Walk way

After years of being trampled by millions of boots, the Pennine Way is being saved. Paul Vallely takes a hike with the man who's laying the path for a greener future
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The only noise is the twittering of larks high above us, and the wind whistling across the wild, majestic moor. The sky is blue and the sun is on our faces, as we rest on a bank of bilberries amid the deep heather. The views are interrupted only by the swooping dive of meadow pippets and the wheeling of round-winged peewits against the shifting clouds. We are as far from a road as it is possible to get in England. The man beside me may be working, but many would argue his is the best job in the country.

The only noise is the twittering of larks high above us, and the wind whistling across the wild, majestic moor. The sky is blue and the sun is on our faces, as we rest on a bank of bilberries amid the deep heather. The views are interrupted only by the swooping dive of meadow pippets and the wheeling of round-winged peewits against the shifting clouds. We are as far from a road as it is possible to get in England. The man beside me may be working, but many would argue his is the best job in the country.

Martyn Sharp has just been given the title of the Peak District National Park's first ever dedicated Pennine Way Ranger. He is paid to do what a million other people do in their leisure time - walk through some of the most spectacular landscapes in Britain. Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Pennine Way, a 275-mile route linking up old footpaths, bridleways, drove roads,and miners' tracks along the backbone of England, from Derbyshire to the Scottish border.

We are sitting in the southern lee of Black Hill. In the distance we can see the lowering moortop of Bleaklow, the highest and wildest part of the Peak which, until Britain's first National Park opened here in 1951, was uncrossed by a public path. It is an area where, notoriously, lights wink mysteriously at night. No one knows why. Locals talk of the spontaneous combustion of natural gas, or of UFOs, or of signals from the lost Roman legion that - as every northern schoolboy once knew - set out from York, AD 117, marching north, and never was seen again. The wilderness is an empty space on which the imagination can inscribe whatever it chooses.

But there is a paradox in this remote rural idyll. It is that we destroy what we love - in this case with our feet. The Pennine Way was Britain's first long-distance footpath and remains its most popular. The Peak District has 22 million visitors a year, making it second only to Mount Fuji as the most visited National Park in the world. A million of those take to the park's upland paths to tramp, and of those a quarter take this single path. Their boots take a considerable toll, devastating huge areas of the countryside. On Kinder Scout, just to the south of Bleaklow, the path became 700m wide at one point.

The Pennine Way runs through some of the most fragile landscape in the country, over beds of gritstone and shale which give rise to peat bogs and an acid infertile soil with sparse vegetation of heather, bilberry and grasses. The bleak open moors feel as near as we get in England to a natural wilderness - which is why these wild uplands became popular weekend escapes for workers from nearby industrial cities during the 20th century. Kinder Scout was the site of Britain's first mass trespass by ramblers in 1932, for which six were jailed.

Since then, the boots of ramblers have caused massive erosion. A 1989 survey of the route found that the damaged area was five times as great as it was in 1971. In the area south of the M62, the average width of the path was 12.5 metres. In the 1990s a massive £6m-restoration scheme was begun, ranging from small-scale repair works to actually paving the path with recycled flagstones.

There was little rural romance about the reconstruction, as the before and after photographs show. Sharp and the other Peak District rangers worked in all weathers. I get just a hint of that the morning we meet where the footpath crosses the A537 Stalybridge to Huddersfield road.

This morning low cloud shrouds the Dark Peak region. It is like walking through a dank fog. Then a steady drizzle sets in. The Pennine Way here is literally paved with giant sandstone slabs. "This is one of the first sections I worked on," Sharp says. "Some people moaned that it's like walking in the town. But a recent survey has shown that more people are using it, yet disturbance to wildlife has fallen from 30 per cent to just 3.8 per cent."

The most sensitive areas have been fenced off to give the best possible conditions for regrowth. Although one fence was repeatedly cut by a dissident rambler, who brought wire-cutters with him for the job. "He had a point to prove," says Sharp, with the air of a schoolteacher confronted by a rebellious child.

It is all a far cry from the original idea that walkers would need a compass to navigate the unmarked route. Yet the vegetation has grown right back up to the path now, creating a vista which feels wilder than the old trampled mud motorway ever did.

Suddenly, in the heather by the path, a small bird darts up and flies away low. As we get closer a grouse hen and a whole brood of chicks rise from the grass just inches from our feet. The heather shoots are young here, for the ground was burned a couple of years back to clear the way for new growth. The moor around is a patchwork of greys and greens, signifying heather of different ages in the 10-12-year rotation of burning by gamekeepers.

