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.

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32 Comments to “Moorland days and a bothy night in the North Pennines”

  1. Brilliant stuff James, that tiny bothy looked as cosy as it gets. The chair brought a huge smile to my face and memories of when I was the designated toilet builder during my national service days…I can build a mean toilet! 😉

    • It is a fantastic liitle place in a lovely spot Yuri, a real gem. The toilet was great although when I went out to use it, it was blowing a gale and chucking it down with rain. Splinters on the seat could also be an issue…………

  2. Looks absolutely wonderful James. I just love the wild, expansive views of the North Pennines. So quiet too – not like the Peak District! Wouldn’t you just love to have a job that took you to a workplace like that every day?

    • The moors up there appear to go on forever Chrissie, the North Pennines are as wild as it gets in England. So much quieter than the Peak District. A job working out there would be fantastic, beats working in the city.

  3. Great report James – I think you were wise to go outside of the weekend to ensure a quiet night in the bothy.

    • Thanks Mark. Looking in the bothy book it appears that no one had been to the bothy for a week or so, still there would have been the risk of arriving to it being full the night before.

  4. “You never know what you may stumble upon.” that’s the point isn’t it? A voyage of discovery and adventure. A great tale, James, different from the usual stuff dominating our blogs. I really enjoyed it. I love bothies, alpine huts and also Finnish Laavu, Swedish gapskjul or slogbod, and Norwegian gapahuk shelters. Having something like those in remote areas is actually rather fantastic. Great piece James.

    • I agree Maz, the whole point to getting out and about into the hills is for a voyage of discovery and adventure. That is why i prefer the wilder and less visited parts of our Island, I love coming across the unexpected. This rarely happens in areas where you have to queue to cross a ladder stile!

  5. A great report James and a cracking bothy to stay in. The moors up here in the North Pennines are wonderful at any time of year and are perfect for those who like to explore away from the crowds. I was photographing in Upper Teesdale mid week and only saw two people all day – and that was on the Pennine way near Cauldron Snout, which is one of the more popular and accessible places. It’s not surprising I suppose, when you think about it, the designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) land itself runs to some 2,000 square kilometres. Looking forward to hearing more of your one man and his dog adventures.

    • Upper Teesdale is one of my favourite places in the country David, I love the contrast between the flower meadows, waterfalls and the high bleak moorland. Usually deserted apart from the usual honeypots. I did not realise that the AONB is 2,000 square kilometres in size, lets hope that it stays protected.

  6. I distinctly remember those bothies, we’ve probably got photos of them somewhere, but I’m damned if I can remember where they are!. We tend to ignore them, but anyway the North Pennines feels splendidly remote and holds many deserted routes forr the backpacker.

    • Sometimes its best to stick to a tent Geoff if you really want to get away from it all. You can’t beat a high level wild camp. However bothies are great for when the nights are long and you don’t want to be cramped in a small tent. Love the North Pennines, so many planned routes still to do.

  7. Your blog is very inspiring and I’d love to have ago at exploring some of these very remote places…..but I am not really fit….and we don’t have all the kit or know how to find a route with maps , compass etc. What would you recommend to get started? I’ve seen walks advertised in the Peak District with a ranger…..would this be a good place to get a feel for it or do you have any other suggestions? Don’t want to jump straight in and end up calling for a rescue party!

    • Hi Karen. I think that the best way to get fit for walking is to go walking! Just start off gently at the beginning and work your way up. When I first started out i had no idea how to use a map or compass, it is something that I gradually taught myself. If you have never walked in the Peaks before, you probably can’t go wrong in joining a guided walk with a Ranger, a good way to see if it is for you. There are probably loads of other organised walks that you could join.

      As for kit there really is not much you need for day walks. Good footwear, waterproofs and a rucksack are the only essentials, I used army surplus stuff for years with no ill effect. You really do not need to spend a fortune!

      Maybe buy yourself a map of the Peak district if that is where you fancy walking. Learn how to use a map and the world is your oyster!

      My suggestion for a walk you could do on your own without a map and compass would be Dovedale. Park at the main car park and follow the river up the valley. You can’t get lost and when you have had enough you simply turn around again. Its a lovely place although it does get crowded at weekends.

      • Hi Karen – if you want to explore the Peak then Cicerone publish the walking guides by Mark Richards. There are two volumes for the White Peak (Northern and Southern Dales) and you can find them on Amazon. I have the old versions but it looks like they have been updated.

        They are lovely books with detailed descriptions and line drawings and range from easy strolls to longer walks and alkl very easy to follow. It’s how I discovered the Peak.

        The same author also does a Dark Peak guide but the terrain up there is a little more serious

  8. A wild remote place with a fine shelter to enjoy it. Great way to spend time outdoors James. Thanks for sharing that.

    • I have to admit that I am a bit addicted to spending time in wild and remote places Martin. The bothy was a great place to spend the night.

  9. That first bothy does look a bit spooky, reminds me a little of the also spooky bothy at Gleann a’ Mhaoil on Scarba, brrrrr. Maybe it’s because it looks a bit more like an abandoned house, having two floors with all those windows and all, rather than some of the smaller shepherds’ and crofters’ cottages that are more the standard MBA kind of bothy.
    I like the image of the resident ghosts scurrying into the dark corners; you’ve a way with the words Mr Boulter – and the pics too.
    You’ll be glad to hear that Dougal got my MBA membership for Christmas! I was glad to see that he gets a reduced rate as he’s under 16.

