The Purposeless Pennine Way, in which I set out purposefully and happily to complete my favourite trail, while disclaiming purpose and anticipating pain.
You may have seen the BBC programmes ‘celebrating’ the fiftieth anniversary of the Pennine Way. To me they were a travesty. An opportunity for some immortal ‘slow TV’ squandered in favour of a catalogue of breathless ‘adventures’. Most of these were nothing to do with walking the trail and communicated nothing authentic about the experience of doing so. Just more box ticking, more shopping for ready-made thrills, as if we don’t all need a break from stereotyped consumption.
The tone was set at the start of every episode, a bushy-tailed adventurer bragging his credentials – he’d been abroad (whoo!), he’d explored (double-whoo!), but now here he was slumming it on a mere path in boring old England, trying to work out why some fools in tweeds fifty years ago thought that walking 270 miles might be fun. His conclusion – it wasn’t enough fun. It was necessary instead to go rock climbing and white water kayaking. This made me cross.
The only bit I liked was when they showed an endearing soul who peacefully, harmlessly and all by himself walks The Way every year. An ordinary-looking chap with ordinary-looking gear, trudging along through what looked like Ribblesdale. The inevitable question: ‘So, why do you walk the Pennine Way every year?’
I jumped up from the sofa. ‘Mate!’, I cried, ‘No! Don’t justify! Don’t rationalise! Just shrug aimlessly! Say you do it just because of nothing, so there!’
I reckon he’d had his arm twisted by some vivacious production assistant, who from my own experience of TV work probably wasted three days of his life for thirty seconds’ screen time. He mumbled about his ‘fitness regime’. ‘I walk it every spring, then I’m fit for the rest of the year’. Not being unkind, he didn’t look like a fitness fanatic to me. Underwhelmed, the presenter bounded off to the car that would drive him to his next off-the-peg ‘adventure’.
I resolved immediately, then and there, that I would walk the Pennine Way again soon, simply, quietly and for no reason whatsoever. I looked online at cheap train tickets. Darn it, there was one available, very cheap. I bought it. And so, ladies, gentlemen and sheep, we present the Purposeless Pennine Way. OK, mostly sheep.
Day One – Edale to Kinder Low.
I leapt enthusiastically off the train at Edale. Well, alright, not exactly leapt. It was a quarter to three and so I started the way I meant to go on, with a nice cup of tea and a sit down in the excellent Coopers Café which, as you might hope given the location, is walker-friendly, filling your water bottle and selling takeaway cakes and sandwiches. You can camp here too, and they do breakfast.
The sky was clear and sunny as I bounded up Jacob’s Ladder. Well, alright, not exactly bounded, but I was certainly buoyed upwards by excitement and glad anticipation. I also felt a remarkable sense of liberation and independence, not least I think because I was carrying no map and no guide book – I knew the way. Famous last words – a good job it was clear and sunny1. All the familiar landmarks of the Kinder massif were laid out before me, like balls on a giant pool table. It was wonderful.
There was a chilly breeze on the top so I pitched my flysheet in tarp mode and in a dip that would normally have been a sopping quagmire but after this year’s remarkable drought was only slightly damp. I have never, ever seen these moors so dry, it was astonishing. If Wainwright had walked the Pennine Way in these exceptional conditions he’d have loved it a little more, perhaps.
I had the entire summit to myself. The usual noisy aeroplanes glittered overhead in the low sun, the wind grew much colder; I had wear all my layers which was a bit of a worry on only the first evening. As I was finishing my sandwich and date slice (from Coopers) in the shelter of the tent, an unearthly sound suddenly drifted down to me, a kind of wailing and chanting; I’d never heard the like. I poked my head up out of my damp dip, it was coming from a group of people gathered around (and even upon) the triangulation point.
Kashmiri Muslims from Sheffield, they were singing praise songs to the Prophet on the summit, apparently this is quite the thing to do in Kashmir, albeit rather higher up. I went over to investigate, they were very friendly and invited me to join in. The kids wanted to tell me about their climbs of Ben Nevis and Snowdon; Dad preferred them to carry on chanting, the purpose of their ascents. It was God’s purpose that I should meet them up there, I was firmly informed. I apologised for my lack of Arabic and listened, intrigued, slightly embarrassed at my own lack of purpose but at the same time defiantly rather proud of it.
I did have an incidental agenda on this hike, if not an overriding purpose. Directly on the Pennine Way there are seven summits over two thousand feet. Kinder Low (2078), Bleaklow (2077), Fountains Fell (2192), Pen-y-Ghent (2277), Great Shunner Fell (2349), Cross Fell (2930) and Windy Gyle (2031). On three of these magnificent seven summits I had not yet camped out; Kinder Low was the first of those modestly extreme sleeps to purposefully be ticked off on this walk.
