Before The Millenium

How did we do in 1963?
We hiked from Edale to Kirk Yetholm in thirteen days. (See earlier).

I brought home inside me the thrill of gazing at far horizons of moors and mosses, green dales and high brown watersheds, grey crags and dark, dank forests. I’d relished the knowledge that each day’s journey would go beyond the next skyline and had felt inspired by the sense of walking away to somewhere new, rather than making a round trip from home.

But we’d had to compromise. A combination of circumstances forced us to cut corners and improvise diversions. Deep inside, a little voice kept reminding me that we’d walked to Scotland, but we hadn’t really “Done the Pennine Way”.

I was asked if I’d do it again.

‘When I walk the Pennine Way again,’ I declared, ‘I’ll take a month. I’ll reward myself with rest days. I’ll make time to stop and stare.’

Life moved on. I lost touch with Neil and Obie. I attended university, embarked on three decades of full-time employment, and acquired family obligations. For many years I convinced myself I was too busy to repeat an enterprise like the Pennine Way. Convinced myself? Come off it! I’d never have dared suggest it! It would have been grounds for divorce!

Yet I remained eager to listen and talk about the Way, and, given the slightest encouragement, would wax lyrical about my memories. In hiking, it’s as the song lyric says: “Even the bad times are good”, at least in retrospect. The feeling grew that from the first time I lost my direction and my illusions on Kinder Scout, the Pennine Way had been calling me back for another attempt. I realised that my Secret Dream had metamorphosed into my Unfinished Business.

Over a period of thirty-five years I made brief and very sporadic forays on Saturdays and Sundays along the route and into the countryside around the Way. The visits grew more frequent in the late eighties and early nineties, and I began to feel increasingly at home on its foot-worn paths and in its wilder places, even the much maligned dome of Black Hill, that epitome of desolation, the pivot on which success and failure sway in delicate balance. But it wasn’t until July 1998 that my commitments diminished and I set off from Edale to walk north, longing to feel again the freedom of striding out like the youngster of 1963.

As planned, I made it as far as Thornton in Craven before returning home for a family party. The experience confirmed how time had moved on: parts of the route had been paved, making progress easier; the energetic boy had become the older man, obliged to nurse an abdominal strain and a recent knee injury over the rough ground with the aid of newly acquired trekking poles, the kind of affectation I’d previously disdained. Despite that, once the first day across Kinder Scout and Bleaklow was in the bag, I skipped along much better than I could have hoped.

A few days later I mentioned my achievement to the consultant surgeon.

‘Is it a hernia you want me to operate on,’ he said acidly, peering over his glasses, ‘or do you have a problem with your head?’

Early in 1999 we moved to Derbyshire, and that summer I picked up the trail again at Thornton in Craven.
‘Are you going to finish it this time?’ Anne asked.

‘I don’t know. Probably. I’m taking all the maps.’

In the event I walked only as far as Dufton. There I turned about to make an in-depth exploration of upper Teesdale, which seemed more worthwhile than completing the Pennine Way. I felt no compulsion to race for the tape. There would be another time.

On those expeditions I walked alone. Such a confession might prompt images of a lone traveller lost in fog, a broken ankle, hypothermia, mountain rescue teams, embarrassment heaped on top of injury, and accusations of irresponsibility. Serious tomes on outdoor pursuits document such consequences of unwise endeavours on upland terrain. Surprisingly, none of the writers addresses the first difficulty facing many a would-be Pennine Wayfarer, namely obtaining approval to proceed.

Ever been at work and wondered how to raise a potentially difficult or contentious issue with your boss? Frightened you’ll get your ear filled with a high pressure stream of molten ridicule? Scared he’ll shrivel you on the spot with his laser-eyes?

Of course you have, but don’t despair. There are techniques to help you avoid personal damage. One relatively safe way is to float your wild idea in a brainstorming session or during scenario planning, when daft schemes and crazy possibilities are not only accepted, they are actually expected and indeed required.

