It is still dark. Far too early for a tube. As I wait at the bus stop I decide to replace my second best compass with the new one I bought to replace the one that broke some stages back. I always keep a compass attached to the map pocket of my waterproof to ensure that I remember it.

The bus comes and it turns out to be a night bus that goes straight to Euston. Semi-conscious I get a coffee and find my train. I finish reading Middlemarch as it whistles through the country, through the midlands and Lancashire and on and on and on, all the way to Carlisle. It is late though and I have to run to make my connection to Haltwhistle. I make it with seconds to spare, jump on the little train, sit back and relax.
And then I remember that I have left my waterproof and both compasses on the pendalino and it is now en-route to Glasgow.

Hell! I am really annoyed. To be honest I never really took to that waterproof but still it cost about £150 in a sale and a replacement will be very expensive if I cannot get it back. And I am headed for five days walking, some of which is in fairly remote country. I need a waterproof and Hexham's solitary gear shop, which looked very sparsely stocked when I was last there 8 weeks or so ago is unlikely to offer me a decent value replacement.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. And I am spending £60 on a bed and breakfast tonight. I havered long and hard about this leg. It was too far to walk to Kielder youth hostel, especially with such a late start, but I could find nowhere inexpensive to stay in Falstone which is the only settlement on any sensible route in. And if I carried a bivi bag and sleeping bag etc. I would have to lug them for the next four days when there was alternative accommodation.

So in the end I booked the pricey bed in the Blackcock Inn.

The train gets into Haltwhistle and I head straight for the gear shop. It has closed down. No wonder the stock was sparse, it must have been a closing down sale. I ask in the next shop if there are any other shops that sell waterproofs etc.  A friendly man suggests the shoe shop. The shoe shop do not sell waterproofs but suggest the garage. This means walking back to the Station and up an A road for a bit.

The shoe shop people are right. The garage does have waterproofs. Regatta is a brand I have sworn not to buy again after an unfortunate experience. But waterproof losers can't be choosers. And at least they are on sale. I get a muted green Regatta jacket that at least claims to be breathable for £35.00  so at least I have not ruined myself. They don't sell compasses though.

Nor do the shoe shop. Nor the pound shop. Indeed no one in Haltwhistle seems to sell them and this is a big problem. I have not really used one so far on this trip, not even when I was lost on Cross Fell because I knew which direction I was going. But I am headed for Keilder forest, the biggest man made woodland in Europe, a vast expanse of conifer plantations, each block looking identical to the next. The sort of terrain where you really need a compass.

Why am I going this way? Well, that is a good question. Curiosity really. I have been fascinated by this huge splodge of green on the map since I was a child. Probably I did not realise at first that it was going to be endless rows of sitka spruce rather than a giant version of Epping Forest, but even when I did appreciate this the sheer vastness of it drew me to it. I had never been through it. Up to the West on the West Coast line and M6 innumerable times. Past to the East on the East Coast line to Edinburgh and sometimes on the roads too. I had even walked along Hadrian's wall to the South. But I had never seen Kielder itself.  It is actually a cluster of great forests centring on Kielder Water, the biggest man made lake in Europe too, they claim.

I have been studying the maps for weeks. The sheer scale of the thing is genuinely intimidating. I am used to mountains and moors but this is something else. It is so easy to get lost in forests like this because the paths never correspond, in my experience, accurately to the maps, even to the best OS maps. And anyway a nice chunk of forest with clearly marked pathways might, when you get to it, turn out to have been clear felled. And clear felled does not mean that the land is left pristine but that you are presented with a well nigh impassable wasteland of twisted stumps and dead brash, any paths long since obliterated.

So to say I set off, compassless, with trepidation is to understate the case. But the sun is shining and the time is getting on so I don't have much choice.

In fact it is gone 11.00 by the time I walk out of Haltwhistle. I have not even had time to stop for a second breakfast.

A pleasant country road takes me to a sort of gorge with some old works beyond it. I follow the Haltwhistle Burn along a footpath until I get to some steep steps which leave me gasping by the time I get to the top. These lead on to a field of sheep.

In my long experience of sheep they tend to ignore you or to run in panic. The odd ones, kept as pets might plod towards  you. But this large herd stop dead and watch me intently. It is very wierd and quite unsettling. As I walk past them they begin to follow me, quickening their pace. I guess they must have been used to being fed but it is strange in the extreme and I am quite glad to reach the ladder stile at the end of the field.

Now I am on higher ground and, rounding the crest of a ridge I suddenly get clear views to the north. I can see the line of the old Roman road that serviced the wall, Hadrian's Wall itself. Even, in the far distance, glimpses of the dark green plantations of the waiting forest.

The road is modern and moderately busy but the straightness of it marks it out as Roman. I cross it and take a footpath across a field to a mile-castle and an odd lump, a small hill that has been half quarried out of existence.

