This year, I was in the UK for 2.5 months, and one of the things I wanted to do was lots of walking in English countryside. Walking the Pennine Way offered one good way to do it.
What’s the Pennine Way? National Trails UK explains:
Steeped in history, this National Trail chases along the mountain tops along the rugged backbone of England and offers 268 miles of the finest upland walking in England. A once in a lifetime experience.
It also gives you magnificent scenery, follows the best section of the historic Hadrian’s Wall, and even takes you into Scotland.
Not everything went to plan, but in the end I completed it, and that’s the main thing.
It’s hard to describe what a walk on the Pennine Way is like. Sometimes it feels like the scenery is so varied that it’s hard to describe what you’ve seen in a single day, let alone along the entire trail. In the less busy parts, it’s easy to go several hours without seeing a single person. Sometimes without even seeing a sign of human habitation (which I hear is rare for England). It involved places that were completely unique, with nothing else like them on the way, plays where you just had to stop and marvel. It also involved landscape features that came up again and again: Desolate moors and peat bogs, rugged and rocky landscapes, small villages and farmland. Oh, and the Pennine Way wouldn’t be complete without mud: lots of mud.
But while there is a lot of similarity, each place passed on the way is distinct and separate. I knew that for most of the trail I was going to places that I had never been to before, and was unlikely to ever visit again. That forced me to pay a little more attention to them rather than just slipping into auto-pilot. As a result, the trail hasn’t really left me. It’s now four months since I completed it, but I still frequently have images pop into my head of somewhere on the Pennine Way. And I can usually identify which day I visited that place and what came before and after…
An important part of walking the way (at least in summer) is the camaraderie. Though remote, there were always some other people walking the way. I helped complete strangers, and was helped by complete strangers. It wasn’t a competition, but a shared endeavour, and it helped to realise I wasn’t alone in struggling with blisters or with a heavy pack. I wasn’t the fastest walker, nor was I impervious to wet, cold and hunger, but I was going to make it (even if I did take an injury break half way in).
At different sections of the walk there were people who walked the same stages as me for several days. People I would eat dinner with and debrief, or end up in the same room in the hostel. I knew very little about them, and they knew very little about me, but talking was usually easy because we had the same ultimate goal: To make it to Kirk Yetholm (preferably alive). There were also a surprising number of people I met in the nearby towns and villages who had walked the way once upon a time (though some of them didn’t look like it…).
I really didn’t know what to expect from the weather. Yes, it was summer. But it was also in England, up north, and often up high. As it turned out, only three of the nineteen days I spent had serious rain. A few days were over 30°C in the valley, and felt plenty hot enough up high too. But the majority of days were a pleasant temperature for walking, sometimes sunny, and sometimes with cloud cover and occasional showers. My waterproof gear wasn’t sufficiently waterproof, but most places I stayed along the route were prepared and had good drying rooms, so I could start fresh the following day.
It was hard work, but in a curious way I found the Pennine Way more restful than most touristing is. Often when on the tourist trail I feel the pressure to make the most of my time. To fill my days with sight-seeing. To find the absolute highlights and fully appreciate one highlight before dashing off to the next one. The Pennine Way is not like that. All the preparation had been done in advance, so all I needed to do each day was walk from A to B, then find a place to eat and prepare for walking from B to C the following day. And while it was a great walk with plenty of highlights and with stunning views, it also had miles of hard walking with relatively mundane views stretching off into eternity. There were days when I felt like the only benefit of the day was getting X miles closer to the conclusion. But those days also allowed me to see parts of the real England, not just the tourist England.
It also felt like I was achieving something worthwhile, and it encouraged simple joys. For example, it’s hard to over-estimate the relief at reaching an expected waypoint or finding a simple acorn marker when you’re afraid you’ve lost the trail completely. I wouldn’t come all the way from Australia just to walk the Pennine Way, but it added a really valuable dimension to a several month trip. Yes, it was tough, but there was no doubt in my mind that I was in the right place and doing the right thing.
For a few weeks I lived in a different reality. A reality where a 15 mile day was normal, a 20 mile day possible, and a 9 mile walk along Hadrian’s Wall in pouring rain just an afternoon jaunt during a partial rest day. A reality where I could start the day with a Full English Breakfast, snack throughout the day, end with a massive pub meal or an entire pizza and a block of chocolate, and still feel hungry. A reality where all that mattered was getting to my next destination by the end of the day. A reality where phone (GPS), guide book, and camera must be continually near at hand, but mere money could be stowed away as irrelevant. And that reality made sense because those around me shared the same reality. It was only when a mere tourist (read: day hiker) expressed surprise or admiration for what we were doing that I would realise how unusual this reality was. And more so now when friends or co-workers hear about it and look at me strangely, as if to say “Why would you do that?” or “We thought you were normal.”.
The walk ends in the Borders village of Kirk Yetholm, and it is traditional to have a photo at the Border Hotel (just to prove that you made it). I reminded some fellow hikers of this tradition, allowing us to set up a reciprocal photographic pact for mutual benefit. I don’t end up with many pictures of myself, so if this turns out to be the only one that makes it onto my blog, at least it’s one I don’t mind.
It’s also traditional to sign the walkers book (which I did), to collect a certificate from the hotel (which I did), and to drink the hard-earned free half-pint of beer (which I didn’t).
It is a walk which requires dedication and planning, and I think at the end all hikers have some feeling of “OK, that’s done. What comes next?” For many walkers, the next step is a return to family and work. For me, it meant a brief time in Edinburgh before a flight to Geneva. It is really odd to be walking in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle or along the crowded shores of Lake Geneva and think that you were out walking the Pennine Way and living the simple life less than 48 hours ago.
Before I did this walk, the only overnight walk I had done was a few days in Wilson’s Prom. However, I was encouraged by advice that if you are reasonably fit, you should be able to complete the Pennine Way. That proved absolutely true for me, and I think quite a few of my fellow walkers as well. It does also give me confidence that if I want to do more overnight walking in Australia I could. Yes, there would be more to it: Carrying a tent. Carrying more food. Not being able to rely on eating at a pub or staying in a hostel. But it should be achievable.
As I write this, it’s raining here in Melbourne as furiously as it ever did on the Pennine Way, and my creek has broken its banks and is much higher than I’ve ever seen it. I’m not sorry I’m not out in the weather, but I’m also not sorry that I experienced the ups and downs of the Pennine Way. It did involve some hardships, but they were a small price to pay to experience a side of England that otherwise I would have been unable to see.
For more information, Rambling Man has two good lists of fifteen things you’ll never forget about walking the Pennine Way here and here. I didn’t experience all of them, but there are some nice pictures in the lists. The Wikipedia article also has information about the trail and some nice pictures. As I’ve been writing this I’ve come up with numerous amusing stories which don’t really fit here, so there will probably be a part 2 sometime.