The Pennine Way - exploring the Derbyshire section of Britain’s most famous long distance footpath
PUBLISHED: 00:00 20 January 2016
As its 50th anniversary year comes to a close Nigel Powlson explores The Pennine Way
AS we passed Edale Rocks, the mist thickened, creeping slowly but menacingly over the lunar landscape and enveloping all before us. An eerie silence descended across the Kinder plateau and there was a palpable sense of being lost from the real world.
In the end it wasn’t the rain, the wind, or the blisters that stopped us walking the whole length of the Derbyshire section of the Pennine Way but that deep blanket of fog. We had a compass, an OS map, the recommended spare clothing but also the good sense to know when the elements had beaten us.
We had set off from Edale in glorious autumn sunshine, with pockets of blue sky promising to make our first hike along the long distance walking trail a welcoming one. But Kinder Scout has its own moods and although the weather remained benign in Edale, as we ascended the old packhorse route up Jacob’s Ladder onto the plateau the visibility worsened by the second.
The flagstone path is quite easy to follow around Swine’s Back and onward to Edale Rocks, a prominent feature when the weather is better, but beyond here the Pennine Way is more of an idea than a reality. The peat bogs win over any waymarked trail and if you take a step in the wrong direction you can be ankle deep in black goo and clueless as to where you should go next.
But then the threatening silence was broken and we heard two voices echoing around Edale Rocks, adding to the surreal feeling of the mist-shrouded plateau.
A pair of rain-coated hikers emerged from the fog, grateful to learn they weren’t alone on the highest part of Derbyshire.
‘It comes down so quickly doesn’t it,’ said one of our new companions, before blaming the inadequate BBC weather forecast that had promised decent visibility on the Kinder plateau as late as 7am that day.
We all took our bearings and did the only sensible thing, retracing our steps while we still could, taking an old stoney packhorse route down to Hayfield that was easy to follow even if you could see less than 50 yards in front of you.
Even in our disappointment we recognised that the unpredictability is among the attractions of this majestic part of Derbyshire. The way the elements still rule in this wild, harshly beautiful part of the county is to be more admired than feared.
It was the golden anniversary of the Pennine Way, Britain’s best known long distance footpath, which prompted me and a photographer friend to abandon our families in mid-September and to plan a mini-challenge of our own.
We booked into the Old Nag’s Head, the 16th century coaching in that stands at the official start of the 267-mile trail, with the intention of walking the Derbyshire section from Edale to the Yorkshire border.
There are a group of hardy souls who manage to hike the whole Pennine Way, usually south to north, but you will need the best part of three weeks to do that and the stamina to walk at least 14 miles a day without a break.
We ended up walking between 30 and 40 miles in our three and a half days and certainly admired the small band of walkers we witnessed cracking champagne at Edale after making a north south traverse of the trail.
Undeterred by our own false start on day one, and despite a threatening weather forecast blamed on the tail end of a cyclone brushing Britain, we headed back up to the Kinder plateau the following morning.
This time we decided to start from Hayfield, making the climb to a height of more than 2,000ft above sea level following the route of the Kinder Trespass.
It was a timely reminder that we can only enjoy this bleak but beautiful part of the British isles because, in 1932, 400 largely Derbyshire folk risked injury and jail to fight for the freedom to enjoy the natural beauty that was being denied them.
It seemed only right and proper to honour them 83 years later by following their route along Kinder Reservoir before making the steep ascent via William Clough.
Just for once the weather had abated and the clamber up the rocks on either side of the brook was heart-warmingly picturesque, with swathes of purple heather bending in the wind and the soothing sounds of rushing water accompanying us all the way. On such a fine day, it’s a joy rather than a slog and as we reached the Kinder plateau again we were rewarded with glorious vistas in all directions.
Gluttons for punishment, we rejoined the Pennine Way but headed in the wrong direction, determined to fill in the gaps we missed in the fog. So we pointed south east along the scarp, skirting round the notorious bog of the inner plateau which you can still cross using the old Pennine Way, before it was rerouted to help walkers navigate more easily and to prevent further erosion of the fragile ecosystem.
We stop at Sandy Heys, a promontory of millstone grit that affords panoramic views of the Kinder Reservoir and the tranquil looking Mermaid’s Pool before arriving at Kinder Downfall.
This spectacular drop sees the River Kinder gush over the cliff and disappear towards the valley below. The rocky outcrop above the downfall offers a chance to sit and marvel at the view.
But it’s here that the weather caught up with us again, with temperatures dropping quickly as we were hit by a prolonged and heavy shower. But with visibility still good we were determined to pass Kinder Downfall and make it back to Edale Rocks.
It’s here that the Pennine Way seems more of a figment of someone’s imagination and the unforgiving landscape offers only the odd cairn to keep you on the right route. Several times we found ourselves on boggy and treacherous ground that threatened to sprain ankles. But despite the rain this time we could see Edale Rocks clearly in the distance to guide us.
The views though had disappeared in the stormy front and with still a long way to walk, we turned to the north again.
The Pennine Way stretches seemingly endlessly before you after William Clough as it points to the Snake Pass before offering another severe navigational challenge as you reach Bleaklow. Most walkers are happy when the path reconvenes and offers a descent to Longdendale before reaching Torside Reservoir.
Many determined ramblers manage Edale to Crowden (16 miles if you don’t get lost or make a detour) as their first leg of the Pennine Way. They then wake up ready for the climb past Laddow Rocks to the summit of Black Hill where Derbyshire gives way to Yorkshire. From here you remain in the Peak District national park as the Pennine Way takes in the eastern part of Saddleworth Moor until it exits at Standedge.
There are still more than 200 miles to go if you are planning to make it all the way to the finish at Kirk Yetholm.
As I gazed into Yorkshire and watched the Pennine Way snaking into the distance, I remembered Wainright’s thoughts at this point: ‘The worst part of the journey is behind you, from now on the Pennine Way can be enjoyed.’
My blistered, aching feet were momentarily forgotten and this savage but beguiling trail seemed to be calling me on. The timeless beauty of the Pennine Way made me want to go the distance and it was with great reluctance that I turned for home.