Knock, Great and Little Dun Fells are also over 2000′ but in my book they’re part of Cross Fell. Sleep on Great Dun and you’ll be irradiated by the radar station. I consider Cairn Hill and Auchope Cairn outliers of the actual Cheviot (2676), which is optional and who wants to sleep in a flat peat bog completely exposed to Scottish gales? Unless you’re actually in Scotland, of course, where that kind of fun is compulsory.
Day Two – Kinder Low to a plastic bag in some random midge-infested bog on Marsden Moor.
Yes, I still knew how to have fun, not least by getting out of bed at four am, after a rather parky night. Wandering around Kinder Low by moonlight, all alone, was also fun although perhaps not the kind of fun to tell the safety officer about.
The sun rose as I ambled along to Kinder Downfall, one of my favourite places in the world for breakfast.
There was nobody about, and very little traffic on the A57 although what little there was I could clearly hear from Mill Hill through the still morning air.
Nobody on Bleaklow either, bar a solitary mountain rescuer running a few tens of miles to keep fit and a chap posing weirdly on the distant skyline. Don’t ask me, some kind of Tai Chi perhaps.
On Peaknaze Moor they were shooting and as I mistakenly took the peaty track away from Clough Edge, rather than the rocky track along the edge (a bad mistake in normal conditions but not too disastrous when it was all so dry), I nearly got mixed up in their bangy old business.
The whole experience was already so different in both character and detail from my last visit to Bleaklow that at John Track Well I suddenly felt a sense of purpose. The rivers were so low I could paddle; last time I’d nearly drowned leaping desperately across a foaming maelstrom. On this my fourth visit, the Pennine Way was already a changed place, showing me new things, exciting novel feelings.
Just uphill from the river I found a tiny vintage waymarker, crudely inscribed into a rock, partially hidden; I had to remove soil and moss to see it. This was the fourth time I’d walked past it but only now had I seen it, even though it had probably been there for fifty years. At the reservoir, brand new signs made finding the way down to the dam easier, not that I needed help now on my fourth attempt.
Perhaps my purpose was finally to walk The Way with the time and headspace to see change, rather than in a quotidian struggle merely to navigate the present. Walking the history, the heritage and the ongoing renewal of this remarkable trail rather than simply its distance, its obstacles. Not only looking, for the route, for the campsite, for the pub, but actually seeing.
Then I remembered I wasn’t supposed to have a purpose.
Above Laddow Rocks I met a woman intrigued by my footwear. I can never understand why so many people think walking in the hills requires such different footwear from running in them. Dog walkers on Black Hill gave me the bad news that the snack van on the A635 had been absent for a while. Progress was so fast in the dry, sunny conditions I was up there by early afternoon; I’d thought about camping on the summit but was out of water, I stupidly forgot to top my bottle up from Crowden Great Brook and there’s nothing on the top of Black Hill but foetid swamps.
For this reason alone, I would have needed to continue but it was so pleasant and I had so much surplus energy I actually jogged most of the way down to Dean Clough. Where a dead sheep had recently been dragged from the stream. Oh well, at least it wasn’t still actually in the water.
At Wessenden Head a beautiful Short-eared Owl was quartering the rough meadows, I pointed it out to a young couple heading down to the reservoir and they kindly took an interest, the lad asking me ‘what does it eat?’ ‘Mostly voles’ I replied. Pause. ‘What’s voles?’ By the time I got down to the lodge I was tired and really wanted to camp somewhere, but the lower I descended the more midges appeared. I was so thirsty I eventually stopped at the bridge to brew some soup from river water. Clouds of midges latched onto me, they rapidly became maddening. I couldn’t bear to discard my irreplaceable soup, but it was still too hot to drink.
Throwing everything but the actual soup back in my pack, I slithered up one of the steepest little climbs on the entire Pennine Way with my two poles in my left hand and in my right hand a slopping titanium mug of Ainsley Harriott wild mushroom soup. The midges followed me, lured no doubt by Ainsley’s authentic mycological pheromones. Only at the Blakeley Clough tank was I left in sufficient peace to salvage the lukewarm dregs of Harriott’s fungal finest.
By now I was so tired I could have just flung myself into a swamp like Ophelia, my rucksack ‘pulling me from my melodious lay to muddy death’ (© W. Shakespeare). The moor was far too tussocky for the tent so I was forced to break out the bivy bag, brought with me for one of my three summit sleep-outs.
No photos exist of this camp, it was too awful. I lay in a random bog, midges descended once more but I had a piece of silk to cover my face; I fell asleep before sundown. In the morning I discovered that had I walked for another twenty minutes, I could have camped properly. At a pub.
