Alston to Bellingham – 41 Miles and cut off at 136 hours
Still smiling but it’s time to get a bit of a shimmy on now !
So with big hugs from Smiley Jo it was now 8.30pm Thursday 16th January and I was off out back into the dark, setting off for another night shift with my 4m head torch ‘bubble’ for company and on my way to Greenhead then Bellingham aka CP 5.
The usual disorientation coming out of the check point as I tried to find my way back to the Pennine Way route set in and I got myself clued up and heading in the right direction with a short road section of the A686. It was yet another gloomy rainy evening. I was about to cross the road to take the A689 to find the footpath which headed north, when this little car whizzed passed me and the lady driver was screamed out of the window ‘Bones’ (my police nickname by the way!) as she drove past. She came to an abrupt halt near to the junction, leapt out and ran towards me – it was non other than Lakeland legend Amanda Kirtley, another fab surprise – after massive hugs and words of wisdom from Amanda I knew time was starting to creep up on me and had to make my apologies as I needed to get a move on and couldn’t stop for any longer than was necessary. What a lovely boost this was to set me on my way on this dreadful evening. Thanks Amanda, such a lovely and unexpected surprise you beauty!
The next part was low lying and flat, muddy, slippy fields and farmland taking in Isaacs Tea Trail and pretty much following the River Tyne to Slaggyford – who’d have thought there was such a place in the world 🙂
Leaving the path, I headed back onto the A689 for a short stretch to the village. By now I had my headphones in listening to some music and was getting back into my zone as was my routine after a CP stop and ahead of the next 41 mile section. It was dark and gloomy and just a street light lit up the junction. As I crossed the road and headed into the village another person was shouting my name… ‘Mike’ – ‘Mike’ they shouted – I hadn’t heard initially due to my music but when I took notice, there was another lady talking to me right by the junction in the shadows of the street light and in front of what turned out to be her house – she was beautiful 🙂 and I was looking shite having not shaved for days and was covered in mud, I had recently showered though so it wasn’t all bad lol… ‘Great to see you’, she said ‘ you’re doing amazing! I have hot coffee and some pastries for you if you’d like them?’ ‘Would you like to come in and sit down?’ she asked or words to that effect. What the hell was going on? – All these random people totally immersed in Britains most brutal foot race and producing such kindness for us Spiners ! I had a mug of fresh coffee and a homemade spicy sausage roll, a toasted tea cake and a brief chat before I was off again and northward bound with a smile on my face. This was just getting better! With every mile I travelled, muddy cow fields got me right back into the groove and back down to earth – literally !! and then I was onto a disused railway. I wasn’t to know at the time and this was a complete surprise but Natasha aka the Angel of Slaggyford tracks us Spiners from the comfort of her front room and pops out as we pass. This little angel has created an unofficial CP 4.5 over the years, such hospitality and generosity. (I visited her on my Summer road trip of the Spine route with my children to pass on my gratitude – hmmmm, do I feel another blog coming on?) So keep an eye out for the Angel of Slaggyford on your Spine journey – certainly an incentive to keep going at least until here 🙂
Approximately 5 km up the slippy path and what was the course of a Roman road over Lambley Common (shame it’s not still there as it would have made the ground conditions much more appealing) is the road crossing back over the A689. Crossing the road I was met by a wall and wooden stile to climb in front of me but before I started to climb, I noticed a large plastic box with goodies in for Spine racers, and so the generosity just kept coming. When you’re in the middle of no-where and you come across something like this, whoever went to the effort of putting this out , thank you for being our little Elf delivering goodies, they were real morale boosters!
And so the fun began, as I unknowingly started what was going to be the worst section to come. It was clearly throw back Friday and my thoughts returned to the Thwaite to Keld adventure and it was here that my Salamon Ultra GTX aka Ultra no grip boots really came into their own – or they would have if I was grass / mud skiing anyway. You get the idea, it’s Mike on his arse time again, let’s go !!!
