In 1986 I ambled some 270 miles along the Pennine Way. “Ambled” is a deliberate understatement – the Pennine Way, which wanders the Pennine hills between the Midlands of England and the Borderlands of Scotland, is one of the most strenuous long-distance hikes in Europe. There are people in the UK who think it is the most difficult hike in the world , but they think that while they are struggling up and down stretches of the 32,000 feet of ascent and descent along the trail. But it is nowhere as rugged as the Pacific Crest Trail which hugs the serrated spine of the Western USA.
I did not hike alone. My partner was my girlfriend Angelika K~, Gelly (“jelly”). We met in Malaysia in 1985. She lived in Munich and we had a long, long-distance romance back and forth between the UK and Germany and places in-between. Gelly was an experienced traveler, did not fuss at discomforts, was smart, fluent in English and a beautiful woman. She liked walking too.
Maps are oriented with north to the top and since most people have difficulty reading maps right side up, let alone upside down, few hike the Pennine Way from North to South. Most guidebooks also assume you will start at the South end in Edale, Derbyshire and walk north. I don’t have any difficulty reading maps upside down, so we walked the Pennine Way backwards, starting at the north end at Kirk Yetholm, in Scotland. There are limited accommodations along the Pennine Way and invariably most people hike about the same distance every day and stay in the same places. So, a big advantage to hiking the wrong way round was not hiking with an envelope of the same people for three weeks.
We had a guide on our walk: the 83rd Impression of The Pennine Way Companion – a Pictorial Guide by AW Wainwright. The Companion is a pocket gem: gorgeous sketches, a stile-by-stile, brook-by-brook layout of the Pennine Way, with historical notes and hints, all in Alfred Wainwright’s beautiful penmanship – the printing of an accountant, by profession; an artist by instinct. I adore this little book still – I admire the hand printing that we engineers, geologists, and architects had to learn when we went to university, a style now almost extinct due to the ubiquity of Times New Roman and Ariel computer fonts. I sketched and printed comments in the Companion and they are a joyful souvenir still of etymology of old North country words, memorable people met, comments on B&Bs good and bad (for £8 a night!), detours, locales of frolics, photos, and trysts.
In the back of the Companion I tabulated daily statistics, recording miles walked for the 23 days we were on the trail, the number of South to North Hikers met (0 to 34 a day; for 232 total, 20 being women); weather conditions (bloody awful to idyllic) and expenditure (£616 for the two of us). The tables seems detailed-oriented now but I did have lots of time in those days, being midway through a two-year wander around the world, when my primary duty was to write in my diaries.
Our Companion was organized with the beginning pages at the normal end of the hike, at Kirk Yetholm, “against the grain”, as Wainwright puts it. The Companion warned that our first day’s hike between Kirk Yetholm and Byrness would be ‘long and lonely”. Long it was: a 15 hour ordeal of some 29 miles (I recorded it as 27, whatever..) with heavy backpacks in extremely rugged and desolate moorland, with horizontal wind, rain and sleet. That was the bloody awful day.
But it was about the last bad day we had because from then on we enjoyed mostly glorious weather. We also had the Pennine Way to ourselves. Gelly and I were the Vice-President, President and sole members of the Pennine Way Bare Ass Hikers Association – we hiked parts of the Pennine Way in advanced states of undress, when the weather was lovely and we were happily alone in the glorious countryside.
Because people usually hiked from South to North, most days we suffered some two to three hours of trail traffic about mid-day when we encountered hikers coming the other way. We would count the number of people who answered our “Greetings! to you!”. The return greetings would sometimes be very shy, sometimes enthusiastic, occasionally grumpy (perhaps because our largely undressed, sunburned bodies prompted xenophobia or displeasure…) But most people stopped and would chat about trail conditions, share complaints, or their fears and opinions. I recorded some of those opinions in the Companion:
– “You can’t afford to look at pretty countryside when you’re on the Pennine Way – you gotta look at yer feet” (The Morose Stooge at Garrigill)
– “It’s been a long walk, with it’s ups and downs” (Gelly at Goss Bridge)
– “There’s some luverly bogs back there” (Schoolgirls near High Cup Nick)
We met a lot of characters. A shepherd took a great liking to lovely Gelly, and tried hard to lure us to his croft for “afternoon tea”. We met a couple of young men who proved hard to shake off – they were like puppies. One 40-inch tall Little Person we met near Horton complained about having to scramble over the 60-inch high stiles and was justifiably leery of peat bogs more than 40-inches deep. We were wary of the quagmire too: we were lucky that the normally soggy peat bogs and morasses were drying when we walked through and by them.
Walking through lovely terrain is rarely sight-seeing for me. As a geologist and engineer, I have knowledge and curiosity. The varied landscapes tell a story which I often have to make up, not having studied the geology of the areas. Nevertheless, my stories keep me amused and eager to see over the next ridge. We also passed monuments of engineering: Hadrian’s Wall, the 2000 year old barrier the Romans built across the North of England to keep the Scottish barbarians from invading England; stoutly crafted rock walls and buildings; magnificent road and railway bridges, limestone pavements in karst topography; and stolid, abandoned old Industrial Age factories.
There were many beautiful moments and fetching scenes, some of which we captured on film. A magnetic memory is of us walking on a paved Roman Road through barren moorland smothered in ground- hugging clouds, when suddenly a child’s liberated festive balloon appeared, skipped over rock walls and the road’s paving stones and drifted off into the gloom. Although Gelly and I had many photo competitions trying to capture scenes and compositions, we did not photograph that balloon. We did not need to: I have ever since thought of it as an analogy for freedom. I am a balloon in life, skipping hither and thither, tethered to a very long string which is tugged on now and again by those closest to me.
Our hiking was arduous. We quickly shed many tens of pounds of unneeded stuff and mailed the excess home. We stripped to the essentials. But, we still had heavy loads and occasionally became weary and footsore. Gelly suffered foot distress a few days into the hike and we had to sojourn for two unscheduled days at the lovely hamlet of Greenhead on Hadrian’s Wall, which frustrated me. She hiked the rest of the journey with two different running shoes, one foot being stubbornly swollen.
Later, I paid for my ungenerous impulse for haste later, when I fell and twisted my ankle. Stoically and foolishly insisting we carry on, I hobbled many more miles before we stopped at Garrigill, where our B&B landlady for the night was also the Matron (Head Nurse) of a community hospital. She was not very sympathetic to my stupid bravery. Nor was Gelly. An Intensive Care Nurse in Real Life, she took professional pride in administering pain relief in the form of a rectal suppository, despite my anguished complaints that the pain was in my ankle not my butt. I learned some humility over the next couple of days of another unscheduled sojourn and and learned some patience for our more careful pace for the rest of the hike.
We ended our amble after 23 days. The last couple of days of hiking were glorious; we had an easy pace, and the the limestone landscape of the Derbyshire dales was beautiful. Finishing our walk with tea at a pub in Edale, Derbyshire, we were surrounded by people setting off on their northward journey. We envied them; we were sad to have finished the Pennine Way. Indeed, we were so loathe to stop that we hiked another two or three days and 50 miles more through the countryside and beside old canals. But it was not the same – we missed the solitude of the peat bogs and crags; our lunchtime picnics nestled into some rocky alcove or in a shady copse; and the joy of the warm shower at the end of a day of wind and strenuous “ups and downs” of the Pennine Way.
Note in November 2020: Richard Campbell of 10Adventures has written a contemporary Guide to the Pennine Way. He liked my story: I liked his…