The Pennine Way: is it really a slog through bog?
10 minute read
Having discovered the Pennine Way from a signpost pointing towards a desolate landscape and then being warned that the walk was a slog, Tarjei Næss Skrede set out on England’s first long distance trail to find out if it was true.
A few years ago, a friend and I walked the Hadrian's Wall Path in England, with a strong wind blowing over the wall from the north. But despite the rain and gusty weather, there was a certain lovely mood lying over the scene.
From the top of the crags we could see the wall meander its way over a sparse landscape scattered with small farms. Only interrupted by the sound of the wind, we imagined what it must have been like for a Roman soldier to be posted here, at the end of the Roman Empire.
Along the way, we passed by a lonely signpost standing alone beside the wall, pointing towards a desolate moorland. On the sign was written ‘The Pennine Way’. I knew that someday I would venture out on that lonesome path across the heath.
The Pennine Way is a long-distance trail from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders, passing through three national parks; the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland. The trail was the child of Tom Stephenson, who in 1935 dreamt of ‘a long green trail’, much akin to what the States had in their Appalachian Trail. Tom Stephenson was a British journalist who also was affiliated with the Rambler’s Association and a keen advocate for walkers to have the rights to travel outdoors.
Officially opening in April 1965, it took 30 years for the dream of England’s first long-distance trail to become a reality. It would take six years from standing and looking out over the empty moorland before I found myself in Edale, ready to make the first steps of the 430km that lay ahead of me.
Setting off from Edale and into the Peak District
The Vale of Edale is a lovely and charming valley situated in the middle of Peak District. Getting there from Oslo was relatively easy; I flew to Manchester and caught the local train that passes through Edale on its way to Sheffield.
As the trail is in England, it makes sense that the route starts outside the doors of a pub, The Old Nag’s Head. From Edale, hikers encounter the first obstacle almost immediately as the route crosses over Kinder Scout, climbing up the barren landscape on a slope known as Jacob’s Ladder.
Kinder Scout was the site of the Kinder Scout mass trespass, which occurred in 1932. I pass by the spot on the way; they never got as far as the top. Times have changed, but there are still places and paths that are inaccessible to walkers.
The hike over Kinder Scout is a beautiful walk with good views over the surrounding landscape. There were a lot of people out walking, something that would change when I came down from the plateau and made my way over the vast moors in the direction of the Dark Peak.
On the first night, I slept in my tent at Bleaklow Head, a top with an equally bleak and pale landscape as its name implies. I woke up to lots of wind and dense fog, which fortunately lifted when I start walking.
Navigation and accommodation
According to the law, wild camping is not allowed in England. If you pitch your tent a little bit off the beaten track, in such a way that it does not disturb others and leave no trace of your stay, landowners tend to look the other way a bit. There is a good deal of accommodation available on the trail and as alternatives to my tent I stayed in youth hostels, pubs, guest houses and hotels.
The Pennine Way is a trail that required you to use maps and compass to find the way. The trail is signposted in both directions from start to finish, but you will not find waymarks around every corner. On the first day on Kinder Scout, I quickly noticed how difficult it would have been to find the correct way if the fog had been lying low. There were several junctions with no markings as to where the route was going. I was grateful for my Cicerone guidebook to the Pennine Way, which comes with a very useful and compact map booklet of the whole route.
A wild landscape of bogs, limestone and waterfalls
The Pennine Way is famous for its bogs. Every time I told another hiker on my previous walks through England that I wanted to hike the Pennine Way, I was met by the same statement: the trail is a slog and the bogs are to blame. In the book ‘Walking Home’ by the poet Simon Armitage, he portrays the coming of spring through the sight of weary and bedraggled hikers coming down from the heaths, covered in mud and dirt after walking with their legs deep down in the peat. Black Hill is notorious for its bogs, where the hikers can soon find themselves walking in bog to their waists.
But it is not only bogs and moorlands that the hikers encounter on their way. From the small village of Malham, the Pennine Way goes up to Malham Cove, an impressive cliff that rises about 70 meters above the ground. It is a marvellous sight to walk up towards, but it is the top of it that is of real interest. Here I walked on top of rocks which can best be described as molars, so intricate were the patterns that have formed in the limestone stones.
