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A (dry) North Pennine adventure

A (dry) North Pennine adventure

Postby nigheandonn » Tue Jul 10, 2018 10:31 pm

Hewitts included on this walk: Black Fell, Grey Nag, Thack Moor

Date walked: 06/07/2018

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As has become traditional, I was having the Friday off work after a Thursday night practice in Newcastle, generally used for things which are just a bit too far from Edinburgh to do in a day - the festival we're practicing for has somehow become detached from the practices and isn't until next weekend, but I wasn't letting that cheat me out of my trip.

I had my eye on the 888 summer bus services from Newcastle to Keswick, and particularly on Hartside summit - I've been wanting to get back into the North Pennines for a long time, I liked the idea of a high up start, but also I seem to be collecting scenic journeys!

The first challenge of the day was finding the bus, which left from the coach station - Newcastle has several bus stations, most of which I can never find, but I don't think I've ever been to that one before, and the map told me to skirt the edge of the city centre rather than crossing it, which always leaves me feeling a bit baffled. But the instructions worked, slightly to my surprise, and the bus was there, although there only seemed to be National Express coaches otherwise.

Coming into Newcastle from the north, as we usually do, is a bit dull - you've run out all the good scenery a while before. So I always forget just how quickly it all opens out heading west, with the river valley down below - good views almost from the start. Haydon Bridge, although it's in the valley, is the first of the solid stone villages, and then we were on the road which winds up onto the moors, coming down to cross the Allen before heading up again into empty places, with smaller valleys running off on all sides.

It’s a very civilised bus, and stops for its elevenses - I’m not sure if this is for the driver’s benefit, or just because the bus is essentially a pensioners’ trip! As we were running slightly late we had 30 minutes in Alston rather than the advertised 35, but it was still long enough that although I wandered up to the market square I then spent my time drinking coffee and eating a scone rather than exploring further - it's a nice looking place, full of old buildings and running up a hill, but I'll be back.


Beyond Alston the road headed over the open moors again, running parallel to a long valley on the left, up to the summit of the road.

Hartside summit

The cafe is a sad sight, but there was an ice cream van in the carpark and a couple of motorcyclists visiting regardless - and there was nothing wrong with the view to the west, which was breathtaking.

Hartside cafe

I had decided to focus on the hills to the north - I have other plans for Melmerby Fell - and I knew it would be touch and go whether I could get round all three in the time, so I set off onto the hillside at a determined speed, along a faint path which roughly followed the fence line.

Onto the moors

It was a trip of three roughly equal legs - out to Grey Nag, from there to Thack Moor, and back to the road - so the 6 hours I had were easy to allocate, although the late running of the bus had cut 10 minutes off the first leg.

Some of the muddy places were still soft, but nothing along here was really wet, which was a good start. But the grass was quite long and the path never very worn, so I was glad to reach the point where the fence turned into a wall,and find trampled ground beside it.

Along the wall

The steepest climb of the day was quite early on, just before a gate which was really a hurdle as it had no hinges, although it was quite easy to swing it open - but there was amazingly little up and down anywhere.

I have an odd feeling this summer of being more hill fit than I've ever been - odd because I'm no more running-for-the-bus fit than ever, and because if it's true, it wasn't hills that did it - it was being out on the Fife coastal path nearly every weekend of the spring, where it's mostly flat! But whatever the reason, I had made good time to the first summit, ahead of my prediction, which was a good omen.

Black Fell summit

The views here were still much the same as from the road summit - looking up to Cross Fell, and over towards the lakes.

Looking to the lakes

The limited time had led to a bit too much logistical plotting - if I was hoping to get round, it would make sense to do Thack Moor second and get the longer climb back up over with, but if I ended up leaving one hill to do alone, it was better to be Thack Moor from Lazonby station than having to get back to Alston for Grey Nag - when I'm back in Alston I'll have other things on my mind. So I'd let that decide me, and set off north, where the ground got rougher - not much wetter, at first, but I was starting to occasionally meet worn hags where I had to climb down and climb up again, and wider patches of dried mud.

Dried up places

Further on again it was all much more worn, and I was regularly walking across mud, most of it dry, and having to pick a route over and around the wetter places. One deceptive place took me in shin deep - if the rest hadn't been so dry I would probably have been more careful! It could have been a lot worse, but it wasn't exactly pleasant, and the bends in the fence added to the sense of never quite knowing where I was getting to.

I was vaguely expecting the Tom Smith's Stone marked on the map to be an erratic boulder, but instead it was a boundary stone, marked on the sides facing me with A and W, and on the far side, when I climbed the fence, with a K and a worn letter that I thought might be U - Alston and Knarsdale I could guess at, and the others turn out to be Whitley and C for Croglin. But the stone also sits on the county boundary, which I didn't appreciate at the time, putting Grey Nag back in Northumberland although it's west of Alston.

Tom Smith's stone

The fence bent again here, but I was going straight on in the sense of keeping to the main ridge, not wandering off downhill. Beyond the junction the going was definitely better, wheel tracks over grass, and the water all in a little pool.

A little pool

Further on again it was distinctly different, little paths through short heather, and scattered grey stone - mostly a pleasant change, although the heather did untie my shoelaces for me. The summit stood out clearly as a great mound, along with the trig point, and I took a shortcut straight towards it which probably didn't save any time.

Heathery hill

The summit appears to be a cairn on a cairn - although it's not obvious if the loose pile really is an old cairn, or just some kind of leftover from the wall - it's not as grown in to the ground as ancient cairns usually are.

