Day 15 - Byreness to Kirk Yetholm
Pennine Way Day 15, via Chew Green, Windy Gyle, Clennell Street, the Cheviot and the Schill.
I jumped out of bed after just a few thuds of the heart with the alarm clock’s wail. From all the tales I’d heard of the Cheviots — from journals, books and other walkers I’d met on the way — I’d been anxiously thinking about this day for weeks. And here it was, our own Chevy chase. Could we really do these two huge legs in one day?
At the first hint of dawn, dad and I quietly gathered our packs, sticks and maps, and set off down the road to the little church in Byreness to rejoin the Way. My apprehensiveness was lessened somewhat by the clear brightening skies — the weather vowed to be kind at least. We turned right off the road and with early freshness attacked the first abrupt climb out of the valley floor, giving us 400 metres of height quickly and getting our legs moving.
With the forest now falling below us to the left, we ventured north but quickly met some of the soggiest ground I’d met in the whole walk, with no boards or stones to offer assistance. It was frustrating to spend so much time moving sideways in search of viable routes and often having to turn back when we came to dead ends. Dad was finding it a bit harder than me to traverse the bogs, and after a while we realised that the plastic skirt around the spike on his stick had broken off — so while I was finding small patches of grass to pole vault from, he was sinking straight in to the mud.
More Ministry of Defence signs warned us not to touch any military debris we might come across as we aimed for some ancient military debris: the Roman marching camp of Chew Green (A). The camp was a stopover on Dere Street, the colossal highway ordered by Governor Agricola to connect Eboracum (modern-day York) with the shores of the Firth of Forth.
We followed this Roman road north now deeper into the wilderness of the border hills. We were making excellent time moving at top hiking speed, and I worried we might tire ourselves out while full of adrenaline.
We passed a mountain refuge hut before climbing up to Lamb Hill and then Beefstand Hill (B) at 562 metres. At this point, dad and I both started to feel pain — me once again in my knee and dad in a hip. After weighing up our options, we chomped down the painkillers we’d brought in the hope that they’d keep us going at this pace. It meant we wouldn’t have any to call on later, however.
The imposing peak of Windy Gyle (C) lies right on the border between England and Scotland, marked by a fence that we tracked right to the top, where stands Russell’s Cairn. Centuries ago, the wardens of the violent borderlands met upon these empty windy peaks to negotiate truces. At once such meeting on this very spot, discussion turned sour and Lord Russell was violently murdered in cold blood.
The Guide remarks
Desolate… with violent and sinister associations, Windy Gyle is one of the atmospheric highlights of The Pennine Way.
For the first time, we crossed over the border — I had walked to Scotland. For now we didn’t advance far into the country as the Way follows the border fence closely, crossing back and forth. We dropped along a ridge to meet another ancient road, Clennell Street (D). We were making excellent progress — my target for this half-way point was one o’clock and it was only noon. The Guide recommends stopping here if there are fewer than six hours of daylight remaining, as it is possible to walk several kilometres north to a track where a car pick up can be arranged. From here on in, there would be no short escape before Yetholm.
We spotted several wild goats out on the heather-covered slopes on our way to Kings Seat, and up to meet the point where the route branches to the summit of the Cheviot (E). Having gazed at that shadowy humped hill getting closer over the past few days, and with the weather sunny, we saw no reason not to take the five kilometre detour.
Soon we wondered if we’d made the right choice, as the wind got fierce and the flat, long rise to the top was entirely covered with the deep, dark mire. This was a really tough stomp. Reaching the top, we sheltered behind the cairn to regroup and chomp down sandwiches and biscuits. The views from the summit aren’t the best because it’s such a domed hill, but catching sight of the North Sea out towards Bamburgh and Seahouses—where we’d spent a lovely beach holiday when I was small—was exciting.
We didn’t hang around long up there before stomping our way back down through the bog. After wasting a lot of time on the way up trying our best to avoid the deeper pools, we realised the futility and just marched as straight as we could on the way down, which led to some comically deep drops into mud.
