I first walked in Wessenden via the words of Alfred Wainwrights “Pennine Way Companion” many years ago and never dreamt I’d end up living close too, working and walking amongst it’s steep bracken brown slopes. Wainwright describes the route of the “Wessenden Alternative” which departs from what was then the main route of the Pennine Way on top of Black Hill to take an easier line via the valley and rejoin the sour moors up at Black Moss. He describes the delights of “Marios” ice cream van on Wessenden Head Road. Now long gone of course but replaced erratically by “Snoopy’s” snack van which seems to be as unpredictable as the weather in it’s attendance by the old Isle of Skye Inn. I was often muddled when I first came to this part of Yorkshire when given directions out of Holmfirth and told to go “up the Isle of Skye Road”. The reference was to the old demolished Inn of that name and not the Hebridean Island though it took some time for the penny to drop with me!
In Wainwrights day Wessenden Lodge provided hot meals for Pennine wayfarers and the many locals who wandered up the valley particularly from Marsden and the Colne Valley. I’ve seen many old photographs of long skirted Victorian women with parocels and gents with top hats and walking sticks by the waterfall at the Lodge. “Ham and Eggs Teas” was at one time painted on the Lodge gable. Yet my experience of the Lodge was very much agricultural to say the least. I knew the last farmer here who sadly left being unable to carry on beyond the catastrophe of Foot & Mouth. To be fair the place had been going downhill economically and physically for many years. The last time I was invited in was a dank January morning. Damper inside the house than outside. I stood in the spacious front room which was half full of bags of sheep cake. “Carry one out will you?” the farmer said to me as he placed one in my arms. “Funny place to keep all this” I said. To which he simply said “driest place on the farm lad”
When he left he took with him that part of the landscape which is most precious and irreplaceable. His life there and his part amongst it all. He knew the land as well as his own skin. Not just an inventory of every beck, culvert ,post,stone ,sheep or beast but the reasons for things being how and why they are. A knowledge of those before and what they did. An insight into the interplay of seasons, weather and time on the land and man. He knew its real value.
I disliked one unlit out building of his yet we always seemed to have to visit its soft dark inside. Each time he would say “Watch where you stand in here. Where there’s livestock there’s deadstock”. .
The valley curves in a gracious dog leg between Marsden and the Holme Valley linking the two in a fine walk either down it’s sweeping bridleway or perhaps a harder tramp amongst the moorland bogs. From Shooters Nab above Marsden to the summit of West Nab you can walk with the Wessenden Valley for company. This is a fine arc of moorland ridge but keeping to just the right line where walking is mostly solid and good can be tricky. If you lose this elusive thread you’ll flounder amongst haggs and curses until it’s picked up again. The line is mostly rocky and skims clough tops with a constantly evolving view of Marsden Moor and later Black Hill. You’re more likely to hear the sound of baying hounds on the wind or a Golden Plover weeping in the peat rather than human chatter anytime up here.
Yet the real richness for me is the people I’ve come to know. Another old lad on the last real farm here can growl and snap like his bad tempered little dog. One morning I found him leaning on the pot bellied paddock wall. Eying his soon to lamb flock of blue dotted sheep.”She’s about there” he said nodding towards a swollen ewe. In a dilapidated barn a restless carving mother groaned and shuffled. Nosing the fresh straw he’d placed around her in frustration. “I do n’t know what’s going on in there. Never seen one like it” he said. “Be one for the vet if she keeps it up. £200 to start with that” he said shaking his grey head. “Mind you it’ll look cheap when you’ve still got her”.
I watched him next morning walk on bow legs through his narrow yard. Arm full of straw to comfort some exhausted mother with soft husbandry. His old green wellies were splashed with the red blood of birth. Seeing me he pointed towards the barn and I said Good Morning by rusty iron gates older than him. “We sorted her out” he smiled and nodded towards a cloud white bull laid amongst his fresh yellow straw. The mother looked all in I thought to myself. “Had a leg ’round the wrong way and was arse first. Put my arm in up to here” he said tapping a shoulder. “Took half an hour to square him up before I could pull him out right way up”.
