Archive for January 22nd, 2012

January 22, 2012

Moorland days and a bothy night in the North Pennines

by backpackingbongos

In my mind the North Pennines AONB offers some of the most remote countryside in England, a place where it is easy to get away from it all.  I found myself with a Monday off work and the urge to visit a bothy for an overnight trip.  I have to admit that I avoid many bothies on a Saturday night as that is when you are more likely to share it with people seeking a party rather than solitude.  I figured that a visit to a remote Pennine bothy on a Sunday night at the beginning of January should be a safe bet.

I planned a 5 mile walk in with a rucksack laden with 4.5 kilos of coal and kindling, the most essential bit of kit for a winter bothy trip.  On the drive to the start of the backpack I stopped for a short walk to investigate a hut I have been thinking about as potential for an overnighter.  An hours walk through drizzle left me feeling rather disappointed.  Although unlocked the hut was a less than inviting place to spend more than a few minutes.  Finding new bothies is a bit of sport for me, I love the idea of stumbling upon a hidden gem.  That was how I came across my planned destination for later that afternoon.  Five years ago during a summers walk along a deserted valley I spotted a chimney in the distance.  Curiosity got the better of me and I went to investigate.  I’m glad that I did as I found a cracking little place.  My planned backpack was forgotten as I pitched my tent outside for a lazy day in the sun.  I was thankful for the shelter later that evening when the midges came out in their millions.

I parked the car high on a moorland road, the world around me reduced by the thick swirling mist, heavy rain and a quickly fogging windscreen.  To be honest I started to regret not staying in the comfort of my own home, it really was not very inviting outside.  Reuben however was as keen as ever so we set off along the verge of the busy road.  The track was easy to locate and the first part of the walk was spent descending over 100 metres.  In my mind there is something wrong about descending at the start of a walk, especially when you know you will soon have to reclaim what has been lost.  With the wind blowing the rain directly into my face I crossed dry-shod what can often be a tricky river.

There then followed a long uphill trudge, the swirling mist soon becoming a thick wall of grey as I gained height.  The track made a sudden swing to the left and I continued uphill on a direct line to a substantial bothy hidden somewhere on the hillside.  Walking across the featureless moor in such thick mist was unnerving and I started to wish I had got out my compass.  However the building soon loomed into view, complete with a huge caterpillar tracked earth mover parked outside.  I opened the door and found the bothy silent and empty, with just the echo of my boots and the resident ghosts scurrying into the dark corners.

Whilst walking up the track I had started to debate whether or not to spend the night in the first bothy, the thought of trudging further in the clag did not appeal.  However on further inspection I decided that it would not be a particularly cosy place to spend the night.  It was damp, cold and just a little bit spooky.  I could not bring myself to bed down on the concrete floor downstairs, whilst the upstairs rooms were covered in plaster dust.  Also having a huge machine parked outside shattered any sense of being in a remote spot.

I shouldered my pack and once more set off into the gloom.  To be honest it was a bit of a trudge and it soon got dark.  Reuben was fitted out with a red beacon on his rucksack as his camouflage means he vanishes against the heather.  I turned on my head torch and the world shrunk around me, my vision being confined to its misty beam.

The sound of a river singing and crashing below me indicated that the bothy was close.  The track ended near to the unseen waters and I turned right to follow its banks.  As the tiny building came into view I thought that I caught the whiff of wood smoke but this turned out to be my imagination as the bothy was dark and bolted from the outside.  I was soon in its welcoming interior, lighting candles and having a look around.  I was pleased to see that not much had changed in the five years since I had last been here.  Although well used it is very well cared for with no evidence of litter or damage.  With my stove slowly boiling water for coffee I set about lighting a fire with the coal I had carried across the moor.  The bothy was already well stocked with coal, kindling and logs, which apart from a couple of logs I left alone.  In such a high remote spot, leaving plentiful fuel could be a lifesaver for the shepherds for whom the bothy is designed.

I spent a happy and peaceful night in front of the fire reading and eating before bedding down for the night.  I took one of the mattresses hung from the ceiling and used it in conjunction with my thermarest to make a very comfy bed near the fire.  With Reuben curled up next to me I listened to the wind blowing outside as I drifted off to sleep.

I managed to sleep until late, the gloomy conditions outside and the bubble wrap curtains meant that not much light permeated inside.  With a cup of coffee in my hands I went outside to explore and was met by low cloud sitting on the surrounding hills, along with a fine drizzle.  I returned to the bothy and was lazy for a while, drinking several cups of coffee and eating noodles.  Sunlight suddenly filtered though the window lighting up the interior.  This was my prompt to pack my gear and sweep up, leaving the place welcoming for the next visitors.  The ash from the fire needed to be emptied and I took the ash can outside to do so.  Immediately a strong gust of wind blew down the valley leaving me covered from head to toe in a fine layer of ash.  I spent much of the day picking it out of my nose and ears!

