By Al Matthews
Now, before launching you, the reader, into this self-aggrandising and exaggeratory death-defying venture article, I should introduce myself. My name is Al Matthews, and the journey I refer to began one weekend when meeting a friend for a catch-up beer and ended with a naively accepted agreement on my part. Never one to shirk a challenge and always completely at the whim of suggestibility, it was a given that I would accompany Jimmy on this ambitious hike in order to follow in his father’s footsteps. What I hadn’t accounted for when initially uttering my fateful confirmation of attendance, however, was the length of the walk, the duration, and the logistics involved in a stroll of this magnitude.
Calling it just ‘a walk’ was possibly the first misdirection as it created the illusion of something far easier than what was to unfold. We were taking on the famed ‘Pennine Way’, England’s oldest official National Trail, which meanders from the Peak District of the Upper Midlands all the way to the Scottish Borders. Personally, the furthest I had ever trekked was a very well organised 55km on the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland some 4 years previous and the route I was now somehow on the cusp of was over 400km in total distance and included a collective elevation gain eclipsing that of Everest’s (albeit without the oxygen-starving altitudes). To be perfectly honest, upon learning these statistics I felt foolish, anxious and possibly a little bit sweaty without even moving. The kind of stubborn, pig-headedness that many a wild boar would follow a yellow brick road to acquire would get me through though.
Another crucial stumbling block was the planned itinerary we had set in order to honour existing arrangements; Jimmy is a teacher and therefore had a limited school holiday-shaped window whereas I had a close friend’s wedding to attend (hopefully still with pain-free coordination for dancing commitments). A vast majority of sensible mortals allow between 16-30 days at a leisurely pace to complete this slog, yet we had set out to finish it in under twelve, which by practical standards seemed demanding to say the least. Not to do a disservice to the lunatics who willingly RUN this route under the guise of ‘The Spine Race’, we were aware that our finishing time wouldn’t come remotely close to that of Jasmin Paris’ record-breaking 83-hour finish whilst expressing milk and avoiding sleep earlier in 2019. But we were middle-aged men with ever-increasing beer bellies, so finishing without jeopardising future mobility would be a victory in our eyes.
In the meantime, a fellow graduate of the aforementioned Icelandic Laugavegur Trail in 2015 and seasoned hiker otherwise known as ‘Aussie Jimbo’ had been added to our ranks and flew himself over from Sydney for the event. With us deeming him worthy of our plans and him deeming us worthy of his experience (and worthier than a job promotion in his homeland) our team had been assembled. It just so happened he had completed the even more impressive and famous Land’s End to John O’Groats route in 2018, so Jimmy and I were more than willing to put up with his never-ending positivity in exchange for morale, stories, and long-distance walking knowledge.
Myself and Jimbo had arranged to meet Jimmy at the official starting point of the walk in Edale, Derbyshire on the morning of Saturday April 6th. After a particularly boozy Friday evening in one of the most ‘local’ of pubs in England, we packed away our tents ready for the looming challenge. It was at this hazy point in time I realised I had already made an error of such idiocy that I doubted my hiking qualifications. And we hadn’t even started walking yet. The boots I had forked out a hefty sum for and spent the last few months wearing in were still in my house over 2 hours’ drive away. I swallowed my pride and called the one person I simultaneously knew I could rely on yet would never let me forget this brainfart: Dad. Luckily, as the day was bright and forecast glorious, he agreed to drop them at a point we would reach the following day and I set out in my trainers.
Day One – Edale to Wessenden (39km)
With backpacks on, fire in our bellies, and mild hangovers, we eventually set foot onto the official route. The weather was welcoming as we began our ambitiously long premiere, but the climbing was tough. Andrew, my housemate and our driver to the starting point, would accompany us and peel back round to complete a circuit, collect his car and drive home. His day should have been an easy one given that he was carrying a mere fraction of the 15-20kgs we three had strung from our shoulders, but his indulgence in the pub was taking its toll. Nevertheless, we soldiered on and completed an arduous uphill stretch through and over the beautiful Kinder Scout, a notable valley decline and another sapping climb back up to Black Hill.
