Last month, my friend Steve and I walked forty four miles of the Pennine Way, from Bellingham, Northumberland to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders. The Pennine Way ends at the Border Hotel, Kirk Yetholm, but Steve and I have only walked just over half of the almost 300 mile route. We started five years ago and only spend about three days a year walking this beautiful but arduous national trail. We hope to finish before another five years is out.
We decided to walk Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, and on our first day we set out from near the village of Bellingham (which is apparently pronounced Belling-jam) at about 10.30. Our plan was to walk just over eleven relatively flat - by Pennine Way standards - miles to the hamlet of Byrness that day. It was a warm but windy summer's day with alternate blue skies and grey clouds, and there was no rain. It was ideal weather for hill-walking.
You rarely meet anyone at all on the Pennine Way - on many of our walks we haven't seen a soul all day - and if you do meet other walkers the conversations are usually brief. It was almost lunchtime when we spotted another walker. We were walking a level, single file track that was to end soon. Just in front of us was a steep ascent, the steepest we would encounter that day. An elderly gentlemen, short and relatively round for a hill walker was struggling to get up after resting because he was burdened by a very large rucksack. Steve, who was ahead of me on the single track path, went to his aid and steadied his burden while the stranger pushed himself up using his walking poles.
I'm sixty seven and Steve is sixty nine, so I'm well aware that many people might describe us as "elderly gentlemen"; but Julian was the kind of elderly gentleman that even people who are themselves sometimes referred to as elderly gentlemen would describe as an elderly gentleman. His face was deeply tanned, he had a few days of stubble and spoke in a cut glass accent that implied that he was educated at one of England's more well-known public schools. I thought that he must be in his mid seventies.
Julian told us that he had started out from Edale - the Southern End of the trail - about twenty days ago; he'd lost count of the actual number of days. He just pitched his tent wherever he could find somewhere. He didn't like B&Bs because they were often off the trail, and you couldn't get started before 9.30. As we were in the week of the summer solstice, he liked to get going before 6am, which is the time that he had left Bellingham this morning. This is how slow his progress was - we started at much the same place four and a half hours later and we were about to overtake him.
I said that keen as we were on hill walking, the thought of travelling with our own tent and not sleeping in a bed for day after day was beyond our capabilities, and Julian said that he did miss not being able to shower; and that he had to carry his own food and cooking gear . For several days breakfast had been oatmeal porridge, and lunch was always a snickers bar. If he was lucky, he was able to pitch his tent near a pub, and that's where, some days, he got an evening meal. But now he only had about three days walking to do to finish the trail. Today, his destination, like ours, was Byrness.
Hill walking is gruelling. The idea of doing that, day after day, on so few calories beggars belief. My own preferred lunch when long-distance walking is a pork pie, a cheese roll, several tomatoes, an apple and a cereal bar. How can anybody do this on just a Snickers for heaven's sake?
We then wished each other luck, Steve and I pushed ahead, and as we were walking far faster than Julian, and we didn't expect to see him again as he was walking every day and we were only on the hills every other day. But you never know.
North of Byrness you find some of the most physically taxing parts of the Pennine Way. On Tuesday it took us fifty eight minutes to cover the first mile, so steep was the ascent; and over eight hours to cover the whole sixteen miles. On Thursday, our final day, you reach a height of 815 metres at the summit of The Cheviot, and strenuous activity at that height leaves you seriously short of breath.
It was the middle of a glorious sunny afternoon with minimal wind on our final day's walk from Cocklawfoot (which is possibly a place name but more likely a Scottish expression meaning the middle of nowhere) to Kirk Yetholm when we saw a figure in the distance coming towards us whose distinctive gait and slow pace identified him as Julian, even from a few hundred metres away. He was walking towards the start of the Pennine Way! Surely not! We hadn't thought that very likely.
Julian told us that since we last met four days ago he had spent two days nights on his own in Mountain Refuge Huts - emergency shelters provided by the National Park - one night at a campsite where they provided showers, laundry facilities and breakfast for less than twenty pounds, and for his final night he'd pitched his tent in the churchyard at Kirk Yetholm. He recommended churchyards because they were free, picturesque, nobody bothered you, and often close to a pub or a shop.
Steve's voice must have sounded incredulous when he asked him whether he was walking all the way back to Edale. "Oh No," replied Julian. "Just as far as Alston for a family reunion, then it's the London train. This is far too punishing, much harder than the Appalachian Trail".
Alston is 102 miles from Kirk Yetholm, at least six days walking the way Steve and I do it. Probably six days for Julian as well. it's just that his daily walk takes him about twice as long. And It turns out that Julian has walked over five hundred miles of the most famous trail in America. I've walked one mile, from a car park to a viewpoint in Tennessee. That's probably all I'll ever do.
We said our farewells. On the bar at the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm there is a Pennine Way visitor book, where people who've completed some or all of the trail sign their names and write a paragraph or two about their experience. I found Julian's entry. It was written in the most immaculate italic hand. Part of it was in Latin, which I don't read. He'd signed his full name, and his distinctive surname will be known to anybody who has studied British history. I Googled him. He's eighty, educated at Stowe and if his nephew dies before him he'll inherit the baronetcy.
You rarely meet anyone on the Pennine Way. It's usually a solitary pursuit.
The view from the Mountain Refuge Hut at Schil, where Julian spent a night.