The Purposeless Pennine Way, in which as I meditate on the subversive pointlessness of repeating an experience, for the first time ever on the Pennine Way someone buys me a beer.
I’ve no idea why I decided once more to walk the Pennine Way. Reaction to the announcement was muted: ‘I hope you’re not going to start obsessing about rucksacks again’. Factually harsh – of all the men you’ll meet on a trail I am the least obsessive about gear; my rucksack was a lucky second-hand find on eBay. But fair in spirit, I suppose, from someone heading out into the rain to dig potatoes, by herself.
I was going to call this account The Pointless Pennine Way, but that seemed, although factually fair, harsh in spirit. ‘Point’ is more negative. “What’s the point of all this?” implies that there’s no point, whereas “what’s the purpose of all this?” very much implies that there is a purpose, though possibly hidden.
I had triggers: the TV programme and the cheap train. I had tactical targets: the three summits on which I’d not slept. I had a hankering for hills: living among the subtle topography of Norfolk I miss elevation. I had timing: I first walked the Pennine Way in 1999 a few weeks before I turned forty, I liked the temporal elegance of repeating it just before I turn sixty. We’ll see whether I again repeat it just before I turn eighty!
Otherwise, I was determined not any impose expectations on this modest exploit. It would be just for fun, and whichever type of fun came along. The facts of the trail might be harsh – I’ve never yet walked the Pennine Way without almost blubbing at some point – but my spirit would be set fair and fancy-free. Clearly it would have outcomes on multiple levels but I felt that to identify and anticipate these in advance might constrain their potential. A useful excuse as I’m temperamentally averse to planning of any kind.
I decided to blunder up The Pennine Way as blindly as might be consistent with actual survival, making no itinerary and booking absolutely nothing, expecting only sore feet and sheep. As it turned out my feet were fine, so even that expectation was confounded. There were sheep.
Day Four – May’s Shop to Pinhaw Beacon
They’d put the flags out for me on Clough Head Hill and as I was already feeling celebratory after a world-class breakfast of tea and sticky ginger parkin at May’s I tried to interpret them benignly as a gift. I graciously accepted their high-vis plastic intrusion into what’s otherwise, after a long interlude of farmland, a welcome return to some enjoyably bleak moors.
I was further cheered by recalling how in April 1999 I’d trudged through bitterly cold slush up here, my feet freezing in my leaky boots. That really was grim old-school fellwalking, this now was a dry, sunny morning stroll. The only fly in the ointment was that it was far too early for the Packhorse Inn to be open.
The Walshaw Dean reservoirs were extraordinarily low. ‘I’ve Seen ’em lower’, said a dog walker, ‘and this is when they drag out the stolen cars. And the bodies.’ It was very peaceful and with the rhythm of the easy walking I fell into a world of my own. I jumped out of my skin when a runner suddenly came charging down Lower Fold Hill. He then bagged a comedy double- double-take when on turning around and running back up, he hilariously made me jump again.
Even Top Withins had only a handful of visitors, although I could see from the path ahead that there’d be at least a dozen people there by ten o’clock.
The lovely house at Upper Heights was for sale; if only I’d had £650,000, I could have bought it and re-opened the former much-loved campsite.
The vistas were broad, the air was still, the temperature benign; nothing happened to me at all, other than on the way up Old Bess Hill I picked up a revoltingly perfumed sweatshirt which I waved like a knight’s banner on my pole at a group of teenagers ahead. They all denied it belonged to them, although I suspect one of their number was secretly embarrassed at a terrible fragrance selection error in a cheap chemist. It’s probably still up there now, making sheep sneeze.
The trend for minimalism and decluttering has reached Ickornshaw Moor where the motley cluster of sticks that used to decorate the rather subtle ‘summit’ has been simplified down to a single, slim pole. I should think this is much less visible in fog.
I was delighted for the first time ever to find one of the huts open and a denizen in residence; he told me all about them. The inherited rights exercised by the ‘freeholders’ who own these huts include rough Grouse shooting but by common agreement no birds had been taken this year as their productivity in the dry summer had been so poor.
Later in the pub I was told that no Ickornshaw Grouse are eaten locally as they’re much too valuable. For the price of one sustainable free-range wild Grouse harvested within sight of your house you can buy several bags of imported, frozen battery chicken, all the chips and a six-pack or three to wash it down.
At Low Stubbing I met more shooters in camouflage, carrying in lieu of a Grouse the largest wild mushroom I’d ever seen, “great for breakfast”. They confirmed a disturbing rumour my trail antennae had already picked up, that there was no food at the refurbished Hare and Hounds. On arrival I tried really hard not to argue with the new landlord about this. He was very friendly, his ale was excellent and more to the point I was dependent on him for the crisps and ‘spicy bar bits’ that were the only nutrition on sale.
It was baffling to me as a former owner of a rural hospitality business to see that they’d spent a fortune revamping the cosmetic appearance of the place to no visible commercial benefit while sabotaging a previously functional kitchen that could have been printing them money. When I acquired a run-down café on a country walking trail I sold chunky hand-cut sandwiches from day one even though the lights hung off the wall and the roof leaked, they were easy to make and I had bills to pay. The pub has since started doing food again, it sounds great and I wish them all success.
