My 14th Day on the Pennine Way (and my penultimate day!) wasn’t much to write home about. For all intents and purposes, it was a fairly standard day. 15-miles, modest ascent (which is to say- not much), mostly easy walking through farms and moorland and down a long forestry track.
The night before I’d stocked up on food at the grocery store in Bellingham, so I had plenty of supplies for snacks and lunch. I also stopped at a bakery around the corner from my bunkhouse before leaving town, where I bought a blueberry muffin that I carefully wrapped and tucked into my pack for a mid-morning snack.
The walking might not have been difficult, but it was another day where I felt like I was dragging. I couldn’t explain it because the day before had been one of glorious and strong walking. Maybe it had been a few too many miles with a little too much elevation, but I had eaten a good dinner and gotten an even better night’s sleep, so I couldn’t really explain my sluggish feeling.
(Or, maybe, this is just long-distance walking. Some days are strong and some days are a struggle, and it’s simply the result of so many miles, day after day after day. Somewhere on this blog I’d written about a theory, how every strong day seemed to be followed by a weaker day. This seemed to happen a few times on the Pennine Way, so maybe there’s something to this?)
But, as usual, there was nothing to do but keep walking, and so I did. Then, in the middle of a great stretch of empty moorland, I felt desperate for a break. I looked around for a place to sit and didn’t see much, but finally went off the path a few steps where I’d spotted a small rock in a very tiny clearing. I dropped my pack and dug out the blueberry muffin, along with a cold bottle of coffee frappuccino from Starbucks (a nice treat from last night’s grocery run!).
The muffin and coffee didn’t erase my fatigue completely but they certainly helped, and with a little more energy I continued on. But then, shortly after the break, I managed to get myself off track. I’d reached a section of open land and was following a very faint, barely discernible path through the brush. After awhile, the path just disappeared (or maybe I’d stopped paying attention?). My guidebook’s map didn’t help and so I just headed up a small hill, hoping something would look right.
I walked and walked, ignoring the gut feeling that was telling me I was wandering further and further from the Pennine Way. I thought I was heading towards a road in the distance- which I thought I saw on my map- but it actually wasn’t a road or wasn’t the right one in any case- and so I had to admit defeat and turn back around and retrace my steps. When I made it back to the point where I’d gotten confused I of course saw a Pennine Way marker and so I got myself back on the path. I probably lost at least 30 minutes, maybe more, to my mistake, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as those additional 4-miles of mistakes I’d made on the very first day of walking.
More walking and then I saw a man approaching me from the opposite direction, decked out in hiking gear. Much further down the trail was another man, and even from my distance I could tell that he was moving slowly.
“Hello!” the first man greeted me, with a deep voice and a big smile.
We started talking, and I learned that he and his friend had just started the Pennine Way, but were walking north to south. “We started two days ago,” the north-south hiker told me. “It’s been glorious so far, but my friend has really bad blisters and I don’t know if he’ll be able to continue.”
He marveled that I was walking alone, that I was almost at the end of my journey, and that I’d be doing the Byrness to Kirk Yetholm stretch in one day. I tried to think of some advice I could give him, some helpful hint or important information but how can you reduce a walk like this into just the essentials? Besides, these men probably already knew the most essential thing: that it’s about the walking, nothing more and nothing less, and that you have to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
When his friend caught up they both carried on, smiling and waving as I headed off into the moors. “Congratulations on the end of your journey!” they called after me.
I walked and I walked and about an hour later, I came across two more hikers, this time two young women, also coming from the opposite direction! They, too, had just started the Pennine Way two days before, and were thrilled and exhausted and daunted and excited. We had a very similar conversation to the one I’d had with the two men, but I added that I’d just met these other hikers, that they were very kind, and that they should keep an eye out for them in Bellingham.
And this time I sent them off with encouraging words. “Enjoy this hike,” I said to them. “Enjoy every moment, even the hard ones.”
