Steep, wet, and inescapably barren, England’s 268-mile Pennine Way walking trail isn’t going to make the cover of many travel glossies. Often cold, always muddy, it’s by far 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 no more rewarding ramble in all of Europe than hiking the Pennine Way.
As the very first in England’s vast network of crisscrossing long-distance paths, the Pennine Way blazed a trail through areas of the British countryside that were long the domain of private landowners and elite hunting clubs.
It 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. It is typically hiked from south to north to keep the wind and sun (and driving rain) at your back.
‘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. The record is two-and-a-half days.
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 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 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.
Hiking the Pennine Way and Planning Your Trek
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 trekking more than the official 268 miles just by virtue of walking to 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. It will also give individual quotes for shorter stages depending on the particular route requested. For an extra charge, 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. It will also book accommodations for you, taking a 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 was Longlands Hall (also called YHA Haworth), a gray-stone Victorian mansion in the village of Haworth. Hostels are a bargain for cash-strapped backpackers and a haven of hiker camaraderie after the long, lonely walks each day.
The Pennine Way can be walked year-round, but the baggage services aren’t generally available in the winter. The best walking weather is mid-May to September. Regardless of when you travel, good waterproof gear is a must. And while on the topic of necessities: Download the official national trail leaflet 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 offers guided trips covering successive sections of the Pennine Way.
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 trail 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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Editor’s note: This story was originally published on October 24, 2008. It has been updated to reflect the most current information about hiking the Pennine Way.