Exploring the backbone of England isn’t straightforward. On foot it’s arduous. By bike or car, it can be tortuous. Whichever way, it’s great fun. Over many years, I’ve explored many of its byways and offshoots, choosing east or west flanks or tacking between them as the mood suited. Water features large as befits the watershed with dales and high moorland constant companions. Indeed, as an important water catchment area, there are numerous reservoirs in the river valleys.
It was a book found in a charity shop that prompted the regular exploration on the Pennine range forming a natural boundary in the north of England between east and west over hundreds of miles. In W. A. Poucher’s The Backbone of England he describes ‘a galaxy of loveliness in the valleys and in the charming villages which are dotted about them.’
He was quite right in 1946 and the description holds true today. Whether on a flying visit, based on a campsite for a few days or touring, the combination of your own vehicle, public transport and exploring on foot offers the most convenient way of enjoying a holiday with flexibility options.
Hills rather than mountains, their rounded profile enfolds dales, villages and towns linking the work of man with striking natural features. With no background in geology, I take the starting point of the backbone in the south as Edale, start of The Pennine Way. In the north, it varies between the market town of Alston, Hadrian’s Wall and the edge of The Cheviots, depending on inclination.
Picking up a map, there are so many options in tracing a route along the watershed that it’s probably just as well to let serendipity take over, picking highlights as suit. With the counties of Derbyshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland, the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty plus the national parks of the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland along the way, there is no shortage of attractions.
To the north of Edale village, the bulk of Kinder Scout offers the first challenge to Pennine Way walkers. Rather than face that challenge, you could turn southwards to follow the stone-flagged path to the summit of Mam Tor, overlooking town and valley. When the wind blows hard, it is great fun to see how far forward you can lean supported by its steady strength. Be prepared to bite the grass when it slackens!
The Pennine Way became Britain’s first National Trail on 24th April 1965, 33 years to the day after Benny Rothman led the legendary Kinder Mass Trespass. It is 268 miles (431km) long, mostly along the high ground of the Pennines. The iconic path leads from Edale in Derbyshire’s Peak District, through the Yorkshire Dales, the North Pennines AONB and over Hadrian’s Wall to the Cheviots and Kirk Yetholm in Scotland.
The route passes through landscapes that inspired great writers such as the Brontes, William Wordsworth and Charles Kingsley. It provides a history lesson on northern England, including insights into the Bronze Age, the Romans, Vikings, Normans, industrialisation, mining, farming and more. It’s a fascinating geological and ecological field trip, but most of all it’s a walk through life-affirming natural beauty.
Known as the ‘Gem of the Peak’, with good reason, Castleton is a really attractive village in Derbyshire’s High Peak at the western end of the Hope Valley. Along with its pubs, tearooms and show caves, the village holds a unique annual event. Oak Apple Day in May marks the ancient ceremony of ‘Garlanding’.
The Garland of wild flowers around a wooden frame is paraded through the streets before being hoisted to the top of Saint Edmund’s Church tower and celebrates the pagan rite for the ending of winter plus the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660.
Heading north, Calderdale is the southernmost of the Yorkshire Dales (outside the national park) and covers part of the South Pennines area of valleys, moors and hill country. Home of the Industrial Revolution, it offers much more than history with a packed programme of events, arts, music and festivals.
Often overlooked in favour of more dramatic landscapes, the ‘alternative society’ town of Hebden Bridge offers an Arts Festival, a vibrant Burlesque Festival as well as a lively Blues Festival and mummers’ plays. On Easter Monday, there’s a unique Duck Race which generates plenty of good humour and excitement. It’s odd to get so wound up about plastic ducks floating down a river but truly English in eccentric fun.
The Ribblehead Viaduct takes the Settle-Carlisle railway across the valley of the River Ribble around 30 miles north-west of Skipton in the Yorkshire Dales. With the famous Three Peaks – Whernside, Ingleborough and Pen-y-ghent – as a backdrop it forms a striking addition to the landscape.
The area is rather bleak but the nearby Station Inn offers a welcome refuge on misty days. It holds a strange attraction for me but I can never decide whether it’s best enjoyed from the train or the moor. Nearby Ingleton is a neat village, ‘Land of Caves and Waterfalls’, with a rather sleepy air that comes to life during its annual Folk Weekend in October.
Hawes is an excellent diversion from the watershed. Whilst the Dales Countryside Museum is an obvious draw, the Wensleydale Creamery has always exerted an odd draw. True, cheese has always been a favourite of mine but it’s not so much the many varieties as the kitsch gift shop and the chatter of other visitors.
Further north, The Helm is unique as the only named wind in the British Isles. The wind hits the west of the Cross Fell range in the northern Pennines which has a pretty uniform dip and scarp slope sequence. The gently sloping east-face acts as a ‘run up’ to easterly winds and the steep west facing scarp slope provides the accelerator, concentrating the Helm on the eastern fells of the Eden valley. It can generate winds of up to Force 9.
At the heart of the North Pennines, the town of Alston is a personal favourite visited hundreds of times over forty years as it’s on my favourite route across to the Lake District. There’s no dramatic visitor attraction though the starting point for the South Tynedale Railway, England’s highest narrow gauge railway, is on the edge of town. It’s more the atmosphere and character of the place that draws me time and again.
The combination of old buildings, practical hill farming ruggedness and vaguely hippy character in parts makes for a fun stop even on damp, dark days. Cracking Cumberland sausages from Blackstocks and a wee purchase from the Hi Pennine outdoor shop are regular treats.
Often described as ‘England’s last wilderness’, the North Pennines has a unique character which means the area has been designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty as well as a European and Global Geopark.