There aren't too many opportunities for short walking days when you're trying to cross an entire country, but today and tomorrow are both tiny walks. I didn't plan it this way; I'd actually hoped to have a rest day around this time, in preparation for the long days over the Pennines that are looming in the near distance, but a combination of fully booked hostels and a dearth of B&B vacancies has forced me to walk for two short days instead of one long one, and it's turned out to be a masterstroke. I've just had a great day.
This had nothing to do with today's walk, though; the hop from Baldersdale to Middleton-in-Teesdale is a most forgettable walk, a continuation of yesterday's tedium that winds through farmland, past yet more reservoirs, over a number of hills and down into Teesdale, when the view finally opens up into something worth writing about. Luckily I didn't really care about the walk because I had company; soon after climbing out of Baldersdale I spotted Matt ahead on the trail, and he had a tale to tell that made this boring walk feel almost welcoming.
The Hotel from Hell
I last saw Matt two days ago, when we met among the chickens in Thwaite and walked to Keld together. The next morning Matt left before breakfast and headed off to a hotel on the A66 to which he'd mailed a box containing food, new socks and the guidebook for the northern part of the Pennine Way; when I met him this morning he'd just come from there and he looked thoroughly miserable.
'How was the hotel?' I asked him when I caught up. 'Did you get there all right?'
'Awful,' said Matt and launched into his story. He'd needed a place to send his gear that was near the Pennine Way's halfway point, but he hadn't been able to find anywhere in Bowes, the nearest town, so instead he'd done a search on the Internet for a handy spot, and this hotel had come up, along with a map showing the Pennine Way practically running past the front door.
'So I booked it,' said Matt, 'and asked them if I could send some stuff there, and they said that would be fine. "Great," I thought, "that's all sorted." And I thought nothing more of it.'
'But?' I said, because I knew that was the next word.
'Well,' said Matt, 'to start with, you know where the Pennine Way goes under the A66, just after God's Bridge? I had to walk nearly two miles along the edge of the A66 to get to the hotel, with huge trucks shooting past and kicking up stones and blowing me about. There were loads of dead animals on the verges and it was a nightmare, but eventually I got there and checked in.'
'And?' I asked.
'It was terrible,' he said. 'My room had a crap shower and peeling wallpaper, and when I got there, which must have been about half twelve or one o'clock, there was a drunk Geordie propping up the bar and the landlord had one of those half pints of lager that mysteriously never ran out, if you know what I mean.'
'Ooh, that's a bad sign,' I said.
'Yeah,' Matt continued. 'Anyway, I got chatting to them and found out that the landlord had moved up from Croydon to take over this hotel, which was in the middle of absolutely nowhere, surrounded by moor and with the A66 right outside the front door. So I asked him why he'd moved from Croydon, which isn't a million miles from where I live, and do you know what he said?'
'Go on,' I said.
'Well,' said Matt, 'he just shrugged his shoulders and said, "I don't really know." Strange bloke, and his wife wasn't all there either.'
'And you ate there?' I asked.
'I had to,' said Matt. 'There was nowhere else, but it was a crap meal and I swear it was just microwave food. And the landlord told me this story, which I could have done without. Before this guy took over the hotel, the chef had been a gay bloke – not an in-your-face gay bloke, but gay – and one of the locals hadn't been too keen on that. So one night he apparently took the chef outside, blew his head off with a shotgun, scooped out his brains and put them in the hotel's freezer, before burying the body in the bog.'
'Bloody hell,' I said. 'Did he get caught?'
'Yeah,' said Matt. 'I think he did. It put me off ordering the mince, though.'
'I'm not surprised,' I said. 'And how about breakfast? Was that any good?'
'I don't know,' he said. 'They said they only served it between 8.30 and 9, and when I asked if I could have it a bit earlier, they said I couldn't, so I just left without bothering.'
'Sounds great,' I said. 'Still, it must have been cheap, eh?'
'That's the killer,' said Matt. 'It cost me £53 for one night. That was including dinner, but still, I've had a terrible time.'
'You poor sod,' I said, and we fell into step. It also turned out that his hip was starting to ache ominously, especially when going downhill, and by the time Middleton-in-Teesdale homed into view after a fairly forgettable trudge, Matt had decided to consider his options over a pint. Like most Pennine Way walkers, he'd reached the point where he had to decide whether to go on or go home. It really is that kind of walk, and once I'd dropped my pack at a B&B in town, I joined him to talk about it.
The Pennine Way grinds you down physically and mentally, and when you're walking it on your own, it can get to you; I've already been through the misery of injury and early retirement from the Way, and it's not much fun. But when you're feeling down, sitting down in the pub with the maps, a pint and someone else is a good solution, and after a while Matt realised that a bit of rescheduling might just save the day. I'm only planning to walk a really short 6.5 miles tomorrow, so we've decided to team up for that section too, which will enable him to see if his hip is really problematic, or whether it's just a glitch.
