Tales from the trail
The Pennine Way chases along the mountain tops along the rugged backbone of England and offers 268 miles of the finest upland walking in England. During the second week, I even managed to see some of it.
I’ve been reluctant to write anything about the 15 days I spent walking the Pennine Way, but I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because walking from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland alone is a profoundly different experience than a Saturday walk in the Peak District. When you’re walking a trail alone, your comfort blanket is removed. If anything goes wrong, it might be hours until somebody finds you, even on a trail as popular as the Pennine Way; it’s one of the downsides to tackling it off-season in April. For all the conveniences of technology, you can find yourself plunged into signal blackspots for many hours at a time.
Those are merely the practicalities of being alone and you accept those risks before you leave the comfort of your home to catch the train, but the biggest impact for me was psychological. Without someone to talk with, to solve problems with, or to share a view, you find yourself uniquely alone. Have you ever looked at the night sky and felt so overwhelmingly small? It can feel like that at times.
Happiness only real when shared.Chris McCandless
The highs are amplified to levels of ecstasy, but the lows can be agonising. In two short weeks, I have never cried so many tears of happiness and of despair; sometimes both within hours of each other. I found myself in so much distress for the few days leading up to leaving and until Sarah came to save me on the second night that I developed a stutter. I haven’t had a stutter in my life as far as I can remember, but words were failing me and I couldn’t make them come out whole.
Before I set off, I spent a lot of money on kit I needed but didn’t already own. While I made considered selections and would likely make the same choices again, I hadn’t prepared myself for the physical undertaking of carrying a 14kg base weight to Scotland. If you’re not a backpacker, base weight is everything that goes in your backpack minus consumables like food, gas and water – your base weight will stay the same, but the weight of those other things fluctuates through the day and over weeks.
My plan hadn’t originally been to walk the Pennine Way in April because, as people kept telling me after I’d set off, it’s bloody challenging – weather is unpredictable, the bogs are boggier, the trail less populated, the nights colder – but I knew I wanted to walk it in one go and that it can take most people 19-21 days. If, like me, you’ve always worked a full time job, you’ll know how rare it is to find 19-21 consecutive and uninterrupted days in a year – I’m not sure I’ve ever had that before.
Then I found myself between jobs with a month off work. It all happened so quickly that planning was condensed into a few short weeks, including plotting a route, buying kit, and preparing physically. Of course, any exercise you do over a few short weeks is unlikely to prepare you for an undertaking such as this, but I was naively and blissfully unaware of that.
While most of my kit was unfamiliar to me at the beginning, it wasn’t unfamiliar in the sense that I didn’t know what it was. I’d been camping plenty, I’d used a fire steel, I knew how to cook dehydrated food, I’d spent countless hours in the outdoors, I knew how to sleep on an inflatable mat. It was just a new tent – better than I’d ever previously owned – and everything else was just as familiar and slightly better than I’d previously been used to.
I had my reservations about navigation more than anything. I’ve never been a fan of paper maps and a compass because I prefer my cognitive load to be freed up to enjoy the experience of hiking. Orienteering for me, especially as someone who struggles with maps thanks to an annoyingly inconvenient red-green colourblindness problem, feels a bit like doing mathematics – it’s a vitally important skill, but I’ll use a calculator if I’ve got one. I simply don’t trust myself to see the detail on a map; if you’re not colourblind, looking at a map can be a little like playing Where’s Wally? The details can be indistinct and invisible for all intents and purposes, until they’re pointed out to you and then you can see them. If there’s more than one of you in a group looking at a map that’s not such a big deal, but when you’re on your own it could make a significant difference.
For every walk I’ve done in the last few years I’ve relied on ViewRanger and my Apple Watch, but it didn’t feel like it would be robust enough to tackle the Pennine Way. For a day in the Peaks it’s perfect, but would it be up to 268 miles of remote, cold, indistinct terrain? I didn’t think so and I reluctantly splashed a ton of money on a Garmin Fenix 5 Plus. It took me a matter of hours to realise that the maps the Garmin comes with are godawful – yes, it comes with mapping, but the clarity is about as useful as someone scribbling a map of the Pennine Way on a cigarette packet and then setting it on fire. I knew I had to buy Garmin’s TOPO Great Britain PRO maps, which are OS 1:50,000 leisure maps. With another £150 spent on top of the cost of the watch, I headed out for a field test, using Garmin’s LiveTrack feature in place of my more familiar ViewRanger BuddyBeacon.
The result? Even the TOPO Great Britain PRO maps on the watch are appalling – pixellated to the point where I couldn’t work out which exit of the roundabout outside my house I needed to take – and the battery life is significantly less than the Garmin claims. The LiveTrack feature worked as advertised, but the battery drain it imposed on the connected iPhone was far beyond the drain I’d seen BuddyBeacon use. Add to that clunky software and poor support and you’ve got yourself about £800 worth of deep and unrelenting regret. The watch went back the next day. I’d rather take my chances with the Apple Watch and ViewRanger. Hell, if it broke I could buy another two to replace the Garmin when I got home for the same price.
