It’s the most famous walking trail in Britain, but what keeps drawing people back to the Pennine Way? Andrew McCloy pulled on his walking boots to find out.
There comes a time when most hillwalkers, faced with day-long horizontal rain or impenetrable grey mist, ask themselves the question: “Why am I doing this?” It has been regularly popping up in the minds of those on the Pennine Way for many years, but still this notoriously challenging and uncompromising trail keeps drawing us back. The Pennine Way’s 50th birthday celebrations last year generated considerable publicity, including a four-part BBC TV series. However, less than 2,000 people a year walk the entire 268-mile route between the Peak District and the Cheviots and its reputation goes before it in a way that no other British walking trail can match. The only way to fathom out whether the plaudits were merited was to lace up my boots at Edale and head for Scotland.
Although the Pennine Way, Britain’s first-long distance path, was formally opened in 1965, the idea for a walking route up the backbone of England had emerged in the 1930s and later in the uncertain and difficult inter-war years it was genuinely believed that walking in the hills could be physically and spiritually uplifting for a younger generation. “We shall open their minds to the beauty, the peace and the soul-satisfying gifts of high and lonely places,” wrote the Pennine Way’s creator, Tom Stephenson, in 1937.
From the start and despite its subsequent reputation for rain and boot-sucking bogs, the Pennine Way was about escaping day-to-day urban drudgery and the enriching experience of being among open hills and moors. Within the first few days of my own walk last summer I experienced that feeling, perhaps most unexpectedly in the South Pennines where I was conscious that this narrow upland corridor was all that separated vast swathes of built-up northern England – sprawling Greater Manchester one way and West Yorkshire’s conurbations the other.
Further on, in the Yorkshire Dales, a more genuine wildness began to emerge, with some memorable views from Fountains Fell and Pen-y-ghent. It was more intense still in the North Pennines, between the thunderous waterfalls of Upper Teesdale and the huge glacial trench of High Cup; and at the end of the trail in the tranquil green hills of the Cheviots, where I walked for hours without meeting a soul.
Although this certainly wasn’t wilderness, the Pennine Way offers solitude and space that is at such a premium in our crowded modern lives. There aren’t the soaring peaks of the Lake District or Scotland, but in the endless moorland horizons and bare Pennine canvas the sense of distance can be startling, especially when for most of us our daily vision is often framed by a car windscreen.
At one point just south of Hawes, at the top of a track called Cam High Road near where the rivers Wharfe and Ribble rise, I stood on the lonely and windswept moorland and almost consciously “de-cluttered”. The Pennine panorama was so vast and so endless I spent several minutes not focusing on anything in particular but simply absorbing this enthralling landscape. It occurred repeatedly as I walked north to Scotland; and others on the trail said it was happening to them, too. It’s almost as if walking continuously for two or three weeks meets some yearning deep inside us to reconnect with the natural environment. Moving at literally walking pace through a wild landscape, day after day, instils a deep-seated rhythm that is as fulfilling as it is difficult to explain.
Mind you, not every step of my journey was quite as rewarding, especially when the Pennine weather reminded me why the trail has gained such a bleak reputation in some walking circles. I got soaked on Bleaklow, drenched on Great Shunner Fell and plunged knee-deep in a Northumberland bog somewhere in Wark Forest. Not very nice at the time, but all part of the Pennine Way experience, and in dry clothes in the pub at the end of the day the bad memories were already fading.
I also kept reminding myself that getting wet and muddy for a few hours, however uncomfortable was hardly the torture that some made out. Today people walk the Pennine Way in expensive breathable fabrics, navigate with GPS and stay in centrally heated guest houses.
How different to half a century ago when the early Pennine Way walkers carried cotton rucksacks and cycle capes, camped in heavy canvas tents or stayed in draughty youth hostels. In the 1950s and 60s (even before the trail was officially opened) teachers regularly led groups of schoolboys the whole length of the path. I spoke to one ex-teacher from Burnley, Alan Binns, who described how they would yomp huge daily distances in all weathers, surviving on caches of food that he had buried in the ground in advance.
At the height of its popularity, in the 1970s and 80s, walking the Pennine Way was the boy’s own adventure that everyone aspired to. Fast forward to my own walk last summer and there were no groups of youngsters on the trail.
Do they now get their adrenalin fix through other sports, I wonder, or are we simply getting a bit soft and risk-averse these days? The Pennine Way has always offered that taste of frontier adventure, albeit in our domestic context, but the next generation risk losing that all-important connection with the natural world.
I’m pleased to say that I made it all the way to Scotland on foot and, despite a creaky knee and a few sore toes, passed my midlife MOT. Certainly the physical (and psychological) challenge has always been a key ingredient of the Pennine Way: are you sufficiently fit and strong? Do you have enough resolve?
The Pennine Way is long and hard, but not too long and hard that it’s out of reach for most of us. As I found, completing it is still a source of great self-achievement – to look back for the rest of your life and say “I did that” is immensely satisfying.
But it’s about more than simply walking 268 miles from point A to point B. The Pennine Way is an experience and a journey in the widest sense, a chance to sample the “soul-satisfying gifts of high and lonely places”, to use Tom Stephenson’s phrase. If you can withstand a little rain and the odd patch of bog, it still provides that opportunity for self-enrichment, an antidote to modern society’s growing materialism and detachment. Much has changed in 80 years, but that long green path through the hills still offers a way forwards.
The Pennine Way: The Path, the People, The Journey by Andrew McCloy is published by Cicerone, priced at £12.95.