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Mellor Knoll from the Hodder

You know that feeling when you’ve come down off the fells, and you’re looking to pay for coffee, but can’t find your wallet? I would have been embarrassingly short, but I’d found a pound on the trail which, when added to the change in my pocket, just came to the price of the coffee. It was good coffee, but I didn’t enjoy it because I thought I’d lost my wallet. It summed up the day, a mixture of good and bad, and a feeling I’d not got the best out of it, possibly due to my own gormlessness, or possibly not.

We’re in the pretty little village of Dunsop Bridge today, central hub of the Bowland fells, also the geographical centre of the British Isles, or near enough, at least by some calculations. I have a Christmas card a friend sent me, from the post office here, in December 1992, and which he describes in his book “A Journey Through Lancashire”. It was journey’s end for the book, and he describes in his closing paragraph the bleak view of Mellor Knoll and Totridge fell that day. Here I am now, getting on for thirty years later, and my friend has since departed for a different sort of journey, though, knowing him, he’s already written several guidebooks about it. The fells have an altogether brighter look about them today. There’s a cold wind blowing, but it’s driving the clouds, so the hills are great canvasses for fast moving patches of shadow and light. The freshness is exhilirating.

The plan was for a circuit of Mellor Knoll, a prominent cone-shaped hill, following the route described by fellow blogger and guide to Bowland, BC, here , though I decided to go the other way around and get the steep bit out of the way first. Viewed from Dunsop Bridge, it’s an obvious objective for any hill walker with blood in his veins, but, though a right of way runs by it, the summit itself is technically a trespass.

With a few exceptions, the paths in Bowland generally aren’t as well walked as in other areas, and sometimes the exact line of a marked right of way on the map is more of a general idea than a dead certainty, so you need your wits about you. Options for circular walks tend also to be longer, and over rougher ground. And although access is much better than it was, post CROW 2000, there’s a sense one still has to be careful, especially now trespass has been uplifted into a criminal offence.

Towards Langden Brook

The early part of the route was straightforward, though not heavily walked, so it wasn’t always clear what line to take across open ground. But from Langden Brook, you’re basically aiming for the coll on the shoulder of Mellor Knoll. Totridge fell impressed with altitude, and an attitude of austere bleakness, and we needed little by way of persuasion to save that one for another day. I found shelter from the wind behind the wall on the coll, and watched the farmers gathering sheep in the valley below. Of resident flowering flora, I found only a lone mayflower, flowering more in hope than expectation, amid an otherwise bleak expanse.

The summit of Mellor Knoll is just a short, tantalising detour from here, but if pressed I shall claim my meandering over to the summit was strictly the result of navigational error, therefore unintentional, and, moreover, that I did not intend taking up residence. That said, the views were 360 degrees of stunning. Bowland is, at times, the jewel in Lancashire’s north. At other times, it can be deeply irritating. Speaking of which,…

Mellor Knoll

The way from Mellor Knoll continues plainly enough, but I lost it when entering a patch of woodland to the west of New Hay Barn. I’m still not sure what happened here. A gate led me confidently into the wood, and waymarkers reassured me I was on track. Next thing there were flying motorcycles everywhere, and the line of the route had vanished in a confusion of rutted scars cut by bikes, and the waymarkers had given up on me. There were motorbikes growling everywhere, and first aid boxes perched on poles, suggestive of danger to life and limb.

After a couple of aborted attempts to muddle my way through, I approached a motorcyclist, who had dismounted, and asked him where the path went. Either he misunderstood my meaning, or he hadn’t a clue, or both, but he seemed confident and friendly enough, and he pointed me in a certain direction, so I followed. He meant well, but this turned out to be down the trail used by the leaping bikes, and not the right direction at all.

I was in deep doo-dah now, well off my route, and fearing to carry on, or to go back up the fell to my last known good position. Indeed, I felt like a sitting duck, this lone twit on foot amid a melee of armoured bikers at play, that it was only a matter of time before I’d be needing the contents of one of those first aid boxes. So, I bailed out into a meadow, in some haste, climbing a gate and, putting myself into unknown, and pathless territory. To whom it may concern, apologies for this particular trespass, which was indeed intentional, but I really was in fear of injury. I was lucky in finding just the one electric wire, which I had to duck under, and then I was on a private track down to the road, by Hodder Bank farm, all of which cut a couple of miles from my intended route, and rather soured my mood.

