October 8, 2017

The Trans-Pennine: A Cautionary Trail

Nearly a year ago, my Mum and I cooked up the idea of walking the Trans-Pennine Trail. Honestly, I wasn’t that mad about that particular trail; it didn’t look very pretty. Nor did I like the symbolism of walking to Armpit, where it ends – I’d rather walk away. But I did fancy heading off into the wilderness for two weeks to see what I was made of.

Pete wasn’t mad about it either; he wanted to go walking with me, so the new plan, to leave him in charge of Casa Uborka while I went off to have fun, was pretty unappealing. I mollified him by arranging some walking weekends on the Thames Path with him, and we had a lovely time, as has been mentioned before. Meanwhile Mum started training and was soon walking 15 miles twice a week, far more than I have the time to manage.

By the time September came, I had made a plan and booked the hotels. Bernard was two weeks into secondary school, which you’ll agree was not great timing. We planned to take two weeks to walk the 215 miles, and I, probably rather annoyingly, decided only to walk the first week. I didn’t really want to be away for so long.

It was the day of various travel disruptions when we both travelled to Liverpool, me from the south and she from the east. Eventually we met in Liverpool, took ourselves for a glass of wine in celebration of the adventures to come, and checked into our hotel near Aintree. I wrote in my diary, Mum’s rucksack is very heavy and full of stuff. I might have to go through it. Four chargers (all essential), a spare comb, large bag of make up, no reading glasses.

Day One: Southport-Aintree 16.5 miles

After a cooked breakfast in Asda, we took a bus to Southport. We had our trail cards stamped at the tourist office, and then attempted to find the official start. What we actually found was the entrance to Southport Air Show, and some jobsworth young officials who would not under any circumstances allow two harmless old women to walk over to the ‘Eye’ for a photo op. It’s been all over the internet, they said. They didn’t even mention it to us in the tourist office, we replied. I got my camera out to take some pictures of the situation, and they immediately relented and escorted us reluctantly to the start of the trail.

And then we were off! For a long time, we walked beside sand dunes with a distant view of the sea; and then turned east into farmland and along the Cheshire Lines, the first of many disused railways. We sat on the corner of a field to eat our sandwiches and feel pleased with our progress under the pleasant warm sun. After another 7 miles of railway we were very happy to reach a canal for a few minutes, before turning off for our hotel. Ravenous, we ate early and slept badly.

Day Two: Aintree- Hale Village 17 miles

It was drizzling when we left our hotel, but we sat it out in a Costa on a retail park, the only thing open early on a Sunday morning. The route today was mostly leafy railway line, with a cafe break around 12 where we made the mistake of having a cream tea instead of a proper lunch. We were too full to feel like eating again, so were not very well fuelled for the rest of the day. We have about 30 cereal bars between us, but they’re not very appealing. The last part of the day brought us around John Lennon Airport, into a council estate, and then we attempted to cut the corner into Hale Village and got a bit bogged down in a field for a while. Mum spent most of the day grumbling either about Runkeeper or her knock-off fitbit, and advising me that the second day would be the hardest. Her theory is that we will get fitter as we go; I believe we will get tireder.

Nice B&B with lots of fruit and biscuits in the room (but apparently that’s breakfast too). The B&B owner did come and fetch us from the pub where we had dinner, and donated a tenner to mum’s charity Macmillan Nurses. Pretty knackered, but still slept badly.

Day Three: Hale-Lymm 19 miles

Hale to Widnes at the start of the day was deceptively pretty, and in Widnes we turned down some hot sausage rolls in the cafe where we took our morning teabreak. This turned out to be a terrible mistake.

The map showed the next section to be several long straight miles with a canal on our left and the Mersey on our right. In fact the canal was blocked up with bullrushes and duckweed, and there was a large untidy bank/hedge on our right. The pub where we planned to lunch was closed on Mondays. Today also featured large bridges, factories, sewage plants, and power stations; it was like walking through the 1970s.

Starving, around 3pm, we found a Morrisons for cheap sausages and chips. Looking at the map and calculating how far we still had to go, we could have cried. We are starting to realise that the TPT maps are more form than function, and the mileage calculations are quite broad estimates. Dragged ourselves out into the start of rush hour, and standing looking confused on a bridge in Knutsford, a woman called out of her car window, are you looking for the Trans-Pennine? and sent us off in the right direction.

Past the huge locks of the Manchester Ship Canal, too tired to appreciate them really; and up on to the inevitable disused railway line for miles and miles and miles, dredging up all our powers of encouraging each other along. At long last we reached Lymm where we were picked up by mum’s step-grandaughter, who put us up for two nights.

Day Four: Lymm-Didsbury 15 miles

It’s amazing how easy 15 miles feel, when you did 19 the day before. Took a taxi back to Lymm and picked up the trail, enjoying walking with less weight having left most of our stuff at the house. We also had a packed lunch, although we ate this mid-morning after a fairly scanty breakfast. Happily we crossed a motorway bridge and stumbled into a tea van, where we were served bacon butties on folding chairs beside the sliproad.

Much of the terrain was scruffy; less industrial, more motorway, more fly tipping and litter, nowhere clean enough to actually sit down. The last section of the day took us into a water park along the Mersey, where we actually found an open pub and stopped for a proper rest, boots off, and after that the last few miles felt easy. The day ended sitting outside a bar drinking mint tea and waiting for our lift, feeling like things were picking up a bit.

