Posts Tagged ‘mist over pendle’


Pendle Hill Summit

Lancashire, driving roughly north and east along the A59, in the vicinity of Whalley. It’s a fast road, whisking you towards Clitheroe, then beyond to Gisburn and the Dales. Just here though, to the right, there comes into view a big hill, dun coloured, or sometimes more darkly dappled according to season and cloud. Or sometimes, in the wet, the clouds will take it, and you won’t even know it’s there. But on the clear days, like today, depending on how the light falls, the hill will sing a siren song, and if you’re susceptible it will infect you with a strange longing, calling you to a closer intimacy. This is Pendle.

I was heading for the Dales, but the shifting light on Pendle’s warm western flank seduced me, brought me off the A59 at Chatburn. Then it was the perfect little road, through Downham, and on to Barley. Imagination and myth lends this area an atmosphere of mystery; this is the heart of Lancashire, one in which abides dark tales of ancient witchcraft.

There are also accounts of holy visions. George Fox, founding father of the Quaker movement, had one. Others have told of doors that open onto other places, and of unspeakable ghostly encounters befalling travellers alone on the hill by night. And there’s a mess of lies too, like those that fetched up ten souls in 1612, had them hanged at Lancaster for murder, supposedly by witchcraft. As late as 2009, a petition was presented to parliament to have the condemned posthumously pardoned – the Witchcraft Act itself having been repealed in 1957. But the petition was refused, and the convictions stand. In Pendle it’s still official: death by witchcraft. And so the myths perpetuate.

But there are lighter stories too, a sense of humour in the tales of Sabden’s treacle mines, and the Boggarts who eat the treacle, and then there are the Parkin Weavers,… and maybe the Black Pudding Twisters too, or maybe I’m mixing up my stories now with a greater Lancastrian lore.



It’s a big hill at 557 meters, and somewhat bleaker in appearance here on the steeper eastern face, at the bottom of which the little grit-stone village of Barley nestles in a broad green vale. Barley welcomes. It’s just a pound to park your car all day, and a welcoming tea-room close to hand. Most visitors come for the hill – either to look at it, or to climb it.

There are many ways up Pendle. I’ve done them from all points of the compass, in all weathers and seasons. The most direct and least interesting is the shortest, by the eastern face, from Barley, just a couple of kilometers up the stone-set tracks that slant diagonally across the face to left and right. But a more interesting, and less direct way leads you away from the hill for a while,  by the reservoirs of Ogden Clough.

I last did this route with a friend, some twenty years ago, when I recall the hill being alive with little frogs, black and shiny, a vast hoard of miniature obsidian reptilia, all crossing the moor, leaping over the toes of our boots, sweeping purposefully east, as if answering the call of a biblical plague. But the route that day, being shared with another happy soul, did not seem so lonely then as it did now. Today there were no little frogs, only the sound of the wind, and the feel of the curious eyes of the Faery on my back.

Don’t believe in the Faery? Well why would you? It’s a ridiculous notion. They are simply my own daemons, and not an unkindly breed – it depends which windows of imagination you go poking your head through.


Ogden Clough

There are two reservoirs in Ogden Clough, the lower and the higher, both narrow slits of water, reflecting alternately the lead grey, the shock white, and the deep blue of a changeable September sky. Beyond the higher reservoir, the track bends to reveal the far reaches of the Clough, and no more desolate a place will you find anywhere in England. For a moment here the silence took my breath. It was what the hill had wanted to say, I think, or rather to show, to remind me of this silence, this emptiness, this palpable stillness. Of course the feeling, like the feel of the Faery, was as much to do with an inner frame of mind as by the mere lay and remoteness of the land, but it was a connection I had been lacking of late, and I was glad for a fresh glimpse of it. Hills are always different when you walk them alone; they have so much more to show you.

A stone bearing the chiseled image of a falcon marks the parting of the track, and the route to Pendle. It goes up the Pendle Way, along the narrow nick of Boar Clough, then a couple of kilometers, moderately steep, across an open, windy, heather-hissing moor, to the summit trig-point, and the company of other pilgrims. Until now I had not seen another soul since leaving Barley.

