The Pennine Way is England's toughest hike – 268 miles of pain. It's also 268 miles of glorious scenery, following the central watershed of the country all the way north to the Scottish border
“Are you really, really ready for this?” I asked myself. No, I thought. I don't think I ever will be. Then I started climbing.
The Pennine Way lets you know it's a toughie right from the start. Practically as soon as you leave Edale, the southern end of the route, you have to climb the steep steps of Jacob's Ladder, straight up the southern flank of Kinder Scout. It gets worse. I've seen the top of Kinder in a drought summer, when you could bounce on top of the peat as if you were moonwalking; and I've seen it after rain, when you could sink up to your waist in the thick black soup of the peat bogs.
Yes, the Pennine Way is one for the masochists among us. It's also one of the most rewarding walks I've ever done, in terms of the incredible variety of its scenery. Starting from just west of Sheffield, it heads up the central watershed of England, just sneaking over the border into Scotland for the last few of its total 268 miles. That's just over two weeks of walking.
Black Hill sounds tough and it's appropriately named; just featureless black exposed peat everywhere, and a single lonely-looking trig point in the middle. Since I first walked the Way, a paved footpath has been laid to counter the erosion of the path, but the hill remains bleak and, for some, depressing.
Better walking is to come. A couple of days into the walk I found myself striding along a Roman road on top of Blackstone Edge. Huge stone slabs glistened darkly under my feet, while to the west I could see the whole of Manchester spread out in the plains below. Even so it was a relief to arrive in Hebden Bridge, a little town squeezed in between the hills in a narrow valley that holds railway, road and canal so tightly together the houses have to sprawl up the slopes.
The start of the way had been on rough moorland, but as the path moves from granite on to limestone the scenery changes. In sunlight, the limestone shines white on the great curved cliffs of Malham Cove. There's tricky walking on top of a limestone pavement; huge cracks split the porous rock and you have to jump from one rock to the next.
One of the highlights of the walk is Pen-y-ghent, one of the Three Peaks of Yorkshire (the others, the long ridge of Whernside and the strange ziggurat-shaped Ingleborough, can be seen from the top of Pen-y-ghent). The Pennine Way leads up the hill's sharp nose, over rock steps and pinnacles, and then down a green slope. Huge chasms gape in the landscape where cave systems have collapsed: Hull Pot like a huge crater, Hunt Pot a menacing little slit.
The fields here are separated by dry stone walls, so the landscape looks like a green and white grid. A long trail leads towards the market town of Hawes, beyond which lie long, wild days over Great Shunner Fell and dreary moorland until the path comes to Teesdale.
The river Tees cuts across the landscape, creating a microclimate of its own. Here are waterfalls – High Force and Low Force, from the Norse word 'foss' – lush vegetation, and tiny wildflowers.But the Tees runs across, and the Pennine Way must head north again, so it leaves the valley in characteristically brutal fashion – climbing right up a waterfall at Cauldron Snout.
This is the real wilds. One farm, and then the roads give out. Miles of tramping across featureless moorland. Just as you're about to give up, suddenly High Cup Nick appears – a V-shaped slice taken out of the landscape. Basalt crags tower up on either side.At the bottom of the valley, far below, you can see a tiny sliver of silver stream; on a clear day you can see the mountains of the Lake District in the distance.
It doesn't get quite that good again, though heading along Hadrian's Wall and the dramatic landscape of the Great Whin Sill, a huge slanting ridge of basalt, it gets pretty close. The last couple of days, though, return you to the masochistic delights of the start of the walk: hard trudging, through endless stretches of dark conifer forest and over bleak hills, till at last you get to Kirk Yetholm.
It's tough. At times, it's very tough. Yet despite the wilderness landscape and the tough walking, it's never far from civilisation. You can sleep in a warm bed every night, and there's a pub nearby most evenings. But the best of all things about this walk is simply the fact that you've done it – and you know you'll never have to do it again.