The Purposeless Pennine Way, Episode Three.
… in which while blithely enjoying my favourite hike in perfect weather from Horton in Ribblesdale to Tan Hill, I meditate upon feeling weird, failing, annoying other people and disliking a book.
We must be purposelessnessless, as Rowan Atkinson said in a ‘Sir Marcus Browning MP’ monologue that seems highly relevant to the Pennine Way 1. To achieve a purpose is virtuous ‘work’, requiring ‘effort’. An absence of purpose on the other hand is a hallmark of vacuous laziness. Strangely, I found once I’d embarked on the Pennine Way purposelessly, with neither objectives nor a plan, mentally I was working harder. Having little idea from day to day what I was doing, let alone why, each day I had to work it out, to reinvent it, as atheism imposes the intellectual effort of devising your own morality.
Rather than easing my mental Mercedes on cruise control along a mental motorway, I was a learner on a wobbly mental moped in a dark and narrow country lane. Was I proud of my lack of purpose, or embarrassed by it? Did I feel settled, at home, at peace with The Way and with myself or was I now even more of a guilty loner, a shifty outsider, for my weirdness in repeating the same trail? One is supposed to tick off new ones, I’m told, what was I playing at?
Was I happily and lazily liberated by my independence from maps, trail guides and any itinerary, or more busily and anxiously concerned about my consequent dependence on the fortuitous reappearance of vaguely remembered landmarks, not to mention random food and shelter? Walking entirely without a plan, it was necessary to give actual thought on most days to where I might end up sleeping and eating. The Pennine Way isn’t an entirely trivial exploit; as I’d learned yet again on descending from Penyghent it’s quite possible while walking it to become tired, cold and wet.
Did I even want to walk the entire Pennine Way in the conventional manner yet again? Protestant Work Ethic Me wanted to chalk up another success, but liberated, alternative, Hebden Bridge Me also wanted to fail, to digress, to snap my fingers and say ‘poof’ at the impertinent tyranny of an official trail. Part of me wanted perversely to subvert my objectives. Well, as it happened I’d already failed to camp on Penyghent as planned, so I’d jolly well got that bit out of my system, hadn’t I?
I hope you’re not expecting answers to any of these questions. I always tell people if walking the Pennine Way answers your questions, they must have been pretty daft questions.
Day Seven – Horton to Hawes
I was awoken by some very loud Irish snoring from an adjacent tent; that will teach me to remember bunkhouse prices correctly. I was strangely happy about this, though, as I didn’t want to miss my traditional Wensleydale sandwich at Hawes Creamery so I needed to get going. Everything was very wet and everywhere was very quiet, in fact I didn’t meet another human being for several hours, not until the Cam High Road where a young, long-haired lad was walking the Dales Way in the guise of a tinker, billy, socks, shirt and all manner of other gear hanging from the outside his pack to dry after his own damp camp. I’ve a slight aversion to untidy packs, but I hope I managed not to show it as I was glad of a friendly chat by this point.
There were a few more wild flowers along this section, quite a bit of Sneezewort by the trail and then behind the sheep-proof fence at pretty Ling Gill nature reserve a hint of what the moors might have looked like before over-grazing, masses of Devil’s-bit Scabious with lots of Red Admirals feeding from it.
On Birkwith Moor I casually and carelessly managed to get lost, carrying straight on over Low Birkwith Moor towards the forestry instead of turning left immediately after the gate (point C on the National Trail Guide map, page 89). I was quite pleased though that I’d realised my error fairly quickly, from increasingly becoming aware that I didn’t remember these surroundings and definitely not that gate onto a track. I retraced my steps and a sneaky peep at the GPS told me I’d gone astray near the appropriately-named Dismal Hill.
At Cam End I suddenly encountered the answer to something I’d wondered about for years, why this section of the trail is so wide and is maintained to such a high standard. It’s used by enormous forestry trucks – keep your eyes peeled!
At Kidhow Gate I was depressed to witness the employment-creating ritualised cruelty of driven shooting, involving large, shiny expensive vehicles whizzing up and down the ugly tarmac road that’s been dumped onto a formerly picturesque moor. I could smell the diesel fumes and hear the engines, as well as the shots, from a mile away. Then, looking back over Snaizeholme I was cheered to recall an observation my Irish chum had made in the pub.
