A thirsty adventure – Ian Beswick

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The End of My Pennine Adventure

Still raining!
I had to focus now. The next final two days to Kirk Yetholm were probably going to be
the toughest of my journey. It was twenty-seven miles, (43.5km) across the tops of
the Cheviot Hills and, unless one deviated down into one of the valleys, there was no
habitation or access to water. I had only my 1L bottle in my rucksack and so stopped
at the garage to by another small bottle. I judged that when i set up camp for the night i
would have enough with my plastic bags and “Billy can” to collect sufficient to last and
was quite confident that it would continue raining or at least rain again the next night. So
it was with a determined but nervous mind i set out.

The climb out of Byness up the wooded valley to the top of Byness hill is about 600ft,
(182m) over about a mile, (1.6km) on the map. This turned out to be probably the
most unpleasant terrain i encountered on route. Apart from the occasional forest roads
which terrace the valley sides it was a steep climb along a route that having been worn
away by successive boots had now, (with all the rain) turned into a muddy stream!
(Remember when you were a kid and tried to run the wrong way up a slide in the park?
Well it was like that only in mud and with a rucksack on!) I must have looked something
like a wild forest creature when i finally emerged from the top of the tree line. During a
further scramble up the rocks at the top of the valley the water bottle i had bought fell
out of my pocket and cascaded back down the route i had just taken. Any other time i
would have just abandoned it but with my water situation a major concern i had to make
the tricky descent to retrieve it. Only about thirty feet but just what i didn’t need.
Eventually i found myself at the top of the valley, tired and of course thirsty. looking
back over the valley i could see the forest below shrouded in mist. Boy was i glad to be
out of that. Looking the other way to the North was far more invigorating. The Cheviots
were now in front of me. Of course they do not look like the mountains of Cumbria,
Wales or Scotland having no great cliffs, screes or loughs, but they do have a majesty
all of their own and now i was out of the forest and under a blue sky i thought they were
heavenly.

From Bryness Hill there was another 200ft of ascent up to Windy Crag. Then another
100ft to Ravens Knowe. Then 100ft down to Ogre Hill.

I think you get the picture, up and down all the way from now on. To be honest this was
good walking on the higher bits and as always it was a pleasure to reach every summit
cairn and survey my surroundings. Unfortunately the lower depressions between were
wet, boggy and in some sections totally underwater. Luckily a great deal of work has
been done to keep these areas accessible. Wooden causeways have been built across
the worst sections thus limiting the damage walkers can do to the local environment.
Unfortunately not all of them are in good condition and in places the slats have broken.
This is not a problem were you can see them but when they too are underwater they
mearly serve as dangerous Man Traps! And guess who fell in one?

As i descended Ogre Hill the view to the Northeast held my attention. About a mile
away i could see the rectangular earthworks of Chew Green Roman fort and the
Archaeologist in me let my imagination run riot. I was eager to get to this spot for a look
around and hurried down the hill. In the depression at the bottom my route took me over
a wooden causeway the centre of which was obscured by water. The start of the River
Coquet. There being no way around i launched myself forward in a run but just as i got
to the centre? The walkway was not just obscured, it wasn’t there and i plunged into
the stagnant pool up to my waist! luckily my momentum (and my rucksack) carried my
top half onto the next section of causeway and i scrambled out in the same movement
desperately hoping the next section would not give way.

This shook me up a bit and i angrily stomped my way to an adjacent gate and assessed
my situation. Luckily i was still wearing my waterproofs from that morning so i was
not totally saturated. Nor despite a few more bruises and having had the wind, (and
confidence) knocked out of me was i hurt, but what if? Not the kind of place to break a
leg!? Certainly when you have walked 245 miles, (394km) to get here! Still i wasn’t hurt
that was the main thing. Obviously i was now concerned that whoever passed this way
was going to fall into the same trap but try as i might i could find no way of leaving a
warning for them. This was very frustrating but with no alternative other than passing a
warning on to anybody i should meet i had no choice but to continue along the line of a
fence.

Hold on a minute! A fence? I had been so wrapped up in my present circumstance that
it didn’t dawn on me immediately. This was the Border Fence. I had reached Scotland!
I continued to the Roman earthworks but my enthusiasm and energy for exploration had
dimmed somewhat? It was here that i saw my first fellow humans of the day. A father
and two young daughters who had driven up the military road from Coquetdale to look
at the fort. His daughters were eyeing me vary warily as to them i must have looked like
some sort of Wild Man of the hills!