Distressed at Lothersdale’s formerly famous suet puds having been condemned to the dustbin of hospitality evolution, I trudged up Pinhaw Beacon in unusually low spirits. These were lifted by my discovery of an excellent camping nook near the summit, overlooking the duck pools.
I failed to realise that sleeping here would involve quacking ducks, both at dusk and before dawn. Lots of quacking ducks. Also midges – it was time to retreat into my allegedly midge-proof tent, albeit with confidence as it was sold to me as such by a Scotsman. If there’s a people on this planet that should know about midge-proofing it’s that noble race of mossie-fodder.
The lack of food at the pub meant I had to resort to Supernoodles, enhanced by more of Ainsley’s mushroom gloop and an extra packet of crisps that, due to unfamiliarity with his expensive computerised ’till’ (sorry, electronic point of sale system) the new landlord had been forced to give me as change.
Day Five – Pinhaw Beacon to Malham
I awoke feeling uncharacteristically gloomy. I was lonely and cold and could not for the life of me work out why I’d chosen to do this walk again when I could be at home with my loved one. I was pushing sixty and getting stiff in the mornings, my silly old eyes could hardly see in the poor light of a wild camping dawn. All in all, was long distance walking still really, sensibly, my thing?
Also dampening my spirits was the imminent walk through Cravendale, where the dairy farming is historically intensive and the ecology is commensurately tragic.
There’s nothing like a slap-up breakfast in The Dalesman at Gargrave to cheer me up, so I duly had one, even though I had to wait forty minutes for it to open at ten on a Sunday morning.
A sweet little old lady at the next table was visiting her son’s farm. Chatting, she told me she herself had recently starting growing ‘a few of those little carrots’. Envisioning her pottering around a cottage garden, Yorkie at her heels, I said “oh yes, farmers grow those in Norfolk”. “I grow some of mine down there”, she said, amiably, “this year in Norfolk I rented about six thousand acres”. I watched her totter across the road and lower herself with some difficulty into a racy Mercedes coupé.
The walk from Gargrave to Malham is a doddle and along the river it’s even rather a treat in fine weather.
It was a fine Sunday afternoon so Malham was absolutely jam-packed, rammed and chock-a-block with people, the vast array of cars on the parking field gleaming in the sunshine for miles. After a restorative tea and curd cake at The Old Barn I walked through wave after wave of tourists returning from the cove to the campsite where, sentimentally, I pitched my tent in exactly the same place my partner and I had camped two years ago. Making exactly the same mistake of pitching by a damp, midgy river that I swore two years ago I wouldn’t make next time. There are drier, airier pitches at the top of the site.
The Lister Arms was so busy I tried the Buck Arms instead and ended up preferring it, less pretentious, less claustrophobic. I ordered a trio of sausages, imagining for some reason they would be wheeled in playing small musical instruments. All three were exceptionally delicious. The campsite was quiet, the shower was hot, my socks dried somewhat in the breeze. I felt a little happier.
I’m concerned at how a blog imposes purpose on every trail I walk. This time I very much wanted the trail to wag the blog, not the blog wag the trail. I was almost tempted to let the entire exploit sink unreported into the river of time, discarding my Facebook ‘virtual postcards’ to family and friends as if they were a sand mandala. What kind of boring, purposeless fool blogs about the same trail three times?
Munching my triyumyumyumvirate of sausages in the Buck Arms, I realised that this third-time-lucky repetition could perhaps serve my purpose as a ‘proper writer’. I’ve dutifully produced two practical Pennine Way blogs. Now, back on the same trail but with that job done, I was liberated from having to take accurate notes and free to think whatever crazy thoughts I chose. Also to invent crazy words.
How this might enable my trail writing to evolve I wasn’t sure, but at least this time my lame, clunky flights of fancy could crash and burn into the peat. I didn’t need to pick them out and polish them, because I might not even bother to write them down. Perhaps jettisoning the lifebelt of purpose would leave me floundering along the trail on a sinking ship of interesting whimsical introspection. A trail without a purpose is like a sausage trio con brio, like an armless buck, that kind of thing. Writing proper’s great.
Day Six – Malham to Horton in Ribblesdale
This day started nicely, I’d slept well, the weather was dry. At the top of the cove, though, there was a very noisy group of people, locked in endless complicated loud discussions that had nothing to do with their present location, and at seven in the morning. Ah well, at least I had a squashed sandwich from Gargrave Co-Op for breakfast.
I thought all the famous flowers at Malham Tarn would be long over but I’d failed to anticipate a gorgeous display of Grass of Parnassus.
It was clouding over, and as I rounded the back of the Field Centre it started to rain.
I was walking in t-shirt and shorts. As I ascended Fountains Fell I chose to simply pull my waterproofs on over these as the rain became steady. This was a mistake. By the top cairn, things were quite unpleasant.
