Open Thinkering


Tag: walking

The Pennine Way, Pt.1 (Kirk Yetholm to Middleton-in-Teesdale)

Pennine Way signpost with landscape in background

The Pennine Way may not be the longest of the UK’s National Trails, but it’s probably the best-known. It’s also seen as the toughest. The route is 268 miles (431km) long, with most people walking it from south to north — i.e. from Edale in Derbyshire, to Kirk Yetholm just over the border in Scotland.

For various reasons mainly related to logistics, I decided to walk half of it in April 2023 from north to south. I’ll walk the second half of it later, perhaps from south to north.

There are plenty of great blog posts out there about equipment, accommodation, and the like. This means I can spend time in this post introspecting and simply talking about my experiences. If you’re mainly interested in photos, look here.

View from my tent in Hen Hole

Day 0: Kirk Yetholm to Hen Hole

I live in Morpeth, which is only about an hour away from Kirk Yetholm. That means I know the area pretty well, including Hen Hole, the place I chose to wild camp on the first night. It’s a beautiful spot, and only around 10km away from the start/end of the trail.

On the morning before setting off, I got out my one-person tent, pitched it in the garden, and replaced some of the original tent pegs with some ultralight ones. Despite setting off wearing a t-shirt extolling the virtues of packing light, I opted for the 65-litre rucksack I bought for my Hadrian’s Wall trip last year.

When I arrived at Hen Hole, there were a couple of people already there occupying the best piece of flat ground. I had a brief chat with them and pitched my tent near the waterfall as the sun was going down. It’s a magical place. Things were going well.

Stone flags as a path through the boggy peat

Day 1: Hen Hole to Byrness

I knew that, after leaving Hen Hole, I would need to be carrying any water I needed. For this reason, I’d invested in a two-litre water bladder to supplement my large water bottle. This bladder can be rolled up to almost nothing when not being used, so I thought it would be ideal. Unfortunately, shortly after ascending the steep hill 500m from Hen Hole, it must have fallen out of my rucksack. I hadn’t secured it to anything.

This was a bit of a problem, as I couldn’t find it again. I only had two litres of water for a fair few hours of walking with a heavy pack (18.6kg). For some reason I thought that carrying more than the recommended limit of 20% of my (~90kg) bodyweight would be a good idea. It wasn’t, and it took its toll; I was dehydrated by the end of the day.

As I walked down into Byrness, I decided to ask my family to bring another rucksack to swap with the one on my carrying. I was aware this would mean sacrificing quite a bit of kit, but to be quite honest was a case of doing that, or giving up and going home. I decided to jettison things including:

  • Z-Lite foam mat
  • Spare clothes
  • Additional gloves and hat
  • Pennine Way guidebook
  • Jungle blanket

I only just managed to get everything into my Montane 32-litre rucksack. Thankfully, I knew from experience that the ice-axe loops could hold my one-person tent. As the trip progressed, I learned how to pack it better, and the number of dehydrated meals I was carrying decreased. This all helped.

That evening, I took my parents out for dinner, as they had been the ones who had kindly driven over to swap my rucksacks. I spent the night in the camping pod I’d booked at Border Forest Holiday Park.

Misty landscape. Path, tree and wall in foreground

Day 2: Byrness to Stonehaugh

I’ve learned from experience that context is everything when it comes to walking: what’s the weather going to be like? how am I feeling? It’s for this reason that I don’t tend to book anything more than the first night. I think I’ve also read that every campsite on The Pennine Way will find room for solo walkers anyway.

The average amount of time it takes to walk the trail is 17 days. Kirk Yetholm to Middleton-in-Teesdale is 125 miles, so you’d expect most people to take around eight days for this section. I had planned to take somewhere from six to seven days initially. However, on the morning before I left (Saturday), my daughter’s football match was postponed to Thursday evening. All of a sudden, I had something to aim for. Doing 125 miles in five days seemed… doable? I’d done the 84 miles of Hadrian’s Wall in 72 hours!

Walking from Byrness to Stonehaugh was pretty straightforward. The highlight, after walking through the mist and the heather was stopping off in Bellingham at the excellent Fountain Cottage. I had the all day vegetarian breakfast, followed by a sticky toffee pudding. They also let me recharge my phone.

