Celebrating at home or off on your travels this Christmas, don't forget your boots!
Earlier this year BBC2 broadcast “Pilgrimage: The Road to Rome” here a group of celebrities from different faith backgrounds and none followed the route of Via Francigena across the Alps and through central Italy. Ordinarily I am not interested in this type of programme but found myself drawn to this one. Initially there was an element of morbid curiosity on how cossetted television stars would cope with such a long walk. The original route from Canterbury to Rome was over 1200 miles so I wasn’t surprised they were not tackling that! Instead they started in Orsieres high up in the Swiss Alps and from there crossed the St Bernard Pass into Italy.
After the first episode there was a fair degree of sampling as the group were hopped from one location to the next but “the last 100 kilometres they will actually walk” the narrator announced breathlessly. To be fair to the producers they made no pretence that the celebrities would walk the whole way. What emerged for me was how the simple act of walking with others towards a distantly shared objective strips away all the glamour and frippery reducing the day to fundamentals; how far is it to where I can stop walking today? What’s for dinner tonight? What will the digs be like? Food and shelter. And from the physicality of walking emerges the more spiritual aspects of being. What am I doing here and why? Has God made me do it and is there a God? And so there in a nutshell is Pilgrimage with the coming together of the physical and metaphysical.
Back in May Andy, Malcolm, Don and I walked St Oswald’s Way from Lindisfarne to Heavenfield on Hadrian’s Wall. It wasn’t a spiritual journey but a walking holiday that took us across the large and empty county of Northumberland. Malcolm had the guidebook, Andy had the map allowing Don and I to be passengers so to speak. We chose the St Oswald’s Way because it started on Lindisfarne where ten years previously we had completed our first trail together – St Cuthbert’s Way. At the end of walk as we dined in celebratory mood in the Lindisfarne Hotel I said to my companions “Let’s do this again in ten years’ time!” “If we’re still here!” responded Malcolm. So though not actually walking St Cuthbert’s Way again we did it homage walking six miles of it until we turned south for Bamburgh. We have been on an annual walking holiday ever since 2009.
Trails, at least the way we do them involve B&B evening meal accommodation and a baggage carrying service. For the young and less well-off trails can be done at a fraction of the price we fork out. Everything is carried in the rucksack – tent, sleeping bag, cooking equipment, food and spare clothes – but all that comes at the expense of comfort.
If the idea of trail walking appeals to you then you have a great deal of choice – there are over 650 in the UK alone even before you decide to tackle the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome. So where to begin?
Close to home. For me that meant the Ribble Way following the course of the river from Longton Marsh to its source on the wild moors above Ribble Head. I knew that for the first few days I was in easy reach of logistical support should difficulties had arisen.
Another pointer for the start-up trail walker is to choose one of the shorter trails as a test. The Sandstone Trail in Cheshire is 32 miles long and could be undertaken in a single day by a supremely fit walker but for the average Joe it represents a two or three day hike. In Lancashire the Pendle Way a 45 circular walk covering some of the best countryside the county has to offer is my idea of a good starter trail.
As for the best trails to aspire to – well there is the daddy of them all is the Pennine Way running up the backbone of England from Edale to Kirk Yetholm a distance of 270 miles. This would take three weeks of your life. More manageable is the Coast to Coast possibly one of the most popular trails in the world. At just over 180 miles it traverses the north of England and three national parks. It was the creation of Alfred Wainwright the author of “A Pictorial Guide to the Lake District” who went onto devising the trail after completing the guides. Its appeal is that it takes about 12 days fitting neatly into most people’s annual holidays.
If a week is all you have then there are three contenders in easy reach of Lancashire. The Dales Way which starts in Ilkley and ends on the shores of Windermere at Bowness. This takes you through the heart of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and as with all the LDPs referred to above has straightforward transport links at the start and end of the walk. For aficionados of the Lake District there is the Cumbria Way which crosses the county from Ulverston to Carlisle taking in Coniston, Langdale, Keswick and Caldbeck on route. And then there is the wonderful West Highland Way which links Milngavie on the edge of Glasgow to Fort William with highlight after highlight – Loch Lomond, Rannock Moor, Glen Coe to name but three.
Ten years ago when Don, Malcolm, Andy and I walked St Cuthbert’s Way we had little idea it would lead to so many adventures. While it might be regarded as a sentimental endorsement I would have little hesitation in recommending St Cuthbert’s Way to the starter trail walker. Firstly at 60 miles it can be done in five days. Secondly it passes through the diverse landscapes – riverside, moor and mountain - of the beautiful border country. Finally it ends at a most magical part of this realm – Lindisfarne. Magical it must be because these four old blokes are still walking!