In the West of Ireland, he said, little houses are everywhere, hardly anywhere feels remote. He’d been amazed, he said, by how in England with our much greater overall population density we could somehow still have kept such wild, remote landscapes, and right in the centre of the nation. It’s been subsequently explained to me that this has to do with the relative timings of enclosure acts, famines, clearances and other historical catastrophes and that all these hills and moors would at one time have supported numerous small homesteads. Gazing on the bleak, empty moors of the North Pennines nowadays it’s certainly one to ponder.
In the Wensleydale Creamery, a cheese factory, where they make cheese, a plain cheese sandwich is no longer on the standard café menu. I had to negotiate with a very busy young lady of East European heritage to obtain one, fortunately with her good-humoured collaboration, our mutual subversion of the official repertoire aided by a samizdat list of simple sandwiches for awkward old people that she kept hidden under her till. It was delicious.
Just uphill from Hawes I’d met a young Belgian Wayfarer, southbound. On my asking what had been his favourite bit so far, he recalled his traverse of The Cheviot and every detail sounded suddenly, happily familiar to me. I felt as if, like Simon Armitage, I was ‘walking home’ albeit in the other direction. Another impressive experience had been his breakfast at the Hawes Hostel, where with the Golden Lion’s WiFi I’d booked my first night indoors on this walk in consideration of their large drying room and the soaking wetness of all my kit. That was annoying to hear, as I was planning to leave Hawes too early to sample it.
I did sample once more the fabulous Cod Special in The Chippy which was as utterly perfect in its hot, fresh simplicity as ever and, again, faultlessly and kindly served by a young East European woman. It baffles me what will happen to our hospitality industry post-Brexit. Perfect too was the Timothy Taylor’s Landlord in The Old Board Inn, where I gave up my table and sat at the bar so a couple could eat. They were from Norfolk. As was the next couple along – five of us flatlanders, meeting randomly, in a pub in Hawes. As I love both the pub and the town and our talk was of familiar places, in an odd way I felt I’d already walked home.
Walking The Way as familiar territory, knowing the way (ha ha, except at Dismal Hill), I often found myself wondering whether I was now truly at home, in my own back yard, and more particularly whether as a veteran, already a member of the Free Half at The Border Club, I was to a greater or lesser extent part of a community.
Whenever I encountered another Wayfarer, I couldn’t help wonder whether in their eyes my prior experience promoted me to Trail Sage, or demoted me to the awkward squad. Often I deliberately kept quiet about it. Normally when you meet other walkers on the Pennine Way there’s a certain camaraderie as you’re all in the same bog of despond. The last thing you need to see is someone who mysteriously isn’t lost, swanking along, hello clouds hello sky, without even a compass round his neck.
As I got further north this problem receded. As at Dismal Hill, my memories became a little vague in places and I started making the odd comforting mistake, acquiring the odd comforting anecdote, handy scraps of self-deprecating conversational currency. To feel at one with a community of travellers, perhaps you need yourself to be feeling a bit lost, a bit deracinated. The times I felt most at home on The Way were also those when I felt a stranger to my fellows.
Day Eight – Hawes to Tan Hill
This was a great day, great views from Great Shunner, a great lunch, a great pub, a great supper. Oh, and a nice walk too. It started badly, though, when the hostel warden threw a sulk because I asked him if he could reconsider his having turned on a loud radio in the lounge where I was sitting peacefully, all alone and in contented silence at 6.45 am.
To be fair, I may have spoken rather intemperately; switching a radio on without asking first would be considered the height of rudeness in our house and would probably instigate the rapid movement of heavy objects through the air, not to mention bad language. I tend to forget other people like the radio, something he angrily pointed out. ‘But there’s only me in here’, I recklessly retorted, ‘and it’s not for long, I’m going soon’. ‘GOOD!’ he snapped. Rather than acquiesce with professional grace he insisted on prolonging this embarrassing argument in a manner too tedious to transcribe. When fifteen minutes later I cheerily called ‘I’m off now, you can pop your radio on’, he shouted ‘I’ll put it on WHEN I’M GOOD AND READY!’ Honestly, where does the YHA find these people? His breakfasts are legendary though, so swings and roundabouts I suppose. I’d been considering trying one but obviously now I didn’t dare and sloped off up Great Shunner Fell in a bad mood, luckily with an equally legendary mince and mushy pea pie in my pack to cheer me up. Also sunshine.
Yes, sunshine, on Great Shunner Fell! And – ta daaa – extensive views!
The air was still and warm, I had the whole place to myself, it was very peaceful. Shame I didn’t have a portable radio.
It was actually a pleasure to mooch about on the summit; the last two times I’d been here conditions had been foul.
