Prologue

Stepping off a broad mat of wiry bilberry, I gulp a lungful of fresh air and slither ten feet down the steep side of a grough, one of uncounted thousands of narrow drainage channels cut by nature into the sprawling peaty plateau of the South Pennine moors. I dig my boot toes into the opposite bank and push down hard on my trekking poles. The soft, chocolate-brown peat crumbles and subsides beneath my feet, as I fight my way up to the next flat, vegetated crown of firm ground. There I’m able to march a few easy yards towards the energy-sapping traverse of another dark, unstable trench. Refusing to give in to this wild landscape, I grit my teeth and drive myself on, slave to my inner demon.

A persistent siren call has summoned me to these unpaved remnants of the Pennine Way, which survive as I remember them from 1963, when much of the two hundred and fifty miles comprised an unremitting obstacle course over rarely trodden upland. Even then, a fascination for this long-distance walk had infiltrated my teenage being. I’m back again because that fascination grew into an obsession.

My condition is unusual but not unique. A handful of other individuals admit to similar symptoms, and although we seldom meet - the Pennine Way tends to be a lonely fetish – our thoughts keep returning to this arduous high-level tramp across the bleakest terrain in England and Southern Scotland, starting from one inconsequential village and ending in another. For us, the Pennine Way began as a pursuit of small bands numbering three or four, youthful in the days of cotton anoraks and khaki shorts. We early participants have journeyed from The Sixties to our sixties, and most of our bands, like their famous musical counterparts of that magical era, have broken up. The few remaining active members, now pursuing solo careers on the hills, are the incurable victims of Pennine Way Virus.

The bug that infected my teenage bloodstream with that twentieth-century disease must have thought itself transported to the Promised Land. When it came to a long and challenging hike I was always, in today’s parlance, well up for it. Yet at the time I regarded myself as a perfectly normal youth pursuing healthy diversions and was only dimly aware of my malady. The initial symptoms amounted to nothing more sinister than a strong interest in a book called ‘The Pennine Way’. I couldn’t see that serious trouble lay ahead, but it surely did. In August 1963, a month before my seventeenth birthday, the virus took control. I left Edale with two companions and walked to Kirk Yetholm.

For decades thereafter my ailment generally lay dormant, amounting to little more than an occasional short-lived rekindling of interest in what had officially become England’s first National Trail. As late as 1998 everything seemed to be under control, but then I set out once more from Edale for what I innocently believed would be a short walking break. By the end of the first day the virus had flared up with added complications: I deluded myself that I might recapture the abundant energy of the callow youth who had raced along the undefined route thirty-five years earlier. Over three summers, I pushed my older body northwards to Kirk Yetholm, reaching Journey’s End in July 2000. Delighted to have attained unexpectedly high levels of fitness, I suddenly succumbed to the most aggressive attack of all: within forty-eight hours I’d taken leave of my reason, turned on my heels and, like a man possessed, begun striding home to Derbyshire.

Now I’m on the last lap, labouring across Kinder Scout. My progress is subject to the kind of disorientation experienced by a swimmer in the ocean: carried on the swell, swept along by unseen currents, ever subject to the whim of superior forces. Random obstacles force me to zigzag in search of the easiest route, and these involuntary changes of direction render my so-called reference points inconstant. I focus on a distant rock, only to lose sight of it when plunging into a grough, but such are the twists and turns of this terrain that by the time I’ve clambered out, the said rock, if visible at all, reappears in an unexpected quarter. All around me the uneven surface of partially vegetated peat rises and falls, a confusing chaos of black, brown and dull-green waves, and although I’m crossing the highest land for sixty miles in any direction, my skyline is often no more than a hundred yards away.

Here I find no physical nourishment, no resting place except springy heather rooted in the receptive peat. This haunt of red grouse, meadow pipit and mountain hare is harsh and austere, and yet I find it strangely comforting. Every hard-won step inspires in me the belief that my physical effort will be rewarded, and that I will survive to descend safely to softer pastures, to rest and recover, so that I can come here again, maybe just one more time.

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