Image Credit: Pete Jeff

The Pennine Way Experience - Guest Blog by William O'Neill 

21st November 2017

I have been back for a couple of days now and it feels like the right time to try and write something to remember the last couple of weeks. This is a spontaneous piece and may prove somewhat rambling, but I suppose that would be entirely appropriate.

In July 2015, I completed my first National Trail, the 84-mile Hadrian’s Wall Path, from Bowness-on-Solway to Wallsend. My interest in walking had been piqued by holidaying in the Southwest USA, a paradise for walkers. To walk down into the Grand Canyon is an experience not easily forgotten, and this led me to consider walking more in my own country. Returning from Rome in 2014, it was important for me to learn to love the UK again and walking has played a big part of that. Not only has my geography improved a lot, but so has my appreciation for the British countryside. 

Yet, despite having walked 5 National Trails/Long Distance Routes (the Scottish equivalent), everything had felt like a precursor to the Pennine Way – the country’s first National Trail, established in 1965. The PW wears its reputation for hostile weather and bleak terrain with pride. Walking the PW becomes an obsession for many walkers and I was no different. It had become the one walk I HAD to do, so I did.

In 16 days, I walked 255 ½ miles from Edale, in the heart of the Peak District, to Kirk Yetholm, a village in the Scottish Borders, which no one would probably have heard of had it not been for the presence of the Way.

Starting off from Edale on a sunny day at the end of August, accompanied by my friends, Charles (with me for 4 out of 16 days), Tahreen (10) and Ruth (3), I made my way along the now-familiar route up Jacob’s Ladder and onto the famous Kinder Scout plateau. By the end of the first day, we had walked 15 tough miles, crossed the Snake Pass and reached our first B&B by the Torside Reservoir. Writing about this now, and the following day, a splendid hike from Torside to the Standedge Cutting, the whole experience seems something of a distant dream. I know I did it – there are hazy memories and slightly less hazy photos to prove this – but the actual walking seems something done in a different lifetime, perhaps by a different person.

Indeed, this is one of the ongoing themes of the Pennine Way. Things that happened a relatively short distance before suddenly seem lost in the mists of time (literal mists in the case of Cross Fell). Time and distance no longer provide the certainties they do in everyday life. Trying to remember every mile of the 255 ½ is simple impossible. Only the highlights (and lowlights) remain.

I don’t wish to write a day-by-day account of walking the PW;  the following sections will be a series of lists, in no specific order and without any particular meaning. Just lists, of various people, places and things that marked my PW experience.

Let’s start with the bad: the rabbit with myxomatosis in Swaledale; being chafed until I bled coming into Malham; the boggy, trackless and joyless mess that is Blenkinsopp Common; the horror of realising that Brownrigg Head is worse that Blenkinsopp Common and lasts longer; total exhaustion in the face of finishing the day by having to scale the aptly-named Shitlington Crags; the stony descents into Thwaite and Horton-in-Ribblesdale when I felt my feet would never stop aching; waking up for a 6 a.m. slog over Cross Fell and realising the lady at the B&B had forgotten to leave milk out for my breakfast (I had to make do with black coffee, an apple from the previous day, a cereal bar, the complimentary fruit shortcake biscuits and some fruit and fibre with 4 mini-pots of UHT milk); getting to the top of Fountains Fell, Pen-y-Ghent, Great Shunner Fell and Cross Fell and not seeing a thing.

But there was also the good, such as Ruth’s ham salad roll being stolen by a particularly scrawny and hungry-looking greyhound at Torside, stepping into a muddy bog in day 1 of the Cheviot crossing and then watching Charles do the same on day 2, finding out Tranmere had scored a last-minute winner just after I had arrived at the glorious U-shaped glacial valley of High Cup Nick, taking a break just to savour the majesty of High Force, devouring one of the best plates of beans on toast I will ever eat at a café in rainy Keld, seeing the funny side of the two totally pointless short detours of the forest track between Bellingham and Byrness while my clothes got soaked and I put a foot in a stream and, above all, the satisfaction at the end of every day.

Then there are the people – the 93-year-old lady in Thwaite telling me that if she could go for a walk then “you bloody can”, the old gent near Horton asking me to drink a whisky for him when I got to Scotland (which I happily did thanks to Charles’ hip flask once over the border fence for the first time), Les and Mike from the Greg’s Hut Association painting the floor of the bothy on top of Cross Fell and last, but by no means least, the wonderful Colin and Joyce at Forest View Byrness – straight-talking Geordies with a sense of humour and the warmest of welcomes.

Perhaps the most memorable encounters, though, were with the other Pennine Way walkers doing it in one: the father and son with the former returning to it after decades, the super fit solo hiker near Bellingham, the group of Australian/Dutch/Middlesbrough walkers of a certain age, the cute girl I bumped into in the border forests who was walking the other way having already got lost once, the man I met at almost exactly the halfway point walking North-South, the Northern Irishman set to finish the PW and carry on along St Cuthbert’s Way to finish at Holy Island (show off) and the Yorkshireman walking the whole thing with his dog (who had only once pulled him into a bog).

And even as I write this, I am reminded of some of the other moments that helped make the walk what it is: seeing a kestrel hunting in the moors, catching sight of a roe deer doe and fawn before they bounded away into the woods, a dog making a fuss of me for a minute or two in a farm yard before haring it back in for dinner, Horneystead Farm and the ‘pit stop’ with comfy chairs they have provided just for walkers, celebrating with Tah as we crested Great Shunner Fell well ahead of the storm, roaring expletives at Cross Fell and the Pennine Way as I crossed the highest point in a thick white mist and howling gale, Stoodley Pike and the views over Todmorden, Pen-y-Ghent suddenly appearing through the mists on the other side of the valley from Fountains Fell, the world’s greatest baguette at the White House pub, crossing the M62 and standing over the central reservation wondering where all the vehicles were heading to and who the drivers were, crossing two Black Hills and debating which was worse (the second one in Northumberland by far), the pub in Garrigill having reopened just 2 weeks earlier and enjoying the two greatest pints of the walk, taking a long and leisurely lunch break as a party of German teens strode past me along the Hadrian’s Wall crags and trying not to make out the German for “lazy English sod”, the bull who growled at me after Rapishaw Gap as I approached ‘his’ stile. I probably do have enough for a book after all.

I would love to write more and provide some clear and cogent record of my Pennine Way journey, but I am going to leave this as it is. The chaos and jumble of people, memories and occasional suffering are a better reflection of this unique journey than any polished travelogue I might otherwise produce.

A last thought before concluding. As I finally walked into Kirk Yetholm, accompanied by the lovely Andrew and Isobel and my good friend, Charles, I wanted to feel special, uplifted, elated and empowered. I didn’t. I felt exhausted and ready to finish. I am desperate to feel on some level that I have done something amazing, but very little seems to have changed– my flat still looks the same, I don’t have a flock of Pennine Way groupies at my door and most of my family and friends are mildly bemused more than anything. Trying to share what it means to have done this walk is, I fear, an impossible task. As with so many hobbies, if you want to walk the Pennine Way, you do it for yourself, not for anyone else. The joys and despair you feel are yours alone, just as much as the free half-pint in the Border Hotel.

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