Having circumnavigated the fort i followed the path along the old Roman Road of Dere
Street eventually coming again to the Border Fence and a fine view to the East. Here
in the distance i could see a figure approaching. He turned out to be the first of many
soldiers i was to pass along the next few miles. Although the first chap was in the lead
he did stop to say hello! I warned him about the Man Trap at he bottom of Ogre hill but
he said his race was over at Chew Green. Given how far he was in front of his fellows i
suspect he won.

I stopped for a break at a well constructed Bothy just below Lamb Hill. It gave me a
chance to air my feet, wring out my socks and have a smoke. In bad weather this would
have been the place to stop for the night however it is less than halfway to Kirk Yetholm
so with my water shortage in mind i continued a further five miles over Beefstand Hill
(1842ft-561m), Foul Step, and Windy Rig before finishing my day at 5pm on top of
Windy Gayle (2034ft-629m). There is a huge cairn (Russell’s Cairn) built on top of this
hill. It must be of some antiquity as it has a 1950s trig post on the top. Maybe its a
huge stone tumulus with secrets still hiding within? (There goes the Archaeologist in
me again!) Having climbed to the top i was happily distracted by a beautiful 360 deg
panorama. This really was the top of the world. I could see for miles! I suppose the top
of a 2000ft hill is not the most sensible place to camp but to sleep up here? How could i
not?

Of course the practicalities of erecting my tent on rocky ground in a stiff Westerly breeze
also posed a problem but eventually, and with the judicious use of several large rocks it
was secure.

Several squally showers could be seen both to the North and South. I was confident
that one was bound to hit me at some point in the night and my water problem would
be solved but i still only used just enough to cook myself a boiled rice supper. This left
me with less than 1/2L for the following day so before turning in for the night at 9pm i
prepared my water collection scheme. I had two plastic bags wedged in the side of the
cairn and my “Billy Can”. Ample if it rained?

So here i was on the last night before arriving at my destination. Surely further away
from any Human being than i had ever been! It was with this quite comforting thought
that i settled down for the night. Of course sleep didn’t come easily. The noise of the
wind and the ever present danger of my tent collapsing kept me awake for some time.
I had just dozed off when i was awoken by my tent shaking violently! This wasn’t the
wind? Suddenly there was a torch shining down onto my tent when a voice from outside
exploded! “Alright mate! Just wanted to let you know we’re building a command post
next to you up here. If any any soldier shakes your tent and shouts “Staff” tell ‘im to F–
k off he’s got the wrong tent!” “Cheers mate!” i replied shakily and checked my watch. It
was 11.45pm.

Typical!! Here i was in the middle of bloody nowhere and i’d managed to pitch tent in
the middle of a practice war zone! Sure enough for the rest of the night i could hear
great activity around as soldiers were coming and going. This together with the sound
of distant rifle fire and the occasional muffled explosion should have put paid to any
chance of sleep but somehow i managed to catch forty winks as the battle raged around
me. So much for my isolation!

The next morning The wind had eased somewhat when i awoke this morning and as i got up to greet the day at 6am i could hear the sounds of last nights military activities winding down. My noisy neighbour had erected his tent about twenty yards from me and was busily berating an exhausted group of soldiers that had just checked in. I went straight to check my water collection scheme. Would you believe it? No rain! I had spent half my days soaked to the skin and when i really do need it to rain? Nothing! Not even a drop of
dew! I now had to decide whether a detour off the ridge to a place called Davidson’s Linn was worth the effort? It was a mile away and although i would be able to get properly re-hydrated, having to climb the mile back up to the ridge did not appeal to me. I still had a small amount left and figured that, although i was a little thirsty, it was all in the mind and my body had enough reserves not to come to any harm.

Before breaking camp i wondered over to greet my neighbour. “Mornin’!” I said “You gave me a bit of a surprise last night!” “Yea!” He replied. “We were surprised to find anybody up here? There was a weather warning for last night!” We chatted for a bit. I noted, but didn’t comment on the fact that none of the soldiers i saw wore identifiable epileps. Had i been sleeping with special forces? I told him that the bad weather had hit the night before and explained my water problem. ” Sorry mate. Got non spare.” He said each of his men were expected to drink eight litres of water during an exercise. Although he had never heard of the Pennine Way when i told him i had walked from Derbyshire his eyes lit up just a fraction and he offered me some chlorine tablets to use should i be forced to drink stagnant water in an emergency. I was on my last day to kirk Yetholm, please let there be no emergency!

