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Posts Tagged ‘walking’

On Spitler’s Edge

You catch up with me this afternoon, on Spitler’s Edge, in the Western Pennines. It sounds precipitous, like a mountain arête, but it’s not. That said, it’s still quite an airy aspect, in a dun coloured, tussocky, bog-cottony, sky-scraping, moorland sort of way. Indeed, the views are spectacular, from the hills of eastern Lancashire, to the west coast. Southwards, we have the porcupine ridge of Winter Hill, and its cluster of transmitters, while to the north we have Great Hill. The crossing from Great Hill to Winter Hill is always a treat, not to be underestimated in bad weather, but much easier now the route has been paved to spare erosion of the precious peat and bog habitat. The highpoint here is around 1286 feet.

I’ve not come over from Great Hill, though. I’ve come up by an unfamiliar path that snakes between Standing Stones Hill and Green Withins’ Brook. Early maps tell us there was always a track here, though aiming a little lower, for the coll, and the pass to High Shores, then down to Naylors. Naylors is a ruin now, and the current map shows the track petering out in the tussocks of Standing Stones. But there’s still a clear and well trod footway that carries on, though aiming more for the featureless summit of Redmond’s Edge.

It’s a hot day, down in the valley, with a dazzling, head-bursting sun. The sky is streaked with great fans of whispy, stratospheric clouds like white dendrites against the blue, and I’ve been photographing them with various foregrounds on the way up. There’s a cool wind on top, now, and a dusty taste to the air. The moors are ripe for burning, but so far so good, and the idiots have spared us their perennial pyromania. We’re a little later setting out, having waited in for the Tescos delivery man, so it’s getting on for tea time. The light is turning mellow, and a poem is gnawing at me, wanting me to remember it from way back.

I was crossing Spitler’s Edge,
With the sun touching the sea,
When a stranger on a dark horse,
From the distance came to me.

So I took myself aside a-ways,
To let the traveller pass,
And leaning on my staff, I paused,
Amid a sea of grass.

2002, I think. No strangers on dark horses today, though – just the occasional mountain-bike going hell for leather and with an air that suggests a supreme confidence I’ll be stepping aside for it. Although we’re in a post CROW access area, this isn’t a bridle way, so, strictly speaking, bikes have no place on the edge – walkers only. It could be worse, though. It could be motorcycles. You can’t police stuff like this, though. It relies on conscientiousness, hillcraft, and good manners.

So where was I? Standing amid a sea of grass? Okay,…

From there I watched the sky ablaze,
Above a darkening land,
Until I felt a chill and spied,
The stranger close at hand.

He stood upon the hillside,
While his horse about him grazed,
And with his eyes cast westwards,
On that same sunset he gazed,…

Yes, an old poem of mine, insisting on rhyme, at the risk of meter. It came out of an odd feeling, when crossing this way, late one evening, forty years ago. It was the antiquarian John Rawlinson, in his book “About Rivington” who wrote of the origins of the name “Spitler’s Edge,” it coming from the Knights Hospitaller’s of the Holy Order of St John, who had holdings in the district – this being in medieval times – and who, legend has it, would pass this way en route. So the guy I meet in the poem is a medieval warrior-monk. So what?

He wore a cloak of coarsest wool,
Around his shoulder’s broad,
And, across his back was slung,
I swear, the mightiest of swords.

But I did not fear the stranger,
When at length his gaze met mine,
For I knew we shared that hillside,
Across a gulf of time,…

And, speaking of time, the evening I’m thinking of was some time in the early eighties. I’d had a bad day at work, plus the realisation the girl I had the romantic hots for had the romantic hots for someone else – a colleague of mine, and a decent guy I was friendly with. So I’d driven up to Rivington, and set out to mull it over. And in mulling it over, I’d walked, and walked, and walked. Thinking about it now, I would have been better just walking home that night, which would certainly have made for a shorter walk, but I turned around and came back to Rivington over the edge, as the sun set.

It was a beautiful night, a perfect stillness across the moor, a faint mist rising after the heat of the day, and I was kept company by a long eared owl whose silent, broad winged flight was the most beautiful and eerie thing. All right, I didn’t actually meet a Knights Hospitaller, but if you believe in gaps in the fabric of space-time, that would have been an evening to encounter one. The walk did me good, cleared my head. There was no way I was going to fight over the girl, and I reckoned I had it in me to find a way of finally letting her go. As for the stranger,…

I nodded my slow greeting,
And he duly did the same,
Then he climbed upon his patient steed,
And ambled off again.

