It was early evening as we passed through Kirkby Stephen and drove up to the summit of the moorland road. A good weather forecast meant that the planned two-day backpack taking in High Cup Nick was on. However before setting off on that we decided on a quick overnighter a short distance from the parked car. The reason for this? This was my backpacking partner Rae’s first backpack for several months after being diagnosed with plantar faciatis, a painful condition that has had her out of action for a while now. Secondly the weekend was to be Reubens first ever backpack and night outside. Thirdly I had a new shelter to play with, my MLD Trailstar. With a combination of factors coming into play it was good to know that the security of a vehicle was close by and packed in the boot a tried and tested tent.
A gentle breeze blew across the grassland as we headed across Nateby Common, Reuben excitedly hoovering the ground with his nose. It was pleasantly warm, the sun still high in the July sky. Crossing the shoulder of Tailbridge Hill the ground was covered in a fragmented limestone pavement. We made a short descent towards the hidden depths of Rigg Beck and found a patch of rough but reasonably flat grass. Although less than a kilometre away from the road, the rest of the world felt a million miles away. It would be unlikely that anyone would stumble across our camp in the next twelve hours.
It can take a while to get your head around setting up a new shelter but the MLD Trailstar is intuitive. Within minutes I had managed to get a good taught pitch, not perfect but I was pleased non the less. The main problem with it is finding a patch of ground that is big enough, the footprint is simply huge. Water was fetched out of a nearby stream and with camp chores done I sat around taking in our rather lovely surroundings.
The sun started to set directly behind the summit of Tailbridge hill and as soon as it disappeared out of sight from camp I headed up hill with Reuben. I had a feeling that something special was about to happen when the hills behind me started to take on a pink hue. Reaching the summit the panorama was simply breathtaking. The Eden valley was laid out in front of me with the distant Lake District as a backdrop. The sun was making its final descent towards the horizon and putting on a fiery display as it did so. I sat by the summit Cairn with Reuben for a good half an hour and watched the spectacle whilst snapping away with the camera.
A chill breeze and a rumbling tummy soon got the better of me and we headed on down back to Rae and our camp. It was good to sit in the gathering twilight to cook and chat, an outcrop of limestone making a good bench.
Retiring to my shelter with Reuben was a completely different experience for me. Firstly it was the first time that I have not slept in a fully enclosed tent, and secondly it was my first time sharing a shelter with a 22kg bundle of fur! I put on Reubens fetching jacket and laid out a fleece sleeping bag liner on an old roll mat, he hopped on and I zipped him in, only his head sticking out. For security his lead was pegged into the ground, I did not want him wandering off during the night.
I settled into my sleeping bag, enjoying the experience of being able to lay there and watch the lights twinkle down in the valley, I quickly drifted off. I was soon rudely awakened by a low growling and what can only be described as a wuff, Reuben very rarely goes woof. I turned on my torch to find him sitting at the entrance, staring out into the darkness. It was a bit unsettling as I could not see anything out there, I called to him but he ignored me, intent on guarding our shelter.
Day 1 – 7.9 miles with 590 metres ascent
I was awoken with a wet, smelly lick and opened my eyes to find Reuben standing directly above me. He had obviously been woken by the small army of midges that had invaded our shelter. I was soon up and dressed before looking at my watch, it was not even 7am. I made coffee and breakfast, aware that it was probably too early to wake Rae who was safely tucked up in her Akto. The midges were few in number but pretty annoying, not enough however to spoil a peaceful morning on the moors.
Rae was duly woken, rucksacks packed and we were soon back at the car ready to drive to Dufton for the start of our short backpack. To save Rae a painful slog along tarmac with her plantar faciatis I dropped her off just outside Murton so that she could sit for a while in the sun. I drove on to park by the lovely village green in Dufton, where I shouldered my pack and headed back the way I had driven. It was a long hot slog in the sun and it seemed much further than the map suggests. It suddenly dawned on me that I could have left my pack with Rae, lightweight would have been the way to go in the heat. My pack was heavier than normal as I was carrying extra doggie related paraphernalia, Reuben oblivious to this as he happily trotted along side. Picking up Rae we headed through Murton, another idyllic village and found a handy bench just before the track climbing up Murton Pike. Lunch was consumed in the sun, the peak above us looking steep and high, I was not looking forward to the climb.
The only way was up, however the track climbed at an easy gradient and we soon gained height. My water rations were running out, I was careful to keep Reuben hydrated but this had been at my expense. I was feeling increasingly tired and slightly sick, I am not designed for backpacking in hot weather. At the col below Murton Pike we lounged on the grass taking in the extensive views.
I had planned to climb the conical peak but could not summon the effort to do so. I needed water so we set off higher up the track before branching off across country towards Trundale Gill. The walking itself was very agreeable but all I could think about was glasses of cold water! We were soon above the deep trench of the upland valley, impressive as it snaked its way down towards the Eden Valley.
Alas from our vantage point we could see that it was bone dry, the bottom covered in sheep nibbled grass. It was obvious that water rarely flows down it from this high up, even though the map shows its source at least a kilometre above us. Feeling increasing dejected I led the way down so that we could cross onto the opposite hillside. There was a feint sound of running water and I spotted a green flush down a steep bank. A bit of digging around and we managed to access a wonderful spring at the point it exited the hillside. It was so cold that our bottles ran with condensation as the freezing water came into contact with the warm air. It was sheer bliss to be able to drink deeply and I felt that I could relax once again, who would have thought water would be so hard to come by on these usually wet and boggy hills?
