Three Pennine Way trail diaries are quite enough for one blog, so instead of writing up my latest hike in full detail on here I’ve instead compiled reminiscences of all five of my Pennine Way completions into a quirky little book – plug, plug. Nonetheless in response to enquiries I thought I’d knock out a quick summary of my 2020 itinerary, mainly just to show how flexible and informal a Pennine Way can be.
Given the situation, this itinerary featured an unusual lack of planning, even by my standards. In fact I planned absolutely nothing at all, to the extent of ambling up onto the Pennine Way without even a train ticket home. In my sixties and in a covid-vulnerable group, I wanted to be able to adapt to how I felt from day to day about being out and to any sudden changes in the lockdown rules, to the extent that for the first time on a trail I even felt comfortable with the possibility of aborting the hike and ducking out for home if necessary. As it turned out that wasn’t necessary; apart from the first day on Kinder the trail was quiet and everywhere I stopped to buy food was taking impressive precautions.
My other adaptation to covid was that I’d resolved not to sleep indoors at all, the plan was to camp out every single night along the trail and as remotely as possible. Again this proved reasonably straightforward. It would have been extremely straightforward but for my encountering not just one but two actual storms, touchingly named Ellen and Francis by whoever names these phenomena. These dodgy characters made for several blowy days, and several pretty interesting nights. I’d hoped that somehow campsites would be able to provide showers every few days but only a few of them had managed to make this work to the satisfaction of the safety officer. I ended having having only three showers in eighteen days away from home!
Day One – Edale to Bleaklow
A cheap ticket on empty trains got me to Edale at lunchtime, the covid precautions in the Nag’s were impressive, so I took the precaution of scoffing their sausages before breezing over Kinder in what was already a pretty stiff southwesterly. Luckily from the Pennine Way that blows you onto Kinder rather than off it. Yomping over to Bleaklow I found I had the entire place to myself on a beautiful sunny evening which was quite something. Storm Ellen was well on her way by now and it took a while to find a relatively sheltered camping nook. Despite my best efforts to do so it was a hellish night of virtually zero sleep, the wind howling and the tent slapping like a machine gun.
I should mention that I had two missions to accomplish on this Pennine Way. One was, bizarrely, to write a poem a day, hence the title of the book. The other was to try and accomplish my ambition to sleep out on all the trail’s high summits, while actually hiking the trail. It’s all in the book, plug, plug…
By the way, even in the Pennines sleeping out on the high tops can be life-threatening. Please don’t try it unless you’ve bombproof gear and some idea what you’re up to. Unlike me.
Day Two – Bleaklow to Standedge
Normally not too ambitious a distance but getting over Black Hill in the teeth of the storm was ridiculous. Fortunately the wind was at my back but the horizontal rain was extremely vexing. Worse still, just as I clambered out of Dean Clough I was condemned to watch the snack van on the A635 packing up and driving away! Apparently it had proved far too windy for it to operate safely. I pulled up early to pitch in the shelter of one of the bits of old wall, a good decision as there’s no shelter at all from a southwesterly any further on other than bivying behind a rock at Blackstone Edge, and I didn’t have a bivy. After my Coast to Coast that thing has gone in the bin!
Day Three – Standedge to May’s Shop
Having passed the White House far too early for lunch, by the time I got to May’s I was famished and ate three of her meat pies in quick succession. I then felt a little queasy.
Day Four – May’s Shop to Ickornshaw
For quite a while now I’ve wanted to stop over at the Squirrel Wood campsite which is getting quite a name for itself as a Pennine Way social hub. I got there rather early in the day but as everything I was carrying was already filthy and soaking wet (remind me why I wanted to hike this trail again??) and the sun was out it seemed a good chance to regroup. Squirrel Wood is in a bit of a dip so the ground can be a bit on the wet side. Thanks to Storm Ellen it was in fact at this time a quagmire, so I elected to sleep in the Hobbit Hut, or Hobbit Hutch as I kept mistakenly (but not inappropriately) calling it. The hot dinner, beer and cooked breakfast at Squirrel Wood were all most enjoyable and Ady had got the go-ahead from the authorities to re-open his showers, so all in all I had a good hose down and a good feed up here.
