t f R r

Out the back door

A walk through the South Pennines

On a clear day I can see all the way to Pen Y Gent from the moors above Holmfirth. As the Raven flaps its maybe 40 miles. Putting one foot before the other might double that. The idea of walking to its green windy summit from the old sofa where I write occurs whenever I glimpse its distant flanks on the horizon.

A morning’s prevarication and distractions where our get up and go kept getting up and going without us led to an early afternoon start out the back door and off up Hill Lane towards Netherthong. The nettle lined lane, swept with chattering Swallows eased us into walking’s gentle rhythm and we were away. Some attempt seemed to have been made recently to tidy up Hill Lane’s emporium of retired agricultural flotsam. Leaning sheds propped and patched, yellow JCB’s and canoes reparked.  Amongst all the unused but hung onto items leathery black and white Frisians wandered as if shopping for some must have cow accessory.


Our foot and paw steps stitched together late summer paths sweet with the smell of hay in sunshine and diesel from tractors grumbling up slopes steep and wet with too much rain. I did wonder why we were walking away from this! Our footwork stitching led us up to ”The Isle of Skye” where the stony foundations of the old Inn lie mostly unnoticed amongst soft rush and heather yet the evocative name lives on locally and sets the imaginations of direction finders whirring .

Following a sweep of contouring path led us down into the Wessenden Valley. Steep Cloughs with names like Shiny Brook or Pudding Real Moss run into a long curve of bracken clad valley stepped with reservoirs and home to Wessenden Lodge. Ham and egg teas were once served up to   passing walkers and the last farmer left not so long beyond the Foot and Mouth disaster.

Wet valley slopes

One of walking’s best bits is stopping to brew up and my finest cup of tea this year was taken by Black Moss. Sat in the warm breeze and realising that darkness would overtake us before we would find a place to camp seemed to make it sweeter still. Some delightful walking over Standedge and by the Dinner Stone in soft evening light followed our brew stop. Only Grouse cackle cracked this September dusks silence. On White Hill the sun dropped quickly for a new horizon and night’s cool dampness could be felt. Its scent was refreshing. Its presence welcomed. We passed a line of layby trucks parked up for the night by the A672. Their short curtains pulled to and TV’s flickering.

Holme Valley patchwork

I needed to find water and hoped unrealistically to find something usable in Longden Edge Beck. There was no real surprise to find it thick with peat and stagnant. Despite the wetness of these hills usable water can be hard to find. So the half pint in my bottle would have to last a while.

By not reaching for the head torch as darkness falls sight is hung onto well past dusk. We walked up onto Blackstone Edge and found a place to pitch up in the cool darkness. I had a mouthful of water but later found the bottle top cross threaded and all but a mouth wet of my meagre supply gone into the ground.

Below us the M62 lit up moorland darkness with lines of lamps and speeding cars trapped in their own pools of light going ever faster but never escaping. A breeze took away all motorway sound. The remaining light and movement was beautiful to watch.

Sunset on Rishworh Moor

Just before dawn a clear sky cast moon shadows in the tent. I’d spent the night sliding down hill whereas the little dog moved not once. By daylight a blanket of mist had dropped and we walked over Blackstone Edge through boulders and peat like Martian explorers in search of water.  But for the contents of the cloud we walked in there was none.

Our route would follow the Pennine Way mostly and take us through the South Pennines deep valleys and wide open moors. An often bleak yet inspiring landscape moulded by marginal hill farming and an industrial revolution that went out from here across the world. The M62 fits the contours like a belt around the Pennine backbones peaty waist. White wind turbines now pop out of brown hillsides like clumps of mushrooms in autumn fields. Everywhere here there is a story of our interaction with the land. Constantly we change it. Adding and taking away.  Nothing here is permanent. Dry stone walls built by labour generations ago shift on wet ground and tumble. Mill buildings age and blend. Curling up in steep valleys like mucky dogs in baskets. People come and go. Ideas pass their time and the wind blows grit stone boulders to dust.

