The morning we woke up on the floor of the Melmerby Shop was a warm and calm one. No one had followed us up the night before so we still had the moors to ourselves.
Insta-porridge and fresh brewed cuppas fuelled our morning study; the obligatory deep scour of the map to triple check our route and scout out any other sites [sights] of interest on the way. Mornings are never hurried in a bothy, especially when you’ve got the place to yourself. You might as well take it slow, savour your breakfast, and set a good plan for day ahead.
So after we’d cleaned out our pots and packed up our home we set off, bidding a temporary farewell to the Shop.
Dropping back onto the main track we headed a short way down towards a cleft on the moor where the Smittergill Burn starts its journey down to join what will eventually become the River South Tyne that flows through the centre of Alston and on to the River Tyne that divides my county of birth. At the confluence of the sikes that make up the Smittergill Burn are the remains of the Smittergill Head Mine; a lead mine operational from around 1851. We’ve written before about the lead mining history in the North Pennines but unusually, this particular mine was considered a failure and ceased operations in 1873 having produced less than 400 tons of lead ore.
Despite this, much of the mine remains and we set the bikes down while we explored the ruined shells of the various buildings peppering the locale. The water wheel pit is easily identifiable even from a distance. Long, narrow and sunk into the landscape it was fed from an aqueduct or leat between the two sikes. Further through the site is the crushing mill, barely recognisable save for a retaining wall and some dumps behind it.
At the far end of the site on the banks of one of the sikes are the remains of a building presumed to be an office of sorts. A large stone fireplace remains though a century and a half of decay have reclaimed much of the structure.
Much as we enjoy a wander through industrial remains – and we really do – this was not what we were out to find today so we picked up our steeds and pushed up the other side of the cleft to continue our journey.
We headed out in the general direction of Cross Fell, taking our time to enjoy the journey. The day was bright and warm enough to push our sleeves up. We trundled along for a while, passing what looked to be a newly constructed and well-to-do grouse cabin and commenting on the wealth that must be involved in the ‘sport’. There’s no hurry to our day. We stop at numerous points, poking around in ruined farm buildings and chatting over how the land must’ve looked in bygone eras.
After a while we catch sight of the thing we were out here to find. The stack of a small chimney peeks up above the horizon and as we crest the brow we’re gifted with a stunning view up the burn and out towards the stony plateau of Cross Fell in the distance. Descending down to the burn and turning upstream we can see our destination much clearer.
Perched on the bank at the edge of the burn is a stunningly quaint little cottage with a corrugated roof and a bright red painted window. From the outside it looks like Bilbo Baggins’ holiday home; barely big enough to stand up in. There’s a small enclosed courtyard to the left side of it where the entrance door sits. Stepping inside, there’s a small vestibule area with space either side currently filled with all kinds of bothy detritus: camping equipment, spare pots and pans, half tins of paint, various tools etc. The real treat comes on stepping through into the main cottage. What looks from the outside like an unassuming little Hobbit house is actually a lofty and open space with an open fire, kitchen area and enough sleeping area for four people comfortably.
The hut is filled with joyous little surprises: the modest library of outdoors-related books, the collection of pots and pans and kitchen goods, but the absolute piece de resistance has to be the bothy book back-catalogue. Never before have I seen anything as amazing as this. All of the bothy books dating back to 1981 have been painstakingly typed up and left in the hut for visitors to pore over. I’ll admit to being deeply gutted when I found them – gutted that we hadn’t stayed over here last night because these would have wiled away an effortless evening, but it gives us extra reason to come back.
We hung out at the hut for quite a while just wandering around, having lunch and enjoying the tranquillity of the day. We leave the bikes leaning against the hut and wander about a mile or so further out, just exploring the area. We have a hunch there’s a waterfall around here somewhere so we eventually ditch the track and just follow our noses down a faint track across the moors. We do this a lot. Hogs’ favourite thing to do is ‘forge a path’ across rough land in the vague direction of where he thinks we need to head, and sure enough, after about 10 minutes we meet the burn at the top of a stunning waterfall. It’s far from the biggest waterfall we’ve visited, and believe me when I say we’ve seen a LOT of waterfalls, but this one feels like if only for today it belongs entirely to us. There’s no real path leading up to it, maybe a sheep track but no discernible path so it’s not likely that it gets a tremendous amount of traffic. From the top of the falls you see the burn snaking away through the valley and on this beautiful sunny day you can see for miles.
I leave David Bailey taking photos galore and just sit at the top of the waterfall watching him indulge his creative streak. The peace of the day is just incredible. We could not have asked for a nicer day to be exploring this new area and the sound of the water tumbling down over the rocks is almost meditative. I feel so serene and relaxed that I’m almost loath to leave, but since our bikes are back at the hut and the day isn’t getting any younger we reluctantly begin the journey back to the hut along the burn’s edge.
Once back at the hut we retrace our steps back across the top of the moors. We ride back past the fancy shooting lodge, through the remains of the mine workings, stop for a quick cuppa at the Shop before speeding back down the Escher incline to the ford. Just as we hit the ford we meet a father and his two teenage sons on bikes laden with Alpkit bikepacking gear. These three intrepid explorers are about 450 miles into a John o’ Groats to Land’s End school holiday adventure. What a fantastic thing to do with your dad. In years to come those lads will have some incredible memories to think back on. The family blaze through the ford without a thought and trundle off up the hill. As we make our final push back to the car I keep glancing back, watching them climb further up the Escher hill, getting smaller and further away. By the time we get back to the car they’re out of sight. Our mini adventure is nearly over, but theirs is barely halfway through. On our way home we talk at length about their camaraderie. The complete lack of tiredness and stress they showed. They were on £300 entry-level mountain bikes with budget gear but they were having an absolute whale of a time. They epitomised the spirit of adventure we strive for and so, with this amazing family in mind we resolve to plan some bigger and better adventures.