It can't actually be the case, but the Pennine Way seems to have a profound effect on the local time field. After this long on the road I'd normally think of 17.5 miles as a pleasant day's walk, but the first day of the Pennine Way is no jaunt. It's a hell of a slog.
Luckily I'm pretty fit after about 450 miles of walking, so for me this was a tough walk over tough terrain but I survived surprisingly intact. I was surprised to have managed the walk without too much ill effect; the weather might have been perfect for walking and I might have been a lot more worried about this day's walk than would normally be the case, but I thought the legendary first day of the Pennine Way would damage me more than it has. To quote the official Pennine Way route guide, 'Most people who fail to complete the Pennine Way give up after the first or second day.' I can see why, but happily I'm still here, slogging away.
A lot of the credit for my survival today must go to David, who joined me for today's walk. I met David in Edale Youth Hostel last night while waiting for my friend Angus and his girlfriend Kate to drive over from Sheffield; Angus had promised to take me out for pie and ale when I reached Edale, and true to his word he did exactly that, treating me to a huge meal and a few pints of Tetley's in the lovely Castle pub in Castleton. It was bliss, and when I returned to the hostel, David and I decided to team up for the first two days of the Pennine Way, after which I would be taking a rest day and he'd be moving on.
Perhaps it was the effect of the Tetley's, but I spent an annoyingly restless night worrying about the walk. The Pennine Way's first day over the bleak moorland of Kinder Scout is famous for being a harrowing experience, and all night my phobia sat there, taunting me with horror stories. I saw myself going up to my waist in bog, I cowered from the battering rain as it drove through my Gore-Tex, and I felt my knees give way and my right foot crack on the long descent. And I hadn't even started walking, which of course was half the problem; phobias only go away when you confront them.
So this morning David and I struck out for the start of the Pennine Way, a mile and a half beyond the hostel, and it was soon apparent that our teaming up would be mutually beneficial. David, who hails from Plymouth, has been dreaming of doing the Pennine Way for years and finally he's managed to get the time off to tackle it; however, this is the first really long walk he's tried and he's set himself a tough challenge. His plan is to walk the whole Way in two weeks with no rest days, a schedule that I wouldn't like to take on, even now. It's possible, but it's difficult.
So our two-man team boils down to me, with the Land's End to Edale walk under my belt and at least some experience of the northern stretches of the Pennine Way, and David, the Pennine Way rookie with the big challenge ahead. The benefits are clear: David gets someone to help ease him into the daily routine of long-distance walking and I get company while I tackle my phobia.
In the event, the first day turned out to be a lot easier than either of us had imagined. The horror stories you hear about the Pennine Way usually stem from a combination of bad weather and rough walking terrain, but not only did we have perfect walking weather all day – cloudy but with no threat of rain, with a gentle, cooling breeze blowing across the moors – we also discovered the delights of stone slabs. The Pennine Way might still have a fearsome reputation but it's most definitely had its teeth pulled.
The stone slabs come from the need to conserve the peat bogs through which the Pennine Way runs. Over the years thousands and thousands of walkers' boots have churned up the delicate peat and moss environment, turning the first day of the Pennine Way into one long river of thick, oozing brown muck with the consistency of lumpy gravy, and it's these nightmare bogs that have provided Pennine walkers over the years with legendary stories and, in a lot of cases, a strong incentive to go home early. In the last few years, though, the National Park authority has realised the need to conserve the peat bog environment, and although you still spend most of the first day wandering across bog, you need never actually step on it; instead, the trail follows a long and very solid pavement of stone slabs that takes you across the moors and makes the walk a doddle.
Some purists argue that this has tamed the wilderness and that the Pennine Way just isn't what it used to be. This is true, but I for one don't really want to go on a walk where I'm having to hop from grassy clod to grassy clod, praying that I don't pick the wrong one and go up to my knees in molasses. I've done walks like that and the novelty wears off after a while – or, more accurately, after you lose sight of your knees for the first time – and I think they're awful. I much prefer the new-look Pennine Way, and if people hanker after the old one then I suggest they carry a fridge across the Sahara, swim backwards across the Atlantic, walk from New York to Los Angeles on their hands, or do something else as masochistic as crossing the Peak District's peat bogs without the aid of stone slabs.