Warland reservoir provided a misty brew and source of fresh cold water. I walked beneath the pylons here only sensing their presence through the hissing crackle of escaping energy for so thick was the mist neither grey steel nor cable could be seen. Yet ahead a sunlit silage field in a valley below hinted at change. With each step onwards the September sun warmed our blanket of mist lifting it by inches up off the moor. Stoodley Pike’s monument was a pencil stub sharpened to a point in lifting cloud. A collection of russet beasts and calves now laid in morning sun around the summit. Eyes closed and cud chewing. Tails swished at flies. Ears twitched and tongues went up nostrils. A black one stood, bellowed and crapped as we approached. The rest seemed content to chew on.  I knelt in damp grass to photograph and beside me a swallow on the ground opened an arc of wing to the breeze wheeling away beyond the escarpment without a wing beat.

Stoodley Pike

By Pinnacle Lane we left moorland for stone walled fields and dropped down towards Hebden Bridge. Tall narrow stone houses queue on hillsides. Roofs slope unnaturally and I wondered if locals have one leg longer than the other to get about. The town sits like a stone hub at the bottom of steep Cloughs and is a fine sight from Crow Nest Wood where we walked. One of the strongest features of the South Pennines is the changing character of its towns and villages. As you move from one valley to the next or up and down the same river there are subtle differences in personality with no two places being the same. Each built to fit different geographical and industrial circumstances. All relatives of an extended Pennine family yet shaped by slightly different upbringings. Sandbags and shop fitters told a story of summer floods down in the town which is still recovering from this season’s wetness.

Property ladder Hebden Bridge

 Something like 10 miles worth of foot and paw steps had been taken to get us from Blackstone Edge into Hebden Bridge so we parked up in the sun at the “Park Up” café for an hour before toping up the rucksack with supplies and heading off to find a path out of town.  Shady, wooded and cobbled a steep path led off up towards Heptonstall. Beneath high quarried cliffs where chalk finger prints on edges marked rock climbers routes the town sounds below slipped into the distance. Purple heather patches amongst Silver Birch and grit stone fringed the escarpment edge which could not be walked along without lingering often to feel the breeze and study a vast sweep of view back across the valley to Stoodley Pike. Walled lanes, cobbles and flagstones followed in a kind of “Now That’s What I Call Walking” compilation. A hit parade of walking’s greatest steps. Rhythmic rapping to a back beat of boots on stone which took us up to Long High Top and its village green.

 Isolated groups of stone houses dot the hillsides here. Windswept and open to weather from all directions. Summer a brief visitor. Narrow roads go up, down and around linking settlements as indirectly as it would seem possible. High silage fields were laid bare and yellow in the sun. Tractors like worker ants ferried trailers of green fodder or shrink wrapped bales to be stacked and stored for the darker days to come.

On Heptonstall Moor our steps re-joined the Pennine Way’s peaty trail North. The Estate owners had found it necessary to place signs at close intervals along the path quoting sections of law relating to dogs. It felt like the 10 commandments condensed into one “Thou shalt keep thy dog on a lead”. I almost expected to find a burning bush somewhere or tablets of stone inscribed with the One Commandment. I’ve found that people who have a tendency for unsociabehaviour by and large take no notice what so ever of signs. Any responsible person would have a dog under close control at appropriate times regardless of the presence of a sign.   Such signage grew to epidemic proportions as we walked North and within the Dales National Park every stile, gate or post had a list of do’s and don’ts attached to it like a plague of bureaucratic locusts sweeping the countryside.

Dean Valley

Down by Graining Water it was brew time again. Our damp tent hung over a wooden footbridge and a sneaky 40 winks in the sun. This is a lovely place to camp but today we would walk on over another moor towards Top Withens for the night.  To get there another classic South Pennine valley is followed. Walshaw Dean is stepped with Victorian reservoirs and fringed with an expanse of warm purple heather. Some place names need a bit of interpretation but the nearby Pisser Hill and Clough seem to leave little to the imagination. No doubt a wet day walk would reveal all. One last climb led us on a paved path gently up over Dean Stones Edge.  Looking South last nights bed, Blackstone Edge, seemed a memory. Beyond West Nab and Black Hill were markers for home.