But turning back, he caught my eye,
Then slightly cocked his head,
And smiled to me a kindly smile:
“Fare thee well, pilgrim…” he said,..

Not as long a walk today, but then I’m forty years older, and I feel the miles differently. Just six miles round from the Yarrow Reservoir, to which we return with the sun sparkling upon it, and the oak trees of Parson’s Bullough, with their fresh leaves luminous against the blue. I still think about that girl from time to time. She’s still married to that guy and, in retrospect, she was always going to be happier with him, than she ever would have been with me. Sometimes it’s the ghosts, and the shadows who let us in on secrets like that, but you need a vivid imagination – a mind’s eye sort of thing – and the faith in it, even if it sometimes works backwards way, and is never any use to you at the time. Still, we get by.

Fare thee well, pilgrim, and thanks for listening.

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(One of) The Twich Hill Oaks

March’s full moon ushers in a definite change. Suddenly it feels like spring, as the sky peels open to an optimistic blue, and the temperature breaks fifteen degrees. We’re sitting by the ruins of Peewit Hall, on the edge of the Anglezarke moors, looking out over the lush green of hill and dale as it runs from Jepsons, down the gentle undulations of Twitch Hills, into Lead Mines Clough. There are larks today, the first I’ve heard this year, and the rapture of them lifts the spirit. I’m sure they know this, and I appreciate their effort. We could all use some cheer. Also, somewhere down the valley, I hear the rising, scratchy call of a Lapwing.

We were late getting going today, noon already, but we’re making up for it. The car is down by Parson’s Bullough, and we’ve just come up by the oaks in the meadow above Twitch Hills. They’re always impressive these trees, fine focal points, marking the line of the path. They anchor the senses in the midst of an otherwise dizzying panorama. We have no route in mind as yet, just a vague idea of heading up to the Pikestones, then we’ll see what other ideas strike us. We’re coasting, feeling out the future by the seat of our pants, today, enjoying the sunshine and the earthy scent of spring.

The View from Peewit Hall

I’m reading a lot about the nature of time, and the fourth dimension, as they used to call it. In ordinary consciousness, we travel a single line in time. Our reality is defined by a point on that line, this being the present moment, like now, as we sit by the ruins of this old farm, looking out towards Jepsons. Memory tells us the line in time that brought us here but, ordinarily at least, we have no clue where it’s going.

This much is obvious, but what’s not so obvious is that in order to see ourselves in this beautiful landscape, there must be another awareness, another level of observation. And there’s a strong suspicion among time theorists this higher part of our selves views our reality, not as a point in time, but as a line that ventures some way into that future, and not necessarily a fixed future, either, more one of potential outcomes. And sometimes, just sometimes, it leaves clues for us in our dreams, if we pay attention to them.

And our future, from this point?

Okay, the Pikestones it is.

The Pikestones

The moor is still heavy underfoot, though it must be a week since we had any serious rain. And the Pikestones? Like most prehistoric monuments, they’re high in expectation, but ultimately low in drama. Some years ago, vandals of a neo-pagan bent, similarly under-whelmed, thought to chisel a spiral motif on the largest of the stones, I presume to spice them up a bit. Someone else chiselled it off in outrage. The damage is still evident, though in time, (talking centuries) it will weather in, I suppose. It depends on what you’re looking for, but as a place of quiet contemplation, and a viewpoint overlooking the plain of Lancashire, the Pikestones serves us perfectly well.

So, where does our line in time branch to, now? Well, I’m getting a feeling for Hurst Hill, so we navigate our way up Rushy Brow. This is always a bit vague, the hill itself being hidden over the rise, as yet, and no path. There’s a little visited ring burial here, which is a good way-point, if you can find it, then a heading north of west-ish brings you to the only tarn on this side of the moor, a small, rush fringed eye, smiling blue today, instead of its more familiar thunder-black. A vague sheep trod then contours cleverly towards Hurst Hill, avoiding the worst of the bog.

Hurst Hill

There’s a discreet surveyors mark on the summit, presumably from the very first 1845-47 survey. I found it by accident once, while descending with a low sun that just caught the crows-foot mark, chiselled into a flat rock. I make a point of seeking it out with the aid of GPS, whenever I’m passing this way. The Victorians fixed it by theodolite, and trig tables, and it’s bang on.

