I Have Not Walked The Pennine Way


Edale station, 10.15 a.m.

In the car park of the station, taking stock. It's a murky day, but it's not raining, at least. The car park is pretty large, with about a dozen vehicles scattered about it. There's even an overflow car park past the bus turning circle: Edale must have a sizeable commuter population. And with Manchester and Sheffield each less than forty minutes away, I can see the attraction.

I check my belongings. An Outdoor Leisure map, a thermos of green tea, a copy of Wainwright's "Pennine Way Companion" (a book, I suspect, he would rather not have written.) Boots, cracked with the mud I failed to remove after the last walk, however long ago that was. Trekking poles.

I have forgotten to bring a waterproof. No matter.

Past the Rambler Inn ("muddy boots, families and dogs welcome") a break appears in the cloud. A corresponding bright patch on the fell. I remember grey car trips as a child, on the lookout for a patch of blue, any sign that the weather might change.

I have been to Edale before, but it didn't have wood fired pizza. A boom town.

Lambs in the field by the church. It is May, 2019.

Approaching the school, the standard sign warns of children in the road, though the road has been full of muddy boots, families and dogs since I left the station. There is no pavement but the pedestrians have the upper hand.

Here is the village centre of Grindsbrook Booth: Ice Cream - Craft Gin - Large Breakfasts - Teas, Etc. Please Walk Up The Slope :)

Edale Mountain Rescue are out with their Land Rover ambulance. Fluorescent roll bars, donation tins on the bonnet. One mountain rescuer is giving directions to a man in sunglasses: preventative rescue.

And here is the start of the Pennine Way.

Grindsbrook Booth, 11.00 a.m.

According to Wainwright and Ordnance Survey maps from the sixties, there are three Pennine Ways here: the signed main route, an alternative way, and a steep ascent up Grindslow Knoll. But things have progressed and now signs and map have settled on the alternative route, which allows the hiker to enjoy the valley greenery for just a little while longer, before mounting to the famed wastes of heather and peat. There is still a public footpath up Grindsbrook Clough, and a waterfall is there too, but I cannot go that way today. But enough poring over maps. Here is the acorn-cast stone marking the Official Start. 268 miles to Kirk Yetholm.

The clouds are breaking up further. Stratocumulus. It won't rain today.

I look up at a hollow tree. It's still alive, but there are only a few leaves on it. Looking around, I notice a change from when I was down in the village. Is there a chill in the air? I check the time: November, 2016.

Out of the sunken way and over a clough. Well-made steps up to the field, and a paved way across it. No longer does the stream dispute the right of way, and unlike Wainwright, I don't have to look for stiles at the far side of each field to know the route. Easy going, and the sun is briefly out. I should press on.

I have been following a hiker in dark clothing. Now he holds a gate open for me and I pass him. He may be my companion, I am not sure. Disconcertingly, I cannot see his legs.

A child's dropped hat, with the face of a bear and round bear ears, picked up how long later and carefully placed on the gatepost. The bear waits to be collected, whether by his original keeper or someone new, he's not fussed. He regards the sheep with large round eyes.

We reach the shoulder of Broadlee Bank Tor and descend towards Upper Booth. I am distracted by a flapping noise: two hundred miles away, a pair of pigeons are arguing. The silent Vale of Edale is spread before us.

Upper Booth, 11:45 a.m.

A trail runner approaches us at speed. Fluorescent green stripes on their grey jacket, matching green and grey on their shoes. But rather than greet us, approaching the field boundary they pivot around an old stone fence post and return to Upper Booth. I realize that apart from my companion, I have seen no other people yet on the Pennine Way. The families in outdoor clothing back at Grindsbrook Booth were headed elsewhere. Or maybe had already returned: it's difficult to tell the time on this overcast day.

A second jogger in blue stops to check their watch. As we move on, I see they have also turned around. passing us again toward the end of the field. Green stripes is there waiting. We leave them there, chatting at the bottom of the field, perhaps discussing whether to have another go.

Off the fell and under the trees of the village. The last leaves of November, orange hazel, green ash, ready to fall, but here frozen for four years, until someone should replace them.

Upper Booth is a single farm (& campsite), dignified as a hamlet by having a postbox embedded in the wall. A bus turning circle, but no buses. SmartWater is used in this area. Wainwright found it charming, but today it seems bleak. We cross the stone bridge back onto the fell.

Lee Farm, 12:15 p.m.

Like Upper Booth, Lee Farm is owned by the National Trust. The road is paved up to the farmhouse and I can make up some time, leaving my companion to catch up. I glance downward and catch a glimpse of my own hair. Shortish, brown, maybe a tiny bit ginger. Sensible.

The track rises steadily. The only trees are beneath us, following the river below, larches and pines. We reach the intake wall where open country begins. There is a wide stile but the gate is open. The National Trust welcomes us to the High Peak, "where the Red Grouse calls". It is grouse season, but as it turns out, the last one over this part of the moor. Earlier this summer, the National Trust gave notice of eviction to the sitting shooting tenant after some dodgy business was filmed involving a hen harrier decoy. In 2018 they will split the land covered by the contract into four, and find new shooting tenants for three of them, but Kinder will be reserved.

