EVERY now and then a man should retrace his steps over known ground. It’s good exercise for the mind as well as the legs and heart. It dislodges memories and taps into deep seams. That’s why I’m revisiting Cross Fell, which at 893 metres (2,930ft) is the highest peak in the Pennines. It’s also the bleakest – but that’s just my opinion . . .
Cross Fell was once known as Fiends’ Fell because it was inhabited by demons. Tradition maintains that St Augustine blessed the fell, erected a cross on the summit, and drove the demons out, which to me sounds like a bad idea because now we don’t know where they are. That’s St Augustine of Canterbury, the 6th Century cleric who converted the heathen Angles, Saxons and Jutes to Christianity, not the higher-profile St Augustine of Hippo, just in case you were wondering. It’s very important not to get your saints crossed.
While writing that previous paragraph a mind-stone rolled over and the memory of a song we used to sing at school escaped like a tortured spirit. The chorus went:
Follow the fiend far over the fell
Drive him below to the sound of the bell
Perhaps these lines are a folk echo of the Dark Age deeds of St Augustine. Or perhaps the whole thing was fabricated by a mediaeval monk promoting his local abbey in an enterprise partnership and stakeholder scheme.
Cross Fell is a big mountain in every sense. Not only is it the highest mountain in England outside the Lake District, along with its neighbours it forms the largest mass of high ground in England. Cross Fell is a big beast. It generates its own weather patterns and is home to the infamous Helm Wind, which is said to screech like a banshee. Its bulk, which is often covered in a dense cap of cloud, stretches for many empty miles. It is also the source of two of England’s greatest rivers, the Tees and the Tyne.
There are several options for an assault on Cross Fell, but I’m walking the same route I took on my only other visit and starting at the Cumbrian village of Garrigill. It’s about seven miles from the village to the summit, I reckon. This is confirmed by an old boy tinkering with a lawn mower outside his bungalow as I pass in the early-morning sunshine.
“Ga’an ower’t top?” he asks, assuming I’m following the Pennine Way over Cross Fell to Murton. “Top and back again,” I reply.
Quick as a flash he says: “Fo’teen mile.”
There’s a lesson in dialect here. That softly spoken “fourteen” rolls around in my ears for most of the morning. The emphasis is on the second syllable. Speak it softly and you become an honorary Cumbrian: Fo’teen.
And, strictly speaking, I’m not returning by the same route. After I’ve climbed to the summit along the track that crosses Black Band and Pikeman Hill, I intend to drop down to the source of the Tees, follow the stream to the slopes of Tynehead Fell, locate the source of the Tyne and accompany it back to Garrigill. (Click pictures for high-res versions)
To be pedantic, this second great river is known officially as the South Tyne. Its sister river, the North Tyne, rises north of Kielder Water, in Northumberland, the two merging at Hexham before rolling down to Newcastle. But I’m going to call it the Tyne because I’m that way out.
So I leave the old boy with his lawn mower and take the rough track up the fell, passing a scattering of old lead mines, and a couple of hours later arrive at Greg’s Hut, one of the few MBA bothies south of the border.
The main room in Greg’s Hut is a bit squalid and damp, even by bothy standards. I am not at liberty to describe the adjoining room and its sleeping platform because there’s a young woman in there changing out of a shocking pink mini-skirt into windproof trousers. That’s a good move if you ask me. Cross Fell is not the place for mini-skirts. St Augustine would have been outraged.
From Greg’s Hut, which has its origins in the Victorian mining era, the track continues to a grassy ridge then veers left to the summit plateau. The cap of cloud that enveloped Cross Fell earlier this morning has risen and visibility is fair. But I can’t see the Solway Firth or the Southern Uplands of Scotland, which are supposed to be visible from here, because of the haze.
The summit is a vast plateau of stones and sparse vegetation which includes rare Alpine plants. I wouldn’t like to be caught up here in extreme weather conditions. It’s a very inhospitable place. Cross Fell is not a mountain that worms its way into a corner of your bosom. It’s a beast, and a vicious one. Today it’s slumbering, which suits me fine.
I should mention that, up to this point, my route has followed the Pennine Way and I have passed several hearty souls bearing large packs. But below the summit, on its south-east flank, at a place charmingly known as Crowdundle Head, I leave the Pennine Way and head north-east across wild fellside in search of the source of the River Tees.
Speaking of names, there are some grand examples in the immediate vicinity. How about Willie Bed and Grumply Hill? Then there’s Sturba Nook, Crossgill Pants and Black Gut. Who needs the X Factor for an entertaining night when you’ve got an Ordnance Survey map and a bottle of pale ale?
Moving on. The source of the Tees is marked by a cairn and a stone bearing the inscription B/T. I don’t know what this signifies but I would like to find out (See comment below from Jo Woolf). It is hard to imagine that the peaty water trickling from beneath the cairn is the same mighty river that flows through Barnard Castle, Stockton and Middlesbrough, ending its 85-mile journey in the North Sea.
I follow the Tees for a couple of miles, watching it mature from a narrow beck into a sizable river. I then cut across a hill and drop down to the source of the Tyne, which is marked by a sculpture depicting the birth of the river. This is very impressive, not least because it is situated in the middle of nowhere and is therefore admired by very few people.
So I follow the Tyne back towards Garrigill. And on the single-track road that stretches from Tynehead to the village I pass another old boy leaning against a wall. White hair, white beard, binoculars around his neck, clothes the same colours as the landscape. That sort of old boy.
We walk to the village together and within half an hour – which includes a visit to the village hall where he orders a Spanish Night takeaway with butterbean stew, potato and pepper roast and optional dessert – I discover that this old boy is a poet, writer of scientific papers, renowned naturalist and author of more than fifty books.
His name is Colin Simms. This is what the Hexham Courant has to say about Mr Simms in a recent interview:
A friend of legendary poets like Basil Bunting, Hugh MacDiarmid and Ezra Pound, and a world authority on everything that grows, flies or walks on the moors, he is a man very much at ease in his own skin. A sprightly 72, with silver mane and beard, he tramps the moors like a man half his age, his twinkling eyes missing nothing as he drinks in every detail of the South Tyne watershed.
You step outside your door each and every morning, you walk out into the world with thoughts and plans for the day, but you have little knowledge of what fortune will bring. You are at the will of fate and whatever the world throws your way.
Today, fate (or random events, if you prefer) has bestowed on me a book of poems called Otters and Martens by Colin Simms. It’s lying on the passenger seat as I drive over the tops from Cumbria into County Durham in the golden haze of evening.
There are many reasons why people climb mountains and this is one of them. After we’ve stepped outside our doors and headed for the hills, we have no inkling of what hidden tracks we might stumble upon during the course of the day. And that’s what life is about. It’s the unexpected; the uncertainty of events; it’s the Helm Wind that screeches down the fell and buffets you onto a new and uncertain course.
Thanks to St Augustine I’ve climbed Fiends’ Fell unscathed and met a poet at the side of a road. I’m more than happy with that. New friends are hard to come by. I hope his Spanish takeaway lives up to expectations. It certainly smelt good.
AND FINALLY . . .
I had a feeling Garrigill wouldn’t let me down. Things may come and things may go, but British Rail goods wagons go on for ever . . .