Across the yard in warm April shadows he showed me the old calving rope which hung green and redundant on a yard wall. “Cut your hands to shreds pulling on that” he grinned. This mornings ropes were set to a gleaming alloy ratchet mechanism which gently pulls any struggling calf inch by inch out into it’s cold new life. “£250 all new” he said shaking his head at the cost again .He smiled and said ” it looks cheap now doesn’t it with her and a calf as well”
Each time I walk the corner of soaking bitter moorland between Howden Edge and Grinah Stones I promise myself never to set foot there again! Maybe I’m getting old but the bogs seem deeper and harder than they used too. Yet the peaty solitude here is second to none. All afternoon as I floundered and swore amongst the black morass I was alone but for the odd gangling mountain hare or laughing grouse. The dog loves peat bogs and makes no detours simply snorkeling straight across in a black doggy paddle. Not the ideal camping companion at times.
At the Stones we dipped back a contour from the edge to site our tent just out of a blustery breeze. Years ago we made a fleece sleeping bag for our old mut but it was always too small. However the latest little Jack Russell fits inside perfectly and is trained to get in and not move an inch until dawn. Saves all my gear from getting peaty black and wet! There seem to be many mountain hares around here and I watched one on the dusk skyline all joints and limbs like a clumsy puppet, awkward and random in its movement. Squalls drove me in but the night calmed slowly to a cold still dawn where a nearby pool filled with sky and the Derwent Valley below brimmed with fog.
From West Nab’s rocky hub the ancient boundaries of Holmfirth, Meltham and Marsden radiate outwards across sour moorland to greener valleys below. In all directions a jigsaw of Pennine landscapes can be pieced together should the weather allow. From Bleaklow and Black Hill to the rolling walled folds of South Pennine valleys containing Holmfirth, Marsden and Meltham. Across Huddersfield’s townscape and Northwards over the lonely bogs of Marsden Moor to Stoodley Pike and further still to Pen Y Gent and Ingleborough.
For a few hundred yards the peaty edge of West Nab is broken by a scatter of weather worn grit stone boulders. Like gritty table top sugar lumps or decayed unfilled teeth they spill out across the moorland edge. Their cracks and crevices draw the eye and imagination. We avoid Northerlies amongst these cool damp cracks , lose track of time and sometimes ourselves hiding up there. We glimpse another landscape rarely seen or spoken of yet always here.
Follow this grit stone shelf outwards toward Raven Rocks where summer sunsets can be contemplated and the soft voices of Ravens eavesdropped on still as they tumble entwined in claws and wing beats over Wessenden Head. Spring brings the Golden Plover who stands sentry amongst ling and boulder to sing his soulful” who goes there?” His song welds on wind to carry far over these empty bog lands in an evocation of this wild place. In June dusk’s the “ghost owl” haunts last light up here. She quarters the sky on slender silent wings in search of prey. Ever curious she will greet the quiet walker with a glance as she passes in the ebbing light. As the necklace of rock becomes ever more broken Mountain Hares hide amongst bobbing bog cotton. Their ears flatten with the sound of boot-steps before bursting into flight to dance an escape through bog and boulder.
Dawn and dusk are magical moments up here. The edge of day and night an enchanting place to be. Winter winds and cold air lift this landscape and it can be seen fresh through new eyes. Walk West Nab when West winds rattle in bursts of sunshine and shadow, when light and dark stream across on a torn and tattered sky. Stroll up without a top coat on those rare summer evenings when heat haze shimmers over dry cracked peat bogs. Risk a winter sunset and walk over the bare old bones of frozen snow drifts. Hear brittle ice crack beneath boots. Walk home with moonlight casting your shadow on cold frosty ground. Go quietly, tred softly and these Pennine hills come alive.
Sand Tarn lies high on my favorite hill. Like a lost contact lens it remains mostly unseen unless your eye passes over its waters to catch colour or light held within its shallow basin. It sits in a fold of rocky contours like lost change down the sofa or a long cried tear left undried and forgotten. I remember sliding down hard banks of snow to its ice caked shores 30 odd winters ago. It seemed bleak and windswept in the low wet cloud of that day but I knew I’d return to sleep up there on many long summer evenings to come.