The National Trust and hen harriers The National Trust and grouse shooting in the Peak District

I will not hear any red grouse today.

Edale Head, 12:45 p.m.

The valley closes in and the path crosses a tiny bridge, surely too narrow even for pack-horses, at the base of Jacob's Ladder. Not the Jacob of biblical fame, but a more local Jacob, though doubtless he or his friends traded on it when they came up with the name. Two of the four paths noted by Wainwright are fenced off, and the "rough and stony" usual route has been tamed with a pleasant series of steps. As they steepen, so the moors become wilder. At the large cairn at the top. I notice my companion has disappeared. Perhaps he is still struggling up the steps. Or perhaps he took Wainwright's preferred route, the track up to the ruins of Edale Head House and the grassy shelf above it.

A few yards further on I round a corner and discover him some distance ahead, checking his crumpled map. There is nobody else around, and we have left the sheep behind. Just us and the moor and the stony path. Rock outcrops on the skyline: Noe Stool, Pym Chair, Crowden Tower.

The flagstones reappear, showing the route of the Pennine Way peeling off the much older trackway down to Hayfield past Edale Cross on its pass. The cross is inscribed 1610 (or maybe 1810) but expert opinion is that it is medieval. The parish boundaries deviate to take it in. But the Pennine Way is heading much further than Hayfield, up and over Kinder Scout. I stop at the top. The view takes in the Vale of Edale, Mam Tor, Bradwell Edge and Froggatt. Low cloud boils behind, and is that a plume of smoke rising over Chesterfield?

Edale Cross and other Curiosities of Kinder Scout

Behind Edale Rocks snow lurks in a pocket. I leave my companion briefly to see the view from the top. Suddenly it is September, 2017, and the sun is a welcome change. The path is much more popular today: a string of colourful jackets picks out the way over Kinder Low. The air is still. I can see Manchester rising over the far side of the hill, but for now I sit facing the way I came, and fix myself some lunch.

From Edale Rocks by
  • Anthony Chang

Kinder Low, 2:00 p.m.

I come off the boulders and am back on the winter moor, where the grass is frosted and a ring of ice surrounds each puddle.

The ground is stony, the way marked by wide, low cairns. The trig point sits on its rock, marking not the summit but the point with the widest view. Nobody is about as we approach, but atop the pillar it is April, 2018, and the families are back, their dogs making each other's acquaintance, another couple lunching beside the kissing stones.

Kinder Low is the point where most walkers will turn back, the view, having been achieved, giving way in their minds to thoughts of dinner. Perhaps a few press on to Kinder Downfall and circle around, but beyond this the map shows a lonely green line across five miles of moorland, attractive only to through hikers. The path is no longer paved, though still well used. The view to the northwest is expansive, but grey, Manchester hidden under a cloud, the tops above Rossendale behind.

My companion has left the path and stopped. I see him pick something up, in the distance behind me. I carry on along the edge of Kinder Scout, past gritstone formations like heaps of pancakes. Looking back, I see he is back on the trail and gaining on me, steadying his hand on a rock as he negotiates a step. But then he suddenly vanishes. For twenty yards I can see nobody, until I round a corner and see him again, not behind but far ahead, his map set down on a cairn. I struggle along to rejoin him, but he does not explain, merely retrieves his map and follows me.

An icy rill follows the path down. Is that rain on the horizon? I do not feel it.

The plateau is not truly flat, rising in twenty metres of soaked peat further above the path, so the only view is to the west, over Kinder Reservoir, slowly narrowing as the path curves into a valley. My companion keeps his distance behind me.

Suddenly again he appears in front, much closer this time, walking away from me. He has clearly not noticed anything strange. I look closely and the sky is slightly different too, a patch of blue appearing where it was grey before, the clouds darker towards the southwest.

Kinder Downfall, 3.00 p.m.

I let my silent companion lead the way across the boulders, from one cairn to the next. The stones become flat flags, a natural pavement for the River Kinder, the crossing here a careful but easy jump. Kinder Downfall is a mess of huge stones scattered across the valley. There is no waterfall today, just ice slick across the rocks. The moor is frozen and everything is grey and green and silent.

By the next clump of boulders we pass a couple of hikers, equipped with carbon fibre trekking poles. Are these folk coming to the end of an epic Pennine Way through hike? I suspect not: their packs are too small and one of them is busy with a small dog in a harness.

We reach a fence and a way through, not quite a kissing gate, as the gate is missing. There is no livestock up here to keep on one or other side of the fence.

Finally: a man in an orange jacket, gaiters and gloves. No dog. He looks weary enough to be on the long haul. I cannot ask him and he is soon far behind.

