The Pennine Way


Map of the Pennine Way

Pre-amble on the Pennine Way


The Pennine Way is far and away the most difficult Way I walked. It is said that if you can walk the Pennine Way you can walk anywhere in the world. Believe it.

    Completed in 1965, the Pennine Way is Britain's first long-distance footpath. The trail officially begins in England's famous Peak District at the Nag's Head Inn in Edale. From there it wanders 270 miles north through Yorkshire, Westmorland, Cumberland and Northumberland--the most rugged, desolate and torturous terrain in the country--before finally reaching its terminus at the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm, Scotland.

      It can be walked in either direction, naturally, though traveling south to north is undoubtedly easier. Southbound, the Pennine Way markers (white discs with an inverted acorn in the center) are often missing from the gates and stiles; there are many gates and stiles. Since it is futile to stick a wooden signpost in a bog, signposts are very few; the few there are invariably favor the northbound hiker.

      Also, the guidebooks are laid out south to north--in the mistaken belief that it is better to have the sun (when it shines) and the wind when it blows (and it does, often from every direction) and the weather at your back. As there will always be an England, there will always be weather.

   The best of these guides is A. Wainwright's Pennine Way Companion. Wainwright has made it as easy as possible to walk the Way in either direction, which still isn't easy. But even in his guide most descriptions are the viewpoint of one traveling from the south. Consequently, unless you turn around often to see where you've been, you will find those descriptions wholly irrelevant.

    If you are anything like me, a city-dwelling musician who took up hiking late in life, you will need all the help you can get. Therefore, all the guides strongly recommend that you also carry the Ordnance Survey Landranger 1:50,000 (1.25ins/mile) or the Ordnance Survey Pathfinder 1:25.000 (2.5 ins/mile). These maps are big; they are heavy; they are expensive; you will need at least a dozen. Even with them you will stray from the path just as often, yet you may have a clearer picture of where it is that you are not.

    In some ways the Pennine Way is a shorter version of America's Appalachian Trail. Slightly more than one-tenth the length of the Appalachian Trail, the Pennine Way also follows mountain ridges: the Pennines and the Cheviots. As on the AT, the PW crosses several minor roads. It also passes through a few farms, villages and hamlets, but it mostly wends its way through the last of England's wilderness. Although the highest peak (Cross Fell) is barely 3000', there are more than enough ups and downs to satisfy all but the most fanatical mountaineer.
    The major differences are the Appalachian Trail is much easier to follow, and there are far less peat bogs. To make up for those slight inconveniences the Pennine Way has inns, pubs, B&Bs and youth hostels, usually a comfortable day's walk apart. These rarely detract from the sensation of tranquil solitude. They eliminate the need of a heavy pack, too. And since there are few trees you will more often enjoy a panorama of some of the most exquisite scenery on Earth.

    Unlike the six or more months needed to walk the Appalachian Trail, most ramblers complete the Pennine way in 12-14 days, a perfect distance for a short vacation. If you are fortunate enough to have more time and are interested in geology, geography and history, many wonders await you just off the beaten path. Besides the remains of the Roman Emperor Hadrian's Wall there are Roman roads, Bronze Age burial mounds, Iron Age hill forts and ruins of medieval towers, abbeys and castles to explore. All are within a short distance of the Way. Walking is often the only means of reaching them.

    If you are short of time or a person motivated by a real challenge, try topping this: The record is held by a man who ran the complete distance in three days and one hour.

    The Pennine Way is not for the fainthearted or the infirm. This Way is rough and dangerous. To walk it you must be fit--physically, mentally and spiritually. You must also be highly skilled with a compass and in map reading and navigation. Too, you must have the proper equipment and know how to use it. Moreover, you must be well experienced.

    All of these!

    Or be like me: adventurous, carefree, foolhardy and extremely lucky; on close speaking terms with yourself and all of nature's other creations--animal, vegetable and mineral; and, above all, be on a first-name basis with your God. You will call on him. Often!

    You may well ask, "If it's so bloody difficult and awful why bother?"

   Because it's the most fun you'll ever have . . . at least without a partner.




The Wayward Way

A dusky cloud followed my hobble from Doctor Ehlinger’s B&B up High Street toward the Inn of the Buggered Bullock. No bother. Its eventual outpour washed off the patina of moss that had stubbornly clung to my trousers since an early-morning wallow in a peat bog. After days of interminable downpour I was beginning to wonder if those who’d wished me "Godspeed!" on my journey hadn’t really said "God’s peed!"

    Like most English pubs the inn was decked with medallions of Birmingham brass and was dimly lit. I eased my way through the Saturday night crowd’s suppliant "beg pardon" and "so sorry" up to the bar. Brits are always so polite, forever apologizing even when it is your fault. I ordered a pint and dinner and paid on the spot. They are also keen on keeping tabs, though not big on running them. The pint drawn, I sloshed it up and settled in beside a middle-aged couple at a table near the rear.

    "New here, are you?" The inquisitor brought Miss Marple to mind. Not entirely because Marple was my next destination: She bore a striking resemblance to Margaret Rutherford, both in manner and in dress. I replied that I was in town merely overnight, that I had just finished hiking the Pennine Way. Her mousy mate looked puzzled but had the uncommon courtesy to keep it to himself.

