I like flat surfaces. I like how smooth they are. I like the absence of hills and valleys. I am a temperate person: never too high, never too low. That's how I like my trails.
Day Three, therefore, was bound to be a disappointment. Although it lacked the airy grandeur of the climb over Wideopen hill (an 1,150 foot ascent) it made up for it by offering multiple, smaller ascents and descents. As we pass into Northumberland, we are also moving into one of England's minor mountain ranges, the Cheviots. The horizontal distance for the day was supposed to be the shortest — only thirteen miles. Vertically, however, we would be climbing (and descending) nearly 2,000 feet.
The day begins rather unpromisingly: rain lashes the thick glass windows as we chew through a full English breakfast in our B&B. The wind hurls the drops against the panes, and shakes the glass in the wooden frames. It is a good morning to return to bed and enjoy a few more hours of sleep. Unfortunately, St Cuthbert's Way, as well as a B&B reservation thirteen miles down the trail, calls. 8:45 finds us trudging out of Town Yetholm, climbing the first of many hills to come.
The Pennine Way, a 267 mile trail that originates near Manchester, shares a mile and a couple of hills with St Cuthbert's Way. David, who is a keen hiker, would probably have followed the Pennine Way south, but I remind him of our true task, hiking eastward. Another time, perhaps.
Despite the poor conditions — intermittent rain and a fairly constant gale — the day's hike is not as difficult as what we endured yesterday. The ascent of Wideopen Hill, coming after a long day's hike, had been mentally mortifying. Even though the cumulative ascent of Day Three will be greater than our slog up Wideopen Hill, it does not seem as taxing: the hills come in smaller chunks, and I feel relatively fresh for the exertion. Our altitude increases, and by early afternoon we are high in the heather.
For the first time on the trail I see a grouse. These birds crouch down among the purple heather, and then moments before a hiker's boot steps on them, they flush in a blur of wings and adrenaline-releasing shock. They flap away, making a chuckling cry that sounds like "Go back! Go back," and then settle into a new hiding spot.
We do not have to break trail through the thick heather, but the path becomes so narrow, that I am placing one foot precisely in front of the other. This gait, most frequently observed among tightrope walkers, tends to be unbalancing, and on a number of occasions, with wind striking my right quarter, I nearly topple into the bushes.
The rain, which has been intermittent through the day, finally becomes serious as we began our descent toward Wooler. We are soaked through to the skin by the time we reach the car park at the foot of Wooler Commons. Unfortunately, the planners of St Cuthbert's Way decided that this would be an excellent place to play a trick on the pilgrims. Rather than proceeding directly into town, the trail now makes a sharp detour, a meandering course up a hill (as if there hadn't been enough hills already in our day). The direct route, along the road, would have seen us tucked up in a cozy B&B in no time, but as the rain and wind lashes our faces, we turn and trudge uphill to experience the long route into town. Stepping daintily between sheep droppings, I curse the sadistic trail planners one more time. It was simply too much. Larks and capers!
Wooler is the first large town we've encountered since leaving Melrose. It boasts a High Street with two cash machines, and a Coop that was open until 10:00 PM! Civilization! After a lovely dinner, I slip between crisp sheets in the Black Bull Hotel. Our room is over the pub, and from below comes the monotonous voice of a game of Border's Bingo. The caller repeats a series of numbers: "22…22…22. 33…33…33."
I am footsore and exhausted. It won't keep me awake for long.