This story goes back a long time, all the way to January 1958, when I went off to explore a new part of the country with Jim Lavery, Meg Knox, Bill Storey and George Straker. The tale starts on the first Saturday after New Year, when we boarded the bus to Alston in the North Pennines, our outline plan being to walk up the Maiden Way roman road to the old bothy known as Melmerby Shop (see red marker on above map extract), then to spend the rest of the weekend touring about on skis.
Leaving the bus at NY673420 on the A686 Alston to Penrith road, we walked down to the Rowgill beck/Aglionby Beck junction to find a safe place to cross without getting too wet (two small streams being easier to cross than one big stream!). Fortunately, low temperatures had frozen the beck, so we had no trouble getting across and searched about in the snow until we found a faint track heading in a southerly direction.
Although the bothy was off the main track, Jim had been there before and he reckoned that he could find the place again, although only the top of the chimney pot was visible from the Maiden Way.
We were fit in those days, so although the bothy was some distance up the track (at grid reference NY669392 or thereabouts) we were there quite quickly, dumping our skis outside and generally checking the place out.
From the bothy book, it was clear that no-one had been there for some time, which meant that we would have the place to ourselves, so we spread our gear around and unrolled our sleeping bags, then after a quick meal we went ski touring around the old mine workings that are such a feature of the North Pennines, but as the light faded it started to rain, so we hurried back inside to make the bothy comfortable for the night.
We all carried paraffin cooking stoves (generic name = primus stove) and extra bottles of fuel, so we could heat a small room with our own kit if required, but the bothy had a small amount of coal and kindling for the fire, although everything was damp and difficult to light. Finally, everything was nicely warmed up and we were able to enjoy our evening meal, then sat chatting around the fire until the embers faded.
That night was memorably cold. When the fire went out the damp cold crept out of the stone walls and the cracked cement floor, causing George big problems. Unable to sleep on the cold floor, he kept getting up and putting on more clothes, so by the cold light of dawn he was fully dressed (including hat, gloves and boots) and lying on top of the wooden table, his teeth chattering inside his thin and inadequate sleeping bag.
Lighting the stoves for breakfast improved things a bit, but our hearts fell when we opened the bothy door. Heavy overnight rain had washed all the snow away and in the mist we could see grassy green hillsides stretching out in all directions. Leaving our now redundant skis behind, we used most of the day to explore the significant lead mining ruins that line the sides of the Smittergill burn, returning to the bothy for a very late lunch and general cleanup before departure.
It began to get dark as we headed off down the track towards the ford, hoping to cross at the same point as the previous day. On arrival at the Rowgill burn we saw that the situation had changed fairly dramatically, so that the stepping stones of the crossing were now under almost three feet of water!
This was very bad news. With only 30 minutes until Wright’s bus passed by on the road above, we had no time to walk upstream in hopes of finding a better place to cross, and there was no later bus on that route. To make matters worse, we were carrying skis, which meant that we would have no hope of hitching a lift on that lonely road, even if a friendly driver took pity on us.
In emergency mode, we drew lots to see who would wade the river to get the skis and rucksacks across, and then make several trips to piggyback the troops. I lost (of course!), so I ferried the kit and the folks across, almost up to my waist in the dark and freezing cold water, then we sprinted up the hill to the road just as the headlights of the bus appeared on the horizon.
The other guys had to shove my rucksack and skis into the luggage compartment of the bus, because I was struggling to get my soaking wet kit off while the passengers were looking out of the bus windows and laughing as I hopped about trying to get dry trousers on, then giving a rousing cheer as I stumbled onto the bus with boots unlaced and no socks on.
The name ‘Melmerby Shop’ seems to have passed out of the ken of modern walkers. I assume that the place really was a shop serving the many lead miners who worked in that area. It was certainly used by the Army as a bothy for training, there were unopened packs of army issue Benzedrine tablets by the fireplace!
Thanks to geograph.org for the images, both of which show the bothy in more recent times. Photo attributions are embedded in the pics. James Boulter took the header pic but WordPress cropped the attribution, sorry James.