Tuesday, 13 September 2011

John O'Groats to Land's End: Pennine Way 1

I had hoped for things to improve on the Pennine Way. I had hiked it 6 years ago and had really enjoyed it then. But so far unfortunately it has not been very enjoyable. First of all it has turned out to be every bit as muddy as the Scotland - so I am back to wet feet and foot problems. Second the waymarking is really bad. As there are usually no trees around you cannot put blazes or signs on trees. The usual way to signposting is putting signs on stiles and fences. But if there is no such a thing around things are getting difficult. Very often it is impossible to see a trail on the ground as everything is boggy. Sheep and cattle  make matters even worse as they mess up every sign of a trail, run down posts by using them for scratching against and generally turn the whole terrain into one gigantic mud pool. As the country is big and wide and open you cannot really get very lost, but still navigation takes up more time than I like.

Camping in this sort of terrain is also very problematic. Not only is it difficult to find dry ground, but because of high winds you want to find some shelter. Usually I just look for a forest, but this is diffcult in the UK. As I have mentioned before almost all the UK has been deforested already back in the Stone Ages. Nowadays only 5% of the UK is covered with forest as opposed to 30% in Germany and France. And the little forest that there is is usually ugly huge pine plantations. But at least those give good wind shelter! So on my first day on the Pennine Way I was planning on camping in one of those plantations. But to my big surprise I could not see any signs of a forest when I came closer to the area! I am not the greatest navigator on earth but I could not be that wrong in reading the map. Finally I realised what had happened: The whole forest had been completely - and I mean 100% - been clear cut. I was shocked! In Germany forest is very much valued and German forest law actually prohibits clear cuts. Of course even in Germany forest is economically used, but it is also regarded as a recreational area and therefore protected against clear cutting. I had not expected that clear cutting would be allowed in any Western highly populated country like the UK. Beside being an ugly scar in the landscape the negative effects of clear cutting like soil erosion are too well known now. But still here in the UK, that is scarcely forested to begin with it is still a common practice. Forest is just thought of as a commodity and is not given any protection as a recreational area. And I would see those ugly clear cuts again and again...

But this was not the end of my streak of bad luck: The weather has never been too good on this trip. In four weeks of hiking from mid-August to  mid-September I have only been able to hike in a T-shirt for a couple of hours. Usually it is way too cold and windy for light clothes. Also it has rained almost every single day. Rain here has been very different though from the more continental German climate. In the UK you usually only get a drizzle - but it drizzles about every other hour. The usual weather pattern has been on and off rain during the day with occasional minutes of sunshine in between. At least you can dry out in between the showers. But two days ago things took a turn to the worse when the wind increased dramatically. With such a strong wind even a little drizzle hurts like needles and of course it chills your body temperature. I was hiking along Hadrian's Wall at that point - of course against the wind and totally exposed. I really started to worry about where to camp as I got wetter and colder by the minute and not even the tiniest bit of shelter in sight. I ended up camping next to a parking lot amongst at least some trees - and close to public toilets that could serve as an emergency shelter if things got really worse. The tent held up surprisingly well in these conditions and I usually put in ear plugs then - so at least I don't have to listen to the wind and be constantly afraid that a broken off tree branch will fall onto me and kill me. But at 4 am in the morning even the ear plugs could not drown out the wind any more and I realised that the night was over - and that I did not want to camp in this weather for another night. With the help of my GPS I planned a short cut hike to the next place with a youth hostel - mostly road walking and using rail trails. The Pennine Way itself is usually very exposed and I was not going to suffer through that. But even with this new route not being very much exposed and often sheltered by trees and rail embankments the wind was horrible. It was so strong that a couple of times I was nearly blown over and could hardly walk against it. I have very rarely been in wind like this before, but at least I made it to Alston and its fantastic little youth hostel where I am now having a rest day waiting for the wind to calm down.


Gayle said...

It's such a shame that you're having such poor weather and (accordingly) the worst of the underfoot conditions. I'm sure that your trip would be an entirely different, and far more enjoyable, one in better conditions (although I might be a bit biased having enjoyed walking the length of the UK a couple of times).

I seem to recall from an earlier post that you're planning to take the Maelor Way to join up with Offa's Dyke Path and, given the issues and challenges that you've been having to date, I thought that I'd give you a bit of forewarning based on my experience. Walking north, we left Offa's Dyke at Chirk and tried to take the Maelor Way over to link up with the Pennine Way (via the South Cheshire Way) and found that the Maelor Way was a complete nightmare. In fact, in over 4000 miles of long walks in the UK it must rate up there as our worst path experience; we abandonned it in the end and took to roads. Admittedly it was late spring, and it was the only section of farmland for which we didn't have 1:25k maps, but as well as the navigations issues we found it to be overgrown, barely way-marked and with broken stiles and various other obstructions. That was 3 years ago, so it's possible that it has improved since then...

I assume that your route is fixed, but if you should decide to take the Staffs Way to join Offa's Dyke further south then do get in touch, as on that route you would come by our house where a bed/bath etc would be on offer for you. You can contact me at: thegateposts at gmail dot com.


John Manning said...

Hi Christine,

Great to see you this weekend. Hope you enjoyed your stay and that the weather has cleared up by the time you read this.

Regarding Gayle's advice (above), I'd say that's a good idea, not just because the Maelor Way might well be trashed but also because Gayle and Mick are highly experienced UK hikers and can probably advise you on great alternative routes all over the place; perhaps even ways of avoiding the rain (though I guess they'd be billionaires by now if they could do that… hey, perhaps they are!).

Gayle & Mick – GT and I hiked the first 20 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail together on April 21, 2004. Not that the date has stuck in my mind or owt…!

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