In 1938, a young Alfred Wainwright devised his Pennine Journey, a sprawling tour through the Yorkshire Dales and the North Pennines to Hadrian’s Wall and back. Today, a glorious waymarked 398km/247-mile trail follows in his footsteps.
Words by Matthew Jones, Photos by Ellie Clewlow
A great escape
Walking has always been associated with freedom. Long-distance walking, in particular, is a chance to escape your regular everyday routine, at least for a week or two. As legendary wanderer Alfred Wainwright put it, ‘The most subtle of the pleasures of a walking tour is the complete change of habit and thought, as well as surroundings. You shed the old life and live another.’
Such was the thinking behind AW’s own long walk – the Pennine Journey, which he devised back in 1938, aged 31. In late September of that year, he ‘walked alone from Settle in Ribblesdale to the Roman Wall along the eastern flank of the Pennines, returning down the west side’. This giant loop traversed delightful river valleys, high fells and tracts of moorland en route to Hadrian’s Wall. He saw authentic rural life in four counties: Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland and Westmorland.
His memories of that ‘great escape’ subsequently became a book, though the manuscript remained largely unseen for nearly half a century. It wasn’t published until 1986, by which time he had become not just a noted guidebook author, but also a bona fide TV celebrity. This long-forgotten curiosity – ultimately published as A Pennine Journey: The Story of a Long Walk in 1938 – was just the thing to satisfy his legions of fans.
It’s a charming and quirky travelogue, at odds with the popular perception of AW. Today, we’re used to viewing him as a bit of a curmudgeon. But the young Wainwright has an eye for the ladies as well as landscapes, and he’s even prone to the odd fantasy. He fairly fizzes with enthusiasm, at least on the way to Hadrian’s Wall. On the homeward leg, he starts to look back a little regretfully. Basically, he gets the end-of-holiday blues. But all in all, it remains a beguiling portrait of the author, as well as a wonderful advert for taking on the walk itself.
Taking a break at Semer Water
The journey understandably captured the imaginations of David and Heather Pitt. They’re the husband-and-wife duo who are largely responsible for the route of the Pennine Journey as it appears on the ground today. David explains: ‘We were firm AW admirers and experienced long-distance walkers. After I retired, Heather and I were debating what was to be our next walk. AW’s A Pennine Journey came to mind, so we read it and started to plan it that winter [1991-2]. It is unashamedly based on AW’s walk and we devised a route that would take us to as many of the places that AW mentioned in his book as possible, though using public rights of way rather than the roads he walked in 1938. It’s possibly the route that AW might have chosen if he was planning it today.’
Thus, the modern Pennine Journey was born, but it wasn’t until 2005, with the help of the Wainwright Society, that their route was revised into a 398km/247-mile circular walk, split into 18 daily stages. Society members were recruited to ‘test-walk’ each stage and provide route descriptions. Two further members contributed their talents in other ways, when Colin Bywater offered to provide black-and-white sketches and Ron Scholes offered to draw detailed scale route maps. The resulting book, A Pennine Journey, was fittingly described by publisher Frances Lincoln as a ‘pictorial guide’. Now into its second edition, it is an invaluable trail companion that goes hand in hand with AW’s original. But much else has been done to make the trail accessible for the aspiring hiker, principally led by the Pennine Journey Supporters Club. There’s a website with an accommodation register and a baggage courier service. The route was also fully waymarked in 2013, just in time to mark the 75th anniversary of AW’s walk. But, perhaps most significantly, it now appears on Ordnance Survey maps, too. As tributes to Wainwright go, it’s a magnificent collective effort.
But it doesn’t stop there. The Pennine Journey has aspirations towards National Trail status and last year the Supporters Club launched a campaign to have it recognised as such by 25 September 2028, which will mark the 90th anniversary of when AW embarked on his walk.
Head for the hills
The first stage of the Pennine Journey eases you in gently, for it is only 11.6km/7¼ miles to Horton-in-Ribblesdale, picking up stretches of the Pennine Bridleway and the Ribble Way en route. You soon leave the trappings of civilisation behind as views of the moors and dales open out, the path meandering through limestone pastures and hillside copses, along farm tracks and skirting patchwork fields.
Horton is the traditional start and finish of the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge – a 38.6km/24-mile hike over Whernside, Ingleborough and Pen-y-Ghent. The Pennine Journey revisits the first two peaks on its return leg and though Pen-y-Ghent isn’t actually on the route itself, many walkers choose to make the optional detour to climb it anyway. The second stage of the walk follows ancient drove roads onto moorland, passing hamlets and crossing Horse Head Pass. Entering Wharfedale, the trail then picks up the Dales Way all the way to Buckden, via delightful Hubberholme.