I climbed a big hill, I walked through rough grass, I entered an area my guidebook called “new forestry” which is a nice way of describing a landscape that looked like the apocalypse hit. The land was dry and cracked, trees were razed and for a long, long stretch all I could see were dead branches and stumps and there was no movement, no sound, no wind and no shade from the sun. I was still dragging and needed to find a spot to have lunch, and for the past several hours I’d been dreaming about a green patch of grass in the shade but instead I was walking through dead earth. It was so hot, and I was tired.
I found a big tree stump and threw down my pack and took off my shoes and sat on the stump and ate my lunch but it was uncomfortable, and unpleasant.
And then, because it’s all there really is to do, I kept walking. Soon the path spit me out onto the forestry track, a long paved road that would lead me to Blakehopeburnhaugh. At first it was nice to walk on flat, even ground, but very quickly I started despising the road. There was no wind, the sun was beating down and baking my skin, the road was covered in small rocks so it made easy and quick walking difficult. The road was dusty and if I stopped for a moment- to adjust my pack or take a sip of water- big horse flies would land on my arms and legs and bite.
I was walking like this for about a mile when I heard a sound somewhere behind me. It was a deep, low rumbling, but it seemed to be growing louder. I stopped, turned around, and squinted down the path. At first I couldn’t seen anything but then I saw a swirl, a great swirling dirty cloud coming up from the road and I realized that the cloud was attached to a truck. It was a lumber lorry and it seemed to be barreling down the road, gaining speed as it approached, the cloud of dust growing bigger, and bigger. My guidebook had warned me about this. “If you’re lucky you won’t be covered in dust by a speeding timber lorry!”
Well, this wasn’t my day, and I wasn’t lucky. The shoulder of the road was narrow and it dropped steeply off into the woods and I looked ahead and behind and I couldn’t find a spot where I could tuck myself away. So I moved as far into the shoulder as I could, turned my back to the truck and braced myself for its arrival.
And because sometimes the only thing you can do is to try to find humor in an unhappy situation, I decided to take a photo as the truck sped past. “Maybe I’ll look at this later and laugh,” I thought to myself, and so here it is, the truck just visible in the background and the dust that is about to coat me, head to toe.
You’d better believe the horse flies were biting as I stopped to let the truck past too. And then, about 10 minutes later, another truck approached but at least this one was moving slower, and I got covered by marginally less dust the second time around.
I’m not sure how much longer it took me to get into Byrness, but once I was finally off the forestry track the walking became easier, the views were better, and I was relieved to finally be close to my lodgings.
But this wasn’t meant to be a good day. I’ve struggled with knowing how to write about this part of my journey, thinking I would just skip it all together, say that I arrived in Byrness, settled into my bunkhouse, ate a good meal, went to bed. I guess I don’t want to be too negative or critical, but this was part of my journey, and I had a bad experience with where I stayed in Byrness.
Aside from a campsite, there’s really only one place to stay in the tiny village that’s 26-miles before the end of the Pennine Way. The next 26-miles are mostly through an empty, wild landscape, and the only options for breaking up the day are to wild camp, or to stay in the Bed and Breakfast in Byrness for two nights and be shuttled back and forth.
I’d planned to stay in the B&B but when I was making reservations I discovered that the owners also operated a bunkhouse. “This will be perfect!” I’d thought. So I made my reservation and assumed that all would be fine. I was going to do the final 26-miles all in one go, so I wouldn’t need the assistance of a ride back and forth from my ending/starting point.
My guidebook also raved about this place, and I think that’s one reason that my experience stung so much. The guidebook didn’t mention the bunkhouse, but said, “They also allow walkers to camp for free if they eat a meal in their restaurant, campers have access to toilet and shower facilities… they also have a shop (4-10pm) selling a wide range of foods. (The lodging) is designed around walkers and campers and is highly recommended for anyone camping or hostelling along the Way; nothing is too much trouble for the owners.“
I arrived, had to wait for the bunkhouse to be opened, but eventually was greeted by one of the owners. He led me to my room and then I asked about having dinner that night and that’s when things took a turn. A look crossed his face and his smile disappeared. “You’re supposed to have brought food with you,” he said. “That’s why we have a kitchen here.”