Since my last visit, someone else has found it, and covered it with a couple of rocks. It confused me, but it’ll prevent weathering, I suppose, and I left things as they were. So, someone else knows the secret! I wonder what relevance such a mark still has in this modern age. I wonder who the surveyors were who first, and ever so neatly, cut those marks, and what the world was like for them. What was the flavour of their own lines in time?

Normally we’d head east from here, deeper into the bosom of the moor, to the Round Loaf, or Great Hill. But then I’m thinking about the Anglezarke Reservoir, and a graceful trio of oak trees that I know, and some different photographic opportunities, so we branch out west, into another line in time, descending by the old lead mines to the Moor Road.

The mines are interesting. They have the appearance of a bombing run, a line of deep craters in the moor, with heaps of spoil thrown up around them. The surrounding grasses are a striking green, compared with the sour khaki of the moor. They’re crude bell pits, I suppose, eighteenth century, probably, as they were already noted as old, in the mid-nineteenth. Lead is found in vertical veins, so the miners chased it down from the surface as deep as they dared, before their walls caved in. Always a risky occupation, being a miner, but always, too, the siren lure of the mythical mother lode.

From the Moor Road, we choose a path we’ve never walked before, and lose it almost at once. We’re at Siddow Fold, now, a former farm, and gamekeeper’s cottage. Dated 1707, and listed grade 2, it’s seen significant gentrification in recent years, and very beautifully done. The council’s footpath marker guides us confidently enough from the road, and is our quickest route to the reservoir, but it abandons us to our devices in a meadow. I suspect we’re now tangled up in a diversion imposed upon us by the owners, the route deviating markedly from that on the map, and a bit of help would not be amiss, here. Oh well:

Anglezarke Reservoir

We follow our nose, or rather the line of a faint depression in the meadow that appears to be making a beeline for the reservoir. It’s a trespass perhaps, but not my fault. The sparkling ribbon of the reservoir is in full view here, and we meander down towards our trio of oaks, as splendid as I remember them. They’re a good place to sit for a brew, and admire the scene.

So, our line in time today, thus far, brings us here, or at least the line in time I’m aware of. If, as I sometimes like to speculate, at any given branching of the ways, more than one potentiality is realised, in another timeline, we’re also sitting atop the Round Loaf, listening to the larks and the curlews. In another, we gave up at the Pikestones, swung round by Lead Mines Clough, and returned to the car. Even as we sit here, by the sparkling Anglezarke Reservoir, among these magnificent oaks, we’re already driving home, with the top down, through Adlington, perhaps waiting for the lights by the Elephant and Castle.

And then there may be another level, one that grants a view of all the lines in time we ever chose. From this perspective, then, our lives resemble a tree, a proliferation of branches, of lines in time, of all the potentialities we were offered and realised, this being the true fullness of our being. Of course, from a very closed perspective, we’re only ever aware of this one point, moving along this one thread. But sometimes, you get a feeling about the rest.

So, anyway, here we are. We’ve still a couple of miles back to the car, and a variety of ways to choose. I guess at some point, we’ve walked them all before, even the ones we’ve yet to walk, at least in this line of time, if you know what I mean.

Any ideas?

It doesn’t matter much. They’re all good.

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Mossy bridge in Sunnyhurst Woods

I’m sitting by the ornamental lake in Sunnyhurst Woods, near Darwen, having walked over from Ryal Fold. It’s a mild, soft lit day, in mid-January, a faint mist washing out the distant hills. The woods are deep-shaded in this poor light of winter, and they are moist. The breath is rising, and the luncheon soup-pot is steaming. The stonework of the bridge I’ve just crossed is thick with moss. There is something of fairyland about it.

I came out to take a picture of the ruins on Green Hill, which I first saw some weeks ago, and I’ve done that, now. I’ve also shot the ornamental falls, here in the woods. The Green Hill ruins are not accessible, being on private farmland, but I have a long lens that got me within useful range. As a strictly amateur photographer, it’s hard to explain what I’m trying to achieve, wandering the North in all seasons, like this, taking landscape photographs. I mean this in the sense of what difference it makes to anything, at least in the materially measurable, tangible way.

The ruin on Green Hill, Ryal Fold.