Day Five: Didsbury-Padfield 23 miles

We knew this was going to be the longest day, so set off early. We were dropped off in Didsbury where we had a good cafe breakfast, and then walked 4 miles to Stockport which was surprisingly pretty. The plan was to break the day up into 4-mile chunks, and never to think beyond the current chunk.

Chunk two took us through much nicer countryside, the river Mersey getting smaller and copper-coloured from the hills. In Denton we ate a large carvery lunch and took our boots off for a bit. 8 miles in, still feeling good.

Chunk three to Hyde along some railway line again, with these decorative signs for us to enjoy. The trail passed around a housing estate but didn’t offer any shops or cafes, so we took our break on a horse mounting block, boots off again, it really helps.

Chunk four felt long, lots of main roads, then down into Broadbottom where a lady was about to close her cafe but kindly made us a cup of tea and gave us some cake, and then offered to drive us the rest of the way. We did turn down this offer.

Out of Broadbottom along some lovely footpaths, starting to head up into the Pennines; then we emerged into a housing estate on one of those roads that just seems endless as we inch along the map. Stopped a woman to ask directions to the pub; it’s a 15 minute walk, she said, looking worried. We had been walking for 11 hours by this time, and didn’t really mind another 15 minutes. However it turned out that the pub didn’t do food in the evenings, at which point we looked rather disappointed, and the small company of old blokes who had been quietly boozing rallied round to recommend we either go back down the hill to the Lamb (we were going neither back nor down anything), or took a taxi.

Again we steadfastly refused the lift, found another pub which did serve food, although not particularly nice food. It was late, and dark, by the time we left, and we found ourselves on an unlit A road without pavements. When a car pulled alongside us and a man offered us a lift (I’ve got my daughters in here, I’m not some pervert), we gave in and took it.

Our B&B that night was sparse but clean and very, very welcome. We felt amazing for achieving that distance; two days earlier I seriously didn’t believe we could do it.

Day Six: Padfield-Penistone 14.5 miles over the Pennines

Our host set us up for the day with a really good farmhouse breakfast and talked a lot. He basically seemed to think anyone doing the TPT was an idiot. It was nice to get outside again, but we were sore and tired and not in great spirits: grey skies and the prospect of actual hills today.

Took our first break at 4 miles by the side of the path, and had a long slightly disagreeable conversation about whether banana skins biodegrade. The rain started, and continued as we came to Woodhead Station, admired the tunnels, then started going up. Great views even with the low cloud, but so cold and exposed. There was a plaque somewhere telling us we were at the highest point, but we missed it and took a teeth-gritted selfie in the drizzle. Mum kept pointing at random stones and saying, is that the plaque?

Nowhere sheltered enough to stop for lunch, eventually we stood under a dripping tree and ate yesterday’s sandwiches, which were very much past their best. Then of course we turned on to the inevitable railway line, which was marked with a bench every kilometre. Some of those kilometres felt much longer than others. Occasionally the path was brightened up with sculptures (many of them quite phallic, perhaps it was no coincidence that we were coming down into Penistone), and small doors stuck on trees.

Finally after hours after endless hours of tedious railway line, we came into Penistone, and found the pub, where our rooms were at the top of three (3) flights of stairs, and no breakfast was provided. We did however have a really good curry across the road, and a slightly better night’s sleep.

Day Seven: Penistone-Dearne Valley 13.5 miles

Left the weird hotel by the fire exit, as there was no-one around. Beautiful blue skies and scenery as we left Penistone. Stopped to ask a man building a dry stone wall for directions. Where are you headed? Dearne Valley, we tell him. Toothsuck: You’re a bit out of your way. People generally assume we are lost. An old man caught up with us (!) and chatted for a while, then we stopped at a bakery for a polystyrene cup of tea.

The rest of the day was railway line, miles and miles of it, and we both resorted to our headphones to distract from the utter tedium. About a mile from the hotel, the heavens opened. On arrival, the receptionist passed us a pile of extra towels. But the room had a bath and it was just bloody wonderful. Slept badly.

Day Eight: Dearne Valley-Doncaster, 17.5 miles

Despite the fact that there was a fair bit of river alongside us, we were much too tired and grumpy to appreciate the scenery, particularly towards the end of the day when the path seemed to stretch as we walked. Even an open pub couldn’t cheer us up; I’ve never been so happy to see Doncaster, or a Premier Inn.

The next five days
Mum took a rest day in Doncaster, and I came home. The 136 miles I had walked were absolutely enough, and I was ready to stop, and felt awful about leaving mum to walk on her own, but I missed Pete and Bernard so much. Mum then walked on without me, and four days later I rejoined her for her penultimate day…

Epilogue: Brough-Hull 14 miles

Being well-rested made a massive difference to me, but I was also impressed by how mum was managing when I caught up with her. Obviously tired, but not as low as she had been when I left her in Doncaster. Like many days on the trail, this one was divided into a pleasant half and an unpleasant half. We got the sewage plants and slippery sections of path out of the way early on, met my dad for lunch, and then walked under the Humber Bridge and into her home territory. Once we were off the A63, things improved, including another open pub – something to celebrate, by now. We particularly liked the bit where some steps took us up and over the rooves of warehouses by the working Albert Dock: amazing views and big boats. Came into Hull via the Marina, and got my final stamp at The Deep, before eating very good tapas and having another bad night’s sleep.

I had to leave mum in the company of her stepdaughter, to finish the trail, because I had a study day to go to in Leeds. It was a bit rubbish not to reach the end with her, but I am so so proud of the walk she walked. What an amazing woman. But seriously, if you’re thinking of a long distance trail, do a different one.


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