The biggest problem with walking a track for the second time is the lack of punchlines. The last time I walked from Langdon Beck to Dufton the wind howled straight into my face all day, and I remember it being wet underfoot, freezing cold and one of those days where I was too tired to be happy when I reached the end; instead, I remember falling into the Stag Inn at Dufton in a state of exhaustion that even a couple of pints of Bass failed to cure. But ignoring the physical demands of the day, I remember the River Tees being beautiful, I remember the climb up past Cauldron Snout being interesting, and I remember the sight of High Cup Nick being incredible. Unfortunately, because I remember them all so clearly, it rather took the thrill out of today's walk, because although the sights were as good as I remember them, they just weren't as interesting second time round.
This is what I don't understand about serial walkers. On my fateful attempt at the Pennine Way in 2000 I met a group of lads who were doing the Pennine Way for something like the fifth time, and back in the B&B in Lothersdale I had breakfast with a man who was doing the Pennine Way for the eleventh time. I'm sure that your appreciation of a walk like this changes the more you do it and no doubt you start to notice things that you wouldn't spot on your first few trips, but with all the wonderful walks available in this country and abroad I fail to understand why anyone would keep on doing the same old track, time after time.
So for me today wasn't particularly thrilling. The novelty of nostalgia has worn off and I'm starting to get to the point where I've had enough of the Pennine Way; instead I'm looking forward to Scotland, a part of the world that I've never explored before. With my attention span deficit and low boredom threshold, even two trips along the Pennine Way is one too many.
Across the Pennines
It's at Middleton-in-Teesdale that the Pennine Way takes a sharp turn west; this is where the Way crosses the Pennines to Dufton before switching back the following day to go northeast over the highest point of the Pennine chain, Cross Fell, and then to the little town of Alston. As far as heading from Land's End to John o'Groats is concerned this is a detour that adds an unnecessary day to the schedule – a more sensible approach would be to head straight from Langdon Beck to Alston in a day, cutting out the switchback – but this is the section of the Pennine Way that broke me last time and I want to conquer it before moving north.
Unfortunately the walk west to Dufton isn't the most thrilling journey on the planet. It starts by picking up the River Tees again and following it along an incredibly rocky riverside track to the junction with Maize Beck, at the foot of Cauldron Snout. This pretty, gushing waterfall is a pleasant spot – though it's no big thrill after High Force – and the Way climbs up the rocks to the right of the waterfall, eventually passing in front of the concrete walls of the Cow Green Reservoir dam.
Here the Way leaves the Tees and heads west into Cumbria, across one of those monotonous, boring and depressing stretches of moor that the Pennine Way seems to actively seek out. I suppose it was inoffensive enough when we crossed it, and despite a stiff breeze and the odd spot of rain, the weather co-operated and conditions were good. But moors are moors and this one has an added twist to make you feel at home, for the Way skirts along the northern edge of a massive military firing range whose 'Keep Out' signs only add to the happy, welcoming feel that totally fails to pervade the area.
Still, it doesn't last forever – just a couple of hours or so – and then suddenly, wham! The moor ends and the world stretches out in front of you as you reach High Cup Nick.
End in Sight
The first time you see it, High Cup Nick is astounding, and even second time round it's impressive, even though there's no sense of surprise as you gingerly walk up to the edge. It's hard to describe what you can see as the Way gently rises over High Cup Plain and approaches High Cup Nick, but this is what I thought I saw, anyway...
Imagine, if you will, a 200m-high bathtub, and in your mind's eye slice off the end that holds the taps. Now add wheels like those on a shopping trolley and picture an irresponsible minor deity wheeling this trolley through the landscape of Ice Age Britain, pushing it wildly from the end that used to hold the taps, the sloping front end of the bath bumping into trees and scaring herds of woolly mammoths into stampedes. Next, picture this shopping trolley suddenly developing a mind of its own and ramming itself head-on into the western flanks of the Pennines, showering the area with rock and slamming the bath right into the mountains. Finally, leave the bathtub to become covered in the green-grey growth of post-glacial England, and you now have what modern man calls High Cup Nick.
The Pennine Way approaches the top edge of the bathtub from across the moor, eventually arriving at the point where your head would be resting if you were a mile-high giant enjoying a long soak. The whole thing is completely invisible as you approach, until suddenly the ground seems to give out beneath you and there it is, a massive scoop out of the hillside leading to the flat plains of Eden Valley beyond. The wiggly line of High Cupgill Beck winds along the bottom like the bath's plug chain, and it's practically compulsory to spend ages sitting on the top lip of the Nick, drinking in the view.
This is what I did last time, after a miserably wet crossing of the military moor. This time I was more interested in seeing Matt's face as High Cup Nick hit him for the first time, and by the time I'd looked round and reminded myself of how beautiful things can be once you're off the moor, it struck me that, at last, I might get a mobile phone signal on this high perch.
Most ramblers would be horrified if I told them I sat there for ten minutes, sending text messages instead of enjoying the views of High Cup Nick, and that's just one reason why I don't talk to ramblers much. 'What about enjoying the scenery?' they'd say. 'What about communing with nature? Or pondering the power and beauty of the natural world? Are you mad?' Well, today I broke through the 600-mile barrier, and when you've walked that far in one go and on your own, sometimes you're more interested in maintaining your contact with the human race than soaking up the solitude of the Pennines.
There's something stimulating about human interaction that walking just can't compete with. If there's one thing I've learned after seven-and-a-half weeks on the go, it's that walking might be physically demanding and mentally challenging, but it's not mentally stimulating. There's only so much brain power required to put your left foot in front of your right foot, and on a track like the Pennine Way you quite often don't even need to read the map, you just follow the footprints. That's one of the reasons I make myself write every day – it's one way of stopping my brain from slumping into the lethargy of unemployment – and it also means that those little text message conversations take on a whole new significance. Back home among the bright lights and technobabble of the city, text messaging is a laugh; out here, it's a psychological lifeline.
So those text messages made me just as happy as the beautiful view did, and after a long downhill stomp into Dufton, those two pints of Bass and the massive shanks of lamb that Matt and I devoured at the Stag Inn were just the icing on the cake.