There are masses of people walking alongside the wall, mostly going from East to West. A pack of small children use the shelter of the mile-castle to eat an early lunch. I wanted to linger myself but time is pressing now so I just cross the wall, pausing to look back and take some photos

As I walk on the vista opens up and I can see the wall from an invading Scot perspective. A long line of rocky escarpment stretches away, the wall on its very crest. You can see why the Romans built it here, the cliffs make a perfect natural fortification.

My footpath seems to be obscured by an electric fence holding frisky horses. I wend my way round it and find my way eventually to a small road which I follow. There is no traffic whatsoever on it and I am amused to see a sign demanding that drivers do not use the drive of a house for turning. I remember Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island lamenting these signs but it is hard to imagine a more ridiculous one. How often can the inhabitants get inconvenienced by turning drivers on this tiny, empty road? Once a year? Once a decade? Maybe the Romans made themselves an awful nuisance some centuries ago.

I hurry on. The road leaves grassy fields with cows, sheep and horses and turns into unenclosed moor, grazed by cattle. The trees are getting closer. Serried dark green ranks. I love trees. They don't seem ominous to me. The Mirkwood and Old Forest fear from Lord of the Rings is something alien to me... and yet.  I must admit I am a bit intimidated by this forestry plantation.

At last I reach the start and to my considerable relief my way ahead is a wide track with a wider ride and plenty of open areas. There is a solitary van parked and as I set off a woman with three dogs is coming up the track. She calls one back and puts it on a lead, like the other two, and I am a bit nervous but she says that it is just that "the boys" want to greet anyone they meet.

I leave her and her boys and set off to along the track into the dark heart of Kielder Forest.

The map is working well. I am following it with more than my usual diligence, making sure that I know exactly where I am. Counting off tracks and noting the scarce landmarks when they appear. So far, so good. The track is clear and definite and all goes well until I reach a major junction at a place called Grindon Green. Here I leave the track for a bridleway. I almost miss it but there is a sign. A sign but not much of a path. Still the sign is clear enough and there is a way through the tall trees, even if it looks just like any number of fire breaks. There is little evidence of any sort of path, and the break itself only gets me a hundred meters or so though because then there is a long line of windblown trees blocking the pathway and a sign on a post that say a diversion has been cut.

There are no signs but there are footprints and I can see where smaller trees have been cut away, so I follow this route, which looks like it is going to lead around the wind-blow into the dark interior of the plantation. It is really eerie. deathly quiet, even my footsteps are muffled by the carpet of old pine needles, lifeless except for fungus and very, very dark. Suddenly a jet screams just over my head, shattering the silence and making me jump. And then  another.

I have completely lost the way now. There is no sign of the "diversion" I am stumbling over streams, passing between the trunks of mature sitka spruces that are evenly spaced in identikit rows. I am in serious danger of losing myself to the point that I will not be able to retrace my steps and I have no faith that I am going the right way now. I really need a compass.

I retrace my steps. Time is pressing on. I have a long, long way to go and about four or five hours of daylight. The map shows fire breaks between the timber blocks. I have been noting them and they seem to correspond to reality on the ground to some extent. So I decide to follow the next fire break which should lead me round to meet the bridleway beyond the windblown timber.

I find the fire break easily enough. It is as wide as the one the path led up and looks quite promising. The only problem is that it is carpeted with thick and very wet sphagnum moss. Nothing for it though unless I want a much longer walk round. So I slog on through it. But the further up the fire break I proceed the smaller it gets. According to the map it should lead me to another break which I can follow to the left to the bridleway. But it gets smaller and smaller until I am guessing if I am in it at all. And I am not at all sure if the second break is really one or just a gap between a couple of rows of trees that have not grown quite so well.

I am starting to panic. I really don't want to retrace my way through that boggy sphagnum and I am not that sure I can find the way back anyway. Then I see light through the trees. I fight my way through and am confronted with a vast block of clear felled emptiness.

OK, this should be doable. If I am not on the footpath if I walk along the edge of the standing trees I should come to it.  I think I might be on it though as there is a way across the tangle of roots. It could be a footpath, it seems to be a footpath of some sort. But I am not even sure what direction I am facing and am only sure that this felled area does not appear on the map except as trees.

Not finding any alternative I set off across the rough "path." I have to climb some roots to gain it but once on it it does provide a decent way across the devastation. I study the map and study the ground, desperate to find something to orientate me. I also look back at where I think the brightest bit is in the clouds. It is not clear where the sun is but I am pretty sure it is behind me at least.  And then I spot the tv tower I passed much earlier, off in the distance. I must be headed something close to north. But that does not tell me where I am with any accuracy.

Then I see a track. A proper track not this easier way across the brash, a forest vehicle track. I make for it and just as I reach it a van drives across in the distance against some standing timber. I can't see that track but I think the one I reach must go to it, so I follow it and sure enough it comes to another track. I study the map. I cannot see anything that it can be. There is a road marked going to the north east but that is yellow so must be a proper metalled road and this is just a cinder track like lots of others.

