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The Pennine Way completed!

Posted on Wednesday, 5 February 2014 . Permalink

(Anna-Maria writes in October 2013:) This year one of the routes I am reviewing for Alpine Exploratory is the Pennine Way. However, I am breaking the route up into five sections. Last week took me out for my final section which is, bizarrely, the very first four days of the route.

Given the lateness in the year I had anticipated that this might be an exciting week of eventful weather. Within minutes of starting out I was already soaked through and certain that this would be a walk of adventures.

Gritstone outcrops on the first Pennine Way stage.

Day one – Edale to Torside
The Pennine Way doesn’t waste time easing walkers in gently. After the first 3km of warm-up walking over fields walkers are faced with their first challenge of the route. This is a steep haul up a path known as Jacob’s Ladder to gain the exposed open moorland plateau of Kinder Scout.

From here, navigation varies. Sometimes it is easy, trundling over clear flagstone paths. At other times you find yourself picking your way around peat hags and rocks, guided by cairns, or climbing up through cloughs that can vary from clear dry paths to deeply flowing streams depending on recent weather. There is nothing as worrying as walking uphill in a deep stream, with the path obliterated by flowing water. It can make even the most intrepid walker doubt themselves and wonder whether they took a wrong turning.

The path is submerged here...

... creating a problem even for waterproof trousers!

Unsurprisingly many walkers find that Jacob’s Ladder is an unpleasant wake-up call to the challenges ahead. However, if you survive the climb and successfully navigate your way to the end of this first day without incident then you can be confident that you should be able to complete the route.

The descent to Torside and Crowden at the end of stage 1 of the Pennine Way.

Day two – Torside to Standedge
After the first day, this day seems surprisingly easy. Moorland crossings are a continuing theme – one which pervades the essence of the Pennine Way throughout its length – but this is more frequently broken up with evidence of human habitation during the second half of the day. Reservoirs are frequent, as a reminder of the wetness of the Pennine watershed that runs up the country and which is the backbone of this route.

After a day of torrential rain and strong winds on my first day this was a milder day for me. While the rain was never far away, it fell with less intensity, and the wind was calmer. The route for this day crosses several fords, many of which are marked on the map, and I frequently found my feet feeling their way through dark, brackish water as I crossed numerous streams with limited visibility of the rocks they were standing on and water flowing higher than my knees.

Day three – Standedge to Hebden Bridge
If you look at any road atlas of the UK and pick out the locations of Standedge (or at least, nearby Diggle) and Hebden Bridge it seems impossible that there can be a pleasant and remote route between the two. Even once you look at the Ordnance Survey orange maps of the area it is hard to imagine that you won’t feel oppressed by surrounding large cities and towns as you walk. As a result I was intrigued to see what this day would really be like to walk.

Surprisingly, the route does actually manage to stay quite remote. There are distant views to the west mid-morning as you cross over the M62 motorway, revealing the large town of Rochdale, with Bury and Bolton beyond it. Despite this though, the densely packed industrial areas that seem at first glance of a map to cut across the country here are kept out of sight.

The moor tops rise high above the valleys containing the towns and cities. As you progress north you find yourself most often in one of two states of moorland. Sometimes you walk across the very middle of wide and flat expanses of moorland, where the distant edges of the moors block views of the narrow, steep-sided valleys beyond that contain the towns. At other times you carve your way among huge black gritstone rocks which not only occupy your vision as you carefully pick your way among them to avoid stumbling, but which also block out some of the surrounding scenery. So you spend the day winding your way northwards up this strip of moor with your most frequent reminder of human occupation in the form of several busy west-east roads that must be crossed and numerous man-made reservoirs.

Day four – Hebden Bridge to Haworth
I had anticipated a tough final day. Although the two moor crossings on this stretch of the Pennine Way are relatively short, they are meant to be some of the wildest encountered so far. In reality much has changed during this year with extensive amounts of new slabbed paving across the entirety of the second stretch of moorland – previously the tougher of the two.

A lot of the day is actually spent winding your way across fields with continuous climbs and descents as you make the steep ascent out of the Hebden Bridge valley, over a narrow ridge and drop steeply into the narrow valley containing Colden Water, before ascending again over a wider and smoother stretch of open moorland and descending gently towards the first reservoir of the day. From here another climb and descent over fields brings you to a further two reservoirs and the final sustained climb onto the wild and open moorland above Haworth.

The treat for the day is passing Top Withins – a ruined cottage on the open moorland which is believed to be the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. From here you can then choose from three different routes into Haworth. The easiest is a simple route, mostly on roads and with less descent and ascent than the other routes, that will be reversed the next day when leaving Haworth to regain the trail. However, far better is to take one of the other two routes which add more sight-seeing to your day as you walk over Brontë Bridge and pass the Brontë Waterfall.

The ruined cottage of Top Withins is lonely on the moor, on the descent to Howarth.

After three days of heavy rain and strong winds I was given a treat for my final afternoon of reviewing for 2013. I spent the morning walking in low cloud, but as the morning progressed the clouds burned away and the day became warm with deep blue skies. The moors seemed to glow in their golden browns and reds of autumn colours and I was able to take my time, enjoying some final moorland views and the Brontë sight-seeing tour as I walked the final few kilometres into Haworth.

Trees in the view, with green fields beyond, lower down and nearer Haworth.

Final impressions of the Pennine Way
The Pennine Way has been an education for me in how much moorland can differ over the UK. From the river and stream-filled moors of the Peak District, through the reservoir-littered Southern Pennines where I lost count of the number of reservoirs I walked past, over the glorious geological splendour of the Yorkshire Dales moors and the lower, flat moors of northern Yorkshire, and eventually over the wide, flat and excessively boggy uninhabited expanses of the Cheviot moorland where you can walk (or wade through mud) for hours without seeing any evidence of human presence.

The Pennine Way in the South Pennines, on a typical stretch of moorland path made with flagstones, some from old factories.

The route is tough and not to be underestimated. Of all the UK long-distance routes I have done only the West Highland Way seems harder. However, while the West Highland Way is exceedingly tiring underfoot, it is mercifully short, usually lasting only six or seven days. In comparison the Pennine Way combines consistently long days with some awkward terrain and exposing scenery. Often there is no escape from rain, wind or sun. On top of this the route is commonly walked in approximately 19 days – an extensive period of time to be walking such big distances.

For these reasons I would currently class the Pennine Way as the most taxing long distance trail in the UK, if you were to tackle the route in a single piece. Many people tackle the route in two, or even three stages. Breaking it up to make it manageable around holiday allowances or around their ability to walk daily for such an extended period of time.

Would you enjoy the Pennine Way?
To answer this question depends on what you are looking for. If you want a true challenge of grit and determination while staying in the UK then I would certainly put this at the top of the list, closely followed by the West Highland Way.

If you are already well-versed in UK scenery then the Pennine Way will also challenge your appreciation of moorland, as it did for me. You will find that no two sections of moor are quite the same in character, even when they look identical at first glance.

Flagstones carry the Pennine Way onto Black Hill in the South Pennines.. for easy walking compared to some North Pennines stages.

For those people less well-acquainted with classic UK scenery but still after a challenge then I would suggest the Coast to Coast as a better route to tackle first. The Coast-to-Coast route takes you in a line across the three National Parks of the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North Yorkshire Moors. While those are also technically moorland areas, they are far more varied in their style, ranging from the rugged and gnarly Lake District in the west, through the rolling hillsides and managed pastureland areas of the Dales to the flat, high and colourful expanses of the eastern moors. There is also the benefit of not spending the entire route walking up a natural band of land that seems to attract rain, whatever time of year you are walking!

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