The reason we had trouble finding the entrance to our campsite was because you had to go through a working scrapyard. As you emerged from the piles of crumpled Mondeos and rotting Land Cruisers with puddled tyres, the first caravan you saw was perched at a jaunty angle on top of a spoil heap, like a lost Hanjin shipping container beached up on the Skeleton Coast. The ablutions facilities were, in fact, the old bog block from a long-defunct foundry – largely unaltered since the 1940s, and accessed through a tunnel constructed out of the rusting belly of an old milk tanker.
‘It’s like a cross between Mad Max and Hostel,’ breathed Christian in delight.
This summer I traipsed the length of the Pennine Way with my brother and dog. I wasn’t going to blog about it because I spend a decent portion of my life writing about walking and sometimes it’s nice just to do one without the post-mortem, but I find I can’t resist. Every walk is distinctive for different reasons – particularly the long tramps – but what marks the Pennine Way out is its sheer strength of character. Whether it’s the people, the places, the landscapes or the routes, everything is larger than life.
The short of it
The Pennine Way runs from Edale in the Derbyshire Peak District up to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders (or the other way, obviously), a distance of around 270 miles. One of the UK’s flagship trails, I don’t think there’s any other long-distance route in England that compares in terms of height and wildness. Standard practice is to carve it up into 16 stages, mostly 25-35km (16-22 miles), and though some whippety ultralighters will want to hit it harder than that, this quite old-fashioned formula of long days at an easy pace suited us beautifully. We used Damian Hall’s guidebook (Aurum, 2012), and he was a grand, unfailingly cheerful companion along the road.
The Pennine Way’s got an unfriendly reputation, partly thanks to Wainwright (the ‘crabby wanderer’ – as Hall calls him – seems to have hated most of it) and partly because when my parents’ generation walked it in the 70s there genuinely were long stretches of punishing moorland bogtrot. But the trail’s more than 50 years old now, and generations of volunteers and rangers have patched over the soggiest terrain with flagstones, pinned the route away from the most eroded ground, and marked even the most trackless stretches with little white acorn posts. Make no mistake, it’s still a fairly tough undertaking, but I’m willing to bet it’s easier than it’s ever been.
If further proof were needed of this, consider that my five-year-old miniature poodle made it all the way. Charlie is a game little devil, but he is also a soppy lapdog somewhat shorter than a wellington boot.
How far is too far?
Anyone expecting the Pennine Way to take a strict line along the length of the Pennines will be in for a surprise, but hopefully not a disappointment. It’s a whimsical old route, taking frequent, worthwhile detours to visit interesting things. One day, on a path that’s supposed to point north, you unexpectedly veer off more than 20 miles to the south west, ending up further from your destination than you started. The payoffs, though, are the Teesdale waterfalls and the spectacular cleft of High Cup Nick. I can guarantee no-one finishes up that evening in Dufton saying, ‘well that was a wasted day’.
The Pennine Way also doesn’t stop when the Pennines run out just beyond Alston, in Cumbria. You can just imagine Tom Stephenson and the other tweedy visionaries who brought the walk into being, all sitting round and saying, ‘well, since we’ve come this far, we might as well go a little bit further and see Hadrian’s Wall.’ Then some other bloke takes a pensive suckle on his pipe and says, ‘if you’re going to walk along Hadrian’s Wall, it seems a shame not to go a bit further and see the Cheviots.’ ‘How about Scotland?’ says another, his eyes lighting up under brows like birds’ nests. ‘Plenty of good stuff up there.’ But then they all realise it’s got out of hand so they decide to knock it on the head at the first village across the Scottish border, a sweet little place no-one’s heard of called Kirk Yetholm.
The old boys also didn’t believe in prioritising comfort over an adventure. One of the days involves crawling over Cross Fell – a strong contender for the country’s least hospitable hill. This rock-strewn plateau seems to be permanently blanketed in fog, and features the only wind in the country savage enough to have a name, plus the lowest temperatures and strongest gusts ever recorded in England. When we came over, the wind was so powerful that Charlie literally couldn’t stand up, and was obliged to hitch a ride inside Christian’s coat. All the same, Cross Fell is the highest peak in the Pennines, and it would be a shame to salute it from afar when you could get bashed about on the summit.
That’s not to say the route will suit everyone. I’m a firm believer in taking whatever line you care to on a long walk (if you want to stick religiously to a track, take a train). Some of our fellow hikers did a lot of road walking to cut out some of the more challenging stretches and make faster progress, and while Christian and I didn’t fancy the tarmac, we did take some detours of our own. Speaking selfishly, one of my least favourite kinds of walking is field paths, where you spend hours zig-zagging along the edges of gloopy pastures, circling round cattle and hauling yourself over innumerable pinstiles. Inevitably there are days that feature quite a bit of this as you cross some of the lowland corridors, but we came across some very enjoyable alternatives, courtesy of our industrial forebears. The great men behind the Pennine Way might have railed at the notion of taking a canal towpath and a cinder track rather than slithering around in cow shite all day, but we loved the variation.
