Penniless on the Pennine Way

As if walking the Pennine Way was not enough of a challenge, Simon Armitage decided to go penniless, reciting poetry each night in exchange for a meal and a bed

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So I woke up one morning and decided to walk the Pennine Way. Not there and then; it would need a little bit of planning, obviously, and maybe a little bit of training, but at the age of 47 the time had come. It was now or never – that’s what I told myself. Like the Pennine hills themselves, the walk had loomed large over my childhood.

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I grew up in the West Yorkshire village of Marsden and every summer I watched bedraggled hikers crawling off the moor from the south. They’d walked the first, haunting section of the route, a grim trudge across Dark Peak and Black Hill, and for many of them it was enough. Two lads from Scotland pitched their tent behind the allotments and stayed there for the rest of the holidays.

The Pennine Way is about 256 miles long – no one seems to be able to put a precise figure on it. The starting point is the Old Nags Head in Edale, Derbyshire, and the finishing line is the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm, Scotland. But being a contrary sort of person, I decided to walk it the wrong way round, into the wind and the weather, because that way I’d be walking home (and walking downhill, right?).

As if hiking up to 14 miles a day for the best part of three weeks wasn’t enough of a challenge, I also decided to give a poetry reading every night, like a latter-day troubadour, reciting my work in pubs, village halls, schools, churches and cafés in return for bed and breakfast and a packed lunch the next day. And I’d hand a cap round, so people could put in whatever they thought I was worth. I suppose as well as testing my physical capabilities and my mental strength, I wanted to know how far my reputation as a poet could get me, and whether poetry would sustain me across some of Britain’s most treacherous and daunting landscapes.

And so it was, without a penny in my pocket, that I set off into a July morning, aiming vaguely south, and with an itinerary consisting of little more than the names and addresses of people I’d never met before, who’d offered to host and house me for the night.

Mastering the moors

The Pennine Way, I’d imagined, would be the perfect platform for my writing, a sort of gantry running down the middle of the country, from where I could compose and contemplate and write a book about my memories of growing up in the hills and my relationship with the north of England. But the book has turned out to be about people and place, about the communities who welcomed me, and about some of the peaks and moors that did everything in their power to block my progress.

On day two I got horribly lost in low cloud in the Cheviots, but this was just a softening up for the nightmare of Cumbria’s Cross Fell, once known as Fiend’s Fell and England’s highest point outside the Lake District, where I entered the mist and did not emerge for several hours, having tramped around in a strange moonscape of grey stones and quizzical sheep. When I finally caught sight of four fell-runners who’d come looking for me, I clasped them and kissed them, and didn’t stop gibbering with gratitude until they’d delivered me safely into Dufton later that day.

The trudge towards the famous Tan Hill Inn, roughly the halfway point, was another test of stamina, the path being more of a swamp and the wind being hurricane force in the wrong direction. Later that day, I looked south, only to see an endless layering of more hills and further horizons blurring and blending as far as the eye could see. With no end to my journey in sight, I felt small and lost in the vastness of the Pennine Range.

There were good days as well, great days in fact, in the river valleys and dales, and even on the summits when the cloud lifted, the wind dropped and panoramic views opened up in all directions. High Cup Nick, England’s Grand Canyon, took my breath away. At High Force waterfall in Teesdale, I felt the thundering water vibrating in the soles of my feet and through my rib cage, and above Malham Cove at dusk I imagined I’d walked out on to a stage, standing in the sun’s spotlight, with the whole of North Yorkshire as an audience. (The dream was broken when the swarm of texts and voicemails that had been circling the skies for three days came flocking into my phone.)

The kindness of strangers

But the real highlights were the people, some of them guardians of the landscape and experts in the field, such as the rangers and wardens that ushered me over their patch; others residents of remote villages and distant towns who gave up their back bedrooms in return for nothing more than a few poems from a complete stranger. In fact, without their generosity and company I don’t think I would have completed the walk.

Almost every morning, people who’d come along to the reading would turn up and offer to walk with me. Life stories were told in just a few miles, and I learned more about local gossip and folklore from my hosts and walking companions than from any guidebook or gazetteer.

If I was more a listener on some days, it was only because my mouth was fully occupied with the processing of oxygen, or gawping the hay meadows, or the peregrine falcons above Hadrian’s Wall, or the sudden appearance on the Cumbria/Durham border of five fell ponies, prehistoric horses dripping with dew, steaming in the sun, then melting back into the moor.

After slogging across hills and valleys for most of the day, reading poems was usually the last thing I wanted to do, but my mood would change in the early evening, once I’d seen the trouble people had taken to find a venue and whip up an audience. One night, after arriving at Blackton Grange, County Durham, I was spirited away in a Range Rover and read to just six people in someone’s living room – the only time I’ve ever read poems in my stocking feet.

In Bellingham, Northumberland, I read in a marquee in a car park with singing farmers, to almost 200 people in Gargrave, North Yorkshire, and then Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. In Once Brewed Visitor Centre at Hadrian’s Wall, I read poems against a background of bleating sheep, a video presentation of the Romans in Britain and 20 garrulous American students queuing for the toilet (I think they thought I was one of the automated exhibits).

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It was a peculiar sensation on the morning that Greater Manchester hoved into view. For 18 days, I’d been wandering down the middle of a remote wilderness with wide buffer zones of unpopulated hills and uninhabitable moors to either side, but this hulking urban mass meant I was getting closer to the edge, and nearer to the end, and I wasn’t sure I was ready to finish. Once I did, the question people asked was this: would I do it again? My initial answer was no, but that was because I’d seized up and needed about a week in a deck chair to recover. Once I’d regained the use of my limbs, this changed to a euphoric “yes,” then eventually to a more cautious “maybe”. But if there is a next time, I’ll try to rely more on my feet and less on my tongue, and rather than loading my spine with heavy books, let the backbone of England take the weight.