After finding out more about the Spine Race for my previous blog posting the astonishing achievements of the runners had stayed in my mind. By day and night I had followed their progress plotted in real time on the map of the Pennine Way and once they reached Cumbria and Northumberland, and footpaths I know well, I could visualise their ordeal even more clearly.
But one part of their route which I hadn’t walked before was the section between Garrigill and Alston. So the day after the Spine Race finished I set out to see what the runners would have encountered as they approached the 4th checkpoint of the race at Alston Youth Hostel.
The Pennine Way passes right beside the Youth Hostel and I started there, walking south rather than in the direction the runners took. This easy, level, well-surfaced path above the River South Tyne must have been bliss for the Spine Racers. I loved it too, and had the luxury of taking my time and stopping to welcome signs of Spring.
Remembering that I’d seen the runners with legs caked in mud I knew the dry, firm path was of limited length and soon it gave way to squelchy grass. Dropping down to the valley floor I had to step over a small stream emerging from a field gateway and pick my way around several muddy patches.
I don’t usually walk past a bench without having a little sit down, but it really was too early in the walk to justify a rest when I passed a simple stone bench. I did stop to admire it, though, loving the way the lichens and algae are colonising the bench to tone it in with the nearby natural stone.
A little further on the path climbed slightly then maintained a course due south passing isolated buildings Low Nest and Low Cowgap. By now I was climbing stone stiles at every field boundary, some with little wooden gates across their top step. These must have been frustrating to the Spine Race runners, especially those anxious about getting to the Alston checkpoint before the cutoff time.
They had started in Edale in the Peak District at 8am on Sunday. The first runner to reach Alston was the eventual winner John Kelly from America, arriving at 17.36 on Tuesday. The last into the checkpoint were French runner Thomas Legrain and Brit Alan Cormack at 18.53 on Thursday.
Astonishingly, by then John Kelly had reached the finish at Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders. He got there at 23.53 on Wednesday, 30 miles ahead of the second-placed runner.
Even the slower runners would not have been gazing at the scenery, but I was revelling in the South Tyne Valley views from this section of the Pennine Way.
My plan was to follow the Pennine Way until it crossed the river and turned left, where I would turn right and walk back to Alston along the western bank. As the half-way point, the bridge seemed a good prospect for a lunch stop, but before I reached it I passed another stone bench of the same design as the earlier seat. Since the sun had warmed up the stone nicely, it was an obvious place for a picnic, complete with a view.
After eating and smiling at the scenery I followed a narrow path down to the valley floor. This field was very splashy and must have speckled the legs of the Spine Racers running through. I just plodded slowly while staring up at a craggy cliff face where large trees had somehow burrowed their roots into the rock and were seemingly growing in mid air.
Leaving the field I joined a wide track alongside the river. This was very wet, almost a mini-me river beside the real thing. But soon I was at the bridge and I said goodbye to the Pennine Way as it turned towards Garrigill and Cross Fell.
My return route kept near to the river as it crossed fields and then a tussocky marshy section which looked as if it’s sometimes underwater. From there I could see across to my lovely lunch spot.
Reaching the Black Burn I turned west, away from the river, and crossed a field to reach a lane. From here it was just a couple of miles to Alston. I could have joined a footpath across farmland but chose to stay on tarmac for the pleasure of not slipping and sliding on mud and was rewarded with one of Cumbria’s fabulous old metal road signs.
Only three vehicles passed me as I walked along the road, leaving me free to gaze around at the views. Across the valley I could clearly see my outward southbound route and plotting it from a distance showed how benign it is in gradient and terrain. It only merits one short sentence in the official description of the Spine Race route: “Following the South Tyne towards Alston can be muddy”.
So a fairly spineless section of a route designed to test physical and mental strength to the absolute limits. Kudos to those who choose to do that; I was very happy with walking it slowly and picturing the runners’ efforts from the comfort of a sun-warmed bench.
More details about the Spine Race are at https://thespinerace.com/