The Pennine Way's a funny beast. It's as if the designing committee – and surely it was a committee – took a handful of really good day walks and mixed them together with a much larger helping of pointless drivel, simply to create a long-distance path along the backbone of Britain. But does the whole end up being greater than the sum of parts? I don't think so and I won't be darkening the Pennine Way's door again, but it's fair to say that the gems are truly wonderful and are well worth remembering.
The short walk up the River Tees from Middleton to Langdon Beck is one of these gems, especially after the dirge from Keld to Middleton. For the first few miles you can't really see the river, but from the moment the Way reaches the banks, it's great. OK, so I have a serious soft spot for river walking, and as the Pennine Way seems to avoid waterways like the plague, the novelty of walking along a proper river for more than a few steps is no doubt an influence; but the Tees is a genuinely picturesque river, especially this part of it, and even the most cynical walker has to fall for its charms.
For a start, the water is the colour of Newcastle Brown from all the peat the water passes through (the source, Teeshead, is on the eastern flank of my nemesis, Cross Fell, and on the other side of plenty of boggy moor). The riverbed is very rocky, with large chunks of dolerite and shale choking the flow, and this adds an effervescence that's as close to Coca-Cola on ice as you can get in the natural world. As if this isn't enough, there are loads of waterfalls along the way, with the highlight being High Force; here the river pounds over 21m-high rock shelves, foaming into a dark pool at the foot of the waterfall and filling the air with the constant pounding of the power of nature. It's a humbling sight and the view of the waterfall from the Pennine Way is exquisite.
The river isn't the only beautiful part of this walk, though. Just before High Force the Way passes through a juniper forest, the stumpy bushes twisted into tortured shapes underneath the cover of their prickly green spikes, and all along the banks tributaries tumble off the surrounding fells into little streams of peaty ale. It's like wandering into Willy Wonka's Beer Factory, the thought of which appeals to me more than I can possibly describe.
Unfortunately – and there's always an unfortunately on the Pennine Way – the weather wasn't kind to us, so instead of hanging around the river, feeding the midges and lapping up the sun, Matt and I kept on walking. The forecast for the afternoon was rain and the clouds had already arrived in force, hiding the tops of the hills in murky grey and promising a miserable afternoon for anyone caught out in the coming downpour; but even under overcast skies Teesdale is a great spot, and although today's walk was short, it was most definitely sweet.
The only flies in the ointment came in clouds. From the moment I climbed Jacob's Ladder at the start of the Pennine Way I've had to contend with midges, and as I get further north they're growing in number and appetite. The midges of Scotland are legendary and I'm fully expecting to be bitten to hell when I get there, but the fact that midges are already inspiring column inches is more than a little worrying.
It's the first thing people say when they discover you're going walking in Scotland in the summer. 'Watch out for the midges,' they say, sucking in their breath. 'Little buggers they are.' And they're right; midges are awful. Little more than a couple of millimetres from head to toe, your average midge looks like a microscopic house fly, but there's one key difference: where flies eat shit, midges eat humans.
Having now bumped into quite a few midge clouds, I think it's safe to say that they're far more irritating than mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are generally solitary creatures, and not only are they big enough to catch your eye as they aim for your jugular, they make a distinctive, high-pitched squeal as they buzz round your head, so you can have a reasonable stab at squashing them. Although their bites itch like hell, you generally only get one or two at a time, and by far the biggest problem with mosquitoes is the chance of getting malaria, dengue fever, Ross River fever or any of the other fun-loving diseases that make travelling in the tropics such a health risk. Currently the UK is still free of malaria so mosquitoes in this country are simply an irritation, and they're also quite good at avoiding anyone who's bothered to spray themselves with a repellent containing DEET. Basically the mosquitoes in England are a pain, but compared to their cousins in Africa they're amateurs.
This is probably because the midge has grabbed the top spot and it doesn't look like it's going to let go. Midges don't carry any diseases either, but what they lack in infection they make up for in numbers, for midges hang out in huge gangs and when they pounce, they pounce in style. My first experience of a midge attack was back on day one of the Way, on the long haul across the moors to Snake Pass, where I casually looked at my left arm and discovered it was covered in tiny black flies. There must have been about 50 on my right arm alone and a quick glance at David showed that he was smothered in the little buggers too. None of them was biting and I assumed they were just bog flies and brushed them off, but now I know they were in fact midges.
I know this because since then I've been bumping into midges more and more regularly, particularly in wet parts of the walk such as bog or riverbank, and apart from that strange first meeting on Snake Pass, they've bitten me whenever we've met. The problem is that they come in such big numbers that by the time you notice them, you'll already have plenty of bites that will keep on itching for the next few days. Individually midges are no problem, but in clouds they're a nightmare.
I do have a remedy, though. When I was out in Western Australia, a bushman told me of a special potion that he used to ward off mosquitoes and sandflies, and once I tried it I never looked back. He told me to take a bottle of baby oil, to pour one-third of it away and to fill up the rest with Dettol. Initially it separates out into two layers like some evil-looking cocktail, but if you shake it up it mixes into a creamy emulsion not unlike vinaigrette, and then it's easy to squirt on your skin.
His reasoning sounded a bit dodgy at first, but basically he said that the Dettol would repel the mosquitoes, and the sandflies would get stuck to the baby oil and die a horrible death among the fumes of disinfectant. I didn't believe him, but when I went to New Zealand and came across clouds of flesh-eating sandflies who laughed in the face of DEET, I decided to try his mixture and it worked. It wasn't perfect, but the sandflies would fly in, land on my skin, get stuck, try to get off and then would spend a painful few minutes twisting themselves into a ball of mush while the Dettol rotted their brains.
But what about midges? Are they the same beasts as sandflies? Well they're both flies, they both feast on tourists and they both hunt in clouds, so I'm now the proud owner of a bottle of baby oil that's one-third Dettol, and today I tried it out for the first time, down by the River Tees. The success rate wasn't 100%, but judging by the number of midges squirming in the sticky prison on my forearms, it seemed to work. Sure, it has the unfortunate side-effect of repelling humans too, but my walking clothes seem to do that anyway, and if anything the Dettol makes me smell like I've at least made an effort at personal hygiene, albeit a misguided one. So from now on, whenever I'm heading into midge territory, I'm going to apply a bit of the bushman's secret recipe; even if it doesn't prevent every single bite, being a human Venus Fly Trap is entertainment in itself.
If that fails, I'll just whinge at Matt. His hip is improving so we're going to stick together for a little longer; if crowding together is good enough for the midges, then it's good enough for us, too.