Notes for Potential Hikers
Our route included thru-hiking or walking portions for five named UK trails.
Pennine Way (PW). The first British National Trail is about 270 miles long. It is a north-south route through the Pennines, a range of rolling peat covered hills in north central England. The high point is Cross Fell, 2930 feet. The PW overlaps the Hadrian’s Wall Path, another National Trail, for about nine miles. Based on our past experiences, waymarking on National Trails is usually excellent, but proved less so on the PW. A map is necessary to stay on route.
Given our understanding that it is a popular walk, we expected to encounter numerous other PW thru-hikers on our trip, but we did not. We crossed paths with only five south-bound thru-hikers, although that is the less popular direction of travel. We met only a single party of two north-bound thru-hikers, and ironically, like us, they were from California. Given that we took fifteen days to complete the walk, we certainly expected to catch up to or be passed by many other thru-hikers.
The PW is often called England’s toughest National Trail. In our assessment, the trail is easy to walk, although our feet were saturated nearly all day on most days; having wet feet is not enjoyable but is not a serious hiking problem. Total gain for the PW is a bit less than 40,000 feet, or about 150 feet per mile. There are a couple of very short, quite easy class 2 scrambles with minor exposure. Besides the bogs, the most common obstacles were the over 700 gates and styles to be climbed over or opened and closed. Often, the muddiest places we encountered were passing through these man-made barriers.
Our only real difficulty was one and a half days with gale force winds and steady rain when hiking on the high moors. The PW is known for having occasional severe weather, and we were lucky to have decent conditions for most of our trip. If the weather is bad, getting lost and hypothermia are distinct risks to be taken into consideration. The open moors have few landmarks and in heavy cloud, losing your way would be quite easy and finding shelter is not a given; therefore this route may not be appropriate for somebody with no navigation skills. Overall, we thought the PW was an enjoyable route through beautiful hills, moors, and farmlands. In particular, the remote and silent Cheviot Hills provided a fabulous walking experience.
St. Cuthbert’s Way (SCW). A sixty mile east-west path connecting Melrose with Lindisfarne. We joined the SCW at the northern terminus of the PW in Kirk Yetholm, and followed it to the coast at Lindisfarne. It was pleasant, easy walking with incomplete waymarking. Resupply opportunities were adequate.
King Charles III England Coast Path. This is a work in progress to establish a waymarked path around the entire coast of England. The trail is complete and waymarked in this region, and we followed it from Lindisfarne to the Scottish border.
John Muir Way (JMW). This is primarily a coastal route connecting Dunbar on the east coast with Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde. Established in 2014, the route has incomplete waymarking. We mostly stayed on the JMW, including some waymarked links starting just north of Lindisfarne. However, we made a major diversion in the Edinburgh area to visit the city center. We also walked numerous beaches when the JMW was routed a bit inland. Finally, in Balloch, near the western terminus, we left the JMW and walked south along the River Levin to Dumbarton on the River Clyde estuary. Resupply options are frequent.
Clyde Walkway (CW). Since we had a few spare days before our flight home, we evaluated our options and decided to head east from Dumbarton to Glasgow along the River Clyde. After following an assortment of trails, in Glasgow we picked up the Clyde Walkway and followed it to its terminus a bit south of New Lanark, where we completed our hike. In Glasgow, we explored the Riverside Museum, which has fascinating displays about transportation in the UK, including a 19th century full rigged ship open for visitation.
The 40 mile long CW mostly stays next to the River Clyde and is surprisingly rural one you leave the Glasgow urban area. It was a pleasant and easy walk and a nice way to complete our trip. Resupply was not an issue, but waymarking was a bit erratic.
Planning our Route
We began planing this trip shortly before taking it. We had already prepared data for several potential European trips with complete gpx files of routes and resources. However, in the summer of 2023 much of Europe was undergoing a heat wave and there were many large fires in the areas we considered visiting. The UK was much cooler and had no significant fires. Since we had previously traveled extensively in Britain, we knew what to expect and and could easily plan a trip there.
The PW was an attractive option because it was the first British National Trail and is an iconic hike in England. It would take us roughly two weeks to walk it, and since our ideal trip length is five to six weeks, James explored pre and post PW extensions. He soon realized that with the right routing, we could complete our Britain End-to-End hike.
The End-to-End is a walk between the two furthest geographic extremities on the island of Britain. One is Land’s End in southwest Cornwall and the other is John o’Groats in northeast Scotland. There is no formal End-to-End trail, you can walk between the two end points by any route that you choose. By walking from Chester to Glasgow, our section-hiked End-to-End could be completed. We hadn’t previously planned hiking End-to-End, so our final overall course is quite indirect, convoluted and at something around 1,650 miles, much longer than the route most commonly walked.
With this goal in mind, planning because much easier. We would start in Chester, a terminus for our 2018 Wales Coast Path hike, and walk to Edale, where we would pick up the PW. There is no formal named trail connecting these two points, but by using canal paths and segments of various local footpaths, we were able to map a nice logical route.