Hiking in the English weather
Wet and windy weather is to be expected if you are hiking in England and the Pennine Way will make no exception for you. An interesting observation when walking in England is the relative absence of trees and forests, not that they do not exist, for they do, but the landscape feels strangely bare and naked at times. Without trees, the wind blows unconstrained and unobstructed over the landscape, meeting no resistance on its way.
Wet and cold, I arrived at The Golden Lion Hotel in Horton in Ribblesdale on the seventh day, having walked in heavy rain and wind over Fountains Fell and Pen-y-Ghent. I got the last bed available in the bunkhouse, as the village was overcrowded by people arriving to complete The Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge.
Three days later, I started walking early in the morning after spending the night in my tent in Hardraw. The day before I had been warned that there was a storm approaching, but I was fortunate. I walked with dark clouds all around me over Great Shunner Fell, but no rain fell on me; instead sunlight filtered through the dark clouds in the sky.
I did not entirely escape the storm. After Keld, I was chased by a dark wall across the moors towards the Tan Hill Inn. Thirty minutes before I arrived, the bad weather caught up with me and I walked through the doors soaking wet. It eventually rained so much that a stone bridge collapsed in a nearby village.
The high points of the Pennine Way
On the twelfth day, I pitched my tent at High Cup Nick. It had been a lovely day, passing by several beautiful waterfalls. With all the naked ridges rising up from the ground, I had the feeling of walking high up in an alpine landscape, although I was barely more than around 500 meters above sea level. It is the absence of the trees that makes me feel this way; usually the hills would be covered by trees at this altitude.
High Cup Nick is another highlight of the Pennine Way, both geologically and scenically. It looks like someone has taken an ice cream spoon and scraped out part of the mountain below, leaving behind a symmetrical valley with dolerite and limestone formations along the sides.
The highest point of the Pennine Way is Cross Fell, at 893m. Cross Fell also holds the record for the worst weather in England. Over this fell, countless hikers have got lost when the fog lies low and dense around the landscape. It is not difficult to understand, as there are few waymarks and the paths are sometimes indistinct. The weather was cloudy on my day crossing Cross Fell, but luckily not foggy.
In the horizon, I could see the rays of the sun filtered by the clouds above the Lake District. After crossing over Cross Fell, I spend the night in Greg’s Hut, a small and very basic bothy that was used by the miners to sleep in when the mines were operating.
Crossing Hadrian’s Wall and into the Scottish Borders
I was near the end of the route when I reached Hadrian’s Wall, which felt like a walk down memory lane. Little has changed since I stood there six year ago, except that there are significantly more people walking Hadrian's Wall Path. I found myself standing next to the same signpost and looking out at the desolate landscape again. As I set my feet on the solitary path to continue the Pennine Way, it began to rain.
The last obstacle on the Pennine Way is the Cheviots, located on the border to Scotland. The walk over the Cheviot is lovely, following an undulating green ridge. From Byrness, it is about 45km to Kirk Yetholm and the end of the trail with no places between. Most hikers descend from the ridge to accommodations in the valleys below; others pitch their tents somewhere along the way. A few walk the entire section in one go.
On the last night on the trail, I had planned to camp next to the little emergency shelter at Auchope Rigg. Due to a storm coming in from the sea, I ended up spending the night in the shelter. When I arrive at the small hut, the wind has already increased significantly and this continued through the evening. I was happy to sit well and warm inside as the walls creaked around me. During the night, I woke up to the sound of the wind raging outside and a deluge pounding on the roof.
The final day was a cold and wet affair. I was almost blown away by the wind the moment I step out of the door and the rest of the walk down to Kirk Yetholm became a minor battle against the elements, with wind and rain constantly whipping me in the face. When I arrived at the Border Hotel, the end of the Pennine Way, the wind had eased. Later, there was even sun in the sky. All in all, the perfect ending to a great hike.
Many has claimed that there are prettier and more scenic routes in England than the Pennine Way. From my experience, it still takes you through some of the most fascinating scenery that England has to offer. And with all the improvements done to the trail, the days of the Pennine Way being a slog are probably over.
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