Arriving back at the trunk path, we dived down the sheer slope west to a second refuge hut, taking a curious look in through the window. We scaled a high border ridge with stunning vistas to the left and right, struggling our way to the top of The Shill (F). Though lower than The Cheviot by a couple of hundred metres, this summit offered a splendid full panorama of the hill range under crisp blue skies. We paused to breathe it all in. This, we thought, was the last big climb of the way, and it deserved to be savoured.
On the descent from the Schill, dad and I were both really suffering from our injuries, and completely out of painkillers. My knee was agony, and dad’s hip was the same. We were limping, slowing down and running out of energy. At the bottom, the path forks and two options are available for the final section into Kirk Yetholm: appropriately, the high road or the low road. The latter is suggested if the weather is bad or daylight is running out. As appealing as the low route was with the pain we were in, I hadn’t come all this way to miss out hills at the very end. The high road it was.
After the good work we’d done on the climbs so far, that of White Law was the hardest all day. The vertical trudge seemed to last all afternoon — we just couldn’t get to the top. At this point we were walking quite apart, dad needing to walk a little slower. I had been practicing for two weeks, remember, and dad had matched me all day on the longest and hardest leg, which was impressive!
From White Law we were finally, finally, finally on the descent to Kirk Yetholm, between lower, greener hills, across the ford of another trickling burn and onto a tarmac road: the home straight. Of course, this being the Pennine Way, it was still another mile or so on the hard road and now we were seriously limping, just trying to drag our tired legs to the finish line.
Early evening light poured into the valley, and I felt a strange mix of relief, apprehension, pain, pride and some sadness. The adventure was nearly over. Here it was, Kirk Yetholm, the mystical name I’d murmured to myself so many times over the last fortnight. I thought back to the moment I stepped off a train in Edale, rested my foot on a dry stone wall, adjusted the straps on my backpack and took a first step which led me all the way here.
Staggering down into the village, we spotted my mum, who’d arrived in the car with perfect timing to meet us. The official end of the Pennine Way is the bar of the Border Hotel. Exhausted and happy, we limped into the dark pub to procure celebratory pints. We carried them back to enjoy at a bench in the warm Scottish evening sun, and mum surprised me with a bottle of champagne. Bitter, bubbly, family and the joy of pushing my battered and blistered feet into that cool grass — glorious!
I felt a bit strange for a few days afterwards. I’d completed the toughest physical challenge I’d ever given myself, which felt great, but what to do now? For the past two weeks I’d known exactly what I needed to do all day long: walk. Now I was back to real life, where I constantly had to make decisions about how to spend my time. And that is hard, isn’t it?
Except, I realised, that I didn’t need to make these decisions all the time; I was just doing it because I’m that kind of a worrier. And I realised it’s a huge waste of time. I can get far more and far better things done if I stop prevaricating, procrastinating and questioning myself constantly. I should just see what I ought to do and then resolve to do it. Along with the incredible vistas I’ll remember for a lifetime, that’s probably the most important thing I took from two weeks of silent reflection on the beautiful hills of northern England. Now I’m rested and recovered, I can’t wait to get back up there.
It’s a cliché, but I couldn’t have done this walk without my mum and dad. Their pick-ups and drop-offs made the logistics possible, and I borrowed nearly all the equipment I needed from them. They even bought me the new boots I walked in. So this is a big thank you to them. Thanks to my grandad Ronnie, who supplied me with two weeks’ supply of Capt. Scott’s Expedition Biscuits. I had to survive on those for a day and a half before I got my stove working. Thanks to Jim, who was great company for two fine days to break up the solitary walking.
I doff my walking hat to Tom Stephenson (whose idea the Pennine Way was), National Trails for keeping it well maintained and the ramblers of the 1932 mass trespass of Kinder Scout¹, who fought for our right to roam this beautiful island.
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