But I've got ahead of myself here, because the bogs don't kick in until after a considerable amount of effort, and if there's one thing the Pennine Way still requires, it's effort. The first few miles are delightful as you skirt along the Vale of Edale to the Old Nag's Head pub, which is where the Pennine Way officially starts. From there the going is easy for a while, and as we strode through fields and hopped over stiles, I could feel both our spirits picking up; later I asked David how he'd felt before getting a few miles of pleasant weather under his belt, and he said, 'Really apprehensive.' As the miles ticked away, I could see his confidence building; just like me, he was confronting his fears.
The first real challenge of the day comes in the form of Jacob's Ladder, a steep climb from the Vale of Edale up to the bleak moorland of Kinder Scout that looms to the north. Jacob's Ladder is effectively a stone staircase and although the ascent is hard going, I didn't find it frustrating or difficult; with climbs like this – 150m straight up a steep stony path – you just put your head down and concentrate, and it's amazing how quickly you get noticeably high up. Edale soon lay below us, the sun almost poked through the clouds and our confidence grew further.
You still have to be careful, though. At the top of the ascent, near a rocky outcrop called Swine's Back, we bumped into a guy called Trevor, whom I'd briefly met the day before on the walk into Castleton. Weighed down by a heavy pack full of camping gear, Trevor told us how he'd got up at 4.30am, hit the trail at 6am, and had then spent two hours wandering along the top of Kinder Scout in totally the wrong direction. When we met him he'd just found the Way again and he looked pretty shattered; later we'd meet a couple of walkers who'd also enjoyed an unintentional two-hour diversion on their first day, and all this happened in excellent visibility. Even with stone staircases and slab pavements everywhere, the Pennine Way isn't necessarily an easy walk to follow.
On a day like today, though, there are loads of walkers on the hills, and once you're on the more obvious sections of the walk, you don't need to consult the map: you just follow the queue. The meandering path along the western edge of Kinder Scout is a popular place for day walkers, and with beautiful views west over Greater Manchester, it's easy to see why. In bad weather Kinder is utterly dismal – apparently the winds blow up the V-shaped streambeds that run off the moor and drive the rain right into the faces of any walkers unlucky enough to be out and about – but today it was dreamy. But then, after a steep descent and a right-hand turn, you hit the bog.
As I've already mentioned, the bog has been tamed by stone slabs, but where the challenge used to be getting through the quagmire in one piece, these days the challenge is putting up with the endless plod-plod-plod of crossing a bleak, featureless and downright depressing moor on a winding and monotonous pavement. Boggy moors have their legions of fans, but I'm not one of them; the only bit I enjoyed was looking at the oozing slime on either side of the pavement, safe in the knowledge that these days you don't have to go anywhere near it.
After somewhere between one and two hours of following the pavement – I forget the exact time, it was so boring – we reached the A57 at Snake Pass and that's when things started to get interesting. Walking over the top of peat bogs is one thing, but walking right through the middle of them is another experience altogether.
From the A57 the path strikes out to the northeast and up the cheerily named Devil's Dike. This 'grough' (a channel that cuts through the peat) starts out as a relatively normal looking riverbed, but after a mile or so it enters the bog around Bleaklow and this is where the really scary part of the first day kicks in. There are no stone slabs here, as you're following rocky riverbeds through the moor, but there are precious few markers either and it's stunningly easy to get horribly lost. The groughs criss-cross the bog like a net, creating steep islands of peat called 'hags', and it's into this claustrophobic collection of oversized molehills that the Pennine Way dives headfirst.