With my planning as complete as it was ever going to get, I set off for Fieldhead Campsite in Edale on 31st March 2019, ready to hit the trail as an April fool. I got a lot of things wrong and only by the grace of friends was I able to correct them and continue.
Day 1: Edale to Crowden (17.75 miles/28.57km)
Having pitched my tent at Fieldhead Campsite the night before, I woke up on April 1st 2019 from a restful night of sleep, beaming with pride. I haven’t mentioned this yet, but I spent some time last year away from work to deal with a lingering battle with depression and anxiety. More than ever before, doing the Pennine Way was something I’d wanted to run away from and to have made it to the start felt like I’d already conquered something. Indeed, the messages I received from family and close friends over the previous 12 hours confirmed how monumental just turning up to the start had been for me – “even if you turn back now, you should be proud of yourself for getting this far.”
I packed my kit, scoffed a few breakfast bars, and headed for the official start of the Pennine Way at The Old Nags Head… or is it at that easy-to-miss stone that’s built into the base of a wall about 50 meters away? I took a picture of both to prove I’d started.
The first thing that the Pennine Way does is it teaches you how to walk uphill. It’s not long before you get to Jacob’s Ladder, which I’d walked down a few times but had never dared ascend. It’s not as bad as it looks. I mean it’s not fun starting your day with Jacob’s Ladder, but you’ve already tackled the second biggest climb of the whole thing within an hour of starting and that’s something to be pretty chuffed with.
This is essentially how the Pennine Way works: are you currently standing at the highest point you can see? If you’re not, you have some climbing to do. If you’ve already clambered up the highest thing within in a kilometre, look around for the next highest thing you can see – that’s where you’re going.
I don’t want to spend too much of this writing about landscapes and views other than where I found them to be profoundly special, because many people have written about the Pennine Way who understand the landscape and trail far better than I do. You’ll learn a lot more from reading their articles if that’s the kind of thing you’re after. For me, the Pennine Way was less about the landscape and more about the people I met and interacted with along the way.
That said, the worst thing about the first day isn’t Jacob’s Ladder. You get that out of the way fairly quickly and you’re onto the Kinder plateau, where the mass trespass of Kinder Scout made this kind of idle meandering all the way to Scotland possible. The worst thing about the first day is the utter bastard of a sightly-uphill mile from Torside Reservoir to Crowden Camping and Caravanning Club. I’d paid for my camping here in advance, but it was also the first time I encountered the kindness of strangers – as I arrived, looking like someone who’d grossly underestimated how far 17 miles is when you’re carrying an 18kg backpack (I hadn’t eaten most of my food), I was refunded about half my camping fee. Turns out that the Camping and Caravanning Club have an unadvertised rate for backpackers which is significantly cheaper than what you pay on the website. I was grateful for the spare change because there was no phone signal at the site and I wanted nothing more than to use the pay phone to call Sarah.
That night, Crowden Camping and Caravanning Club was largely deserted. Just me and one other Pennine Way walker named Paul, who pitched up next to me and would be someone I’d walk with a little later in the week.
Day 2: Crowden to Standedge (12.36 miles/19.89km)
It rained overnight. It rained a lot. Thanks to the rain and the cold temperature, humidity went through the roof and my tent started to pool water inside. Luckily it only went near my clothes and not near my suspended battery pack, but either way it wasn’t great. I packed my tent up kit up, including what felt like an additional 2kg of rain, and set off feeling cold, wet and miserable for Standedge.
This was probably the most physically challenging day of the whole trip for me. It’s not a bad walk by any means, there are even a few things to look out for along the way – waterfalls and such – but I hated it. My pack weighed a ton and there was hail. Hail that turned into a gentle snow. Perhaps hail and snow in April is nature’s way of balancing things out. The Spine Race which follows the Pennine Way was, after all, blessed with very spring-like weather in January. Only fitting that I get winter in April.
Despite being the shortest day of the whole trail, it felt the longest by far. In the distance behind me, I could see another Pennine Way walker gaining on me. He passed me at Black Hill and spoke of how he’d been ruthless with pack weight. Boasted about it, in fact. Had cut everything out and allowed himself only a GPS as a luxury. “I’m not the fastest walker,” he said as he smugly overtook me, “but I can easily manage this.” Perhaps it was my darkening mood, but at that point the clouds came over and Saddleworth Moor was nothing but hail for the rest of the day.
I got to Standege where Sarah met me to relieve me of my pack. I’d decided that I couldn’t go on as I was. There’s a romance in camping the length of the Pennine Way, but my pack was far too heavy, I was miserable, the weather had changed for the worse and not at all in the way the forecast had predicted and I knew there was no way I’d make it past Hebden Bridge, let alone the rest of the trail, if something didn’t change. Despite having already spent a fortune on new kit, I decided I’d come so far that I’d never forgive myself if I gave up. It would cost another £1,000 – money I hadn’t budgeted – but I wanted to give it my best shot. There was still no guarantee of making it to Scotland, but I couldn’t face giving up now.
