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A hiker’s library: ‘A Pennine Journey – The Story of a Long Walk in 1938’ by Alfred Wainwright

“In the solitude and wild Pennine hills I found peace”

A Pennine Journey by Alfred Wainwright
A Pennine Journey by Alfred Wainwright

Thirty years ago today, a well-loved champion of fells, tops and moorland treks took his final journey. Having enjoyed much of his time alone on his favourite hills, like all of us, he took that final trip alone too. In 1938, with a World War looming, Alfred Wainwright set off on a self-devised walk from Settle to Hadrian’s Wall, then along part of it’s length, and a return south to Settle via a westerly route. This was his Pennine Journey.

Wainwright set off from Settle railway station 25 September 1938. The country was fearful of falling into another protracted conflict and Wainwright was escaping not only the worries of the time, but an uncomfortable personal life, if only for a few days. His route, long in the planning, took him along the eastern edge of the spine of England- the Pennines, northward, to Hadrian’s Wall where he turned west. Having followed the wall to Greenhead he then turned south to follow the western flank of the Pennines back to Settle. Subsequent hikers have devised alternative but complimentary loops, that now seek to avoid the various roads and lanes that Wainwright frequently encountered. Those quiet traffic free roads in 1938 have been replaced by noise and fumes and, frankly dangerous at times, roadside walking. Hence the much improved modern routes that eschew the road walking where possible. Those inter-war years must have frequently been a joy for the rambler, even if widespread access to the tops and estate owned moors was something still to be attained. His walk took him some 211 miles and the undoubted hardship encountered led Wainwright to originally call his unpublished manuscript- Pennine Campaign.

“I should like to think, when the time comes for me to be judged, I shall be judged by my thoughts and conduct, when I have been free on the hills”

It is very apparent that our wanderer was determined to not only have an adventure, but also provide a store of memories, if a little romantised in parts. On his first night on trail, wandering in search of a meal and a bed in a darkened Buckden, he eventually knocks on a door in desperation and is led to a nearby lodging by a young girl…

“I have often recalled those few moments in the darkness with my unseen helper. She reminded me of someone, someone dear to me, she was kinder to me than she knew”

The following day he went in search of boxes of chocolates to leave for the daughter of his hostess who had, unbidden, cleaned his grime encrusted boots, and another at the house of his unseen evening aid. Refusing to meet and see her in the morning light, he left the treat at the door for…

“she belonged to last night, her memory would endure into the future, but she herself had no further part to play”

Many will be familiar of the older Wainwright, he of his later popular guide books and television appearances. However this is a young man writing. He journals at length of the prettiness of young ladies and drifts to sleep thinking of female company, he notices a flirt yet is usually too tired to acknowledge it. The author is impatient to reach the roman wall. He frequently walks more miles than his body is comfortable with, finishing many days exhausted. Too weary to lift an arm to light a cigarette.

“Most days I ate nothing between breakfast and supper, and indeed on the rare occasions when I did stop for a midday meal, I felt that I was wasting time and was off again after a few bites. I could not rest for more than a minute without being impelled onwards by impatience. I did not walk fast, it was enough that I was moving northwards”

After a hundred miles and six days, he reaches the wall and breaks in to a run the last few steps but instead of centurians, he finds infantrymen preparing for war. From Cilurnum he sets off west. When the wall abandons him, he has the Vallum for company. Stopping at the Grey Bull at Haltwhistle, he is frustrated in his evening meal by the constant interuption of his hostess bringing an unended procession of food, drink and accompaniments. He escapes his plentiful meal and retires to his room, a cold room at that. Shaking with cold, he rips every carpet from the floor to cover himself in bed yet-

“shuddered and trembled and groaned and gasped… this was zero hour. I think I was ill that night”

