Sunday 13th August 2006 - Uswayford up to Border Gate, then to Kirk Yetholm - 15 miles
Nancy had offered us an early breakfast at 7.15am, which we accepted. I had a full English breakfast, while Jimmy received his special request of a bacon butty. We put on our boots in the front porch, threw on the rucksacks and picked up the walking poles. The final campaign was underway. It was rather drizzly and a bit cold stood outside the farmhouse at Uswayford. Realising that this was a rather sheltered spot, we kind of knew what to expect when we returned up to the crest of the Border ridge. We were not relishing the long steep climb back up to the Pennine Way at Clennell Street, so we propelled ourselves along with gusto, just to make as much of this non-Pennine Way necessity disappear as quickly as possible.
As we emerged from the woods and the punishing steepness of the hill abated somewhat, we realised we were approaching the point where we had left the Pennine Way yesterday. It was not yet nine o'clock in the morning, and only a hour from Uswayford had seen us back on the ridge; a very pleasing early morning's work. As expected, the fine light drizzle was now a more persistent rain, being blasted sideways into our faces in the deathly cold and hostile wind. The remote beauty of the Border ridge from yesterday had now been transformed into a very lonely and inhospitable wilderness. King's Seat threw up yet another of the Border ridge trigpoints, and therefore a photo-call. So far so good.
Moving away from King's Seat, the scene became a more desolate collage of peat hags in thick damp mist, with the flagged Pennine Way path weaving its way amongst. Out of the clag appeared a distant figure; we initially thought we were catching back up with a couple of guys that had overtaken us around quarter of an hour earlier. But the figure came closer, and was clearly coming our way. For the second time on the Pennine Way, it was an interception by Jim G0CQK. He had climbed up The Cheviot from Langleeford to meet us on our final SOTA summit of the trek. We weren't there when he topped out, so he continued down the other side assuming he would at some point bump into us. Which he did. We were expecting Myke G6DDQ, James M0ZZO and Steve G1INK to meet us on The Cheviot, but Jim G0CQK was a nice unexpected surprise.
We now walked on together as a threesome, soon reaching the junction of the official Pennine Way spur off to Cheviot summit. At this point, I made sure my radio was monitoring, and before long a loud and clear voice signal was heard. James M0ZZO/P was calling from The Cheviot G/SB-001 and activating this 815m 8-point hill for Summits on the Air. He immediately got three stations in his logbook, with Jimmy M3EYP/M, Jim G0CQK/M and myself M1EYP/M all working him from the slopes of Cairn Hill, about one kilometre away and 65 metres vertically lower. James had already worked Myke GM6DDQ/P, so his activation was complete, and he resolved to wait for us at the summit. Myke, it turned out, was not feeling too well. He had tried to walk up from Kirk Yetholm to meet us, but the plan had proved too ambitious and he turned back to wait in the border town.
It also transpired that Steve G1INK had pulled the plug on his intended Kirk Yetholm rendezvous. A look at the dire weather forecast had persuaded him to stay in Buxton for this particular weekend. We reached the summit, met James and exchanged a series of congratulatory handshakes. I got a photo of the three James's/Jims at the triangulation pillar, then set about setting up for radio, assisted by Jim and Jimmy. James commenced his descent, wishing us well and looking forward to meeting us again that evening for a celebratory meal and drink.
The rain was lashing down, so only for the second time, the bothy bag was used in anger. Again, Jimmy hated it and was fidgeting and grumbling incessantly all the time he was inside. Jim elected to remain outside, assuring us that his shell was completely waterproof and that he was not feeling the cold. After speaking to our friend Steve M0SGB who reported he was on Great Dun Fell en route to Cross Fell G/NP-001, we endured a nervy ten minutes of indifferent silence in response to the CQ calls. Not even Myke G6DDQ or James M0ZZO could be attracted, although they later assured us they were listening for us. Eventually, a station did reply, and this was followed by three more in short order, all stations being from the North-East area.