It’ was wet… what a surprise! It was muddy… even more of a surprise and all the time I was going up or on the flat, I was fine… it was only going down hill on slimy grass or with a camber where I struggled. So after just 1 km further on from the road crossing it all started. I descended from High House towards a river crossing and what looked like a footbridge crossing. Ducking to avoid some low branches, I lost my balance and boom, I was on my arse again. I broke my fall with my arm and the smell of wet grass and mud filled my nostrils again. I must have slipped and fallen about 15 times in the space of 20 minutes. I reached the footbridge and was gutted to see that my new Montane jacket was now a shade of brown and I could feel the grainy. gritty mud in the cuffs of my gloves. To add insult to injury it decided to start to rain heavily. I crossed the bridge and tried to make out the definition of the footpath on the other side but thanks to 100’s of cattle hoof marks I struggled. I should have got my map out for detailed clarification at this point but instead, I relied on my GPS in 1:50 scale but this wasn’t detailed enough to avoid the school boy error of being the wrong side of the dry wall and when I reached the edge of the field I realised the footpath gate was on the other side! A careful wall climb next to a tree which I clung on to while the weight of my sack pulled me backwards to avoid any damage and with a clean jump from the top on the other side, I was back on my way, only this time on the correct side of the wall and on two feet. I reached out to my social media posse and told them ‘I’m losing the will tonight with Navigation and staying on 2 feet :(‘ I really was the closest I’d been to throwing the towel in but knew I still wasn’t going to but seriously wanted the shitty conditions and rain to give me a break. To my astonishment I got some replies, this was like 2am !’This is yours to conquer Mike’ (Clive Bugeja), ‘Keep going Mike, Blenkinsopp Common makes everyone feel like that!’ (Nicki Lygo), ‘Mike, you deserve to make this yours after all the effort so far – we feel your pain and are rooting for you’ (Joe Kenny), ‘Remember you are the storm.’ (Rich Beardsall). These were just a few of so many supportive messages and whilst I had no intention of giving up, I’d laid my my fragile emotions bare for the world to see across Facebook. This journey was relentless…
A short climb and a further km and I came to Batey Shield, I could see the twinkling of lights ahead and what looked like a farm and saw light within a barn, so walked in to get out of the rain and have a breather. I needed to get my thoughts together and sort out my wet kit and regroup before continuing. I saw 3 Spine racers as I entered, who looked like they had spent some time here sleeping. They were gathering their stuff together and as they packed up, one said to the other ‘thanks for letting us share your bivvy spot’. We didn’t really share any conversation. This place was dusty, messy and had that distinctive smell of an old barn cum stable block and the looks of a ‘fuck it’ shed where everything with no home gets dumped – we all have a fuck it draw don’t we ? lol and this was somewhere you’d never consider stopping for the night but when you’ve already been through the hardships of 5/6 days and nights of the Spine race, it’s a 5 * shelter from the wild and, with a few horse stables, looks like a welcome place for a future bivvy spot, but right then it was what I needed in order to do some admin away from the elements. So I de-robed and seeing my race number was hanging on for dear life on the back of my rucksack and was pretty much destroyed from the wind and falls I decided to detach what was left of it and tuck it into the sleeve at the back of my pack. I swapped gloves for dry liners and after a 15 minute pit stop I was back on the go.
So some 4 hours after the welcome tub of snacks, I was in the soggy wilderness of bastard Copp Common and the vague paths which are probably best forgotten. I got to Haltwhistle golf course and talk about contrast in terrain with its manicured tees and greens – then followed a short descent past the 10th fairway on a narrow slippery path and I was at the B6318 road crossing and confronted by the fab sight of Darren and Yvonne Lenhert with her lovely smile – my emotions spilled over at this point and I got a man hug from Darren and some reassuring words pointing out a shelter up the road. It had been a sobering night, physically and mentally it had drained me to my lowest ebb thus far in the journey. I grabbed a top up of water and with a wave goodbye I was back on the path on my way to Hadrians Wall.
I arrived at a Visitors car park about a mile after leaving Darren and could see it had a lean too at the back with about 6 bodies, all asleep. I noticed a picnic table perfectly placed under the roof so I plonked myself there. I had this romantic plan for the race of stopping and getting my stove out along the journey and making a brew or some food whilst admiring the far reaching views of the Pennine Way – but alas, with the weather we were having that didn’t happen and, as my race strategy was unfolding, I was spending more time in my 4m head torch bubble than I was in daylight. Another reason for this was the excellent flask I had with me, which kept drinks hot for hours and hours, so I was able to maintain an efficient albeit slippy momentum going forwards without the need to keep stopping to brew up. On the odd occasion though, I made the most of the opportunity as I knew I still had a long way to go before reaching Bellingham CP. Out would come the stove but, unlike a game of Quidditch with this stove fumbling in my hands, my attempt to catch it before it hit the ground failed miserably- bang as it hit the stone slabs. I now had people waking up around me – yay it was Fluffy and Robbit and then I saw grandpa Hugh Wright. I felt a bit guilty but was so happy to see them all again and took some comfort that I must have been doing something right to have tagged onto them all again.