A little road walking brought me to Burnholm Bridge, on the Hodder, where I picked up the remains of the day. From there onwards, it was a very pleasant return to Dunsop Bridge, by the river, which did much to calm my curses. All I needed now was coffee from Puddlducks Cafe, a nice drive home, and all would be well,…

Which brings us back to the beginning of my story, also the end of today’s adventure in the Forest of Bowland. But it was fine. The good luck fairy was looking after me, stumping up change for my coffee, and then arranging it so as I’d left my wallet at home. If I’d lost it on the fell, now, that would really have spoiled my day.

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Clougha Pike, Forest of Bowland, Lancashire

I did not intend inspecting the shooting butts. The path just led away from the estate track, and I was tired of that track. As a way up Clougha Pike, it’s convenient, but probably the least interesting, that’s if you don’t count the impressive engineering and humungous cost that must have gone into laying it. The reason for laying it? Fleets of luxury four by fours, carrying unimaginably wealthy, tweeded gentlemen and their guns, from August 12th onwards.

Anyway, the path led off through the heather, and seemed to be going somewhere. But then it petered out among this line of neatly constructed bunkers. I mean, these were the Rolls-Royce of butts, dressed stone, then covered in turfs and heathers for camouflage. They even had attractively coloured gravel on the floor, so the gentlemen wouldn’t get their brogues and plus fours dirty. Believe me, those grouse wouldn’t know what had hit ’em, and with what style!

We’re in the north of Lancashire today, the Forest of Bowland, one of the wildest and most beautiful parts of England, also formerly one of the most forbidden. I grew up on tales of walkers chancing it up here, their scrapes with the keepers, outwitting the dogs sent after them, and avoiding the natives who sought feathers in their caps for grassing them up to the estate managers. It was all a bit – well – feudal. But then the Countryside and Rights of Way act (2000) opened access to certain parts of it, at least for recreation on foot. Clougha Pike’s in the access area, and so long as they’re not shooting, we’re free to roam here. Come after the glorious 12th though, and you could be disappointed.

Cairns approaching Clougha Pike

I’ve seen no one yet, and it’s been well over an hour. There were a few cars down on the little car-park, so I know there are other hikers about, but the moor has swallowed them. It’s my first time in the hills of this northern part of Bowland, so I’m not sure of the lie of the land, and none of the markers make sense yet. There were some elaborate cairns a while back, enticing us away from the track, but I wasn’t sure if they were just for fancy. The plan was to follow the track until the GPS said we were due east of the summit, then just make a bee-line for it. As for wildlife, the moors seem sterile today. No wild birds, nothing with four legs. There were sheep lower down, and all I’ve seen so far up here are grouse, and piles and piles of their droppings in every nook and cranny.

Bowland doesn’t really do tourists, or rather it kettles them into one or two little places, like Dunsop Bridge, and Slaidburn. You can still picnic along the leafy banks of the Langden Brook, but the land itself caters very little for anyone wanting access to the uplands. It’s rough country, and these are big hills. The signs in the valleys proclaim it to be an area of outstanding natural beauty, and they aren’t wrong, but they feature a Hen Harrier as a logo, which, ironically, along with all the other raptors up here, have a very hard time of it.

Clougha Pike Summit, Bowland, Lancashire

Okay, the summit. A short walk across the heather now and,… well. We have a collection of wind-shelters, informally put together from rocks lying about, and the trig-point. And the stunning view: Fylde Coast, Glasson, Lake District, Yorkshire Dales. There’s a path of sorts too. It follows the line of the ridge, looks like it came from as far over as Ward’s Stone. It’ll take us off I think – and looks more interesting than the way we came up.

What drove those walkers to do it? To trespass, I mean. Was it defiance? I suppose that’s one reason, without getting all political and Kinder Scout about it. The guys I knew were working men, unionized, with industrial jobs, but they didn’t wear their socialism on their lapels. Freedom to roam was more the thing. Not all the hills in Bowland have romantic profiles, but some do, and to any walker with the fire in his blood, a hill is there to be experienced, its summit to be gained. Anyone saying you can’t go up there is like a red rag to a bull.

They had the look of dugouts on the Somme, those butts – I mean Hollywood style, ridiculously tidy, where the killing involves no blood, or dismemberment, or evisceration, and where the shooters carry elaborately decorated arms. Upwards of half a million grouse are farmed and killed every year in places like this. When they’re not shooting birds, these gentlemen are out in Africa killing lions. It’s striking, what the really, really rich have in common, is their love of killing.

With that many grouse shot, you’d think it was a national dish or something, but these unfortunate creatures are essentially live “clays” and shot for fun. Rearing so many has a serious impact on the landscape, indeed it shapes the land. The moors as we see them here, wild, desolate, are entirely unnatural, managed specifically for the rearing of this non-native species, at the expense of native creatures, in particular the raptors who barely get a look in and, though protected in law, tend not to thrive in places like this at all – trapped, shot, poisoned.