There must be water at Top Withens as it was once inhabited yet around the ruins we found none. A wind blew making a camp there an uncomfortable idea anyway so we dropped off towards a lower ruin where the sound of a fast running spring was all the persuasion needed to tip out the rucksack and put up our tent. Brew, food, sunset and sleep on a soft bed of rush and moss beneath the tent. The day soothed away by that clear singing spring. To me this is Kate Bush rather than Bronte Country.  I’d no idea what she was singing about back in 1978 but she beat the Bronte’s to it in my head!

We were last here camped with a mate slightly lower on a wild bleak February night in our old 2 person tent the night it died. The wind whipped down off the moors above Top Withens to flatten tent against faces too often. It poured with rain and the old tent was porous letting every drop in. By dawn we lay in an inch of water whilst the dog, always lucky, slept on a dry island between us. Fortunately we were in bivy bags so were dry but could feel the icy water around us. Our walk was abandoned and we headed into Haworth where the streets were lined with spinning wheelie bins. As the door to the Black Bull was unlocked we stepped in to renew an acquaintance with an old associate called Timmy Taylor from down the road in Keighley.

Withens camp

There was barely headroom beneath dawns grey clouds and the moors seemed sour as weak morning light struggled out of bed. Lanes and field paths led us down into the Ponden Valley past well-tended ex farms where the school run begins with a lift down a pot holed track lined with sheep to bus stops on windy roads a mile or more away.  The valley is steep, heather fringed and cut with gritty Cloughs. It retains a mosaic of stone walled field patterns which knit together houses, lanes, a reservoir and the moorland edge. A pattern of grazed, cut and growing grass within each piece of walled enclosure gave an ever changing texture and colour scheme to the valley sides. From the pale yellow washed out just cut look through to the nitrate green of fast growing last minute September growth.

A half decent dog for company and a few moorland miles are a cheap and effective antidote to most problems. Although we never owned a dog when I was a kid we seemed to have a lot of them. One Granddad had a white terrier called Nel.  A lovely soft friendly creature to all but farm rats. My other Granddad had a swarthy mongrel called Pancho who I thought must come from Mexico with a name like that. I walked miles every summer with a cousin and his mother and daughter terriers. Penny, a dog you could fit in a hand, could not be let off as she disappeared down holes or into thin air for days. The opportunism of a dog has no limit. Its loyalty is inexhaustible. Its stomach unfillable.  A house without a dog is a dull place to be.  A dogless walk unthinkable.

Yesterday’s miles were felt on each upward contour towards the open expanse of Great Wolfstones. By a lane here a yellow dumper was parked up and forgotten. A line of bonny ewes brushed past us in golden edged soft rush. Wind shook heather and threw light and shadow across the landscape. A fine stone wall ended in the middle of nowhere as if its builders got this far and wondered what they were doing. Ickornshaw Moor fell away beneath us to a sweep of rolling walled country below splashed with drops of light moving on the wind.

Soft Rush Ewes


Above Ickornshaw the moorland edge is dotted with small black huts. Shuttered, chimneyed and dripping with creosote I wondered at their purpose? Below and still a long walk Cowling drew us on towards its shop and café.  A meandering route took us eventually through a gentrified farm where I stood looking at some very handsome pigs in mud by the path. Between me and the pigs I began reading a sign asking me not to stop and look at the pigs but keep walking! Would some Monty Pythonesque character race out of the house and tell me to get off their view?


Parked up and forgotton


Back in the 1930’s Japanese chicken sexers practised their art in Cowling. Japan produced the world’s best chicken sexers able to sex a day old chick whereas a local would have to wait a week or so before having a clue. The fate of each chicken was largely decided by its sex and the costs of production were less the earlier the sex was established. As a career option looking at chickens bums 8 hours a day on the wrong side of the world would seem to have little going for it by today’s standards.

Deep rich folds of farmland were walked beyond Cowling. Often the ground was poached by cattle and long detours made to avoid boot fulls of slurry or a twisted ankle. Green country walking took us to a shoulder of ground where we sat to look below at Lothersdale. A brindled whippet of a village curled up tightly. The sound of a tractors revs as it cut a soggy field   seemed like snores from the whippet village below.