Lessons learned with pack weight, I cut everything back to essentially my day hiking kit and booked up the next few nights in hostels and the cheapest B&Bs money could buy.
Day 3: Standedge to Calder Valley (19.35 miles/31.14km)
‘The worst part of the journey is behind you,’ said Wainwright, ‘from now on the Pennine Way can be enjoyed.’ My god was he right.
Dropping the pack weight down to my usual carry was the best decision I could’ve made. Despite the thick morning mist, I was flying! It didn’t even bother me that this part of the Pennine Way is pretty grim. It seems that wherever civilisation comes into contact with nature, nature inevitably loses. Wherever there are roads, you’ll find litter. Someone should really tell the locals that the moorland around the M62 wasn’t put there for fly-tipping and being colossally selfish twats.
I felt like my old self again with my more familiar pack and was making such good progress that I even got to stop for lunch at the White House – the first time I’d been able to stop for a break since leaving Edale. I hadn’t planned to stop here for food, but the hail had turned to snow and it was coming down heavy, even settling in places, and I wanted to get out of it for a while.
Bearing a lighter weight and having eaten, I barely noticed the ascent to Stoodley Pike Monument several miles further down the trail. There has been a monument here since 1815, originally commemorating the defeat of Napoleon and the surrender of Paris, but the earlier structure fell victim to a lightning strike and its replacement was designed 1854, moving it slightly further away from the edge of the hill and including a lightning conductor. Despite several lightning strikes since, the monument still remains. Unfortunately, none of those lightning strikes managed to maim any of the aforementioned selfish twats who have scrawled things like ‘MUFC is shit innit’ and ‘Chastity & Ben 4eva’ on the side.
Leaving the rubbish tip of the M62 and the chavs of Studley Pike Monument behind me, I headed for Hebden Bridge where I took the unofficial Hebden Bridge Loop. I had one rule for this trip: I could add distance, but I couldn’t remove it. The notice boards claim that Hebden Bridge adds only 2km to the route, but it fails to mention that the first kilometre is vertically down while the second is vertically back up.
I was glad to have visited Hebden Bridge and played the ever-popular people-watching game of Homeless or Hipster? It’s really hard to tell in Hebden Bridge, everyone appears to be in their 40s and drunk at 3pm on a Wednesday.
I’d planned to be staying at the New Delight Inn that evening and so my day finished there, where I was met by an old friend of mine. Leanne came to pick me up from Bacup and took me back to her house where I had food and drinks with her and her husband and got to meet her kids. It was such a relaxing evening that it felt like a turning point in my anxiety about the trip – I wasn’t alone in doing this. It might be me walking the miles, but I had a safety net I hadn’t even noticed.
As we drove away from the New Delight Inn, I noticed a single, solitary tent camped in the snow outside; it was Paul, the guy who camped next to me on the first night in Crowden.
Day 4: Calder Valley to Ickornshaw (15.20 miles/24.46km)
Dropped off at the New Delight Inn the next morning by Alex, Leanne’s husband, I wandered back to the trail. I don’t remember too much about this day in all honesty, except it was the first day where the weather broke and I could see something that wasn’t cloud.
I must admit that while I’m an avid reader, I’ve never really been one for the classics. Arriving at Top Withens, which has a plausible claim to being part of the inspiration for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, was largely lost on me, but I had a look around, enjoyed the view and snapped a few photos for posterity regardless. I was worrying a lot less about my battery now that I knew I had access to a power supply each evening, so the one or two photos I took on the first two days quickly became my more usual ten to twenty a day when out walking.
This was another one of those days where the view was secondary to the people. For the first time since we said hello back in Crowden, I caught up with Paul as we crossed Stanbury Moor together. We hadn’t had a chance to talk on that first night, partly due to the inclement weather but mostly due to tiredness, so it was good to catch up as we walked. Paul was remarkably carrying a similar pack weight to the one I set out with and had made it this far despite a much slower pace than I was currently walking at. I learned that he’d set off on the same day as me, but had stayed at Upper Booth Farm because it was where he’d taken his daughter – Alice, if my memory serves me – for her first camping trip 19 years ago. She’d since joined the Army and he was winding down his sound and light business in Peterborough. The Pennine Way had been something he’d been wanting to get around to all those years and now he was finally on it. “Have you met the people going to Shetland yet?” he asked. I hadn’t, but I soon would.
I left him at Ickornshaw Moor and picked up the pace, arriving at Squirrel Wood Campsite in Ickornshaw an hour before they opened for check-in. I’d been planning to camp here anyway, but I was lucky enough to have a night in the Shepherd’s Hut instead. That night, the heavens opened and, once again, I felt sorry for Paul who I knew was in the next field camping in the cold and torrential rain. Another camper made it into the site that evening, but huddled for shelter from the relentless rain. The first week in April is not the best time to walk the Pennine Way.