Many thanks to the following stations, all worked on 2m FM with 2.5 watts:
Our eighth and final portable radio activation from the summits of the Pennine Way had come to an end. The end of the whole project truly was in sight now. Emerging from the bothy bag exposed us to even more fierce wind, driving heavy rain and finger-numbing cold. Typically English August weather for a remote hilltop! Jimmy concentrated on dismantling the beam aerial, while I battled against the elements to get the bothy bag folded up and packed away. We thanked Jim for his company, and we were pleased when he told us that he hoped to be able to meet us at the finishing line in Kirk Yetholm later that day. The weather had closed in quite horribly, and we all needed to vacate the summit area sharpish. Already, Jimmy and I were talking about the next mountain refuge hut, sometimes known as the "18 mile bothy".
The descent from Cheviot summit to the main Pennine Way junction was trying. It was very wet and squelchy underfoot, and the icy rain was being blasted at us from all directions in strong swirling wind. Upon reaching the junction, we both had to admit that we were soaked to the skin, and desperately needed the respite that the mountain refuge hut would provide. In the meantime, we weren't exactly looking forward to our encounter with Auchope Cairn, billed by Hopkins as "the most exposed and uncomfortable place on the entire ridge". Was it possible for us to feel more exposed and uncomfortable than we already were? In the event, no, but we were nonetheless relieved to see the hut come into view after the long, steep and tiring descent from Auchope.
This time, the hut was vital to our campaign. First job, relax, and breathe, without swallowing a mouthful of gale-transported supercooled rain in the process. Second job, strip off all our clothes. Yes, the lot. The whole sorry soaking stinking lot of them. Then replace them, as quickly as possible with the clothes we had changed out of yesterday, packed into my rucksack at Uswayford. If there was ever a time when I needed my waterproof sac liner to have performed, this was it. Thank goodness, it had. The pants, socks, sock liners, T-shirts and trousers retrieved weren't exactly clean or sweet-smelling, but they were bone dry, and that was the only currency to consider at this time. We wrang out all our wet stuff, then hung it out on the clothes lines inside the hut. An hour for that lot to drip partially dry before packing into the rucksacks was in order, so another extended lunch break it had to be. Again, the wind and rain bashed and howled aggressively outside the hut, and it was a comfort to hear the warmth of a medium-wave radio signal, and that dear old friend BBC Radio 5 Live.
The sandwiches and fruit from Uswayford were very welcome, and enjoyed in the hut. However, we were getting cold. We only had the one fleece each with us, and these were hung out trying to get dry (or should that be 'less wet'?) ahead of our last 9 miles. I inspected the garments and decreed that they were, just about, fit to resume intended service. We now sat more comfortably in this mountain bothy for our last significant rest stop of our Pennine Way adventure. Glancing around the hut walls, there were the usual fire safety, Mountain Bothy Association, Cheviots tourism and where to get water information, and the usual packets of dried food left behind for others to possibly use. Time to read through the logbook, and again all our forerunning friends had made it here safely, and with enough time remaining to get to Kirk Yetholm before evening. With the exception of John and Liz, they had all done the stretch from Byrness in one day, which was impressive. Their writings had all become similarly euphoric and emotional as they reflected on the completion of an epic adventure and major challenge. Jimmy and I both wrote a few sentences each, but they were very much more matter-of-fact. We hadn't lost sight of the enormity of our achievement, or that not-too-distant sweet smell of impending victory. It was just that we were tired, cold and wet, and with nine miles of the Cheviots in dismal weather still to contemplate. We had to concentrate.