Day Five – Ickornshaw to Malham
The campsite at Malham was blessedly open, albeit for backpackers only and with no showers. As I was pitching at the highest point on the field, thanks to the owner’s kind warning, it started to rain. Unbelievably this was the harbinger of a second named storm in quick succession, Francis, no less. It absolutely hammered down, by suppertime tents lower down the field had streams running through them and were frantically being relocated. I trudged to the Lister Arms in despair that was rapidly brightened by discovering I could get a tenner off my dinner. ‘Great, I’ll have the steak’.
Day Five-and-a-Half – Malham
My next summit sleepout target was Pen-y-Ghent but the weather forecast was abominable, 24 hours of lashing rain and gales. Sleeping up there had already eluded me several times and I wasn’t going to miss out on it again. I decided to have a day off at Malham, most of which I spent sitting under the DofE groups shelter at the campsite in hammering rain, drinking dubious instant coffee from a grubby plastic bag someone had left.
Day Six – Malham to Pen-y-Ghent
After the storm the weather on the summit was absolutely perfect, still and calm, there was even briefly a bit of a view. Things were looking up.
Day Seven – Pen-y-Ghent to Hardraw
A long trudge in dry weather for a change. The Penyghent Cafe at Horton was still closed and the pub wasn’t about to do coffee at nine in the morning but as luck would have it a nice chap living nearby overheard me asking them and very kindly made me a mug of coffee himself. Somehow I missed the trail heading down into Hawes and had to walk along the road, I’ve never done that before! Most of the food places and pubs were open, thank goodness, so I stocked up. The campsite at Hardraw was again minimally open and again with no showers but I was pleased to see it and just as I’d pitched up heavy rain started to fall yet again. The pub was also minimally open but I wasn’t prepared to venture out through the downpour and ate pies in my tent instead.
Day Eight – Hardraw to Keld
I heard the campsite at Keld was open, then heard it was closed, then allegedly it was open again. Either way it was worth a try as I’d also heard they’d managed to get their showers up and running, literally, by investing in a disinfectant fogging machine. Having filled up at Keartons as there’s notoriously little to eat at Keld I was pleased to find Rukins campsite was indeed open, as friendly as ever, and selling hot drinks. I could easily have walked up to Tan Hill but they’d insisted they were full, even for campers, so a short day to Keld it was. After fifteen hours of heavy rain the river Swale was astonishing, I’ve never seen it so high or so fast.
Day Nine – Keld to Middleton
If you know your Pennine Way you’ll know that this itinerary was becoming quite eccentric. A couple of really short days and now a really quite long one, a bit of a leg-stretcher. Tan Hill kindly stepped up with coffee and breakfast, although they were indeed seriously busy and would have preferred me to book, and the tuck shop just before Middleton was a lifesaver. I camped for a fiver at the Daleview caravan park on the way into Middleton where I could also have had a shower but the site was very busy and having had one the night before I didn’t feel I needed to chance it.
Day Ten – Middleton to Knock Fell
Another bonkers long day, yomping at a crazy pace through Teesdale and past High Cup on a Bank Holiday Sunday. There must have been at least ten people at High Cup – madness! Thank goodness the Post Box Pantry at Dufton was open, and until four o’clock, their tea and food was as great as ever. The reason for this rather sudden change of pace was the weather forecast; a completely still night was predicted, perfect for camping at the summit of Knock Fell. It was quite a struggle to get up there after such a long day but well worth it, although there was frost on the tent in the morning. Actual frost, on August Bank Holiday Monday!
Day Eleven – Knock Fell to a field
It was wonderful on Cross fell, sunny and warm, I dried the melted frost off my tent with not another soul in view or in earshot; just wonderful. I ate a vast pile of chips at Alston and bought some socks but the hostel was closed (NB during the pandemic it has normally been open for PW backpackers) and I couldn’t find a rumoured informal campsite. Hence I ended up a random field some way north of town.
Day Twelve – a field to Holmhead
The micro-campsite at Holmhead, by Thirlwall Castle, was open for PW backpackers only and on a no-contact basis, you had to book ahead by email and receive instructions, fortunately I’d been tipped off about all this and had a great night all alone at this lovely little site, including a welcome shower which turned out to be my last on the trail. Supper entailed a short walk back to the Greenhead Hotel which has unfortunately been tarted up and as a hikers’ pub in my opinion not improved, how depressing.
