I think it was Rob Turnbull (Outside Store Manager) who, when I explained my intention of walking the Pennine Way a second time, questioned that it might be a bit monotonous. He was wrong. The landscape, wildlife, culture, weather, the sheer physical challenge of it and, of course, the other eccentric characters that you meet along the way make it a delightful and varied excursion and well worth doing.
As is widely known, The Pennine Way runs 267 miles from Edale, which is just around the corner from the Outside shop in the Peak District, north through the Yorkshire Dales and the Northumberland National Park, ending at Kirk Yetholm just inside the Scottish border. Although not the United Kingdom's longest National Trail (this distinction belongs to the 630-mile long South West Coast Path), it is one of Britain's best known walks. The toughest is probably the relatively new 470 mile Scottish National Trail developed by another ex-outdoor journalist Cameron McNeish which also begins in Kirk Yetholm but runs north all the way to Cape Wrath, a variation of which we completed last summer.
Contrary to my usual purist views on things, I do however favour doing these walks in chunks, in order to be able to fully enjoy each day, rather than one long haul.
In recent times the Pennine Way has fallen from fashion, we only met about half a dozen people who were doing the whole thing. I think the reason is that for many it is too long and tough and requires a full range of mountain skills, clothing and equipment along the way. The Coast to Coast is far easier, shorter and most people have their luggage carried by taxi to the end point each day, or cheat as I prefer to call it!
It was back in the summer of 2008 that my wife Janet and I completed our first Pennine Way, the flush of success I have to admit only being marred slightly for me by catching viral meningitis on the train home at the end. At the time of writing I have not repeated that part of the adventure this time.
At the beginning of April this year Janet and another friend, also called Janet, and I completed the 100+ mile chunk of the Pennine Way from Dufton near Appleby in Cumbria to the finishing line at Kirk Yetholm in Scotland. Here’s a taster of the first day…
The 21 mile first day climbs Great Dun Fell and Cross Fell, at 2930 ft, the highest point in the Pennines. We were in snow, wind and cloud from the start and using traditional map and compass micro navigation techniques, plus the brilliant little free app OS Locate which tells you your grid reference wherever you are. For me this is the eleventh item to add to the traditional 10 essential bits of kit for hillwalking.
At the summit of Great Dun Fell, there is a radar station that is operated by NATS and is a key part of the Air Traffic Control system for Northern England and Southern Scotland. It is housed in an enormous white golf ball like structure usually visible from the M6 motorway many miles away. In the cloud, leaning on the perimeter fence we couldn’t see it 10 metres away.
It is not the place for the ill prepared, later in our trip we met a solo walker who got so lost he had to stop, put his tent up and call the Mountain Rescue Team to escort him off.
Below the summit there are the remains of “hushing” gullies on the slopes of the mountain, created during lead mining in the industrial revolution. It’s a good idea to stick to the path if you can find it under the snow, as the area is littered with mining related pot holes and machinery as well. Linked to this is the very handy Greg’s Hut bothy, disappointingly he was apparently a former lead miner rather that a high street baker, but it is a much better place for lunch anyway, provided you’ve brought your own.
A very long snowy trail leads down to the village of Garrigill where we met a very friendly elderly life-long local resident who was off to play snooker. Garrigill is no more than a cluster of houses but apparently it has the only snooker tables between there and Carlisle and on match night years ago used to have up to 90 local members playing. The school and the pub are now gone and we missed the still operating post office /café opening by 10 minutes. Our new friend waved us on our way with a chuckle and the advice to follow the river as its all downhill.
We did, and 5 miles further north reached the beautiful town of Alston. It looks as if it has been locked in a time warp of the 1950s. The Youth Hostel (you don’t have to be a youth to join) is surrounded by woods and you can sit at a bay window and watch a large family of endangered red squirrels feeding, playing and generally looking cute. Much as most of Britain would have been in the 1950s, before the imported grey squirrels passed on a virus that nearly wiped then out, I imagine.
The pubs all have cheery log fires and serve a variety of local ales and superb food. What is there not to like about that?
Monotonous I don’t think so and that was just the first 20 or so miles.
The idea came from an introduction, written by Ed Douglas, to a sea kayaking guidebook; where he made reference to using a combination of rivers and canals to paddle across the country from coast to coast. Imaginations were captured and a plan was hatched, or rather a date was set aside in the diary.