Concentrate is precisely what I did not do upon exiting the bothy door. I had got out the digital camera ready for Jimmy to take a photograph of me outside the hut. As the freezing cold wind and rain sent shockwaves through my fingers again, I dropped the camera, and watched with horror as a couple of small pieces of it pinged away in different directions. I managed to find the door of the battery compartment and clip it back on, but the camera would not work at all; completely dead. I then realised that the shaped connector underneath the battery door was missing. I prayed that our library of hundreds of photographs from all along the Pennine Way was safe in the memory card. We also knew that at least one of our friends waiting in Kirk Yetholm would have their own cameras for the finishing line snaps. Nonetheless, a frantic search for the 'missing link' ensued, and eventually I discovered it underneath the boardwalk outside the hut. I couldn't get hold of it from above, so I had to lie down on the grass and reach my outstretched arm under the boards. The all-important piece of metal was prised from the mud, cleaned off and re-inserted into its housing in the camera. It worked. Hurray! It had cost us twenty valuable minutes. Boo!
The trail was fairly level for a while, perfect for getting the legs going again after the lunch break. The views to the East should have been stunning, but all we could see was thick dark grey cloud providing an all-too-close backdrop to the continuing rain. Ahead of us, we could see the imposing grey dome of The Schil looming up above us. It looked absolutely huge, and was a real test of character. We climbed it, it levelled off, and our tired brains sensed some relief even though our map-reading skills informed us we were only halfway up it. Sure enough, another huge grey wall of imposing dome (or should that be 'doom'?) grew out of the horizon, and we pulled ourselves up yet again. This time it really was The Schil, 601 metres above sea level, and considered by most to be the last significant summit of the Pennine Way. It wasn't - but more of that later!
The first thing we noticed on the summit of The Schil was that we weren't on the summit. The ground rose a further two or three metres just to our left, but a wire fence separated that from the path. We had no major desire to bag this summit true, but we turned towards it as the strong Easterly wind reintroduced itself on this lofty point. It was pleasing to note that the camera still appeared to be working.
We turned northwards again and began to descend The Schil. There was a sudden lack of moisture in the air, and the wind without rain could almost be enjoyed as a welcome refreshing breeze. Looking ahead, the cloud had lifted considerably. Without warning, there was a view. And what a view. The Kingdom of Scotland was laid out before us, and I had never seen a land like it. Similar to England and Wales, there were various sizes of villages, towns and cities scattered around. Also similarly, between them lay many farms, appearing as a patchwork quilt of walled green fields. But there was one major difference. MOUNTAINS. Loads of them. Not hills, here and there like the rest of Great Britain. But hundreds of pointy pyramidal mountains, directing their razor sharp peaks towards the sky. This awesome sight quite literally took our breath away. It was a fitting end to our twenty day walk, and a fitting reward for our success today in the most challenging of those twenty days.
Only minutes after the steep descent of The Schil had levelled out, we reached the fork, where two versions of the Pennine Way take contrasting routes down to Kirk Yetholm. The left fork was the "low level route", while to the right was the "high level route" which looked much more strenuous. The guidebook and maps appeared to show both options as 'official', so we assumed our choice to be arbitrary. However, we had been discussing this over the last mile or so and had agreed to 'go out with a bang' and "Take The High Road", so to speak. In actual fact, the signpost actually described the two options as the "Main Route" and the "Low Level Alternative Route". The choice had already been made, but we now knew that it was not as free and arbitrary choice as we had originally assumed.
A long and pleasant ambling descent on the crest of a narrow ridge was enjoyed, still with the unique plan view of Scotland straight ahead. This was until it was masked by a dark green bank which appeared to be hellishly steep. It certainly was, and each footstep up White Law was a monumental effort, even with the support of two walking poles. Well, it was for me anyway. Jimmy gradually became a smaller and smaller dot on the horizon as he raced away from me, fuelled by the adrenalin of the nearness of the end of the rainbow.
