If anyone ever tells you that you should walk the Pennine Way because it’s fun and enjoyable, here’s what to do: Go straight to your nearest outdoor shop (Milletts or Blacks, most likely) and buy yourself one or two walking poles – preferably aluminium ones, not carbon fibre – then go back to your friend and beat them repeatedly around the head with them until they see some sense.
Yes, I’ve had my Pennine Way experience over the last few days, and it’s safe to say that I don’t like it. It’s muddy, it’s damp, it goes through countryside for which ‘bleak’ is perhaps an overstatement and it seems to take special pleasure in avoiding anywhere interesting. For instance, there’s a bit further south from here where the route takes all sorts of weird twists and turns to avoid going into Hebden Bridge. They boast that 250,000 people use it every year, though as that includes just about anyone walking around Kinder Scout, Malhamdale or Pen-Y-Ghent for an hour or two, it leaves very few people who make any sort of effort to walk the trail.
I could write a much longer post about all this, but it comes down to the difference between hikers and walkers, and the Pennine Way was designed much more as a trail for hikers than a path for walkers. Suffice to say that Wainwright, perhaps the best example of a walker, hated it.
Anyway, it’s not all been bad these last few days – Thursday’s walk from Melrose to Jedburgh was very nice, except for contriving to lose one of my walking poles when I left it outside the Post Office in St Boswells. This wouldn’t have been a problem in that I tend to only use one, and I had two, except the other one broke yesterday…
Friday was pleasant from Jedburgh to the border, following back roads that became increasingly rough and narrow until they eventually became a track up a hill, following old fencelines until I finally – without any ceremony, signs or waiting border guards – crossed back into England, where it promptly began to rain on me, making the descent into Byrness not at all pleasant. Saturday, I did follow the Pennine Way while it stuck to forest tracks through Kielder, then switched to back roads for the walk into Bellingham. One thought that did strike me is that the youth hostels I stayed in at Byrness and Bellingham (and Alston, where I am now) are set to close in the next month or so, meaning that I could well be the last End-to-End walker to pass through them, so I’ve made a little mark in history, perhaps.
Sunday saw me avoiding the Way again, instead taking to the back roads through Wark to get to Hadrian’s Wall, and discovering a lovely little village called Simonburn on the way. It was one of those little marks on the map that could be a village, or could just be a large farm and turned out to be an old Northumbrian village of about 10 or 12 houses around a green with an old church and a tearoom-cum-shop that served the most amazing hot roast beef sandwiches. It’s the sort of place you dream about finding in the middle of a day’s walk, so it is entirely possible I was hallucinating about a Pennine Brigadoon and sitting in a field eating grass – if anyone else can confirm it exists, I’d be grateful.
From there, it was along the Hadrian’s Wall Path for a while towards Once Brewed, which was interesting but somewhat marred by the strong wind coming from the west that I was walking into. One bizarre thing I’ve discovered is that the official guide to the path suggests walking it from east to west which means that not only do you start at Wallsend, where I thought the name would be kind of a clue as to the best way to travel, you’re heading into the prevailing wind for the whole journey.
And then yesterday, I turned south, heading through Haltwhistle which claims to be the centre of Britain and thus may well mark my halfway point. It might have been apt to have stopped there, but it was only 11 o’clock, and there was a nice path down the old railway line from there to Alston, where I’m now enjoying my day off, 5 weeks and 480 miles on from John O’ Groats. At times, it doesn’t seem that long since I left, yet at others it seems as though it was years ago, given how much I’ve done since leaving there. I think I’ve got just over five weeks to go, though – having done some rough calculations and barring accidents, I’m expecting to finish on Saturday October 7th. That might lead to me doing some days in the last week that are either very short or very long to make it there on schedule, but I figure that if I finish on a Saturday, then anyone who wants to come and meet me at the finish can get to Land’s End and back over the weekend, meaning I should have someone there to celebrate finishing with on the Saturday night.
As for where I’m going now, I’m planning on heading south-east and then skirting the eastern edge of the Pennines through the Yorkshire Dales, then cutting back into the west of Bradford to get to Hebden Bridge and the Pennine Bridleway which should take me into the Midlands. I still need to check out some details, but I’ll hopefully post more this afternoon.