As the group stirred, several got a brew and joined the party with what was now fast becoming a stove convention. There was that distinct sound of either a lighter or fire steel being put into practice and the sudden whoosh of gas and ignition. I opted for my Expedition Foods high energy Eggs with Caramalised Onions and a hot chocloate – how posh – the breakfast of champions! It was now 06:30 on Thursday 17th January.
Whilst I was busy prepping breakfast, Fluffy asked if I was ex military. ‘No – police, why? I asked. Cause you look very organised’ came his reply. I took that as a compliment and said thanks. I didn’t know the background of these two and whether they had finished the race before but I did know they had taken part previously, so it was very reassuring that I seemed to be doing things right to have got this far.
Exploring the facilities, I made use of the public loos and brushed my teeth in the sink. I had filled up with water back at the road crossing by Darren so now I had eaten, cleaned, tidied away my kit and was pretty much ready to set sail again. Fluffy and Robbit were packed up before me but they invited me to tag along with them. I wished I was able to move along the ground quickly enough to have accepted the gesture but knew I’d only hold them up, and as my feet were really sore I didn’t want the added pressure so politely declined saying if I caught them up great, but for them to not worry thank you – Hare and Tortoise remember. My sincere thanks to you both for in a small way adding to my belief in myself and reassurance that I was doing ok. This meant a great deal to me and my journey thus far. I wasn’t to know it at the time but I wasn’t to see you again. Congratulations on your fab result – a very well executed race.
So once I’d finally packed, I was off. It was tricky getting onto the wall – this was where romans had walked all those years ago and somewhere I’d always wanted to visit – but once on, I struggled to take it all in. Fortunately, not longer after I started along the wall, daybreak arrived. My only wish was that they could have built something a bit more on the flat side – great at building nice flat straight roads but walls were a different matter !!
It is amazing to think Hadrians Wall was built over a period of some 6 years plus starting around AD122 when Emperor Hadrian came to Britain to separate the Barbarians from the Romans. The Wall is 73 miles (80 Roman miles) from coast to coast. The forts along the wall had a long life of nearly 300 years.
And so I started my historic march along this piece of history dating back roughly 2000 years from Turret 45B – all I needed was a shield to accompany my one pole and I would have made for a great Roman extra – just call me Mikus Bonius – hahaha..
Reaching the next high point, I peered over the edge and down a steep muddy path – all I could do was stand there and stare – I had put to the back of my mind the pain from my feet and falling over but what was only about 50m of descent suddenly became a massive challenge! I knew that falling over would hurt, I knew that sliding forwards would hurt and I knew that both of those were highly likely to happen. Tourettes not Turrets was back as I gingerly made the descent – God, this was slow going!
I was so glad to see Wiebke and Jo the medic at the car park near a Roman camp by Burnhead and whilst sprawled out in the back of their vehicle, Jo re dressed my poorly foot- well my infected right little toe to be accurate, and provided me with stronger painkillers too. I was going so slow at this point I really was starting to feel a bit desperate. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up the pace for what was going to be about 60 miles of death march, a race in itself usually without having already done 200 odd miles! Grimacing with the pain as I put my boot back on, I headed off with a spring in my step – well that’s not quite true but the fresh dressing, some reassurance, painkillers and the boost of seeing people did lift my spirits and I wandered off back onto the wall shouting at myself – Come onnnn !
The trig and viewpoint at Turret 40A, 5 days on the trail looking tired and the view East along the wall.
I dropped down to a road crossing and another random guy started talking to me where the path crossed to continue East. The boot on his parked car was up and he beckoned me over revealing a few goodies including hot coffee which I gratefully accepted and a few biscuits. We chatted for a while although I think I was a little tired and probably not the best company.