By the time I had hobbled down to Whitelaw Nick, and looked around the corner, Jimmy was a long, long way in the distance. I related this to Myke GM6DDQ/M, James MM0ZZO/M and Jim GM0CQK/M with whom I was now in radio contact. They were all at the parking area at the end of the lane out of Kirk Yetholm that meets the Pennine Way at Halter Burn, and seemed to be greatly amused that young Jimmy had left his poor old dad way behind. They reported to me about two walkers laden with large rucksacks coming up towards me. Then they reported sight of Jimmy as he came into view. The two ascending walkers reached me, and they were actually commencing the Pennine Way, North to South, planning an overnighter in the first Mountain Refuge Hut between The Schil and The Cheviot. I wished them all the best for their journey, and the hope that they enjoyed their trek as much as we'd enjoyed ours. As I looked up again, I could see some cars in a parking area, and some figures stood around waving. Furthermore, Jimmy seemed to be reaching them, and receiving congratulations. It later transpired that he had marched straight up to Myke, Jim and James, and asserted that they were not to offer him a lift to Kirk Yetholm or offer to transport his pack. He wanted to finish what he had started - properly!
A few photos, a natter, a snack, a drink, a sit down and a rest were all in order. It was good to see some familiar faces towards the end of this tiring, testing but ultimately enjoyable day. There was something surreal about the rough parking area at the end of the cul-de-sac from Kirk Yetholm. It was quiet, no-one else around, and in many ways marked the end of the Pennine Way. It wasn't though, for there remained just less than a mile to walk along the tarmac lane to Kirk Yetholm. First away were the two motor cars carrying Myke, Jim and James; none of them were tempted to walk this last morsel of the Pennine Way with us!
We hadn't anticipated that we would now be walking uphill to the town. Well, not until two nights ago, when Liz and John had revealed this shocker to us over dinner at The Byrness. A story seemingly often told is of the final walk down to Kirk Yetholm, with The Border Hotel apparently never getting any nearer. Not how we found it at all. Once we had strolled over the bough of the hill, there was the central village green and Border Hotel, and it was almost close enough to touch. We knew we would be there in minutes, and rather than it never getting any nearer, it got nearer so quickly as to fill me with dread at the imminence of facing up to life without the Pennine Way. Jimmy called his mum on the mobile, so she could be with us, live, as we crossed the finishing line. Coming round the corner, and into the town square, there were Jim, James and Myke cheering us on. I punched the air triumphantly, while Jimmy filled the air with many questions about where we should consider "The End" to be. Some say the bus stop, some say the first public footpath sign and some say the bar in The Border Hotel. There always used to be a sign on The Border Hotel declaring "End of the Pennine Way", but that became a victim in the fire that destroyed the thatched roof earlier in the year. We had to make do with the cartoon representation of it on the Border Hotel's pamphlet. We decided to visit all the possible points that could claim to be the official end of the Pennine Way!
After a photograph by the Pennine Way information board at the bus stop, we moved over to the first Pennine Way footpath sign in the town square. As the cameras were clicking away, Jimmy leant his tired and relaxing body against the signpost. It promptly leant with him and out of the ground, causing roars of laughter from the camera crew. We only wished we had videoed that moment! Jim G0CQK produced a bottle of champagne which he kindly presented to us, and this was introduced into the subsequent poses for the camera.
Finally, we edged our way into the Border Hotel to claim completion of the Pennine Way and the "free half" each that allegedly came with the achievement. I was a little nervous about asking, wondering whether the tradition got abused by false claims. I would also have to check-in at the youth hostel and retrieve the certificates from our forwarded hold-alls. These contained the stamps and signatures that were the irrefutable proof of our departure from Edale nineteen days ago.
