Image Credit: Pete Jeff

The Pennine Way and me: a love story

9th April 2015

Words & pictures Damian Hall

I envy people who can say the Pennine Way goes right by their house – as half the northerners I know claim it does. Being brought up at the less lumpy end of the country, I don’t have a long relationship with the country’s first National Trail. But I promise it’s just as intense as anyone’s.

The Pennine Way first made a peaty footprint on my mind when, ironically, I was walking Coast to Coast. I’d been travelling and living abroad for several years, which had thrown up all sorts of questions about what it meant to be British or English, and what I felt about my random country of birth. A long walk, I figured, would sort all that out.

And it did. I flippantly chose the Coast to Coast – the Pennine Way’s great rival, if indeed trails can be seen that way. I had a wonderful time. Not only did I discover that my compatriots, though not as superficially friendly as folk in some other countries, could be incredibly kind given the opportunity. But I also really fell in love with the landscapes for the first time. While travelling in the Andes and Himalayas, I had thought of my homeland as humdrum in comparison. But it isn’t. It’s gloriously lumpy, unique, diverse, full of melodrama, and atmosphere, and sheep. Nowhere else has dales, fells and moors like ours. I was bewitched and I wanted more. Plus I had seen a sign.

Around halfway along the Coast to Coast, in the Yorkshire Dales, just after little Keld, I saw something mysterious and alluring. A wooden signpost pointing challengingly north, with the words “Pennine Way” on it. I’d heard of the footpath, of course. But like seemingly most people, I didn’t know exactly where it went to and from. Just that it was long and presumably involved a lot of soggy moors.

I looked into it further. Learned of its heady sense of history. Its daunting reputation. Its status as the Big One. Its links to the Kinder Trespass. I loved the fact it was too tough for arch-rambler Alfred Wainwright. I loved that Brian Clough had walked some of it. I knew I had to do it. All I needed was to find the time.

My wife and I were attempting to expand the family, so nipping off for two weeks-plus was tricky (i.e. not allowed). But by amazing coincidence I received one of the best emails I’ve ever had. It went something like, “Would you be interested in writing a new guidebook for the Pennine Way?” I ordered every book about the Pennine Way I could find.

Not long after, with my wife heavily pregnant (my new project had presumably given me a bit more zest) at home, adding a special sense of sea change to the trip, I set out from Edale on a blustery day.

The first section, over Kinder Scout was so exciting. The mood, unmistakably English Peak District, the legendary trail, all that history and scenery, the big views and big skies. Grouse rocketing out of the heather in alarm. I was irredeemably smitten. I preferred it to Coast to Coast. It had more history, was more of a challenge, felt a bit more masochistic, was lass crowded and more remote.

I only had time to walk to Hawes. Then my beautiful daughter was born. But I returned soon afterwards, again with a special sense of being in a new chapter of life, to complete my quest.

I’ve been lucky enough to hike all over the world: the Himalayas, the Andes, the Antipodes, but what I love so much about the Pennine Way is those melodramatic moors, the rare sense of wildness and surprising remoteness, the great people you meet, the fact you get it almost to yourself, the amazing scenery – not least High Cup, to my mind the greatest view in England – the sense of achievement at the finish, the visitor books full of classically British humour.

I loved Greg’s Hut and Malham Cove, Pen-y-ghent and Hadrian’s Wall, Kinder Scout and the criminally under-rated Cheviots, Cross Fell (sort of), the waterfalls all unique characters, the whaleback Great Shunner Fell, Tan Hill Inn, Stoodley Pike, Blenkinsop Common. Okay. Not so much Blenkinsop Common.

I loved that it didn’t match its reputation for being one long soggy bog slog. (I only got a soaking twice in 16 days.) And though a squelching noise did linger in my ears for a few days after, unlike Wainwright I certainly didn’t require rescuing from any peat bogs (the path is much improved since his day and he was really unlucky with the weather). I loved the fact I discovered delightful new villages, such as Thwaite, Lothersdale, Hawes, Horton-in-Ribblesdale, Middleton-in-Teesdale (such great names) and Dufton – places I’ve since revisited on family holidays.

I loved writing it all up. As a journalist I’ve been given many topics to cover, from football to graffiti from music to interviewing Danny Dyer, and never have I so strongly felt, “This is what I want to write about more than anything.”
For once the words flowed freely. It’s still the work I’m happiest with (along with when Danny Dyer put the phone down on me).

The Pennine Way’s problem of course is that at 268 miles it would take the vast majority of people more than two weeks to walk it in one go and not many of us feel we have that amount of time to spare. Luckily, an event called the Spine Race started up, challenging screwloose folk like me to try and get from Edale to Kirk Yetholm in under seven days. And I’ve completed that twice, including this year, to help celebrate the 50th anniversary. The event’s in January and 16 hours of darkness mean you do miss out on some good views. It’s a fantastic adventure, but so is walking it.

As I believe the man who has walked the Pennine Way 12 times will say in the four-part BBC documentary to be aired this week (starting 10 April in northern regions), it looks and feels different each time. But few things will top the feeling of seeing High Cup at first light in the snow. It was so magical I didn’t feel like I was really there. But I was. I definitely was.

I am a little biased. I’ve got a guidebook to promote. I’m bound to sing the Pennine Way’s credentials. But then I have another guidebooks and I’m not banging on about them. I really love the Pennine Way. Have I mentioned that already?


Damian Hall is an outdoor journalist who’s trekked many of the world's well-known and lesser-known long-distance trails. He’s the author of the official Pennine Way guide – available in all good bookshops and probably some dodgy ones too – and has twice completed the Spine Race. There's more of this sort of hogwash at www.damianhall.info and @damo_hall.

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Credit : Damian Hall
Credit : Damian Hall
Credit: Damian Hall
Credit: Damian Hall