Crossing Black Fell

Grey Nag & Black Fell

Walk Summary

An epic march in fog and snow on the frozen moors above Gilderdale and South Tynedale including the summits of Grey Nag, Black Fell and Park Fell.

Distance: 14 miles
Total ascent: 2150ft
Walk Rating: ***
Parking: Alston Youth Hostel, Alston
Route: Download Route [GPX]

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Walk Report

The forecast for our first day in Alston was fairly poor so it was a nice surprise when we roused ourselves from our bunk beds at the Alston Youth Hostel to see patches of blue sky out the window. Unfortunately the early sunshine did not last long, only about a mile or so into the walk. This initial stage followed the Pennine Way north out of Alston towards Whitley Castle, the name given to the site of a Roman fort.

Of all the possible scenarios that we may have imagined happening on this walk picking up a canine companion was certainly not one of them. Yet this is exactly what happened at the first farm we passed when a very friendly young greyhound decided to follow us.

"By the time we arrived at the summit of Grey Nag the fences and rocks were covered in wind sculptured formations of ice."

In its eagerness to accompany us it showed quite amazing dexterity to leap over or squirm through or under gates in order to stay with us. By the time we reached Harbut Lodge we were beginning to get quite concerned for the dog's safety if it continued to follow us.

I flagged down a passing post van and luckily the postman knew the owners of the dog and so took it with him in his van. While it was a big relief we no longer had to worry about the dog (apparently a pedigree) I did feel guilty at the reproachful look it gave us as the postman bundled it into the back of his van.

From Whitley Castle we left the Pennine Way to briefly follow a track which passed some old mine workings. The path gave out just as we met the base of the gathering hill fog. Navigation was not helped by the fact that some of the fences marked on the map were no longer in existence. Eventually we arrived at a wall which we followed to the top of Grey Nag and from then on navigation was easy, despite poor visibility.

As we gained height conditions underfoot gradually changed from wet and grassy to frozen peat and heather with a covering of snow. By the time we arrived at the summit of Grey Nag the fences and rocks were covered in wind sculptured formations of ice. The summit was one of the most unusual I've come across with a wall junction and a mini complex of sheep folds. In addition to the OS trig point there was also a large cone shaped currick built into the wall at its highest point.

We took advantage of the shelter of the sheep folds to eat our lunch before heading south west along the fence to our next summit of the day, Tom Smith's Stone Top. I say 'summit' but it really is just a minor moorland bump with no features except the ubiquitous fence. We were only able to identify the highest point because Matt had programmed in the grid reference in his GPS.

Just before we reached Tom Smith's Stone Top I suddenly felt like I had a large object stuck to the bottom of my right foot. Upon closer inspection it was a solid ball of ice that had formed around my gaiter strap. The ice was packed round so tight I had to hack it off. Within a few paces it had begun to form again. Unable to adjust the strap to tighten it round the sole of my boot due to the buckles also being frozen I had to remove the gaiter completely.

From Tom Smith's Stone Top to Black Fell we began to encounter much rougher terrain and had to negotiate numerous frozen peat hags and groughs. In some ways the frozen ground made this section easier, if it had been wet underfoot this section would have been much more arduous.

There is little to say about the summit of Black Fell, the highest point of the walk, other than it was marked by a trig point next to the fence which we continued to follow south all the way to Hartside Height above the highest point of the A686 between Penrith and Alston. We heard some cars but did not see any.

At this point the cloud did actually threaten to lift and we briefly had views of Fiend's Fell and the flanks of Melmerby Fell. This teased us into thinking we were going to get some views, if not from our next summit Benty Hill, then at least from the more distant and much lower Park Fell. Unfortunately this was not the case and as we marched on along the fence visibility got worse and the snow, which up to this point had been quite light began to get heavier.

The final few miles of the walk thus became a real slog made worse by the realisation that we were going to complete the whole walk with hardly any reward in terms of views and the monotony of what we could see (i.e. the fence) became quite tiring.

Eventually, after 8 hours we arrived cold and wet back in Alston. While the experience as a whole could not in anyway be described as enjoyable there were some aspects of the walk we did enjoy. Certainly, after a few pints and some fine food at The Angel later that evening, I was already beginning to feel much more positive about it.

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