On this visit the wind gently left Sand Tarn as we pitched tent and put a brew on. In the stillness a low October sun could be felt. Its warm company enjoyed like that of a leaving friend. My mental archives hold a Top Ten of hill brews going back donkeys years and the tea drunk this afternoon by the sandy shore and in warm sun shot straight in at number one. I imagine it’ll hold on to the top spot for a long time. A bit like Paul McCartney’s “Mull of Kintyre” only it’ll get richer and more memorable with time unlike that particular hit.
To our West the Howgill Fells were all knees and elbows their fleshy hillsides scabbed with bracken and flecked with dandruff sheep. A Wainwright skyline rose above this bony anatomy and lakeland fells from Blencathra to the Sca Fells were sketched out guidebook fashion on this furthest horizon. A silver flow of water became too bright to look at in the lowering sun as the tide pulled a shard of Irish Sea into Morecambe Bay. We walked over Wild Boar Fell to stand by Stone Men on the edge above Mallerstang. Cold shadows already filled the valley below and farm dogs barked like they do at dusk every where. Beasts bellowed miles away long after the dogs had settled down.
Below sparse pale lights began appearing in the rolling darkness of Westmorland. I could almost count them as they appeared like seedlings in the night. Occasionally a blob of headlights would appear on a random journey before turning a corner or going over a hill to be abducted from my sight. The still tarn reflected all the colours of night from warm sunset reds to cooling blues and eventually nights shiny coal blackness. Yet the waters too were broken by a scattering of seedling stars and a tear of yellow moon. Above I watched as Orion’s belt appeared to me for the first time this autumn and shooting stars streaked like struck matches in the blackness.
The 25 to Penistone ground low through its old gear box stuttering up Dunford Road out of Holmfirth and below Longley’s turbine. For years the factory turbine has stood exposed in the wind, alone, something novel. Opposite now on Cartworth Moor new and brightly spinning blades introduce themselves and higher on Royd Moor the arms of giant grey spin bowlers warm up in the breeze. The whiz of wind in a farm turbine slicing a Westerly is just another sound in the hills. Like quads purring or farm dogs arguing.
Hade Edge shoppers alight near the band room picking up bags for life carrying pricey Co-op goods. Each thanks the driver and steps off onto a windswept pavement a 1000 feet above the sea. There is no hiding from any wind direction here. No one is outside without a coat or a hunch of shoulders to protect against an incoming shower. We follow the last green Co-op bag off the bus at Dunford Bridge and take white lines of road uphill towards Windle Edge and the moors of Woodhead.
There is a keepered intimidation lingering still on these hills. The “Right To Roam” resented and almost hidden like some embarrassing relative. You might come across the little brown access sign occasionally. It’s usually accompanied by larger signs listing negatives and seemingly designed to put you off especially if you have a dog for company. On Windle Edge the “No Dogs” sign had been removed and only the trademark coach screws remained at each corner. I keep her at heel her nose an inch from my boots.
Dog in a bog
We pull away from grouse butts fresh cut in dripping peat and head over Dead Edge. The moors of Woodhead are defined by their lack of certainty. Contours are subtle and often undecided especially along the moorland watershed. Water here stands still stranded between East and West. There is a feel of the unfinished. As if nature distracted put this place down and never returned to complete her work. Too busy cutting groughs or sculpting grit stone on Bleaklow.
Mounds and posts once marked out the watershed. Though still shown on maps they have been replaced by a long stock fence which slices across the peaty tops like a cheese cutter through some cheddar. It kinks and doglegs sniffing a way across the undefined. Giving a man made certainty where nature hesitates. A white trig point marks Dead Edge End and Holme Moss transmitter provides a compass needle to walk towards. There are a lot of blanks for the imagination to fill.
By September the Curlews and Golden Plover are gone. No sky Lark will rise before boot and sing as it ascends sky wards and weightless. The moors are a quiet place now until late February when the Spring sing song returns. Only Grouse cackle to each other and sweep away noisily in their comic groups. They are tied to the heather like Giant Pandas are to bamboo so have nowhere else to go.