    • I agree that there is something spooky about bothies that resemble abandoned houses Pete. It must be the sense of history and those that have lived there in the past. I imagined that if I stayed the night I would wake up and hear foot steps from the room above. It’s a shame that there is no sleeping platform, that would make it a bit more cosy.

      Have you signed up Dougal for any MBA work parties yet?

  10. I could say alot about this post sir, but I will simply say… I like your style. Keep it up.

  11. Cracking tale of wilderness adventures. I may have to go “bothy hunting” in my Wales hinterland to see what I can find. I prefer to camp (not that I get out much for overnights these days) but a lonely bothy has a certain charm if you can avoid the crowds

    • There are still a few building symbols that I need to check out in mid-Wales Andy, you never know what cracker may await as you descend into a remote valley.

  12. HI James, I know it well up there. The first bothy was probably an lead miner’s accommodation for Smittergill mines nearby, known as Melmerby Shop. not as old or as cosy as the shepherds hut. An late Rough Stuff Fellowship friend (Joe) contacted the Yorkshire group and some other cyclists in Newcastle in 1985, having met the owners. They supplied the materials and we set about repairs on the old house for about five years, going up perhaps three times a year. Interest soon flagged after digging out the trench at the back, and it became more of a pilgramage for new years eve and hard cycling routes over the hills to Kirkland, and a meeting place for the old gang.
    We had great times and adventures over the years. The original cast iron range was beyond repair and replaced with the current open fire in 1985 by two good friends Adam and Alan both sadly departed. It was with tongue in cheek that he used to say ‘it was the only bothy with an ‘Adam’ fireplace. It was bulit over a weekend, and we got back to Yorkshire very late. We put the water butt in later, but it wasn’t as good as the spring and tasted a bit off, so just used it for washing. At one time you could see the cone of white plaster and rubble out the front from Hartside, before the grass grew. There was always an issue with damp floors, a lingering smell of mould and mice infestations, and without regular visits and a frequently lit fire, it has become a somewhat unattractive doss, but a place with breathtaking views and a hundred memories.

    • Hi Richard. Thanks for that info on the history of Melmerby shop. I think that I had heard on the grapevine that it had something to do with a group of cyclists or was popular with cyclists. It always suprises me that a place which is so accessible is used as little as it is. It does need someone to spend a couple of nights burning a few kilos of coal to dry the place out. Shame there are no sleeping platforms, the damp concrete is not very inviting. But I agree about those views, they are fantastic.

  13. We used to sleep upstairs via the drop down ladder. The visitors books went back to 1969 but they disappeared about 1991 when we started a new one, but these too were lost before long. It was a real shame to loose all that history. If we weren’t doing a work party, we used caught the train up to Langwathby then cycled in late evening over Hartside Pass and up the Maiden Way, stop a night or two and return to Appleby station via Megs Cairn, Ousby or Kirkland, just using normal touring bikes. Visitors did pop in once in a while. After Alan and myself rebuilt the lean-to, and added a roof, Joe complained that it shone in the sun like a beacon and could be seen from Hartside, so we painted it black next time, to keep ‘his’ bothy secret. He was quite a strong character and could easily make an enemy of someone if he disagreed about something. There were always a lot of heated late night fireside discussions, which often boied over. I was still a youngster at the time and found it amusing to see grown men who should have known better. I think it put people off coming after the first couple of work parties, when he expected everyone to dig out the earth from the back wall eight hours a day, after they had cycled in from afar! but he did keep a tidy ‘shop’ and could build good wheels, which we would buy off him at the bothy

    • The drop down ladders are still there. Upstairs is in need of a good old clean, years of dust and plaster on the floor. Joe sounds like a bit of a character!

  14. I think Joe stayed up there for two weeks at a time, then spent a couple of months cycling to and around the Highlands before returning to Preston, living out of bothies. He was well known for sitting outside cafes with his Primus stove making his own brew, whilst the rest of us were enjoying a cup of tea. He re-defined tightness.
    After several fall-outs, myself and Alan went on separate dates to Joe’s visits, and by 1993 we frequented Skiddaw House instead. Similar in many ways for its remoteness, but had advantages in Alan’s advancing years of not having to carry in sleeping bag, stove, etc and enjoying a comportable bed and a ready lit fire. We had Yorkshire Group RSF meets there a couple of times a year and stopped going to the bothy. It didn’t stop him from dragging us over places like Windy Gap with touring bikes though and Adam the fire builder moved to rural County Cork and bought his own bothy-cottage for his remaining years.
    Anyway enough of me ranting on, I’m really enjoying your travellers tales.

  15. A wonderful tale, colourfully filmed and entertainingly told. Rueben has real screen presence. I only wished it had been an hour long, in the manner of Monty Hall’s crofting experience series of a couple of years ago.

  16. Hay dude could you give me a clue in a pm to where I might find the little Shepard’s hut is from Melmerby Shop

    Cheers

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