Saturday, 20 May 2017
686 The Pennine Challenge
First viewed : 18 September 1984
This was first shown earlier in the year on BBC North but got a national airing on BBC Two over four nights in September. The series was made by potholing film-maker Sid Perou which accounts for the high quality cinematography on show.
The film followed four intrepid walkers, three of them around the same age as me , as they walked the Pennine Way in the summer of 1983. They were doing it the hard way as well, carrying a full pack and camping all the way. This was before baggage transfer services became popular. The two lads, Jonathan and David from Derbyshire , had been selected as a pair but otherwise the quartet were strangers when they set out. The girls were Sue, a student at Leeds but I never met her nor do I recall any mention of her exploits in Leeds Student , and 17 year old Sarah who was still at school, doing her A-Levels. Neither of them were oil paintings but they looked OK in shorts.
Sid has kindly put the whole series up on his YouTube channel for which I'm very grateful as I feel I'm guilty of an injustice towards the series. Just after it finished, I was producing the latest edition of the Littleborough Civic Trust Newsletter and as the organisation was wilting under the distracted chairmanship of Keith Parry whose interests lay elsewhere, I was having to write an increasing proportion of the content myself. I filled one and three quarter pages with a review of recent TV programmes with a Northern flavour. Here's what I had to say about The Pennine Challenge.
"BBC North's "The Pennine Challenge" about 4 youngsters walking the Pennine Way had some brilliant photography ( c/o Sid Perou ) and a well versed if rather patronising narrator. Where the programme failed was when the film crew turned their rifle microphones to the participants' conversations. As these consisted almost entitrely of banalities such as "Oh look, the sun's coming out " or "It's a bit steep up here isn't it ?," it didn't do much for the walker's image"
Having watched it again, I'm a bit embarrassed by the criticism. It now seems astonishingly refreshing, a reality series with genuinely real people, not one trick ( being generous ) pony "personalities" hoping for a TV break. I don't recall the introverted Sarah casting a single glance towards the camera. OK the four teenagers weren't as erudite as the teachers and small businessmen I went walking with but on the other hand, they weren't relying on people more than twice their age for company ( a factor that might have influenced my piece ).
Well , enough of the self -flagellation ; it is an excellent series which captures all the scenic highlights brilliantly. That is the main aim of the programme. Narrator Peter Allen hints at some personal conflict along the way but there's no footage of it. in stark contrast to every other "reality" show you could consider. Instead the quartet battle against blisters, illness , bogs , bad weather and navigational errors with admirable fortitude . Sarah obviously hadn't broken in her boots beforehand and had blisters forming by noon on the first day. She contemplated dropping out but decided to switch to trainers and was able to complete the route. David caught a lurgy which put their schedule out but he too pulled through and they all made it to the end.
The section that falls in Littleborough was briefly featured. with the walkers crossing the M62 on the Pennine Way footbridge and then descending the Roman Road on Blackstone Edge with narrator Peter Allen sarkily noting "the legionaries were heading for a camp north of Rochdale - probably not the most popular posting".
The programme captured something of the bittersweet feeling that comes with successfully concluding such a venture with the quartet looking pensive as they sat with their drinks outside the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm and contemplated their imminent return to normal life. Allen's comment that David was worried about redundancy at his engineering works is a poignant reminder of the times. One hopes they're OK now ; all four are well "off the grid" , none ever attempting to capitalise on their brief moment in the sun. If things haven't gone so well, they've still got a shared achievement that can't be taken away from them.
In one important respect the programme is very dated. The Pennine Way is no longer as popular as it was and has largely dropped out of the national consciousness as a challenge . Even among serious ramblers, it's become less popular than the Coast To Coast Walk or Scotland's West Highland Way. In part that's been a matter of policy. From the late eighties onwards, the National Park and local authorities sanctioned the use of flag stones and hardcore to protect the peat from further erosion on the moorland parts of the route. Major diversions have been made in the Peak District so that what were bad weather alternatives have become the official route .This work has been done with worthy objectives but it's fundamentally altered the nature of the walk; you literally cannot walk in Wainwright's boggy footsteps any more. Part of the Littleborough section across Redmires Moss, used to be a challenging morass ; now it's a stroll in the park. It simply doesn't attract the serious mountaineer any more and yet it's still too long for many with limited holiday entitlement.