It's interesting, as you can clearly see the different layers that make up the peat; the top layer, for example, is darker than the rest, due to the increase in pollution over the last 200 years, and the bottom layers were first laid down at the end of the Ice Age, which is quite a thought. Peat bogs consist of layers of vegetation that don't get broken down by bacteria (as bacteria can't work properly in waterlogged conditions) and these layers compress to form peat, forming at the rate of one inch every 100 years.
But even this intriguing botanical story can't shake off the eerie feeling of walking through the groughs and hags, and even in perfect weather this place is unnerving. In rain or mist it would be as close to hell as you'd ever want to be, and coming out onto the flat summit of the accurately named Bleaklow is a relief, until you realise that Bleaklow itself is yet another desolate hole that you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. It's flat, featureless and grey, and apart from the odd straggly sheep squatting forlornly among the cotton grass, it's thoroughly lonely. Indeed, Bleaklow is the largest area in England not to be crossed by a road, and it feels like it. The happy lanes of Cornwall and the pleasant riverside pubs of the Severn are a long, long way from the Peak District moors, and I know where I'd rather walk.
At least Bleaklow signals the end of the last ascent of the day, and from there to the Youth Hostel at Crowden it's downhill all the way. By this stage David was starting to flag, which is hardly surprising when you look at the length of the first day's walk; it might only be 17.5 miles from Edale Youth Hostel to Crowden but it's a bloody long 17.5 miles through nasty terrain, and as the first day of a very long walk, it's not kind. Full marks to my companion, though; he might have been getting tired and his blisters might have been hurting like hell, but he kept smiling as we stomped down the edge of Torside Clough.
Pausing only to say hello to a walker who was on his way from John o'Groats to Land's End – an older guy who was as hard as nails and in quite another league to me – we finally made it to the Youth Hostel after a long and boring traipse round the banks of Torside Reservoir. During the descent David had been showing all the classic signs of fatigue, and at one point he slipped on the rocky surface and landed on his elbow, which promptly split open and started dripping dark red blood. Luckily he couldn't see the wound – you can't get a good look at the corners of your elbows, no matter how hard you twist and turn – but I could, and I insisted he at least let me wash it out with water.
When you can see gristle inside a cut, you know it's deep, and I couldn't help feeling for the guy. The way his shoulders drooped, the way his smile faded and became forced, the way he wanted to keep on going because resting would only make it harder to get going again... I looked at him and I saw myself struggling along the bloody Pennine Way in 2000 or hobbling through the pain barrier in southwest England a few short weeks ago. I've never stood by before and watched someone else go through the pain that I go through while walking long distances; normally I'm suffering too much myself to be observant, but it's a sorry sight. Unfortunately it's all part of the process; after the long, first day of the Pennine Way I was still springing along, smiling and marvelling at my own blisters, who'd chosen this opportunity to pipe down and keep strangely quiet. I was on top of the world, but looking at David I could see why; I've been going through the pain barrier for weeks and as a result I'm as fit as a fiddle.
It's been a bloody long road getting there, mind.
The Youth Hostel at Crowden, while being a great little hostel with a good line in evening meals, is a long way from the pub, and after a huge hike over Kinder Scout and Bleaklow, the last thing you want is a four-mile walk to the nearest pint. But as David and I tucked into our evening meal and relived the rigours of the day with Jan and Pejo, a Dutch couple who had also started the Way that day, the peace was shattered by a group of people who burst into the hostel, headed straight for David and hugged him like a returning war hero.
It turned out that David's brother's wife's daughters – got that? – live in Sheffield, so they'd driven over to the hostel with their husbands to take Step-Uncle David out for a drink; as luck would have it, they came in a people carrier with eight seats, a perfect fit for two couples and four thirsty hikers. It also turned that it was Jan's 50th birthday, which practically made it our duty to drive down to the Old Bull at Tintwhistle and drink it dry of Landlord.
Perhaps that's the appeal of the first day of the Pennine Way, because it doesn't half make beer taste good...