The Pennine Challenge

Published 6 March 2022

Pennine Way signpost at Byrness

Who knows if it’s still there, but when we stayed in Earby youth hostel in 2008, we came across a book from 1971. A series of typed reports and photographs, it was essentially a journal covering the 1971 Rugby School Natural History Society Expedition. Their place of adventure? The Pennine Way.

Ideal world, someone would have scanned it in and put it all on the internet. But as we too were walking the Pennine Way and thus were without a scanner and a laptop, I took a few photographs of the journal. One that has stuck in my mind ever since was a school boy captured mid-leap as he jumped over a massive section of bog. Whether he made to the over side intact, was never revealed. Where the photograph was taken, I don’t know. Although I’d hazard a guess at the southern section. Perhaps on Kinder, Bleaklow or Black Hill.

The Pennine Way at the time was very different to now. Paths were boggy, if they existed at all. Walking the Pennine Way would mean getting wet and muddy. Of that you were pretty much guaranteed.

It’s a side of the Pennine Way that’s mostly gone. In recent decades most of the worst sections of the Pennine Way have been flagged. There’s still a few boggy bits to contend with, almost all now in the quieter sections at the far north of the trail. But for the most part, the walker merely has to contend with stone flags. And it’s not just flags that have changed the nature of parts of the walk. My abiding memory from walking the southern section in 2008 is of places like Kinder and Bleaklow being brown and beige. Moody. Dark. A few years ago I went up on Kinder and found it lush and verdant green. It was a dramatic change, the result of a multi-million pound conservation effort to restore the moorlands.

The modern Pennine Way is a long way from what it used to be. And unless you were there at the time, it’s hard to imagine what it was like. Unless you happen to see a journal at Earby Hostel. Or perhaps find a piece of televisual history…

In 1984 the BBC challenged four teenagers to walk the Pennine Way. They’d do so camping, carrying everything on their backs. A small film crew would follow them, although would not assist them. The result is a four part documentary that chronicles the Pennine Way in the early 1980s.

The Pennine Challenge got a few repeats over the years. But the most recent was in 1991 and it’s probably been stored away, mostly forgotten, in the BBC’s archives. And then the internet came along, and the man who devised and filmed the programme – renowned filmmaker Sid Perou – has uploaded all four episodes to YouTube.

Watching them now, it’s notable how different the television of 1984 is to today. For starters, the film crew barely interact with the two boys and two girls on camera. There’s no little interviews, no conversations about how they’re finding the challenge. Nothing is said about how they’re “going on a journey”. There’s just snatches of conversation between the four, whilst everything else is left to the narrator. The narrator who goes on a lot asking whether popping into a cafe or staying in a B&B is cheating. Who knows what he’d make of baggage transportation, and people getting taxis. Even when one of the girls is struggling with incredibly bad looking blisters, they never really talk to her direct. All explanation is handled by the narrator. It’s very different to what would be on TV now. And also quite refreshing.

There’s also delights admiring the fashions of the day. Crikes, did they wear very short shorts in the 1980s. And where on earth did they get bright red gaiters from? I’ve only ever seen them in black or grey. For that matter, it has never occurred to me to wear gaiters on my legs whilst wearing shorts. It’s an interesting look.

Cars have changed. They meet a lot of people with moustaches. Shop and pub branding looks, well, interesting to the modern eye. They have tinned salmon at one point. That’s considered very fancy.

But what’s most fascinating is that over two hours you see a world of the Pennine Way as it was in the early 1980s. Some of it doesn’t look like it’s changed at all. But others – such as the south Pennines – the differences are hugely visible.

We now live in an era where it’s easy to film the Pennine Way. Scour YouTube and you’ll find scores of video blogs of walkers. We’ll have a wonderful archive of what the Pennine Way looks like now, for us to look back on. The Pennine Challenge in contrast, offers a two hour video exploration of how the Pennine Way once looked.

Sadly the video quality isn’t great – Sid uploaded the videos in 2015 and internet video has improved enormously since then. There’s also signs his source video wasn’t in the best of quality. Somewhere in the BBC will be a far better quality version of the programmes. Maybe one day they’ll drag it out of their archives once again. BBC Four would make a perfect outlet for it. Perhaps one day it will appear. In the meantime, Sid’s YouTube channel will suffice.

One question is unanswered though. Did any of the four ever do anything quite like this ever again?

Watch The Pennine Challenge

You can find all four episodes on YouTube.

Part One: If you can make it to Malham

Part Two: Harmony in the Limestone Dales

Part 3: Ups and downs to Alston

n.b. the uploaded third video also contains the forth episode for some reason. You can watch it with that, or it’s available individually as well.

Part 4: Bad Jokes in Border Country

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