I broke camp and set off at a brisk pace down from the majesty of Windy Gayle following the Border Fence to a path called Clennell Street. The Heather was just beginning to think about coming into flower and i collected a tiny sprig as a gift from Scotland for my friend! There were still excellent views all around as i carried on over Butt roads, (1718ft-524m), Kings Seat,(1743ft-531m) and up to the West top of cairn Hill, (2419ft-737m). I had already decided against the diversion to the top of The Cheviot. This the largest massive in these hills had dominated the scenery from Windy Gayle but was now covered in mist so i took the left turn at the border fence and headed for Auchope Cairn, (2382ft-726m). Here i was pleased to discover a wooden causeway in good condition and i made good time knowing i was still in view of my soldier friend who, no doubt in his more bored moments, would be tracking my progress. Another squall of rain enveloped me as i descended Auchope cairn but as the sun came out again i found myself at the second Mountain Refuge Hut along the route from Byness. Here i stopped for a break, drinking the last of my water and smoking a roll-up. I took off and wrung out my socks, as with all my clothes they were still wet from the previous morning. Naturally i couldn’t resist exploring the inside of the Bothy. There was nothing of any use to me like water but i did find an exercise book that people had been using to record their visits here.

I signed myself and seem to remember writing something sad about Laurence and finishing my walk. I left my, (second to last) map in the hut for whoever should need it and started my next climb up to The Schil, (1985ft-605m). This afforded me an excellent view down the valley of the College Burn. This valley, unlike any other in the Cheviots ran straight for about six miles, (9.6km) to join another valley at Hethpool.

The rocky summit of The Schil was the last major hill before my descent into Halterburn, indeed there was only six miles to go to Kirk Yetholm and what was i going to do then? I still had mixed feelings. I was pretty fed up with all the ups and downs of this path through the Cheviots, my legs were tired and i was thirsty but then again the views were glorious!
Having descended The Schil and rounded Black Hag i came across my first walkers of the day.

These were obvious day trippers given their little packs and smart new boots. I seem to recall the lady even had a handbag! Goodness knows what i looked like but they both eyed me warily as they passed. More people were emerging now as i re-entered civilisation. I passed one chap and his daughter who warned me of “great dangers” ahead as there was a huge Bull in the valley beyond!
Sure enough as i rounded a bend there was a herd of Highland Cattle on the path with a very large Bull further up the side of the hill. I took a steady but determined course through them making sure they had time to be aware of my presence and that i wasn’t separating any calves from their mothers. They didn’t want to move but did gradually as i persisted! The old Bull up the hill glanced down at me to see what the fuss was about but turned away disinterestedly.

As i crossed a wall in the valley the landscape changed from the Heather of the hills to the
Bracken of the valley and i soon arrived at the ruins at Halterburnhead. Whilst you can imagine living up here in the Summer sunshine. What must it have been like to survive the Winters up here?

On passing the farm at Burnhead i saw my first habitation since leaving Byness. What was this? A road under my feet. How strange a feeling! Some Horses came over to greet me but soon lost interest when i could offer them nothing more than the same grass they had in their paddock.

The next couple of miles seemed to drag. I was thinking, “Come on I’ve done all the hard bit i must be nearly there!”, but the road seemed to just go on and on crossing cattle grids and eventually passing through Halterburn before turning up out of the valley. What a rotten trick! Just when you have only a mile to go you have to climb up out of this valley and down into the next. I had always known this was the case but compared with all the other hills this little bit of uphill road had seemed irrelevant. Still it was the last hill so, despite having to stop “out of puff” several times, i eventually turned a corner and looked down on Kirk Yetholm. It looked a very picturesque scene. One that would look more at home in the Med’ than in Scotland. “Where’s the bloody pub?” i thought to myself but it wasn’t far. A short walk down the hill and there i was, at the end. The Border Hotel Kirk Yetholm.

I emerged onto what was a very large village green surrounded by very picturesque buildings. The most picturesque in my dehydrated condition being the pub! It was about three o’clock when i arrived and it was deserted apart from a young chap behind the bar chatting to an old local. I think i can safety say i have never drank a pint of shandy faster than that first drink. The barman was still smiling as he poured my second. I expect the arrival of Pennine Way walkers is not only great source of revenue for the village but also a great source of local humour!

Still! i don’t care who was laughing. I was here!

Ian Beswick

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