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:

  • The Cheviot. On the final day you have the option of heading to the Cheviot. At 815m above sea level, it’s the highest point in the Cheviot Hills. It’s not on the main route, but there’s a spur of the Pennine Way that goes there. At the appropriate junction, you can turn off, walk a mile and a half, admire the Cheviot, and walk back. Length: 3 miles.
  • White Law, near Kirk Yetholm. On the final stages of the Pennine Way you reach a hill called Black Hag. And from there, for no obvious reason, the Pennine Way forks into two routes. There’s a low level route, and a high level route over White Law. I say high level. White Law’s only 410m high. So quite why the Pennine Way splits this way, is not abundantly clear. But split it does. And the distance? Well… Length: 3 miles. Again.
  • High Cup Plain, near Dufton. Our next one is on the section between Forest-in-Teesdale and Dufton, on the remote High Cup Plain, just before the awesome High Cup Nick. Just before High Cup Nick, the route splits into two – one option going on the north bank of Maize Beck, and one on the south. It mentions why in my guide book, but as we’ve loaned that out to someone, I can’t look it up. I suspect it was to do with either ground conditions, or problems crossing the Beck. It’s not a massive duplication, but it exists. Length: 2 miles.
  • The Bowes Loop. Now perhaps the Pennine Way’s best known alternative route. The main Pennine Way doesn’t visit the village of Bowes, but that section of the Pennine Way comes in a stretch with limited accommodation. You could walk the two miles down the A66 to the village to get to its pubs and B&Bs. But it’s a very busy road, and wouldn’t be the best of experiences. So instead the Bowes Loop was created. It diverts off the Pennine Way at Trough Heads, and rejoining it much later at Balderhead Reservoir. And it’s rather substantial. Length: 9 miles.

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.

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.

Stuart

17 February 2024 at 11:22 pm

I’m only 4 and half years late to the party on this one…

I have to day that I disagree on that length of 250. I walked it Sept 2022, and had Strava on every day.
Now, there may have been a tiny bit of wandering off-piste to get to accomodation, and the odd bit of deviation from the main path (the section in the forest between Hadrian’s Wall and Bellingham was particularly bad at that time due to tree felling), but somehow I ended up walking 280 miles all in, and that’s without doing both sides of alternatives and things like that!

I would also say that there’s nothing quite as inaccurate in life as the distance on a PW finger post!

That apart, I loved the walk, and even now, almost 18 months later, there will be several times a day where I only have to let my attention to the task in hand slip and in my head I’m back out on the lonely moors.

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