Intangibly, though, the difference is felt in the gut. My photography and my writing about it on here, brings me into a deeper relationship with the land, and that’s enough, indeed that’s all any of the contemporary arts are about, as practised by most of us, just deepening the soul a bit. What does that mean? Well, it’s like keeping the door open on something “other”, because, so long as that door is kept open, the “other” will get to work on us in ways that makes us feel more whole, more connected. It provides a balance to the material life, which has no meaning and connects us with nothing, other than a pathological craving for more of the same. We don’t need a camera to keep the door open. A notebook, a pencil and a box of watercolours did it for the Romantics. Anyway, I’m mostly following my nose today, probably heading up Darwen Moor next.

The ornamental falls, Sunnyhurst Woods, Darwen, Lancs

To get here, I’ve walked the amusingly named Trash Lane, a rutted quagmire, towards the equally amusing Tottering Temple. The latter is no longer marked on the maps. I’m referring to an 1849, six inch edition, courtesy of the National Library of Scotland, along with the more contemporary GPS version, so both past and present are informing the imagination. There’s a definite charm about those early, hand-drawn, OS maps, and they pick up a lot of detail that would otherwise be lost to us: Tottering temple, Mount Pleasant, Back o’th Moor. I don’t know how these places got their names, or if they’re still used.

Anyway, next up, we’ll tackle the hill, and see how the restoration of Darwen Tower is progressing, then return via Stepback brook. It’s about five miles round, lots to see along the way. So, we climb out of the woods to the Lych Gate, turn left for the Sunnyhurst pub, then right, up the ginnel, and onto the moor. The tower, built in 1897, is wrapped in plastic, now, and nestles within an exoskeleton of scaffolding, while extensive works are undertaken. I decide to avoid it, skirting below instead, to the 1200 ft contour. Here, the westward view tempts a sit down with the binoculars.

It’s from here I spot an interesting waterfall on Stepback brook. That’s another curious name, “Stepback”, this one taking us back to the 1640’s, and the English civil war. Local legend has it Cromwell’s men were after a bunch of Royalists in the area, but called the chase off, and “stepped back”. I’m not sure if I believe in that one, though. If you look at the landscape hereabout from over Withnell way, it appears as a set of giant steps, rising to Cartridge Hill, and I prefer that explanation, though I admit, the Cromwellian one is much more colourful.

The area certainly saw a lot of action in the civil war. Indeed, one of the most appalling atrocities ever committed on English soil was carried out by Royalists, not far from here, when James Stanley, the 7th Earl of Derby’s, men went berserk, murdering and raping in Bolton, in May 1644. One of those who came to grief in that terrible event was a young girl from Whewell’s farm, now a bleak ruin on the moor’s edge, and just a short walk from where I’m sitting now.

It was her father, George, who had the later satisfaction of beheading the Earl of Derby, by the market cross in Bolton. George Whewell’s skull resides to this day in the Pack Horse pub, at Affetside. At least, legend has it this is Whewells’s skull. How it came to be detached from his body is the subject of another legend, which tells of how, after the Restoration, the Royalists had their revenge on George. The skull is associated with paranormal activity, if it’s ever moved. So it stays where it is. I’m still wrestling with the moral of this one. I suppose the nearest I can get is that violence begets violence, and a continuation of suffering, long into the future, no matter how right the violence seems at the time.

So, anyway, we make our way down from the hill, pick up the path by the brook, wander upstream a bit, and there’s the fall, a lovely cascade spilling over a lip of gritstone. It’s enchanting, and I spend a good while here fiddling about with the camera. I thought I knew the area fairly well, but there’s always something new to discover. A wonderful note on which to end our walk,

The falls on Stepback Brook, near Ryal Fold, Darwen, Lancs

It’s mid-afternoon, now, and the best of the light is going. On the way back to the car, at Ryal Fold, I meet plenty of pilgrims setting out for the tower. An elderly couple asks directions. I worry about them; it’ll be dark by the time they’re off the moor. I’ve noticed this before, people heading up the hill, when I’ve calculated my descent in the last hour of daylight. A friend of mine has concluded they’re not humans, but aliens, going up to meet the mother-ship. Any other reason would be too far-fetched.