I was dismayed. The plan had been to camp out on Pen-y-ghent, the next of my two unslept summits. I’d imagined a pleasant afternoon fossicking around up there, a little light exploring, a leisurely Supernoodle supper. Now I’d be up there by two in the afternoon and the rain was teeming down with no sign of stopping. What on earth would I do up there for sixteen hours in pouring rain?
No photos exist of this ascent of Pen-y-ghent. The rain hammered down, my phone would have been ruined in seconds. I clambered up the steep bit, which resembled a vertical stream, following a northern lad of asian heritage wearing football shorts and the kind of black anorak you see on market stalls, unzipped. “I think I might buy some waterproofs”, he said on the top, still with his hood down, “I quite like this hillwalking”. His enviably dark and thick hair was stiffened with one of those products young people spend fortunes on; each spikelet was crowned with a globule of water, he looked as if his head was covered in those little silver balls we used to put on fairy cakes as children.
A completely soaked couple of my own age (“we’ve got to that point when your waterproofs are useless but you’re past caring”) imparted terrible news. The Pen-y-Ghent Café seemed to be closed! No! Impossible! What about my pint of tea and my buttered Chorley cake? Ridiculous.
Perhaps with the shock of this news I suddenly felt very cold. I jogged down quite a lot of the big new stone steps and the interminable drove road. Even with this effort I failed to warm through. I realised, too late, I should have stopped and put on proper trousers and a warm top way back at Malham Tarn. Not only was I soaking wet, I’d acquired some bad chafing from the overtrousers rubbing my bare legs while jogging, a schoolboy error.
At Horton the café was indeed closed, I could hardly believe it. I made for the campsite which was itself in a slight crisis as Chris the proprietor had been hospitalised with heart trouble. I pitched the tent on soaking wet grass and lingered gratefully under a hot shower. Luckily the Golden Lion opens at three, so having warmed my muscles I could retreat there to warm my cockles. The young manager once camped wild on the west coast of Scotland for two months, he told me, living off the land. He had to call it off, he said, looking meaningfully at me, because his companion got hypothermia.
The food in here was charmingly old school, including a steak and ale pie that was actually a bowl of (very good) stew with a spurious free-floating puff pastry hat perched on top. I prefer a more formally constructed pie myself but I wasn’t about to moan, it was delicious.
A remarkable thing happened in the Golden Lion; an Irishman, who with impressive dedication to fashion was hiking with dungarees in his pack as evening wear, bought me a beer. This has never happened before, not on the Pennine Way I mean, obviously it’s often happened in Ireland. I feel bad about this because not only did I slope off to bed without buying him one back (I did warn him this was likely) but I’d criminally misled him on the price of the pub’s cosy bunkhouse, which he’d asked me about after also descending soaked and frozen from Pen-y-ghent.
I’d told him from memory it was twenty-something pounds, on hearing which he decided to camp, damply. Imagine my shame (and annoyance after also pitching a tent to economise) on finding it was only twelve pounds. The twenty-something I’d remembered paying on my previous visit had been for two people! I didn’t quite get round to confessing this during our entertaining conversation. Apologies, dale buddy, and thanks, I enjoyed the beer and your company. Not necessarily in order of importance.
One thing I routinely was asked in pubs was “why the Pennine Way again? Surely you should be ticking off some other trail from the list?” Because I’m a trail walker, not a trail collector. Because I’ve done one new trail already this year, so I get the rest of the year off for good behaviour. Because I like the Pennines.
There’s a ridiculous superabundance of trails and I’m in my sixtieth year, I’ll never do them all. To try and choose another purely on grounds of neophilia seems both invidious and hazardous. On what criteria? Not everything in life has to be novel, any more than it has to be purposeful.
There’s also a ridiculous superabundance of outdoor blogs. I write mine for fun, because I like writing. It also gives me back the gift of a vaguely coherent souvenir of my own unimpressive adventures. I’ve never been able to keep up a journal on paper, but I find blogging congenial and the feedback is nice (thank you). To quote Wainwright: “I wrote a book of my travels, not for others to see but to transport my thoughts to that blissful interlude of freedom”.
The blogs I least enjoy are the most blatantly purposeful; weekly cut-and-pastes of the generic second-hand ‘advice’ that wastes the first twenty pages of every trail guide. I’ve observed an inverse correlation between their number of listings*, ‘top ten blog’ awards and endorsements and the novelty and quality of the ‘advice’. I’m also suspicious of outdoor blogs by young female ‘adventurers’ who adventure in impractically tiny shorts and coincidentally have about forty thousand followers. For some reason you never encounter these fairytale creatures when you’re splodging through a bog in gathering dusk and a relentless hoolie and you could do with a bit of glamour to cheer you up.
Sitting in the Golden Lion contemplating the ontology of stew in a hat, I realised my suspicion of the overtly purposeful goes for trail walking as well as blogging. I was starting to understand how the motivations and rewards for both may be harder than I thought to disentangle. I was pleased to have emphasised my purposelessness to myself by abandoning one of my summit camping objectives, although obviously that TV presenter would have still camped on Pen-y-ghent in the rain. Obviously.
*My blog proudly carries a TGO listing, but look at the other blogs on there and you’ll see why I’m rather embarrassed by this – they make me look like the idiotic amateur I am.