   "The Pennine Way?" She seemed perplexed. "But that ends at Kirk Yetholm." I told her that, perversely, I had begun there. "Well then," she said, "you should finish at Edale! What on Earth brings you here to Chisworth?"

    "I’m hiking from Edinburgh to Istanbul." I smiled. "I’m trying to shorten the distance a bit."

    My throwaway line was cast well above her head, so I explained that I had decided not to follow the Way to its terminus in the Peak District since that took me too far east. Instead, I was switching over to the Cheshire Canal Ring Walk. It joins up with the Staffordshire Way, which leads to the Heart of England Way and ultimately to the Cotswold Way. From Bath I would cross the Salisbury Plain down to Portsmouth where I’d take a boat to France--if I hadn’t yet learned to walk on water.

    She caught that line but didn't firmly grasp it. Then she grew pensive, though merely long enough for the waitress to set down my plate. Still incapable of full comprehension she finally submitted. "Yes, I suppose that is a rather long way."

    Britons are masters of understatement. And like most island dwellers, especially those that rarely travel out of their milieu, they have absolutely no concept of distance.

    "Where are you lodging?" She quickly asked, as if afraid silence might be mere fool's gold. After finishing a mouthful of microwave chicken curry (served with rice and fried potatoes), I replied that I was staying with Doctor Ehlinger. Backyard at Dr. Ehlinger's B&B

    "How lovely. A marvelous man!" She began a discourse extolling his many virtues, not the least of which was his great humanitarianism. I was grateful; it allowed me to finish my meal. She said that he had successfully helped her through a long depression after a miscarriage. Although now retired, he was still treating the gentleman reclining in a chair at the table immediately in front of us. "Have you met Tom? He's with the Queen's Park Rangers."

    I raised my glass in the time-honored toast. "Cheers!" (The lorn Ranger's saturnine expression led me to believe that he might benefit from some.) Tom resembled the actor Sam Waterston. He was about the same age, build and disposition and, stretched out as he was, seemed well over six-feet tall. He turned obliquely and returned my salute with the mug he held in his good hand. His other arm occupied a plaster cast cradled in a sling.

    "Did you find the boy who got lost last night?" I was referring to the hullabaloo of helicopters and police sirens that had taken place after midnight outside the Globe Farm Bunkhouse, where on the previous evening I had tried to get a bit of sleep.

    "We found him, alright. Up on Round Hill. Bloody bugger! He'd have stayed up there were it left to me."

    "Why? What did he do?"

    "The little sod stole a car! And when he finished with his stinking pleasure cruise, he crashed it into a bollard and lit out across the bogs!"

    Though it may have been presumptuous, curious about his disabled arm I asked if he were the one who'd apprehended the kid. "What, this? No. I had an accident at work." He said he hadn't participated in the chase. He had, however, told the constables where to find the boy. "I knew exactly where he'd be. I know the Pennine Way like the back of my hand." I assumed he was referring to the usable one.

    "I wish I could say the same, Tom. I was constantly getting lost."

    He raised a stern black brow and spoke skyward, as if to a dimwit. "Why? It's very simple! All you have to do is look at the grids on your map, which are two-and-a-half inches to a mile . . ." I interrupted to say that the only maps I had managed to find were on a much smaller scale; he winced and said it was unimportant (though clearly it was) ". . . then you look at your watch, and at a pace of three-and-a-half to four miles you should cover approximately ten inches or four grids in an hour!" He looked askance. "Or, in your case, five inches or six-and-a-half grids."

    I took no umbrage. He was a professional.

    "Well Tom, I like to stop often--to look around, enjoy the scenery and talk to the birds and the beasts--so my usual pace is closer to two or two-and-a-half miles an hour." His brows drooped noticeably. When I told him that I didn't wear a watch, his eyes followed suit. By the time I finished relating that other than the two Ordnance Survey maps I had when I began the Pennine Way, now all I carried were the Footprint guides and a road map, his chin was firmly nestled into the pit of his damaged arm. Then, when I said the most I'd ever strayed from the path was a few miles, after a minor convulsion he almost slid from his seat.

    Head, eyes and brows raised simultaneously. "A few miles? The Rangers could have searched forever and not found you! We recently pulled a man out of a peat hag who'd been buried there for two thousand years!" I wasn't embarrassed to say (though in retrospect I suppose I should have been), "It never occurred to me that they'd come looking." Both hands shot up to join his face in its superior position. He winced in pain and quickly lowered one. "Of course we'd come looking! That's what we do!" To further enlighten me, he launched into an anecdote:

    "I once had to rescue a couple lost up on Black Hill." (I knew the place; it's  where I'd gained the patina on my pants.) "I found the woman, dazed and wandering about in a circle. She had no idea where her husband had gone. I told her to stay right where she was, I'd find him. . . . Well, I found him alright, buried in a bog up to his ballocks. When we returned, his wife had strayed off. It was a complete cock-up!  . . . If you can't find the path--especially in a quag--the safest thing you can do is stay right where you are. Don't worry: We'll find you."

