The Pennine Way

The Pennine Way is famous as the first English long distance path. The path was the idea of the journalist and rambler Tom Stephenson inspired by similar trails in the United States of America, particularly the Appalachian Trail. Stephenson proposed the concept in an article for the Daily Herald in 1935 but it wasn’t until 1965 that the Way was finally completed.

I read somewhere that Tom Stephenson was reputed to have said that in years to come people will curse my name for coming up with this walk, and his wife replied that it wouldn’t take them that long.

It’s a peculiar route. For one thing it doesn’t run along the entirety of the Pennines range.

As Wainwright says: ‘A true Pennine Way would lie along the full length of the Pennine Range and would have better suited the name had it been confined between these extremities, taking in the lovely Derbyshire Dales and ending with the minor foothills east of Carlisle. This, apart from remedying the present inappropriateness of the name, would have improved the scenic qualities of the route.’

And if you are going to take a liberal definition of the Pennines, why doesn’t it come to a sensible conclusion at Hadrian’s Wall instead of meandering on for a further 70 miles into the Cheviots and the Scottish borders?

The Way has a tendency to prioritise boggy moors and peat hags over stunning views and pleasant villages. Unless you like bleak bogs there are great tracts of it you are unlikely to ever want to visit again.

It’s also a shadow of its former self. When Wainwright did it in 1968 (in bad weather) waymarking was poor, the boggy moorland sections were not duckboarded and signposted. In poor weather it must have been an ordeal / survival course. Now you can hurry across the duckboards and follow the signposts on sections where you would have been floundering about lost in bogs for hours.

It’s also not anywhere as busy as it used to be. Back in the seventies (when John Noakes did it) there weren’t the range of long distance walks there are now. Nor were the massive range of popular and challenging alternative outdoor pursuits there are now – from mountain biking to marathon running.

You can walk the Way now and meet very few people en route. Whereas one B&B proprieter told us that in years gone by the bars on route were populated by Pennine Way hikers and survivors.

I blame ‘AW’s’ Pennine Way Companion for sucking me in. You walk a bit of it. In fanciful and speculative mood you buy the Wainwright book and then you are hooked. It’s a thing of beauty the Pennine Way Companion. I didn’t take many pictures on the walk because the book is such a perfect thing that photos can’t compete.

What’s great about the Guide too is his uncompromising descriptions of the horrors ahead. Each page of the Guide has a pithy summary of the next stretch. Among my favourites are: ‘Gird up your loins as they have never been girded before’, ‘you will question your own sanity’ and ‘uninspiring”.

A weekend here and a weekend there and you are eating up chunks of it. Filling in gaps. Calculating the mileage completed and the miles still to go. A quarter, a hundred miles done, halfway there. Until you need the bank holiday Monday weekends for the Northern sections which took me to parts of the North I had never visited before. And that’s one of the attractions of the Pennine Way I suppose. As well as the challenge and the desire to finish what you’ve started the Pennine Way takes you to places you haven’t been before in the countryside of the North and as AW says you are unlikely to pass through again.

In summary I’d say of the 270 miles…

The first 42 miles from Edale to the Calder Valley is bogs and, mostly, uninspiring moors and peathags all the way.

I enjoyed the section from the Calder Valley through to Gargrave because it was close to home but took me to some new and unfamiliar territory.

Gargrave to Horton is classic Dales for about 20 miles or so – and certainly would be one of the highlights for those who don’t know this tour of Dales highlights.

Horton to Hawes is not a bad slog over the top from the Ribble to Wensleydale. Hawes to Keld is more classic Dales. Then there’s some of the grimmest and featureless terrain you’d never want to spend any time in on the climb up to Tan Hill.

More ho hum moors to Middleton before one of the prettiest sections of the whole walks up the Tees Valley, before another moorland yomp to the other worldly Cauldron Snout and down into the Eden Valley at Dufton. Then another slog back across the Pennines and down into the South Tyne valley. A short and seductively pleasant valley walk follows before the PW’s dark spirit reasserts itself for a interminable and unrewarding stretch to Hadrians Wall.

Along the Wall for a short stretch and then instead of finishing you are into Northumbria for back of beyond nothingness to the tumbleweed settlement of Bryness on the A68. And then the final session. The 27 mile slog to Kirk Yetholm that’s been hanging over for you for the whole walk. And it wasn’t as bad as billed – though good job it was a nice day!

So overall – more of the mileage is uninspiring than inspiring!

I miss it though…

The last words from AW:

‘The Pennine Way offers you the experience of a lifetime, which is not to say that it offers continuous enjoyment. It is a tough, bruising walk and the compensations are few. You do it because you want to prove to yourself that you are man enough to do it. You do it to get it off your conscience. You do it because you count it as a personal achievement. Which it is, precisely.’

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