40 Years On The Pennine Way

© Chris Clayton

The Pennine Way is a game of numbers - 268 miles, over 11,000m of ascent, and as many pints of real ale as you can handle. But the most significant number for John Burns is the forty years that have passed since he last walked it. From walker-friendly cafes and the paved surfaces that have tamed the infamous bogs, to the high tech lightweight clothes on his back, the Pennine Way experience has changed greatly in the last four decades. But at heart it remains the classic long distance trail of upland England.

I've been walking the Pennine Way for five days now and my body is beginning to seize up. I can move only with the aid of barrels full of anti-inflammatory gel, sticking plasters and real ale anaesthetic. As I push open the door of the campsite the plump, middle aged woman, looks up from her desk and can see immediately the old timer is in trouble.

Pen Y Ghent  © Chris Clayton
Pen Y Ghent
© Chris Clayton, Jun 2009

'Oh, what a shame you weren't here last week,' she says, pity radiating behind her horn-rimmed specs. 'You've missed him.'

I just want a shower and a place to fall over and groan for a while, I'm not expecting to meet anyone. I look at her puzzled.

'Elvis!' she explains. 'You missed Elvis.' I must be hallucinating again.

They say you should never meet your heroes and perhaps that also applies to returning to great milestones in your hillwalking career. Over forty years ago me and my mate Martin, a gangly Pink Floyd fan, embarked on an attempt to walk the back bone of Britain via the Pennine Way which had only be open a handful of years. That June morning as we stepped off the train in Edale we were about to embark on an odyssey that would leave its mark on us for the rest of our lives. It was a trial that we would look back on fondly over the years. Now, after the passage of so much time, we have decided to return and face again this monumental walk.

"Many miles of the route have been flagged with paving stones so the exhausting battles with saturated peat are gone"

Contains OS data &copy Crown copyright and database right 2017  © YDNPA
Contains OS data © Crown copyright and database right 2017

Let's travel back to the 1970s. First you have to grow your hair, put on flared trousers, a long collard shirt and listen to some psychedelic rock. Let's assume you've done all that.

We are on the summit plateau of Kinder Scout. If you've never been to Kinder Scout picture a mountain with the top thousand feet cropped off and topped with a bog. Out of the swirling mist and rain two figures gradually emerge onto the lunar landscape of groughs, these are waves of peat created by wind and rain. They are about the height of a man and make Kinder a navigational nightmare as you can never see more than a few feet. One of these men is me, I take a step forward and the peat, reduced to the consistency of black treacle by the passage of thousands of boots, swallows my leg to the knee. Carried forward by the weight of my pack I collapse face down in the peat. I writhe for a few moments, cursing and swearing, attempting to rise from the saturated ooze. The peat, however, is too insubstantial to allow me to get any purchase weighted down by my rucksack and I have to wriggle out of it before I can regain the vertical.

Kinder winter  © Bob Bennett
Kinder winter
© Bob Bennett, Dec 2008

Fast facts

  • Officially opened in 1965, the Pennine Way is Britain's first National Trail, and still one of the toughest and best known.
  • Brainchild of journalist and rambler Tom Stephenson, who first mooted the idea in a 1935 article entitled 'Wanted: A long Green Trail', inspired by America's Appalachian Trail. It took 30 years of campaigning to make it a reality.
  • 429km (268 miles) along the upland backbone of northern England, from Edale in Derbyshire to Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders.
  • Total ascent: more than 11,000m
  • The route takes in three National Parks - the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland, as well as the North Pennines AONB.
  • High points include: Kinder Scout (636m), Bleaklow Head (610m), Black Hill (582m), Pen-y-ghent (694m), Great Shunner Fell (716m), Great Dun Fell (848m), Cross Fell (893m), Windy Gyle (619m), The Schil (601m) and an optional leg to The Cheviot (815m)
  • Major landmarks include: The Kinder plateau, Malham Cove, the Tan Hill Inn (the UK's highest pub at 528m), Swaledale, High Force, Cauldron Snout, High Cup, Hadrian's Wall and the wild border ridge through The Cheviots.
  • Annually, as estimated 15,000 people walk a long distance on the trail (if not the full way), while there are more than 250,000 day walkers.
  • A typical time for a full completion is 14-20 days: the record stands at 2 days, 17hrs, 20mins and 15secs, a time set by Mike Hartley in 1989: we can't imagine why no one's yet beaten it.
  • Alfred Wainwright famously pledged to buy half a pint (note: a half, not a whole) for anyone who completed the full trail - a promise that's said to have cost him nearly £15,000.
  • By the 1990s some of the boggier sections hade become so eroded that they were practically impassable. A long programme of path upgrades has now tamed the more infamous peat bogs with stone paving.
  • Upkeep of the trail falls under the remit of the 13 Highway Authorities through which it passes, and coordinated by the Pennine National Trails Partnership.
  • If you can't walk the whole thing in a one-er, it's possible to knock off in chunks, accessed via public transport. For useful info on transport options on or near the route, see here