Even in poorer conditions I do quite like Great Shunner Fell. Route-finding is easy and the ascent although long is not particularly arduous in either direction. At the top you always somehow feel you’ve got somewhere meaningful, even if you can’t see a thing. The vegetation is surprisingly colourful in places, for some reason more so than on any other Pennine Way fell. There’s supposed to be Black Grouse up there although they’re darned elusive. In weather like this, it’s one of the great highlights of the trail.
On the way down I started to meet people going up and the lovely Kearton Country Hotel at Thwaite was quite busy, but not too busy to serve me a nice lunch of a fish finger butty and classic fruit cake with Swaledale cheese, as well as their famous ginger biscuits with the coffee.
In places above Thwaite the trail has been seriously undermined by rabbits, I won’t be surprised if it starts washing away soon at this rate.
For some reason Keld always has a slightly magical feel, it’s definitely a bit of a cosmic omphalos, snuggled in its bosky dell, its energies stirred by pixy picture-book waterfalls. I always expect my photos of Keld will turn out to have unexpected fairies lurking in their corners, but to get them on Android I’d probably have to download a supernatural app.
It takes longer than you think to get up the hill from Keld to the wonderfully-named Arkengarthdale, but the first view of the pub is another magical Pennine way highlight. Especially if you can’t actually see it due to freezing fog or blizzard, but today was indeed a day of continuing extensive views.
Tan Hill is under new ownership and I was a bit concerned by reports they planned to professionalise the place. I was delighted to find that so far they’ve got the balance right, investing judiciously but leaving much of the pub’s character unchanged. There was even a typical Tan Hill moment when a couple moving to a different room found their possessions had been hidden away by the cleaner, nobody knew where. The young barman spent ages trying to find them, becoming a little flustered, the manageress had to calm the customers. After an hour or so of this the young lady behind the bar offered to take over the search. She opened one cupboard, looked upwards, and immediately reached down the lost items. My partner would have had something to say about this scenario. To me, about how good men are at finding things. It was a lovely evening, the beer was great and my dinner was fantastic. As I was feeling mildly heroic for getting this far on what had seemed quite a long day, I met a man who’d walked the Pennine Way in 1966, soon after it had opened and through its notorious but now only legendary bogs. In jeans and dubbined leather boots, carrying a canvas tent. I felt mildly silly.
He was pleased, he said, that the trail is now easier and more enjoyable walking, it enables people to see more of the landscape and in different ways. In those days the Pennine Way was indeed an arduous struggle, he’d enjoy walking it again a lot more now, he felt, were he physically able. This reminds me that having mentioned Simon Armitage above, I didn’t really enjoy his Pennine Way book2 when I first read it. It was given to me when I was preparing to walk The Way in 2016 and I suppose I was hoping to glean from it simplistic information specifically about the trail and about the process of walking it.
It seemed an unsatisfactory book. As with the BBC programmes, just walking the Pennine Way wasn’t interesting enough. To sex up the story it was necessary to bolt on the spurious ‘purpose’ of walking ‘home’, and the conceit of purposefully paying his way as a ‘troubadour’. The book ends with a mean-minded calculation that he has made a loss on the enterprise, as if any of us don’t walk the Pennine Way in permanent and profound debt, to the trail pixies, to Tom Stephenson, to Bill Gore, to road builders and train drivers, parents, teachers and the NHS, to slaves, kings and songwriters. Possibly also poets. My entire lifetime earnings would nowhere near fund all the gates, waymarkers and flagstones that have been installed and reinstalled on The Way in its fifty years of existence.
Armitage gets lost multiple times, even though for much of The Way he is not alone but in jolly, diverting and often professional company. He can’t even get it together to finish the damn trail! He uses baggage transfer. What a shambles.
Re-reading the book now I found I was seeing it with entirely different eyes. Relieved by my own serial completions of the trail from needing to learn about the Pennine Way and its walking per se, I was able to take in his trenchant and funny observations of people and places, the verve and sheer competence of the writing with its consistent wry energy, the poetry, his rueful but defiant ultimate position that finding your way home is more important than finishing any arbitrary trail. I’m now engaging with the book on a much broader front rather than seeking in it a narrow, specific purpose. It’s more fun and it’s teaching me more things, not that I’m re-reading it purposefully, of course.
1 Many thanks to Lonewalker for kindly reminding me of this monologue via Twitter.
2 Armitage, Simon (2012), Walking Home – Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way. London: Faber & Faber. I’ve a soft spot for the boy Armitage as when I owned a nature reserve he kindly gave me permission to reproduce a poem from this book on my signage. Cheers!