All told, then, a good day, making the best of the forecast, and discovering a new waterfall. It’s given cold and gloomy for a few days now. Indeed, it’s looking like stormy days ahead in other ways, too, but the past teaches us there’s nothing new under the sun. England in the civil war was hell on earth, now mostly forgotten, except for some place names, and some intriguing legends, not least among them the abiding mystery of the Affetside Skull.

Thanks for listening.

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My last pair of Scarpa walking boots lasted fifteen years. They were never quite broken in, but they never leaked either. They just grew more deeply scarred, and might have lasted longer, but I lost faith in them. I was worried they’d fall apart and leave me stranded up a mountain in my stocking feet. My current pair, comfortable as carpet slippers from day one, have lasted two years. Now they’re opening up, and letting the water in.

All right, it’s a very, very wet day. Indeed, the moor is as wet as a moor can be. The earth liquifies underfoot as we step on it and we’re frequently over the tops of our laces. The sphagnum is drinking the wet down in greedy gallons, and glowing green for the effort. My jacket, too, is letting the water through, at least on one side where a stiff wind is encouraging it. The weather paints me half dark, half light. I am the yin and the yang of things. This could be my cue to start grumbling about the flimsification of the modern day, but that’s not where we’re going. It’s a wild, bracing day. The year is fresh, and it’s too soon for cynicism.

I’m on Withnell moor again, up from Brinscall. I’ve come through the woods, crossed the top of the Hatch Brook Falls, and climbed Well Lane. Now we’re on the moor, approaching the gaunt ruins of Ratten Clough. Its outline is black against the steady drift of rain. Abandoned in the 1960’s, this is the most substantial ruin of the lost farms. The barn’s gables are intact, the rafters hanging on, a watery silhouette, all against the dynamic grey of the swooping sky. I wonder if, in years to come, it’ll be taken for a millionaires des-res. They have a penchant for buying up romantically charged places like this, and throwing a fortune at them to make of them something twee. But he’ll need a taste for the lonely. There’s bleak, then there’s Withnell Moor, and then there’s Withnell moor on days like these.

Given the forecast, I thought it was a waste of time bringing the big camera. I didn’t want to get it wet. Instead, I’ve packed an old, small-sensor compact. It slips easily into the pocket, and I don’t mind it getting drowned. But you can’t expect to shoot in such murk as this without red noise on a small sensor. There’ll probably be no pictures today, then, except the ones I carry in my head.

The gate to Ratten Clough is tied in several places, and intricately knotted. It’s a public way, but we require a deviation to pick it up. I imagine our millionaire will make it a priority to divert the path. Ah,… another perennial thread of mine creeping in: money buying out our freedoms, sticking up no trespass signs. But we’re not going there, either, today. These are tired old themes, and my laments will do little to change them. So much for the power of attraction, then. I seem only to attract to my attention what I most dislike. Time to let them go. Find fresh pastures, with an emphasis on a more positive kind of magic.

Where are we, now? We’re following the line of a tumbled drystone wall into a blank of mist. With a global positioning system, you’re never lost, are you? But things are hotting up between Russia and the West, and between China and US. It’s not escaped my imagination the first thing the militaries will do, in times of conflict, is encrypt the satellites. And then what? How will we find our way with a road-map, and A to Z again? How will I know how far along this wall to walk, before turning down to the ruins of Botany Bay?

The spindly beech answers. I first met it in the spring, spent a while making friends. It materialises from the grey, now. “Here you are,” it says. “Nice to see you again.” The track’s here. So we make our way down to the ruin, touch the megalith for luck, then turn left, to Rake Brook, by the ruins of Popes.

It’s hard to imagine anyone living here, just a tumble of shapeless blocks, and the brook washing by. It’s in spate today, no evidence of there ever having been a bridge, just these few precarious steppy stones at the vagaries of flood. What can we say about that? Transience? Buddhist themes of impermanence, perhaps?

Apple pies were baked in this bleak hollow, with the wind howling through the chimney pots. Wholesome stews awaited the farmer and his boys, on winter days like these. All gone, now, just names in the census records, and a lonely pile of stones. People make all the difference. Without them to bear witness, the world might as well not exist. Indeed, it might already not exist. Strange thoughts today, Michael.

Mind how we go across the brook. Yes, the boots are definitely leaking, something cold encircling the foot, now. I was going to buy myself a new computer monitor, but it looks like it’ll be a pair of boots instead. I’d been looking forward to getting a new monitor, one of those 4K ultra-high definition things, for the photography. How do we prioritise? Sometimes the fates do it for us.