I arrived at Stonehaugh campsite just before their reception closed at 20:00, bought a couple of things from their small shop, and paid for a pitch. I had the entire place to myself, and it was glorious.

YHA Alston

Day 3: Stonehaugh to Alston

Confession time: I cut a corner on the way to Alston. The Pennine Way follows the route of Hadrian’s Wall, which is very up-and-downy. It then takes a right-angle and goes across some boggy land. I decided to have lunch in Haltwhistle, and then take the parallel River Tyne Trail. When I arrived at the hostel in Alston, the owner said that a lot of people do that, so I didn’t feel too bad.

On the way, I continued to listen to The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes. I’d already read it in hardback as a birthday gift, but listening to the author reading his own work added emphasis to sections I’d perhaps only skim-read. It’s such a good book, and extremely related to some of the land I crossed. Highly recommended!

Alston has one of the best Spar shops I’ve come across. When I was growing up, I thought our local Spar was the only one in the world. Only when I started travelling outside of the UK did I realise they’re all over Europe! This one had a deli, and was licensed to sell game meat. It was deluxe.

My feet were fairly battered that night. I’d effectively walked a couple of marathons by that point, and was thankful that I had some Compeed with me. And some peanut M&Ms and beer.

I had a chat with a retired guy who was staying at the hostel. It’s interesting to me that there’s a whole generation of people for whom therapy would be beneficial, but instead they talk to random strangers about things extremely tangential to the general thrust of conversation. It’s all fairly benign, but he wasn’t the only one I’ve come across on my travels.

Pastoral scene (hills, trees, sheep) looking through a window in a stone wall

Day 4: Alston to Dufton

Everyone assumes, with good reason, that if you say you’re doing The Pennine Way, you’re doing it from south to north. So some people thought I was heading in the wrong direction when I set out the next morning. I cheerfully corrected them and they wished me luck: the route from Alston to Dufton goes over several 800m+ mountains.

I hadn’t slept that well, as my feet were ‘fizzing’ with pain. I laced up my boots tightly, which I’ve had for getting on for six years and which were falling apart a bit at this point. Having learned my lesson from the first day, I carried a bottle of Lucozade with me in addition to the water I was carrying.

Unlike previous days, although the rain was predicted to still hold off, it was supposed to be windy. I was pleased, then, not to encounter much of it on the route up to Greg’s Hut, a well-known (and well-used!) bothy on the trail. I had a chat with a couple of people over lunch who were, inevitably, heading the opposite direction to me. They told me how awful the wind had been that morning.

The meta-conversation that accompanies the verbal conversation that walkers have on the trail is fascinating to me. Am I more experienced than this person? Is that gear brand new because they’re new to walking, or because they’re out all of the time and buy the latest kit? How quickly are they doing it? Part of it is posturing, but part of it is whether to give or ask for advice. Or maybe it’s just all in my head.

The wind was coming at me from my left-hand side at (what felt like) about 45mph all afternoon. So it really wasn’t fun walking up and across from Cross Fell to Great Dun Fell. As a result, I walked down the road instead of up Knock Fell, rejoining the trail further down.

By this point, I’d finished listening to The Book of Trespass and moved on to re-listening to The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane. This had been gifted to me by a friend and I’d enjoyed it so much last time, I thought I’d give it another listen while walking. On the approach to Dufton, however, I was so tired I needed beats to keep me going, so switched to the album Starboy by The Weeknd.

I had dinner at The Stag Inn, followed by what can only be described as an attempt at sleep in a four-bed private room at the hostel. I’d only booked and paid for a single room, so the amount of space was pleasing. What was concerning was the state of my feet.

It’s difficult reading about other people’s pain, as what is an excruciating bodily experience for the sufferer cannot adequately be represented using mere words. On returning from the pub and shuffling to and from the shower, I had to keep my feet elevated. I couldn’t even stand hanging them over the side of the bed as the weight of them just hurt.

By the time it got to midnight, I had a decision to make. It wasn’t whether to go home or not, because that could wait until the morning. I’d run out of ibuprofen, and only had tablets which were a combination of paracetemol, aspirin, and caffeine. Did I want pain relief or sleep? I decided to take the tablets, and continued reading A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson on an old Kindle.