My old art teacher at school was a fairly strict dour Scot on the surface but I met the real man up on the moors after leaving where his humour and love of the hills were an inspiration. I read an account of a climb he had published in The Great Outdoors magazine .He described a hot summer scramble up onto Pillar Rock in Cumbria and extoled the virtues of replacing fluids and nutrients lost on such an expedition with a couple of cans of beer from his rucksack. I’ve long reasoned that such a learned man could not be wrong and so found myself sat outside Lothersdale’s Hare and Hounds with a pint of Theakston’s Best. Cheers Mr Young!

Pinhaw Beacon rises above Lothersdale and perhaps marks an end to the South Pennines. For beyond lie the rolling pastures of the Aire Gap and the dales are just half a day’s strides away. None of this could be seen from the Beacon’s misty trig point. We tucked the tent away in a fold of heather and spent a warm starless night beneath a thick blanket of cloud. Moving off this prime bit of grouse moor early we snook down beneath low cloud for a behind the wall brew on Long Hill above Thornton in Craven.

Often this morning the map came out and boundaries or becks looked for as we crept over fields through farm yards or bits of wood and by canal sides. My eye sight is at that longer arms needed stage and a 1:2500 scale map at arm’s length is not always of much use. Silage fields had lines of tread pencilled across them by passing boots. Often a waymark or wooden sign appeared just at a moment of doubt to point us onwards. Gargrave’s Dales man’s café was packed with cyclists so we found a quieter brew with ducks by the Leeds to Liverpool canal.


Silage Fields


There is a kind of language written through our countryside that is heard by stepping quietly through it. It ranges from the flat pack instruction frustrations of a thundering road through the green to the prose of a long day on the moors and the poetry of fleeting moments of light, magic, landscape and emotion that cannot be repeated or defined. It’s a voice of connection and belonging. Something to accept rather than explain away, commodify or own.  I take a few photos and write clunky words in an effort to interpret yet much is lost in translation.

Our walk up Airedale towards Malham was like looking after a priceless pedigree hound with a long laughable name in comparison to our rough and ready South Pennine mongrel. The afternoon became too hot for walking as we climbed waves of green walled fields containing cattle, sheep and other walkers. The River Aire is so clear here that but for its tumbling sound would be invisible. For a long time we sat on its rich green banks with feet and paws dipped in its cold eddies and shadows.

We were later held up by a Dick Turpin farm dog that nailed Jemma to the ground with the swift violence of a bad Collie. Only a swing of my right boot could get the bloody thing off but it growled, snarled and came back for me!  A comedy stand-off ensued where I held open a small gate for us to pass through but each time I picked up a foot to move Dick Turpin curled a lip and rocked back to pounce and my foot retreated. I called to the farmyard but there was no response. Having a rucksack on my back, a Jack Russell under one arm and a gate in the other hand I was clearly the underdog and Dick knew this. There seemed no escape for us. I’m not putting in writing “What happened next” but if you want to know I’ll be putting Dick’s fate in one of my presentations.


Cat nap


From Windy Pike we looked down on village and cove then descended to its bustling centre where vital lost nutrients were replaced via a pint of Golden Best. Hot and tired its cool hops and bitter twist had an instant “Mr Young effect”. I wondered if the Higgs Boson particle that unseen side of our universe was in fact found in the humble pint such were its properties. Malham was busy with tourists chattering like Swallows. Soaking up September sun like the wasps around my pint glass.

We had that rare thing – time so lingered in shade before strolling towards the cove where we nodded off in sun by Malham Beck which   rises mysteriously here from a swath of grass and limestone.

Later we sat and brewed up on top of the cove having found a patch of limestone pavement blanketed with close cropped soft turf. A whale of heathery hill breached the Southern horizon, Pendle Hill which from home is always to our North as it surfs summer sunsets we watch from West Nab. Barefoot on the coves edge we were at swallow level. Putting out a hand I could feel their swish through the air. Their backs an oily purple flashed in lowering light and their constant chatter came from every direction. The lowering sun had a shepherding effect on the coves visitors who were rounded up in twos and threes and gently herded back down towards the village. Over an hour they were all accounted for until only we remained in the sunset glow.

