Pennine Way Introduction

Published 28 April 2015

Pennine Way signpost at Crowden
Pointing to the Pennine Way at Crowden

The seeds may be small, but if they’re planted in just the right spot and given just the right conditions, then it’s quite possible that a mighty tree may grow. Or, to put it in a slightly less prosaic way, everything has to start somewhere.

And for me, my love of walking, which has seen me walk thousands of miles across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, was planted, nourished and grew, on the Pennine Way.

For those that don’t know it, the Pennine Way is the grandfather of walking trails in the UK. Its creation was first suggested by journalist and rambler Tom Stephenson in an article for the Daily Herald newspaper, published in 1935. He was inspired by the two thousand mile long Appalachian Trail that was being created in the United States of America at the time. If something like that could be done in the US, why not in Britain?

It took thirty years for the dream to become reality, but on Saturday, 24 April 1965 the Pennine Way was officially opened for business. Stretching across the Pennine hills, the backbone of the country, the trail set off from Edale in Derbyshire, slowly but surely making its way through the north of England before, close to the end, hopping over the border into Scotland and finishing in the small town of Kirk Yetholm. On its way, it passes through the UK’s first National Park – the Peak District – and makes its way through the Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland National Parks as well. For good measure it visits Hadrian’s Wall, and even treats the Cheviot hills as “honorary” Pennines.

The Pennine Way was the very first National Trail, created by the state, and protected by law. It would be the first of many. The second, the Cleveland Way, followed four years later, and now there are fifteen National Trails in England and Wales, and four official “Long Distance Routes” in Scotland. And that’s before we’ve counted the hundreds of other walking routes – created by all manner of local councils, walking organisations and even individuals – that spread across the country. Walks based on geographical features like rivers and hill ranges, more arbitrary routes around county borders, or trails simply created by someone who wanted to create a bloomin’ good walk. But the Pennine Way is the grandfather of them all. The first. The oldest.

A Pennine Way signpost on misty moorland.
A signpost points through the cloud at Clough Head Hill.

It’s no easy trail either. It’s one of England’s more challenging trails, going over remote moorland, passing through quiet villages, and providing the walker with ever so many chances to put their foot, and perhaps their whole body, into plenty of peat bog.

Not that I really knew any of this when I first set foot on the trail. Indeed, despite the fact that I grew up less than ten miles away from one section, I knew next to nothing about it. But then, I was never a massively keen walker as a child. My parents would take us off on Sundays for an afternoon wander on the nearby hill which dominated the town we lived in, and would occasionally decide to broaden their walking horizons by heading off around a reservoir or some local moorland. However by my teens, dimly muttering the word “homework” was all that was needed to avoid such trips.

And so it remained, until a year or so after leaving university. I’d moved to London with my partner Catherine.

Catherine liked walking. She’d even completed a National Trail – the Pembrokeshire Coast Path – aged nine. And she wasn’t going to let living in the largest city in the country prevent her from heading out.

“Let’s go for a walk!” she’d say, before taking us off to wander down some litter strewn canal towpath in west London, or a muddy park near a golf course. Slowly but surely, the walks got a little more adventurous, heading out for day walks across the south of England.

And then one day, she came out with it.

“Let’s go away for a weekend. We can go walking!”

Approaching a cloudy Pen-y-ghent on the Pennine Way
Approaching Pen-y-ghent.

Her plan was simple. We’d catch the train to Yorkshire and walk a bit of the Pennine Way from Gargrave to Horton-in-Ribblesdale. This would take two days, and then we’d spend a third day checking out two of the Dales’s three peaks: Ingleborough and Whernside (the third peak, Pen-y-ghent, forming part of our Pennine Way walk.) Oh, and there’d be country inns with fantastic Yorkshire beer on the bar, she added knowing full well how to hook me in.

It rained heavily on our first morning and we spent lunch huddling next to a roaring fire in a Malham pub trying to dry out. It may have been the end of March but some fields were still deeply covered in snow. We’d even passed a dead sheep.

The next day we climbed Pen-y-ghent in the mist, and the day after headed out for our circular walk, up Ingleborough and Whernside in absolutely fantastic weather. It was glorious; beautiful beyond belief.

The seeds had been sown. The ground was good, and the conditions were just right. I was hooked. The scenery helped, but there was also something about walking from one place to another that just worked for me. Exploring new places, seeing new sights. As we sat in the Crown Inn in Horton-in-Ribblesdale on our final evening, I muttered some immortal words.

“I think I could do some more of this Pennine Way thing.”

Petting stone sheep statues that are stood on a wall, near Middleton-in-Teesdale

And that was that. Seven months later we were back in Horton to do another stretch up to Dufton. The next spring we caught the train to Edale so we could do the start of the walk. And so it went on until three years later, we found ourselves at Kirk Yetholm, supping a pint in celebration at the Border Inn having finally completed the whole thing.

It wasn’t the first walking trail that I completed. That honour went to the South Downs Way. And it certainly wouldn’t be the last. But the Pennine Way was the first I started actually walking. Just as the birth of the Pennine Way spawned a number of new walking trails, so the Pennine Way set me off walking many more trails.

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