Now transfer that principle into the home, and never forget that, in family life too, timing and presentation are the keys to success. Remember the ancient maxim that there’s safety in numbers. Pray for a slice of good luck, keep your fingers crossed, and you just might find yourself home and dry.

It was mid-June. Our garden was full of family and friends, joshing as ever and ribbing each other, but temporarily peaceful after a lubricating visit to the pub followed by lunch al fresco.

‘I hear you went to Las Vegas for your wedding anniversary,’ said Alan, the elder statesman, a hint of mock disapproval in his voice signalling the recommencement of verbal skirmishing.

‘We did,’ Anne announced firmly, ‘and it was wonderful, fantastic, over the top, unbelievable, mind-blowing.’

My wife was seldom known for such voluble declarations, so everyone was instantly alert to the fact that the defence would not lack determination.

‘Ask her who she went to see,’ Hugh stage-whispered, sending out a scouting party to probe her defences and winking at me.

‘We went to see Barry Manilow in concert,’ Anne stated preemptively, asserting the strength of her position by making direct eye contact with every smiling guest, ‘and he was brilliant, absolutely brilliant.’
‘They saw him four times,’ Ivy said softly, divulging secret intelligence to Pauline.

‘Four times!’ Pauline exclaimed, attempting to undermine the staunchest defender of Fortress Manilow. Then she looked at me and asked, ‘You didn’t go to the concerts, did you, Pete?’
‘So that was Anne’s anniversary present,’ said Alan, smirking in anticipation of a capitulation, ‘but what about Pete’s?’
‘Pete enjoyed the shows too,’ Anne declared, before I could open my mouth. She then put the bedraggled remnants of Alan’s skirmishing band to flight with the announcement, ‘and now he’s going to finish off the northern end of the Pennine Way.’

Their attention instantly diverted from the alien concept of four Manilow concerts in one week to the equally bizarre proposition of a week on the North Pennines, they all stared at me in shock.

‘Is that right, Pete?’ Pauline asked.
‘It is,’ I confirmed. ‘It’s correct in every detail.’

Then, goodness knows why, perhaps subconsciously reverting to pure instinct, I marched straight into the castle and raised my standard.

‘And when I get to the end,’ I declared, ‘I’m going to turn round and walk home.’

To this day I’ve no idea where that came from. I don’t remember thinking about it before. Maybe it was the drink talking.

I doubt whether they believed me, but it shut them up. I’m not sure I believed myself. I looked across at Anne. She looked as if she hadn’t even heard me, as she wore the Manilow fan’s serene smile of contentment.

With Fawltyesque self-delusion, I told myself, ‘Don’t mention the walk. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it.’

Afterwards I rationalised that I wouldn’t be satisfied with the six or seven days it would take to finish what I’d started, and we talked it over when our guests were gone.

‘Are you really going to walk home?’ Anne asked.
‘I’d like to,’ I answered. ‘I’d really like to.’

Then I explained how, when I was at work, I’d often visualised a different me, standing on top of a hill, gazing north. At that time, we lived and worked on the edge of the Cambridgeshire Fens, the lowest and flattest part of England, and my favourite countryside lay far to the north and northwest. In my vision, successive ranges of hills receded into the haze, and it was my decision, mine alone, whether to cross one or more of those distant watersheds before stopping for the night. I suppose that in my mind I was back on the Chevin with Dad, or maybe it was 1963 somewhere between Edale and Kirk Yetholm, possibly even on the correct route.

Whatever its origin, that daydream had seen me through some tedious office days, and at last I was free of responsibilities. After three years of retirement and part-time self-employment, I no longer felt the need to walk away from anything, but I burned to complete an outward journey begun in my mind in the early nineteen-sixties. After that, the magnet of home would draw me back.

There was no difference between Anne and me about my expedition. For years we’d agreed we should do such things while we remained physically and mentally capable. That’s why we blew money on the Vegas trip. That, and the fact that after thirty years married to me, it seemed only reasonable to give her a few hours in the company of her favourite man. And for the avoidance of doubt, yes, I really did enjoy his shows.

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