With the sun now shining and the hills clear I headed outside and put on Reubens pack, he then pulled a rather striking pose.

The bothy itself commands a lovely spot, surrounded by the extensive North Pennine moors.  Sometimes it is easy to forget that you are in such a small and crowded country.

The nearby sheepfold doubles up as the designated bothy toilet, the set up making me smile.  I think that the following photo says more than words can!

I was reluctant to leave the bothy and its surroundings but with the weather improving it would have been a shame not to get onto the hills.  We walked a short way up the valley before climbing steadily towards a distant sheepfold.  The views back towards the now unseen bothy were fantastically empty and desolate.

The sheepfold was a good landmark to head for as the surroundings were totally featureless.  Its walls provided shelter from the cold wind whilst I started to demolish a packet of chocolate biscuits.  Reuben was soon shivering from the cold so we set off once again, climbing higher and higher onto the hills.

The area is steeped in mining history and littered with its relics.  Although not marked on the map I found a well-worn old track that happened to be going in my direction, marked by ancient cairns.  Drifts of snow hidden in gullies had managed to survive a lengthy mild spell.

On the high moorland crest I came across possibly one of the largest sheepfolds I have seen.  The walls towered above my head when I entered and I began to wonder what its purpose was.  It was big enough to shelter a few elephants, surely too elaborate to be used simply for sheep?

The high rocky moorland plateau was liberally dotted with large cairns and curricks amongst the many boggy pools.  A lonely place, silent except the constant tugging of the wind against my hood which was pulled tight against the cold.  I wandered around aimlessly for a while just taking in the atmosphere of the place.  It was like some Andy Goldsworthy art installation, although I am sure that many of the curricks were there long before he was born.

I walked further to the west to look at the panorama of Lakeland peaks.  Unfortunately they were lost amongst the haze and had just become a shadowy outline on the horizon.  Disappointed I walked back east to pick up a bridleway that would lead me back to the car.  Here I have to admit I made a navigational error even though the conditions were clear.  I thought that I had located the path and I started to follow what I thought were a line of marker cairns.  It was a while before I noticed my mistake and I cursed as I climbed back up hill and then across rough ground to the obvious path.  It was my fault for being too lazy to get the map out and check rather than ploughing on regardless.

The path followed the line of an old Roman road which takes a direct line across the high moors.  The going was now easy and I was able to move quickly downhill, keen to get out of the cold wind.  The sun began to break through the clouds giving a lovely quality to the afternoon light.

My stomach was rumbling so I decided to make the short detour to the first bothy I had come across the day before.  The earth mover was working a few hundred metres away, its rumblings disturbing the peace.  I wondered what it was doing digging away on the moors, hoping that another track was not in the process of being built.

The bothy came into view, a much more welcoming sight than the day before.  There is a real sense of space on these hills and this bothy takes advantage of that.  It’s outlook is breathtaking on such a clear day.

I entered its cold and damp interior and set about making coffee and cooking some cous cous.  Reuben took the opportunity for a snooze on a manky looking rug.  I could hear the earth mover getting closer until it was right outside the bothy where it was parked.  The driver popped in for a chat, his job involving many lonely hours on the hills.  It turned out that he was a local contractor for Natural England and he was clearing out some drainage ditches.  He said he loved working on the hills when the weather was like this, although the weather can often make his job difficult.  He soon left me to my food, driving his tractor down the long track towards home.

I packed up and left the bothy for a second time, maybe I will return with 10kg of coal and get the stove roaring.  The place needs someone to fill it with warmth and banish its ghosts and damp.  The view from the door made me smile, imagine leaving your house to a view like this each morning.

The long track back to the car was much more fun in the setting sun than on the way up in the mist.  All of the clouds eventually disappeared and a huge moon started to rise above the moors to the east.  The temperature dropped rapidly as I made the final climb up to the road by head torch, my breath swirling in front of the beam.  The car was covered in a thick layer of ice by the time I reached it, the moon reflecting off the bonnet.

If you missed it the first time round here is the video of this trip.

Once again you may have noticed that this trip report is a little cryptic as I deliberately don’t give away my exact location.  The reason for this being to protect the wonderful bothy that I visited.  Publicity usually leads to their decline and there is very little mention of this one on the internet.  Do you fancy visiting a bothy?  If you do I suggest that you join the MBA.  This is not essential but it is good to contribute if you use them, you also get a booklet with a list of every single bothy that they maintain.  But there are plenty more out there that aren’t maintained by them and these are usually hidden gems.  My tip is to explore the hills (the more remote the better) and look out for building symbols marked on the map.  You never know what you may stumble upon.