The Pennine Way I: Edale to High Gate

Trip Start Apr 01, 2010
Trip End Jul 31, 2010

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Flag of United Kingdom  , England,
Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Pennines are the spine of Britain, a range of hills running down from the Scottish Borders to the English Midlands. Their name, apparently, means nothing at all. It was invented by a crooked English cartographer who produced and enthusiastically marketed an influential "Roman" map of Britain. For the hills in mid to north England, he simply dropped a letter from the (actual Italian) Apennine range to create a plausibly Latin-sounding name. This escaped notice until after the forger's death, by which time the name was already being used widely enough to stick.

The Pennine Way, a walking route running 270 miles through the Pennines, was conceived in the 1930s, inspired by America's Appalachian Trail, though of course parts of it are much older (Roman roads, mining tracks, walled "green lanes" used by drovers bringing sheep south). The 1930s saw a wave of activism by working- and middle-class Brits for the freedom to walk around privately owned bits of the countryside, including some famous "mass trespasses" in the Peak District. The results included not only (by the 1960s) the Pennine Way, but the enshrining of an expansive "right to roam," one of Britain's greatest charms. Our trip would be unimaginably different without the footpath network and tracts of open land that the access rights movement enabled.

So much for the history. Today, the Pennine Way is renowned not only for being Britain's first long-distance footpath, but for being a boggy, stormy, filthy, utterly exhausting endurance test. Take a great swamp of black mud, tilt it to thirty degrees (a fair description of most British mountains) and run a few back-to-back marathons on it in a driving rainstorm - that, according to the guidebooks and travelers' tales, is roughly what you can expect from your Pennine Way experience.

Thankfully, it hasn't turned out that way. For one thing, many of the most infamous Pennine Way bogs now have a nice flagstone path, to keep hikers from destroying acres of delicate peat ecosystems as they search vainly for a route across not involving hip-deep muck. For another, the stereotypical Pennine weather (fog, rain, gale, repeat) held off nicely for our first week on the trail.

We met Fi's parents at Edale on 1 June and walked from Kinder Scout to Snake Pass with her dad. There was fitful rain through the early afternoon, but never to really unpleasant levels, and we enjoyed great misty views down to the valleys in the west. Kinder Scout, the high peat moorland where some of those 1930s trespasses took place, benefited enormously from the flagstone paths; I could easily imagine how past hikers would have given up in disgust after spending the best part of the first day filling their boots with the black, clinging remains of 7000 year-old sedge grass and sphagnum moss.

The next day dawned bright and hot - sunburn weather. This would have been great except it was our one day of carrying full packs (we're otherwise making use of various "SherpaVan" services to send our packs from campsite to campsite - a Pennine Way treat). It was also a day with an unexpected number of steep ups and downs. By the time we tumbled in to the Carriage Inn at Standedge, we were wiped out.

3 June was our second day of walking in the heat; so far we've had more days of excessively hot weather than excessively rainy weather, which for Britain is pretty amazing.  After a particularly steep and sweaty climb at Hebden Bridge, we were delighted to come across a sheltered swimming hole in the Hebble stream.  Ignoring a couple of other walkers who were having a snog nearby (and grew pointedly more passionate when they saw us arrive), Joel stripped down to his shorts and jumped in.

Soon afterward we reached our accommodation for the night: Highgate Farm: a working farm that allows Pennine Way walkers to camp in a field for free. We were expecting basic facilities, just a toilet and cold water. We arrived to find the best stocked rural shop and most warmly welcoming accommodation since we left Land's End, 450 miles ago. There were fresh cakes and pastries baked by villagers, a wide selection of beers and wine, good old fashioned milk bottles, genuinely amusing Pennine Way postcards, and a way better than usual selection of the kind things you'd hope to get in a village shop. Barely 5 minutes went by without a new customer coming in, all the locals known by name, everyone stopping for a little chat. Various youngsters excitedly came in to see what they could get with their pocket money from a selection of sweet jars, ice pops and kids magazines. Round one we bought cold drinks. Round two, fresh vegetables and beef cut from the bone - a delightful change from tinned food. Round three, locally made honeycomb icecream. We collected delicious water fresh from the spring that bubbled into a stone basin in the courtyard. May, the shop owner, brought us out two buckets of hot water to wash with, took our laundry to wash in her machine, and dried it overnight on her range. All without any fee, as a service to Pennine Way walkers. "We've always done it," May says. With the stunning views of the stone wall and sheep dotted landscape, and the incredible hospitality, Highgate Farm has been by far our favourite place to stay so far.
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