Day 28. Dufton to Middleton in Teesdale. 21 miles - The Pennine Way bounces back.
On starting today my mood was bleak. Maybe it was the crushing 20 mile, 3 peak climb yesterday, maybe it was the soggy youth hostel breakfast, or more likely it was because I had 21 miles on the PW today heading directly east, in the complete opposite direction of my eventual destination down to Land's End. So I began the sharp ascent out of Dufton without a spring in my step and with a scowl plastered over my bearded face instead. Little did I know I was in for the single best day of the entire walk so far.
The climb lasted for a solid 5 miles and in the surprisingly warm morning sun I was soon sweating and gasping up the gravely paths. My first encounter was, however, very positive; I met a female fell runner practising for the same 100 mile masochistic event that Don had been preparing for back in Alston yesterday morning. We chatted briefly and she commended my efforts, then was off again, running up and down the hills like a tireless Roadrunner with walking poles but lacking the requisite chasing coyote.
At the top of my climb lay the oddly named High Cup Nick, and the picture below does not do it justice at all. Imagine, if you will, a huge hill covered in rocks and grass. Now imagine a glacier the size of a small city boring into the hill over thousands of years before melting away, leaving a gargantuan chasm carved into the mountainside. That is High Cup Nick. I stood at the top, wild horses behind me with the wind howling from the front and was truly speechless. I must have stood for a solid 15 minutes taking in the incredible view, I don't really have the words to aptly describe High Cup Nick, it really does have to be seen in person, well worth a visit if you're ever in that part of the world.
After pulling myself away from the view, the path weaved by fast running streams and through an active military shooting range, though thankfully not in use this particular day. The trail was unusually busy, the wardens of the 100 mile run had taken to the path today and were limping along boldly so I had plenty of company. I noticed a man with a blue pack had been behind me for an hour or so, slowly catching me up, I briefly wondered if he was THE walker, my nameless Guess Who man. He caught me up eventually and asked if my name was Tom - my heart jumped, surely this was the man I had been tracking for weeks and weeks. Sadly it was not. The man, Chris, had read my entry in the Cross Fell bothy book from yesterday. Crestfallen, but also pleased my fame was inevitably spreading across the hills, we chatted about small things before he stormed off ahead of me. I was buoyed as per usual by some unexpected human interaction, but left wondering if I would ever meet Mr blue pack red coat. I also bumped into Don once more, bravely taking on the intense 100 mile challenge - despite only meeting him the day before yesterday it felt strangely like seeing an old friend. We arrogantly congratulated each other on being great at walking, and parted ways for the final time. Ever. It's a funny thing this walking business, you meet people for a few minutes or a few hours, but then leave knowing almost for certain that you will never see them again, you both know this and seem to both converse more deeply and directly as a result. For example a random lady I met in Scotland ended our 2 minute chat not with a 'goodbye' or 'take care', but instead said 'have a nice life'. The oddest thing was that she probably meant that in all its finality, knowing our paths would likely never cross again. It made every encounter, even the smallest ones, special in some strange, undefined way.
Suddenly the path changed from rolling rocky pastures and a clear path to huge boulders and cascading frothing water, I had reached Cauldron Snout - a foaming waterfall caused by a huge dam 2 miles upstream. The path quite literally stopped and turned into a jagged bouldery descent which required me to throw my pack and poles to tumble down the rocks in order to attempt the rocky climb down. Whilst mildly perilous this was far more engaging than merely ambling along a set path and I was pleased with the exciting change of pace.
After retrieving my pack at the bottom, the river swept the path away to my left, once more boulders littered the way as the trail continuously fizzled out to be replaced with huge stones and not a lot else. Going by the faces of the older walkers coming the other way, you'd think this was a bad thing, but I loved it. Sure the miles went by incredibly slowly, but they were a proper challenge and genuinely enjoyable.
Eventually a proper path formed and the boulders fell away, whilst quietly disappointed I was pleased to be making good time once more. The views were repeatedly stunning, high hills in the distance, swift water to my right and a plethora of varied sights as I walked, a working quarry, a sheep's skull on a hill where I got a little lost, a wide and perfectly clear waterfall named Low Force and birds of prey circling above. Still the day had one last dramatic highlight to throw at me, High Force. Britain's highest, and most dangerous waterfall. I mean, it was no more dangerous than any other huge cascading body of water with jagged rocks at the bottom, but for some reason people feel inclined to kayak, canoe or attempt to swim around the currents, inevitably falling to their deaths. One should feel bad, but you can't stop stupid people doing stupid things.
After this almighty crash of water on stone, the river calmed and instead bubbled playfully over the rocks of the riverbed. It felt good to walk with the flow of the water, it spurred me on much like an airport travelator except my baggage was regrettably devoid of little wheels. The river snaked and wound its way east to Middleton, I was chased by a rather sickly looking lamb, nearly fell in the river twice as the path came dangerously close to the water and finally arrived at my lodgings for the night practically singing the praises of the PW.
Better yet, as I sat to devour my impressive ploughman's I began chatting to some ladies as they'd been loudly eyeing up my attractively large meal, they were walking a section of the PW and so we eventually discussed my mammoth stroll. As the conversation drifted into silence I turned away to chomp into my rather succulent looking pork pie, but was stopped by a man coming across to sit at my table.
Turns out the man, Dave, had walked the end to end just 2 years ago in 2017 and we happily discussed the ins and outs of the 1200 mile long trail for hours. It was honestly a delight to properly sit down with someone who had been through the whole thing and we discussed the long trails, specific points of contention and most of all the bloody Pennine Way. Whilst Dave was a lovely bloke and a font of useful information, he inexplicably enjoyed the PW and sang its praises. Then again, after the day I had just experienced maybe, just MAYBE, the Pennine Way wasn't as bad as I had first thought.
Link to Dave's excellent 2017 blog can be found here: https://www.daveslejog.co.uk