Shortly after climbing up to Peel Crags I was met by the ever familiar face of Mick Kenyon from Racing Snakes Photography coming towards me, and a chance or not so chance encounter for another photo opportunity high up on the top of Hadrians Wall. After leaving Mick I dropped down to see the magnificent outline and ruins of Milecastle 39 in all its glory and really struggled to comprehend these things are 2000 years old and still in good shape – I’ve lasted only 5 days on the Pennine Way yet am battered and look far worse haha..
Having not been to Hadrians Wall before as I previously mentioned, Sycamore Gap passed me by without a thought, it was just a random tree along the route after all. Well I wasn’t to know , but I knew I had to go back once I did, so visited with Katie & Adam on our summer adventure.
I finally had to say good bye to the journey along the Wall. It had been an intimate, painful, undulating but memorable section and I knew it was somewhere I had to come back to see and discover more of, without having done 200 miles beforehand. I headed due North at Rapshaw Gap (Turret 37A) across what looked like the Somme – welcome to the boggy Ridley Common! I looked back on the magnificence of what was behind me and tried to picture the intimidating view that must have been for anyone hoping to overcome the Roman stronghold.
I was starting to feel weary and got to a stone wall with a wooden stepped stile over it. Climbing over it to the other side, I started to follow what I thought was the obvious path but turned out to be a sheep trodden path. Next thing I knew was I was still upright but woke up in someones garden at West Stonefields having sleep walked about 500m in the totally wrong direction! Initially I tried to convince myself all was good and that the PW must have gone this way and carried on West until I checked again with my map and yep – I was going west and wrong not North and right !! Add sleep walking to the list of unplanned things already for the day but at least I’d gotten my planned 30 minute power nap out the way, right ?
I was in a state of complete exhaustion at this point, plodding along and feeling like everything was going wrong now and that I was running out of time so I kept going! What I should have done was grab a ninja bivvy, the rational thing to do but with this level of tiredness, rational wasn’t something I could do at that moment. It wasn’t until I got home and trawled through all the messages that I found this image showing my unplanned diversion! I had walked all the way to where the red x’s were before turning back, at the time a km off course felt like a big deal.
I was now back on track but not for long in the forest as tiredness, fire breaks and lack of footpath signage made for hard work on this section and I had to retrace my steps several times. A word of warning to you all, stay alert through here for the right paths.
I exited the forest onto Haughton Common and struggling to stay awake, I saw a small walled orchard in the distance, in the middle of an expanse of open farmland. It looked totally out of place but I wasn’t complaining – that’ was my goal – this secret garden had ninja Bivvy written all over it and I succumbed to the need for sleep over and above forward movement. The decision had been taken out of my hands. I clambered over the shallow dry wall into what was about 20m sq of shelter from a bitter wind. There were a smattering of trees. I climbed into my bivvy bag using a black bin liner for my footwear to save removing it and within minutes I was fast asleep but not for long! I woke up cold and quickly packed up to get on my way. Lesson learned that I needed to add another layer before tucking in for sleep as although warm when entering sleep, the body shuts down very quickly reducing your temperature – something we all know but easily forget when exhausted and desperate to keep going. Once out of my secret garden what had looked like a drag of a hill to finish the open farmland before my bivvy, turned into a gentle slope and I made short work of reaching the other side. I could feel that my pace had picked up and I was on it again.
Another 1.5 km of forest seemed far more straightforward for navigation. I could feel the dampness in the air increasing as it was approaching dusk and the short spell of sunshine which had followed me since just after Hadrians wall was now ebbing away. I passed someone walking their dog in the forest in what felt like the middle of no where with no houses to be seen. It felt a bit random and with just a brief acknowledgement of each other as we passed adding to the tranquil atmosphere, I felt like I was flying along after the brief sleep and good forest tracks for terrain and I felt a renewed and deep determination to get to the comfort of Bellingham and the support of all the volunteers.
Leaving the forest I headed into a clearing this time on Broadpool Common and I made hard work finding the path to cross Warks Burn river and after clambering over a 5 bar metal gate I caught sight of the bridge. With the weight of the pack on my back and the small pouch on my chest, and the overwhelming tiredness’ I’m sure they had something to do with the feeling of being very unbalanced as you climb over anything to the point you think you’re going to hit the deck on your back as the weight goes over the tipping point. I didn’t but just simple tasks were taking a lot more effort and then seeing the steep path leading up the other side of the river , it just seemed to go on and on.