The following day delivers disappointment. Wainwright carried a camera with him to document his trail, hoping to lavishly illustrate his opus to follow. Impatient to see the results he drops in a spool of film to be printed. Having picked them up, he finds his thirty prints ruined by inept processing. He curses. It gets worse, realising that it was he who had incorrectly adjusted his camera and it was he that was at fault. Despondent, he briefly considers abandoning his venture but resumes his walk. But the camera is now unused, only one photograph being taken in the four days that follow. Hence this being an adventure unadorned with illustration. The roman wall crosses farmed fields and in the thirties the pedestrian traveller sought permission to cross the land. Today, it is a World Heritage Site and National Trail. There were occasional tourists when Wainwright visited but few in number and nothing like the number that drive there today for an hour or two, or walk its length today from sea to sea.

“So I left the Wall, solitary, lonely, neglected, as I had found it”

The western flanks of the Pennines are then followed southward. Our wanderer finds that his enthusiasm wilts as he leaves the wall, that all consuming destination. He rallies, for this is splendid walking country. On reaching Alston he finds the annual show in full swing with no accommodation to be had. By art and cunning a bed is inveigled, he is surrounded by hospitality, kindness and care, two of the young girls being told to sleep together to free up a bed and a procession of callers, faces and events that rally him that evening from his heavy limbs and depression.

“once inside and seated by the big fire in the kitchen with my shoes off, I would not have budged even if it meant the whole family sleeping in a row on the rug. My despondency vanished, snatched from me by the roaring flames and whirled up the chimney and out into the inhospitable darkness of the night… the excitement I had sensed outside reached crescendo in this back kitchen”

The journey continues with renewed vigour however beset by atrocious weather, he again almost abandons his walk just 40 miles from the end. Wainwright perseveres despite three nails piercing his boot and his heel. There is an aim and a destination in sight. Slogs over tops, aching limbs on rough paths, cigarettes snatched in barns rattling in the wind and rain. The walk continues. His pleasure in completing his walk, 11 days after setting out, is palpable. Many a long distance walker will recognise the elation on reaching the end of a hard-won trek.

“Suffice it to say that I came into Settle a giant, and all around me were staring pygmies”

In the years following his Pennine Journey Wainwright went on to publish his best-selling and beautiful ‘Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells‘. Equally popular were his guides to the Pennine Way and his Coast to Coast route. TV fame followed and soon the existence of this unrealised gem of a book was known. Following his walk, Wainwright had written his trail journals into a manuscript but despite having shown it to work colleagues and received their approval, it was consigned to a drawer for fifty years. The manuscript remained unknown for decades and his ‘story of a long walk‘ wasn’t published until 1986. At Wainwright’s insistance, not a word from his original manuscript was changed. Thankfully, the Wainwright Society has ensured that it remains in print to this day. Be thankful, as it is a cracking read.

Three Points of the Compass has book shelves that do not exactly groan beneath Wainwright volumes. About the only other ones I have purchased and used have been his seven guides to the Lake District Fells from which my family spent many happy hours choosing which of the ‘Wainwrights’ to explore the following day.

“… an illustrated account of a study and exploration of the mountains in the English Lake District”

Wainwright's Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells
On my shelves- much-loved Wainwright’s Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells. These are Second Editions, revised by Chris Jesty

Three Points of the Compass has walked many of the valleys and hills that Wainwright encountered whilst walking the Dales Way, Hadrian’s Wall and Pennine Way and these are beautiful parts of the country that invite a return. For now though, this excellent ‘first person’ account of Wainwright’s own discovery, shall suffice, especially when so evocative.

Book from my shelves:

A Pennine Journey, The Story of a Long Walk in 1938. Alfred Wainwright. The Wainwright Society. (First published by Michael Joseph Ltd. 1986). This edition 2019. ISBN 978 0 9935921 1 9

3 replies »

  1. Hi Jools, Are you aware of the Pennine Journey Supporters Club who do a lot of work maintaining the wall.


    • Thanks Bob, this is, of course, the more recently devised route (a homage) and not Wainwright’s original. The modern ‘Pennine Journey’ is very much on my ‘to-do’ list


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