Like a fly trapped on a window a John Deere buzzed around a tiny meadow below leaving round bale droppings and cutting ruts up the fields slope. Its high revs and headlights guided in the night. When it stopped deafness fell until ears were retuned. Sheep talk a lot at dusk. Mostly along the lines of “where are you?”. Cove Rooks began a noisy roost in Ash trees. Their thick wings sliced a sandpaper sound through the air. Their arguments about who could sleep where short but loud. Farm dogs below went mad with barks at being put away for the night. Somewhere a quad purred homewards. Soft voices and car door claps rose from the campsite until eventually the only sound remaining was a breeze gently shaking our fly sheet.

Distant streetlights began to reflect in the blue dark sky as stars appeared. A slice of cheesy moon had a planet or two for company. We nodded off looking up.

Dawn came with the screech of an owl and arrived as sublime as the evening before. We walked off quietly as soft light began catching white limestone crags above. Today we would step onto those green windy flanks of Pen Y Gent. Our destination had not been seen on the walk so far due to those misty South Pennine tops and had largely been forgotten about in the detail of walking. A bit like the pound in your pocket you can’t quite get hold of because of everything else in there. But today that pound would be handed over the counter and spent!


Cove dawn


Only our footsteps on limestone and paws padding on turf rose above the silence held within the dry limestone valley which runs up from Malham Cove towards the Tarn. September cool and still as a bird stalking cat it was a rare kind of morning. I couldn’t wait to reach the Tarn but couldn’t rush either. A not long sheared ewe lay oddly amongst the rocks and the scent of death reached my nostrils as the thought reached my mind. Nearby her sisters munched away beneath the crag she must have fallen from.

A breeze part rippled Malham Tarn and its cold clear water provided a brew with a view. Not far away ewes were bleating and a farm dog was having instructions and admonishments shouted to it across the hillside.  The voice grew ever more frustrated .The admonishments cruder. The ewe’s bleats began to sound like laughter.

An arc of strides took us around one side of the Tarn and off along the edge of limestone fell country towards the lonely farm at Tenants Gill. Each field here teemed with sheep and beasts beneath a compelling combination of sun, blue sky and limestone fells. Fingers and paws were crossed in the hope of a good water source up at Tenants Gill for again we had none. A long sweaty pull past the farm and out onto open hillside took us this time to a fast flowing  water course issuing from a limestone spring.

We were now on Fountains Fell an expanse of peaty wilderness with stone men standing on edges, a summit tarn and deep open mine shafts to look out for when wandering off the path.  We had a hazy gaze East to Wharfedale hills and North towards Wensleydales expanse of rolling hills but Westward the view remained a dead end and Pen Y Gent hid beyond the shoulder of Fountains Fell.   We climbed in a plodding fashion upwards.

There’s a rocky outcrop on the Pennine Way coming down Fountains Fell on the far side where many guidebook photos have been taken looking across the nothingness of average Yorkshire moorland to an arm of hill rising in a sharp rocky profile to a great hip of green flanked summit. The hill is Pen Y Gent. It seemed a long way off as we looked over and too much up involved in getting there on our 6 tired legs. We’d come this far from the sofa and could (and did) sit on it for a long time when we got back. People cycle to the South Pole these days. Comedians you’ve never heard of climb Everest. Funny ones you have heard of run from one end of the country to the other. All for the “challenge” of it. We felt part of this elite and walked on for Pen Y Gent and our sofa!

Pen Y Gent - 78 miles from our sofa


Churn Milk Hole is a lovely name and a good place to rest below that rocky nose which looks broken and a bit twisted from below. A park ranger cruised past on the biggest quad bike I’ve ever seen complete with its own armchair. Off to check all the “keep thy dog on a lead” signs.  Our scramble up the nose was a pleasure and we broke off part way up to walk over those green flanks to windy crags and sit looking down at a small flock of ewes stranded on a ledge unable to go up down or sideways. A couple of them seemed happily resigned and lay chilling and chewing. Another less relaxed pair fretted and fussed at their predicament.

As we walked into Horton in Ribblesdale the train was pulling away which meant a 2 ½ hour wait until the last one. There are only 2 things to do in Horton. First eat an all-day breakfast  with a pint mug of tea at the Three Peaks Café which takes about 40 minutes. This leaves ample time to sit in the sun outside the Crown and sup pints of Slightly Foxed until slightly fuzzy.


Horton Station