Fresh from Holme Moss a wind with a dash of the North in it brings the weatherman’s sharp showers mixed in with the pop of shotguns from over on Goodbent. Come September moorland light matures like warm Rowan berries and casts its spell across these brown hills as time falls towards the equinox. Details lost in summer’s invisible ink are sketched back into the landscape. Subtle contours gain contrast and tone. Grit stone warms and asks to be touched again. Faded heather glows in the hearth of lowering sunlight. Rolling hills are a tea stained compost heap of browns mashed in shades from dishwater Earl Grey to a deep stewed workers brew you could stand a spoon up in. From this narrow Pennine backbone ribs of light spill outwards to catch the near urban in an inadvertent X Ray of the every day.
After 18 years’ worth of soakings I have a new coat! Snapped up at a sale In Keswick one dank November day for £99 my old coat became a part of me. Its pockets held stories of mild adventures amongst its biscuit wrapper, sea shell and ticket detritus. Its sleeves Pennine peat stained, salt tide marked and bothy burned. Its scent slightly smoky like a good whiskey. It could no longer be worn in public places and struggled on the hills like a dog past its best. It was green. The new coat is introduced to rain for the first time today. The cold drops form large tensioned beads on its waterproof surface. They join into hot silvery rivulets and look for weakness but there is no getting in. The new coat is factory clean and blue like the sky. A blank page to write on.
Holme Moss transmitter station appears to be a school child’s model project before us. Its coat hanger mast held in place by wires drawing pinned into the ground. Odd sized shoe box buildings clutter around the mast foot. One knock from a passing infant would send the lot flying and end in tears. In winter snow it is an Ice Station Zebra and there would be no surprise to see a submarine conning tower break through the ice from the thick sea of peat below. It is an ugly thing to be honest but so much a part of our moor and valley landscape. Often it is erased by mists to a short pencil stub. At night its soft red lights reflect on cloud and reassure in the blackness.
Passing the mast we walk over Holme Moss towards Heydon Clough to find the remains of Fairy Swordfish P4223. Swept up like a pile of silvery leaves the remains of this aircraft sit quietly in a peaty grough. A poppy wreath and several small wooden poppy crosses are placed poignantly amongst the metal. The plane came down here in January 1940 killing the pilot. Due to bad weather the wreck was not found until a month later when a local Council worker clearing snow on the Holme Moss road walked across to look at an odd shape on the moor.
You can never be certain of anything up here, least of all where you are. Amongst Black Hills grough ribbed plateau nature casts a short sighted spell which confines’ vision to a few metres of peat, bilberry and heather in every direction. The moorland world is intimate when following a grough and has a feeling of “I shouldn’t really be here” about it like childhood garden creeping or hearing the farmhouse door open when up a tree picking someone else’s apples. Confidence is questioned on the clearest of days and it’s forever a surprise to find the summit trig point and paved Pennine Way. A landmark feature to comfort and guide if required. We ignored the curve of mill flagstones and crept off for the head of Issues Clough and Edge. A tide of light and shadow swept the Holme Valley below us and a rainy rainbow drifted over Huddersfield from the Infirmary to the incinerator where it seemed to evaporate.
The Edge falls a way to high enclosed fields each side of Issues Road and to the moors of Goodbent beyond.The popping guns were silent now and 4×4’s bounced off along Spring Lane from the shooting lodge. A neat Mountain Hare perched on a hagg. The wind fingered his coat and took our scent across the peat to him. His ears flattened to a “Get Set” position before he sprinted away in shallow arcs like eddies in the wind. From up here Holmfirth’s stone houses hang on steep valley sides with the colour and texture of rag rugs hanging on a line. Older houses are stacked like neglected boxes on a grit stone shelf and beneath and amongst what can be seen exists a world of underdwellings, ginnels, steps and jealously guarded parking spaces.
Our trip out was a spur of the moment, catch the bus affair and had been fuelled by a slice of toast nearly 10 hours past. A four fingered kit kat and a brew up here could not stop that shaky low blood sugar feel tapping me on the shoulder half way along the Edge. From a bilberry seat in the sun I rang our Mountain Rescue Service and asked for a rendezvous on the cobbles in Holme. We were rescued with a smile as dusk’s shadows fell on the moors.
I like the bottom one about stubbing your fag out properly !
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 forunsocial behaviour 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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!
