I remember this section clearly from my abortive attempt to do the Pennine Way in 2000, because this leg was where things started to go wrong. The first day of that fateful walk – from Horton-in-Ribblesdale to Hawes – went fine, though in retrospect I sunk into the hot bath in my B&B in Hawes with a little too much ooh-ing and ahh-ing for someone who was supposed to be taking the Pennines in his stride. Day two, though, was where the Pennine Way started sinking its teeth in, and that was when the pain began in real earnest.
Interestingly, David had the same problem at the start of his walk; his first day was fine until the last few miles, but day two turned out to be much harder, because by then his body hurt and the blisters were already in place. I had exactly the same experience in 2000 and the long, hard descent up the slopes of Great Shunner Fell a few miles out of Hawes nearly did me in. I can still remember the sinking feeling as I had to climb out of Thwaite towards Keld; my legs hurt, my pack was heavy and I was beginning to wonder if this was going to be such a fun walk after all.
But today I found the same walk to be utterly delightful, relatively easy and genuinely enjoyable. Yesterday's wind died down overnight and instead the sun came out and a gentle breeze took over, giving perfect weather for a great day's walk. I highly recommend doing the Pennine Way after walking from Land's End to Edale first; it's the only way to get fit enough to be able to enjoy the bloody thing.
Fell vs. Moor
The ascent up Great Shunner Fell was pretty watery, and luckily the paving slabs saved me from actually having to do anything nasty like touch the natural environment, but for once I didn't mind. OK, there are moors round here, but the miserable buggers of the Dark Peak are long gone and instead I'm in the land of dale and fell. I'm much happier; this is the pleasant part of the Pennine Way, and even though the peat bog of Great Shunner Fell would have been a grim walk before the coming of the limestone pavement, it now feels a long, long way from Bleaklow.
I'm also pretty sure I spotted Cross Fell from the 716m-high summit of Great Shunner Fell. Cross Fell is the highest part of the Pennine Way, and unless I go completely mad and decide to conquer a few Munros up in Scotland – which I won't – it will be the highest point of my entire walk. Far away in the distant north-northwest I spotted a looming mountain, but more importantly there was a smaller hill next door with a tiny white speck on top. I'd put my money on this being Great Dun Fell, which has one of those mysterious golf ball radar installations on top.
How do I know so much about Great Dun Fell? Well, the Pennine Way goes right past this particular golf ball radar, and the guidebook points out that you can't miss the track because all you have to do is head for the golf ball. The problem was that when I last climbed Cross Fell the visibility was about 20m, so even when I was against the chain mail fence and just a few metres from the golf ball, I could see nothing. So if that white speck was indeed Great Dun Fell, I've at last clapped eyes on the blessed thing; it feels good to look your nemesis in the eye and to know the day of reckoning is drawing near.
The Birds of Thwaite
The descent from Great Shunner Fell into Swaledale and the tiny village of Thwaite is another lovely trudge into a flat-bottomed glacial valley that opens up before you as you stomp along the track. The sounds of sheep reflect off the fells, the sun picks out the pretty browns and greens of the dales, and life is good. The last time I sloped into Thwaite I was already tired; this time I couldn't believe that I was already two-thirds of the way through the day's walk and still felt fine. But even more importantly I couldn't believe that I've finally reached the halfway point between Land's End and John o'Groats. In reaching Thwaite I've walked something like 555 miles, give or take a few wildly inaccurate guesses, and I've estimated this walk to be about 1111 miles long, which makes Thwaite my halfway point... so from here on it's downhill all the way to John o'Groats.
To celebrate I thought I'd stop for a quiet lunch in the centre of town, but just as I sat down a huge coach pulled up and disgorged a whole harem of old ladies into the local tea shop, a group of walkers trudged past nodding their hellos, and an entire fleet of tractors grunted through the village; but worse than any of these busy distractions were the chickens of Thwaite. I know Thwaite sounds like it ought to be a rough, rustic place in the middle of nowhere – you just know it's pronounced 'Th-wear-te' and not 'Th-way-te' – but to have the countryside jump on the bench beside you and try to make off with your sandwiches is simply not on. The chickens of Thwaite are hooligans and even the threat of my trekking sticks didn't bother them; I had to hide my lunch in my pack and only the arrival of the local dog finally saw them off.
I did make one friend in Thwaite though, an amenable chap called Matt who is also doing the Way and was trying to have a peaceful lunch amidst the tourists, tractors and poultry. We got talking and decided to team up to Keld, our destination for the day; company's always pleasant, especially when you've already broken the back of the day's walk.
As for Keld itself, it's a one-horse town that boasts a campsite, a Youth Hostel, some houses and precious little else; indeed, there's precious little else to say about today either, which ended up being a glorious walk through some lovely countryside without major mishap or anything approaching a struggle. In fact the only injury I sustained was a bruised knee when I caught it on one of those irritating stiles that's little more than a thin gap in a thick stone wall with a spring-loaded wooden gate over the front. I hate those damn things because it's hard enough getting a human body through, let alone a human with a bloody great pack on his back, and on the approach to Keld I accidentally smashed my left knee on a stone that the builders had thoughtfully left sticking out of the gap at precisely the wrong height.
So even on a lovely day like this, I'm still very much aware that the Pennine Way has teeth. This walk reminds me of photographs of evil dictators; they always look so benign and caring on the surface, but beneath those carefully manicured publicity shots of Stalin and Mao Zedong lurk the minds of complete madmen who might flip out at any moment and sentence you to ten years in Siberia. That glimpse of the golf ball on Great Dun Fell is probably the Pennine Way's idea of a joke; the next time I see it, the chances are it'll be swathed in fog again.
After all, it doesn't have a very good sense of humour, the Pennine Way...