Silent Walks
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The Pennine Way

The Wider Significance of The Pennine Way

The recent (20th century) history of this route has come to represent the struggle by hikers for public access to land, led by Tom Stephenson and The Ramblers. In June 1935 Tom Stephenson wrote an article for the Daily Herald which is widely credited to have been the inspiration for the creation of The Pennine Way.

In the article 'Wanted - A Long Green Trail' he contrasted the financial support and encouragement of the US government towards the creation of the 2000 mile Appalachian Trail and 2500 John Muir Trail, against the UK authorities hostile attitude to walkers in Britain. (This was just three years after The Kinder Scout trespass1 .) Tom Stephenson wrote of two American girls asking for advice for a walking holiday in England, and wondered "what they would think of our island, particularly the restrictions placed in the way of those who wished to see some of our most captivating scenary. If, at the end of their tour, these visitors from across the Atlantic are over-loud in their praises of their native 'Land of Liberty', who shall blame them?" His article concluded: "Let us have this through route to health and happiness for this and succeeding generations who may thus make acquaintance with some of the finest scenary in the land. Whatever the cost, it would be a worthy and enduring testimony bringing health and pleasure beyond computation, for none could walk that Pennine Way without being improved in mind and body, inspired and invigorated and filled with the desire to explore every corner of this lovely island."

Thus the establishment of The Pennine Way came to signify the wider struggle to open up the private shooting moors and estates of the north of England.

1 The Kinder Scout is often cited a the first mass trespass. In fact the Winter Hill trepass preceded it by 36 years.
In the summer of 1896, Colonel Richard Henry Ainsworth erected gates across access roads, erected "Trespassers will be prosecuted" signs and hired men to warn people off the property. A small advertisement appeared in the Bolton paper, inviting the public to join a demonstration on Sunday morning, 6 September 1896, to test the right of way over Winter Hill. A crowd of one thousand met in Bolton to listen to some speeches. Numbers increased tenfold as they marched up Halliwell Road towards the edge of the moor. At the gate they were confronted by a small contingent of police. According to the Bolton Chronicle, "Amid the lusty shouting of the crowd the gate was attacked by powerful hands…… short work was made of the barrier, and with a ring of triumph the demonstrators rushed through onto the disputed territory. Plans were soon in place to repeat the procession."
The following Sunday, two thousand people came and listened to speeches. Again the crowd grew as it set off for the moor, completely blocking Halliwell Road. This spontaneous movement of 1896 did not quite achieve what it set out to do. For years the right of access to Winter Hill was embroiled in the British Legal System. However in 1932 better organised and more capable men set in train the events of Kinder Scout, which proved momentous to those who enjoy the freedom to roam our hills and moors.

A walk with Tom

In one of his last interviews, Tom Stephenson walked the Pennine Way with Roly Smith in 1976.

“Aye,” said Tom, a warm smile creasing his weatherbeaten face. “It’s a grand valley isn’t it?”

We were looking up Grindsbrook Clough to the rock-rimmed Edale Moor. This was where it all began. The Pennine Way snakes northwards for 250 miles from here to beyond the Scottish Border, keeping to the upper vertebrae of England’s backbone all the way.

But when Tom Stephenson proposed, in a throwaway centre-spread filler for the Daily Herald 41 years ago, “a faint line…which the feet of grateful pilgrims would engrave on the face of the land,” he could have had no idea of what would follow.

“The way I feel, this route has given so much pleasure to so many thousands of people who perhaps otherwise would not have ventured onto the hills,” said Tom. “This is what I wanted in the first place, and when I see young people enjoying themselves on the Way, it makes it seem worthwhile.”

But there had been a mounting wave of criticism in mountaineering circles against the designation of all forms of long-distance footpaths. The proposed Cambrian Way and a long-distance route in the Cairngorms had attracted a storm of protest. Were there not too many ‘ways’ now?

“Mountaineers were always opposed to the Pennine Way,” he recalled. “The Times complained that ramblers were being molly-coddled when the Pennine Way was first proposed. But having a designated ‘way’ has meant more people enjoying the freedom of the hills, and I can’t see anything wrong in that.”

Talking to Tom about the inception of the Pennine Way, and the setting up of the National Parks Commission, you realise how important a part fate plays in these things. He was the right man in the right place at the right time. It is doubtful whether any of this important legislation would have passed onto the Statutes had not all these conditions have been in place at the time.

Tom’s face lights up and his tongue darts out mischievously as he recounts the tales of a judiciously-worded press release written with carte blanche Ministerial consent, or the publicity-seeking walks with leading MPs and Ministers along sections of the Pennine Way; all arranged when he was Press Officer to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning just after the war. “Aye, we had some fun,” he grins.

He frankly admits that one of the major reasons for the route was to clear up the longstanding and knotty problems of access over Kinder and Bleaklow. When the route was first proposed, there were 180 miles on existing rights of way, leaving about 70 miles of new rights of way to be negotiated. Half of these were in the Kinder-Bleaklow section. Tom has some horrifying tales to tell of the old access battles fought between ramblers and gamekeepers on the moors of the Dark Peak, and still keeps a dossier of gamekeeper assaults during that period.

It was an incredible 70 years ago that Tom had his introduction to the hills. He climbed Pendle Hill from his home in Whalley, Lancashire, one crisp February morning, ‘equipped’ only with his wooden clogs, and stood for the first time on a summit. The memory of that crystal-clear morning is still as fresh to Tom as if it were yesterday.

“It was breathtaking,” he recalled. “I saw range after range of snow-capped hills – Ingleborough, Penyghent, all of which I didn’t know then, but which were to become old friends.

“Oh gosh, I just hadn’t realised that this whole new world was on my doorstep. I made up my mind that day that this was for me.”

The nine-bob-a-week apprentice textile printer walked the Pennines from Dovedale to the Roman Wall during the next seven years, and got to know them intimately, although he admits he still hasn’t walked the whole length of his Pennine Way in one continuous trip.

Seventy years on, the attraction of the hills is still as strong. He was looking forward to a walking holiday in the Lakes when we met, keenly anticipating a reunion with his favourite hill, Glaramara – “not too high, but nice and knobbly.”

A recent television documentary renamed the Pennine Way ‘Stephenson’s Way’, and it is a fitting tribute to his imaginative conception to say that this was no exaggeration.

A version of this interview first appeared in Peak Park News, Journal of the Peak District National Park, in Autumn 1976.

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