Between trains at Manchester I went to check my map for the route from Hope Station up onto Loosehill. Before I’d completed the thought I saw it back home on the kitchen table. So our walk began a stop earlier at Edale where my memory of a bridleway up onto Hollins Cross felt trustworthy.
The sweep of clough cut moorland escarpment which rises North of Edale is as fine a hill view as any. The place to gaze over to its heathery textures, crumbling in- by walls and grit stone stacks is the beautiful grassy ridge between Loosehill and Mam Tor where we walked.
The Met Offices best guess was wrong but in the right kind of way. No heavy rain or low cloud as suggested. Instead a summer’s day of warm breeze and broken blue sky. Out on the open hillside of Mam Tor the scale of Kinder Scout could be felt. Its presence dwarfed Edale and the ridge we walked on.
Swallows skimmed walls on Rushup Edge where the ground fell away to Edales uncut meadows. South of us an unkown landscape of white limestone walls and green pasture stretched to the horizon. The black stuff of peat and grit stone was met proper crossing Brown Knoll. Here the moorland sponge dripped with water from many wet grey days and made for slow thoughtful walking.
Mostly on Kinder my timing with Atlantic weather fronts has been out so to reach the plateau in such good conditions was welcome. A ewe stood by Edale Rocks. Uncut fleece blowing in the breeze watching us. A pair of Ravens, claws often entwined, cawed and tumbled along the Western edge of the escarpment where we picked a bouldery way towards Kinder Downfall. As ever the waterfall blew back on itself towards its peaty beginnings and a fine drizzle drifted across our path.
Here the trangia slowly boiled a pot of peaty water brown as stewed tea whilst I stood barefoot on gritty river bed hands in pockets. Brewing up is the best part of walking. Like looking back on a work in progress. Savouring a detail unseen. Reconsidering. Or just laying back floating on sweet solitude. The rarest thing.
Rain interrupted play!
And we moved on into the evening light and passing shower. Later low sun and gathering cloud combined to make a half hour of sublime light which lifted the landscape above its moorland prose to a poetry of fleeting texture and contour, colour and saturation, shadow and contrast A depth and experience you might only imagine. You may live a life and never come across it. A cameras clicks can only hint at the intensity. Better to stand there and feel it.
Our bed for the falling night was undecided but depended on finding water. Given the sponge we walked upon this was surprisingly hard to find. Most becks seemed low and unusable and we wandered far to find the sound of moving water. Somewhere around The Edge tumbling water and a green grough provided a home for the night. The view from our 2’000ft bed opened out over the patchwork of Ashop Clough to the subtle contours of Bleaklow. It began to rain.
A fitful night of wind and rattling rain. A dark grey dawn and lie in until the metrological tantrum calmed. From sleeping bag to fully clad in boots, waterproofs and hat before rolling out of soggy tent to a soaking morning. From the sublime to the grim.
It was lifting slowly as we headed off to pick up the Pennine Way for Bleaklow. Getting better days are better than the other kind.
Looking down on Featherbed Moss I recalled past crossings of its endless sodden expanse. A frustrating place of detours and boot fulls of water. Now a thin pencil line of flagstones curves a way across this great bog and the black scar of old path has healed. Credit must go to the National Park for the miles of restoration works which were not popular with everyone at the time. Work continues up here with re vegetating vast expanses of acidic moorland. Even if you never visit this work will benefit you as the peat here is a great store of carbon.
Bleaklow is a subtle place of shallow cloughs and stone. Mostly you are held in its gentle contours unable to see beyond the next few metres of peat. In low cloud it can be hard to stay relaxed. My first visit was 30 years ago on an attempt to walk 40 miles around the River Derwent’s watershed in winter. Dark, wet and sliding from grough to grough the idea was abandoned on here and a desperate escape made by torchlight into the Derwent Valley. I did not return for a long time. Yet like someone who you misunderstand on first meeting this place has been worth a second chance but remains a dog you can never trust completely.
Today’s crossing was a delight. Following green cloughs and becks in brown spate deeper into the hill. Until a pair of dish cloth coloured sheep were met at Bleaklow Head. Beyond a midgey brew was taken and the long descent to Crowden begun. I wondered about returning here and spending a full night and day camped amongst some boulders and bilberry. To spend time watching weather and wandering this big peaty wildernesses little corners.