In the footsteps of Wainwright

Brian Melia talks us through his epic 247-mile A Pennine Journey trek

Brian Melia

by Trail Running |

In 1938, a 31-year-old unknown hill walker undertook a 211-mile journey up the east side of the Pennines from Settle to Hadrian’s Wall, and back along the west side, in 11 days. Fell runner Brian Melia last spring completed the revised route of 247 miles in a little over 88 hours.

That unknown hill walker was, of course, Alfred Wainwright, whose fame grew with his seven pictorial guides to the Lakeland Fells and then later the Pennine Way and Coast to Coast long-distance footpath guides.

But his A Pennine Journey – The Story of a Long Walk in 1938 was not published until 1986, and by 2010 Lake District-based long-distance footpath enthusiasts and Wainwright admirers David and Heather Pitt, with the aid of Wainwright Society members, adapted Wainwright’s original walk to form the waymarked long-distance leisure route that Brian followed.

Brian, an optometrist at Hull University Teaching Hospital who is an experienced ultra-runner, chose the Pennine Journey route because his wife Susan had walked it in sections with their dog Poppy and said, “It is one of the best walks I have ever done, you should run it”.

As far as he knew, no one had ever run the route, and this was just what he needed. “I was going through some dark days with the NHS”, says Brian. “We were going into a second lockdown, so I needed something to give me inspiration to see me through the dark winter days.”

He didn’t know the area very well, so he spent the winter months poring over maps and when lockdown was eased he managed to get out with Susan and their son Richard to recce the route.

Beating the clock is not the be-all and end-all for Brian. “I am a fell runner first and foremost,” he says. “But my passion is long-distance trails with new scenery.

“The Pennine Journey hadn’t been run before, so it was a voyage of discovery for me. When you stand on the platform at the starting point of Settle, you think, ‘I have to run more than 100 miles to get to Hadrian’s Wall.’

“Wainwright described Westgate as the last wilderness in England; I would describe it as magical. The terrain is very varied. When coming across from Horton in Ribblesdale to Yockenthwaite, you’re on fells; when you are going up from Buckden to Bainbridge the scenery is dominated by Limestone pavements; while from Tan Hill to Middleton in Teesdale is very boggy. The great thing is there is hardly any Tarmac, with the most being about six miles from Askrigg to Gunnerside compensated for by grass to run on in the middle of the road.

“It was very emotional reaching Hadrian’s Wall. You’re coming across the fields and you don’t realise the wall is there. Just before Chollerford the wall just emerges out of the grass – this is where the path turns west and follows the wall to Greenhead.”

As well as the varied terrain, Brian experienced the whole gamut of weather conditions. He set off from Settle station with blue skies, little wind, and temperatures of 2-3°C, but by the third day all hell let loose, with rain and hail and even snow – yes, snow, in May – on the summit of Ingleborough.

The only real low was when Brian developed a blister coming across Hadrian’s Wall to Steel Rigg and was fearful that it would threaten his record attempt. But, by the time he arrived at Greenhead, the most westerly point on the wall, he had it under control and, with the benefit of another pair of comfortable running shoes, was able to complete the route.

Brian cautions that this run is not for the faint-hearted. “It is very demanding and requires a good deal of organisation,” he warns. He had a team of 14 supporters – including road support and helpers on the fells – and there was the added challenge that on some of the moorland sections there is no path, requiring map and compass to try to stay on a bearing.

But he would strongly recommend it to other runners who want to experience some of the finest countryside in England. “We have Alfred Wainwright to thank for bringing this to the attention of the ever-growing hiking community,” he says. “And now it’s the ideal route for a multi-day trail running adventure.”

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