The drive to Northumberland was punctuated by a gear stop in a middle class suburb on the outskirts of Leeds. A shiny new Trailstar was waiting for Rich at his parents house. He sat for a while with the package on his lap as I drove north, putting off the excitement of opening it. Curiosity soon got the better of him and the contents examined, the familiar grey silnylon in an orange stuff sack. It would be put to good use on the North Pennine moors over the next couple of nights.
Day 1 – 15 kilometres with 620 metres ascent
Allendale Town is a pleasant village and we parked opposite a cafe which we immediately decided would be visited upon our return. We were soon crossing the River East Allen and heading up a series of steep lanes. High on Dryburn Moor are a couple of chimneys with smelting flues made of stone running up to them. Most of the flues have now collapsed but in places the stone construction is clearly visible. It must have been a feat of engineering on this high and desolate place.
The views to the north were extensive in the cold and clear air. We could see all the way to the Cheviot hills, a patchwork of low moorland and forestry filling the huge panorama. Northumberland really is a county of big horizons.
A series of tracks and paths led us down into West Allen Dale where we misread a path sign and bumbled right past the back door of a cottage. The dog in the garden did not appear to be too happy about this, or no doubt the owner who came to the back door. A bridge crossed the river at an idyllic spot so we took the opportunity to sit for a while, listening to the sounds of water with the sun on our faces.
The remote Wellhope burn was to be our destination for the night. Looking at the map it looked like it would provide plenty of seclusion with flat pitches next to the river. South of the Ninebanks youth hostel we crossed the Mohope burn and entered the grassy pastures at the foot of the dale. The view was of grassy fields finally giving way to the bleak moors. We decided that we would continue for a mile or so into the access land and pick a spot for the night.
Sadly our plans of picking a hidden spot was not to be. As we progressed up the valley a farmer was out tending his sheep on the opposite slopes. He was too far away to go and ask permission to camp but too close to camp within full view. We therefore had a bit of a dilemma what to do. As there was plenty of daylight left we decided to continue to the terrace of barns at Wellhope, whilst he continued to buzz about on his quad bike. Without a cloud in the sky the low sun cast a magical light on the moors as we climbed higher.
The barns were dilapidated and the ground outside unsuitable for camping. The only alternative was to climb higher onto the moors and search for a pitch on the edge of the plateau. In the end we found an acceptable patch of rough grass and I pitched my Trailstar whilst Rich noted what to do so he could pitch his. It took a while to set his up as the guys needed to be cut to length and attached to the shelter. With the air quickly cooling and trailshoes soaked with boggy water, it was a painfully cold process. The farmer was still driving around on the other side of the valley, so we kept our fingers crossed that we would not get moved on.
The air was alive with the sounds of moorland birds. The pastures that we had passed through earlier had been filled with acrobatic lapwings with their distinctive cries. The most lovely however was the lonely call of the curlew. If you have never heard its cry whilst dusk falls on the moors then you have not lived. Then there was the familiar cackle of the grouse, letting out a sound like a broken instrument. All in all a good selection of noises to fall asleep to.
Day 2 – 18.5 kilometres with 470 metres ascent
It was a freezing cold night, frost forming on the insides of our shelters. I also realised once in bed that the slope was greater than initially thought. I kept slowly sliding out towards the entrance. All in all it was not one of the best nights sleep I have had.
The sun was very welcome when it finally rose and provided some much needed warmth. It was a pleasure to breakfast and then pack in good weather. The air was once again alive with the sound of birdsong, this time also joined by a skylark.
The farmer had not left until after dark the night before and was back again by 8.00am. It must be a tough existence farming on the uplands, especially after such a cold spring. With height gained the night before we headed south towards the spoil heap and shooting hut on the horizon. There were great sweeping views back the way we had come.
I had heard that this shooting hut has a flushing loo so I was rather disappointed to find both the hut and outside loo firmly padlocked. Even the knackered looking old winding house was locked. It was a gloomy and rather forlorn spot. A nearby shallow pond however was teeming with frogs busy procreating. There appeared to be an amphibian orgy taking place in one corner, a tangle of froggy bodies and webbed feet.
A waymarked bridleway led us to the far side of the valley giving views of moorland as far as the eye could see. I love these wide open spaces.