Not so. Walked into the bar, said "Just finished the Pennine Way", barman replied "You get a free drink then, what would you like?". As easy as that. In fact he was taking orders for James', Myke's and Jim's free drinks too before they realised and pointed out that they had not done the full distance hike with us! The free half was originally funded by a bequest from the will of master fellwalker and writer Alfred Wainwright. In fact, I think this bar in the Border is actually called the "Wainwright Bar". He had not enjoyed the Pennine Way during his experiences on the route while researching, sketching and compiling information for his "Pennine Way Companion" book, and decreed that everyone finishing it should have a pint on him. It was originally a full pint I understand, but later became a half as remaining funds from the bequest ran lower. The barman informed us that no funds now remain from Wainwright's bequest, but that the brewery who own the pub continue to fund the tradition themselves as a goodwill gesture. We had enjoyed Wainwright's pontificating in his guidebook, which we had taken along for bedtime reading despite it being many years out of date. However, his emotional reflection of the end of the Pennine Way was hugely inaccurate, in our particular case. We were now anticipating a final live link-up with the Silk FM radio station, and a subsequent live studio interview when back at home. We would be featured in two local newspapers, four national radio magazines, one national news broadcast and a multitude of walking and radio themed websites. A homecoming party awaited in Cheshire, and here we were with friends from Tyneside, Lancashire and Essex, each compelled to make a long return trip just to share in the completion.
According to Wainwright:
"When you reach the village green in Kirk Yetholm, you can halt your legs, enjoy a rest on the public seat under the trees, and look back along the road that brought you here ... and reflect a while. You have walked the Pennine Way, as you dreamed of doing. This will be a very satisfying moment in your life. You will be tired and hungry and travel-stained. But you will feel great, just great".
All correct so far, couldn't argue with any of that. But he continues:
"There is no brass band to greet you; there is nobody waiting to pin a medal on your breast. There may be people about but they will take no notice of you. Nobody cares that you have walked, and just this minute completed, the Pennine Way. You will not get your name in the papers, nor be interviewed for television".
Wrong on pretty much every count, Mr Wainwright. OK, there actually wasn't a brass band, but I assumed that comment to be more metaphorical in nature anyway. My half-pint of Deuchars real ale, and Jimmy's half-pint of fresh orange juice were particularly sweet-tasting for both of us. We booked a table for four, for dinner later that evening, and went to check in at the youth hostel around the corner. We said cheerio to Jim and thanked him for coming up to see us today, and a total of three occasions along the final quarter of the Pennine Way.
The youth hostel was very pleasant and welcoming. The friendly and helpful warden invited us to hang out our wet gear in her private quarters, saying that they would dry better there than in the drying room. Furthermore, she offered to tumble dry our very wet stuff. In our dormitory, which was at full occupancy, was a man already fast asleep. It was only about 7pm. We tried not to disturb him as we made our beds and got showered and changed, ready to go out for dinner.
The first job in the Border Hotel was to get the certificates signed and stamped. They had held up pretty well, crushed at the bottom of our carry-on luggage for three weeks, and it was satisfying to see them authenticated as completed. Craig, the barman, also offered us the Border Hotel's own completion certificates, which we gratefully accepted. All four have since been framed, and hang proudly on our living room wall at home. Dinner was excellent. Jimmy and I both started with the field mushrooms stuffed with haggis with whiskey sauce. Jimmy then partook in the house special shoulder of lamb, while I had the excellent smoked haddock stuffed with leeks. A couple of pints of the Border Ale were as good if not better than the earlier Deuchars. Jimmy, as ever, downed several pints of water. It was a superb meal, and we wondered whether the food really was superb, or if the occasion made it taste satisfyingly good. I had to conclude that the food genuinely was excellent.
Jimmy didn't waste much time going to bed upon returning to the hostel. The chap already in the dormitory was now at least three and a half hours into a very deep sleep! James, Myke and I sat and chatted in the small hostel lounge for a while, over a mug of hot chocolate kindly supplied by Myke. I barely had the strength left to lift the mug to my lips, so I didn't put off my own slumber much longer. Normal life could be put off for at least one more day, for we had some walking planned for tomorrow, but it was now, alas, the end of the Pennine Way. Four years of aspirations, two years of planning and three weeks of splendid, exhilarating walking and quality father-and-son companionship. All over now, and into a very new, and very different phase of life.