High Cup on the Pennine Way

The Pennine Way's 30-year fight for access to England's northern hills

To celebrate the launch of The Pennine Way - the Path, the People, the Journey, We have an exciting series of extracts from Andrew McCloys fascinating book about the Pennine Way. In this article, he charts how the path originally came into being.

The idea for a long distance path spanning the length of the Pennines was first aired in 1935 by journalist and access campaigner Tom Stephenson, in a newspaper article entitled 'Wanted – A Long Green Trail'. At that time much of the South Pennines and Peak District moorland were kept as exclusive grouse moors and the public excluded. It was hoped that this new trail would help open up this private land, as well as introducing a new generation to hill walking and the outdoors, but it would take many years of struggle before Britain's first official long distance path was eventually opened.


The spur for Tom Stephenson’s article was a letter that the Daily Herald had received from two American girls asking for advice about a ‘tramping holiday’ in England. Tom explained to readers that the Appalachian Trail and John Muir Trail stretched thousands of miles through the girls’ homeland but that England had nothing to compare. Instead, despite the popularity of walking in England, our own hills were ringed with what he called ‘wooden liars’ – notices declaring that the land was strictly private, and that trespassers would be prosecuted.

He invited the reader to consider how, little more than a century before, people were walking unhindered along old Roman roads, pilgrimage routes, shepherds’ trods and drove roads, criss-crossing the hills for a variety of purposes, but now many of these routes had been lost and access closed off.

Ramblers might pour into the likes of the Peak District every Sunday to enjoy good open-air recreation, but their freedom to roam the hills and moors was severely curbed. The answer, Tom artfully suggested, was ‘something akin to the Appalachian Trail – a Pennine Way from the Peak to the Cheviots’. In his Daily Herald article, he painted a picture of how the Pennine Way might look: ‘This need be no Euclidean line, but a meandering way deviating as needs be to include the best of that long range of moor and fell; no concrete or asphalt track, but just a faint line on the Ordnance Maps which the feet of grateful pilgrims would, with the passing years, engrave on the face of the land.’

In February 1938, three years after the article appeared, a Pennine Way Conference was held at Hope, in the Peak District, in a guest house run by the Workers Travel Association. The aims were to consider the proposal in more detail with like-minded people and to decide what to do next. Among the invitees were ramblers’ federations, YHA groups and footpath preservation societies.

Tom was clear that a new walking trail would act as the catalyst for a drive for greater access. He told the meeting: ‘A Pennine Way would introduce more people to the hills and not all of them would be content to follow a defined path.’ And resistance from landowners to creating a linear trail would ultimately play into their hands: ‘If we can create public opinion believing it is indefensible to withhold a few miles of footpath from the people we shall have made some advance.’

The Conference heard that the planned route was approximately 250 miles long, with roughly 68 miles over ground not presently covered by any track or right of way. Of those 68 miles, around 50 miles were over land where ramblers currently had no right of access, with about 30 miles in the hotly contested Peak District and South Pennines. Conflict with landowners was already rife – the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass had taken place just a few years before; and despite the Access to Mountains Bill currently under discussion on the national stage, little headway had been made towards securing greater access to moorland.

Tom Stephenson
Tom Stephenson, whose 1935 newspaper article sparked the idea for the Pennine Way. (photo: Ramblers' Association archive)
Pennine Way commemoration
A plaque at Winnats Pass, a short distance from the start of the Pennine Way, commemorates the place where ramblers staged mass rallies in the 1930s calling for greater access to the Peak District's moors

The Conference concluded by endorsing the idea of a Pennine walking trail and agreeing to press ahead with a full survey of the proposed route. The final resolution was clear about the benefits that a new trail would bring, declaring that ‘it is in the national interest, on the grounds of the physical and spiritual well-being of the Youth of Britain’. The statement went on: ‘Further, this Conference agrees that the wider health-giving moorlands and high places of solitude, the features of natural beauty and the places of historical interest along the Pennine Way, give this route a special character and attractiveness which should be available for all time as a national heritage of the youth of this country and of all who feel the call of the hills and lonely places.’

