Cross Fell – Fiends, Rivers, Paths and Poets

Cross Fell 7

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.

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The Cumbrian village of Garrigill. Great place for Spanish cuisine (read on)

Cross Fell 4 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)

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The first glimpse of Cross Fell, with its covering of cloud

The first glimpse of Cross Fell, with its covering of cloud

A mile or two on and the cloud is lifting

A mile or two on and the cloud is lifting

Cross Fell 3aTo 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.

Cross Fell 9 Cross Fell 10 Cross Fell 11From 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.

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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.

Ancient and modern. Looking from an old cairn on Cross Fell towards Little Dun Fell and Great Dunn Fell with its radar station. Great Dunn Fell is the second-highest mountain in the Pennines. According to Wikipedia, “a randome containing primary surveillance radar (PSR) and secondary surveillance radar (SSR) antennae, various towers and fencing crown the summit”. So now you know

Ancient and modern. Looking from an old cairn on Cross Fell towards Little Dun Fell and Great Dunn Fell with its radar station. Great Dunn Fell is the second-highest mountain in the Pennines. According to Wikipedia, “a randome containing primary surveillance radar (PSR) and secondary surveillance radar (SSR) antennae, various towers and fencing crown the summit”. So now you know

The view towards Cow Green reservoir

The view towards Cow Green reservoir

Cross Fell 17 Cross Fell 18Speaking 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.

Cross Fell 19 Cross Fell 20 Cross Fell 21Cross Fell 22 Cross Fell 24 Cross Fell 25

Traps like this are all over the place in this part of the Pennines. Their function is to kill predators that prey on grouse, so that rich people will have plenty of birds to blast out of the sky when the shooting season starts. I phtographed this one because it has an egg on it. We can but speculatee where the egg came from

Traps like this are all over the place in this part of the Pennines. Their function is to kill predators that prey on grouse, so that rich people will have plenty of birds to blast out of the sky when the shooting season begins. I photographed this one because it has an egg on it. It reminded me – in a roundabout way – of the Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse, but I’ve just looked that up on Wikipedia and it has other connotations

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.

Cross Fell 27Cross Fell 26 Cross Fell 28 Cross Fell 29 Cross Fell 30So 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 . . .

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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 Climbing, Environment, Footpaths, Ghosts, Hiking, History, Legends, Life, Mountains, Pennine Way, Poetry, Railway goods wagons, Railways, Religion, Rivers, Teesdale, Teesside, Tyneside, Walking and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Cross Fell – Fiends, Rivers, Paths and Poets

  1. qdant says:

    I enjoyed the tour – cheers

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  2. You are certainly right about getting out Alen. After 8 months I’m finally up on wobbly legs and since Saturday last 3 simple excursions have connected me with people and events far from these island shores. Be well, Dohn

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    • McEff says:

      Hi there Dohn. That’s really good news. I’m so glad you are up and about again. Keep those legs working and they’ll get stronger every day.
      All the best, Alen

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  3. Ash says:

    Thank you Alen, for another great adventure. You have a wonderful way of writing. My current employment requires me to sit at a computer for 8 hours a day punching data. It is the most mind-numbing boring job I have ever had. When I read your posts my angst disappears & I look forward to the weekends, that is the weekends I don’t have to work! I look forward to retirement next year & in the mean time read your posts for sustenance.

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Ash. Thank you for that message. When I started this blog, one of my objectives was to make people smile and bring some entertainment while writing about mountains. If I am relieving angst then that’s a bonus to me as well. Only a year to go, eh? Stick in there.
      All the best, Alen

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  4. Hanna says:

    Hi Alen. I’m glad the weather was fine when you visited Cross Fell. I studied the Helm Wind. It is an interesting phenomenon the föhn wind. But I think it’s more fun to read about than to experience.
    In Norway we hiked trough a canyon. The cabin was secured with steel cable that was bolted onto the mountain for the same reason.
    It is strange that some mountains may appear inhospitable, to use a mild expression, but I’ve experienced a great difference too.
    I am fascinated by the encounter between a miniskirt and St. Augustine, but I think we would be surprised or maybe not 🙂
    It must have been very interesting to meet Colin Simms. I hope you had a great conversation with him. I read the linked interview and I fully understand that he buys his food in town. His kitchen is filled with motorcycles 🙂 It pulls down a bit in the character, unless he runs on them ❤
    All the best,
    Hanna

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    • McEff says:

      Hej Hanna. I’ve known about the Helm Wind for many years but I’ve never experienced it. Apparently, it’s the only wind in Britain that has a name, so it’s in the same category as the Sirocco and the Mistral, but not half as exotic. The Helm Wind is said the blow continuously and has been likened to a “standing wave” in a river. Sounds interesting, but you wouldn’t want your hat blowing off because you’d never catch it again.
      I don’t think miniskirts are suitable apparel for in the mountains, but I’ve never worn one so who am I to comment? St Augustine might have approved.
      Mr Simms is a great character. I shall pop back to see him sometime. I didn’t see the motorbikes but he did mention them in our conversation. His poems are startling. His use of language is unique and I am enjoying the book greatly.
      Cheers now, Alen

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  5. ianbcross says:

    Inspiring. Great post.

