An Epic Walk on the Wild Side of England

At times steep, wet, and inescapably barren, England’s 268-mile Pennine Way walking trail isn’t likely to make the cover of many travel glossies here in the States. Often cold, always muddy, there’s little doubt it’s the most physically and mentally challenging trek in the United Kingdom. But for those who believe the best way to see the world is on their own two feet, there’s also no more rewarding ramble in all of Europe.

As the very first in England’s vast network of crisscrossing long-distance paths, the Pennine Way blazed a trail, both literal and figurative, through areas of the British countryside that had long been the exclusive domain of private landowners and elite hunting clubs. And what a trail it blazed.

Typically walked from south to north to keep the wind and sun (and frequently the driving rain, too) at your back, this classic path follows the mountainous backbone of England through endless moorlands, marshes, and river valleys; over staggering limestone cliffs; past the largest ancient ruin in Europe; and across the wildest, moodiest stretch of land in the country before concluding at the Scottish border after two to three long, wearying weeks of walking.

‘Fantastic, stunning, endless views’

“We picked the Pennine Way because it was the original national trail,” says Tom Read, a 36-year-old high school math teacher from Cheshire who walked the trail with his teenage son last summer. “Choosing any other would have meant a continued yearning to do it.”

“I kept singing, ‘I can see for miles and miles,'” says Andy Allan, a 26-year-old IT support manager from London, describing the Pennine Way’s “fantastic, stunning, endless views.”

“For most of the day, every day, we were many miles from civilization,” adds Read.

This exercise in isolation begins at the Nags Head Pub in the village of Edale, about four hours northwest of London by train. The trail is typically walked over the course of 16 days, but there’s no rule that says it can’t be done at a more leisurely pace—or a faster one, for that matter, depending on your tolerance for sore feet. The record is two-and-a-half days. (It wasn’t me.)

Many walkers forgo the southern and northern extremities altogether and focus on the more accessible middle section of the trail, the highlight of which is High Cup Nick: a huge glacial valley that emerges almost too-suddenly at your feet like a giant rocky gutter scooped from the landscape below. But the boggy moorlands of the south and the wild, sweeping ridges of the north have highlights of their own.

Top Withins, better known to romantics and English majors everywhere as the supposed inspiration for Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, broods timelessly over the Yorkshire moors. Long since abandoned, the tumbledown remains of this old farmhouse are watched over by two windswept trees and a legion of lazy sheep. Just as impressive are the extensive views of the treeless hills that carry the Pennine Way further north. There the remains of Hadrian’s Wall and the airy Cheviot Hills inspire even the weariest of walkers to march on toward the finish line in the Scottish border town of Kirk Yetholm.

Planning your trip

If there’s a downside to these wide open spaces, it’s the shortage of accommodations directly on the trail itself. Unless you’re sturdy enough to carry a tent with you throughout the walk—one that totals more than 32,000 feet in elevation gain—you’ll likely end up walking more than the official 268 miles just to reach your inn or youth hostel each night.

A cottage industry of baggage transfer services has grown up around the trail to help ease that inconvenience. Tom Read and his son used Brigantes Walking Holidays & Baggage Couriers, the only company to offer door-to-door baggage transfers for the entire length of the trail. Brigantes charges £145 per person (about $290; see XE.com for current exchange rates) for baggage transfers along the full route. It will also give individual quotes for shorter stages depending on the particular route requested. For £900, the company will also reserve and purchase your daily bed and breakfast for each stage of the walk.

“At the beginning of each year we publish a list of the dates on which we will commit ourselves to starting out from Edale,” says Mike Schofield, owner and operator of Brigantes. “These are generally based on the known preferred and popular starting dates, and are from past experience. They are intended to encourage the formation of small groups of people to walk at the same time in order to make these expensive trips viable, and the system works well. As the early weeks pass, we add to these dates.”

The other major baggage transfer operator is the Sherpa Van Project, which also does door-to-door deliveries but doesn’t operate along the 75-mile southernmost portion of the trail from Edale to Malham. Sherpa will transport your baggage for about £6 per day. It will also book accommodations for you, taking a £12 commission for the service.

Both Allan and Read used the extensive Youth Hostel Network (YHA) to book accommodations along the trail. So did I. My favorite properties were Longlands Hall, a gray-stone Victorian mansion in the village of Haworth, and the hostel near Hadrian’s Wall at Once Brewed. These and the other hostels are a bargain for cash-strapped backpackers and a haven of hiker camaraderie after the long, lonely walks each day.

“We get a lot of hikers,” says Damian Parker, who operates the hostel at Once Brewed. “They’re usually doing the Hadrian’s Wall path or the Pennine Way. We see ourselves as a crossroads [between the two].”

A word of caution, however: Many of the YHA properties on the northernmost section of the trail have recently closed their doors. Don’t rely on outdated guidebooks or information when planning your trip, or risk being left out in the cold.

The Pennine Way can be walked year-round, but the baggage services aren’t generally available in the winter. The best walking weather—not withstanding the frequent midsummer drenchers—is mid-May to September. Regardless of when you travel, good waterproof gear is a must. And while on the topic of necessities: Buy the Pennine Way South and North guidebooks by Tony Hopkins, and know how to use a compass. It’s easy to get lost, and the trail can be a lonely place when the weather changes or evening sets in.

If this all seems a bit overwhelming, you don’t have to go it alone. British-based outfitter Footpath Holidays began offering guided trips covering successive sections of the Pennine Way from south to north in 2006. This year the company will run center-based trips on the south and central portions of the walk, with the final guided leg being added for 2008. The £225 price per segment does not include accommodations or meals, which must be booked separately.

“The unique appeal of our trips is that we do not move on each day but use transport to drop us at the start of the day’s walking stage and pick us up at the end and return us to base. This allows us to walk the complete route without contriving extra loops and detours to fit in with accommodation locations,” notes Ian Newman, who along with his wife Suzanne have owned and operated Footpath Holidays for the past 15 years. The company was founded by Suzanne’s parents and is in its 25th year.

Whichever option you choose—guided hiking, daily baggage transfers, or camping—the experience of walking the trail is one you’re not likely to forget. In all my years of walking, I can’t think of a single long-distance walk that offers a better glimpse of the geographic, historic, and even literary character of an entire nation. In every sense of the term, the Pennine Way will always be England’s first national trail.

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