For more info see National Trails

Malham Cove - one of the most impressive sights of the Pennine Way, if not the whole of England  © Dan Bailey
Malham Cove - one of the most impressive sights of the Pennine Way, if not the whole of England
© Dan Bailey

"Whoever said age doesn't matter clearly hadn't tried to repeat the Pennine Way after a forty-year sojourn"

That was the old Pennie Way. On our repeat journey, in 2017, the route of the Pennine Way has been amended so that it no longer crosses the plateau and many miles of the early stages of the route have been flagged with paving stones so the exhausting battles with saturated peat are gone. The organisers of the Pennine Way had little choice in taking the drastic action. Had sections not been paved the Way would have disintegrated into a deep, black groove of peat swallowing walkers whole like a huge malevolent python. On our recent walk even Black Hill, which forty years ago had been a vast sea of liquid peat with a triangulation pillar slowly sinking into its summit, was transformed. The liquid ooze has been replaced with a kind of turf which must have required substantial engineering works to get established.

Without doubt the biggest change we time travellers from the seventies noticed was the proliferation of good, affordable outdoor equipment. Back in the seventies only rudimentary specialist outdoor clothing existed and that could only be bought in isolated mountaineering shops that charged prices beyond what our student grants could afford.

Swaledale  © Tim Gardner
© Tim Gardner

I had boots, Martin unable to afford such luxury had street shoes. Our tent was a cobbled together affair which, at six feet long, was three inches shorter than Martin; so he had to sleep with his feet poking through the door of the tent encased in a plastic carrier bag. At least my companion owned a cycling cape which, back then, was considered state of the art. I could only afford a plastic Pac-a-Mac to keep out incessant rain. My little PVC waterproof was just about capable of keeping you dry in light shower on your way to the shops to buy a paper. When confronted by the full might of a Peak District downpour it instantly capitulated, both arms fell off and the buttons burst. Beneath all that we wore flared jeans, the badge of our generation. Once wet these stuck to our legs and did their level best to rob us of as much body heat as they could. On our second journey up the route I am clad in the very best hi-tech modern gear and not a drop of moisture is allowed to contact my delicate skin.

"It took years for many in the licensing trade to realise that the walkers and climbers they were turning away had money in their pockets. Forty years on, I take silent satisfaction that the hotel in Edale that once turned us away with its 'no boots' sign, has been re-named The Jolly Rambler"

High Force in Flood
© Matt Neale, Jan 2004

Then our clothing marked us out as walkers. Pretty well every other 'respectable' male wore a shirt and tie and all the farmers we met wore suits. It would do to turn up scruffy to look after the sheep would it. Back then attitudes to walkers varied from acceptance through to tolerance and on to down-right hostility. A lot of cafés and pubs had signs outside like 'No boots' or 'car drivers only.' In the seventies hoteliers wanted to attract smart people who turned up in their newly acquired motor cars with clean shoes and Brylcreemed hair. They viewed the scruffy battalions of the outdoor fraternity with alarm, afraid that our beards and threadbare clothes would frighten away their more refined customers. It took 20 years for many in the licensing trade to realise that the walkers and climbers they were turning away had money in their pockets. Forty years on, I take silent satisfaction that the hotel in Edale that turned us away with its 'no boots' sign, has been re-named The Jolly Rambler.

Apart from the flagged path the landscape we meet has changed little apart from the fact that forty years ago the rolling fields were populated mainly by cattle, both beef and dairy. Now, as dairy farming has declined across the UK, cattle are a rare sight on the Pennine Way and we mostly encountered sheep. This is much to Martin's relief as has a phobia regarding anything hairy on four legs.