The obvious reward for your efforts is the view of course, opening suddenly from the ridge to the north and east – lush farmland, little hamlets and the shining eyes of ponds and reservoirs. The character of a hill is first felt in the look of it from below, then in the pleasure of its routes, and in the change of perspective it offers the climber on his lowland life. For a moment, from the top of a fine hill like this, we cannot help but transcend the ordinary. In all of these respects, Pendle pleases, but also it reminds us that for all of our modernity, the land can still be a daemon haunted place, one still bound up in myth-making, a place where the imaginary can still be felt as a physical presence.

Not all hills can do this.

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For this year’s Christmas/New Year walk, I chose Pendle Hill. It’s not that far from home and we’ve been having some atrocious weather recently with heavy snowfall and temperatures down to minus seventeen, rarely rising above minus six, for weeks, so I wasn’t even sure I’d make it this far. But the UK has a very changeable climate, and temperatures today were up to eight degrees with 100% humidity, making for a very steamy walk, burdened down by a pack filled with winter gear that, although advisable, wasn’t needed.

The most popular ramble up the hill starts from the visitor centre at the lovely little hamlet of Barley, which nestles beneath the steep north face. However, I chose to approach it from the village of Downham today, along a recently established network of permissive paths, which approach from the less steep, but I think the infinitely more pleasing country to the east. I’ve never liked the ascent from Barley to be honest. Heavy erosion of the hill by countless witch-mad pilgrims in the past has resulted in a somewhat ugly and unsympathetic reinforcement of the paths. The approach from Downham however, could not have been finer, the way less trodden and fairly easy to follow in good weather.
Part of the Assheton Estate, Downham village is unusual in that the owners have traditionally forbidden things like overhead power cables, ‘phone lines, aerials or satellite dishes. The usual mad clutter of  signage that blights every other place is also missing here – I couldn’t even find a fingerpost pointing me to the visitor centre carpark. The result is that Downham is one of the most beautiful and beloved places in Lancashire. It possesses a timeless charm that makes it a favourite location for filming period dramas. It’s also famous as the setting for the 1961 movie “Whistle down the wind” starring Alan Bates and Hayley Mills. Oh,… and the car park was free.
The area’s association with witchcraft goes back to the infamous “Lancashire witch trials” of the seventeenth century – twelve individuals being rounded up in a political and religious purge, and accused of murder by the “dark arts”. The purge affected many parts of England, but it was the number of accused rounded up in Pendle area that has given it its notoriety. It’s still a subject of controversy in Lancashire, and even as recently as 2009, petitions were being presented to the government pleading for the cases to be reconsidered, and the accused pardoned. So far however, the convictions stand. I think the best that can be said is that in the summer of 1612, ten of those unfortunate twelve were executed by the state on the flimsiest of pretexts, and that there was considerably more than witchery at the bottom of it. 
The tale of the Lancashire Witches is a very dark one. The official “factual” verision of events are told in Thomas Potts’ The Wonderful Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancashire, (1612). The story was also the basis for William Harrison Ainsworths novel The Lancashire witches (1849) and Robert Neill’s Mist over Pendle (1951).

 Even today Pendle remains a mysterious and evocative hill. It’s more than just imagination and an having an awareness of its dark past that sometimes raises the hairs on the back of your neck when walking here; the hill  also has a history of inducing visions and mystical experiences in the pilgrims who wander up it. It’s best viewed from the A59, as you head west, from Ribchester, towards Clitheroe. From here it takes on a most dramatic appearance, often boiling with mist and very broody. At 1827 feet, it falls just short of being officially classed as a UK mountain. Its summit, although steep in the approach reveals a vast moorland plateau. You need a map and compass to wander about up here, and the nous to use them. 

  The route I followed is the one roughly described on the Walking Britain website at http://www.walkingbritain.co.uk/walks/walks/walk_b/1818/. It was about six and a half miles of fairly rough moorland terrain. I met no witches along the way, just good natured walking folks, several of whom shared with me a friendly greeting, comments on the weather, the route,… the season. There was even one kind soul on the summit sharing the coffee from his flask with a bunch of strangers who’d forgotten their refreshments. This sort of thing, though insignificant to the cynical, restores one’s confidence, and one’s sense of purpose.

I always feel better after returning from a hill, and today was no exception. On the summit of Pendle, the mists swirled up from below, they formed mysterious planes of shifting nothingness, cutting off the madness of the world below. And souls sat in isolation or gathered in small groups, quietly chatting, nibbling their sandwiches, sipping their drinks – an odd melancholic, meditative, and it has to be said a typical summit scene – good natured, satisfying.








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