I made it to the top and crossed a field with a faint sign on the gate as I approached Horneystead Farm – I may not have been feeling very horney but I was intrigued to see what they had to offer – I walked into the farm workers shed and there was a loo, a kettle and a slow cooker pot of soup ! Did I mention the sofa? and that it was heaven! – A voice in my head said ‘beware of the chair’ but sometimes these things have to be done 🙂 The soup was warm not hot and looked like half of middle earth had helped themselves to it, spilling half of it all over the pot and table in doing so, but although it had turned into a bit of a mess, I enjoyed a cup of potato and stew/ soup or was it liquid stew? Either way it was a wonderful experience and a very welcome respite. It took me back to my farming days in my late teens and early 20’s reminding me of the shed for the workers breaks – it was a mess, not clean, had that subtle smell of cow shit but it was heaven all the same! Sensing it was now starting to get dark outside, I put on some warm layers and gathered my stuff, used the facilities and made my way outside. I had hoped to see someone from the farm to say ‘thank you’ but no one was around. If by any chance you read this, thank you! Such amazing support and generosity towards people you don’t know…
So, off I went through a muddy farm field ending up on a farm track. I turned left and into another farm yard looking for the footpath sign – ‘It’s not this way’ she claimed, ‘what are you looking for – the Pennine Way?’ Yes, I found myself questioning a local on which way the PW was lol … A bit of road later and I came across Shitlington Hall, I shit you not ! 🙂
I met Pete Allanach wandering around the farmyard looking a bit deflated – he said he was giving up, complaing of foot issues and not being able to keep the pace up . ‘Mate’, I said, ‘ you’re so close to Bellingham now, don’t give up! Give HQ a call and have a chat with them’. I knew I was going slow now and although I couldn’t do the maths on timings, I knew I must have lost some time so couldn’t afford to hang around and left Pete making the call.
Heading straight up Shitlington Crags and when I say straight, I mean straight, it was steep, cold, pitch black, lumpy terrain and very eerie – I could see a radio mast at the top and it reminded me of a similar scene in Saving Private Ryan where they deviate from their task with the radio mast and overcome it – but that was daylight and this is pitch black ! I made it to the top and there were no Germans to be seen, just the Relay Station. Still in my 4m head torch bubble I seemed to miss the left turn at a path crossroads but continued and went the longer way round by road. I really didn’t need that especially as I knew I was closing down on Bellingham CP. I hit the B6320 and picked up speed along the road and it wasn’t long before I was met by a couple of the CP volunteers. The way they sauntered up to me I thought they were going to give me the bad news that I’d been timed out and my heart was beating – don’t you dare utter those words – sorry mate but you’re too late !
I arrived at Bellingham at 19:09 on Friday 17th January, some 23 hours after leaving Alston and 13 hours since breakfast at Greenhead – that was some section and I’d really had to dig probably the deepest so far.
So on reaching Bellingham my stats so far since 05:00 Sunday 12th were:
Miles covered – 224,
Sleep – 9hrs 10 minutes ,
Ninja Bivvies – 1,
Boggy fields encountered – too high to count,
Times fallen over in boggy fields – too high to count,
Support from friends and family – off the flipping scale!
I’m totally overwhelmed by the whole experience.
Feeling tired and emotional, I knew my feet were in a bad way and couldn’t see how I was going to be able to leave Bellingham and carry on. Into the Brown Rigg lodge I went, and who do you think was just inside the door? The running Granny! – aka Angela White. I collapsed into a chair just inside the door and was in tears, crouching forwards holding my head and shielding my face from any onlookers. Angela got me a pint of squash and started talking to me as if she was my Mum, although the one thing she didn’t say that I’m sure my Mum would have is ‘Please tell me you’re not going to do this again Mike’ !! She said all the right things and pointed out I had 4 hours to turn things around which was plenty of time but to focus on getting food and drink down me first, then some sleep, before leaving -wiping my face I stood up and staggered over to some chairs facing the kitchen. I had registered there was an audience all standing over me waiting to launch into pitstop mode, and Andy Tyreman was in volunteer pest mode! He threw so many choices of food and drink options at me the moment my glutes even sniffed the sight of the plastic chair, that my response was probably a little curt as I muttered ‘I need chance to breath and I have no idea what I want!’ Sorry Andy 🙂 Once mugs of tea started flowing, the volunteer fairy set about getting my shoes off, getting my bag, and arranging food and a medic to see to my feet – this was streamline stuff guys and I felt so overwhelmed by the attention you gave me. I even booked the spa upgrade and before I knew it my feet were in hot water with bubbles – I cannot tell you how beautiful the sensation of putting your feet into warm water and fairy liquid was (other brands are available) although the pain of my right toe meant I had to take a few dips before they would fully immerse.