So the Conference ended with a blueprint for the Pennine Way. A committee was established (the Pennine Way Association) and a number of organisations were identified to carry out the survey work and negotiate to develop individual stages of the proposed route. The same local ramblers’ federations and youth hostel groups that supported the Conference would be in the vanguard, researching the new route on the ground. In an era of limited leisure time and scarce resources, the scale of their task was daunting. Simply reaching what were often remote locations was difficult enough, but then the detailed survey work started in earnest. They had to: compile a list of available accommodation up to a mile either side of the proposed route; inspect any records for common land holdings and inclosure awards; mark up a map showing all existing paths, stiles, gates and footbridges; make detailed observations about the nature of the ground (whether pasture, heather, bog, etc); draw up a register of all landowners on the pathless sections; and, where possible, try to give an indication of attitudes towards the Pennine Way from local landowners.

Following the 1938 Pennine Way Conference, there was enthusiasm in the air as ramblers’ groups and other organisations prepared to go off and survey the proposed line of the new trail. World War II then intervened and life became dislocated; but, despite the difficulties, the Pennine Way Association persevered with its work.

In 1942, the association presented a memorandum to the Scott Committee on Land Utilisation in Rural Areas, a move by the government to develop more coordinated rural planning policy and preserve rural amenities. The submission outlined the background to the proposed Pennine Way, its likely route and the need to create new public access. It painted a picture of an unobtrusive walking trail that fitted into the landscape, pointing out that the pre-war development of motor traffic had made the roads and even the country lanes unsafe and unsuitable for pedestrians.

Bleaklow on the Pennine Way
The Pennine Way runs across Bleaklow in the Peak District, but early last century it was almost entirely out of bounds to the public. (photo: Moors for the Future Partnership)

Ironically, the hardships that brought the country to its knees and the subsequent post-war desire for change and a new start almost certainly made it easier for the Pennine Way to become a reality. The legislation that finally achieved this long-cherished goal was the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. Most visibly, it established Britain’s first ten national parks, as well as national nature reserves and a requirement for local authorities to produce a definitive map recording local public rights of way; and, for the first time, it allowed for the creation of official long-distance footpaths.

The 1949 Act was certainly ground-breaking and a giant step forward, but it was not without its flaws, as it failed to deliver unhindered access to uncultivated uplands – the right to roam – that the Ramblers’ Association and others had hoped for. However, even getting the Act onto the statute books required considerable groundwork and lobbying behind the scenes, in which Tom Stephenson played a significant role. By now, he had left the Daily Herald and was a press officer for the new Ministry of Town and Country Planning. He used this position, and all his guile and political know-how, to lobby for the creation of the Pennine Way, but he was under no illusions about what he was up against. Writing in his memoirs, Forbidden Land, he described how, in 1945, a small exhibition about the proposed Pennine Way in the entrance hall of the Ministry attracted a great deal of interest. ‘This led one assistant secretary to complain that all the publicity about a Pennine Way might lead to a demand for something actually to be done about it.’

One of Tom’s boldest and most effective stunts was to organise a three-day walk along the projected route of the Pennine Way for a group of prominent MPs, taking in the splendours of Teesdale, High Cup Nick, Cross Fell (on top of which they just happened to meet a rambling club from Darlington calling for greater access to mountains) and Hadrian’s Wall. The party included Hugh Dalton, until recently Chancellor of the Exchequer; Fred Willey, who was soon to be a government minister; and rising star of the left, Barbara Castle, later a prominent Cabinet figure. They were all Labour MPs, of course, since this was the immediate post-war period when social reform and a new beginning were in the air. Although the young, comparatively affluent and increasingly mobile middle class were part of the great surge in rambling and outdoor recreation, it was also abundantly clear that the campaign to create the Pennine Way was wrapped up in the wider struggle by working-class people to reclaim the land and secure legitimate access to the hills. Young communists had been in the vanguard of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass in 1932, while Tom Stephenson’s own left-wing leanings were well known. It must have seemed to some that the Pennine Way was simply another manifestation of the class-based assault on the landowning tradition. Certainly it was no surprise to learn that plenty of Labour MPs were drawn to Tom’s cause. During the walk, Hugh Dalton told the Daily Mirror: ‘Some selfish landlords would like to keep us off the Pennines. They are not going to get away with it.’ He also made news on the second day of the walk by raising the red flag on the top of Cross Fell. ‘Dalton takes “red flag” to the Pennines’ ran the News Chronicle headline, although its reporter then admitted that in fact Mr Dalton simply tied his red handkerchief to a stick on top of a cairn.