Grey Nag summit

All across Grey Nag is wall rather than fence, so there seems to have been plenty of stone around, and just by the summit is also a set of stone folds, built into the wall.

Old walls and Dun Fell

It's quite a different viewpoint, turning its back on the lakes and looking up to Cold Fell and the border, and over into Tynedale.

Looking to Tynedale

I spent long enough at the summit to eat half of my lunch, and then headed back to the junction. It would have been quite easy to get distracted and head out along the long arm of hills leading to Croglin Fell, and I had to concentrate hard on Thack Moor in the background.

Back at the junction

Heading back along, I had the rise which led out to Thack Moor in front of me. I had to resist cutting the corner too much, because going right down into the valley between wouldn't help at all, as well as probably being awful ground, but it did feel like a long way round.

Following the fence

Where the fence suddenly turned away there seemed no point in following it, and I set out to cut the corner to the ridge. It was far more like the ground around Cold Fell here than it had been further south, thick heather hiding holes, no place for hurrying alone, and I had to consciously slow down and remind myself that less distance meant less need for speed.

Coming down into the little valley I crossed the bed of what looked like it was usually quite an energetic stream, although there was nothing there now but a little bit of damp green moss and brown pools in the deepest places.

Dry stream bed

Beyond the stream it was easier - for a little while I was following a trace of path, if only a sheep path, along a kind of shelf above the stream, and then before long I came back onto grass, and even met some ATV tracks, although they were heading off in the wrong direction.

Over to my left, along the top of the ridge, the fence couldn't make up its mind, changing to a wall and back again, but ahead of me I had a good landmark where the wall began again and ran off across the hillside.

Watch Hill and the start of the wall

When I reached the point where the wall began, the gate between it and the fence was standing hospitably open, so I went through and started following the far side of the wall, only to realise that it bent sharply to the left not far ahead and I would be left on the downhill side. So i went back through the gate to the uphill side, only to find that the bend was actually a cross wall with no way over.

Wall junctions

So back to the first side - there were various posts leaning against or propping up the wall, but looked at more carefully two of them further along became definitely the posts of a ladder stile. From the far side I picked up an ATV track again, which kept a bit to the right of the crest of the hill, but as I came near the second wall the tracks ran off towards a downhill gate, and I had to hurry without a path up to the top to find the stile - if there was one in the first wall there would be in the second, I just had to look in the right place.

Time was an issue, if not necessarily a desperate one - this leg from Grey Nag to Thack Moor was the longest, as well as the worst ground, but I still had to allow for going uphill on the way back. Taking 10 minutes extra to the summit didn't sound like much, but if it meant taking 20 minutes extra to get back I was suddenly in trouble. 3:30 was my checkpoint - if I wasn't at the summit by then, or at least within 5 minutes of it, I was turning back. I even think I meant it, which made me more determined to press on!

From the second top of Watch Hill, with its disintegrating currick, Thack Moor suddenly looked quite close. By 25 past I was at the wall corner, and the trig point soon came into view.

Summit in sight

In fact it was 3:31 when I reached the top, with the ground falling quite steeply to the valley ahead of me.

Thack Moor summit

This time the views were focussed on the west - the lake district hills were fading into the haze, but all the fields of the Eden valley were spread out below me.

Eden valley fields

I didn't have long to hang about, and retraced my steps past the currick on Watch Hill, remembering to stick to the crest to find the first ladder stile, but sticking to it so well that I met the wall junction instead of the second stile, and had to wander off along the wall to find it.

Currick on Watch Hill

Still, I was making good enough time that I sat down on the second stile to finish my lunch, and then headed off uphill - this was the one bit where I wasn't retracing my steps, just following the fence - or sometimes wall - up and up, hoping I was going to meet my outward route after the worst bits of ground.

The ground was fine, but I felt like I was getting nowhere - it was only about a mile from the ruin to the trig point, but I'd been walking for more than 20 minutes and the summit was nowhere in sight and the ruin was too close behind me - and then suddenly the trig point appeared, a few minutes ahead, and I was there by 4:30, with a bit of time in hand.

Black Fell again

It was still a fair way down, past the gate which wasn't a gate and the steep bit and all the soft bits, and the pass of the summit came into view looking a long way off, and I couldn't measure out distances because I found I'd lost my map - I stuck it into the stones of the wall by the stile so it didn't blow away and must have left it there, which is a shame because it was an old friend of Hadrian's Wall days.

The good thing about Hartside as a bus stop is that you can watch the road running up to you from a long way off - I didn't have to stand and wait, just sit on a viewpoint bench until I saw the bus toiling up. And then the journey back over the moors and along the valley, with the villages and scraps of Wall, to Newcastle and dinner and the train home.

A very satisfying day out, that - a bit of a route march, but mostly just a case of not dithering, and there wasn't much to dither over, except the summit views. And the views probably are the North Pennines' best feature! Whether you could get round all three hills between the buses in normal/wet conditions I'm not quite sure - you might have to be a bit quicker than me (and lots of people are), but the majority of the route was rough grass or heather which wouldn't change much. A good route for a dry summer, though.

And I may or may not have hit my 100th Hewitt on Thack Moor - it depends if you count Plover Hill or not (WH says 101 because it doesn't separate off the Hewitt summit of High Stile, which I missed). But I didn't realise that until afterwards, so I might just wait and celebrate deliberately on Whiteside!

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