The bridleway continued upward before contouring below the summit of the Dodd, a hill that just breaks the 2000ft barrier. The path gave backpacking perfection for a while, grassy and level with panoramic views. A few miles of that would have been perfect.
Alas our route soon left the path and we squelched our way through bog. For a while the going was a quaking nightmare, a wrong step being potentially dangerous. An unlucky sheep had not picked the best route, only its head and top of its back visible above the morass. We were pleased to get to the summit of the road and feel a firm surface beneath our feet.
The going up Killhope Law was initially good, a feint path followed a fence, the peat firm and dry.
However we were soon winding our way though a series of sodden peat hags, constantly climbing up and down them. It was impossible to keep to a straight line. It was exhausting both physically and mentally as the summit for ages did not appear to get any closer. Finally we picked up a feint path once more for the final section to the summit.
The trig sits in a desolate wasteland of soggy peat, the cold wind making us none too keen to hang around for very long. The summit is also marked by a large wooden pole, the purpose of which we have no idea. It must have taken a considerable effort not just to carry it up but to actually erect the thing.
The original plan had been to continue across trackless moors for a few more miles taking in another 2000ft summit. However progress had been so slow and to be honest a little tedious so we decided to change our plans. We headed to a dilapidated shooting hut and cooked some lunch whilst looking at the map. It was good to get out of the wind for a while and get the stoves on. You can’t beat a hot lunch whilst backpacking.
The Carriers way descends to near Allenheads so we decided we would take that. A good gravel track that led us straight down into East Allen Dale, a relief after the bogs of Killhope Law.
Down at the road a sign pointed towards a cafe a mile away at Allenheads, we were tempted but at the same time lassitude had set in. Instead we trudged along the road for a bit and took the access track for Byerhope farm. This turned out to occupy an enviable position at 460 metres above sea level. A large whitewashed building with views across to Killhope Law and airy views down the glen. In our minds we imagined what it would be like to live there.
The track continued onto the moorland plateau above, eventually a couple of shooting huts came into view. Unlocked they gave a good opportunity to sit for a while out of the wind.
Our chosen spot for the night was near the abandoned Halleywell farm which was approached by a couple more shooting tracks. The buildings sit in a lonely spot at the head of the Beldon burn which eventually flows past Blanchland.
We wanted to hide ourselves away as much as possible so descended past the buildings to the stream below. The ground next to a circular sheepfold looked to provide an idyllic spot but it turned out the grass was about two inches deep in sheep shit. Not too enticing with a floorless shelter! A bit of searching around found a grass enclosure which was sheltered from the wind. We soon had both Trailstars up, Rich deciding on a Hobbit height configuration.
It was a cracking spot and it was good to relax in the early evening sunshine. There was once again a cacophony of moorland birds which were joined at dusk by the drumming of the snipe. The first time I heard snipe was whilst camping on the West Coast of Scotland. I have to admit that I found the sound a bit unnerving as I did not know what it was. Now it is up there with the cries of the curlew as my favourite sound of the moors in spring.
Day 3 – 12 kilometres with 160 metres ascent
I managed a whole night without sliding out of the Trailstar so had a good long and deep sleep. This was full of vivid dreams, the like of which I only really get when camping. Usually Rich is up at dawn, even he was still fast asleep on this grey and windy morning.
We had a slow and relaxed start, neither really keen to get going, the sky threatening rain. Eventually we did pack and headed up past Halleywell and onto the track we had walked the day before. We followed it for a while before joining a bridleway, looking particularly bleak on a grey Sunday morning.
It was a simple case of following a few tracks and bridleways back to Allendale town and we were glad to find another unlocked shooting hut in which to shelter and cook lunch. The wind was howling through holes in the corrugated tin roof and walls whilst we cooked. A final tramp across the moors led us to a lane which we followed back into Allendale town.
The cafe was indeed open and we piled in after a change of clothes, eager for a carbohydrate heavy feast. Unfortunately it was not that sort of cafe so we made do with coffee and cake instead. Rich had offered to pay in return for me doing the driving. I was pleased that he had as the bill was rather substantial. The village really is a rather charming place and we enjoyed exploring both the dales and the moors above. The area had been pretty much deserted. A place I am keen to return to sooner rather than later.