Heavy rain, strong winds and a broken vehicle delayed our projected start, but also gave me the necessary time to calm my sense of being totally unprepared for the challenge ahead. From Steve’s home in Llandudno Junction we rationalised kit, sorted food and checked equipment. Phone calls to the Port Authority and Coastguard reassured us that the ferry and other commercial shipping would not be a problem and that the low-water start would help with favourable tidal currents.
I have never been to Liverpool before so the first view I had of the famous waterfront was from the middle of the River Mersey as we paddled past the port. Beyond the John Lennon Airport and Hale Lighthouse we ran aground on sands, with no way through to deeper channels. Here we walked the kayaks with the assistance of a rising tide and were soon back afloat.
Just after the Runcorn Bridge we left the Mersey via muddy banks at Wigg Island to be met by Steve Foxley, with much needed coffee. A 400m portage over the Manchester Ship Canal to join the Bridgewater Canal was the first test for our trolleys. These were to become absolutely crucial in the days ahead as we encountered more and more obstacles.
With head torches packed in the least accessible places, darkness soon overtook us as we escaped the built up area to beyond Norton Priory. As the sleet started we found a convenient bridge that we could camp under. Morning dawned with snow and a reluctance to get up. However, the re-emergence of Steve F. on his bike and the promise of more coffee spurred us back into action. After Steve left us it proved to be a drizzly cold day through the Cheshire countryside. With the success of our first night’s bridge camp we aimed to reach the M63 between Sale and Stretford. The campsite we found lay between the railway and canal under the massive concrete motorway overpass. It was clearly not as quiet or scenic but proved to be a secure refuge from various night time drive-bys and drunken revelry.
The challenge of Manchester now lay ahead. From Castleford Basin a series of nine locks leads through an amazing subterranean world under Deansgate Shopping Centre and Piccadilly Station. Admittedly the detritus and smells were not pleasant but there was no threat in this daytime passage. It was also a very surreal experience carting our kayaks along Canal Street and crossing roads between cars and remarkably indifferent people. In fact, the friendliest and most interested people were a group of youngsters who looked like they might have succumbed to a drug or drink habit. “Eh lads, you won’t believe what these two guys are doing. They’re going all the way to Hull!” (six expletives beginning with ‘f’ have been deleted for clarity). He was so impressed that he gave us two completed loyalty cards for free coffee at McDonald’s – in the circumstances it was a very touching gesture.
This is not a kayak-friendly journey as lock followed lock with back breaking lifts and carries - quite often the trolleys were useless going over the ancient large cobble stones. With just over 11 miles covered in a full day of effort I was mightily relieved when Steve spotted a grassy campsite by a factory at Middleton. The Canada geese moved on and we spent our first quiet night in the open and on a soft surface.
The next day followed a similar pattern as we continued towards the Pennine watershed at Summit. However, it was enlivened by a visit from Jane. Her appearance at Rochdale was the motivational boost we needed. Fruit juice, coffee and water restored a degree of hydration before the final ascent to the highest point of the Rochdale Canal. Warland Lock was our chosen and most appropriate campsite, because it was Mother’s Day and Warland is my mother’s maiden name. (Yes, of course I phoned her from there!)
It was a cold night. Water bottles froze and we started the day energetically trolleying the kayaks along the towpath to warm up. Theoretically it was now all downhill to the Humber but metaphorically it was anything but. On the outskirts of Todmorden the reality of the December floods became apparent. A fence now blocked further progress but we just about weaved our way around the barricades, moving in and out of the water as necessary.
It must have been a frightening sight as the River Calder and Rochdale Canal broke their banks and flooded the valley towns. Sections of the canal are now drained and undergoing multi-million pound repair works. At least two bridges were in a state of collapse. Perhaps we should not have ignored the closure signs and paddled under them but the diverted alternatives were even less attractive.
At Sowerby Bridge we finally came to the end of the Rochdale Canal and portaged across the High Street to join the Calder and Hebble Navigation. We camped soon after the Salterhebble flight of three locks near Halifax.
Day six was a special day – Steve’s 50th! What a way to spend your birthday. Our onward journey varied between the relatively fast flowing River Calder sections and the slower canal sections that by-passed unnavigable weirs. The amount of flood debris was astonishing – mainly plastic bags and bottles entangled high up in the riverbank vegetation and huge bits of wood floating downstream.