It also helped that I'd already made a plan for this afternoon. The lady running the Baldersdale hostel suggested I take the bus from Middleton to Barnard Castle for an afternoon jaunt, and as I've already explored Middleton once, back in 2000, her advice sounded very sensible; besides, Barnard Castle is named after the ruined castle in its centre and castles are my weakness, so after a burger in the pub we hatched a plan.
First, Matt needed somewhere to stay. I'd ended up in a B&B where they only had double and twin rooms, and as a result I was paying a premium for single occupancy of a twin room; it therefore made sense that Matt should take the other bed, meaning I'd pay less, the B&B would make more money and Matt would have somewhere to stay in a village where the number of 'No vacancies' signs was unnerving. That sorted, we hopped on the number 96 bus to Barnard Castle and prepared to enjoy an afternoon of perfect blue skies, bus rides through pretty villages and historic monuments.
The namesake of Barnard Castle is a great place, and not only is it great, but it's really old as well. Its origins date from the late 11th century and it had its heyday between the 12th and 14th centuries, but soon enough the castle got stuck in the middle of the tricky politics of the Tudors and these days the castle is little more than a delightful ruin. I'd love to be able to tell you a bit more about the castle's history, but the £2.60 entrance fee entitles you to a free audio tour and I'm afraid it melted my brain. I should have stuck to the information boards that English Heritage helpfully provides at key points around the site, but when something's free, you feel obliged to make the most of it. I wish I hadn't.
You see, I'm a child of MTV. I have the attention span of a gnat, and in this consumerist age I make up my mind pretty quickly about whether I'm going to commit to something. When people surf the Web they give up on your website if a page takes more than a few seconds to load, and this is how life is in the new millennium. Although it might make older generations throw their hands up in horror, I think this bitesize attention span of the modern generation has its good points.
The main one is that for something to work, it has to work quickly. This is a fundamental rule of journalism and it's something I learned early on in my career; if you haven't managed to grab the audience's attention by the end of the first paragraph, then you've failed. The same goes for presentations, websites, speeches, articles and all sorts of other media; it also goes for audio tours.
To be honest, I drowned in the sea of facts that English Heritage threw at me on my tour of Barnard Castle. The audio tour went on for what seemed like ages, but it amounted to little more than a highly polished production of a turgid history book. Occasionally a sound effect or an attempt at drama caught my attention, but most of the tour was background noise, because by this time I'd discovered that it's far more fun watching other people taking an audio tour than it is to actually take one yourself.
Because the tour is free, everyone takes up the offer, and the offer comes in the form of a handheld audio device. It looks a bit like a mobile phone that's been horribly tortured in a rack, and to listen to a particular section of the tour you key in a number, press 'Play' and stand there looking like a complete gherkin for five minutes while the tour guide drones on and on in your right ear. Luckily everyone else is doing the same, so as you wander round the castle, listening to the dry commentary as it goes in one ear and flows out the other, it feels as if you're a member of a strange, modernist dance troupe whose latest ballet consists of slow, synchronised shuffles from information post to information post.
It doesn't take long for things to degenerate, though. Some people get bored of the seemingly endless factual barrage and skip on to the next part of the tour, while others give up totally and start wandering round the ruins, their handsets dangling from their wrist cords, barking into thin air. Others get confused and key in the wrong numbers, and well after you've ground to the end of your own tour, they're still pointing at various parts of the castle saying things like, 'Do you think we should be standing over there, Dennis? Or perhaps they're talking about that turret?'
But by far the most entertaining aspect of this audio group psychosis is the look that gradually creeps over the participants. At first people are happy to listen to the story of how the first wooden castle was built here as part of William the Conqueror's campaign against the north of England, and how it grew to be the impressive family seat of the Balliol family, founders of the Oxford college of the same name. But as the tour plods through every single event that ever happened to the castle, people's eyes glaze over, they shuffle about more and more, and they start looking at the ruins without paying a blind bit of notice to the tour until it tells them to move on... but still they refuse to press 'Stop', because they feel that now they're committed, they should listen through to the bitter end. I did exactly the same thing, finding it far more interesting to drift off than listening to the endless dirge being played into my right ear.
I do remember one thing from the tour, though. Apparently, back in the 1300s, there was a terrible famine and the peasants were reduced to eating bird droppings and in some cases their own children. I have no idea what this has to do with Barnard Castle – precious little, directly – but it's a great image. What a pity I had to wade through so much waffle to get there.
Oh, the castle? Good point, I almost forgot, but it's excellent. It's very ruined now and most of the walls have fallen down, but the central round tower is still reasonably intact (you can climb to the top and down into the basement) and the view through the stone latticework of the main window is stunning. Built on top of a cliff overlooking the River Tees, it's an atmospheric spot where it's easy to imagine archery contests in the gardens, hand-to-hand combat on the battlements, sumptuous feasts in the dining hall and pretty princesses looking out of the windows onto the people below. I highly recommend a visit to Barnard Castle, but do it on your own; it's much more interesting without the freebie.
