In the world of outdoor literature, a book entitled ‘The Pennine Way: The Path, the People, the Journey’ is not at first glance, likely to set one’s pulse racing with anticipation. Its not going to make the Boardman Tasker shortlist and Tom Cruise is unlikely to purchase the film rights. And after all, books about the UK’s longest trail are not exactly thin on the ground. Apparently there have been over fifty books written about different aspects of the ‘PW’ and hundreds of articles published in various outdoor publications over the years.
So does author Andrew McCloy-experienced walker and contributor to outdoor media-have anything to new to add to the extensive PW body of work? Well an unreserved Yes would be the answer to that question.. Although like most people, I can’t say I’ve read and inwardly digested everything ever published about the 268 mile walk, and although I have to admit I haven’t had the inclination to walk it myself, I did find ‘The Pennine Way’ a pleasure to read and one of those books I looked forward to getting back to.
Unlike so many long distance trail books which simply detail ever minute aspect of the journey..’at this stage my water had long since run out and I was reduced to sucking my socks etc etc’ Andrew’s book skillfully combines his day to day peregrinations oe’r hill and down dale, with a comprehensive socio/political and cultural overview behind the Way's conception and realisation over the decades. Casting a spotlight on the appalling access situation which existed at the time. Particularly at the Way's southern extremities where the grouse stocked uplands were fiercely protected by crusty landowners and their servile goon squad of gamekeepers. A situation which of course led to the mass trespass movements of the 1930‘s and the politicisation of the great outdoors movement involving left wing organisations,political parties and feisty campaigners like Tom Stephenson, Benny Rothwell reinforced by establishment figures like Labour cabinet members,Fred Willey and Barbara Castle.
Well known as those political struggles may be (See Dave Cook’s article on the Kinder Trespass) another important aspect of the PW which is well covered here, is the environmental impact. An entirely predictable and natural consequence of thousands of walkers descending upon a fragile, upland ecosystem which is highly vulnerable to erosion. The early days of the Pennine Way saw the newly liberated rambler hoards unleashed upon peat bogs and wet moorlands which all to quickly were reduced to a peat soup. The powers that be faced a losing battle as authors like Alfred Wainwright increased usage through the publication of his popular eponymous guidebook to the trail. Incidentally, it appears that AW who never walked the Way in a single push but in bite sized chunks, didn’t actually think much of the trail and preferred his own creation, The Coast to Coast which crosses the PW in Yorkshire.
With those walking the Pennine Way at an all time high in the 70‘s and 80‘s it was ironic that this coincided with the Way’s ecological low point. Battered and bruised by over twenty years of foot fall -The Pennine Way officially opened in 1962 after decades of campaigning and planning- it became obvious that the authorities responsible for their particular section had no option but to up their game and introduce some drastic measures to save the trail. Sections were tweaked and re-directed, experiments into different types of duck boards across eroded muddy wastelands were investigated before finally, the use of re-claimed old mill flag stones were chosen as the most aesthetically pleasing, durable and ecologically acceptable way of transporting walkers across the battered bogs.
After all, the gritstone flags had generally been quarried ‘oop on’t moor’ and they were just coming home; albeit in a man made form.
Another fascinating socio/cultural aspect which is well researched and detailed herein is the growth and decline of hostels along the Pennine Way. At one stage, the walker could count on 14 YHA hostels along the trail to rest their weary head. These YHA hostels were supplemented by private hostels, farm B&B’s and the odd rough bothy or hut. As the Pennine Way approached the 21st century, the traditional hostel was becoming a thing of the past. Most were either closed down and sold off by the YHA or in some cases, demolished completely.
The decline of the hostel mirrors the decline in popularity of the Pennine Way. In its early years, most walkers were in the under 40‘s age group. This included school and scout groups led by beery cheery leaders in breeches or just a gang of mates ‘doing it for a laugh!’. These days, most people doing the PW are the middle aged... the 50/60/70 and even 80+ who have sensibly eshewed buying a 750cc motor bike and who have decided instead to 'find themselves' on a long distance trail. Of these silver surfers, three quarters are men although the author comes across a fair few women who are doing the trail on their own.
Its interesting to note that although the Pennine Way is the granddaddy of long distance trails in the UK, it is easily beaten-mile wise- by trails like the South Coast Path or the new Wales Coastal Path. As far as popularity goes, I was surprised to read just how far behind in terms of usage it was with the aforementioned Coast to Coast. Its popularity perhaps helped in no short part by Julia Bradbury’s BBC six part series and the continuing popularity of all things Wainwright. It also helps that the 190 mile coast to coast can be squeezed into a fortnight’s holiday but you’ll really need your skates on if you can do the PW in a fortnight. An example of the competing trails’ conflicting popularity can be gauged when the author stays the night at a hostel where the two long distance paths converge. The hostel's mine hostess informs the author that those doing the Coast Coast outnumber the Pennine Way walkers by twenty to one!
I recently walked a short section of The Way in the Cheviots above Kirk Yetholm-traditional end-or start- of the PW- just inside the Scottish side of the border. Although I can’t say I was inspired to one day complete the walk, I could imagine the relief and elation of those stumbling down after 260 miles of hard walking, knowing that the end was in sight. A free half pint at the Border Arms awaited those completing the trail-a similar freebie awaits those finishing at the Old Nag’s Head in Edale apparently. Like the majority of outdoor folk, I might not ever walk the Way but Andrew McCloy’s well written and comprehensively referenced book has at least planted a seed and I’m sure that will apply to other readers. A good book to me at least, is one which you are sorry to have finished and perhaps surprisingly- given that I was expecting something of a dry read- this was one of those books.
Published by and available to order from Cicerone
John Appleby: 2016