A Pennine Way encounter

Pennine Way: Foggy days in Derbyshire

I’ve not long returned from a multi-day hike through the Lake District with Alex Roddie – a superb bash across 18 Wainwrights in fine weather. While we hiked, I spent a lot of time reflecting on other, bigger hikes, including the one that continues to call me back to long trails: the Pennine Way. Here’s a memory from my 2018 Pennine Way.

To the man on the A635

When we met, you teased me with a hint of the challenges that lay ahead of me. I was hiking the Pennine Way. You were stealth-planting rowan trees.

We met on day two of my sixteen-day walk. Already, the route had unleashed a sample of its casual savagery: I hadn’t enjoyed a good view or an easy step for more than twenty-four hours. On both days I had climbed from a valley floor into roiling grey cloud, and remained there while I trudged towards a perpetually invisible horizon.

My guidebook had promised me expansive views. Instead, the Pennine Way had revealed itself to me as a muffled soundscape of trickling streams and waterfalls, each only briefly relieving the monotony and silence of my lonely little circle.

I had set off early from Crowden, making a dispiriting trudge up and over Black Hill and on towards Wessenden Head. You appeared there, on the other side of the A635, emerging from a porridge-grey bank of drizzle and fog. You stopped, waved, and darted across the road, a blur of blue cagoul and good cheer.

I remember your firm handshake, your saturated walking gear, and the ancient canvas rucksack decaying on your back. Something shapeless, wrapped in a black plastic bin bag, protruded from the top of the bag. “See this bag,” you said, jerking your thumb up at the refuse sack. Raindrops trickled off the plastic in thin rivulets. “I’m doing a bit of guerrilla planting. It’s a rowan. I planted its brother and sister by the clough. No harm done, if no warden sees me.”

“The clough?” I asked.

“Dean Clough.” You stared at me. “You’ve just come over it, no?”

Wessenden Brook, a stream near the Wessenden Head Reservoir on the Pennine Way long-distance footpath in England.

I had a vague notion of my having stepped across a narrow trickle of water that ran away into a ravine whose claggy edges and unseen bottom had lurked half-hidden in the fog. I couldn’t recall seeing rowans there.

I suppose I should have asked you what compelled you to sneak through the murk, furtively planting rowans. Instead, we fell to talking about the path. “I tried the Pennine Way myself,” you said. “It was 1970, I think. Made it three days. My left leg was completely swollen.”

You laughed at my startled reaction, wished me luck and marched on. I watched as your silhouette grew indistinct, until it dissolved into the fog.

You were the first person I met on the trail, and our meeting popped into my mind often in the days ahead. I thought of the warmth with which you greeted me, as someone who knew all too well the challenges that lay ahead. I wondered how you came to feel so absorbed by the landscape—and so driven to add to it.

And I wondered, naively, how your leg came to be so swollen you were forced from the trail. This last question would answer itself with painful force. As the Pennine Way wound its way across bog, mire and heath, the terrain sometimes seemed intent on rebuking my faltering progress.

Mud—inanimate, ankle-deep, boot-sucking mud—would become an especially implacable opponent. On my way across otherwise bright green fields by East Marton, the mud sapped my energy so much I yelled obscenities at it, as if my anger could force it to offer easy passage. No such luck: to wet boots I added the fury of blushing cheeks, as a group of elderly walkers traipsed past me, politely ignoring my rant.

Pain went with the Pennine Way like red berries with rowan trees. When I reached the half-way point—a featureless stretch of peat moorland near Tan Hill—my callused feet, sore shoulders and sunburn bore witness to the toll the trail had taken on me. Only a barn owl, out hunting in the early evening, lulled me from my pained introspection, a white spectre that called me on uphill to rest.

Your own short-lived attempt on the route should have warned me what to expect. Injuries are so bound up with the Pennine Way’s bogs and fells, they might as well be marked on maps, tracing out each walker’s own landscape of infirmities.

A man reviews scenery on the Pennine Way long-distance footpath through the Cheviot Hills on the border between England and Scotland on 26 April 2018.

At times, I found myself envying the brevity of your own hike, as though your injury represented good fortune; more than once, I wished I’d had your luck—a good excuse to abandon the trail, after enduring its worst excesses. And, more than once, I pitied you as I revelled in the Pennine Way’s many glories: a fireside pint in The Stag, exhilerating rain-lashed dashes over bare fells, the huge wide views of Scotland from the Chieviots. You reminded me that long hikes strike a balance between pain and happiness, and that only when the path is entirely behind us do we really feel the deep joy of knowing we have pitted ourselves against ourselves—and won.