We passed through various flood gates (locks that are usually open but can be closed to protect the canal system when water levels are high), Elland, Brighouse, Mirfield, Dewsbury and the M1 until we arrived at Wakefield and the Thornes Flood Lock. This one however was closed and signalled a warning. Fortunately, we were able to get off the river at a steep bank with some fisherman’s steps and set up camp by the flood lock. A call to the Canal and River Trust confirmed our fears. Heavy overnight rain was expected and the following three flood gates had also been closed. With a rising river and submerged landing pontoons it was just not safe to continue if the forecast was correct. With the pounding of rain on the tent during the night we did not really need to check the river in the morning to know that we were going nowhere that day.
Time was now getting extremely tight because I was committed to getting home for an event on Saturday. Given the current state of progress our finish point was clearly a bridge too far and Jane was consulted on a plan to pick me up before the end. She was having none of it however, and insisted that we finish regardless. This was all we needed to commit to a big day and paddle through the night if necessary. An incredibly helpful lady from the Leeds office of the Canal and River Trust also confirmed that although the flood gates would remain closed it would still be possible to proceed because the landing pontoons were now usable again.
The enforced day of rest did us a power of good. The river had duly subsided and over a long day thirty miles were completed. We had already seen several kingfishers and as dusk approached we were graced with the presence of both a barn owl and a tawny owl - halcyon days indeed. Our campsite under the M18 was spacious, dry and put us within striking distance of Goole. We were back on track.
We initially thought that the thick mist in the morning would yet again impede us. However, the Port Authorities quickly assured us that it would work in our favour because all shipping movement had been cancelled and that we had the River Ouse and Humber to ourselves. A 6.30am start ensured that we arrived at Goole at high water ready to transfer to the adjacent Dutch River that flows into the River Ouse. Calm foggy conditions meant there was no horizon and limited visibility but we confidently paddled with increasing speed in the ebbing tide. Occasionally the fog lifted to reveal a beautiful day and there far ahead was the elegant, impossibly long, Humber Suspension Bridge.
Jane was there to meet two unkempt, unshaven and probably smelly kayakers. 54 miles in the last two days and the end of a grand adventure. Well not quite the end, because we now drove back across the country via the M62 and M56 to Helsby Services where we were re-united with John and Steve F. for a celebratory coffee. A couple of hours later we were back in Matlock and I was taking the essential bath.
Within 24 hours we were at the Buxton Dome for the annual Chatsworth Staff Dinner, hosted by the Duke & Duchess of Devonshire. A scabby paddler was transformed into a dinner jacket & bow tie wearing party-goer. From the sublime to the ridiculous, how wonderful life can be.
If you are thinking of tackling this or any similar challenge I have one piece of advice to offer. Choose your paddling partner carefully i.e. someone who:
Although this was an unsupported journey it could not have happened without the help of the following:
What a weird winter we are having! As usual the papers predicted the coldest winter ever and then Scotland had just about the warmest December on record. With the New Year the cold and the snow finally arrived. The top boys were having a field day on the hard mixed routes, such as shop favourite Ian Parnell with his impressive ascent of The Needle (VIII 8) but the big gullies have been powdery nightmares. With a couple of days off I stole my winter rope gun from his job and headed north.
With so much fresh snow it was hard to choose a safe climb. We decided the technical routes on the Douglas boulder, a short walk from the CIC but on the Ben would be ideal. We were right. Luck was on our side from the start; as we began our walk a van pulled through the gate with the fabled key to the top car park. We negotiated (begged) a lift with Hannah from West Coast Mountaineering and chatted about friends we had in common.
The casual walk to the CIC confirmed our guess; the big gullies looked hard work and scary with all the snow. We headed for Cutlass VI 7 and a stunning looking crux corner pitch. I geared up quickly and set off, ensuring my trusty partner/hero Rich Howells got the crux. He pulled over the first overhang on good hooks and the rest of the pitch was involving, technical yet steady. Good gear when he cleared the snow out, small edges for feet, good hooks and even bomber turf to get onto the belay ledge - mega. I followed with frozen hands and Rich purposely kicking snow on me to make it feel “proper”!