Day 5: Ickornshaw to Malham (18.31 miles/29.47km)
I left the Shepherd’s Hut in the morning and shook hands with the campsite owner, Ady, who’s just a brilliantly kind man. He runs the place for the love of doing it rather than to make a ton of money and you can tell – I don’t think you’ll find a better campsite than Squirrel Wood Campsite along the whole Way. I also waved goodbye to Paul as I left the campsite that morning; I didn’t see him again for the rest of the trip and the last time we spoke, he told he had reservations about being able to continue. I hope he managed to keep going.
The morning was glorious and in stark contrast to the boggy moor that had brought me into Ickornshaw the previous day. Wainwright said that the first half of today was characterised by mostly ‘muck and manure’ and it’s hard to find fault with that description, but the sun was out on a beautiful spring morning, there were lambs in the fields, and life felt good.
This day felt like an easy walk – it’s one of those classically British countryside walks that you can’t help but adore. I got my first panoramic view of the week at Pinhaw Beacon before enjoying a leisurely walk along the Leeds Liverpool Canal toward Gargrave where, for the second time, I was able to stop for lunch.
It was shortly after Gargrave that I came upon the people walking from Stoke to Shetland. We exchanged hellos and I confirmed that they were indeed the mythical couple I’d heard about a couple of days ago. They were sheltering behind a dry stone wall and eating lunch so I didn’t want to disturb them with that most awful of contrivances, small talk, but little did I know that I’d cross paths with them every day until Cross Fell. We never really spoke other than to laugh about how we kept managing to bump into each other in such remote places, but they were a welcome cadence in my trip and it was a better journey knowing they were walking part of it with me.
I arrived that evening into Malham at the Miresfield Farm B&B, a place that looks like it hasn’t been updated since the 1970s. I’m not entirely sure the owner knows it’s a B&B. As I arrived and introduced myself, I could only wonder at his bewilderment. I think I interrupted Emmerdale and it must have thrown him off. Based on his reaction to a guest turning up, I can only assume it must seem to him like strangers have been arriving and expecting to use one of his ten spare bedrooms for all these years and he’s reluctantly given in to the onslaught of people throwing money at him for the use of a bed.
Regardless, I was glad to take the weight off my legs for a while. I’d twisted my right knee a couple of days back on Ickornshaw Moor and it was starting to hurt.
Day 6: Malham to Horton-in-Ribblesdale (14.40 miles/23.17km)
Today was a special day, the limestone country around Malham being every bit as dramatic and impressive as Wainwright described it. He described it as ‘the best walking territory so far encountered along the Pennine way’ and, again, I can’t argue with him.
Since losing my pack, today was easily the most physically demanding day of the Pennine Way. The climb up the limestone is, in part, steps laid out for tourists not travelling quite so far and I must admit that I find ‘improvements’ to the landscape often more of a burden than just paying attention to what’s underfoot. Your efforts are at least rewarded with the impressive Malham Tarn.
Just before the second sustained climb of the day to Fountains Fell, I passed a chap who had parked his car just after Malham Tarn and was doing a circular walk that followed this section of the Pennine Way for a time. He caught up to me over the course of a few miles and I took the opportunity to ask him about the rest of today, cautious about the guidebook’s description of it as ‘challenging’. As it turns out, he’d done the Pennine Way a few years previously and I thought he might be a font of useful knowledge.
“Today seems like a superb day for views, I’m glad the weather is on my side after the last week,” I began. Always open with the weather and, where possible, encourage the local by being complimentary about their local area. “Is it as challenging a day as the guidebook suggests?”
“Depends how fit you are,” he said.
“True. Would you say it’s more challenging than the first day?”
“Depends how fit you are,” he said.
“I’m not doing too badly. My knee is very sore, but painkillers are helping. I hear Cross Fell is the hardest day of the walk?”
“Aye. Depends how fit you are,” he said.
I wished the man well, not meaning a word of it.
Fountains Fell was indeed a sustained climb and the descent was no better. My knee was screaming at me the whole way down. In the distance, I could see the imposing face of Pen-y-Ghent and knew that I was heading in that direction. It was, after all, the steepest thing I could see within a kilometre. This being a Saturday and the first popular weekend of the year for the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge, I arrived at the foot of Pen-y-Ghent to find myself amongst people for the first time. Most of them were tackling it fresh, whereas I was 10 miles in. I overtook almost all of them. If you happen to be taking on Pen-y-Ghent in anything other than ideal conditions, don’t bother. The path is fine, but one mistake and you’re going to lose the ability to walk.
Wainwright described the descent to Horton-in-Ribblesdale from Pen-y-Ghent as ‘very, very good’ and in this, he couldn’t be more wrong. It’s interminable and tortuous and an awful end to a good day’s walk when your knee already hurts like buggery. This was the first of only a few times in the whole thing where I had to stop because I could no longer put weight on it.