All in all, day one with its steep gritstone pathways and marshy yet paved moorland included around 1.5 vertical kilometres of elevation before we found a suitable, if illegal, pitch by Wessenden Reservoir for a well-earned rest and hot food. Surprisingly, my trainers trampled over everything this tough first day’s terrain could throw under them.
Day Two – Wessenden to Colden (34km)
Rain fell throughout the night but not enough to interrupt my sleep. In fact, it came to light that my exhausted snoring had actually been much more disruptive for the team. The dew on our flat and spongy pitch soon drenched my trainers and I longed for my hikers but they were only a morning’s walk away behind a pub’s bottle bin.
Although not as lengthy as day one, we first had to cross over the M62 using Scammonden Bridge (once the longest single-span non-suspension bridge in the world and still the longest concrete arch bridge in the UK, bridge lovers!) to reach an oasis in the bleak, Lancashire moorland setting known as The White House Inn. We three were enthused to discover that Donald Trump was not in residence and tucked into hearty cooked meals.
After digesting food and a few shandies, we plodded on toward Stoodley Pike; a Crimean monument overlooking Todmorden and Hebden Bridge. Coincidentally, the sky had returned to its bluish tone as soon as we crossed back into West Yorkshire. We allowed ourselves another rest before dropping down and then climbing steeply back up the opposite side to reach Colden where we could camp, eat, and be merry!
Day Three – Colden to Gargrave (40km)
Yet another cold and dewy morning for us to pack away the tents in and with the added bonus of an early start to undertake our longest day to date. We’d strayed slightly off track for this pitch, so the first task was to navigate our way through mist-laden fields toward the official route, not particularly helped by the illegal blockages of public footpaths. Off we paced over the nothingness of yet another bleak, moorland setting with aches and pains and blisters galore before eventually settling for a stove-boiled coffee in a dilapidated farmhouse. Allegedly this place was the inspiration for Wuthering Heights – no sign of Heathcliffe the sexy ghost however.
It was at this hazy point in time I realised I had already made an error of such idiocy that I doubted my hiking qualifications.
Our impressive morning had comprised of a vertical kilometre of elevation so after a lighter lunch in Lothersdale, an easier afternoon with a decent backdrop was as close to relaxation under the circumstances as possible before eventually arriving in a blustery Gargrave. Annoyingly, the campsite was a painful 500 metre walk from the nearest pub but food, ale and questions in a quizzical format nullified that.
Day Four – Gargrave to Horton-in-Ribblesdale (34km)
Today was lined up to be yet another challenging stretch. To be frank, physically rising on a morning was challenge enough but day four was due to steal the absolute urine! Two HUGE climbs awaited us toward the end of the day and we were starting from a very low altitude.
It became apparent early on that Team Leader Jimmy was struggling with a long-standing foot injury, which threatened to sabotage his participation. Sadly, as we drew ever closer to our arranged pit stop in Malham, the wrenching decision was made and it was decided the ram’s skull he had chosen to carry was the catalyst for this tragedy.
With heavy-hearts, myself and Jimbo pushed on as time was of the essence. First came the cove with its limestone steps, next Malham tarn, a long stretch of slowly ascending greenery to the top of ‘HUGE’ Fountain’s Fell for a feed and freshen, down into the valley then all the way back up the opposing side to ‘HUGE’ Pen Y Ghent. The downward trail from here really took its toll on the legs but a quirky campsite neighbouring a pub showing live Champions League softened the blow.
Day Five – Horton-in-Ribblesdale to Hawes (21km)
The first morning without Jimmy felt strange – as a formerly six-legged beast our locomotion was impacted without that third pair – but after morning duties, we pressed on.