The northern terminus of the PW is at Kirk Yetholm. From there we needed to get to to Glasgow, where we had started our 2013 walk in Scotland. James planned a route to Glasgow that would maximize the coastal hiking that Amy is particularly fond of. Fortunately the SCW formed a good connection between Kirk Yetholm and the North Sea coast. Our route then followed the coast to Edinburgh, and from there we had several options to reach Glasgow. We decided to go all of the way west to the Clyde Estuary, instead of directly to Glasgow, because there’s an emotional appeal in walking coast-to-coast. While studying maps of this region, James discovered the JMW and that provided an easy and scenic connection between Dunbar on the North Sea coast and the Firth of Clyde.
We completed our End-to-End when we crossed the West Highland Way north of Glasgow, a National Trail that we had walked as part of our 2013 Scotland trip.
Getting There and Back
We flew non-stop overnight from SFO to Gatwick and then took a train from London’s Euston Station to Chester. Our walk began the morning of the next day. We returned home via a train from Lanark to Glasgow, another from Glasgow to London and a final one from London to the Gatwick area.
Taking public transportation is easy in the UK; there are lots of trains and buses, and the country is just not that large, so it doesn’t take too long to get almost anywhere.
We carried iPhones with our routes and map data downloaded into both Gaia GPS and CalTopo, so we could view the information even when we did not have a data connection. As in the past, this worked extremely well and staying on our planned route was not a problem. It was very easy to find gpx files of all of the trails on the internet and to download them into Gaia and CalTopo. For hikers who have not already learned how to prepare one these tools with route information and pre-downloaded maps, we recommend doing so. Either app is sufficient; each has its own advantages so we carry both.
Britain is laced with both named and unnamed public footpaths. Some named trails are well waymarked, but others are inconsistent and a lot of junctions have no signage. Carrying a map is essential in order to follow an intended route. On wilderness trips we carry paper maps as well as electronic ones, since there is always a risk that the electronics will fail. We were never in wilderness on this trip and if we got lost could easily follow any trail downhill to reach a town or village, so we only carried paper maps for the PW segment.
With few exceptions, the trails were in excellent condition and the walking was straightforward. We encountered no trails that were washed out or badly overgrown. In many areas, the path leads through grazing lands; here the early morning dew condenses on the grass and wet shoes are unavoidable. There were a few very short and extremely easy rock scrambles to contend with. Cows and sheep graze in both lowland and upland pastures.
The PW is notorious for its long stretches of boggy upland moors and wet shoes are inevitable. Some portions of the moorland trails are now paved with large flat blocks of stone, but in numerous places these blocks have sunk into the ground and are now submerged as well. The walking is not difficult, but the trail is not suitable for anybody who is averse to wet feet.
Some segments of the walk are along public roads. Outside of towns traffic was mostly very light, but English drivers are the least polite of any we have encountered worldwide. They also drive on the opposite side of the road from the US; our instinct to look in the wrong direction for oncoming cars can make road walking quite nerve-wracking.
Our route included many miles of canal paths. These are the former towpaths found alongside a constructed canal. During the 18th and 19th centuries, thousands of miles of commercial canals were constructed in the UK and other European countries. Prior to the development of railroads and later the trucking industry, the canals were the only practical way to transport bulk goods such as grains and coal. Eventually the canals could not compete economically with other means of transport and fell into disuse and were abandoned.
In the mid 20th century, people realized that the remains of these canals were an incredible recreational resource and large amounts of money was spent to restore them. Britain now has well over 2000 miles of functioning recreational canals. They are used extensively by people puttering around in powered narrowboats and by walkers and bicyclists on the towpaths. There are hundreds of rebuilt locks that enable the canals to function as long distance routes.
Canal paths are flat and well maintained. They eliminate the need to deal with vehicular traffic as all road crossings have bridges or tunnels. Pubs and cafes are often found alongside the canals. The tow paths are sometimes paved and are popular with bicyclists. Some people find walking these paths boring, but we have always enjoyed the stress-free experience.
Camping and Lodging
We spent most nights wild camping, with a few nights at commercial campsites. Finding decent places to camp was not difficult and most of our sites were quite nice. Wild camping is technically illegal in England but is commonly done without any problems with officials or locals. In Scotland, it is legal to camp almost anywhere you wish to. We never had any issues when we wild camped, but as always, we were as discrete as possible.
We spent a few nights in AirB&B’s, primarily in the urban areas. We also spent a night at the very friendly Garrigill Village Hall hostel, a welcome indoor respite after a very wet and windy crossing of Cross Fell.
We mapped the location of grocery stores prior to leaving home, so when shopping we knew how far it would be to the next store. There are several stretches on the PW where food sources are a couple of days apart, so carrying multiple meals is necessary.
