It started raining almost as soon as I crossed the border. I could have stopped and enjoyed the symbolism, but instead I carried on, making my first departure from the Pennine Way almost as soon as I’d joined in to take some shelter in the little outcrop of the Kielder Forest that led down into Byrness. I didn’t realise at the time, but this was a signal about how my relationship with the Pennine Way was going to be over the coming weeks — followed occasionally, but mostly avoided in favour of a better idea.
Back in one of my blog entries at the time, I suggested that if anyone ever told you that you ought to try walking the Pennine Way then you should immediately head to your nearest stockist of outdoor products and purchase a couple of very sturdy walking poles. Not the expensive lightweight carbon fibre ones, but some good solid ones made of steel or aluminium. You should then proceed to use these poles to beat the person who made that suggestion to you repeatedly around the head until they admit it was a bad idea.
Here’s the thing: the Pennine Way is the first National Trail in the UK, and it came about when the idea of the sort of person who might do a long-distance walk was pretty clear. They were a hiker, not a walker, the sort of person who’d have a very sturdy pair of boots that would have flecks of mud tracked deep into them from countless walks, the sort of person who’d own a very sturdy frame rucksack and waterproofs, along with a decent tent and good cooking equipment. They’d be the sort of person who saw nothing wrong with the idea of walking miles through peat on a grey day just for the joy of being out in the country. That’s the sort of person the Pennine Way was designed for, and while it does some interesting things, it also goes out of its way to give you a tour of every peat bog in northern England, and then does really odd things like engage in some very weird contortions to avoid entering Hebden Bridge at all. After doing the West Highland Way and even the Great Glen Way, it felt much more like a trudge than a walk, and while I wasn’t in any urge to become a walking machine following main roads, there were plenty of more interesting things to be discovered following back roads and byways than there were to be following the Pennine Way.