Country & Coast: The popularity of the Pennine Way at 50

Pennine Way markerpost.
Pennine Way markerpost.
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IF YOU were to take every newspaper and magazine article written about this month’s 50th birthday of the Pennine Way and place them end to end, they might just about stretch from the route’s start at Edale in Derbyshire to the finishing line at Kirk Yetholm on the Scottish border.

The media love an anniversary, and as far as the Pennine Way is concerned I think the main reason for celebration is that it was the first major long-distance route established in Britain.

For a few decades the PW was our premier challenge walk, de rigour for everyone from teenage Duke of Edinburgh Award participants to new retirees determined to prove their enduring fitness. Now, though, it’s not nearly as popular as it was in those early years. Competition as a place for walkers to get foot blisters has steadily increased from other routes, so much so that the Long Distance Walkers Association now lists over 1,400 footpaths in the UK.

A manager at Malham Youth Hostel once told me that Pennine Wayers - once the mainstay of the hostel’s business - accounted for a much smaller proportion of guests than they used to, and blamed this on the increasing popularity of the relatively new Coast to Coast Walk from St. Bees Head in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay on the Yorkshire coast.

The main appeal of the 190-mile C2C is that it can be achieved in a fortnight’s holiday, whereas the 267-mile Pennine Way takes most ordinary mortals a good three weeks to complete. However, I would suggest another reason for the the C2C’s pre-eminence as king of our National Trails (the Americanism that replaced “long distance footpaths”): it has a clearly defined start beside the Irish Sea and finish on the shore of the North Sea, compared to the somewhat arbitrary beginning and ending of the PW.

There is also the matter of long sections of the PW being eroded and disfigured by past over-use. The guidebook author and deviser of the C2C, Alfred Wainwright, once observed bleakly: “Farmers along the route, faced with broken walls and straying stock, are being sorely tried. Sheep are crippling and choking themselves with broken glass and plastic bags. In time you won’t need a map: just follow the trail of empty cans and orange peel.”

I’d like to venture another explanation for the PW’s diminished appeal. Large parts of it are basically an endurance test, devoid of interest. In particular, the sections south of the M62 and north of Hadrian’s Wall are mostly unremitting slogs.

A new guidebook published on April 24th, the PW’s birthday, addresses this deficiency. Heart of the Pennine Way (Skyware Press, £9.99) includes all the best features from Hebden Bridge northwards to Top Withens aka Wuthering Heights, Malham Cove and Penyghent through Wensleydale and Swaledale to Tan Hill, the dramatic spectacles of High Force and High Cup, and triumphant climax at Hadrian’s Wall. And at 165 miles it’s easily doable in a fortnight’s holiday.