Looking up at my pitch I was shocked by how hard it seemed up the steep chimney. A perfect crack on the right wall allowed hooks, great gear and footholds for my monos. It wasn’t nearly as hard as it looked; but it was just as awesome. A few more pitches of easy mixed took us to the summit of the Douglas boulder and an ab back into the descent gully. There followed an easy walk back to the hut and down to the top car park, where our new friends drove us back to the van just after 3pm. Maybe the most chilled day I've ever had on the Ben. Type one fun!
On the walk down we planned the next day. We noticed someone had broken trail all the way to number 3 gully during the day, so this lead us to think about trying Gargoyle Wall, a classic I've fancied for ages. It was due to be a nice day again but with a light dusting of snow in the morning. With alarms set early we woke and started the long slog.
The dusting arrived. It didn't stop. This was no dusting and before we even reached the CIC hut it was building above our ankles. On top of the deep snow that was already there we decided it would not be safe up high. Sadly we turned and headed down. Later, we saw the reports and sad news on the BBC over the next few days and we were thankful for our safe, if disappointing decision.
I was determined to rescue the day but as it was too late for climbing we decided to take a wintery walk in the Bridge of Orcy and headed up Beinn An Dothaidh. By now the sun was out and it was beautiful however the depth of snow was clear and we chose a safe but tiring route to the summit up the ridge from the col. It wasn't climbing but it was still a great day out. Once again we were down early and back in Sheffield before 10pm.
I feel pleased with our choices even if it was only one day of climbing. As I always say, “I’m too much of a wuss not to be safe in winter.”
Here are my top tips for fun but safe days in Scotland:
Thanks to a bit of peer pressure we managed to muster a team of 10 staff and friends to do our annual 21 mile Nine Edges run. With an awful forecast of mist and rain we finished work at 17:30 and got lifts down to Fairholmes at Ladybower, allowing us to start running up into the clag at 18:00.
Once up on the first edge (Derwent) we realised that it was going to be slow going. You could only see 3-4 metres at times, and due to the amount of rain we have had it was very muddy. Thanks to our friends Wingy and Janet we had some support along the way to ease the pain. And thanks to John at Lyon Outdoor for his company and for the loan of the very necessary Petzl Nao and Tikka RXP headtorches.
Our first checkpoint was at the A57 just before heading up towards Stanage End, where we fuelled up on Jelly Babies and water. The next section was slow going. Rain, very thick mist and mud resulted in us slipping and sliding along Stanage Edge to our next checkpoint, Burbage North.
Several edges later we eventually arrived at the finish line, The Robin Hood pub at Birchen. The pub was closed by this point but we're no fools; we had some beers prepared for just this situation. It took us 5 hours which is a bit longer than usual but despite the conditions it wasn't a bad effort. Not exactly what you would call fun, but definitely type 2 fun!
I live in Matlock and surely it must be the outdoor capital of Central England. Many gritstone and limestone climbing sites are located within a couple of miles, including Pic Tor, High Tor, Wildcat, Willersley, Black Rock & Masson Lees. There is even an indoor climbing wall in Wirksworth - The Face at Anthony Gell School.
For walkers, the 55-mile Derwent Valley Heritage Way passes through town, and there is a link to the 45-mile Limestone Way. Kayakers and play-boaters can have fun on the River Derwent slalom course in Matlock Bath, and not far away, windsurfers and sailors can get their fix at Carsington Water. Cyclists are also well-provided for with a choice of traffic-free trails on the Cromford Canal, High Peak Trail and around Carsington Water.
Unseen below, an amazing network of caves and mines are accessible to those who dare. In many cases natural caves have been enlarged and extended by mining operations during the 19th century and before.
I don’t need to tell anyone what a spoiler the rain has been recently for climbing and walking so we decided that caving was possibly the driest alternative. So yes, I have gone over to the dark side and ventured underground.
Compared to hardened cavers our trips have no doubt been a little tame but we are gradually re-learning the art of SRT (single rope technique) and upping the excitement factor.
Trips to Jug Holes, Devonshire Cavern, Cumberland Cavern and Wapping Mine were followed by Water Icicle Close Cavern, Knotlow Cavern & Wharf Pipe Mine.
All these trips can be comfortably done after work allowing plenty of time to get back to Wetherspoon’s in Matlock for a mixed grill & pint. (Other pubs and bargain meals are available!)
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