Once again I was motoring up the A1 in horrendous weather, driving rain reducing the visibility. As usual I found myself questioning my sanity for heading into the hills in less than ideal conditions. When the hills of Upper Teesdale embraced me I noticed flashes of white under the steely grey clouds. As the road twisted its way higher and higher the snow line met me just in time for a heavy snow shower to blow in. I was enveloped by a disorienting combination of white ground, swirling mists and fat snow flakes bashing the windscreen at 30mph. Thankfully the road itself remained largely snow free and I eventually pulled over just past the summit at nearly 600 metres so I could stuff my face and watch the snow fall.
A car pulled up behind, it was Martin and his mate Keith. We had managed to time our separate arrivals to within a few minutes of each other. After standing around in the snow chatting for a while we set off in convoy down to the lovely village of Garrigill, tucked away in the South Tyne valley.
Parked up outside a house I noticed we were being watched through both the upstairs and downstairs windows whilst we were sorting out our gear. I thought to myself that either they would keep an eye on our vehicles, or they would be annoyed and we would return to a flat tyre and scratches! Three men and a dog all kitted out with backpacking sacks then made their way up past the village green to the track that would take us onto the moors.
The climb was long and steady but with good conversation and a firm surface we made quick progress. Thankfully the rain had stopped which avoided a sweaty climb in waterproof trousers, something that I am never keen on.
As the track levelled out on the moorland plateau we reached the snow line. With dark heavy clouds scudding just overhead it was an atmospheric place to be.
Further down the track Keith made the mistake of bending down to adjust his laces. Reuben took this opportunity to sneak up so he could try to lick his face. This was very effective in knocking him off balance. Reuben is never shy about sharing his love with everyone that he meets.
Snow is great to look at but can give difficult conditions under foot. Thankfully the track was completely free of snow and most of the climbing was now behind us. The level track took us deeper into the wild open spaces of the North Pennines, a landscape on a huge scale made all the more dramatic by this sudden brief taste of winter.
Our planned home for the night was a bothy hidden deep in a secretive fold in the hills, unfortunately in a completely different direction to where the track was heading. The comfort and security of the track was left behind and after crossing an infant stream we struck off across trackless ground dominated by deep heather and the occasional bog. Wet snow sitting on top of the heather made progress particularly slow and hard work, not my favourite sort of terrain to cross.
With an area of limestone puncturing the surface of the moor the going became easier for a while, the heather being replaced by sheep nibbled grass. Time to relax from the lurching exertion of earlier with the knowledge that the bothy was now just a short walk downhill.
It was only a few weeks since my last visit to this bothy and although I was approaching it from a different direction the area was pleasingly familiar. We followed a quad bike track skirting a series of low hills and found that it was heading directly towards the still hidden hut. The late afternoon light gave a wonderful texture to the hills, the rushes whispering in the wind and slowly dispersing clouds moving lazily overhead.
The bothy was thankfully empty, something we pretty much expected late on a Sunday afternoon in March. We were glad that we had made the effort to carry in a couple of kilos of coal each as there was not a single scrap of fuel left by the previous visitors. The bothy can charitably be called ‘cosy’ and the three of us, Reuben and our rucksacks filled most of the space in the small room. I had brought my Scarp1 tent along and decided to pitch it outside. If we had all slept in the bothy we would probably have had to of engaged in some synchronised spooning, something that I was not particularly keen on!
Outside I was disappointed to note that every single flat bit of ground had been ruined by inconsiderate moles leaving piles of earth. The small patches suitable for a pitch were covered in thistles hidden in the lush grass. Thankfully there was a mole hill and thistle free patch on the other side of the river and I pitched the Scarp1 with excellent views down the valley. The bridge across the river is a DIY scaffolding affair with a metal lattice surface, as impossible for a dog to cross as a cattle grid. Poor old Reuben had the indignity of being carried across squirming in his harness, clearly not keen on being hoisted high above the river.
I returned to the bothy with Reuben for an excellent evening of eating and drinking in front of the fire. Once the coal was burning brightly the room soon heated up and Reuben was quick to bag a spot as close as possible. Bothy nights are much more preferable to being in individual tents when backpacking as a group, especially in winter. With space to relax and be sociable it is easy to put the world to rights in front of a bothy fire.
Keith removed a special treat from his rucksack later in the evening, a box of premium sausages for him and Martin and a box of veggie ones for me. With the fire kicking out the heat he set about frying them over the open flame, the bothy soon filling once again with the welcoming scent of food. With the sausages sizzling away, myself and Martin took ourselves outside to experiment taking night shots with our respective new cameras.