It had been decided in the original itinerary that a half-day was warranted and hostel beds were awaiting us in Hawes. Only a comparatively steady stroll mainly up and along a continuous rolling ridge with a gradual descent stood between us and our target town. The home of Wensleydale cheese’s creamery is here; that’s right – cheese is made in Hawes (not a phrase to read out randomly and in the wrong company). We made excellent time after a very casual start and arrived in time to de-sweatify our clothes and bodies, air out tents and sleeping bags, and consider our onward itinerary for the following day since Jimmy was no longer the pathfinder extraordinaire.
Day Six – Hawes to Baldersdale (43km)
Well rested after a productively lazy day and whilst sipping on morning coffees, Jimbo revealed an incentive to quicken our already swift pace; a televised match of our beloved Leeds United in Alston but a mere 120km away. The objective was to be there in under three full days, which obviously was considered more genius than madness in our collective mind so we started ‘marching on together’ immediately.
A slow climb took us over yet ‘moor’ heather-ridden tops, and a little push further landed us in Keld for a bacon bap and coffee around midday. Another uphill slog from here and we made it to England’s highest pub, The Tan Hill Inn for a shandy. We knew we still had to make a dent in the challenge so we forced ourselves on for a further 18km, passing the overall halfway mark, and eyeing up a reservoir on the map as a place to pitch at for the night. However, as we drew nearer, we spied a farm building and decided to chance a cheeky knock to see if we could camp in a field. We were refused. But only because we got an unexpected upgrade to the not-yet-complete bunk barn that had actual electricity, running water, a kitchen and a roof. No sooner had we started cooking food we’d expected to be struggling with on a stove when Paul knocked on the door with a couple of cold bottles of Italian lager for us. What a bloody legend! Anybody who tells you not to trust strangers hasn’t lived.
All in all, we smashed some serious distance, had good fortune, and barely a break in the blue sky neither! Our form was stellar and the weather made that possible. Anyone brave enough to have looked at our feet would likely have turned to stone though.
Day Seven – Baldersdale to Dufton (42km)
Waking up in unexpected luxury, we had targeted no real midway point. However, we did spy the opportunity for a full English brunch in Middleton-in-Teesdale after 10km and before the 32km slog upriver. Not particularly stressed by this undertaking, we set off and plodded like Victorian policemen toward Dufton. What we weren’t aware of were the natural spectacles that likely determined the counter-intuitive direction away from the finish line.
Evidently, the river Tees is littered with substantial waterfalls and this stretch also played host to another spectacle toward the end of our daily stride. First up was Low Force falls, a few other unnamed efforts followed then by High Force; the largest in England. This would ordinarily be enough to satiate even the most dehydrated of eyes but, at a predetermined point for cooking a snack, we encountered the mightily impressive Cauldron Snout falls. After refuelling and realising we were only 12km from Dufton campsite, we hot-footed it and played football trivia games to kill time and distract our pain. Rounding a corner before our final descent, we officially had our minds blown by sheer awe; our hike up to High Cup Gill was rewarded by pure splendour indeed! A rugged and dramatic narrow valley we imagined was once upon a time also a magnificent waterfall opened up before us. I doubt any photo will ever do this place justice so I strongly suggest a visit if you ever find yourself in the area.
On the final downward trajectory, we crossed paths with a herd of wild-looking horses that seemed to urge us on as persuasively as gravity itself. They must’ve known we were craving cider and that the pub down below sold it in abundance.
Day Eight – Dufton to Alston (32km)
Climbing out of Dufton started leisurely with a slow and gradual pull. Even when faced with the first steep ascent of the day we were confident and cocky. Then, as we rose up, the frosty wind struck us head on. The trick was to just keep going forward but Knock Old Man, Great Dun Fell, Little Dun Well, and Cross Fell – the highest peak in England outside the Lake District – had other ideas. To our credit we barely stopped and had a hut earmarked on the map as a place of refuge once we’d completed these summits. The wind intensified as we climbed and never has my concentration been so tested by an invisible force. Staggering into its relentlessness came more easily than thoughts, even as we began our descent. Frustration built up within me as I struggled to comprehend the power.