That night, I fell into a deep sleep in a camping pod at the south end of the village. It was luxurious – both the hospitality and lodging surpassed some of the best hotels I’ve managed to expense with work.
Day 7: Horton-in-Ribblesdale to Hawes (14.29 miles/23km)
Not many people have good things to say about today – the views are pleasing, but not impressive. Pathfinding is easy, but at the expense of wildness. There are no conveniences along the route and there’s no much by way of hills. It was exactly what I needed.
At a ‘short’ 14 miles (23km), today felt almost as good as a rest day and was exactly what I needed to not put any undue strain on my knee. One of the benefits I’d planned with camping was that I’d be able to take rest days as needed, but due to the last-minute change of plan and needing to secure accommodation until the end to ensure I could get there, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to stop until I reached Kirk Yetholm. In hindsight, I would’ve happily spent the extra £100 do have a rest day somewhere around now, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Hawes was as bustling a market town as you’ll find on the Pennine Way and the conveniences were welcome. I needed dinner, I needed breakfast (the YHA I was staying at didn’t serve it), and I needed Compeed. I had a superb dinner in a local pub, whose menu had been decimated thanks to a rush of bikers celebrating the fine weather, and looked forward to a restful sleep.
Day 8: Hawes to Tan Hill (16.83 miles/27.09km)
Breakfast in Hawes was at Caffè Curva, purposefully chosen because it didn’t take me off route and because it allowed me a direct view of the pharmacy opening so I didn’t have to set off too late. Bacon sandwich demolished and Compeed secured from a stern and unfriendly lady in the pharmacy, I was ready to hit the trail again.
The guidebook says that today is a Pennine Way classic, but for me it wasn’t. Apparently the views over Great Shunner Fell are stunning, but I saw nothing but cloud. I even did a little video about the perils of hillwalking at the summit.
Thankfully, I caught a break in the cloud around Thwaite, where I stopped for lunch and to let people know I was okay after several hours without a data connection to update ViewRanger’s BuddyBeacon. I left Hawes and climbed up to Kisdon, where the Way cuts along the dashing cleft of Swaledale and to Keld, via some waterfalls.
It’s almost impossible to capture how imposing the hills are in this valley, but the view was one of the best of the whole trip. There were no vistas or great expanses, but it’s one of those views where the cloud lifts just enough to let a little light through and it reminds you how much there is to be happy with in the world.
The happiness, however, was short-lived. When you read that Tan Hill is the highest pub in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, it doesn’t necessarily register (or at least it didn’t with me) that you’ll have to walk uphill to it. I assumed my uphilling was done and that Tan Hill would be on a ridge, but that’s not where it is. What actually happens is that you descend to what feels like a few thousand feet below sea level, where there’s still persistent cloud, and then you endlessly and tortuously climb through a foggy bog where you can hardly see your hand in front of your face, let alone see anything that might allow you to navigate across a notoriously remote and isolated moor. With less than 10 meters visibility in some places, this was the most scared I’ve ever been of my navigational skills failing me. If you take a wrong turn on these moors and in these conditions, nobody is finding you for a long, long time. It felt like climbing Everest in fog. When I saw the sign for the world famous Tan Hill Inn on the road, I still couldn’t see the pub despite it being less than 30 meters away.
Apparently, the Tan Hill Inn only has one member of staff who does literally everything. The Inn has a captive audience as there’s nothing else remotely close by as far as I’m aware, but there could’ve been a village 100 meters away for all I knew and I wouldn’t have been able to see it. Remoteness appears to have let Tan Hill rest on its laurels and slip into complacency. At best, the world famous inn is almost modestly okay in every respect.
Day 9: Tan Hill to Middleton-in-Teesdale (17.21 miles/27.70km)
I came down to breakfast at Tan Hill and the featherweight backpacker who overtook me on Day 2 is here. He’s telling a German couple how he walked to a height of 2,000ft yesterday and how the few 20+ mile walks we have coming up won’t be a problem for him.
Only one word could adequately describe today: hateful.
I have never done a walk that was so miserable or that made my mood so low. This was my update to my WhatsApp group in the morning:
Sleightholme Moor is a bleak puddle of sopping misery that can go f**k itself. And for anyone who doesn’t understand what the asterisks mean, it can go fuck itself.mark rickaby, after walking across sleightholme moor
If the rest of the Pennine Way was like today, nobody would walk it. The bog of Sleightholme Moor swallowed me thrice, each time above my boots and filling them with mud and water. If there’s anything good to be said about this stretch, it’s that you’ve made it to the half way point. Beyond that, there’s nothing good. I hated every minute of it. At one point I told a lapwing to fuck off because it sounded too cheerful.
My knee was so painful that I headed straight for the pharmacy in Middleton-in-Teesdale when I arrived just before closing time and bought a knee support and a lot of ibuprofen. Having made it half way, there was no way I was giving up, not after this morning. Even if I can never walk without pain again, I’m going to get to Scotland.