    I innocently said, "I always followed the water-filled prints of the previous hikers." He winced. "If there were too many footprints, I'd go to the highest mound to see if I could find the right path." A slight, apoplectic tremor rippled up and down his wiry frame. "If there was no mound--figuring that if the bed of a grough was solid enough to hold water it should support my weight--I'd simply follow a burn down to the bottom." My last utterance left him slumped in despair, vacantly staring at the floor.

    After a long, brooding disquietude he spoke. "You mean to say you never told anyone when you were leaving? Or what time you expected to arrive at your destination? And that if you hadn't rung them up by a certain hour that they should initiate a search?"

    "No, Tom. I like my independence. I don't like being tied down by time schedules and guidebooks. Never have. Sometimes I like to explore on my own. And to tell you the truth, I find British telephones confusing--that is when I could find one at all. I'm intelligent, and resourceful. I'm also old enough to still believe in self-reliance. If I can't take care of myself why should I expect the Government, the Rangers or anyone else to look after me?"

    It grieves me far too much to describe his reaction. Some things are best left unsaid.

    We sat in awkward silence awhile. He seemed in great pain. At first I thought I might have been the source of his discomfort. Upon bending down to recover my fallen serviette I saw that his right leg was bandaged, too. And he was worried about me?

    To allay his fears for my safety I told him I wasn't as reckless as I might seem. "When I began this walk around the world, a friend told me 'God wouldn't send you out on a journey like this if he didn't intend for you to finish it.' I believed him. So far he's been right. I know how to navigate--in my fashion. I also know the proper safety procedures. Right or wrong, I choose not to follow them. I've been a musician all my life. Walking, for me, is like playing jazz. Give me a rough guide and I'll find the flow. And I'll walk with it. Actually, my friends consider me one of the better walking bass players."

    He was not amused.

    "Sure there are times when you lose your place, times when you forget what comes next, times when you're so involved that you feel you've fallen over the edge and floated off into space. But those stolen moments are what you hope for. When you're in tune with the moment, it's time-out from fear. You know that somehow, just in time, someone or something always saves you.

    "When I said the most I'd gone out of my way was a few miles, there was never any real danger. Mostly it was on carriageways: first near the Ministry Of Defense firing range above Byrness, then near the Air Ministry poison gas testing grounds before Bowes. Truly, I was safer on the road. And if I couldn't find the path any other way, I asked the animals to show me the right track. And they did. Always!"

    While I spoke, his stern expression gradually relaxed. The tension in his wiry frame ebbed. He slowly raised his gaze from his feet. For the first time all evening he looked at me head-on, with respect. Mine was clearly not his way of walking but he seemed to understand that there could be other approaches. After all--by whatever method--I had made it a third of the way around the world with no major mishaps.

    "Did I hear you say you're not going on to Edale?" I nodded. "You really should, y'know. It's the best part of the Way. I was planning to walk Yorkshire's Three Peaks tomorrow, but I'll be happy to guide you through the last leg."

    Speaking of legs, I looked at his, then at his arm. My lower limbs were wobbly after three-hundred-some miles, and since my walking staff failed near Pennyghent (one of the Three Peaks) and was now reduced to a mere cane, my right arm and shoulder were troubling me, too. But I could still grit my teeth and walk--with the help of an occasional yohimbe tablet (legally obtained at my local health-food store) and a codeine-laced aspirin (illegally obtained from a friend). How in hell did he expect to walk the Three Peaks in his condition? Much less complete the trek across what I was told was the most horrendous, tortuous and torturous section of the entire Pennine Way.

    "It's kind of you to offer, Tom, but I think not. Judging from my map, nearly the entire route is through bogs. Quite frankly, I've had enough bog-slogging to last a lifetime. It's been raining for the past several days, and if what I've heard is true, even in dry weather the peat gullies on Kinder Scout are thirty to forty feet deep." To reinforce my disinclination, I joked. "I've also been told that--unlike the innkeeper at the Border Hotel--the Old Nag's Head in Edale doesn't even treat you to a pint when you finish."

    His dark eyes suddenly blazed with previously undisplayed zeal. "That's all quite true! But you've never seen such unbelievably magnificent, rugged land in your life!" Then, in a voice that Satan might use to convince reluctant souls of the resplendence of Hell, he tempted. "Meet me here in the morning and I'll guide you through it. What do you say?"

    I'm not a lazy man--obviously. Neither do I fear dangerous or difficult situations. I welcome challenges. Distasteful as the prospect of more bog-slogging was, had I come to Britain to walk only the Pennine Way I would have completed it. But I'm not a fanatic. I also like my comforts. So when you're contemplating a trek of some two thousand miles you do tend to take a few shortcuts when you can. I'd already taken several. This was only one more. Something in his smoldering eyes, however, and something in his posture--like a panther ready to spring--told me that if I didn't finish this Way I would miss my greatest adventure.

    "Do I owe it to myself, Tom?"

    "You do."


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Copyright 1999 Robert Bowers
This page was last modified April 11, 2002