“Oh, I thought I could have a meal in the restaurant.” And then I apologized, several times, telling him that I was really sorry to have misunderstood. He just kept shaking his head, mumbling something under his breath. Then he looked at me and said, “This is why we’re closing the bunkhouse. It’s only open for a few more weeks. Too many people arrive here without food and expect to eat in the restaurant.” He left, saying that he would ask his wife about the possibility of a meal.
I’m sure some of this was probably my fault, because it had happened before, when I had to wait several hours to be served at the Inn in Dufton. So maybe, given that I wasn’t staying at the B&B, I should have known that I couldn’t eat in the restaurant without a reservation. But because they were owned by the same people, because my guidebook raved about their hospitality, I hadn’t even given it a second thought.
I ended up getting to eat in the restaurant, but the rest of the evening was awful. I’m a sensitive person, and so when the husband and wife barely looked at me for the rest of the night, never smiled, only talked to me when necessary, but were so kind and accommodating to their B&B guests, it really stung. I wouldn’t have eaten in their restaurant unless I didn’t really, really need to. The last 26-mile stage of the Pennine Way is a very difficult one, it would be the single most difficult day of walking I’d ever done. I was already nervous for it, and I couldn’t imagine how I would survive on a dinner of snacks that I could cobble together from what I was carrying.
And when they heard that I was doing all 26-miles in one day, they acted like I was a foolish girl who didn’t know what she was doing. The husband relented a bit and brought me an empty water bottle, telling me I needed to carry way more water than I thought I needed to. Other than agreeing to make me dinner, it was the only kindness I received. But even that act indicated that he thought I was unprepared and would have trouble.
There were seven other people eating there that night, four women from Australia at one table, and me and three men at the other. I was holding back tears for most of the meal, I just shoveled food in my mouth and listened to the conversation but I felt uncomfortable here, too. The men weren’t too friendly and they seemed more interested in joking with the women from Australia than talking to me. I think one of them was bothered that I was walking the final 26-miles in one day, like I was trying to show off or something, or maybe it hurt his ego, I don’t know.
But it was also me. I’m usually a very friendly, happy person, but when I’m uncomfortable or my feelings are hurt, I shut down really fast, which I’m sure made it difficult for me to make an effort in conversation with the other hikers.
So I finished dinner and then there was another sting- the wife announced that she was opening her ‘shop’, and that we could buy supplies for the next day if we needed them. She’d already asked everyone if they wanted a packed lunch for the next day- she asked me too, but the big smile that she had for the others vanished when she talked to me, and so I told her no, I wouldn’t need lunch. But then she announced the shop that my guidebook had mentioned, and I walked over with two of the Australian women. In a cabinet underneath the stairs were six shelves lined with so much food: cookies and biscuits, candy and chips, canned beans and milk and packaged noodles and tuna fish. I looked at all the food- food that I so easily could have bought and taken over to the bunkhouse and cooked in the kitchen for my dinner- and I almost started crying. Why, if they were so put out in making me dinner that night, why couldn’t they have offered their little store, and suggested I cook myself a meal with those supplies instead?
I bought a pack of noodles because I was now paranoid that I would arrive in Kirk Yetholm and once again be shut out of dinner, but I would have loved to buy more- a Twix bar, a bag of chips, a little treat for my long, long last day on the Pennine Way- but on principle I wouldn’t take a packed lunch, I wouldn’t buy myself a treat. I was made to feel small and so I didn’t want to take anything from them that I didn’t have to. I paid for the packaged noodles and my dinner and went back to my empty bunkhouse.
I let a few tears fall, because this wasn’t how I wanted to end my Pennine Way, but I quickly brushed them away. This wasn’t the end. I was close to the end, but this wasn’t the end. This wasn’t how my journey needed to end, because I still had one final, big day.
And so I opened Jane Eyre and ate my last ginger biscuit and I remembered the quote I’d seen on the wall of the parsonage in Haworth. “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, that I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!” I closed the book and covered myself with a blanket and told myself that I was okay. I’d eaten well and I had a place to sleep and that was all that mattered. Tomorrow, I would walk 26-miles, from England into Scotland, and I would finish the Pennine Way. Nothing would stop me.