I’d been looking forward to getting to Middleton-in-Tesdale and despite the path that led me to it, I loved the place. It’s a charmingly perfect little market town that has connections to my family history. A few hundred years ago, some of my family migrated from where they first settled in Kirkbymoorside in the Ryedale district of North Yorkshire to Catterick, a village in the Richmond district of North Yorkshire. From there, others moved to Middleton-in-Teesdale. My grandad is still familiar with the area, in fact.
I told all of this to the woman in the pharmacy and mustn’t have been clear that my family moved from Yorkshire to Middleton-in-Teesdale because her response to the story was to give me a death stare and say in a raised voice, “THIS ISN’T YORKSHIRE!”
Once I’d explained that I knew that Middleton-in-Teesdale was, in fact, in County Durham and that I hadn’t confused her town with somewhere in Yorkshire, she let me leave to get my fish and chips from across the road. What is it with pharmacy workers? Why are they all so humourless and mean?
The fish and chips, however, were served on a plate and I ate them in the cool breeze and evening sun with the best cup of tea ever made.
Day 10: Middleton-in-Teesdale to Dufton (20.75 miles/33.39km)
I came down to breakfast at my B&B in Middleton-in-Teesdale to find that I’d be sharing it with the featherweight backpacker who overtook me on Day 2; the man who told the German couple how simple this all is. He doesn’t recognise me, not from Black Hill or from Tan Hill.
“I passed a guy on the second day carrying what looked like a massive backpack up Black Hill, but I haven’t seen him since,” he tells me. I nod, whilst he continues. “And a German couple at Tan Hill yesterday who are going to have to cut their miles in half to get to the end, they’re really struggling.”
“How are you finding it?” I ask.
“My body is telling me to give up and I booked a bus home this morning.”
Day 10 is already my favourite day.
Yes, Day 9 was a shit day of walking that would be bad enough to ruin anybody’s love of the outdoors, but it did have one redeeming quality: it got me to Day 10 which was, by stark contrast, the best day of walking I’ve ever done in my life. Today was 20 miles of Pennine Way magic.
Everybody loves a waterfall and this day has three of them. I took a few shots of the the first waterfall I passed thinking it dramatic, but then I arrived at High Force.
And then I walked a little further and got to stand on top of High Force and watch the water rush by!
As if that wasn’t enough, the walk takes you through a picturesque valley that takes in meadows and flagstone paths and even boulders where the path completely disappears before delivering you at the wonderfully-named and equally brilliant sight and sound of Cauldron Snout.
Today isn’t yet over, though. For a day that’s already been filled with three superb waterfalls, there’s more to come. A challenging scramble up the side of Cauldron Snout – this is the only other time where a mistake is either going to prove fatal or painful enough for long enough that you wish it had been – brings to a long stretch on the moors before you arrive at the most impressive sight of the whole Pennine Way – High Cup Nick, a deep chasm on the Pennine fellside.
Today is one of those days that puts the ‘great’ in ‘great outdoors’. This is England showing off.
Day 11: Dufton to Alston (19.79 miles/31.85km)
This is the toughest day on the Pennine Way according to the official National Trails guidebook, but I rather enjoyed it. The boost I got from Day 10 created enough momentum that I found the sustained and difficult climb from Dufton to the summit of Great Dun Fell fairly unchallenging. Sure, there were stops to catch my breath along the way, but I felt good, there was a view, and my knee only seemed to torment me once I hit mile 7 each day, so I managed to do the hard bit without any pain at all.
I was uncharacteristically lucky when it came to today. I saw the people walking to Shetland get closer and closer from a different path in the distance until we met for our daily ‘hello’ on Great Dun Fell near the radar station.
They passed me here while I paused to take in the view and I caught a photo of them as they left. I took for granted that I’d bump into them every day and I didn’t know it at the time, but I wouldn’t see them for the rest of the trail. All I know about them is that they’re walking from Stoke to Shetland and when they get there, they’re walking back again. I asked if they had a blog or website and he said “No, we enjoy walking more than writing about it. We just like doing long walks.” I love that and admire them for it.
I’ve heard that a view on Cross Fell is an especially rare thing to witness, but the weather gods rewarded me for persevering through hail, snow and rain the previous week and granted me clear skies and endless vistas here.
From Cross Fell, I dropped down to Greg’s Hut, a bothy restored by the friends of John Gregory who was killed in a climbing accident in the Alps in 1968. A group of his Climbing Club friends adopted the building, an old lead-mining Blacksmiths Shop, rebuilt it from a ruin and maintained it for many years, where it has now rightfully earned its place as a Pennine Way institution.
Short of wading through puddles filled with frogs and frogspawn, the rest of the day is tedious. The Corpse Road miner’s track from Greg’s Hut to Garrigill feels endless and is unpleasant underfoot, but it’s better than straying from the route; the fells here were mined and errors in navigation and judgement could spell trouble.