Late afternoon light at High Cup Nick  © Martyn Nicholson
Late afternoon light at High Cup Nick
© Martyn Nicholson, Jan 2017

The biggest change in our lives, since Martin and I first plodded up Britain's backbone, has been the digital revolution. I planned to make audio recordings of each day on the Pennine Way and turn these into podcasts, a true celebration of the digital age. A continuous, ferocious east wind made all sound recording impossible and proved that nature still has the upper hand. I also found it very difficult to get a signal on my phone most of the time which meant communicating with the outside world was not much easier than it had been in 1974. I managed the odd text. The Wi-fi in most of the pubs we visited was about as fast as a retreating glacier so, oddly the digital revolution seems to have bypassed the PW.

Back in the 70s we broke our journey by using the many youth hostels that dotted the route. On our early trek these hostels were run by ferocious Wardens who terrorised their guests and imposed endless rules about the locations of cutlery, where you could leave your boots and what time you went to bed. One harridan set me to cleaning a roasting tin which I don't think had been cleaned since the First World War. At the time, I was 19 and still lived with my parents, and knew nothing of cleaning roasting tins, I had a mother for that kind of thing. Despite scrubbing it with vigour for about an hour and half, could make no impression decades of baked on grease much to the evident displeasure of the ogress. All this has now changed. Some hostels, like Crowden, have closed, whilst many others are now privately owned.

Typical North Pennines bleakness, descending from Cross Fell on the Pennine Way  © Dan Bailey
Typical North Pennines bleakness, descending from Cross Fell on the Pennine Way
© Dan Bailey

"Overall the changes to the Pennine Way are superficial. It is still a wild moorland walk, and away from the hotspots it still feels remote"

Several of the campsites that once served Way walkers are closed, like the one in Mankinholes, or have been relocated. In the seventies Martin, whose ability to detect a potential eatery is legendary, spotted a sign offering meals outside a farm house. The Farmer's wife ushered us into her kitchen where her husband lay fast asleep in front of the fire with his dog at his feet. Then, in scene from The Famous Five go Mad on the Pennine Way, she fed us a great meal of sausages and chips followed by endless rounds of bread and jam which we devoured as only men who have walked for days can do. Such off-grid enterprises have long since passed into history, buried under a mountain of red tape and hygiene regulations. Even today, however, the odd guerrilla supply depot does exist, by one farm gate we found a supply of fizzy drinks with an honesty box for those reckless enough to flaunt the VAT laws.

One thing that did seem to have changed since we passed that way was that the average age of walkers appeared to have increased substantially although we may simply have met a biased sample of folk. Some of the folk we met on our recent trek were, like us, retired and others were in their early forties. We saw few teenagers although our second walk was in Early May so few students would have been free to tackle the trek. For us Baby Boomers life was much easier than for today's 19 year olds. I got a grant to go to University. The government actually gave us money, for free! Nothing like that happens now and our young people are left burdened with debt in an employment market where wandering up and down the Pennines for a couple of weeks is a luxury they can ill afford.

They say age is just a number, whoever said that hadn't tried to repeat the Pennine Way after a forty-year sojourn. We did the mileages, walking 24 miles one day and averaging, at least at first around 18 miles a day. Note, I said at first, as after several days 60 year old bodies began to protest. Most of the skin stripped off my heels, our knees started creaking and the muscles in our legs cried of for mercy. In the end, we did 162 miles before capitulating and sitting down with a nice cup of tea as old men should. At 60 you don't recover like you did when you were 19.

The Cheviots  © Nick Brown
The Cheviots
© Nick Brown

Overall the changes to the Pennine Way are superficial. It is a wild moorland walk; away from the hotspots of Edale, Malham Cove and Pen-y-ghent, it still feels remote even if that impression is an illusion as the Way weaves its way between the industrial cities of northern England and you are never far from civilisation. It remains a challenge and is still the classic big walk of the British Isles.

Back in the 70s we arrived late at the campsite in Middleton in Teesdale, walking into the little on-site pub just as it was closing. Then the owner, a little stout man, took pity on us, directed us to erect our ramshackle tent on the lawn outside. He then ushered us quietly back into the empty pub where we enjoyed a after-hours illicit drinking session strictly reserved for mountain men.

On our second time around the woman who now runs the campsite takes pity on us again. 'You've missed Elvis,' she says, laying a conciliatory hand on my arm. 'But don't worry, it's bingo tonight.'

The Pennie Way is a game of numbers - 270 odd miles, over 11,000m of ascent, 14 pubs, 27 pints of real ale (in our case)... but the most significant number for us is the forty years that have passed since we walked this way before. Back then we played the numbers game and won; this time we lost. But that doesn't matter, we have gained more memories of this great walk.

I didn't win the bingo either.

Loading Notifications...
Facebook Twitter Copy Email