MOST of us have our favourite stretches of the Pennine Way.
It might be the windswept Tan Hill, in North Yorkshire, home to the welcoming inn of the same name, or the darkening moorland path that leads up to Fountains Fell, deep in Dales country.
For me it’s the rocky amphitheatre of Malham Cove and the beguiling, primal landscape beyond. It was here, half a century ago, that 2,000 people gathered for the official opening of this historic trail.
The Pennine Way had actually been conceived by journalist and keen rambler Tom Stephenson way back in 1935. But it was another 30 years before his dream of a path running along the Pennines finally came to fruition.
Colin Speakman was among the crowd on that rather chilly spring day in 1965, when Stephenson, who by then was secretary of the Ramblers’ Association, launched the trail at a ceremony on Malham Moor.
“I remember I was with a group of ramblers and we headed up on to the moor. It was very cold and grey, a bleakish April day,” says Speakman.
He remembers Stephenson, too. “He was quite a character and one of the great campaigners. He actually told me that his favourite bit of the Pennine Way was in the Yorkshire Dales at Kisdon. There’s a lovely stretch that curves round Kisdon Hill and looks out over Swaledale towards Muker.”
The Pennine Way stretches for roughly 268 miles along the backbone of England through some of our most beautiful, and challenging, countryside. Its southerly point begins at Edale in Derbyshire’s Peak District and it stretches northwards to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders.
Around 150,000 people a year use the Pennine Way, with some opting for less taxing day trips while the more robust walking enthusiasts attempt to complete the entire route.
The anniversary is being marked by a mass Walk the Way in a Day event this Saturday when people can choose from 50 circular walks that cover the entire Pennine Way, 10 of which are in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
Visitors to the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes can also catch an exhibition of work by a group of Dales artists inspired by the route using art, photography and sculpture, before it finishes on Sunday.
Today, the Long Distance Walkers Association lists more than 1,400 footpaths in the UK, but what makes the Pennine Way significant is that it was the first long distance route established in Britain.
Although as Colin Speakman, founder of the Yorkshire Dales Society and chairman of the Dales Way Association, points out, the whole concept began further afield.
“The idea of long distance walking for leisure started in Germany in the Black Forest,” he says. It was then adopted in the United States, home to the Long Trail and the famous Appalachian Trail, which stretches for a staggering 2,200 miles.
Speakman says the Pennine Way was the signal for ramblers and walking groups to set up a growing network of routes. “These days fewer people walk it than they used to because there’s such a wide choice, but the Pennine Way set the mood,” he says. Chief among these are the Cleveland Way and the Coast to Coast walk from St Bees Head in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay on Yorkshire’s coast.
Nevertheless, Speakman says many people retain a fondness and passion for the Pennine Way. “It’s still there and it remains one of the great walks of England and something to be celebrated, particularly at a time when the environment and national parks aren’t high on the agenda. It also encourages people to go out walking which is physically, spiritually and emotionally rewarding.”
But while the Pennine Way offers some of the most spectacular views of the English countryside it’s certainly no walk in the park, if you’ll pardon the pun. The Rambler’s Association describe it as “challenging” and it can be an unremitting slog in places, particularly the stretches south of the M62 and north of Hadrian’s Wall.
The pounding from so many boots over the past 50 years has also taken its toll and eroded paths and broken walls, along with discarded rubbish, continue to be an issue. As Alfred Wainwright, the well known fellwalker and guidebook author, once observed: “In time you won’t need a map: just follow the trail of empty cans and orange peel.”
Perhaps, though, this is the price we must pay for having open access to the great British countryside.
The Pennine Way still entices both occasional walkers and hardcore ramblers because of its heritage and the fact you don’t have to attempt the whole route - which takes a good three weeks.
Author and countryside enthusiast Roger Ratcliffe says the combination of geography and history makes it unique. “It was the very first long distance footpath, or national trail as they now call it, and for four years it was the only one,” he says.
Its popularity is helped by the fact it includes well known landmarks such as Hadrian’s Wall, Malham Cove and Top Withens that attract thousands of tourists each year.
Ratcliffe says the route was a “trailblazer” because it established the principle of public access that we perhaps now take for granted.
“Tom Stephenson was a countryside revolutionary. He thought that the public should have access to areas previously denied to them, and that all started really with the Pennine Way.”
Despite its challenging terrain and the fact there might be better walks, or certainly easier ones, Pennine wayers retain a special affection for the trail, something that continues to be passed down through the generations.
“Today, there are so many more long distance walks that people can go and do, and this stems from the right of access and the creation of the Pennine Way,” he says.
The Pennine Way allows us to experience a sense of wilderness while at the same time being safe in the knowledge that we’re never more than a few hours from the nearest village or town.
Alan Titchmarsh, the Ilkley-born TV writer and presenter, is in no doubt as to its continuing importance. “The word iconic is over used, but it most certainly applies to the Pennine Way and to the terrain it traverses,” he says.
“I’ve always been proud that it passes through some of my favourite native haunts, and my copy of Alfred Wainwright’s astonishing guide is well thumbed.
“I hope that hardy walkers continue to be uplifted by walking even a part of it, and to feel a sense of achievement and wonder as they marvel at the beauty of the countryside around them.”
• To find out more about Pennine Way anniversary events going on near where you live, go to www.nationaltrail.co.uk/pennineway