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The Pennine Way by Damian Hall

Pennine Way
Pennine Way

I didn’t pay much attention at school. But I do remember being told something about the majority of communication being non-verbal rather than verbal. Sure, our mouths make sounds, but the real truth is in the eyes (liars, of course, tend to look away at the key moment – just watch any politician speak) and other facial expressions, even what we’re doing with our hands. What I like best about mentioning the Pennine Way to outdoorsy folk in the UK is watching their responding non-verbal communication. It’s likely their mouth will form a circle, making a silent oooh or ooof. Their brow will probably furrow with concern and a smidgen of respect. Then they’ll involuntarily reach for their jacket collar and pull it a little closer. You see, the Pennine Way has something of a reputation. It’s England’s oldest and toughest National Trail. It’s the original, the classic, the Big One.

Peak District
Peak District

Now you won’t find any wild grizzly bears on the Pennine Way, or lose a finger to frostbite unless you eat a LOT of ice-cream, or ever be more than half a day’s walk from some form of civilisation. This is England after all. But, thanks mostly to Alfred Wainwright’s whingey 1968 guidebook, the trail has a reputation for foul weather, topographical embarrassment and hiker-devouring peat bogs. I’ve both hiked and run the 268-mile Pennine Way and think its reputation is rather unfair. Though I should confess to have written the official guidebook , so I may be a little biased. But for me it’s a genuine love affair.

Pennine Way
Pennine Way

In 1935 two female US hikers wrote to England’s Daily Herald newspaper asking for advice on a walking holiday. Was there anything in England, they wondered, like the Appalachian Trail? The short and shameful answer was no. But their enquiry got journalist and hill-walker Tom Stephenson’s thinking. He recognised the wilds of the “lonely, entrancing” Pennines would make an excellent long-distance trail. Thirty years later the trail finally came to fruition and the Pennine Way, the first of its kind over here, celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2015. The Way follows what’s often called “the backbone of England”, the Pennine hills, from idyllic little Edale in the rugged Peak District National Park, approximately in the centre of England (and the world’s second-most visited national park), all the way to the village of Kirk Yetholm, just over the border in Scotland. As well as the rugged Peak District, the trail winds through the glorious Yorkshire Dales and along World Heritage-listed Hadrian’s Wall, to the criminally underrated Cheviot Hills.

High Cup
High Cup

Over 60 per cent of the Way is in national parks and the route includes England’s highest waterfall above ground, the country’s highest point outside the Lake District (Cross Fell – also officially England’s coldest place) and, perhaps more notably, the highest pub. Plus the apocalyptic, glacier-carved chasm of High Cup – the greatest view in England. These are landscapes that’ve inspired great writers, from the Brontë sisters to William Wordsworth and Charles Dickens. It’s some of the remotest, wildest and best upland walking in England. Unlike say the Lake District, where peaks are a more classical up-and-down affairs, summits here tend to be broader and often plateaus, so when it does rain you can’t always escape quickly – hence the reputation. And this climate has helped create peat bogs, though there are now stone slab stones over the worst bits – which are a great help with navigation when the mist comes in. When I hiked the trail for 16 days – in two spells, April and September – I only got a soaking twice. I didn’t get topographically confused for more than a few minutes and, slightly disappointingly, the peat bogs didn’t seem to much fancy me.

The Cheviots
The Cheviots

The first day introduced me to bleakly beautiful gritstone plateaus and melancholy moorlands (the UK has around 75 per cent of the world’s moorland habitat). The next few days have more moor, verdant valleys, curious rock formations, Roman paving stones and mysterious standing stones. At Malham, on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, limestone splendour is everywhere: natural pavements of glacier-carved rock, giant, semi-amphitheatres and apocalyptic clefts created by Norse gods who’ve just discovered their wife’s cheating on them. “I won’t know for sure if Malhamdale is the finest place there is until I have died and seen heaven (assuming they let me at least have a glance),” said US author and former Dales resident Bill Bryson. “But until that day comes it will certainly do.” I followed historic packhorse routes through huge, yellow, wind-tickled valleys to traditional, friendly Hawes. Indeed the Way lands me at a village most nights, usually places I’ve never heard of but don’t want to leave. In a way, the Way’s a tour of northern England’s cosy pubs and welcoming cafés.