Day 12: Alston to Greenhead (17.72 miles/28.52km)
I come down to breakfast at the YHA to find a Yorkshireman has already started. He explains to me, in detail, what I can expect today. Where the stiles are, where the signs aren’t clear, where I need to take a compass bearing. He explains how to take a compass bearing. He takes so long over this that the hostel owner brings his hot breakfast and has to return it to the kitchen because he hasn’t finished his cornflakes yet. He explains why a paper map and compass are the best navigational tool in unimaginable detail before describing how he managed to get so lost on this section that he had to repeat a part of it. Well, pal, I use ViewRanger and I’ve never been more than 50 yards off the route.
If there is anywhere so remote on the Pennine Way that one can have breakfast unchallenged by a pedant, I haven’t found it yet.
I’d been dreading today. The guidebook says it’s the worst day of the Pennine Way and everybody I spoke to told me that Blenkinsopp Common can invoke nightmares in even the hardiest Wayfarers. Thanks, however, to the misery of Day 9 and my mind’s propensity to fear the absolute worst, I didn’t find it too bad at all.
The worst thing you can level at the first half of the day is that it doesn’t have spectacular views, but I’d imagine a circular walk from Alston to near the common and back, whilst long, would be a really good day out. It’s good, honest British countryside with the odd viaduct thrown in to keep in interesting.
Blenkinsopp Common was, as everybody had predicted, boggy. I have no idea how anything can possibly be so consistently wet as Blenkinsopp Common, but I assume it’s regularly topped up with the tears of Wayfarers who doggedly stick to the proper Pennine Way route. My boots got wet, my socks got wet, but I wasn’t walking through a cloud. For that reason alone, Day 9 remains the worst day of the whole trail. Not even Blenkinsopp could take that crown, not by a long way, but I have rarely been so wet on dry land.
Day 13: Greenhead to Bellingham (22.72 miles/36.56km)
Somebody once told me that not much of Hadrian’s Wall remains and that there are really only a few bricks here or there. If I ever remember who that person was, I’ll be sure to tell them that they’re wrong. I was astounded at how much of Hadrian’s Wall is preserved and was in awe at how far you can still follow it for.
The Pennine Way follows the most dramatic stretches of Hadrian’s Wall for 8 miles (12.8km) before breaking from the stones at Rapidshaw Gap toward Wark Forest and then to farmland and moorland before dumping the tired Wayfarer onto the road into Bellingham. I think this might be the first time I’ve walked through a forest undisturbed by human activity. It was like walking on a sponge, both in terms of how wet my boots got, but also how soft and bouncy the ground was. It was like walking on the softest mattress you could imagine and the greens of the forest looked almost over-saturated in their vibrancy.
I was expecting this day to be tiring for its sheer length, but I hadn’t quite anticipated how undulating those 8 miles along Hadrian’s Wall would be. It’s exhausting.
Day 14: Bellingham to Byrness (16.64 miles/26.78km)
This is the day that takes you to the Cheviots, and it does it gently enough that you arrive rested enough for what follows. No day on the Pennine Way is easy, but some of them are less demanding than others and this is one of those days.
I disapprove of the cliche, but today was a day of two halves. The first half is more bog-hopping and moorland, but a steep climb at the half way point takes you up to an unexpected stony forest track. It was here on the ascent that I met Bernard who will be staying at the same place as me this evening, so we arrange to share dinner and a beer later before parting ways. Having a solid track under your feet is welcome for a while, but this one goes on for too long. Its saving grace is that it deposits you at the door of Forest View Walkers Inn in Byrness, which is run by the most exceptional hosts you’ll meet anywhere.
Forest View has, over the last 13 years, become something of a Pennine Way institution. Its owners, Colin and Joyce, are the most welcoming and charming people you could ever hope to meet. As I arrived, Colin whisked away my damp boots and made me a cup of tea, allowing me 10 minutes to rest my legs before showing me to my room for the night.
It’s striking to look around the walls of Forest View and see how vital this place is to the community. Byrness really doesn’t have much of anything – there’s no pub, no shop and it’s a long way to go until you find one. The walls of the hostel are adorned with certificates – one for each year for at least the last 10 years – praising how much money Colin and Joyce have been able to raise for the Air Ambulance and Mountain Rescue, just by asking Pennine Way walkers to donate a little change if they make themselves a cup of tea. For every certificate on the wall, there also appears to be an award for excellence in service as a hostel. It’s easy to see why. The food here was home-cooked and utterly delicious and the ales Colin keeps in the wood burner-heated bar are up there with the best I’ve tasted anywhere. Bernard and I marvel at the meal, the ambience, the hospitality and how Colin and Joyce have got everything exactly right here. It’s unpretentious and perfect. It’s precisely what people who have walked 245 miles want.
If the Pennine Way ended at the Forest View Walkers Inn, everybody would go home happy.