Greg’s Hut eventually offered us temporary sanctuary as we struggled to heat water with frozen fingers for a coffee. A moment of reflection away from the weather ghost who’d haunted us for the last 8km or so was welcomed but we still had a way to go before we had fully escaped Heathcliffe’s wrath.
A small village called Garrigill awaited us at river level where we had planned to stop for something, anything, to eat. But alas the pub was closed, the promised café nonexistent and the shop partaking in a Cumbrian siesta. After a short break and some provisions, we closed in on our hostel by following the River Tyne. A victory jig may or may not have been half-heartedly performed regardless of reception being closed when we arrived.
However, a final sting in the tail was yet to come; the only pub with Sky Sports was playing the Man Utd game instead of Leeds! We necked our pints and streamed the match on my phone in a corridor of the hostel. Regardless of the tiny screen, our marathon-esque efforts were rewarded with a Mighty Whites victory. Marching on together indeed!
Day Nine – Alston to Greenhead (29km)
Who would’ve thought lancing blood blisters under toenails would be such a pleasant morning activity? A tad unglamorous maybe but highly recommended in times such as these. With pressure relieved and my knee iced, our ‘relaxed’ Sunday couldn’t start soon enough… except the stretch we were due to walk hadn’t got the memo.
It was an easy start but soon became an uneasy, boggy wade. Forgetting the uphill struggle of yesterday, this day had already out-irritated its neighbour by a large margin. And to further hinder morale, there was very little of interest by way of landscape on this ‘link day’.
When we finally arrived in Greenhead and after a wrong turn, salt was added to the wounds; the campsite mentioned in guidebooks and by fellow hikers had apparently laid barren for EIGHT years! Annoyed, we stomped down the road and prepared our wallets for an expensive night in a hotel/hostel instead of camping when a mechanic who may as well have been wearing a halo informed us we could camp for free in the churchyard. After pitching up, we bumped into a familiar face from previous section of the walk in the pub who let us use his hotel room to shower. What was gearing up to be an absolute helmet of a day turned out pretty damn well and another stage had officially bitten the dust!
Who would’ve thought lancing blood blisters under toenails would be such a pleasant activity?
Day Ten – Greenhead to Bellingham (34km)
I’m not sure if our appearances warranted the generosity of charity but we weren’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. First the free camping and the use of the classy shower last night then the pub opening especially to serve free coffee and offer us toilet facilities today, before we set off along Hadrian’s Wall and beyond. People up here really take care of folk.
On we went with aches and pains finally surpassing our combined blister situations. We’d already been warned about the undulating landscape on which the Roman defences were built across the northern neck of England’s countryside too. No sooner were we up top than we were guided back down yet again to repeat the process. Luckily, the ever-changing scenery and the views from the peaks were worth the ascents. We even passed a celebrity tree made famous by Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves but it refused to sign an autograph like some sort of diva.
At the point of the walk where we could breach and delve beyond the wall like intrepid members of the Night’s Watch, we made some grub for the remaining 16km. Although today, threatened a monotonous ending, we were treated to a spell of evergreen woodland, which – after the stark, open and barren moors – actually caused some uplift in spirit. It’s strange how the little things like a shortish walk through a forest can increase the springiness of one’s step.
Emerging from the tree line, we were faced with more boggy expanse but ploughed on nonetheless until reaching an extended farmland route. A farmer who hiked and biked was chatted to, a lamb with its head trapped between a partially opened gate and post was rescued, and a few bridges were crossed en route to Bellingham. Then more bad luck struck – the campsite was closed as it was a field used during lambing season! Fortunately, the YHA bunkhouse had available beds and we justified paying for one last night of comfort after the previous free pitch and knowing what awaited us the following night.
