(20th March 2014 – 15 miles)
Today would be a sun-no-show. There were only three sunless days on my 220-mile trail but, with a sorry lack of prescience, I worried when I awoke to one that the rest of my holiday would be overcast and rainy. I needn’t have: after today, fine weather returned. But at the time, I fretted and, with prescience aplenty, readied my waterproofs.
I had a quick, light breakfast (no grease, ta) and Lorna dropped me back in Kirkwhelpington at 9.15.
The path from Kirkwhelpington isn’t well-trod (compared to National Trails) but the instructions in my guidebook were clear enough. After a short stretch, I diverted off path to a petrol-station shop at Knowesgate and stocked up with provisions (eye-liner, lip gloss, gin – that sort of thing).
Returning to the path, I struck out across big country: big, sheep farming country.
One of the very few people I saw this day (might’ve been the only person I saw actually) was a shepherd feeding his flock. Is my disappointment that he wasn’t on foot, with a dog and crook curmudgeonly? Probably.
As I said, the path was easy to follow using my Cicerone guide.
I’m not a great fan of the Cicerone series (and took an active dislike to the Hadrian’s Wall Path edition) but Rudolf Abraham’s is a good ‘un.
I passed through the empty, spick and span yard of Catcherside Farm
and gave their flock a moment of intense excitement.
And then, I was thrust into miles of forestry plantation. Despite this alert of imminent slow red squirrels, I didn’t see one. Which was a sadness.
Harwood Forest is big (3500ha in fact) and would take me over two hours to cross. The Forestry Commission planted it in the 1950s to address a timber shortage after the War. There was little of interest to me and initially, I pounded along straight, hard-packed ‘roads’ with impenetrable conifers to either side. I gave up looking for signs of life (because there wasn’t any) and switched to thoughts of home and snacks and future walks.
It was an eerie, quiet landscape. Bizarrely, there was no birdsong – heck there were virtually no birds – and though I was sure I would see deer, I didn’t.
I thought it a shame that a handsome house sat abandoned and unloved. Perhaps the FC bought up Redpath Farm and its owners moved away to a non-conifered, brighter future.
But couldn’t someone make use of this fine, if very isolated, house?
Thanks to post markers and paint splodges on tree trunks, I generally found the route through this conifer-wonderland easy enough.
A common frog, proudly cushioned on spawn, was about the only sign of life I encountered.
Where trees were felled, someone had thoughtfully placed stones on the stumps to guide me.
And, as the way wasn’t always obvious, I thanked them.
This was an almost monochrome landscape of grey and dark green, (I’ve fiddled the above photo to empathise the point),
so even a vibrant moss bowl was a little startling.
For several hundred yards at a time, I would worry that I’d gone astray … and I did lose the path once or twice. But mostly, just when I had decided to retrace my steps, I’d see a splash of paint or a route-post to reassure me.
At one o’clock, I finally emerged from this mighty Mirkwood at the highest point on the SOW, Coquet Cairn – if only a measly 300m. I collapsed on a handy stone for my surprisingly good petrol-station sandwich and a glug of water.
Directly ahead, on the horizon, lay Simonside. It is off the path but reputedly one of the most beautiful spots in the Northumberland National Park. As I mulled over whether to make the detour, the clouds grew darker and then thunderous. A few spots of rain quickly became a heavy downpour as I hastily pulled on my waterproofs.
With my Goretex coat and over-trousers, I find walking in the rain, quite pleasant, cosy even. But I did have to pack away my camera and, tucking in my chin, splashed on into the shower. However lovely Simonside might be, he wouldn’t be getting a visit from me this day. An extra hour and a half’s walk to the summit and back wasn’t an attractive prospect, however cosy I might feel in Goretex.
After an hour’s moorland trudge, I saw signs of civilisation – an empty car park. The rain gradually eased and my sweaty head emerged, tortoise-like, from my coat’s cowl.
I passed some Neolithic rock art: cup and ring marks gouged into boulders. Maybe I missed the best examples as I admit to being underwhelmed
and hurried on toward Rothbury.
The sun did appear after all and made a pitiful, half-hearted attempt to warm me
and shortly afterwards,
passing gardens trying their best under the gloom,
I arrived in the charming town of Rothbury and ‘The Queen’s Head‘ – my weary feet’s rest for the night.
I hadn’t needed my shades all day but fumbled for them when I entered my room. Lime and pink? Are you sure? Good gracious. Nevertheless, it was warm, dry and comfortable. And the bar was welcoming. I sat through a pint or two that evening with a mighty fine steak for company.
This had been my worst weather day. For the next four days, the sun would shine down on my upturned, ruddy face. I still suffered a little back pain but after ten days, I’d drifted into that long-distance-walking-state where mind, body and feet could continue walking forever. Or so I felt.