Northumberland National Park – Part 5

10 12 2006

1-10 December 2006

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6

The Pennine Way

If there should be a National Trail to be regarded as the father of all National Trails, it is the Pennine Way. One does not speak of it as a walking path trampled by boots in their hundreds every year. It is a living entity, a guide in the true sense. One does not get lost once given to the trust and beauty of the Pennine Way. It leads one from wonder to wonder. There is never a dull moment. Even if there were, the company of the Pennine Way on its own is compensation in its own right. Within a few hours on the Pennine Way, one gets familiar. Inhibitions are broken. Mutual love and respect arise.

By its sure sinuous way, the variety of the English landscape is glimpsed. After only a couple of days in the loving care of this guiding father, these glimpses shape themselves into a cumulative force. One begins to see and experience the English landscape. Then, this experience extends into a spiritual dimension where all that is English disappears, the context is lost. The landscape becomes part of a grander design which one can neither understand nor fathom. All one can do is to walk the Pennine Way in awe of the hills, the moors, the forests and the crags.

But creating the Pennine Way has been a long difficult road just as the path itself. At the YHA in Byrness I read about how difficult it had been to persuade landowners to grant public access through their land. The confrontation between ramblers and gamekeepers in the Peak District in 1932 is a classic example. The existence of these paths is something I have taken for granted all these months. Only now I fully appreciate the work of generations past and present in making this a reality.

It was only in 1949 that National Parks were created by an Act of Parliament. Their basis has been preservation of scenic beauty, the public right to enjoy it, and conservation of the country from the rapid developments of modern age. But development must come for all, for all sections of society and for all regions of the land. However, the real challenge has been to find a balance between conservation and sensitive development. Tourism for example is a good thing for local economies as well as for visitors. At the same time, tourism needs to be controlled to reduce impact on local lifestyles, occupations and customs. It needs to be controlled to prevent loss of that local country charm which is the very draw for tourists.

The idea of such a National Trail was first publicised by Tom Stephenson in an article in 1935. It took another 30 years of lobbying and legislation before the Pennine Way was finally inaugurated. Legislation is the key to get landowners to open up their lands for public access. Realising that the power of an individual is limited, associations have been formed, reorganized, renamed and evolved over time to address the relevant concerns. The Ramblers’ Association was formed in 1935. By 1952, its membership exceeded 10,000. The Highways Act was introduced in 1959 by which the Highway Authorities are required to maintain the rights of way rather than leave it to individuals or landowners. This is plainly seen today where most signposts carry the name of local councils or other public bodies. For example, where a path crosses farmland within the National Park boundaries, I have seen signs printed with “Please close the gate” under the authority of Northumberland National Park. Many other acts and amendments have been introduced covering aspects such as reinstatement of paths after ploughing and giving power to the public to ask authorities to remove obstructions. Most of all, to make paths truly accessible to the common man, Ordnance Survey was persuaded in 1958 to show public rights of way in all their maps.

Much of this has come about by the dedication and perseverance of a few who believed in a cause and fought for it relentlessly. The love of walking and the inalienable right to enjoy the countryside had driven these few to pursue and obtain what many of us today are able to enjoy freely. Behind all this is the ability to organize themselves, set goals and achieve them. Most of these people are volunteers. There are no pecuniary rewards in what they have done or what they still do. In comparison, India is centuries behind. In the near future, it is doubtful if Indians will be able to organize themselves for a cause as this, contribute freely, sacrifice and volunteer on such a large scale.

Thus, the Pennine Way has come down to us since 1965. Millions have enjoyed it since then and continue to enjoy it to this day. The statistics on their own, as reported in 1990, are impressive. The Pennine Way stretches for 268 miles that include some of the toughest climbs. It is estimated that 12,000 long-distance walkers and 250,000 day-walkers use it every year. Walkers contribute £2 million to local economies en route and directly maintain 156 jobs. Like veins spreading from the stalk of a leaf, like tributaries joining the course of a river, scores of other public rights of way join the Pennine Way all along its length. To be specific, it has 535 access points making it truly the backbone of England.

On the Pennine Way

On the Pennine Way

If there should be one walk to sample the best of English countryside, in its broadest range and stunning spectacles, then the Pennine Way would be it. I remember the first time I walked the Pennine Way last December in parts of Yorkshire, in particular at Malham. Almost a year later, I have walked along Hadrian’s Wall and much of the path within the Northumberland National Park including the Cheviot Hills. Hopefully, I would have the opportunity to walk some of it in the Peak District next year.