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  6. Your posts are always so interesting that I think of loads of things to say in my comment but, by the end of reading, I’ve forgotten all of them! Such is the ageing process I suppose…

    That looks a great route – might try that one myself sometime as I want to do Cross Fell sometime. I want to add on Great Dun Fell too though as I’d like to visit the raydome…
    Carol.

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Carol. The first time I did Cross Fell I tacked Great Dunn Fell on the end and dropped down Trout Beck to the Tees. It adds a couple of miles to the route but it’s a great walk and certainly worth doing.
      I’ve stopped worrying about the ageing process. At least I think I have, I just can’t remember.
      Cheers, Alen

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  7. Jo Woolf says:

    Hi Alen, I have exactly the same problem as Mountain Coward (above) in that I think of so many comments and then forget them by the end of the post! If I do happen to remember any, they are lost when I start laughing at the comments.
    So I will do my best! Beginning with St Augustine – all well dressed saints had a hand bell, so I am fascinated by the scrap of song that you remembered from childhood. I nearly fell into the trap of the ‘two Augustines’ when writing about the Augustinian monastery at St Andrews. That’s also an excellent thought about where the demons were driven to, and I bet St Augustine wishes he had thought about this beforehand. I love the photos – Cross Fell does look a bleak place, though, and I can only imagine its horrible wind. The stuff legends are made of! 🙂 And yes, I can waste hours looking at an OS map. A proper paper one, not the kind I am supposed to be able to use on the iPad! And do not mention the X Factor! I gave up watching reality TV and feel so much better! Colin Simms sounds like a fascinating guy and I will take a look at that link. Regarding the letters on the Tees source stone, I do love a cryptic mystery so I did a bit of research and came up with this: http://www.bridgesonthetyne.co.uk/teessrce.html
    I hope that’s covered everything! 🙂 Great post, as always!

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Jo. St Augustine caused me several problems because I almost fell into the trap myself. Still, we both came through unscathed. Perhaps it was some sort of test and we are both candidates for sainthood ourselves. I have been known to work miracles with the leftovers from the Sunday roast and a bag of basmati.
      That snippet of song came to me as I was writing, and the bell makes sense. I’ve searched the internet for the rest of the song but drawn a blank. I think it was taught to us by a teacher called Stuart Lawrence, who played a big part in the British folk revival in the 1950s and 60s. I shall wrack my brains and see if I can come up with more.
      I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to maps and navigation – paper maps and compasses. None of your high-tech stuff where your life depends on military bods in the US manipulating satellites. This probably explains why I get lost so much. I keep meaning to write a post on this subject.
      Thank you very much for the info regarding the stone at the source of the Tees. So it’s a boundary stone with the landowners’ initials. All has been revealed and successfully concluded. I shall tweak my post accordingly.
      All the best, Alen

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  8. David says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this Alen. Cross Fell and weather certainly go together and many a walker has left the mountain a lot wiser for their brief visit to the summit.

    The link by Jo Woolf is also interesting and has highlighted I have been labouring under the illusion that BT stood for Birth of the Tees for decades. Just shows you cannot believe everything you learn at school.

    Sometimes you have to place yourself in the way of luck and your chance encounter with Colin Simms certainly demonstrates that – what a wonderful character to meet.
    Cheers, David

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    • McEff says:

      Hi David. The B/T had me stumped and I had several attempts at deciphering it – all of them failures. Birth of the Tees is pretty good actually, and if I had thought of it then I would have put it up as a suggestion. I’m glad I didn’t now.
      Yes, Cross Fell is very bleak and can be a daunting place in cold weather. On my previous visit, which was in winter, I returned home with a painful rash right down my back and I can only put it down to the effects of the icy wind on perspiration. It was as if my back had been scoured with a Brillo pad. Not a pleasant experience.
      Colin is a fascinating bloke. He’s what I would call a “one-off”. With your knowledge of the biodiversity of the area I expect you’d get on extremely well with him.
      All the best, Alen

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  9. Interesting!
    Going back to places we’ve been to before is not like doing things over again. For there awaits another experience, then will figure out something new, see things we didn’t noticed before, new thoughts, and making another memories. Cross fell looks beautiful and vast… and peaceful but it can be horrifying too.
    Loty

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    • McEff says:

      Hiya Loty. Yes, you’re correct there. Going back to Cross Fell, although I have been before, was a completely different experience. Going back to ld places you do see them in a different light.
      Cheers, Alen

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  10. mandala56 says:

    Fantastic. As you can see, I’ve gotten behind, but would never miss a post…
    I even recognized a railway goods wagon on another site, thanks to you! Ha!
    I’ll be climbing my own mountain (well, part of it- Mt. Rainier is my favorite place for hiking) so I’ll be behind again when I get back… I’ll look forward to catching up!
    Jeanne K.

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    • McEff says:

      Hi Jeanne. Good to hear from you. I’ve just read up on Mount Rainier and it sounds like a very impressive place. It certainly looks very spectacular. Have a great time. And I hope there are no eruptions in the next few weeks.
      All the best, Alen

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