from the yards of Sunderland. That’s all downstream.
I leave Weardale along a pleasant bridleway that crosses Carr Brow Moor, passing a second railway goods wagon and losing my lens cap in the excitement to photograph it. Bugger. I take a rough track to Race Head and the ominously-named Black Hill, and this is where progress begins to falter.
I learnt soon after moving to the North-East that public rights of way across the Pennine uplands – as marked in red dashes and dots on Ordnance Survey maps – are often a notional thing. They are lines and squiggles that belonged in the meticulous minds of long-dead cartographers whose intentions were laudable.
Their actions should be praised for they have passed down a wealth of knowledge that would otherwise have been lost. The downside is, the path-makers and path-users – our forebears and hard-working ancestors – no longer need those obscure routes across the fells, and many no longer exist in the physical sense. They are red dots and dashes on maps. Or green dots and dashes, depending on which scale you use. On the ground, they have been reclaimed by heather and tussocky grass.
I am prepared for this scenario and so just follow my nose and head for where I think I am supposed to go. That’s not easy in a landscape where one bleak hill merges into an identical bleak hill and you’re totally surrounded by bleak hills. Hell, if a chap’s not prepared to stick his neck out and take a gamble, these non-existent paths wouldn’t have existed in the first place. Does that make sense? Good.
So at about 1.00pm I think I’m on the summit of a fell with no name (which reminds me of a song that has only two chords), from where a stout fence following the county boundary descends for a couple of boggy miles to the road pass between Rookhope Head and Allenheads.
I arrive at the border point, wet-footed and feeling a bit battered by the tussocky, pathless terrain, but reassured by signs welcoming me to County Durham to the east and Northumberland to the west. At least I’m in the right place. And from this point, my Pennine trek takes on a whole new aspect.
From the village of Allenheads a moorland footpath runs in a direct line north-north-east to the outskirts of Hexham. The path is called Broad Way, and Hangman Hill lies on its route. I’ve attempted to uncover something of the path’s history because I’m almost certain it’s an old drovers’ road – droving roads being “broad” because of the necessity to graze stock along the route and because cattle, unlike humans, will not walk in single file when you tell them to.
These days, the moorlands in this area are grouse-killing fields – all purple heather and boglands. It’s important to remember that this is a managed and somewhat artificial environment. In the old days, much of this country would have been rough pasture. There would have been sheep and probably cattle grazing up here. That livestock would have been driven to market, and I’ll put a fiver on my theory that it went along Broad Way.
I’ll jump ahead of myself now and tell you something else. Where Broad Way descends from the moor towards Hexham and becomes a straight metalled road, the stone walls either side run for several miles, and they are about twenty yards apart – wide enough for three or four roads with room to spare. Those walls weren’t built for a horse and cart track, they were built for herds of cattle.
I spent a fruitless twenty minutes before I set out Googling Broad Way and droving roads to see what jewels of wisdom I could unearth. I can’t tell you anything of its history, but if you want an in-depth account of the development of Manhattan and a rundown of great songs from the shows, I’m your man.
A good track runs from near the top of the Allenheads-Rookhope road summit and skirts the moor to join Broad Way, which has been upgraded by the grouse-shooting fraternity – and as fate would have it a shoot is just packing up for the day.
With a bit of luck, the 4th Viscount Allendale will have some sandwiches and half a bottle of claret left over and toss them philanthropically from his land-cruiser window as he passes in a cloud of dust. I await his coming.
Great black 4×4 after great black 4×4 pass in a steady stream of wealth and diesel fumes. I give each vehicle a cheery wave, and get cheery waves in return. No sandwiches and claret though. Tight lot. Even another Co-op pie would have been gratefully received.
A couple of miles along Broad Way, the estate road veers off to the east and my drovers’ road continues in its untampered state. In places it is vague and hard to follow, but mostly it’s a shallow rut in the heather and sedges, a pleasant track where a cantankerous drover can while away the hours cursing the landed, grouse-murdering classes. And after another couple of miles, and perhaps an additional mile or so, I come to Hangman Hill and a soft spot to lay my head.
Backpacking. After all the slogging, wet socks and cold windy ridges, today’s reward comes in the form of a glorious, golden evening on a peaceful moor surrounded by clucking grouse. I have a gurgling stream in which to wash away the grime, and spongy turf beneath the groundsheet.
Up here a man doesn’t need teabags because the peaty water is already the right colour – but I chuck one in the pan just in case. A man doesn’t need claret because the air is sweet and refreshing. All he needs is a pot full of pasta to sustain his strength – and reassurance that if there are any malevolent spirits abroad on Hangman Hill, they stay up there where the gibbet was located and don’t stray down here to my tent.
Friends, did you get some silver? Did you get a little gold? What did you bring me, my dear friends, to keep me from the gallows pole? What did you bring me to keep me from the gallows pole?
Thomas Hardy? Anthony Trollope? George Elliot?