There are times when you can look back and spot a life changing moment. And who would have thought that, for me, it would involve a day and a half on the Pennine Way during a particularly soggy part of March in 2007?
I can’t say I grew up doing a huge amount of walking. My parents would usually take my sister and myself out walking for the afternoon, usually on a Sunday. But as I grew into my teenage years the inevitable homework began to dominate my weekends far more. That and the fact that I’d discovered computer games.
Perhaps it was because the Sunday walks always seemed to be like being dragged away from what I want to do, but the whole thing ended up getting negative connotations in my mind. I had things I wanted to do. And it just so happened that that mostly involved playing endless games of Theme Park, Railroad Tycoon and Sim City?
Over the years, little changed. I went to university at Durham, but the thought of leaving the city and exploring the local countryside never sprang to mind much, although the dire state of Durham’s public transport network actually meant I rarely even left the city during all my time there.
And thus it was until we skip forward to my early twenties and I’d graduated, arrived in London and moved in with my girlfriend. Catherine had also spent much of her childhood on walks. Indeed aged nine she’d walked the Pembrokeshire Coast Path with her mother. At university she’d even gone on a couple of walks with the Durham University Hillwalking Society.
Down in London she decided we should get out more and bought a couple of books. One afternoon we spent a frankly dull afternoon twisting and turning randomly through the streets of the City of London as a walking route sent us to look at a never ending stream of box like churches designed by Charles Wren. We gave up half way through and went to the pub instead. Then there was the London Loop but that just seemed to involve canals and far too much litter.
Eventually though Catherine came back armed with a tome called The Time Out Book of Country Walks.
This turned out to be a great tome as it was full of day walks you could do from London. Even better, you could get to them all by train and there was always a lunch stop at a pub. I remember one of the first walks we did. We went past a bench that had a glorious view of a massive dung heap (it’s on the South Downs Way near Amberley as I recall.)
A second volume, the cunningly titled Time Out Book of Country Walks volume 2, was swiftly purchased and Catherine began ticking off the walks we’d done.
It was nice to get out of London and see a bit more of the South East. And there are nice places to walk in the South East of England. Honest. But for someone who, like me, grew up in the north, it wasn’t enough for Catherine and one day she suggested we should have a walking weekend, by walking along a bit of the Pennine Way in the Yorkshire Dales.
After visiting an old university friend of mine in Leeds the night before, we boarded the first train of the day out to Gargrave. As we did so, a steady stream of rain poured down and I pulled on my new (and extremely cheap and naff) waterproof trousers ready for setting off.
Over the course of the morning we walked along one of the Pennine Way’s more gentle and less boggy sections, passed a dead sheep, and arrived in Malham around lunchtime absolutely soaked to the bone. Sitting in the hikers bar of the Buck Inn we watched as our sodden clothing slowly dried out and as the rain began to clear.
The next day was drier and we headed on through the lovely Yorkshire Dales to Horton-in-Ribblesdale, and had a cup of tea at the Pen-y-ghent Café which has an amazing collection of Pennine Way signing in books.
The next day, all of a sudden, the weather changed massively; bright sunshine everywhere as we left the Pennine Way and strolled on a lengthy hike around two of the large peaks that dominate the local area – Whernside and Ingleborough.
It was glorious; some of the finest walking I’d ever done, and as we headed back to London the next day (aided by the joys of a rail replacement bus service) I remember distinctly saying one thing.
“I wouldn’t mind doing more of the Pennine Way.”
That statement was uttered five years ago today.
Suddenly a switch in my brain turned on. A few day walks in the South East hadn’t done much (probably the main reason I didn’t mind those Time Out walks was cos we got to go to the pub for lunch) but up in the Yorkshire Dales I became addicted.
Ever since, I’ve been making up for lost time. We did a walking holiday in France that summer, and did some more of the Pennine Way that autumn and the following spring (we wouldn’t finish it until August 2010 though.) The West Highland Way was completed in 2009; the Coast to Coast in 2010. And also in 2009 I did my first solo trek – the Cumbria Way.
The Glyndwrs Way, Southern Upland Way, Ridgeway, Dales Way, Clarendon Way and the South Downs Way are all done, and the North Downs Way and Limestone Way are in progress. I’ve wild camped, stayed in bothies and commenced the slow process of trying to do all the Wainwrights.
Maybe if my first bit of Pennine Way had been some boggy hell hole rather than the luscious green fields of Gargrave, things would have been different. But it wasn’t, and even heavy rain and appallingly naff waterproofs didn’t do enough to deter me.
And the Yorkshire Dales is still one of my favourite places in Britain. I went back twice in 2010, walking the Coast to Coast and the Dales Way. It’s a wonderful part of the world that means a lot to me. And not just for the wonderful views, but also for what it did. It spurred me on to enjoy the UK’s stunning countryside. It ignited a desire to get the boots on and get walking, and that flame has been burning ever since.