The town of Barnard Castle is adequate but not as delightful as it should be – apart from the lovely park round the castle it's mainly a high street with some pretty tawdry shops – so Matt and I decided to head back to Middleton for an evening meal in the pub and an early night. It turned out to be a disappointing move.
My previous memories of Middleton were clouded by the fact that last time I met a great bunch of walkers and spent a highly entertaining evening with them in the town's hotel, drinking and making merry. The hotel bar was a bit weird – it was more the realm of old ladies and silver tea services than a bunch of hairy trekkers – but we made the most of it and drank until the wee hours. This time we didn't really fancy the hotel, so instead we decided to walk round the pubs of Middleton and pick the best one.
The first, the Kings Head, was firmly closed and didn't appear to have any hand pumps at the bar, an ominous sign even if it had been open. The second, the Bridge Inn, was where we'd had our lunchtime beer and burger and it hadn't exactly been inspiring. And the third... hang on, there wasn't a third pub. That was the lot, so reluctantly we went back to the Bridge Inn to make the best of a bad job.
I don't know what it is about pubs along the Pennine Way, but I've come across more crap ones here than on the whole of this walk so far. I loved the pubs in the southwest (apart from some dubious ones in Launceston and Midsomer Norton, as I recall) and the drinking holes along the Severn and throughout the Midlands were top notch. Derbyshire did well for pubs, and southern Yorkshire was good... but lately the standard has dropped, and with the Formica tables of Hawes and the miserable waste of potential that is the Bridge Inn, I'm in danger of losing my faith in northern rural drinking holes.
Things started off badly at the Bridge. At lunchtime the signs on the two hand pumps had been turned around to indicate no beer and the lady behind the bar had said that they were 'just doing the barrels'; unfortunately whoever was doing those barrels hadn't done them by the time we came back from Barnard Castle and the real ale was still off. They also didn't have any Newcastle Brown Ale (though they checked the cellar, so they presumably used to have it) and despite the tantalising bottles on display above the bar – which included Timothy Taylor's Landlord, Nessie's Monster Mash, Arran Blonde, Arran Dark, Arran Light, Marston's Owd Roger, Honkey Donkey and Wychwood Hobgoblin – the only ale-related drink on offer was smoothflow Theakstons.
'Ah, no,' said the barman, dashing that particular hope. 'I'm afraid the valve's blown on the Theakstons. We've got Kronenbourg, Foster's, Miller, John Smith's Extra Smooth, Woodpecker, Scrumpy Jack, Guinness or Guinness Extra Cold. Which one will it be?'
'Um,' I said, stumped by the awful choice of McBeers on offer and wondering whether I was really in the mood for a Guinness, the only half-decent brew in the whole pub. 'Tell you what, serve this guy first while I make up my mind.'
'Cheers,' said the other man at the bar, burping loudly at the barman. 'Pardon me. Smooth, please.' He turned to me. 'We all drink Smooth round here,' he said, collapsing into an awful smoker's cough and choking on whatever else he'd been about to say.
'That's nice,' I said, wondering how on earth anyone could drink such an insipid pint and still end up sounding like a chain-smoking whisky drinker. 'I think I'll have a Guinness please. Are you doing food?'
'We sure are,' said the barman. 'There's our menu on the board and next to it's the burger menu. Best burgers I've ever had,' he added proudly, flying in the face of the evidence we'd been served at lunch.
'OK,' I said, looking at the menu, which was strangely small given that the room next door was set up as a restaurant, with tablecloths on every table and an expectant look that indicated that at some point in its history this pub had once been busy. On offer were snacks (baguettes, light bites, jacket potatoes, toasties), burgers, roast chicken, scampi, chilli con carne, gammon, mixed grill, steak and kidney pie, lasagne, minted lamb hotpot, three cheese pasta bake, chicken tikka, brunch and shepherd's pie, all of which came with chips. I didn't quite know what to choose; it all sounded so utterly banal.
'Can I have a steak and kidney pie?' asked Matt.
'Sorry,' said the barman. 'We don't do that any more.'
'How about lasagne?' asked Matt.
'I think we've got one left,' said the barman. 'And for you?'
'Um,' I said, instantly fancying the dishes that I couldn't have. 'Minted lamb hotpot?'
'Yes, we can do that,' he said, and as I reflected that at least I hadn't had to settle for another burger, the jukebox kicked in, playing irritating 1980s soul music in an attempt to persuade the two other punters in the bar to put money in it to shut it up.
Luckily we rounded off the evening not with another pint but with a wander down to the riverbed of the Tees. There we threw stones into the river, soaking up the gurgle of the water while clouds of midges floated menacingly above the riverbank. The clear sky slowly dimmed, the sounds of the countryside flitted through the sky and in the end the evening came good.