I also listened to some music on the iPod I’d modded with this trip in mind. It didn’t let me down, and putting the album Ambient 23 by Moby on repeat finally lulled me off to sleep.

High Cup Nick

Day 5: Dufton to Middleton-in-Teesdale

I’d booked breakfast for 07:30 but, as it was slightly late in arriving, I got talking to a couple of people. The conversation started by me casually asking whether they had any ibuprofen, given there isn’t a chemist in the village. They hadn’t.

The thing that was keeping me going at this stage was knowing that, if I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, I’d make it to Middleton-in-Teesdale by the end of the day. Then, I could be whisked away to watch my daughter’s final football match of the season.

I bandaged my feet, packed my bag, tied my walking boots extra-tight, put my game face on, and walked out into a 25mph wind blowing against me. There was no point even attempting to listen to anything. It was a grumpy walk.

There are several spectacular things that you walk past on the route from Dufton to Middleton-in-Teesdale (or vice versa). High Cup Nick is “almost a geometrically perfect U-shaped chasm”, Cauldron Snout is the longest waterfall in England, and High Force is an impressively loud, touristy, waterfall. Sadly, with feet that felt like stumps, walking into an incessant wind in a hurry to get somewhere, I didn’t really have the time or patience to fully engage with them.

At times, I framed the wind as my enemy, daring it to “do its best” as I scrambled over boulders next to the River Tees. To top it all off, for the first time since the start of my trip, I went hours without any mobile phone signal. I’d been posting to my Mastodon account, and the replies, boosts, and favourites had kept me going — along with messages from family and friends.

At around 14:00, I found half a bar of signal and messaged my long-suffering parents to ask if they were still OK to pick me up. They were, and had been waiting for confirmation. I’d like to take a moment to thank them (as I know they’ll read this) for supporting me even as a 42 year-old through my self-inflicted trials and tribulations.

Despite literally following a GPS dot on the Ordnance Survey maps on my phone, I was so tired that I managed to take a wrong turn. Once I realised my mistake, it took almost an hour to rectify. I realised that I wasn’t going to make it to the pick-up location for the agreed time. The wind had died down a bit, so it was time for a blast of Kylie’s latest album to cheer me up, followed by Exit Planet Dust, the Chemical Brothers album that was the soundtrack to the second half of my teenage years.

I met my parents just north of Middleton-in-Teesdale near Wynch Bridge, the world’s second-ever chain-link suspension bridge (1741). Happy to have finished, I asked them to drive down to Middleton-in-Teesdale to the chip shop. I messaged my wife. She told me the game was off as the other team had forfeited.

We drove home. What an anti-climax.

Bench next to the River Tees. Hills and blue sky in background


There are many ways I could conclude this post. I could finish on a positive note, expressing pleasure that I challenged myself and was up to it. I could be sheepish about not-quite-exactly staying on the trail. I could express frustration at the match being called off. I could note that I seem to turn everything into a performance, and what does that say about me? I could talk about my gear and how I immediately got rid of my boots and bought some new ones (along with a new rucksack).

But doing something like walking The Pennine Way isn’t one thing, it’s many things. I didn’t think any particularly deep philosophical thoughts while on the trail. What I did do was exist outside of the bubble of work and family that define 99% of who I am and what I do on a day-to-day basis. And knowing who I am without the doing is something I need to practice.

So I’m looking forward to my next trip. I’ll probably try and drag our 16 year-old son out for an overnight in Hen Hole once he’s finished his GCSEs. I noticed his ears prick up when I mentioned the prospect of a pub. And I’ll probably do a car camp with my daughter in the summer.

But my main focus is on the second leg of this Pennine Way walk. Right now, if the stars align, it’s looking like I might be able to walk it during the third week of August. A summer walk will be different: the weather, the number of people on the trail, etc. But then, just as Heraclitus said about rivers, every walk is the same, but different.

Weeknote 01/2022

Gate in Northumberland National Park

Here we are! The first week of 2022 is officially here and I’m not sure what to think of it. Considering life in years based on calendars is, of course, entirely arbitrary. As far as I’m concerned, we’re still in the month of Nivôse in the French Republican Calendar…

Since last writing a weeknote, it’s been my birthday, Christmas, New Year, and I’ve returned to work after a lovely trip to Devon to see the in-laws. I say “returned to work” but the day I had planned to work (Wednesday) was actually filled with a delightful walk on the England/Scotland border with Aaron Hirtenstein. Aaron recently moved from Oxford to just the other side of Northumberland National Park so hopefully it’ll be the first of many.