On Clougha Pike, Bowland, Lancashire

I wonder what the land would be like, if we just gave it back to nature. How long would it take to transform this managed wilderness into something more diverse? What breathtaking diversity of species would return then? Pine Martin? Wild Cat? Merlin? Hell, even a fox or two would be a start! But that’s not going to happen any time soon, of course. It took a hundred years of campaigning against the money and the privilege, just for the privilege of my sitting where I’m sitting now. The sun will have burned out long before we’re anywhere near re-wilding the Forest of Bowland, or anywhere else in England for that matter. And all the clever men – not the money men – are telling us time is running out.

I think we’ll drive home through the Trough. It’s ages since we did that, and I’ve yet to do it in the little blue car – one of the finest drives I know.

Trough of Bowland, Lancashire

Thanks for listening.

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Great Hill – West Pennine Moors

There’s so much to do, places to explore. I’m itching to get back on the road, get up to Bowland, to the Dales, the Lakes, get the camera up the fells, have that long weekend at the Buck in Malham I’ve been promising myself since whenever. And now, retiring early I’ve plenty of time for all that creative stuff, all that travelling about. Except of course we’re still riding out the “C” word, and things seemingly getting worse, even with a vaccine on the horizon.

Stay at home, exercise locally. Do you know what that means? Me neither. We’ve been here before. I’ll still be taking the camera for a walk, but it’ll be doorstep to doorstep now. The downside is my shots may start to look like they’re all the same, because they are – just different lights, moods and seasons. But then what we sometimes overlook is the fact that while our local beat might seem monotonous to us, it’s still interesting to others whose own “familiar” is monotonous to them, but to us fascinating, and so on.

Anyway, these first bright, frosty days of 2021, I’ve been doing a lot of miles on foot. I’ve been inspired by my fellow outdoor bloggers to clock up a thousand miles this year. That’s a big number for me but, holding true to my ambitious nature, I’ll be happy with five hundred, which is around ten miles per week, and should be feasible, even locally. I’ve done more than that already, but then the weather’s been good.

Speaking of local, the header shot is of a beguilingly lovely Great Hill, in the West Pennines, under snow just now. I was last up there a month ago, but this is as close as I’ll get until the latest restrictions are lifted. I shot it from the west, around nine miles out, by the river Yarrow, near the village of Eccleston, a short journey for me by Shanks’ pony. There would have been people up there today, regardless of the new restrictions. The little road up to the cricket field at White Coppice, the usual starting point for the climb, would have been nose to tail with vehicles, like it’s been all year, everyone out for a “local” walk. Some will have interpreted that as fine, even though they came from Manchester or Liverpool.

It was pretty much like this before, everyone looking for a loophole. Admittedly, the loopholes are smaller now, so some are flouting the rules due to Covid fatigue, a sense of self-entitlement, ignorance or just sheer bloody mindedness. The danger, I suppose, is when the books are written, the wrong people will be carrying the can for the death toll.

Actually, this string of paths I’m on today is unusual for being little trod. Indeed, for the full hour I’ve been on them, I’ve seen not another soul. I’m after a particular set of shots here: late afternoon sunshine lighting up bare trees. I’m looking for long shadows running across green pastures. I need a long lens, a small aperture for depth of field, so a slow shutter, which requires a tripod. If the paths are busy, I always feel self-conscious with a tripod so rarely bother with one, but not today. Today it’s pleasant to slow right down, and just tinker with the camera. Plus, by the time I get home, I’ve added another four miles to that thousand-mile challenge.

There will be other challenges this year of course, like how to avoid catching Covid in one of the few developed countries where it’s running out of control. Then there’s the matter of how to get my jab when everything else Covid related has been an unmitigated organizational disaster. There’s also the issue of staying sane, continuing to obey the rules while abandoning my beloved Great Hill to insta-incomers, in their four-byes, travelling across tiers for a selfie in the snow. Judging by that last comment, my magnanimity may be on the wane, but no one’s perfect. At least I no longer shout at the Telly, but that’s because I use it mainly for casting You-tube stuff these days. I know, You-tube is a repository for the worst of humanity, but it’s also a place you’ll find some inspirational talent, no matter what your bent. I’ll close with one of my favourite channels, and a trip to Bowland which I’m unlikely to be making in person any time soon.

Henry, you’re an inspiration, mate, and your pictures make mine look like they were shot with a Box Brownie from the back of a galloping horse.

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