Day Eleven – Bellingham to Yearning Saddle aka ‘Somewhere near Scotland’ (37km)
Another somewhat luxurious start to the day involved a lie in, coffee and nonchalance only matched by our attitudes toward pub grub expenses. We knew we had some distance to cover on weary legs but were confident in our motivation to finish where needed.
We’d already mentally broken the day into thirds for morale purposes with the first involving a steady ascent out of the village, over pastures and moorland, and to the cusp of a forestry commission plantation.
The second was almost completely within this aforementioned unnatural forest but was a welcome change of scenery. A few birds of prey and even a nocturnally-challenged owl were sighted. At a riverside campsite, Jimbo set up the stove to make some grub while I blagged a coffee from the owner by making a donation to the Northumbrian air ambulance – YOU NEVER KNOW!
The third section through The Cheviot Hills was a rival to the unforgettable winds of Cross Fell for the worst weather we’d experienced; incessant, unforgiving and truly maddening. And we knew the mountain refuge hut we were aiming for wasn’t going to offer much in the way of heat or comfort. Regardless, upon arrival we carefully used our limited gas to fabricate a warming feast and even used the pasta water to make hot chocolate afterwards just because. The wind howled all night like a wronged banshee but – safe in this well-built shed – we hunkered down for the night and awaited our final surge towards the finish line in Kirk Yetholm where a free pint and eternal glory awaited us.
Day Twelve – Yearning Saddle to Kirk ‘The End’ Yetholm (26km)
The soundtrack for the evening was ‘Gale Force’ provided by The Cheviot Symphony Orchestra and lasted throughout the full duration of our stay. You could say I was blown away by the performance as at some point during the night I rolled off the narrow wooden bench and ended up on the floor. Other than that, it was surprisingly cosy.
I came to at 6am and Jimbo begrudgingly gained consciousness half an hour later after much coercion. We checked out and earmarked the next refuge hut as a refreshment point 15km away. We realised upon arrival that this hotel boasted far superior views to Yearning Saddle. Nevertheless, it served well as a way to break up the home straight. We were under the impression that the last push was mainly downhill but a few final sheer climbs including The Cheviot and yet ‘moor’ moorland and pasture lay ahead before the descent into Kirk Yetholm village. We strode toward the pub and immediately took our shoes and socks off in celebration before ordering our pint-sized liquid rewards. My brother and dad had driven up to serve as our open top bus for the unattended victory parade in exchange for some grub. The journey was complete! We were relieved and understandably proud of our achievements, but before our egos transformed us into monsters, we rang the man who had originally formed the plan to pay our respects and express sadness that he wasn’t with us at the end, Sir Jimmy.
As a summery summary, we were blessed with dry weather throughout the duration of our twelve-day pilgrimage. Other than some slight rainfall on our first night of camping and some pretty extreme winds, our only gripe was a lack of cloud during the day causing the temperatures to plummet at night. It’s hard to predict the effect adverse conditions could have had on the outcome but we felt prepared enough for anything the Pennine Way threw in our direction. When planning a walk of this magnitude it seems only logical to cover yourself, both figuratively and literally, but in hindsight I now know that it would’ve been worth carrying a whole lot less than we did. Lightweight and reliable equipment is markedly expensive but undoubtedly beneficial if you didn’t serve as a pack donkey in a previous life, as I assume we both did.
My final piece of advice for anyone else considering pushing themselves to their physical limits relates to the way in which you approach it mentally; we found that in order to manage what can at times seem overwhelming, the best tactic to adopt is creating what we called ‘chapters’. These can be applied to the overall distance but are just as vital within each individual day as a way of maintaining focus, drive and morale. The principle is as simple as choosing a location in which you can treat yourself to a hot drink or snack – viewpoints or landmarks are great for this – and a short break before resetting the target for further down the road. Breaking that down further still – and possibly sounding pretentiously philosophical – remember that every individual footstep brings you closer to your goal.