After taking down the Christmas lights and decorations with the kids on Tuesday, I performed a Past Year Review (PYR) while they played a lot of video games and Hannah returned to work. The PYR process was incredibly helpful in finding things that I have energy for and things that I don’t. I’ve printed out the results and stuck them next to the desk in my home office:

✅ Do these things in 2022

• Watch sun rise
• Side projects (use SOFA principle)
• Holidays
• Kayaking
• Growing plants (tomatoes, other)
• Wild camping
• Going out for family Sunday dinner
• Mountain biking
• Date night

Avoid these things in 2022

• Job-seeking
• Admin
• Work-related drama
• Atheneum consulting
• Twitter
• LinkedIn
• Organising events
• Staying in same room as family
• Anti-vaxxer nonsense

On Thursday I had an impromptu catch-up with my fellow WAO co-op members and experimented with Xero Projects. I’m going to run a proposal in next week’s meeting to experiment with it for one month with one client and I’m hoping it will pass. I think it could help streamline our workflows a bit. Things kick off properly with clients next week, so I just set things up, tinkered around a bit, and wrote a long-overdue post about learning resource discovery.I

Although I didn’t go as far as the detailed spreadsheet comparisons I made when purchasing a smartwatch and camping gear last year, I did do some background research before buy a Boox Note Air 2. As I mention in this post, it’s a curious device — an e-ink tablet that runs Android. It’s pretty much the only device in its class, and I’ve been using it every day since receiving it on Tuesday.

As ever, I experimented with doing something different with Thought Shrapnel but in the end just published three things as usual on Friday. I’m going to get back into the rhythm before sending out another newsletter. Yes, I know it’s been a while!

Other than the above, there’s not too much to report other than I made the trip to The Bike Place in Kielder with my daughter this weekend to buy her a bike for her birthday. They sell ex-hire bikes and, due to the pandemic, the ones they have on offer are very lightly used! She’s delighted with getting a better bike that she would usually be able to get, and I’m delighted with the savings.

Next week, Laura and I are onboarding John onto our main client projects, as he quit his job at the end of last year. He’ll be helping us not only with project work, but is also taking over as Co-op Secretary and bookkeeper now that Hannah is working full-time for NHS Digital. I’ve already told my fellow members of my plan to take as much of April, August, and December off in 2022 as possible. This is not only for my own physical and mental health, but also to spend time during the major holidays with my holidays, and potentially to kick off non-remunerative projects.

Image from my walk with Aaron.

Quality Mountain Days 7 & 8: Ben Nevis, Stob Bàn, and Mullach nan Coirean

I’m aiming to get on a Mountain Leader course by 2018. To do so I need to complete (and log) twenty ‘Quality Mountain Days‘. The last time I was out was a couple of weeks ago in The Trossachs, which you can read about here.

I planned my routes last weekend. Ben Nevis was straightforward to plan(up and down the tourist trail as fast as I could), but Stob Bàn, and Mullach nan Coirean looked like it would be more interesting.

Planning route up Stob Ban

On Monday, one of my clients sent me a link to this BBC News article about a new feature of the Ordnance Survey app. It looked incredible, and I already use the mobile app, so I signed up for a premium subscription. This gives me access for a year to a whole range of features, one of which is the new 3D functionality in the web version.

All of a sudden, those contour lines came to life:

Ben Nevis - 3D route

There was a brief discussion on Twitter (including official Ordnance Survey account) as to whether such easy access to 3D visualisations was a good thing. Some argued that it might lead to less emphasis being placed on the ability to read contour lines.

My view is that it helps enormously with planning, as it allowed me to decide where would be good places to stop and eat, as well as the parts of the route which would require more effort.

Friday (QMD 7)

QMD 7 (actual)

I got up at 04:45, had breakfast, did some final packing and checking (including of the mountain weather service) and set off. I was on the road by 05:30 and it took almost five hours to reach Fort William, the town at the base of Ben Nevis. I left a route card with the guy who runs the hostel I was booked in at,  and drove to the Ben Nevis visitor centre car park.