Google's map marks a Charged Rock here, but Wainwight and the Ordnance Survey do not. It turns out to be a power spot for followers of a Dr. George King of the Aetherius Society, who has identified Charged Rocks on a number of mountains around the world (but chiefly in Britain) and encourages people to make pilgrimages to them. An eroded boulder here does have a distinctive inverted pyramid shape. I hear there are carvings on it. You might care to look, if you come this way.

Pilgrimages to Holy Mountains

Just off the path here, over in May, 2018, I find a few scraps of twisted metal, remains of a plane that crashed up here during a training exercise. Apparently several hundred craft have crashed up here over the years, mostly small military planes, a few helicopters. It is a sunny day here, but this is not a place to sunbathe.

Kinder Scout, 4.15 p.m.

We've reached the edge of the crag and the path is dropping down to Ashop Moor. The path has been made up again, to fight erosion by Pennine Way hikers, and across the bottom to save feet from sinking into the red-green sphagnum bog. Above the mire on the other side we come to a post, tempting us off the route to the Snake Inn. From this side, Kinder Scout looks like a proper hill, with escarpments on both sides. There is a path around its craggy perimeter, and Wainwright all but recommends giving up on the Pennine Way and walking back to Edale along this. No time, he laments. Someday in the future, or even in the past. Time is strange these days.

Mill Hill is hardly a hill, but it's enough of a rise for the bog to abate, and its stony top is a place where three paths and three parishes meet. We turn to continue along the watershed separating the parishes of Hope Woodlands and Charlesworth. Again into the bog, following the flagged thread. The moor is a deep russet, full of unseen pools covered in black ice. We pass a pair of old sheep, but otherwise we are completely alone.

I stop for some tea. A blend given to me by a friend, called "En Attendant La Pluie". Waiting for rain. An appropriate name, I'd thought as I brewed it, for the Pennine Way. I have let it steep too long in my thermos flask and it has become bitter. And it is not going to rain. It has been sunny and warm for several weeks, but I rarely go further than this seat at the end of the garden.

I return to the moor and follow the path the wrong way for a hundred yards before realizing my mistake. Under this steel sky I cannot tell north from south. I can see how it would be weird and frightening in mist, as Wainwright has it, and in his time there was not even this stone path, only a line of stakes marking out the parishes. At least I can see Kinder: keeping it on my right, I can proceed.

My companion has reappeared, and suddenly surges ahead. I soon discover the reason: he turns round as I approach and takes a snap of me on his phone. He steps off the path to let me pass while he uploads it to who knows where. I feel strangely offended, as if I had been forced to admit something. He has left his backpack open. I secretly hope something falls out of it.

Ashop Moor, 5.15 p.m.

We seem to have come off the watershed: the ground to my left blocks the view, and to my right Kinder has streched out to full length and now looks like just another rounded expanse of moor.

Something weird on the skyline, looking like a huge mechanical spider. It gains an orange-black colour as it dips below the horizon. It does not seem to move. Finally I am close enough to understand: a pair of bright orange diggers, clearing out groughs, bog management of some obscure kind. I cannot tell what brings them to this patch of bog as opposed to any other. But I may not approach.

I guess we have come down a little from the highest part of the moor. The groughs are deeper and the path must wind around them. There is a slightly larger variety of plants, mossy patches, woody bushes. And then a white braid that might be flowing water. And here is a deep grough with a genuine stream in it. The flagstones cross it in a culvert. We have evidently crossed back over the watershed, as this stream joins with others to our left to run into Holden Clough. The ground rises over Featherbed Top, threatens, though never quite manages, to block our view of Kinder, and there is the traffic on the Snake Road ahead.

My companion has left the path again to take some more photos, this time from behind. An action shot of my backpack. Presumably he's judged this part of the bog safe enough, though I wouldn't risk it myself, and

oh, actually

I belatedly understand why he has left the path. The bog water has overtopped the flags, and freezing, has left them treacherously slippery. Should have been looking where I was going. I could have gone down just there. For the next kilometre we dance alternately on the route, when dry, and beside it when icy. It's not far now to the road. If one of us falls in, the other can get help, and all I will know of it is that I will take a step, the months will shift, and I will find myself in the same spot on a more clement day.

Snake Pass, 5.45 p.m.

A grough deep enough to require steps out of it, and we are off Ashop Moor and beside the main road. Is this man waiting for us, hands in pockets? Or is he with Dinsdale Moorland Specialists, whose van is parked on the severe camber just here, and are presumably responsible for the orange-black beast I passed earlier?

I will never know. I step forward onto the road, and it is May, 2019, and my companions are gone. One hiker is pulling boots on. Another is inspecting the National Trust sign, ready for their own adventure over the moor.

Or is it August, 2011, and the moor green and almost inviting?

Or is it May, 2009, and the tarmac wet with rain, the tracks ankle deep, and low dark cloud bustling over Kinder?

It is all of these and none of them. The walk is over. I do not need a lift into Glossop, for I am already far away.