Hardraw Force
Hardraw Force

After Hardraw Force – the crashing waterfall where Kevin Costner got his moobs out in Prince Of Thieves ­– it’s over the whaleback behemoth of Great Shunner Fell, where it really does feel like striding atop the backbone of England. That night, after hours of lonely bog-trotting I arrive at the highest and surely loneliest pub in the country, Tan Hill Inn. It’s hard to imagine a more welcome sight. And then I get to the best bit. Suddenly the floor drops away in front of me, like a real-time earthquake, to reveal a compelling yet terrifying chasm. High Cup is a symmetrical, horseshoe valley, gouged out by a glacier’s giant ice-cream scoop. The apocalyptic cleft is horrifying and wondrous and I can’t take my eyes off it. In good weather Cross Fell must also be spectacular. But Cross Fell and good weather aren’t two things that would recognise each other in a two-person meet-and-great wearing nametags. It’s up here that I get an old-fashioned soaking and, with another Wayfarer, we make good use of the fireplace at Greg’s Hut, a welcoming emergency shelter.

Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian’s Wall

On most walks historic Hadrian’s Wall would be the highlight and I march along the caterpillar of historic stones for eight memorable miles. The last two days, in the Cheviots, are the best of the lot. Giant, cartoon hills of grass-covered volcanic rock, with hardly a soul about. In Kirk Yetholm’s Border Hotel, the pub that marks the Pennine Way’s end point, I have a few blisters of course. And the squelching noise of the bogs is still in my ears. But it’s a small price to pay. To have walked the Way is to have achieved something only fellow Wayfarers can fully understand. I’ve hiked all over the world, but few trails can match this thrilling yomp for drama and history. It also proved to me that, despite Britain’s pandemic of cars, tarmac and things that beep, you can still find wild, remote and plain beautiful places, offering a giddy sense of liberation. And that’s a very fine thing to find. Though mention the trail’s name to me now and my toes squirm around and attempt to curl up under my feet, my shoulders hunch together and my ears imagine squelching sounds. But then my face will break out into a big, broad, smile.

Damian Hall
Damian Hall

About Damian Hall

DAMIAN HALL is a freelance outdoor journalist who’s trekked many of the world’s famous and not-so-famous long-distance trails. He wrote the official guide to England’s Pennine Way and can be found wittering on about it and similar things at @damo_hall. For more self-aggrandising hogwash visit www.damianhall.info; and for more information on the Pennine Way visit www.nationaltrail.co.uk/pennineway

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19 comments

  1. A good read, Thanks, Damian!

    • I just added this hike to my bucket list. Having walked a bit in the Yorkshire Dales, I could see myself doing more of that.

      • Yeah, Hiking across England is one of those things I would like to do, but probably never will. Hadrians Wall was interesting from a historical perspective. Always wondered why it failed to keep the Celts out. Kind’a like the Great Wall of China or the Maginot Line.

      • It did keep the Celts out. Then the Romans left, and the Saxons came by boat and along with others took over.

      • Thanks Martin! I thought they had breached it it sections…my mistake.

      • It’s a interesting place. Romans also built a wall further North, but pulled back to Hadrians later.

      • It’s a fine walk. In fact 270 miles of fine walk. My millage is based on Wainwrights guide. Simply wonderful, and unlike AW I enjoyed the PW. A wild (mostly) high walk.

        There is some hard miles, some hard conditions and one thing often overlooked – “Pubs” yes it is the wet UK, but the PW follows a line that has a plethora of fine pubs on it. Raining; call in for a pint. Then it’s for most of its length a watershed walk and it rains on watersheds a lot.

        Damo, Greg’s hut is nice, but for those who know leaving the path there will see you finding a nicer bothy not far from it. I won’t buy your book, simply as I have done it. I took a slow 15 days. It snowed on day 2; so I split it up and added a day. But your 16 and my 15 mean some long hard miles at times. The unfit, less experienced beware.

        Also Crossfell is not for the novice, or inexperienced hiker. No easy marked trail there. In mist and bad weather its a savage highpoint of the PW. I have known very experienced walkers and backpackers to end up getting disoriented on its summit.

        The PW is a watershed walk. It needed to start further south in the southern end of the Pennines, and not divert off the end to the Cheviots – which are far from the Pennines, and not the best of it. Dales section over Fountain Fell, and onwards over Great Shunner section is far more enjoyable. The Cheviots in mist is a ridge walk along duck boarding, and miles of slabbing dumped on wet bog to stop people sinking in. Nice walking, but not the Pennines and not the best IMO.

        Stephenson had a vision of a walk and made it happen. As Wainwright said you’ll be a better man for having walked it. On that I agreed with him. He was like many a bit harsh on the PW in places. Great post, great walk. Thanks.

    • Thanks Marco. If you’re ever thinking of trekking it, do drop me a line for info and advice. I’m a bit biased, but it’s a belter!

  2. Thank you for the write up. Have you hiked in the States at all?

    I wonder how the Pennine compares in terms of difficulty to hiking in the North East U.S.?

    Very well written article and your pictures are beautiful!