After I got changed and paid my car parking, I set off straight away. The Ordnance Survey app reckoned it would take me 4.5 hours to ascend Ben Nevis, and I reckoned on a descent of about two thirds of that time. So, about 7.5 hours was the time I allotted.

Ben Nevis path

In the event, it was a lot easier going that I expected. The first part of the route, up to the waterfall, is almost a motorway. The next part was steeper, but not particularly a problem. The only bit that was a bit tricky was the snow and ice above 900 metres. It made me wish I had walking poles — and it was almost slippy enough for crampons.

Ascending Ben Nevis

Walking through the cloud layer was interesting, as I had to go from waypoint to waypoint, as well as following walkers in front of me. I can see why in low visibility it can be easy to get disorientated. At the top, I checked out the highest war memorial in Britain, and then headed back down.

Ben Nevis - summit

Although walking uphill can be tough stamina-wise, I prefer it to walking downhill, which is hard on the knees. I skidded a few times coming down the snow and ice, but after that it was long and boring, but easy-going down to the bottom.

I won’t be hurrying back to do Ben Nevis again but, if I do, it will be with someone else, and we’ll stay at the Ben Nevis Inn & Bunkhouse. It doesn’t look anything special on the outside, but I went there for dinner after a shower at my hostel and checking Foursquare. The food was good, it’s cozy, perfectly placed at the start of the route to the top.

In the evening, I had a great conversation with a thatcher who had come up on the sleeper from London with his mountain bike, and an Australian who was on a tour of Europe. I also got to start an excellent book by Richard Sennett entitled Together : the rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation, while listening to a record player in front of an open fire.

Things I learned

  1. Just because a route is popular doesn’t make it interesting.
  2. Circular routes are the best.
  3. Walking poles aren’t just for old people.

Saturday (QMD 8)

QMD 7 (actual)

(N.B. the timing on this is incorrect, but the distance and elevation seem correct)

I was in a mixed dormitory at the hostel. That was fine, but makes changing clothes, etc. something you have to think about rather than just get on with. Of the six of us, the two middle-aged guys snored like troopers, and one of the women talked in her sleep. But, hey, I don’t go to hostels for a good night’s sleep.

Getting up at 05:45, I knew that I had to get out quickly if I wanted to complete my route and then drive back home the same day. I got ready, had some breakfast, handed my key in, and drove to the start point, a car park in Glen Nevis. I reckoned that my walk would take around seven hours, and started at 07:45.


The path up Stob Bàn was really interesting as it wound alongside a river with plenty of stream flowing into it.

The day before, I’d passed lots of people going up and down Ben Nevis, and even walked with one guy for a while. However, on Saturday I saw no-one for six hours. And yes, it was bliss.

Stob Ban

As I approached Stob Bàn, the wind picked up and the ascent looked more formidable than I had expected. In the end, however, it wasn’t as difficult as it looked, and the views were amazing. I pushed on to Mullach nan Coirean.

Top of Stob Ban

Having visualised this route in 3D, as well as my route up Ben Nevis, I’d noticed that there was a different way down than the one I’d planned. Unhelpfully, this left me in two minds while I was going over rocky ground. I ended up veering off-course, and ending up in a situation where I had to do a course-correction. Instead of retracing my steps or climbing up another steep ascent, I decided to make my way down the mountainside.

This was tough going, and I skidded a bit down the wet heather. I eventually made it to the bottom of the valley, only to find that the fence I was looking for as a waypoint on the map actually impeded my progress. Noticing that someone had cut a small hole in the wire fence, I squeezed through like an octopus.

Walking along the fence on the other side, I then came across this:


Needless to say, it wasn’t marked on the map. Nor, though, was the path down from it to the track, so I half-walked, half-ran down back to the car. I stripped off, rubbed myself all over with a wet flannel, changed my clothes, and started the journey home.

Apart from a quick stop in Stirling for an emergency milkshake and to go to the toilet, I made it back in one go. Sitting down for 4.5 hours after walking for six isn’t the best idea in the world, but today I’m not as stiff as I was last time.

Things I learned

  1. A thick sweatband would be a good addition to my gear.
  2. Check and double-check your route when stopping for a drink/snack.
  3. Five hours each way is perhaps too far to drive each way for a two-day trip!