I have to admit that I particularly enjoyed running around whilst wildly spinning a torch in my hands, quickly getting giddy and breathless. All the flashing of lights must have been pretty conspicuous as after a short while an estate vehicle came down the track before returning across the dark moor. It may have been coincidence or they may have wanted to check out what was going on. Play time was soon over when we were called back in for bothy cooked sausages.
Later as I left the bothy to retire to my tent with Reuben the grass under foot was crunchy with frost. The crossing of the slippery bridge was tricky in the dark whilst carrying a squirming dog and I was pleased to get across without incident. The fly of the tent was stiff with ice as I unzipped it to deposit the rest of my gear inside. Reuben decided that he would much rather be back in the nice cosy bothy and proceeded to sneak off to sit forlornly next to the bridge he was unable to cross.
Despite the cold it was a fantastic night for star-gazing, the earlier clouds having departed to leave a crisp star filled sky. I could clearly make out the shapes of the surrounding hills, the higher peaks covered in snow. Wrapped up in my down jacket I enjoyed messing around with my camera attempting some night shots. It is only now I wonder how I would have appeared that night to the casual observer?
It was then with great excitement that I discovered the ability to write using the beam from my torch. Unfortunately my inner child took over and I produced some far from mature pieces of work. This is the only one that I can safely publish on my blog without causing offence!
Actually I did spend a great deal of time attempting to write the word ‘Blog’ but was unsuccessful time after time. You have to do mirror writing and my brain failed on each attempt to get the letter g the right way round. I now have clearly defined aims and objectives for my next wild camping trip.
The night was cold and I did not remove my down jacket after getting in my sleeping bag. Reuben snuggled up close wearing his fleece nightwear and with the luxury of both a foam mat and blanket to lay on.
I woke up just as the sun was flooding the valley with light. Sitting up in the Scarp1 I got an impromptu shower as I brushed my head on the inner, the long cold and still night had let to copious condensation. I was quick to exit, moving about to warm myself up.
Reuben however was more than happy to remain in the tent, the first rays hitting it providing a small amount of warmth.
It was one of those perfect wild camping mornings and I spent a couple of hours relaxing in and around the tent, brewing up and eating breakfast. I did not want to unnecessarily put Reuben though the bridge ordeal so I did not return to the bothy to be sociable. It was good to simply be outside.
As I was packing up Martin and Keith left the bothy and came over for a chat. They were on their way onto the high hills where they would seek out a wild camp later that evening. However I had to return to work the following day so we went our separate ways. You can read Martins account of their trip here.
Rather than retrace my steps back to the car I decided to try to cobble together a circular route taking in a waterfall I have long wanted to visit. Walking down the valley next to the river a quad bike approached, its driver clad in camouflage. I got a quick flutter of nervousness as I was just inside a doggie exclusion zone due to the area being a grouse moor. Thankfully he simply gave me a wave and drove on past without stopping.
The waterfall itself was tucked away in a little visited side valley and I would imagine it gets few visitors. It was a slippery scramble down to the base of the falls but worthy of the detour.
After crossing the river and a steep climb, a great little path contoured the hillside giving panoramic views down the valley. I spotted plenty of promising wild camping spots next to the river as it snaked its way downhill, a valley to return to I think.
The view from one spot especially reminded me of the Monadhliath, high and wild moors stretching off as far as the eye could see. A truly wonderful spot.
The dilapidated farm buildings had been watching over us from a distance whilst we were at the bothy. On closer inspection they occupy a perfect location in terms of a view, high above a river leading into the heart of the North Pennines. The isolation and harsh weather conditions however must have been its downfall and the numerous buildings were in a sorry state of repair. If I came into some money I would love to be able to restore the place to its former glory. I did however enjoy the scene of dereliction and melancholia.
The map showed that the moor was trackless so I was happy to follow a narrow grassy trod through the grass up to the nearby trig point. The earlier taste of spring was blown away on a cold wind, the higher surrounding hills still covered in their mantle of white. The unmarked path continued for another mile of so across what would have otherwise been difficult ground. The views north into Northumberland appeared unlimited in the clear air.
I was soon back on the track I had walked up the previous day and out of the wind it felt like spring once more, the whitewashed cottages across the valley giving it a homely appearance.
In the sunshine Garrigill appeared as a perfect English country village, sheltered from the austere moors above. Reuben caused a few raised eyebrows and comments with his pack. One woman being particularly impressed that he had carried his own gear for a night on the hills. It was with some sadness that I drove home.