Philip's Pennine Way Challenge

Written by Philip Holmes on Friday 17th September 2021

Following upon my successful completion of the 177-mile Offa's Dyke trek in July/August 2021, I will be taking on a much greater trekking challenge in 2022. Starting on the 9th September, come rain, come shine, I will spend 20 days tackling the 268-mile Pennine Way that runs along the spine of England. I will be funding the trek entirely myself, but I am inviting you to join me for a leg or two on a self-funding basis in return for raising a little sponsorship towards supporting the work of Pipal Tree. Or failing that, if you live near the Pennine Way, it would be great if you could help out with some logistical support through bag transfer. At my advanced years, the days of lugging a rucksack over hill and dale are long gone. Instead, I prefer to send my rucksack up ahead through the services of a friendly driver or a commercial company so that I can experience the trek with no more than a daysack that carries the essentials. That makes good sense not only because of the distance involved but also given the daunting ascent; the combined ascent actually exceeds the height of Everest!

But I am getting ahead of myself. To re-wind, The Pennine Way was first conceived by journalist Tom Stephenson in 1935 but it took until April 1965 for it to be officially opened as England's first National Trail. Most trekkers will follow the route from south to north which feels logical from a map-reading point of view, but also keeps the sun, wind and rain mostly to one's back. Heading in that direction, the trail starts in Edale in Derbyshire's Peak District, crossing The Yorkshire Dales, Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland through the rolling Cheviot hills to finish at Kirk Yetholm in the Scottish Borders. The route is renowned for also being challenging underfoot, notoriously boggy in parts. This, together with the remoteness and changeable (potentially dangerous) weather patterns, make it very much a summer walk. The trekker is rewarded with fabulous, wild vistas and a range of geological delights, including the remarkable limestone country around North Yorkshire - so remarkable that the limestone pavement at Malham featured in the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows film! There's also a wealth of history to be enjoyed, for example in the form of strategically sited monuments and places like Kinder Scout, the scene of the famous 1932 mass trespass that eventually allowed access to the wilds of Britain through creating public rights of way and in many respects led to the opening of The Pennine Way as the first of many National Trails.

A well-earned pint with Craig at the end of a day's trek

There's something else that makes trekking such a special experience: It's the friends that choose to keep you company and help cut through the potential loneliness, paradoxically sharing in an isolation that can be conducive to the best of conversations. On Offa's Dyke, I was joined for a leg by a fellow former British Army dental officer, Craig Welsby. We had been in the same practice in Germany back in 1990 and hadn't seen one another since, maintaining a tenuous contact up until the trek through that thinnest of communication channels - Twitter. Both of our lives had taken radical shifts in direction, with our leaving the Army and dentistry, in his case to become a National Trust ranger and my setting up a charity in Nepal. There was plenty to catch up on! 

And then there's those new people that you can bump into along the way, who might be on a personal and fascinating pilgrimage reflecting what is going on in their broader lives. One lunchtime on Offa's Dyke, in the middle of nowhere, I caught up with Stephen Drew (another retired dentist!) and his partner Suzze Sowka (and their intrepid dog Truffau) to spend the rest of the day in their wonderful company. That afternoon's trek took us onto Hergest Ridge and I will never forget the four of us standing there while Stephen realised a minor ambition by playing Mike Oldfield's piece of the same name. Magical! We parted company as we were spending the evening in different locations and they are faster walkers than me. But we remained in contact and I was so pleased when they joined me for another walk a month later on, er, a section of the Pennine Way. They will be joining me again for some walking in Devon in November and have promised to keep me company for a section of the Pennine Way trek around High Force, this being a favourite area of theirs. 

Which takes me conveniently to some of the specific highlights that I am particularly looking forward to (in no particular order):

High Force:   Located near Barnard Castle in the Durham dales, this is England's highest waterfall, where the River Tees takes a dramatic 70 ft drop. The geology is as fascinating as the sight is spectacular. For, 300 million years ago this part of England was a tropical sea, which explains the extensive limestone and other sedimentary deposits. However, 295 million years ago there was an eruption of molten rock that spread out over the limestone to form a harder layer of dolerite. This is now called "The Whin Sill" created as the waters of High Force flow over the Sill eroding the softer layer of limestone that lies beneath. The overhanging Sill is thereby undermined and eroded, so that the waterfall is actually on the move back towards the river's source!

Top Withens farmhouse:   This ruined remote farmhouse is not far from Haworth, West Yorkshire, and is believed to have been the inspiration for the home of the Earnshaw family in Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" of 1847. Isolated it may be, but it receives a lot of visitors such that there are footpath signposts in Japanese!

Tan Hill pub:   I am hoping to spend a night in Tan Hill pub. Standing in an isolated spot in the Yorkshire Dales, at 528m above sea-level it is the highest pub in England. Apparently, there are (poor quality) coal seams in the area that have been mined since the 12th century (possibly also by the Romans). In any case, a hostelry once served the essential purpose of keeping the miners happy. A pub is recorded in the site as far back as 1586 although the present pub dates from the seventeenth century. Mining ceased in 1929 and the pub thereafter relied on the custom of local farmers, tourists, celebrities and those who advertised the merits of double glazing on television. The tourists include those on the Pennine Way and the west-east Coast to Coast that runs nearby - and that I walked in 1999!

A Half at the Border Hotel:   No blog post about the Pennine Way would be complete without mention of the late great British long-distance walker, Alfred Wainwright. Wainwright's iconic, hand-illustrated, walking guides included his 1968 "Pennine Way Companion". In that guide he made the mistake of making his "Charge it to Wainwright" offer, paying for a pint at The Border Hotel for anyone who completed the trek. At the time, very few were following in his illustrious footsteps but over the years the numbers swelled to the thousands, no doubt inspired by Wainwright's book. Before long, the cost of his generosity was far outweighing the royalties from his book and he had to reduce the offer in later editions to a half-pint. Even so, it's estimated that by the time of Wainwright's death in 1991 his noble gesture had cost him £15,000 which was a lot of money in those days. But then again, you don't take it with you and the Wainwright legend is enduring. I understand that the half is still sponsored by a local brewery - we'll see!

With the rise in staycations, it's essential these days to book well in advance and that is what I am doing around accommodation and baggage transfer arrangements. If you feel that you'd like to join me in the Pennine experience, either on foot or in logistical support, please drop me a line now and I'll see how you might be blended into the arrangements around the trek of a lifetime.

 

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