With a water source located we thought it prudent to find a pitch within a short distance, just in case all the other streams had dried up. A steep climb towards a cairn on the horizon and we found the perfect spot. All around was rough grassland with the exception of a square of flat sheep nibbled grass, just the right size for two tents. It was perfect and we soon had our tents up, doors facing the spectacular view. We were just above the 2000ft contour and there was a stiff breeze blowing, perfect for keeping the midges at bay, if anything we were worried about camping in such an exposed spot. At that point in time it was simply one of the most perfect pitches I have found.
After fetching more beautifully clear, ice-cold water I sorted my shelter out and sat in the sun for a while admiring the views. Murton Fell was behind us and is the only hill in the surrounding area I have not yet climbed. Leaving Rae to enjoy camp, Reuben and I headed off towards the summit, admiring the views back towards Murton pike.
The summit itself is flat, featureless and pretty boggy. There is however a great feeling of space and sky up there, endless moorland stretching off to the horizon.
Stopping at the cairn I realised that the air was now completely still, within seconds I was covered in midges. The magical spell was now broken so we headed back the way that we had come to escape the troublesome beasts. Walking through the peat groughs the amount of midges were an impressive, although worrying sight. In areas sheltered from even the lightest breeze, huge black clouds of them rose like smoke, dancing in the now humid air. The hillside was alive with their buzzing, not the zzzzz you get when one buzzes in your ear but a constant high-pitched hum. I quickened my pace to the wall that is the boundary between the elevated bog and the grassland on which we had pitched. Thankfully they disappeared as a gentle breeze was blowing over the escarpment.
I walked over to Rae who was lounging in her tent to tell her of the midge hell on the hill. With perfect timing as I got to her the breeze there suddenly died as well. Like a scene from a horror movie clouds of the little devils rose, driving her inside and me into a flapping demon. The next hour or so was simply hell, midge net on I paced up and down the hillside, to stand still for more than a few seconds was too much to bear. Reuben was frantic and ran up and down with his face in the grass, like a demented canine snow plough. Another splendid sunset failed to impress me at the time, it was mostly hidden behind a thin veil of a midge net.
I cursed the fact that I did not have a proper tent that night, I really though I would be ok once high on the hill tops. Lesson number one, always take a bug proof shelter with you in August. No matter where you are going in the UK or how high you plan to camp, you may regret it if you don’t…………
Thankfully just as darkness was approaching the temperature suddenly dropped and a slight breeze picked up. The midges fell as quickly as they had risen. Once again our camping spot was the idyll that it had originally been.
Day 2 – 6.8 miles with 190 metres ascent
After a day of excitement Reuben had a wuff free night and I managed a good sleep. I did however wake up with most of my legs out of the shelter at one point in the night, the pitch was not as flat as I originally thought! Worries about the possibility of abandoning camp in the early morning were unfounded as dawn brought a strong breeze with murky cloud and drizzle. The views from our high perch had vanished and it looked like there was a risk of us being enveloped in hill fog which was already drifting over the higher hills. Packing up my gear I found a lovely spider which sadly had perished underneath my sleeping bag, its legs covered by some sort of mite?
The contrast in the weather from the day before meant that we did not hang around for long once packed up. Staying on the same contour line we crossed a wall by a ladder stile and got our first view of High Cup Nick.
It has got to be one of the best geological features in the country and I always end up awestruck whenever I see it. If you have never visited before I highly recommend approaching it from the bleak featureless moors to the east. That way the ground suddenly plunges away at you feet. However from our line of approach we got the pleasure of walking along the entire southern rim.
From the head of the valley, the scale is so large that it is impossible to fit it all in to a photo! We stopped for a while and chatted to two Pennine Way walkers who were heading from north to south. One of them enjoys it so much that he was on about his 5th end to end walk.
To camp here and watch the sun set would be spectacular, especially if the sun was aligned down the valley. Sadly the murk was not allowing us views across to the Lake District and it was rather chilly standing around.
Climbing grassy slopes towards Narrowgate Beacon we got a good impression of just how extensive the moors are in this area, they continue unbroken by roads for miles. This area is probably as wild as it gets south of the Border, no jagged peaks, just huge open spaces.
I was aware that although open access land, the area to the north excluded dogs. Not for conservation mind, but strictly for the preservation of grouse which were coming close to the annual pop of the gun. Our onward route just about skirted this exclusion zone as we headed north to the trig point on Blackstone edge. A narrow path along the ill-defined edge has developed and gave easy walking along the escarpment. Reuben has now sussed out that whenever there is a trig point he will be requested to pose on top of it!
We had planned to stop for lunch at the shooting box near Great Rundale Tarn but realised this was in the doggie exclusion zone. Not wanting to risk a telling off we continued along the edge past numerous cairns looking for a sheltered spot.
The deep valley of Great Rundale Beck provided a bit of respite from the nagging wind, enough to get a stove out and a brew on. Soft mossy grass provided an ideal spot to lounge around for a while, a last bit of the wilds before heading to civilisation.
Great Rundale Beck has been ravished by mining, the hillside scarred and littered with the remains of the mines. It is a fascinating place to walk down, although I would imagine it must have been much more beautiful before it was touched by the hand of man.
The vehicle track brought us swiftly back towards civilisation, the cone of Dufton Pike blocking the entrance to the valley. It is a cracking little hill, well worth the steep climb to its pointy summit. Not this time however with bellies rumbling and a thirst needing to be quenched we were soon back in the rural idyll of Dufton.
This is the sort of village that I dream of living in, about as English as it gets with stone cottages surrounding a lovely green. A pretty and welcoming place but with huge desolate moors peeking over the trees. I sat and daydreamed as we devoured sandwiches outside the cafe.