  3. Hello Kevin. Thank you for reading it. I’ve not yet hiked in the US (one day!), but I doubt the Pennine Way is as tough as some of your big ones. For example, you’re rarely more than half a day from a village or some kind of settlement, meaning as well as the safety aspect, you don’t have to carry lots of food. The Pennine Way is tough by UK standards though and that’s mainly because the terrain (often boggy) is testing and energy-sapping, navigation can be tricky and the weather is often pretty grumpy. I’ve met US hikers in the UK who seem to like it here for the fact that it’s not a full-on wilderness experience. That instead, you can have a wild old day, spectacular views and stiff hill-climbs, but still reach a comfy inn for fish and chips and a pint of ale or glass of red at the end of the day. It’s a great way to experience England anyway.

    • Thanks Damien. I backpacked Europe about 10 years ago (feels like yesterday. When you’re doing that kind of backpacking you tend to stick to the cities. I started and ended in London and unfortunately didn’t get a chance to see much of the country.

      Now that I’m older, slightly less adventurous and not completely broke, I’d love to go back and experience the country side. The idea of seeing those views by day and having fish and chips w/ a pint by night is pretty appealing.

  4. Fun read! I hiked the Wainwright coast-to coast trail in 2011, and I remember when we crossed the Pennines and stayed at Tan Hill Inn. There was a group of backpackers coming up the Way, who set up tents outside, but spent several hours in the pub entertaining with their stories. I don’t know why the innkeepers locked the doors overnight; I climbed out the window for a walk at sunrise with a few sheep for company. Thank you for reminding me of a great night on that stark, windy hill!

  5. Thanks Lisa – and no problem! You know what, when I last hiked the Pennine Way I stayed at the legendary Tan Hill Inn and met two Americans (both male) hiking Coast to Coast (which I’ve also trekked). Classic moorland around there. Boggy too.

  6. I took a train through the Pennines earlier this year and wondered if there was good hiking there — now I know! Thanks, Damian.

  7. We are planning on doing the coast to coast hike next year. I’m a vegetarian & my partner is vegan. We are planning on using a luggage transfer service & staying in B&B’s. My concern is pub food – I’m assuming vegetarian won’t be an issue, but vegan will be? I was thinking it might be a good idea to bring a JetBoil – but don’t know how easy it would be to find fuel in St. Bees. Any suggestions? Hoping not to live on energy bars :)

    • Hello Lynn. I have walked Coast to Coast as well, but it was nearly a decade ago now. But yes, vegan food is trickier to find here than vegetarian, as it it anywhere. I did actually buy some gas in St Bees but it was a tiny little garage and I felt lucky to have found some. You may have better chance in the Lake District, but whoever you’re employing to carry your bags will know the area better than I do, so perhaps ask them? Sorry I could be more help. Enjoy the walk though, it’s a belter.

      • Just thought I’d post a follow up comment. We did the Coast to Coast and absolutely loved it! It was “luxury” long distance hiking. What I mean by that is that we used a luggage transport service & stayed in a B&B or pub every night. We aren’t backpackers – so this was a way we could still do a long distance hike. I loved not having to drive anywhere – just waking up and walking.

        We ended up not bringing a JetBoil. We found two things that helped. We did bring a bunch of dehydrated food to England which we used for lunches. Every single place we stayed had a hot water heater (for tea) – which we used for our dehydrated food. We each brought a small food thermos – and prepared our lunch in the morning. By the time lunch rolled around, our food was thoroughly cooked and still warm. Having a warm meal for lunch was really nice. Some days were cold, windy & rainy, and a warm meal helped warm are insides.

        The other thing we did was to contact B&B’s and pubs ahead of time – to let them know we are vegan/vegetarian, and would they be able to cook something for us. They were very kind and were all able to help us.

        Breakfasts were very easy – though we still warned most of the B&B’s ahead of time. We could either have porridge or a full English breakfast minus the meat.

        We came across one person who was doing the Pennine way. He was telling us it is much harder than the Coast to Coast. I’ll have to read more about it – it might be a good trip for us, considering how much we loved the Coast to Coast.

  8. Damian – good blog! I walked the PW in 6 stages, finishing in 2013. Utterly unforgettable experience. Even tho I am now 61, i plan to do the whole walk in one go, probably as a 22 day walk allowing a couple of rest days for my ancient body to recover (Haworth, plus one other).
    I found most of the walk fine (tho exhausting in parts), but some of the northern end was virtually unwalkable. Particularly bad was Bellingham to Byrness. So wet underfoot that I will definitely try to find ways around this section next time. What would be useful info for walkers would be somewhere to find out what plans are in hand to repair and maintain the way. I passed placed where piles of stones or flags made it obvious that work was going on, but do you know of any websites which give this kind of information? It would be useful to know what the authorities had in mind. Also, walkers had left helpful comments in the visitors book at Greg’s Hut. What a pity this info is not available to walkers before they set out! This is a big ask, I know, but any feedback would be gratefully received.

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