Yorkshire Post Magazine Article on the PW

In the 19th March 2005 edition of The Yorkshire Post Magazine there was an interview with our very own Mike Imrie and Peter Stott about the PW. If you were lucky enough to see it, you’ll also have seen the photos of Mike in a bog on Kinder!

Here is the article, entitled “Walk on the Wild Side”:

The trail-blazing Pennine Way is about to celebrate its 40th birthday. John Woodcock reports.

Mike Imrie grew up in Kent, was a chartered accountant overlooking Rio’s Ipanema beach (truly!), worked in the nuclear industry in Berkshire and Scotland, and lives close to the most northerly point of the British mainland.

Somewhere on this journey his compass went completely haywire. However unlikely his credentials, he became a promoter of the Pennine Way. It had something to do with influences on his mother’s side. She was born in Bradford, the daughter of a German scientist who carried out breakthrough research into anthrax in the woollen industry. A branch of the family resides today below Ilkley Moor. Imrie has lived in Yorkshire only briefly, which might explain why his introduction to the route which was to enrich his, and tens of thousands of other lives, was more of an accident. Nearly 30 years ago, he was trudging through the Dales, between Keld and Great Shunner Fell, guided by a pre-war map.

“It indicated a path, but gave no hint that I would be meeting so many grim-faced, weary folk, most of whom resembled escapees from some Sixties hippy cult. When I reached a hostel the warden explained I’d been walking the country’s first official long-distance trail. ‘That sounds nice’, I thought – a leisurely fortnight from start to finish, enjoying fresh air and outstanding views. I planned my trip, filled a rucksack and set off. It was 1976, and one of the hottest summers on record. I lasted three days.”

Imrie learned his lesson: how to pace himself and carry less. He has since completed the 268-mile route (give or take personal diversions) 10 times, and spent a decade as membership secretary of the Pennine Way Association. Not even all the committee members have done the entire walk between the Old Nag’s Head at Edale, in the Derbyshire Peak District, and the Borders Hotel in Kirk Yetholm, just over the Scottish border. “It’s the thought that counts,” says Peter Stott, who has just ended his tenure as the Association’s secretary. “What is important is to be a part of something that needs all the support it can get. If public funding runs out for projects like this, and situations do change, it will be the enthusiasts who are called upon to keep it going.”

It was rambler and writer Tom Stephenson, back in 1935, who first raised the idea of a national wild pathway, inspired by the Appalachian Trail in the United States. Easier said than done. Negotiations with landowners and establishing rights of way took another 30 years for it to become a reality. On April 24, 1965, 2,000 people gathered on Malham Moor to celebrate the Pennine Way’s completion, the first of 11 such trails designated, managed and part-financed by the Countryside Agency, with support from other authorities.

About 150,000 walkers use the trail annually for day trips and longer hikes, and an estimated 3,500 complete it in one go, Dutch, Germans and North Americans among them. The route has been run in under 72 hours. Saner folk usually need 17-18 days, and those prepared to push themselves can do it in two weeks. Stott, a widower and retired water engineer, grew up in Otley but worked in the Fens for 30 years, where it doesn’t get much flatter. He needed the heights and knows more than most about what the Pennine Way means and does to the individual. It’s been an obsession since he first walked it, probably illegally in places, as a teenager before it was formally classified. Doing your homework first, and being realistic, would spare him the numerous hard-luck stories he hears. He believes that the challenge is best undertaken from south to north. Unfortunately, that also puts paid to many attempts on the first day.

“It involves some of the hardest terrain. It’s made for comments like, ‘I’ve had enough of this’, ‘I’m soaked, and my feet hurt’. One problem is that people tend to carry far too much gear and clothing, and are probably not as fit as they think they are. Tough as it can be initially, I’d recommend starting at Edale. Going north there are always notable landmarks ahead; Hadrian’s Wall, the forested landscape around Kielder Water, the Cheviots, and then the border and the thrill of crossing into Scotland. All your focus seems to be on those places. It’s an entirely different walk from the opposite direction. Those same targets have been reached in the first two or three days. Then there’s the climate to consider. Going south you generally face the prevailing wind, depending on the time of year. Going north it pushes you along.”

Whatever the direction, however painful for soles, the soul is uplifted, in Stott’s experience. “It’s special. Maybe you do it at a certain point in your life when a big project really means something. It may be the physical challenge, or the camaraderie of other walkers, and sharing joys and miseries. It can be something indefinable – the experience of walking up the spine of northern England, through wonderful countryside, with great glowing conurbations to your left and right. “Sheffield, Manchester, and Leeds, huge populations, are relatively close, but somehow remote, even on a different planet, when you are on the Pennine Way.”

To mark the anniversary, the Countryside Agency asked people to submit their memories of the trail. They came from all over Britain. Olive Ratner walked it in 1972, north to south in ‘horrible weather’ with nine others. ‘Only three to four still alive’, she added, cryptically. Ron Scholes did it that year, too, with his 12-year-old son. It took them 22 days. At 14, Julia Herrod got as far as Bellingham in Northumberland with her sister, two cousins, and three other teenagers, before the start of the school term intervened and they had to catch a train home. She recalled: “My parents wouldn’t let us camp, so we used YHA. It was a mammoth adventure for us in those days”. Then there was Albert Holt, now 93 and living at sea-level near Blackpool. During the Second World War he worked at a textile mill between Oxenhope and Keighley, which had been requisitioned to manufacture springs for armaments. While there he rented a cottage called Stones Top, on Oxenhope Moor, for six shillings a week, and in his spare time became a keen rambler. A generation later he walked the Pennine Way which, he discovered, passed close to his former home.

The trail became something of a fixation in his case as well. He completed it three times, the first when he was 53, and kept a journal of his adventures that he calls Old Albert’s Memoirs. On one journey he met Hannah Hauxwell and saw something of her primitive way of life at Birk Hat Farm in Baldersdale. She invited him in for a cup tea to which she added condensed milk. Why didn’t she use real milk, he asked? “That’s only for the beasties,” she replied, indicating her calves.

The trail has come a long way in 40 years. Alfred Wainwright’s book about the Pennine Way helped to make it so popular that sections over soft, peaty moorland were turned into a morass by too many feet. Something had to be done, and the solution was a fitting one. It involved returning to the wild some of the millstone grit and other stone which had become the plundered fabric of many northern towns and cities. Redevelopment made some of it redundant, so back it’s gone to the hills, as parts of the trail have been paved. The basic rule is that the path is only restored sparingly, and then by using natural materials. It may not delight a purist but then the Pennine Way has always been subject to compromise.

There are those who argue that if it’s to live up to its name, the path should start further south, around Ashbourne in Derbyshire, and end at Hadrian’s Wall. What is it doing pressing on to the Cheviots – which is a geologically different range? Such pedantry doesn’t concern Mike Imrie. From his home overlooking the Pentland Firth – 450 miles from the Pennine Way’s midway point – he wouldn’t change any of the trail which inspires such strong feelings in him. “For me, it has meant bumping up against my limitations. If you confront and overcome them, you end up stronger. It’s a personal odyssey, an incredible journey through the rugged heart of the country.”

To sample it on the forthcoming anniversary, the route has been divided into 50 circular walks, each between seven and 19 miles long.

The Countryside Agency has called the celebration Walk the Way in a Day.

john.woodcock@ypn.co.uk

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