A Pennine Trek, Part 2 – A Night Beneath Hangman Hill

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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)

hangman 2mmp2My 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.

hangman 3 hangman 4 hangman 5 hangman 6It’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.

hangman 7A 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.

hangman 8hangman 9What 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.

hangman 10In 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.

hangman 11 hangman 12 hangman 13I 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.

hangman 14hangman 15hangman 16I 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.

mmpTheir 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.

hangman 17 hangman 18So 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.

hangman 21hangman 20 hangman 19From 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.

hangman 22 hangman 23 hangman 24

Which uncouth yob left this litter? Which mindless nerd scattered fresh prawns, a plastic fork and paper napkins around the countryside? Was it an electronically-tagged scumbag from inner city Newcastle with an Asbo and attitude problem who should have his benefits stopped? Or was it one of Lord Snooty's friends taking a break between waves of docile grouse?

Which mindless yob dumped fresh prawns, a plastic fork and paper napkins in the countryside? Was it an electronically-tagged inner-city scumbag and scrounger who should have his benefits stopped? Or was it one of Lord Snooty’s pals during a rest from shooting docile birds?

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.

hangman 25 hangman 26 hangman 27A 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.

hangman 28Backpacking. 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.

hangman 31hangman 32hangman 33Up 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?

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About McFadzean

Alen McFadzean, journalist, formerly of the Northern Echo, in Darlington, and the North-West Evening Mail, Barrow. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climbs mountains and runs long distances to make life harder. Gravitates to the left in politics just to make life harder still. Now lives in Orgiva, Spain.
This entry was posted in Camping, Climbing, Death, Drove roads, Environment, Footpaths, Ghosts, Hiking, History, Mountains, Railway goods wagons, Walking, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to A Pennine Trek, Part 2 – A Night Beneath Hangman Hill

  1. I’m going to stick my neck out here and say the lines are by Iron Maiden. If I’m right you’ll probably think I’ve just googled it, but if I’m wrong that’ll be proof I haven’t googled it. The names of some of these wild remote places are so evocative and add to the perception of the landscape (as well as giving you an excuse to go looking up their histories). Superb scenery.
    Chris

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    • McEff says:

      Ha ha. Hi Chris. That’s proof you haven’t Googled it. But you are on the right track and very, very close. It’s a song called Gallows Pole by Led Zeppelin, but I’ve a feeling they adapted it from an old blues number. I shall look into it.
      Cheers, Alen

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    • That snatch of ‘The Gallows Song’ is on Led Zep III – but I always thought Jimmy Page or someone wrote it – didn’t realise it was an old song they’d borrowed.

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      • McEff says:

        Hi Carol. According to Wikipedia it’s an updated arrangement of a traditional song called Maid Freed from the Gallows, but I thought I’d read somewhere that it was an old blues number by Leadbelly. Anyway, I used to have it on vinyl but no longer. Must invest in a CD.
        Cheers, Alen

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  2. Great post that. Particularly like the humour, especially the peaty water being a substitute for tea.

    Also agree wholeheartedly about the stream of 4x4s emitting stink and wealth as they go – horrid lot if you ask me – the vehicles and the owners. I’d have given them my most baleful glare!

    Love the shadow of yourself photo and the first photo of the sunset. Also love the old railway carriages which the farmers loved to get hold of for storage sheds and stock shelters. They should re-use stuff nowadays like they used to.
    Carol.

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  3. Jo Woolf says:

    Haha, great post – I love the photos of your tent in that golden sea of heather. Beautiful! Who needs tea… well, I might need tea in that situation, because peaty water wouldn’t come close! Surely those roads are drovers’ roads – how frustrating, to come up with the US version of Broadway! We used to live on an old drovers’ route in North Wales – the track looked just as wide and sunken as the one in your photo (the one before the map). Love the pic of the blue shed and the reflection. Also, that is a massive great cairn (to the left of one photo)! Some kind of giant Jenga?

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    • McEff says:

      Ah, you have introduced me to a new phenomenon, Jo – Jenga. I had no idea what it was but have just been educated by the ever-obliging Google. The cairn would indeed be suitable but I think hard hats should be worn. It would be a bit like Russian roulette meets Kerplunk.
      I don’t know anything about the cairn but there are similar ones on the fells above Kirkby Stephen and other parts of the Pennines. They look a bit spooky, if you ask me.
      Incidentally, the Manhattan Broadway has its origins in an ancient Native American trail along which the first Dutch settlers built their homes. I learnt that the other day. I must get a book on drovers roads.
      Cheers, Alen

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      • Jo Woolf says:

        😀 Russian Roulette meets Kerplunk is a new reality show just waiting to happen! It might spark a national obsession with dry stone walling.
        I have a good book on the Drovers’ Roads of Wales by Fay Godwin but I’m not sure if she wrote about any other regions. That’s interesting about Broadway!

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  4. Hanna says:

    Kære McEff.
    Det er en rigtig dejlig historie, du fortæller. Jeg er ligesom Jo vild med dit andet overnatningssted, på lyngen, men glad for at du valgte at lave din egen te, og ikke den, der var forberedt 😈
    Da min ven så togvognen, spurgte han, om det var en shelter for vandrere?
    Er du glad for dit nye telt?
    Mange hilsner,
    Hanna

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    • McEff says:

      Hej Hanna. Det er så godt at høre fra dig. Tak for at kommentere på min seneste artikel. Ja, jeg er tilfreds med min nye telt. Der er masser af plads og det tager kun fem minutter at pitche – selvom jeg forventer det vil tage lidt længere tid i en orkan. Der er endda plads til et par høns, så jeg kunne tage nogle langs næste gang.
      Cheers, Alen

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