The thin green line
We spent most nights snuggled up in our little silnylon tipi, partly to keep our costs down but mainly for the flexibility. When you’ve got a tent strapped to your back, you can kip wherever you end up at sundown, and the only time pressure is that of trying to get into your sleeping bag before the dog does. Wild camping is illegal, of course, but in practice, most of the Pennine Way is so remote that no-one’s going to kick off if you play nice about it (ie, arrive late, leave early, and leave nothing behind).
Actually, though, we rarely slept wild. The Pennine Way passes through a long string of settlements that are often eccentric and charismatic in equal measure. At one stop, we found the campsite owner sharing tots of whisky with the punters and trundling around the site in an ancient Austin Seven; at another, we hid from the rain in a wooden summer house, on a lovely site that was unmistakably a retired builder’s back garden. One damp evening up in Kielder Forest we sat round with pints in the conservatory at the back of the village inn, listening to stories of the proprietors’ years running a merchant navy boarding house in South Shields. Then, of course, there was the scrapyard site. It would have seemed a shame to miss out on all that.
There were some uncommonly welcoming farmers about too. We came across tuck shops in upcycled henhouses, and handwritten signs pointing us off to spring water taps. One family had even furnished an outbuilding with sagging old sofas and stocked it with snacks and drinks for weary walkers. ‘Pit stop –>’, declared a sign scrawled in marker pen on an old bucket lid.
More colour came courtesy of our fellow Pennine Wayers. There was C, who attempts the Pennine Way every year as a sort of 250-mile pub crawl, and knows the location of every boozer, off-licence and shortcut along the route; and J, a gentle chemical engineer whose lap Charlie elected to occupy for the evening up at the legendary Tan Hill Inn, Britain’s highest pub. Then there was M, the friendly German lightweighter, whose gossamer-weight kit contrasted starkly with that of my brother (proudly sporting my dad’s old walking boots with gaping holes in the leather, and a precariously bodged-together 1990s Karrimor rucksack that got mullered by Indian baggage handlers nearly a decade ago). Some friends we brought with us, like Christian’s boss, T, who turned up with dog chews and pork pies at Horton-in-Ribblesdale and waved us goodbye at the Ribblehead viaduct, or my mates M and E who joined us for a whole weekend just south of the Dales. I even managed an afternoon pint with some old schoolmates and their families in a ropey chain pub in Gargrave.
Travels with Charlie
Reactions to the filthy, cat-like little creature capering around at our heels generally ranged between delight, incredulity, and horror that we would inflict such a long walk on such a small animal. I don’t doubt that for some dogs this might have been justified, but mine loves long days outdoors with his mates, and it would not have been the act of a friend to leave him behind.
That said, it was Charlie’s first long-distance trail, so I did take some precautions. I’ve spent the past year building up his walking distances, and have compensated for the fact that I don’t know anything about dogs by talking to people who do. I mentioned my plans offhand to the vet a while back, and her complete lack of scepticism was quite encouraging. She checked him over thoroughly the week before we left, gave me plenty of advice on battlefield first-aid, and cobbled me together a little canine medical kit that was substantially better than my human one. As a final precaution, I had my mum poised to parachute him out if it got too much.
As it turned out, he did splendidly. Early on, he was uncharacteristically quiet in the evenings, and there were two nights where he was a bit stiff after longer days, but every morning found him lithe as ever, ricocheting impatiently round the tent in his eagerness to get cracking. He ate at least double his usual amount (plus the inevitable titbits from pub landladies, shop owners etc along the way), and despite getting quite lean, it was fascinating to see how much more quickly his fitness improved than ours. By the end, he was almost as bouncy in the evenings as he was in the mornings. Remarkable little beasts, poodles.
As with my own kit, there are some adjustments I’d make to Charlie’s gear next time out. I won’t go into it here, but if you’re interested, drop me a message or a comment below.
The joy of a long route (or at least, one of them), is its endless variation. Some walkers will love the chocolate-box, Olde-England qualities of the Dales, the murky bleakness of the Peaks, or the epic sights of big-hitters like Malham Cove, Pen-y-Ghent, High Cup Nick and Hadrian’s Wall. All of those things were grand, but when I think back, it’s the Cheviots that stole my heart.
I’d never been to this wild old range of hills up on the Scottish border before, but I can’t wait to return. They’re empty, rugged and capricious, and you feel a million miles from anywhere, despite the distant boom of army ordinance from the nearby training grounds. High up on the tops you come across older military installations – the sprawling earthworks of Chew Green Roman camp, and the long, ancient highway of Dere Street. You can almost hear the clanking echoes of the Ninth Legion marching to (academically disputed) oblivion.
The Cheviots blessed us with warm sun and wide views, then pounded us with wind and rain, but I don’t like them any less for it. We spent our last night hunkered down in Auchope mountain refuge hut. Our friend E, leaving us reluctantly nearly 200 miles south to return to the office, had entrusted us with her collapsible wine flask, and fortunately we’d had the foresight to fill it with Rioja in Bellingham. As the wind howled outside, we sat with bowls of hot pasta and mugs of booze, our soaked clothes strung up on paracord lines above our heads, and Charlie snoozing on my spare shirt. I’m always sorry to see the end of the road creeping into view, but it wasn’t a bad way to see it out.