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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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