When I reached the end of the trail in Kirk Yetholm, kissed the Border Hotel’s stone wall and wept, you stomped back into my thoughts. You were the only would-be Pennine Wayfarer I met who had crashed out of the trail and felt able to smile about it. I wished I could have marched back to that damp road crossing to offer to guide you through it all, knowing we’d both be proud of every step we took.

For a moment, in a circle of fog, you entered my adventure, and I entered yours: quests that took us on to Scotland or downhill to plant a rowan by a peat-stained stream. In that brief span of time, you helped me to appreciate the hike’s beauty through the lens of your own wistful misadventure.

One day I will revisit the Pennine Way. Maybe I’ll bump into you then, on that same lonely Yorkshire road. But if I’m not so lucky, I promise I’ll pause by that rebellious trio of rowans, and thank you for setting the tone for a hike whose pains and joys continue to inspire me.


Keeping my promises

Every couple of weeks I’ll continue to post an update on my progress with five promises I’ve set for myself.

  • Book – oops. I’m aiming to write 60,000 words by the end of August, and have set myself a goal of writing at least 3,500 words a week to meet this goal comfortably. (This allows me a few weeks off.) In the two weeks since my last post, I wrote just 1,000 words. A couple of reasons for this: I was away for one week, and the last week has been truly unbearably stressful as the sale of my house in London teetered and then collapsed. Sadly I didn’t get much of anything done then, but now that the worst of the stress is behind me I will be picking up my effort. Through April I wrote 15,700 words in total – well ahead of my goal, although at the moment I’m only transcribing and lightly editing as I go. The real effort will come when I have had a chance to review my transcripts so that I can turn notes into a manuscript.
  • Nature photography – promise kept. I’m aiming to devote at least part of one day a week to nature photography. I managed to head outdoors often, helped by the fact that I live near a truly amazing wetland that offered rare glimpses of bar-tailed godwits. I’m proudest of a long-tailed tit I snapped dashing from tree to tree with a beakful of breakfast (below).
  • Rebalance my earnings. I’m aiming to shift my earnings towards writing and photography rather than mainly video journalism. Video journalism continues to dominate, but I have a number of writing pitches out at the moment and a few bookings that will help me shift the balance in the coming months. My failed house sale will keep me in London for a while, which will mean I continue to rely on video journalism as my breadwinner – so I don’t think I’m going to see a huge change until later in the year. Even so, I’ve already equalled my photography earnings for 2021-22, which is something to feel chuffed about. Mightily chuffed.
  • Blogging – promise kept. Another fortnight, another post. I must confess to feeling a little lazy, as the copy was from my MA in nature and travel writing – I’d like to find time to write original content for the blog.
  • Cape Wrath Trail. I’ve not spent very much time planning for this, although my time in the Lakes with Alex did offer me some serious food for thought on my kit and packing. I think I’m going to make an effort to lighten my load in September, including a switch from my trusty (and much loved) Meindl Bhutan boots – which had their first outing on the Pennine Way – to my Innov-8 Trailfly shoes, which have been gathering dust while I recover from a mild knee injury. They’re tough shoes, quick-drying and grippy, and I’ve a feeling they’re about right for the Cape Wrath Trail in September.

What I’ve been reading

I’ve had a bit of a lapse in my reading over the last couple of weeks, but:

  • I finished Hugh Warwick’s excellent Linescapes feeling amazed by all that I’ve missed when looking at linear features in landscapes over the years I’ve been hiking. The book has offered me a lot to mull over when I start writing up my South Downs Way hike, particularly on social history. A truly brilliant piece of work.
  • Last year I read Rob Cowen’s brilliant collection of pandemic poetry, The Heeding. It affected me very deeply, and encouraged me to make more of an effort with my own poetry (which invariably sits, unloved and unseen, in my notebooks). Rob very kindly spoke to my MA class recently, and described poetry as the ‘keepie-uppies’ of writing – offering us the practice and artifice we need to take into prose, while being fully joyous as its own art. I love this. And now I’m finding much to love in Rob’s influential book Common Ground, which will be keeping me engrossed for the next week or so.

 

Here’s that hungry long-tailed tit.

A long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus) with prey in the Beddington Farmlands nature reserve in Sutton, London.

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