On our past trips, we usually ate in pubs. British pubs vary enormously in terms of the quality of their food; some are dreadful while others can be quite nice. We have found it impossible to predict the quality of the food before ordering a meal. On this trip we learned that pubs with decent food now often book days in advance, and we had a few evenings when we could not get a table.
On this trip we decided that cafes were a better option for sit-down meals. Cafes don’t serve alcohol, but the food was almost always better prepared and more varied and meals were a lot cheaper than in pubs. Unlike the States, where restaurants usually serve both lunch and dinner, it is not uncommon in the UK to have cafes serve only lunch, from 9 or 10 until 3 or 4, and pubs serve only dinner from 5 to 10.
Google maps makes hiking much easier than it was ten years ago as the location and hours for all sources of food are readily available. We used the search for food near me open now quite frequently.
Many of the grocery stores were small village stores such as the Coop, Spar, or Tesco Express. Although selection was limited, we were always able to find our staples: yoghurt, packaged salads, hummus, couscous, nuts, prunes, chocolate, cookies, cooked chicken pieces, etc. We don’t cook, so have no knowledge of what those that do might find in the small shops.
While hiking in the UK we are able to get adequate food from grocery stores and cafes. We’ll note, however, that the quality and consistency is nothing compared to walking in France, Spain or Italy, where every tiny cafe, mountain refuge, village store or bakery invariably had excellent food on offer.
We had good weather on the trip, with only a few days with any meaningful precipitation. Our heaviest rain came on the day we climbed to the high point on the PW, Cross Fell, where we had gale force winds, lots of rain, and dense low clouds.
We were quite fortunate, as the UK had a very wet July and many people we met complained about their lost summer. Most of our days had a high temperature of about 60, with 25 to 75% cloud cover, often with beautiful and dramatic cloud formations. The cool days and mild breezes made for perfect walking conditions. During our final week we experienced a heat wave and it was sunny and warm every afternoon, with temperatures reaching the high 80’s on the hottest day.
The SCW ends at Lindisfarne, an important early Celtic Christian site on a tidal island and a place that was fascinating to visit. The artificial causeway to the island is impassably flooded at high tide so access is sometimes not available. At lower tides, some people chose to follow the original pilgrim path across the mud-flats and that requires some salt-water wading.
The island village is a crowded tourist attraction, with a 7th century church and remains of a monastery, castle, and old lime kilns. Despite the crowds in some parts, it is a beautiful and interesting place and it was easy to get away from the commotion. One of the most striking campsites on our trip was at a white pyramid shaped day marker on the northeast tip of the island.
Interesting Large Objects
We usually don’t comment on cultural attractions in our trip reports, but there were two on this route worthy of mention. These are the Falkirk Wheel, and the Forth Bridge, both in Scotland.
The Falkirk Wheel is a huge structure used to raise canal boats 24 meters between two adjacent canals. This previously required eleven locks and took most of a day to transit. The Wheel is a beautiful, fascinating engineering object, cost £78 million to construct, and serves no practical purpose other than being a tourist attraction. Functionally it is just a large art installation. Due to the way canals are administered in Scotland and because the canals do not easily connect to the huge English network to the south, there is very little actual usage by recreational boaters and no commercial traffic at all. Many tourists take a boat ride around the Wheel without continuing to travel anywhere else on the canals. Yet it is a totally grand and unique object and we very much enjoyed the time we spent there watching it slowly spin around.
The Forth Bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a 2.5 km railway bridge across the Firth of Forth, west of Edinburgh. It was constructed in the 1880’s and is the world’s second longest cantilever span. The world’s first large structure to be built of steel, it is still used by 200 trains a day. The bridge is painted Forth Bridge Red that is quite similar in color to our own beloved Golden Gate Bridge. The Forth Bridge is a striking structure and was a real highlight on our walk.
We observed about 120 species on this trip. We were disappointed that passerines were surprisingly scarce compared to our previous UK trip. Corvids of all kinds were abundant as were Wood Pigeons. Shorebird migration had not yet started, although there many gulls and oystercatchers were found. A highpoint was several mid-morning sightings of Short-eared Owls, a striking bird we have seen very infrequently anywhere in the past.
We were fortunate to observe one new life bird, a Velvet Scoter (Melanitta fusca) seen near Musselburgh. We had stopped to chat with a local birder, and he had one in his scope, which he generously let us use.
Other than midges, we had no significant insect problems. Midges are tiny biting flies than are found in any areas with peat, including long stretches of the PW. They come out in huge numbers and can make outdoor activities intolerable. They are a fact of life in parts of northern England and the Scottish Highlands in the summer, and many people avoid hiking in peat habitat during midge season. We sought advice about midges on the PW in August prior to committing to our hike, and decided it would be manageable.
Fortunately, mild wind disperses the insects, and we had many windy days. They are primarily active in the very early morning and late evening, so we were usually safely in the tent when they were about. We had four nights when midge infestations became an issue, and never had problems while actually hiking. We had taken along Sea to Summit Insect Shield headnets for protection, but the mesh was not fine enough and the midges walked right through it.