It’s not the beer or the blisters, or even the rain that I remember most fondly from the 287 miles of the Pennine way. And it’s not the views, which were better entertainment than anything I’ve seen on TV. No, the thing I loved most were the conversations with strangers along the way.
I’m quite shy and wish I was better at talking to strangers. But when you meet someone on a quiet path through bleak moorland, there are obvious things to ask: where they’ve set out from, are they walking the whole trail, are the conditions ahead any good? Sometimes you’ll stop for a couple of minutes; if you’re going the same way, you might fall into step for a time. The Pennine way is a community, a network of meetings and messages stretching up the spine of England.
The first people we’d met, just out of Edale, had done the walk years before. Amazingly, they’d only seen 20 minutes of rain – which means I think they missed some of the essential experiences of the walk. It’s quite something to be soaked to the skin and know that I’d rather be tramping up that mountain than sitting dry in an office.
Some of the stopping points pass on the news of the day to everyone who passes. At a chuck wagon on the roof of the moors, we heard about someone who’d done a thirty mile stint that day; and about the Australian ahead of us. We finally met her at the end of an uphill slog out of Hebden Bridge’s valley, where she was sheltering in a bus stop. We spent the day walking together, chatting about life and the how we’d come to be walking. She’d chucked her job in favour of a series of adventures – after the trail would be a marathon in Iceland. We parted in the drizzle at the edge of a reservoir.
I’ve never been good at pub chat, but the Pennine Way is the banter equivalent of a stroll to the shops. The Tan Hill Inn, (the highest pub in the country), is like an inn from a fantasy novel. Over the evening, the entire dining room here merged into a single conversation between the different tables. We heard about the person walking North-South, forced to fill a carrier bag of snow, having run out of water on the first section. A couple had stopped in for a drink and ended up booking their wedding reception there.
In my metropolitan bubble, everyone I know voted the same way in the referendum. While politics didn’t come up that often, we learned that a walker we met a few days running had worked for a pro-Brexit think tank. But disagreements could be left aside. We met them at one pub that didn’t understand hospitality, refusing to sell our companion food since they’d arrived four minutes after the kitchen closed. We offered them our starters, sharing food with someone we might have found ourselves arguing with if we’d encountered them on social media.
The finest place was the last stop on the way. When I first booked the Hiker’s Way, I wasn’t sure I’d like it. On the phone, they didn’t sound best-pleased about having to cater for a vegan. But when we arrived we were welcomed with a cup of tea, our boots taken away to be cleaned.
The Hiker’s rest is different from the other stops as most people stay two nights, breaking up the final twenty-six mile section. On your first night, there’s a new-pupil feeling, with the returning guests seeming more established and experienced. The following night you’re the experienced one. And there were stories at the bar – about the lengths some hikers to go to reduce weight, about swimming the channel, and about the spine race, which takes place on the Pennine Way in Winter.
The guesthouses have their own communities too – if a walker is a bit of a handful then the message will go up the line ahead of them, letting other owners know that they might need their best diplomatic skills for this one.
Whenever I passed houses for sale, I’d dream of buying them, spending my days watching the world pass by, trying to stop walkers for a cup of tea. I’d see ruins and feel sure that I could patch them up, given time. The path took us through a garden where a man handed us freshly-fallen apples from his pocket, the most delicious fruit I’ve tasted. Another farm offered a shed of supplies, and a kettle for tea. In the guestbook, walkers told how their walk had been saved by this intervention. They even had a shower, which might not have been hotel standards but I could imagine some for whom this was a lifeline.
There are the guest books too. We followed the stories of some of the people who’d strode ahead of is, like Emily who was walking from Lizard Point to John O’Groats. It was only the third night’s conversation when we learned it was not her first time walking the length of the country. We saw traces of people we knew in the message books in the bothies. Reading the tales of winter journeys made us grateful for the wet but warm weather we grappled with.
Wainwright loathed the Pennine way so much he offered a pint to anyone who completed it, at great expense to him and later to his estate. The prize is still there, taken over by a local brewery, who also hand out certificates. I bet that brewery makes their money back with the additional pints that follow the free one. And the final book, full of the statements of the other walkers – looking back we could find some of these other companions, from the hitch-hiker we’d collected near the start through to people we’d met ages before. And we added our own entries.
Even though thousands upon thousands of people have walked the Pennine Way, it is still alive with stories, and you can’t walk the route without adding your own.