An intro to... the Pennine Way, the UK's toughest National Trail
6 minute read
The Pennine Way celebrates 50 years on the 24th April 2015. Here, Paddy Dillon, author of the Cicerone guide, answers questions about this trail and what inspired him to write about The Pennine Way.
Where is the Pennine Way?
"This impressive long-distance walk stretches from Edale in the Peak District National Park onto the gritstone moors of the South Pennines. The way passes through the verdant Yorkshire Dales National Park, then crosses the bleak and remote North Pennines. Not content to finish there, it then traverses Hadrian’s Wall and runs through the Northumberland National Park. High in the Cheviot Hills, it finally steps over the border into Scotland to finish at Kirk Yetholm. It measures over 435km (270 miles), involving a cumulative ascent of 11,225m (36,825ft). Most walkers take between two and three weeks to cover the distance, and there are many ways to create a schedule to suit people’s different expectations."
Why should you walk it?
"The Pennine Way traverses three National Parks and one Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty so it is a truly beautiful walk. It can be adapted to suit walkers of all abilities and is still viewed by many as the ultimate National Trail."
Will I be fit enough to walk the Pennine Way?
"The Pennine Way is the toughest of the National Trails, so it suits those with previous long-distance walking experience. If you have no such experience then you should consider gaining some before you go. Try a weekend walk here and there, staying overnight on your route. Progress to a week-long walk, preferably in upland terrain, carrying everything you would expect to carry on a long trek. Keep a check on your progress day by day and hour by hour, so that you know how long it takes you to cover varying distances and awkward terrain.
The Pennine Way on a sunny day
While some people have run the Pennine Way in as little as three days, most take two or three weeks to walk the distance, and on average it tends to work out at around 18 days. As with all long-distance walks, take each day at a pace that is neither slow nor stressful, and the trek can be completed comfortably and enjoyably. Fatigue and foul weather can result in alterations to carefully planned schedules, so wise walkers will build a day or two into their plans to cover for such eventualities."
When should I walk it?
"The Pennine Way is naturally busiest in the summer months, when most people take their longest holiday of the year. This is a fine time to walk, as all facilities and services are available, and the weather is generally warm and sunny, with plenty of daylight hours. In August, when the heather moors are flushed purple, fields are in flower, the boggy bits are drier underfoot and the blue sky is flecked with little clouds, the Pennine Way seems perfect.
Spring and autumn can feature many fine days, and both seasons have their own particular charms. Spring sees the gradual greening of the landscape and the first flowers of the year, while newborn lambs bleat plaintively in the lower pastures. Autumn sees the gradual ripening of seeds, hedgerow fruits at their best and cultivated crops ready for harvesting. The days, however, are notably shorter and there may well be cooler, wetter weather.
The Pennine Way can be enjoyed in all weather
Winter can be severe in the Pennines, especially when rare falls of deep snow blanket the path and make route-finding particularly difficult. While winter traverses of the Pennine Way are rare, those walkers possessing the skills and stamina to complete the trek also have to cope with the fact that some facilities and services are absent. The hardiest walkers of all are those who aim to be self-sufficient and backpack the route in the winter months."
Why did you write a guidebook to the Pennine Way?
"Of all the many guidebooks I have written this one is the most personal. The Pennine Way is intricately bound up with my family history. I was born and raised only 6 miles from the Pennine Way and the route was opened when I was only seven years old. My family included some staunch walkers who used to talk about it from time to time. One of them went and walked it, returning with tales to inspire others. As young teenagers, a friend and I stumbled across a Pennine Way signpost on the moors and wondered how long it might take us to walk to Scotland. Soon afterwards, a chance copy of Alfred Wainwright’s Pennine Way Companion, laid it all out for me in black and white.
I could have walked the Pennine Way at the age of 16, but I chose to follow it northwards only as far as Cross Fell, then making a beeline for the Lake District, exploring for a week and walking home via the Yorkshire Dales. I finally walked the whole route for the first time when I was 21, and it snowed for the first five days!
Throughout the 1970s, if you told anyone you were a keen walker, they would ask, ’And have you walked the Pennine Way?’ And anyone actually walking the route might have been asked, ’Are you walking the Pennine Way, or just walking for pleasure?’, as if the two were mutually exclusive! The route was regarded, rightly or wrongly, as something that every ’proper’ walker should aspire to, generating something of a backlash, with some people vowing never to set foot on it.
One thing became painfully obvious throughout the 1970s: the Pennine Way was being trodden to death. Although I always enjoyed walking parts of the route, it was distinctly unpleasant to wade through the mud, occasionally plumbing waist-deep bogs, where the peat had been trodden into the consistency of cold, black porridge. Apart from occasional forays during the 1980s, I left the route well alone while the problems of over-use and erosion were addressed, ultimately by completely rebuilding several stretches of the trail.
Once everything had bedded down and grassed over I renewed my acquaintance. It was worth the wait, and as the years roll by, the stone-paved paths will become as much a part of the Pennine Way as the centuries-old packhorse ’causeys’ that preceded it. The scenery remains the same as ever and only the conditions immediately underfoot have changed, and for the better.
Sadly, the Pennine Way is no longer held in the high regard it enjoyed at the outset. Today’s walkers have other National Trails to choose and infinite opportunities to walk challenging trails abroad. This is well and good, but the Pennine Way remains the toughest of the National Trails, one that every long-distance walker should aspire to.
Long may it enjoy a future as part of Britain’s outdoor heritage."
The Pennine Way Association
The Pennine Way guidebook by Paddy Dillon
The Pennine Way: the Path, the People, the Journey by Andrew McCloy
The National Trails guidebook by Paddy Dillon
How to pack for a long distance trek - Cicerone Extra article
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