Will the real length of the Pennine Way, please stand up?

Published 2 June 2019

A well worn Pennine Way sign at Edale
A well worn Pennine Way sign at Edale

Recently, Georgie got in touch. And they asked this question about my guide to Planning Your Own Walk on the Pennine Way:

Hi, I’m planning on doing this hike in the summer and using your route breakdowns to form an itinerary. I was just wondering why the totals for each section add up to 251 3/4 miles, when the total route is 267 miles? Does your route take shortcuts that go off the official Pennine Way? Therefore would there be some occasions where not to follow Pennine Way signs on the route? Thanks and I appreciate your help.

Georgie’s comment on the Planning Your Own Walk on the Pennine Way guide

Now I can’t deny, this drew major panic in my mind. Had I completely cocked up the guide? Was there some major error I now would need to spend hours rectifying? It wouldn’t be the first time.

Reluctantly I opened Memory-Map.

Memory-Map is the mapping software I use to display Ordnance Survey maps. When I create guides for walking trails, I plot out the route in Memory-Map. From that Memory-Map will calculate distances between points. I use these figures on the website.

I loaded up the main file for the Pennine Way and measured the distance from Edale to Kirk Yetholm.

What came back astounded me.

It said 250 miles.

A person stands at High Cup Nick
High Cup Nick, on the Pennine Way.

But the official distance of the Pennine Way is 268 miles long. It says so on the National Trail website. That’s eighteen miles difference. The equivalent of an extra days walking.

So where did those extra 18 miles come from?

I racked my brains for a bit, and finally came out with an answer.

See, most walking routes only have one official route. But the Pennine Way’s got a couple of small detours or alternatives. Specifically they are:

If we add all that up, we get a total of 17 miles extra. And what’s 250+17? Why, it’s 267 and all of a sudden, we’re one mile short of the Pennine Way’s official 268 mile distance. And that we can probably attribute to a rounding error somewhere.

Standing next to the raised trig point at the summit of the Cheviot
The trig point at The Cheviot. Which you will see on the Pennine Way. But only if you put in the extra three miles of walking required.

Now if you’re reading this, one thing may be quite clear to you.

With the exception of the Cheviot detour, each of the above are options. Most people won’t be walking both the high level and low level routes into Kirk Yetholm. You’ll do one or the other. No one is going to walk both options on High Cup Plain. Why would you? And either you’re going to Bowes or you ain’t.

Whilst the Pennine Way is officially 268 miles long, almost no one will ever walk its full length. Certainly not in one go anyway. You’d have to be a real completionist to do so. Fact is, if you’re doing the whole thing, your walk is actually going to be somewhere between 250 and 259 miles long. Or between 253 and 262 miles if you go to Cheviot.

Unless, of course, you really do want to do every single bit of the trail. But that really is entirely up to you…

Rather ironically for many years the Pennine Way was accepted to be 250 miles. Not everyone agreed. Wainwright didn’t. He gives a distance of 270 miles. Although perhaps there was something in that original distance after all…

N.b. the observant will notice something else from Georgie’s comment. That on the planning guide, the total distances given between each stage all add up to 251¾ miles. Which is more than the 250 miles Memory-Map gives me. That difference is easy to explain. I round up and down the distances in the planning posts to the nearest quarter of a mile. In the context of each stage, this doesn’t really make a difference. But over the whole of the walk it does add up.

Your Comments

Vic Flange

12 June 2019 at 8:40 am

Not sure I follow your logic, Andrew, apart from the Cheviot bit. If you follow the Bowes loop it only adds about 4 miles to the distance (9 miles less the 5 miles that you save by not walking the more direct route).

When they stated the length as 268 miles, it wouldn’t make sense to provide a distance which includes non-sequential bits of the route. My guess is that route has changed over the years as new sections of path have opened up (e.g. after negotiating with landowners), along with maybe less accurate measurement in the past.

Andrew Bowden (Rambling Man editor)

12 June 2019 at 8:47 am

Hello Vic.
Basically my logic is that the distance you walk on the Pennine Way is not the same as the length of all the individual footpaths – including optional routes – that make up the Pennine Way. And whilst it may be that you are right, that the distance has changed a little over the years and has been badly measured in the past, it would be a bit of a coincidence that the length of all the individual footpaths just happens to be very similar to the official distance.

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