40 years on the Pennine way


The Pennine Way is a game of numbers – 268 miles, over 11,000m of ascent, and as many pints of real ale as you can handle. But the most significant number for John Burns is the forty years that have passed since he last walked it. From walker-friendly cafes and the paved surfaces that have tamed the infamous bogs, to the high tech lightweight clothes on his back, the Pennine Way experience has changed greatly in the last four decades. But at heart it remains the classic long distance trail of upland England.

I’ve been walking the Pennine Way for five days now and my body is beginning to seize up. I can move only with the aid of barrels full of anti-inflammatory gel, sticking plasters and real ale anaesthetic. As I push open the door of the campsite the plump, middle aged woman, looks up from her desk and can see immediately the old timer is in trouble.

First appeared in my feature on UK Hillwalking

Pen Y Ghent
© Chris Clayton, Jun 2009

‘Oh, what a shame you weren’t here last week,’ she says, pity radiating behind her horn-rimmed specs. ‘You’ve missed him.’
I just want a shower and a place to fall over and groan for a while, I’m not expecting to meet anyone. I look at her puzzled.
‘Elvis!’ she explains. ‘You missed Elvis.’ I must be hallucinating again.
They say you should never meet your heroes and perhaps that also applies to returning to great milestones in your hillwalking career. Over forty years ago me and my mate Martin, a gangly Pink Floyd fan, embarked on an attempt to walk the back bone of Britain via the Pennine Way which had only be open a handful of years. That June morning as we stepped off the train in Edale we were about to embark on an odyssey that would leave its mark on us for the rest of our lives. It was a trial that we would look back on fondly over the years. Now, after the passage of so much time, we have decided to return and face again this monumental walk.

“Many miles of the route have been flagged with paving stones so the exhausting battles with saturated peat are gone”

Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right 2017

Let’s travel back to the 1970s. First you have to grow your hair, put on flared trousers, a long collard shirt and listen to some psychedelic rock. Let’s assume you’ve done all that.
We are on the summit plateau of Kinder Scout. If you’ve never been to Kinder Scout picture a mountain with the top thousand feet cropped off and topped with a bog. Out of the swirling mist and rain two figures gradually emerge onto the lunar landscape of groughs, these are waves of peat created by wind and rain. They are about the height of a man and make Kinder a navigational nightmare as you can never see more than a few feet. One of these men is me, I take a step forward and the peat, reduced to the consistency of black treacle by the passage of thousands of boots, swallows my leg to the knee. Carried forward by the weight of my pack I collapse face down in the peat. I writhe for a few moments, cursing and swearing, attempting to rise from the saturated ooze. The peat, however, is too insubstantial to allow me to get any purchase weighted down by my rucksack and I have to wriggle out of it before I can regain the vertical.

Kinder winter
© Bob Bennett, Dec 2008

  • Fast facts
    Officially opened in 1965, the Pennine Way is Britain’s first National Trail, and still one of the toughest and best known.
    Brainchild of journalist and rambler Tom Stephenson, who first mooted the idea in a 1935 article entitled ‘Wanted: A long Green Trail’, inspired by America’s Appalachian Trail. It took 30 years of campaigning to make it a reality.
    429km (268 miles) along the upland backbone of northern England, from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders.
    Total ascent: more than 11,000m
    The route takes in three National Parks – the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland, as well as the North Pennines AONB.
    High points include: Kinder Scout (636m), Bleaklow Head (610m), Black Hill (582m), Pen-y-Ghent (694m), Great Shunner Fell (716m), Great Dun Fell (848m), Cross Fell (893m), Windy Gyle (619m), The Schil (601m) and an optional leg to The Cheviot (815m)
    Major landmarks include: The Kinder plateau, Malham Cove, the Tan Hill Inn (the UK’s highest pub at 528m), Swaledale, High Force, Cauldron Snout, High Cup, Hadrian’s Wall and the wild border ridge through The Cheviots.
    Annually, as estimated 15,000 people walk a long distance on the trail (if not the full way), while there are more than 250,000 day walkers.
    A typical time for a full completion is 14-20 days: the record stands at 2 days, 17hrs, 20mins and 15secs, a time set by Mike Hartley in 1989: we can’t imagine why no one’s yet beaten it.
    Alfred Wainwright famously pledged to buy half a pint (note: a half, not a whole) for anyone who completed the full trail – a promise that’s said to have cost him nearly £15,000.
    By the 1990s some of the boggier sections hade become so eroded that they were practically impassable. A long programme of path upgrades has now tamed the more infamous peat bogs with stone paving.
    Upkeep of the trail falls under the remit of the 13 Highway Authorities through which it passes, and coordinated by the Pennine National Trails Partnership.
    If you can’t walk the whole thing in a one-er, it’s possible to knock off in chunks, accessed via public transport. For useful info on transport options on or near the route, see here

Malham Cove – one of the most impressive sights of the Pennine Way, if not the whole of England
© Dan Bailey

“Whoever said age doesn’t matter clearly hadn’t tried to repeat the Pennine Way after a forty-year sojourn”

Read more here https://www.ukhillwalking.com/articles/page.php?id=9730

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