We come to a gorge in the plateau with a stream rusty-red with iron that leaches from moor. "It took four people a year to do both sides of this valley," says Sharp. "It shows how we changed our techniques as we went along." At the start the slabs are laid like stairs but then the stones are set vertically into the steep valley side, like a drystone wall built into the ground. This technique is called pitching, and with it the sense of human interference with the landscape almost disappears entirely. "Because the stone was reclaimed - and because it originally came from only a few miles from here - it fits in perfectly."

Two spectral figures emerge through the swirling mist: a German couple in their sixties, shrouded in waterproof cloaks. More than half of the million walkers in the park each year come here to the hills of the Dark Peak, and half of those choose the Pennine Way. The walkers stop for a chat but they are anxious to press on. Like 10,000 other walkers each year they are tramping the entire 275 mile route.

It is only at the summit of Black Hill that the penalty this exacts becomes clear. On the lower slopes the vegetation is growing back as ramblers stick to the path. But up here the winding course of flagstones picks its way across a bleak desolation of bare-blasted peat hundreds of metres wide. The culprits are feet and the occasional careless summer fire - "which, unlike the gamekeepers' fires, burn uncontrolled," Sharp says. The fires destroy not just the vegetation, but also the dormant seeds in the peat surface and often the peat itself. He bends down and rubs the peat between his fingers. It is as dry as dust and blows away in the strong wind. "It will take decades for this to regenerate, even if we assist by sowing seed of rough grasses to hold the soil while the native seeds get re-established."

On the other side of the 1,909ft summit we find a sheltered spot against a peat bank to eat our packed lunch. Sharp tells me about his childhood on the edges of Rotherham and a school careers' master who laughed when he said he wanted to be a gamekeeper. "What about cars?" the master said, and they found him a job as a mechanic. But after 14 years the garage closed and Sharp spotted an ad for a National Park ranger-training course. After a 12-month placement he joined the Pennine Way Maintenance Team in 1994.

The job of restoration, which took 10 years, was a curious mix of the high- and low-tech. Helicopters brought in 750 tons of stone, four or five slabs at a time, but then the team - three men and a woman - had to manoeuvre them into place using rollers, much as the builders of the ancient pyramids may have done. When the restoration was completed Sharp became the National Park's first full-time Pennine Way ranger.

But we are not yet halfway to Laddow Rocks, the site of some new large-scale erosion. The next stretch of high moor crosses areas of deep peat on which Sharp and his colleagues have laid the massive stones to float miraculously on logs laid in the swampy ground.

We pick our way across a boggy stretch, over which a small bridge of wooden planks has been laid. "Walkers, confronted with a boggy area, tend to spread out to find places to cross," says Sharp. A few thousand footsteps a year are enough to destroy the vegetation. "And bogs are vital because they are where the insects breed on which the rest of the wildlife feeds."

Out of the mist an RAF training jet suddenly screams overhead. It is a reminder in this lonely wilderness that there is a world elsewhere - and a hostile one too. The other big curse for the moor is the atmospheric pollution of the far-off cities. Acid rain has killed off nearly all the sphagnum moss, from which the peat was formed, and vehicle emissions are an increasing problem, dropping nitrogen oxides on to the frail environment.

Compared to all that the problems at Laddow Rocks, when we get there, seem small-scale. Rainwater has begun to follow a path worn by walkers, gouging a deep rivulet into the path. The walkers have started a parallel path 20 yards away, threatening to open a super-wide area of bare earth. "The hillside needs re-engineering. I could do it myself with a mattock and spade, which would take about a week, or get some other rangers in, or some volunteers, or a contractor," Sharp muses aloud.

We set off back, looking out for the ravens which used to colonise Castle Rocks, and nesting peregrine falcons. But we do not see them. Gamekeepers are fond of neither, but Sharp is diplomatic. "Gamekeepers are the main preservers of the environment hereabouts. They do a lot of good."

The fog has completely lifted now. With clear vision the patterns of the stream channels, known as groughs, which criss-cross the deep peat become clear. From the edge of the plateau, the country to the north stretches out before us - the village of Holmfirth, then the sprawl of Huddersfield, the electricity windmills of Barnsley, and over as far as the power station at Ferrybridge on the A1. To the Lancashire side we can see as far as Pendle Hill 60 miles away. We sit in the heather and drink in the privilege of being here.

Satisfactorily weary at the end of the day's walking, Martyn Sharp turns to survey the path. "It's a solid contribution to the countryside," he says. Then adds bluntly, "It'll outlive me." Few of us can say as much of our work.

"Each time you come out there's always something different to see. There's not a lot I'd swap this for." Even in winter? "It looks fantastic here in the snow. I quite like the winter so long as I'm prepared for it."

The job of Pennine Way Ranger pays just £15,000 a year but if Sharp ever decides to move on, you can be sure there'll be no shortage of applicants to replace him.

For visitor information visit the website, www.peakdistrict-nationalpark.com