I walked this trail for charity in 2015. I had never experienced any of it prior to that and at the time, I really had no idea as to what lay ahead of me. What I found back then, was a trail full of utter delight that fascinated and tested me in equal measure. I returned from Kirk Yetholm and, whilst full of enthusiasm, euphoria and wine, I foolishly declared I could quite happily have walked straight back to Edale again, to have made it a Pennine Way double.
And so it was with a palpable sense of ‘money where my mouth is’, a year later I repacked my rucksack, not long empty from the heat of Gabe’s Ridgeway charity challenge, and headed for Edale once more to have a bash at walking the Pennine Way in both directions.
Standing outside the Nags Head I felt incredibly grateful to have my ever-cheerful fourteen year-old daughter by my side. The 540 miles that lay ahead of me felt insurmountable and I needed the happy distraction of the incessant babble that I knew she would emit for the first forty-eight hours, to say nothing of the comedy she provided with her bog-hopping exploits.
The first day of the Pennine Way is tricky. Although there are longer and arguably more difficult times ahead, day one feels particularly testing. It begins with the question of “Man or mouse?” in the topographical form of Jacob’s ladder, a stony path leading sharply up towards the plateau of the distinctive Kinder Scout and it ends with an equally cheeky descent down from Bleaklow, 26km later. In good weather, day one provides a real treat with breathtaking views across Derbyshire. However, in poor weather, like many of the days on the Pennine Way, it can be an entirely different story. Visibility on this trail can make the difference between constant route checking in a foggy tunnel of damp nothingness and an exhilarating stride-out with views of the whole world stretching out beneath you; both can be magical somehow. Day one is also harder because, well… it’s day one. For me, it takes three days to get into my stride. By then, my rucksack rests more easily on my back, I’ve settled into the routine of trail life, with its repetitive list of evening chores and my inevitable background nerves of walking alone for miles on end are once again abating.
When you’re facing 540 miles you somehow can’t look at the whole. It’s just too long. I honestly can’t imagine what it must be like to tackle a trail that has mileage in the thousands. That surely must enter the realms of a lifestyle rather than a hike. For me, in the way I imagine it must be getting through detox, a 540-mile walk just had to be one day at a time.
My journey up to Kirk was as it had been the previous year. There were good days and there were bad days. I was treated to a decent amount of sunshine and didn’t receive a drenching until walking down into Hawes on day seven.
I saw nothing at all of the spectacular vista from Great Shunner Fell, but was treated to the beauty of far-reaching Lake District views from Little Dun and Cross Fell. And as ever, I was moved by the giant silence of High Cup.
There were long stretches spent wading through bog water, with ever more prune-like feet and the Cheviots, the trail’s majestic gateway to Kirk, took me to a whole new level of soaking. At one point I managed the rare achievement of both sunburn and trench foot simultaneously. But for every battering from the weather, there was the payoff of dramatic skies and, of course, the trail’s many iconic landmarks.
I had wonderfully cosy nights in my tent, enjoyed the relative luxury of several youth hostels, spent a spider-ridden night of slumber on someone’s shed floor and a final but rather sleepless night in one of the mountain refuge huts but a few hours shy of Kirk. I also had the amazing reward of a few nights in a campervan with my family, who came up for a five-day trail-hop with me as their Summer holiday.
Whatever the weather and whatever my sleeping arrangements, the feeling as I approached the end of my northbound stint was immense. I rose early after my night in the hut on the Cheviots (with other wet and weary hikers trying to sleep on benches opposite and next to me) and I reached Kirk around 9am on a beautifully sunny day. I arrived alone and completely happy. The halfway point was a big moment. From now I would finally be heading home to my family. And for the first time, I felt like I could succeed. I could complete a challenge that less than two weeks previously had felt insurmountable. And for almost 3 days walking southbound, I really was on top of it all. I felt fit and strong. I barely broke my stride walking up hills and my pack felt feather-light. It was a first-time feeling for me. I felt confident.
Unfortunately this buoyant feeling was short-lived. Just three or four miles short of Bellingham I took a ridiculous tumble on perfectly decent terrain. My foot, like a flimsy piece of paper, folded up underneath me as I hit a hidden rut in the ground. I went down like a lead weight and was completely unable to get up again. Luckily I had been walking with another hiker for the previous five miles, so wasn’t alone. And she wasn’t just any other walker. She was a formidable woman in her early sixties, who counted to her name, amongst other things, an unsupported trip from the brim of Antarctica to the South Pole and back. She picked up my backpack like it actually was a feather, and led me hobbling, with walking poles as makeshift crutches, through the patches of bog to the nearest road, where we flagged down a car and I headed for the nearest hospital (thank you so much for your help Hilary)!
There was no fracture, but with an elephant-sized foot and unable to weight-bear, I left the trail with crutches and tears. I was mortified.