Still managing to smile and a happy Bones with footspa and mug of tea!
Spa complete it was time to get my admin sorted albeit much slower now and then I went to an adjacent room for a kip where I was faced with yet more choices of the floor, the floor inside a tent (random) or a sofa which, whilst not being long enough for me, was where my preferred option. The room was pitch black and I had just the small light from a volunteer to help usher me to the sofa like I was late for the start of a film at the pictures! Sinking onto the sofa was bliss and I was off to sleep pretty much immediately but unfortunately not for long enough! I think when I entered the sleep room I had probably just under a 3 hour cushion before the cut off – it was getting tight and I think that was in my mind when sleeping. I’m a light sleeper which also doesn’t help so an hours kip was what I got. I had no problem peeling myself off the sofa and out of the darkness into the bright lights of the Bellingham hospitality unit and the wheels were put back in motion – I was suddenly a thing of purpose for the volunteers and they got right on it with food and drink delivered faster than Macdonalds by Andy Tyerman. Jess Palmer. Sharon Dyson and Jo Winship were generally on hospitality, pamper and fussing duties while Exile Medics were on foot duties. My feet are usually extremely ticklish but this was nothing compared to the whimpering that was going on every time they got anywhere near my little toes – I was now really protective of them and anyone coming anywhere near me whilst I was sat down got the glare of ‘kick my toes and you’re dead to me’ lol. David Broom, who I didn’t realise at the time had DNF’d and was helping out at the CP, sat down next to me. We had a lovely chat and those kind words will sit with me forever more, thank you, you know mate, you know!
With just 40 minutes or so to go to CP cut off, a group came staggering in, Thomas Legrain among them and the scene was started looking more like that of a field hospital! The CP had come alive with every single volunteer hurrying around with a single minded goal – to get these nutters back out by midnight.’ No Cinderella midnight drop outs on our shift!’ – I looked at Thomas and couldn’t help but think there was no way he would make it back out in time, he must have had 4 Exile Medics dealing with separate parts of him by then. Pete Allanach was there too, but I can’t remember the names of the others although I did recognise them. Alan Cormack left with someone else. The hive of activity around these late arrivals was intense but as I sat quietly sipping my tea and feeling in control, I was in a great place. My bag was packed, Monty was sealed all neat and tidy for the very last time and ready for his journey to the elusive finish at Kirk Yetholm, my shoes were on and all I had to do was put my race pack on and go. Panic stations all of a sudden when someone shouted 10 minutes to go !! People started ushering me to get a move on but I still had a mug in hand – they were all worried but I was so chilled – I knew what I was doing. I finished my tea, hugged some of the volunteers and made a point of saying my thank yous to as many of the volunteers as I could that weren’t busy attending to others. Bellingham, you were totally and utterly amazing, you made me feel like the centre of your universe for every second I was there, you were frantic, you were funny, you saw to my every need but above all you were you the last major CP of mine and everyones journey North but most importantly, you achieved a miracle and rebuilt me from a man at his lowest ebb , utterly exhausted in tears on arrival to a warrior with a smile on his face who was ready to do battle with the last 42 miles. I headed out the door with 3 minutes to spare and to a pic from Darren Hunt. I had 32 hours now to get to the finish.
I did a quick check of my messages and saw The Midnight Caller had sent me my evening update whilst I had been asleep – this was such an incredible boost and as always made me laugh as well as smile – top draw mate!
So that was it, I said goodbye to Bellingham at midnight and got on my way to CP 5.5 Byrness…
Don’t go too far – the last part will be along soon