Day 15: Byrness to Kirk Yetholm (25.93 miles/41.74km)
I woke up to a 4:30am alarm on my last day on the Pennine Way, ready to tackle a near marathon distance across the Cheviots. My knee was complaining immediately, but I took half a day’s normal dose of ibuprofen with breakfast to get me as far into the walk as I could get before the pain really hit.
I left my room at Forest View Walkers Inn and stumbled into the communal area, where I found Colin and Joyce had laid out an early bird breakfast for me. They’d also dried and cleaned my boots and insoles, leaving them out and stuffed with newspaper to keep them dry. It was the first time in nearly 15 days that I’d put on dry, warm boots and it made a massive difference.
I should explain a little why I deviated from the guidebook here and decided to tackle this last section in one go. I asked Colin if many people do this and he told me that he estimated less than 1%. So why did I? Luck wasn’t on my side at the beginning of this walk and it wasn’t on my side at the end, either. Normally, Colin and Joyce offer a half way service that almost every one of their guests takes advantage of – on the first day, you walk half way across the Cheviots and deviate from the route a little to where you’ll find Colin waiting for you in his minibus to take you back to Forest View for another hot meal, cosy bed and filling breakfast. The next morning, hunger satiated, he drops you back at the half way point and you stroll into Kirk Yetholm having done two short but steep days rather than one long and incredibly tough one.
However, I arrived at Forest View Walkers Inn the day before Colin had to take Joyce to hospital and he wasn’t able to offer the half way service that day. The alternative was to book two nights in a hotel at the finish line and use a taxi service from there, but there were two issues with that: 1) the guy who runs the taxi service was on holiday until the 17th and I needed it on the 15th and 2) I really didn’t like the idea of arriving at the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm before I’d actually finished.
And so, a marathon with nearly 5,000ft of ascent it was. Getting up onto the ridge was the hardest part of the morning, especially when you’re doing it before 6am, but it was the cold I hadn’t anticipated. Snow still clung to sheltered parts of the ridge while the infrequent boards and flagstones that cover the particularly boggy areas were covered in frost and ice – I nearly lost my footing a few times.
I say that the boards and flagstones covered the worst parts of the bog, but I found at least two places on the route where my walking pole would sink 2ft into the muddy depths.
This exposed ridge is used for military training and the ominous signs make it clear that one should be especially keen when it comes to navigation.
My plan was to make it to the first mountain refuge hut, rest for 15 minutes, push on to Windy Gyle, then onto the second mountain refuge hut, then to take the low level route into Kirk Yetholm. My plan was mostly successful.
The first part of the morning went better than I expected and I covered the first 8 miles to the mountain refuge hut in almost record time – I arrived there at 9:17am, only 3 hours and 40 minutes after I left Forest View. Not bad given the terrain. A short stop to catch my breath and eat the breakfast bar I’d stowed away and I was off again. The next 10 miles were more difficult, taking in bogs and paths and a few severe ascents.
I was completely unprepared for the wind between the first mountain refuge hut and Kirk Yetholm. At one point I took my gloves off to take a photo of the view and it was over the side of the mountain before I knew it. In my 10+ years of hillwalking, I’ve often wondered how people can lose the odd glove and now I know. They don’t call this place Windy Gyle for nothing.
I paused at the second mountain refuge hut for longer than I’d planned to, partly because I got there at 1:30pm and I hadn’t expected to be there for another 90 minutes, but also because my leg was screaming at me with every step by that point. The descents from Windy Gyle and The Schill had ruined me and I knew the next 8 miles would be more difficult than the last 18 had been.
That said, I changed my plan. I’d told people before I set off that I’d be stopping at each mountain refuge hut, not bothering with the summit of The Cheviot (it’s not on the official route and everyone I know who’s done it has left its peak wondering why they bothered), and making my way into Kirk Yetholm via the low level route. As I sat in that hut, exhausted and in pain, I knew there was something I had to do… I was going to take the high level route into Kirk Yetholm.
This decision is one of those ones that you can’t rationalise. If you’re splitting this last section into two days, you’d definitely take the high level route, but if you’re doing it in one mad dash from Byrness to Kirk Yetholm, almost everyone would tell you to take the low level route and not make it any harder than it needs to be. The thing is, this whole thing had been hard. I’d overcome anxiety and depression to get to the start line. I endured hail and rain and snow over the first week, and everything about my plan changed when I lost my tent. I’d spent more money on this than I’ve ever spent on anything in my life, and I’d been taking half a pack of ibuprofen every day for the last 10 days just to make walking bearable. If I took the low level alternative route at the end, I knew I’d never forgive myself. The high level route was the harder option, but it was worth it – the views were exceptional even if the wind desperately wanted to send me plummeting back down to the low level route below.
I knew family and friends were watching my progress on BuddyBeacon as I reached the road into Kirk Yetholm. I paused at the road to send a quick message to a few people who had been following since the beginning. “This last mile might be slow, I think I might have to crawl.”
I didn’t crawl, but I definitely didn’t run. I arrived at The Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm at 5:01pm on Monday 15th April 2019, a different man from the one that left Edale on April 1st.