Still it is a route and it is going something like north. North east I think, going vaguely by the sun. I start walking as fast as I can, hoping that it will take me to something definitive on the map.

After half an hour or so, without any helpful landmarks having appeared, a van comes into sight in the distance, driving towards me. I hail it and ask the driver, a middle aged man with a staffie in the passenger seat where the track goes to.  I tell him I am headed for Falstone. He looks dubious. He shows me where I am on the map. Incomprehensibly, this cinder track is the yellow road. What are the OS thinking about?

He points out the best way for me to go and also says a building en-route is a bothy I can sleep in. Well, that is a relief if things keep going this badly I might yet need it. However, that will mean spending £60.00 on a room I have booked and do not use so that would be a truly desperate measure.

Happy that I know where I am I set off and hump along the track as fast as I can. Eventually the forest recedes as I come into the open fields around Coldcoates and Whygate farms. Here the road is metalled for a spell but I soon take another track off up to the north and am soon enveloped by the ranks of sitka once again.

I am tired and thirsty and my legs are aching but I don't dare slacken off the pace because I am really racing against the light now, and I am rationing my water which is getting low. So I force myself on along the endless forest track, past tree after tree after tree, sitka spruces in numbers to boggle the imagination.

At last, as I grind up a hill, I see a building in the distance. Green, it is called, and as I get closer I can see it is a neat little bothy.

I am tempted to stay. Even without a sleeping bag or means to make tea. I have spare clothes I could put on and food. But  there is that booked room waiting for me. And I might just make it in daylight if I don't get lost again. The tracks are great but they won't take me all the way to Falstone. Soon I will have to brave footpaths again.

I set off, hoping that the footpaths to come will prove to be more straightforward than the last one I encountered.

The land is getting hillier too. I go down a section and then up again, and each ridge is getting harder as my energy wanes. I have had an 8 week lay off from hard walking and I really feel it now.

The wind is getting up and gusting and I pass a lot of trees that have blown over, others creak horribly with the strain of the wind. It could be worse, the wind is blowing into the trees so if more fall they should go away from me not towards me. Still it is an unsettling sound and I don't know if I will soon be having to walk on the wrong side of unstable conifers as the wind howls.

At last I have to leave the security of the proper track. I study the map with the fervor of Madrassa student studying the Koran. If I get lost now I will get caught by darkness in this endless plantation. Fortunately the map seems accurate, here at least. I follow one path, cross a recognisable track and then another footpath. This one is spongy sphagnum like the firebreak but much drier and in consequence is lovely after the miles of hard track.

Eventually the footpath leads me to an opening in the forest. I am on a hill and looking down  at distant houses. Sweet relief. But it the light is fading fast so I press on, traversing rough ground on a hill opposite Smales farm. I am puzzled by some signs about a footpath variation but more signs tell me I have taken the right way.  The footpath emerges high above a track and down below me I spot two roe deer. One is hanging back while the other walks over a bit of hard standing for timber or turning at the side of the track. I stop to use the telephoto facility of my new camera. But they are so far away and the light is so poor that it is only when I get home and download the picture that I can see the deer is in fact a faun.

It spots me at the fourth or fifth shot and is gone. And I make my way down to the track and onwards. Here the map goes completely bonkers.

I cross a bridge over a stream and the map shows a footpath running along the edge of a plantation. But the footpath sign points squarely into a black gap in the giant trees. What to do? There is no indication that the sign has been vandalised. It looks certain. I decide to trust the sign and ignore the map though, it must be said, that going uphill into very dark conifer woods at this stage is not my preferred option.

I grind up the hill as fast as I can because I want to get out of there, one way or the other. But there is clearly a path and so a persevere and before too long I am out and in a field.

My problems are far from over though because the field is composed of hellacious tussocks, grass, rush and then some sort of sedge. It is supposed to be a bridleway but I cannot see how you could ride across this stuff without crippling your horse in the first few meters.

I plough on though, racing against the dying daylight. Not only is the going horrible it is uphill. I have to pass through a deer fence and then another one, and on the top of the hill I realise that the tussocks have led me astray and I fight my way back over to the left. And there I find a proper track. Hooray!

I really could have kissed it.

Quickly as I can I hobble down the track and then into the hamlet of Stannersburn. Houses, people, cars. Another world entirely. I pass the Peacock Inn and wish I was staying there. The Blackcock is another kilometer. I hobble on, cross the River North Tyne, twin to the South Tyne that I followed from Alston.

And almost as soon as I get to Falston, there is the blessed BlackCock in.

I get a freindly welcome. Rehydrate and eat a tasty lamb shank, too hungry to have a shower first. Then I do shower and find I am too exhausted to go back down to the bar for a drink.

So I collapse in the comfortable bed and am asleep in seconds.



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