If I had to use just one word to describe today’s walk from Dufton to Garrigill along the Pennine Way it would have to be “gruelling”. There was a point when I didn’t think I was going to be able to make it all the way to the end. I stood gasping in the lee of one of the huge cairns on the edge of the Cross Fell plateau, feeling just about done in, wind howling round either side of the tall, thin pillar and reluctant to step back out into it. Common sense told me it was easier to carry on of course, but if someone had come by on a quad bike at that point I’d have paid him handsomely to take me down, in either direction.
I was woken by the alarm at 4 am and was in the car and heading north 20 mins later, toast in hand and thermal mug in the centre console. I needed to be in Bardon Mill train station by 7:30 to catch the train to Appleby, where I’d left the Pennine Way a couple of weeks ago. Bardon Mill is the closest station to Hotbank Crags, the place at which the Way heads north away from Hadrians Wall into the forests. It’s the last useable train station on the Pennine Way and leaves me with a problem for the last leg into Kirk Yetholm, but that’s in the future and a problem for another day.
At Bardon Mill I caught the train to Carlisle where I killed 45 minutes in a warm and comfy lounge before catching the Settle-Carlisle train to Appleby. I loved listening to the announcement as the guy called out all the wonderful stops along the line; Dent, Garsdale, Ribblehead, Horton and the rest. I was off the train before any of them of course, but not before I got a good look at the mountain I was about to cross. Cross Fell was covered in cloud (of course) and looked impressively huge and ominous from the carriage. The surrounding countryside was mostly sunlit though, which offered a crumb of comfort in the hope that it would be intense enough to burn off the cloud over the course of the morning.
I’d arranged for a taxi to collect me at Appleby station. Rather than waste an hour of daylight walking the 4 miles into Dufton I decided the £10 would be well spent. I wouldn’t be leaving Dufton much before 10am as it was, I didn’t think I could get away with another hour on top of that. I’m equipped for walking off the hills in the dark of course, as should any walker who is out and about at this time of the year, but I’d rather limit the time spent in the dark if possible. I expected to walk the final 4 or 5 miles down the Corpse Road after the sun had set, but at least navigation wouldn’t be an issue, it’s impossible to go wrong along that track. I could have worn a bag on my head and still managed it.
The taxi driver was used to ferrying Pennine Wayfarers up and down the route locally and told me of a couple of funny incidents. I made a silent vow not to add to his repertoire. He didn’t try to hide the fact that he thought I was tapped, walking up Cross Fell at this time of year, but he dropped me in the village and chugged off in his coughing old minibus.
I started out in long sleeve baselayer and my Paramo Alta II jacket and for a while I was too warm, I opened all the vents and had the zip open too, conscious that sweating too much on the ascent would leave me with a soaking baselayer and coat when I needed them to be warm later. It was all in vain though, as I’m horribly out of shape and the long steady ascent, with several steep bits soon had me gasping and sweating profusely. The sun was out over the Lakes as I could see when I stopped for a look over my shoulder occasionally, the hill ahead was still black and cloud covered though. It didn’t look like it was going to burn off as I’d hoped. By the time I reached Knock Fell, the first summit of the ascent, it was getting cold. I was up in the cloud layer and there were ice puddles in the path and the grass was frosted and turning white. The wind was increasing steadily as I gained height and I was forced to stop and add a layer. I instantly felt better, but the ascent was tiring and I was stopping regularly to catch my breath.
I soon reached the radar station on Great Dunn Fell and I needed to stop, I was feeling knackered on each ascent. The mist was thick and swirling and just as the last time I was here, I couldn’t see the golf ball dome from the perimeter fence. I found a low point in the fence and climbed over, hoping to find some shelter amongst the buildings, but there was nothing to be had, so I set my sights on the small stone shelter on the summit of the next hill, seeming to remember it served me well last time I walked this way.
The wind was ferocious now and my Kestrel device told me it was 25mph and the wind chill was about -10C. As I walked up onto the plateau of Little Dunn Fell, that increased again and by the time I ducked into the shelter on the summit, it was steady at 36 mph and the wind chill was an eye watering -19C!
I didn’t hang around, even out of the wind I could feel my baselayer and windshirt beneath my coat, getting cold against my skin and I know that’s a great way to develop hypothermia (or hyperthermia I can never remember which is which), so I pushed on into the wind. It was blowing into my face now as I turned mostly west to climb the steep face of Cross Fell. It was the wind that almost did me in and left me gasping behind the cairn on the top of the summit plateau. I was warm enough in my layers and I still had a couple more in my pack if I needed them, but it was making the ascent ten times harder than it should have been.
I eventually made it to the highest point in England outside the Lakes, probably the coldest place in England too! The mist was dense and I would have struggled to exit the summit correctly without the GPS, the cairns being too far apart to see them easily. But make it I did and the relief was almost instant. Turning my back on the wind and heading downhill, I was soon partially shielded from the worst and I was soon down to the good track that leads to Gregs Hut and then Garrigill.
I stopped at the hut for a few minutes, I had reached it in almost exactly the time I had expected to. I’d allowed for 4 hours up and 3 hours down, each section is about 8 miles long, the summit of Cross Fell being almost exactly half way. I had considered stopping in Gregs Hut when I’d been planning this section, but concerns about fuel, not wanting to carry it in and not knowing if there’d be any here when I arrived had scuppered that plan. I’m glad too! There was a bit of coal in the bucket but not enough to last the evening and it would have been a cold and miserable evening without a fire. I pushed on.
The Corpse Road is long. The guide book says you’ll hate it. It really does seem to just go on for ever. Every corner you turn the road just stretches ahead into infinity. I stuck my headphones in under my wooly hat tuned into an audio book and slogged it out. It was still cold, the wind at my back for the most part and often shielded by the banks of the path, but my feet were soon complaining and my legs felt heavy and unresponsive. I really am too out of shape for the Pennine Way, but once I get today done, the rest should be easier.
It started to get dark as I entered the final mile of the track, but I arrived in the village before I needed the head torch. My B&B owner is out tonight, but she’d forewarned me and she’d left a message on the door, and I’m now showered and changed and feeing a whole lot better. It’s only 6:30 but I can already feel my eyes getting heavy, and I’ll probably be asleep before 9pm!
I have no phone signal, but there is WiFi and thanks to my BT WiFi app I can logon and post this tonight.
Easier day tomorrow, only 11 miles and it’s mostly flat and low down, so if the gales do come, as forecast then I should be OK.