MPs prepare for a walk along the proposed Pennine Way
Tom Stephenson famously led a group of MPs along the proposed route of the Pennine Way in May 1948 in a high profile publicity stunt. They are pictured here at Birkdale Farm in Upper Teesdale (left to right): Barbara Castle, Fred Willey, Arthur Blenkinsop, George Chetwynd, Tom Stephenson, Hugh Dalton and Julian Snow. (photo: The Dalesman)

The MPs’ high-profile walk kept the issue of outdoor access and countryside legislation firmly on the table, so that afterwards Hugh Dalton publicly called for the creation of national parks and a strengthened rights of way network. And he added: ‘We stand also for completion of the Pennine Way, remembering that this splendid project was first outlined by our good friend Tom Stephenson in 1935. That was thirteen years ago. We have waited long enough.’

There must have been a sense that, finally, the time had come, as the 1949 Act received all-party support and passed into law. Certainly some politicians seemed determined that there would be no further delay. Two years after the Act was passed, the Minister for Local Government and Planning – the same Hugh Dalton – formally approved the Pennine Way on 6 July 1951, just 15 days after being presented with the proposals. It remains one of the speediest confirmations ever executed by a government minister.

However, if approving it was one thing, then realising it on the ground was quite another. From 1949 to 1953, Tom was a member of the new National Parks Commission (later the Countryside Commission) but although he was chosen to chair the long-distance routes subcommittee, he was unable to bring the Pennine Way to fruition during his tenure. In fact, it took at least another decade – fully 30 years after his ‘long green trail’ article originally appeared – before the Pennine Way was finally declared open.

The reasons for the delays were perhaps inevitable, given the historic resistance of many of the owners of the Pennine moors. Even though the 1949 Act gave local authorities the powers to create new public rights of way in order to realise long-distance paths, the process was slow and cumbersome. Some landowners remained dogged and defiant until the end, most notably the water authorities who resisted access on the grounds that it would contaminate the drinking water in their reservoirs.

Manchester Corporation wanted to stop the proposed section of the Pennine Way from Longdendale north to Black Hill, even though well-used roads and a railway already ran virtually alongside their existing reservoirs. The Manchester Guardian covered the subsequent public enquiry, reporting (on 31 July 1954) that a medical witness was called by the Ramblers’ Association to give an expert’s opinion. Dr Wilfred Fine said that the numbers of typhoid carriers had declined to 2.9 per million of the British population. In those under 44 years old (the group most likely to walk the Pennine Way), he estimated that it came out as three carriers in 4 million. The population nationally for that age group was about 30 million, so taking an annual Pennine Way usage by 10,000 members of this age group it would take 300 years for 3 million people to pass. ‘As there were only three carriers in 4 million people of this age group,’ said Dr Fine, ‘in 300 years, in round figures, two carriers could be expected to pass along that part of the Pennine Way.’

Despite the weight of evidence and expert opinion, the Inspector sided with Manchester Corporation and it took over a decade, when a new filtration plant in Longdendale was completed, for the Pennine Way to be restored to its original route via Laddow Rocks to Black Hill.

The last disputed section of the Pennine Way, in Northumberland, wasn’t eventually resolved until a public enquiry in Bellingham in 1964, after the Hon CGW James had first objected to the proposed route crossing his land in Upper Redesdale, then the Ramblers’ Association protested that the alternative suggested by the National Parks Commission through the forest involved too much road-walking. The Pennine Way was finally opened at a ceremony at Malham in the Yorkshire Dales on 24 April 1965. Thirty-three years earlier – to the day – the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass had taken place. It confirmed not just the Pennine Way’s pivotal role in the wider struggle for public access to the hills, but its own unique place in the history of outdoor recreation in Britain.

Opening of the Pennine Way
Tom Stephenson and Fred Willey, Minister of Land and Natural Resources, at the opening of the Pennine Way on Malham Moor, 24th April 1965. (photo: YPN Yorkshire Post)