Day Thirteen – Holmhead to The Mystery Sheepfold
Up onto Hadrian’s Wall, approaching which I encountered an alarming number of cattle and in fact, shockingly, a walker was killed here by cattle just a few days later. Leaving the wall to the north I slightly lost my bearing towards the forest and had to actually look at my phone for the first time on the entire trail. The wind picked up and became quite fatiguing, rather than press on to Bellingham, always a very long day from Greenhead, I pulled up at the sheepfold, one of my favourite wild camps on the Pennine Way.
Day Fourteen – the sheepfold to the swamp!
The Cheviot Hotel was open for lunch and a very good lunch too, with immaculate covid precautions and high speed phone charging sockets; the bar here has been done up too but in excellent taste, improved not spoilt. What a great place Bellingham is! I stocked up on pies and Sly Cake at the bakery and whizzed off up Whitley Pike where it was a bit too exposed to camp in the very strong wind, the direction of which was also wrong for Padon Hill. Paddling up towards the legendary Rumblingsike Bog I was getting a bit desperate to camp; just below Brownrigg Head I finally found a flat but most unprepossessing swamp inhabited by a large and persistent frog. Ah well, my tent is made in Scotland…
Day Fifteen – the swamp to Yearning Saddle Hut
Stocked up with food from Bellingham I slithered up onto The Cheviot; it rained and rained and rained. Disheartened, I prospected around Chew Green for a bit of shelter but just as I’d settled on a campsite the sun came out. Cheered, I toddled on to Yearning Saddle hut in which I had the great pleasure of cooking Supernoodles without having to lean on one elbow. The little flat spot in front of the hut was perfectly sheltered from the persistent wind but this was the coldest night yet, I had to wear every stitch I was carrying.
Day Sixteen – Yearning Saddle to The Cheviot
A very leisurely day, a late breakfast in the hut and a slow dawdle across the vast green hills, mostly in sunshine although the wind grew stronger and stronger; by the time I got to The Actual Cheviot, my final summit camp to tick off, I could barely stand upright. It was also quite extraordinarily boggy, but after wading my way just off the top to the south-east I found a dry and sheltered nook where I spent a sunny afternoon and a great night. The forecast for the next morning was thick fog so I did spend some of the afternoon taking bearings and counting paces back to the trig point, writing the directions in my notebook. Otherwise this was a remarkably relaxed day.
Day Seventeen – The Cheviot to Kirk Yetholm
Anyone familiar with the Pennine Way will have twigged that I spent a ridiculous three days ambling over The Cheviot. This came about because the weather forecast was a bit mixed and I wasn’t going to risk missing my summit camp, the last one along the trail I needed to tick off. Hence, while sitting uncomfortably on a garden wall at the top of Alston High Street, up to where I’d had to climb to get a signal, I’d booked a train ticket home that gave me wiggle room. Hence after waking late and in the predicted thick fog here I was, wiggling around in the Auchope hut, drying my gear, drinking coffee. Eventually I strolled down to KY and ate an enormous lunch at the Border. Followed quite soon by an enormous dinner. If you’ve walked the Pennine Way you’ll understand. Both the hostel and the Town Yetholm campsite were closed so, encouraged by the pub staff, I followed time-honoured Pennine Way tradition and camped on the village green.
In the morning it was just a question of empty buses followed by empty trains home, pausing only for a lasagne pie from the Rothbury Home Bakery at Kelso and to buy clean socks at Berwick, where the High Street was the first and only time on this trip I was actually a bit concerned about social distancing. The Pennine Way is a great place to avoid your fellow-humans, but Berwick town centre isn’t and I was glad to get home to Norfolk. Stating the obvious, this was quite a relaxed itinerary, I could easily have made it home two days earlier, maybe three. As on my Coast to Coast I carried my Alpkit Gourdon 30 litre rucksack modified to attach a small chest pack, but this time with my trusty Trekkertent Stealth tent instead of the dreadful bivy. I wore Altra Olympus trail shoes; feetwise this was my most comfortable Pennine Way yet, not even a hint of a blister all the way from Edale.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Pennine Way and were hoping for more detailed information, I’d like to suggest having a nose at my three complete PW trail diaries elsewhere on this blog. This one is the most recent, and also the most competently written in my opinion, I’d had a bit of practice by that point! I also recommend the very friendly Pennine Way Walkers Facebook group as well as perhaps (dare I plug it again?!) my book The Pennine Way A Poem A Day which is virtually useless as a trail guide but should give you a feel for the actual lived experience of this long but wonderful hike. And with poems! Thanks for reading 😉