Reflections on Earlier Route Selection.

The Pennine Way penetrated my imagination in my mid-teens, and it will stay with me as long as I retain my faculties. There was a time when I was obsessed by it, but this year I wanted something different.

Opinions vary about where the Pennine Way should start and end. Wainwright favoured Ashbourne to Hadrian’s Wall, whilst Brook and Hinchliffe promoted Ashbourne to Jedburgh. Gillham stuck with Edale to Kirk Yetholm with his own variations. None of that mattered much to me, because I was starting from my own doorstep and making my own way far beyond the Pennines.

About three hours into the first morning my chosen route joined the Alternative Pennine Way at Longshaw. I had no desire to stay with the ‘Alternative’ beyond Slippery Stones at the northern end of the Derwent Reservoirs. I’d followed its convoluted route to Marsden seven years earlier, and it had led me through sticky fields and forests with little scenic benefit. Admittedly, it was easier than crossing Bleaklow during bad weather on the Pennine Way of old, but to me that seemed like a poor exchange. This time I opted for Gillham’s route into Longdendale, but I chose to stumble further west into Lancashire, which on reflection was a bad decision.

It seems to me that, from the latitude of Edale as far north as the A635, Gillham’s route is probably better than the ‘Alternative’. His next few miles to the A62 are, on balance, inferior. North of the A62, Gillham stays on the Pennine Way itself before looping west above Todmorden. The ‘Alternative’ hereabouts is hard work, but it undulates attractively enough over field and moor to Hebden Bridge. Thereafter it loses its charm by heading too far east into the industrial fringe of the former West Riding before crossing Ilkley Moor to rural Wharfedale.

Gillham takes an interesting line from Todmorden to Cowling before following the Pennine Way to Lothersdale. He then heads for Skipton en route to Malham. Until recently most northbound Wayfarers, traumatised by their first three or four days, were grateful to go from Lothersdale to Malham by the easiest possible route, namely the Pennine Way. North of Cowling, the Pennine Way never presented such a boggy challenge as it did further south. Hence there was less need for a variant, and the downside to Gillham’s route to Malham is that it demands more physical effort.

The ‘Alternative’ and Gillham’s route both came into being because of the underfoot degradation of the Pennine Way, which was caused by its popularity. During the seventies Tom Stephenson’s vision of a green trail stretching to Scotland became, especially on the southern stretches, a black smear as wide in some places as a motorway. The attraction of less worn but still adventurous paths seemed logical, but it proved illusory: the Pennine Way continued to hold most of us in thrall. It remained the most inspirational route for the long distance walker. We squelched along as best we might.

Something had to be done, and the ‘something’ was paving. The new surface eliminated the initial reasons for the ‘Alternative’ and Gillham’s route. Pennine Way walkers can now build up a rhythm that used to be unthinkable for all but the toughest grough-hounds. It is now true to say that the easiest route from Derbyshire to Scotland is the Pennine Way, though anyone walking the Way before the late nineteen-nineties would have laughed in derision at the very idea.

Regardless of whether the start is at Ashbourne, Cutthorpe or Edale, Kinder Scout rears up as the first significant challenge for a northbound voyager. The original route up Grindsbrook and across the plateau remains the most aesthetically pleasing line, provided the walker is fit and experienced.

It seems to me that the adoption of Jacob’s Ladder as the official route was unfortunate: it was originally the foul-weather option. If the scramble out of Grindsbrook and the crossing of the plateau are deemed dangerous to walkers or impossible to maintain to National Trail standards, surely it would be better to align the official route up Grindslow Knoll and westwards on the southern edge of the plateau to Kinder Low and thence to the Downfall.

Happily, the walker has freedom of choice. Whichever way one chooses, Kinder Scout and Bleaklow should be included in any upland walk between the north and south coasts of Great Britain, and indeed in any transit of the full length of the Pennines. To omit them devalues the whole experience. It will not surprise you that, in the unlikely event of my walking again from Cutthorpe to the far north, I shall include Kinder Scout on my second day.

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