Some will tell you the purpose of walking a trail is to have fun, or at least engender future fun after the event and perhaps also in others, through recollection. I expect we all know the three types of outdoor fun. Type One Fun is actually fun, and fun to remember. Type Two Fun is horrible at the time, but then becomes fun to remember. Type Three Fun is just horrible, and for ever.
Sometimes I fear I’m seeking out Type Two Fun for the sake of a tale to tell. Is my life really so dull that I must purposefully make it less enjoyable in order to make it more interesting? Then again, isn’t this the inevitable resort of any autobiographical writer? Ultimately, can Type One Fun ever be truly memorable? In which case, why do we allow ourselves to be constantly seduced into shopping for it?
Proust was big on this stuff. According to Alain de Botton he suggested “we become properly inquisitive only when distressed. We suffer, therefore we think”2. Wisdom acquired painfully through one’s own life is, according to Proust, far superior to that acquired painlessly from a teacher, including perhaps a professional Outdoor Activities Instructor with helmet, harness and risk assessment. Was acquiring a healthy dose of thought-provoking and memorable pain, solitary, unprofessional and free of charge, actually my Pennine Way purpose?
Day Three – Marsden Moor to May’s Shop.
It was no hardship to rise before the sun on Marsden Moor, because my appalling bivy bag was sopping wet inside with condensation. There must be something wrong with that thing, unless I’m just using it inside-out.
I squelched out of my plastic pouch like an unpleasantly mature pickle and ambled damply around the reservoirs in the dawn light. Their clear water was infinitely preferable for morning coffee to the Dean Clough sheep juice, which I happily discarded.
Blackstone Edge is one of my favourite Pennine Way locations; not only a lovely spot in itself, it means one has passed over and left behind the horrid M62. It also means the White House pub is near.
Both the Edge and the pub are also in Lancashire, hence it was necessary for me to wait an hour outside for the latter to open at midday so I could have black pudding for lunch in my ancestral county. Outside I met a fit looking man who said ‘I’ve always wanted to walk the Pennine Way but my wife won’t let me. She says I’m too old’.
‘Outrageous’, I replied, ‘how old are you?’ I thought he was about my age. ‘Seventy-eight’. ‘Ah. She may have a point. You could do it in sections…’ He seemed pleased with this idea and continued with the ten miles he was walking to Todmorden. Before lunch.
The pub was great as ever but I had to crack on as I knew with the steep climbs up from the Calder it would be a haul to get to May’s before she closed.
On the way to Stoodley Pike I came upon a strange leather harness and some chains, lying on a rock by the trail. It looked like a waymarker for an S&M hiking club, or perhaps a bit of bondage-themed geocaching.
At the pike a man with several misbehaving dogs enquired whether I’d seen their leads anywhere. ‘Ah…’
In Callis Wood I was nearly run over my a mountain biker descending at insane speed. By the canal, the alternative types who live there in vans and boats were already sipping wine and smoking whatever they smoke on garden chairs in the warm sunshine. I do sometimes wonder how and indeed for what purpose I’ve organised my own life so incompetently.
The Calder valley and its northern slopes have been completely taken over by Himalayan Balsam, it’s in every garden and all along the trail up the hill; I believe I may have predicted this in a blog two years ago #toldyouso.
The lovely ancient bridge at Hebble Hole had collapsed, and would you believe that according to a notice taped onto it the council has to apply, to itself, for listed building consent to repair it? A temporary scaffolding bridge was thankfully in place. The steps up from Colden Water had been very nicely repaired by the same council. It was a relief to reach May’s as I’d had a poor night. Her son asked if I had any washing to go in the machine, her daughter made me a mug of tea and sold me supper. It was like coming home, apart from the small sum of money changing hands and even that was painless as now – ta daaa – amazing news – May takes cards! Hence I spent a significant sum on essential stocks, for the purposeless privations lying ahead.
In the morning May gave me a free cake, for having already walked the Way three times, and we chatted about the BBC programmes. ‘That chap never walked the Pennine Way’, she laughed, ‘he just drove up here in a car. I said to him “you look exhausted” ’. She too isn’t walking very far these days, but she seems determined to keep running her small but miraculous retail empire, and purposefully to boot.
I should have asked her what the purpose of her shop is. Successful businesses surely always have objectives and mission statements, although I’m not completely convinced the latter have reached High Gate Farm Shop. It’s hard to imagine how something could purposelessly become so perfect, other than by evolving via natural selection over eons of course. Perhaps May’s is a kind of retail living fossil, slowly permineralising under its stone roof slabs, like an Archaeshopteryx. It’ll certainly be a missing link for the Pennine Way if May retires.
1I would like to mention that, not being completely daft, I had GPX waypoints from the trail website loaded into the OsmAnd mapping app on my phone, also a compass, whistle and full camping gear.
2in How Proust Can Change Your Life, Picador, 1997.