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THIS IS MY TRAIL
Damian Hall
Damian Hall is an outdoor journalist who’s trekked many of the world’s famous and not-to-famous long-distance trails. He’s climbed volcanoes in South America, fallen down mountains in New Zealand and had his walking boot stolen by a hungry possum in Australia.

The Pennine Way

The Pennine Way is England’s
oldest and toughest
National Trail

start

The epic Peak District walk

along the backbone of England

The Pennine Way is 268 miles (431km) along the backbone of England, from Edale in the rugged Peak District through the glorious Yorkshire Dales and along Hadrian's Wall, to the big lonely Cheviots and the village of Kirk Yetholm in Scotland. Over 60 per cent of it is in national parks, plus the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, two large National Nature Reserves and 20 Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

The route includes England’s highest waterfall above ground, the country’s highest point outside the Lake District, the highest pub and High Cup – the greatest view in England. It’s some of the remotest, wildest and best upland walking on the island. Damian Hall does his best to stay dry in his waterproof hiking boots, and alone…

  • Trail length: 268mi
  • Climb: 37,215ft
  • Fastest known time: 65h 20m
  • link

The Rugged Peak District

England has two anonymous American girls to thank for the formation of the Pennine Way, its oldest and toughest National trail. In 1935 two female hikers wrote to England’s Daily Herald newspaper from the US asking for advice on a walking holiday. Was there anything in England, they wondered, like the Appalachian Trail? 

The short answer was no. But their enquiry piqued journalist and hill-walker Tom Stephenson’s interest. He recognized the wilds of the “lonely, entrancing” Pennines would make an excellent long-distance trail.

The hill chain rises in the rugged Peak District National Park (nowadays the world’s second most visited), in the middle of the country and goes northwards for more than 200 miles, to Scotland. This most challenging of Peak District walks is often called the backbone of England. 

The 268-mile (431km) Pennine Way, the country’s first National Trail, was finally realized 30 years later. There are now 14 more, but it’s the original, the classic, the Big One. It’s the one everyone has to walk one day. Including me. 

I’d been putting it off, always finding a reason to do a different trail. The Pennine Way has something of a reputation you see. Yes, you won’t find any bears or wolves on the trail (I can’t promise there won’t be occasional angry sheep), but as Pennines tend to be broad rather than steep, they hold you there for longer under foul weather – and they’re known for getting more than their fair share of the wet stuff. And because of the blanket peat, which holds the water, the common perception is that the Way is one big hiker-swallowing quagmire.

The sensation of water trickling down your back when you’re miles from shelter isn’t amongst my favorites. And I didn’t really want to be eaten by a bog monster all that much either. But if you’re serious about your backpacking CV, the Pennine Way has to be done. Just make sure you’ve got a decent pair of waterproof hiking boots strapped to your feet.

"England has two anonymous American girls to thank for the formation of the Pennine Way"

Lyrical landscape

My concerns were put aside on the first day on the Way as it starts like a Bond film. From idyllic Edale I was soon up on totemic Kinder Scout and feeling a giddy sense of liberation as I traced bleakly beautiful gritstone plateaus and melancholy moorlands, passing an affecting 1948 US plane wreck atop Bleaklow. 

The next few days had more moor, verdant valleys, curious rock formations, ancient paths (including Roman paving stones), mysterious standing stones, canals and the steep cobbled streets of Haworth where the Brontë sisters lived – indeed a stone shack on the moor nearby has become a pilgrimage site for fans of Wuthering Heights. 

It was good so far, but not spectacular. Then I got to Malham and the Yorkshire Dales National Park. “I won’t know for sure if Malhamdale is the finest place there is until I have died and seen heaven (assuming they let me at least have a glance),” said US author and former Dales resident Bill Bryson. “But until that days comes it will certainly do.”

The formation of the Pennine Way

Limestone splendor is everywhere: natural pavements of glacier-carved rock, giant, sheer semi-amphitheaters (Malham Cove; as seen in Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1) and apocalyptic clefts (Gordale Scar) seemingly created by a Norse god who’s just discovered their wife’s cheating on them.

From there I cross Pen-y-ghent, which looks like a beached whale, and follow old packhorse routes through the yellow, wind-tickled Yorkshire Dales to Hawes, a traditional Dales village, friendly and home to Wensleydale cheese of Wallace & Gromit fame. 

From Hawes I trudged merrily over the wind-battered whaleback behemoth of Great Shunner Fell and along the edge of dashing Swaledale. It’s hard to imagine a more welcome sight anywhere in the world after hours on a bleak moor than Tan Hill Inn.

Here I had my most memorable night on the Way, exchanging tips and tales with fellow hikers – including two (male) Americans – over ale and chips.

After the Yorkshire Dales, the Way is quieter and I would regularly go half a day or more without seeing another Wayfarer. I had miles of sometimes soggy, but almost always wild, windswept and poetically lonely moorland all to myself. I couldn’t have been happier. 

Finish

Curiously, the Way then switches south-west, but for good reason. I follow the playful River Tees and a hat-trick of waterfalls, all very different in character. Then suddenly the floor drops away, like a real-time earthquake, to reveal a terrifying chasm.

High Cup is a symmetrical, horseshoe valley of sheer whinstone cliffs and dolerite crags, gouged out by a glacier’s giant ice-cream scoop. Views sweep west into the rightfully named Eden Valley and soar on to the giant lumps of the Lake District. I can’t take my eyes off the apocalyptic cleft. To my mind it’s the most spectacular view in England. 

Mention Cross Fell and veteran Wayfarers chuckle knowingly. In good weather the highest part of the Way and officially the coldest place in the country must be spectacular.

It’s just that Cross Fell and good weather wouldn’t recognize each other in a two-person meeting wearing nametags. I get a good old soaking up there and though I don’t get lost I find a hiker who has been. We cut the wet day short by staying in Greg’s Hut, a mountainside bothy, making good use of its fireplace.

Built by Roman Emperor Hadrian along the then-border between England and Scotland to keep the pesky warmongering Scots out, World Heritage-listed Hadrian’s Wall was a masterpiece of engineering at the time. I march along it for eight memorable miles, with views to match the sense of drama. 

The last two days of the Way, in the Cheviots, are the best of the lot. Lonesome Peak District walking over the wind-swept, giant, cartoon domes with hardly a view of civilization or a soul about. 

I’m thrilled that the Pennine Way hasn’t really lived up to its reputation. Sure it’s been testing and I’ve got a few blisters, and I’m probably rather feral looking.

But I’ve only had a soaking twice, I haven’t been topographically embarrassed once and no hungry bog monster has devoured me. Better still, right in the middle of an island of 60-million-plus people I’ve had wonderful long days in wild places all to myself. 

You can’t help but wonder if those two American girls ever did get a chance to walk the Pennine Way? Even if they didn’t, I feel eternally grateful for their seed of a great idea.

"World Heritage-listed Hadrian's Wall was a masterpiece of engineering at the time"

View Pennine Way in a larger map

Plan your travel

When to go
The trail is accessible all year round, although the best time to go is mid-May to September
How to get there
Either end of the Pennine Way are easily accessible by public transport.
Visa
Visas are required and can be sourced from the
Gear
English
Length of Trip
16-19 days to hike the full length of the trail
Difficulty
Moderate. Parts of the trail are hilly and remote, so you must come prepared.
Accommodation
It's a good idea to book your accommodation in advance. Hotels, Youth Hostels, B&Bs and campsites are available en route.
Food and Drinks
You'll need to carry your own food and drink, although supplies are available at local villages.