One thing that’s certain about the Pennine Way is that one seldom needs to use the map or the compass. The route is obvious and the paths are well signed all along its length. In particular, the section along Hadrian’s Wall is moderately tough on the feet but extremely easy in finding the way. One simply has to follow the wall. Such is the case for most of the Pennine Way – someone has come and gone, and those who come after have to simply follow the course of those definite journeys.

Uswayford Farm

Consider the remoteness of this farm. To start with this is not part of a village. There is no village to speak of in such isolation. There is only one farm and this is it. There is only one house where I was to stay for the night. There are only two people living here with their sheep, goats, sheep-dogs and terriers. Obviously, there is no shop. The postman does not come here, I suppose. The middle-aged couple have to probably drive for many miles to pick up their post. Nearest villages are Alwinton and Harbottle. The nearest town for proper shopping is Rothbury, which by road is some 21 miles away.

Consider the location of this farm. It is situated by the river Usway from which it takes its name. It is deep in the valley surrounded by hills all around. From my room window I can see towards the far side of the valley losing itself to the hills. Woods surround the valley on the higher slopes. There is no littering. The air is crisp and clean. The silence is enduring even with the wind and the flow of the river.

One and a half miles uphill is the Pennine Way. Between Byrness and Kirk Yetholm, this is the only place for walkers to stay for the night. I found this farm on the official website of the Pennine Way. Despite its remoteness, there is a road leading to the farm. There is a good reception of radio and television, although mobile phones do not work here. There is electricity and central heating. There is a landline number to call and book a bed for the night. Best of all, the landlady, Mrs Buglass, welcomes walkers with a cup of tea and biscuits, followed by a good meal later in the evening.

By her own words, she always prefers the company of animals to people. On the walk today I had seen many mountain goats along the way, with curved horns and bearded chins. She herself rears goats. She used to sell their milk once upon a time but now she finds that there are too many rules and regulations. She finds it easier to take her goats to shows and competitions. The entrance to the house contains a vast display of medals, won by her many animals.

The vegetarian meal she had prepared for me was Italian ravioli with a dressing of thick melted cheese, served with mushrooms and cherry tomatoes. This was followed by apple pie covered in smooth hot custard. It was good to stay here, relax and be served at the end of a long day on the hills. It was good to keep warm by a log fire while outside, the night got colder, wet and windy.

Yet another aspect of comfort so far out in the wilderness, was a warm bath. Everything in Britain is small, in particular the showers and toilets. In most places, one has to squeeze into showers which are no more than a caged box, sometimes only 3×3 squared feet. I recall trying to clean my back with difficulty in a shower in Edinburgh. Likewise, in Ribblehead I have injured my knee in the shower while trying to get out of it. I guess most places try to claim a greater price by providing en-suite accommodations without really having sufficient space to make it comfortable. This is where Uswayford Farm dares to differ. The bathroom is long and wide. It is the largest I have seen and used in Britain. There is a toilet and a large bathtub next to it. There is a long bench by the wall. There is a sink. Most of all, there is ample space to move around without feeling shut up in a box. Interestingly, there is also a small angel hung by a string and facing outwards in one corner of the bathroom. Perhaps, it is some sort of a country charm.

The only problem with the bathroom was that it did not have a shower. This I had observed earlier in Bardon Mill as well as later in the trip at Hethpool House. It appears that people in these parts bathe differently. They use pitchers to wash themselves. They use a bath sponge to scrub themselves. It does not suit my convenience but for a traveller all such details are part of an overall experience. I even had to bathe in cold water in Hethpool House as the heating system wasn’t working.

After dinner, it was time to catch up on the weather. On a trip like this, I did not care for the news of the world. The only thing that mattered was the weather prediction for the coming days. All discussion centred round the weather and climate in general. We are now well into winter but in Corbridge they have managed to harvest lots of raspberries. In Redesdale Forest, I have observed many scenes looking as if we are still in blessed autumn. Worse still, there is more rain than frost. (Mrs Buglass prefers the frost. Every farmer prefers the frost in winter as it kills bugs and insects, clearing the fields for a fresh start next year. Frost is a natural pesticide.) These are certainly bold indications of a subtle change in climate.

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6

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