Six days later, after a botched but enthusiastic, self-styled physio programme, impatience won out and I strapped up my still ailing foot and returned to the road where I had left the trail. I had ahead of me a 26-mile day, as part of what I can only describe as a ‘kill or cure’ plan. I didn’t have time to warm back into things since my window of leave was rapidly shrinking and work at the hospital called. I confess to feeling completely broken at the end of that first day, but it was enough of a test to assure me I could continue albeit with an unreliable degree of confidence. And as ever, I had a regular boost from my trail buddies, be they human, bovine or ovine.
The walk from then on required a much greater degree of caution. There was little time to enjoy any views, as I had to plan every footstep to ensure I was on as even a piece of ground as possible. To say my confidence was knocked was an understatement. My foot was still swollen and bruised and I had a chorus of warnings about potential long-term damage from my nearest and dearest. However, for me, the pain of failing to complete the challenge far surpassed that of a dodgy wobbly foot. And as ever, I was carried by the support and generosity of those I met on and alongside the trail, whose gifts ranged from financial donations amounting to an impressive £700, to a luxury night in a holiday cottage with a home cooked supper from a wonderful Yorkshire family I met in a field.
As difficult as it was, the southbound trip brought the consolation of being a peculiarly new walk. The views were unexpectedly different, so much so that I occasionally had to turn 180 degrees just to recognize exactly where I was. What had presented a challenge going northbound suddenly became easy hike fodder, whilst previously easy days offered obstacles I hadn’t considered. There was a significant headwind for much of my walk back to Edale and, as I was south-facing, the surprisingly blazing English sun showed no sympathy for my squinting eyes and burning face. But come what may I was, in the words of a certain Pennine Way-faring poet, ‘Walking Home’. When you are missing your crazy children to the extent I was, despite having seen them a few times as I walked, heading closer to home with each step really does make a difference.
On the third day after my return to the trail, I had the pleasure of revisiting Cross Fell, the highest point in the Pennines that had so delighted me with stunning views just a couple of weeks earlier. Not so on this leg. Cross Fell has a reputation for being inhospitable at the best of times. When the weather in the valley has people running for their sunscreen and shorts, the microclimate at the top can have the hardiest hiker battened down in full waterproofs with just their determined eyes visible from within a sea of Gortex. It is the only place in England to have a wind so notorious that it has been given a name. And the so-called Helm wind was raging as I made my way across the plateau. On Cross Fell it made a faint shrieking sound that gave way to a background moan as it gusted around the aerials of the radar station on Great Dun Fell. Everything was cloaked in a hurtling fog. Having done the whole Pennine Way three times now, I can safely say I haven’t seen anywhere else quite like it on the trail. I had to stop myself more than once to listen to the noise, watch the rushing fog and remind myself it was just cloud and wind and nothing more sinister than that.
But in its predictably varied way, for every wet and foggy day, the trail delivered some beautifully warm and dry weather with far reaching views to keep my spirits up as I wandered home.
And so I picked my way southbound, step by careful step, using almost a roll of zinc tape each day to re-secure my foot into a fixed flexed position to protect it from a repeat sprain. Everything took longer; both the walking itself and the daily chores. I had had one planned rest day northbound but, excluding my prolonged and frustrating injury break, I didn’t take another day off until I finished.
For the final day’s walk I was joined by two friends. We wandered on a sunny and blustery day, back down Jacob’s Ladder and through the quintessentially English fields to Edale. Then we went for an understated celebratory glass of coke back in the Nags Head, before I walked back to the youth hostel where I had left my car five weeks previously and drove home with 540 miles and 78,000 feet of ascent finally behind me.
I’m hugely proud and grateful to say that during this wander up to Scotland and back, you all donated in excess of £4,000 for Duchenne UK. You gave by the bucket-load to help give Tom and all the other children in the world with Duchenne, a future. With a licence recently granted for the first ever treatment and many more exciting developments on the horizon, there is very real hope that this generation of children will be the very first to survive. There cannot be a more warming feeling. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support.
And there’s another blog done and another life experience gained….
So, what can I say about this challenge in summary? I found the Pennine Way every bit as amazing and enthralling as I did last year. It’s a journey that tests the mind and body equally. It rewards hugely for efforts made with beautiful views, with the human kindness that surrounds its every mile, and with the belief that you really can do something you didn’t think possible. And without question it improves fitness. It simply isn’t possible to walk this trail and not become stronger and healthier. In the same vein, it strengthens the mind. So many days walking, particularly if the majority of them are alone, mean you need to be broadly comfortable with your own company. If you aren’t when you set off, then you surely will be by the time you return.
As I have said before, making your way from Edale to Kirk Yetholm, vice versa or both, isn’t just a walk. It can be a game changer if you want it to be. It can put life back into perspective, allow you to reset your stresses and it could change your future. It isn’t an easy challenge and to make it to the end is an achievement that will fill you with a sense of pride (and perhaps relief). From that point onwards, the only real challenge is what to do next… because I’m not certain that anything can deliver quite like this trail does for me. So, if you are considering it, go on… Give it a bash! Do it for charity. Do it for pleasure. Do it for a real challenge. If I can do it, honestly, almost anyone can.