Day three includes the pretty lake of Semer Water, though in 1938 this was inevitably a disappointment to a lover of the Lake District. It was no Windermere, or so AW thought, anyway, being notable only as ‘the one sheet of water the Yorkshire Dales can show’. He was slightly disparaging, too, about Wensleydale and Swaledale, both of which AW thought inferior to Wharfedale – though he’d changed his mind by 1968, when he wrote his Pennine Way Companion.
All I can say is that, on the day we walked through it, Swaledale was utterly majestic. The river sparkled an iridescent inky blue. We squeezed through gap stiles in ancient limestone walls that enclosed lush sloping meadows, each guarded by iconic stone-built cow houses. Locals say that Yorkshire is God’s own country. It was hard to argue.
Hitting the wall
On day four, the path initially follows the River Swale past the village of Muker, passing Kisdon Force before striking out across bleak moorland to reach the Tan Hill Inn – at 527m/1,732ft, the highest pub in Britain. You can camp behind the pub for a tenner, so we duly handed over some cash to the friendly barman, sank three pints and ordered two giant Barnsley lamb chops for dinner before pitching the tent.
The next sections undoubtedly have their delights, following the River Tees before visiting cascading High Force, taxing Swinhope Head and the picturesque village of Blanchland. This was AW’s favourite village of the entire walk. ‘When you set foot in Blanchland, you step into the Middle Ages,’ he wrote, conjuring up visions of chivalrous knights and buxom maidens. But even this medieval paradise was only a distraction, for Wainwright’s sights were firmly set on his end goal: Hadrian’s Wall.
He perhaps did Durham a disservice. It probably didn’t help that he got a thorough soaking in Weardale. But he was preoccupied with reaching his ultimate objective. Today, walkers must complete a further two stages before finally arriving at the wall. Wainwright’s highlights were the two Roman forts of Cilurnum, now Chesters, and Borovicium, now Housesteads. However, he was just as enamoured with the experience of walking the wall itself, which crests the Whin Sill. ‘I have never been so elated, nor yet so profoundly moved, as on this autumn day on the Northumbrian hilltops,’ he confesses.
He turns south reluctantly: ‘Much of my keenness had departed; my enthusiasm I had left at the Wall.’ But he admonishes himself, noting that he still had plenty of places to visit before the journey was over – including the wild hills that are the source of the Tyne and Cross Fell, with its summit besieged by the mysterious Helm Wind (the only wind in Britain with its own name). Then there was Appleby and the Vale of Eden, Sedbergh, framed by mountains, ‘out-of-the-way romantic Dent’ and the lovely waterfalls of Ingleton.
The Eden Valley proved to be particularly special, illuminated by golden late-autumn sunshine, and Dent was a remarkable village ‘of cobbles, of jutting gables, overhanging roofs, quaint alleys, wooden galleries and outside staircases’.
From Dent, the Pennine Journey’s last hurrah is the summit of Whernside, the highest of the Yorkshire Three Peaks. Wainwright called it ‘a long high moor… with strange tarns resting on a shelf below the summit’. Happily, it ensures the book ends on a high note. AW’s spirits soar as he climbs and at the top he gets a magnificent view of Dentdale bathed in bright sunshine, sleepy and tranquil as if laid out on a map. Appropriately enough, life imitated art and we enjoyed an identical vista. And as we slowly retreated from the summit, past the blue tarns, gazing out onto the same landscape that had captivated Wainwright back in 1938, I was reminded of another of his little truths: ‘There is only one way to know a hill, and that is to put your feet on it and walk.’ He wasn’t wrong and I’d proffer the same advice to all those considering tackling the Pennine Journey. You won’t regret it.
Ivelet Bridge, Swaledale
The 398km/247-mile long-distance circular route is divided into 18 stages, each of which makes for a manageable day walk. The start/finish of the trail is at Settle in Yorkshire.
OS Explorer OL2, OL19, OL30, OL31, OL41, OL43 and 307 are available direct from Ordnance Survey as the Pennine Journey Map Set for the discounted price of £50.34 (shop.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/os-explorer-pennine-journey-map-set).
A Pennine Journey: The Story of a Long Walk in 1938 by Alfred Wainwright (£12.99, The Wainwright Society, ISBN 978 0993592119).
A Pennine Journey: From Settle to Hadrian’s Wall in Wainwright’s Footsteps by David & Heather Pitt (£13.99, Sigma Leisure, ISBN 978 1910758144).
Also visit penninejourney.org.uk