Watsons farm, now, and a strong waft of cattle as we come through the gate. The cows are all cosy in the barn, steam rising from their noses, as they chew. It’s one of the few farms still working the moor. I borrowed it for my work in progress, fictionalised it, changed universes, moved it down the road a bit. I had the farmer renting rooms, and my protagonist moving into one. Here, I court themes of sanctuary, and shoulders to the weather. Then there are stunning summers on the moors, the call of curlew and the rapture of larks.

Speaking of the novel, it’s descending into chaos, and tom-foolery. We’ve reached that point where it asks me if I want to bail out around 80K words, or wander on for another year, make it an epic. I think we’ll call its bluff and go for the epic. Amid this fall of the world, this crisis of meaning, and the impending climate disaster, it’s led me of a sudden to Helena Petrovna Blavatski, to the Theosophists, and all those curious fin de siècle secret societies.

I’ve had a brush with the redoubtable Madame B before, found her intellectually seductive, but also frightening. I bailed out at that first pass, but it looks like there’s something more she has to tell me, and this time I’m ready to listen. Memo to self: order Gary Lachman’s book, and while we’re at it, the one about Trump, and the political right’s courtship of the occult. It all sounds absurd, but let’s just go with it.

Across the Belmont road now, and the path into the woods becomes a bog. The Roddlesworth river is a lively torrent. We’re four miles out, and the woods are busy with muddy bikes, wet families, and happy, yappy dogs. We swing for home via the ruins of Pimms, on the moor, then Great Hill. The rain is blowing itself out at last. There are hints of sunshine, now, but the going is steep. Great Hill has grown since I last climbed it, swollen with rains to Tyrolean proportions. The ground looks like it’s been overspilling for weeks, and squirting water under every step.

At the summit shelter, I’m able to bag the last space among a gathering of several walking groups, all huddled for lunch. Cue mutterings of overcrowding on the fells, paths churned to slime and all that,… but we’re not going there today either. In my new universe, all are welcome. A jolly dame appears from nowhere, offers mince pies, and a nip of rum for my coffee.

The sun breaks through. There’s a low, gorgeous light of a sudden, under-lit clouds, curtains of rain in the distance. Old Lady Pendle appears, a crouching lion beyond Darwen moor. I try some shots with the little camera, but they come out poorly, red dot noisy. Sometimes, the best pictures are the ones you carry in your head, and they get better with age.

A good day on the moors, then, and never mind the wet feet. There’s a pair of dry socks in the car. Fancy a hot chocolate? We’ll drive over to the Hare and Hounds at Abbey, shall we? See what they can rustle up for us. The year turns.

All is well. Bring it on.

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By the Goit, White Coppice

Six days after the most appalling storm, I’m here at White Coppice, in sparkling sunshine. There’s not a breath of wind, and the ground is hard with frost. Most of the trees are bare now, with only the oaks still clutching, defiant, to the tatters of their leaves.

In my previous piece, I put up an extract from my first novel, the Singing Loch. That story dealt with the way powerful forces shape small lives, and sometimes erases them. And it asked: what does that mean for the small lives? And what does it mean to us who, in the course of our own small lives, examine their traces? What can we learn, about ourselves, and the world?

Here at White Coppice, we look out across the always-summer green of the cricket field, with its attendant little whitewashed cottages. Winter begins where the moor rises, atop the line of the Brinscall fault. Sometimes moody, sometimes benign, the moor has a look of wild desolation. But it was not always so. Much of it is criss-crossed with drystone walling, marking the early enclosures. And there are piles of worked stone, overgrown, now, with moor grass, and clumps of soft rushes. These are the remains of farms, each a late formed tumulus, and a marker of past lives. Then there were any number of quarries, and small mines scratching out rare minerals. They’re all gone now, swept away by time, and, in the case of the hill-farms, by the need of burgeoning cities, and their industries, for water. In the small lives of the lost farms, here, there are untold stories of love, endurance and tragedy. We are left only to imagine them, and imagine them we must, or the only story remaining to us is one of catching water into the reservoirs, and delivering it to Liverpool. And where is the awe and the reverence in that?

It’s quiet at White Coppice this morning. We park without difficulty at the cricket field. Things are getting back to normal, after the scramble for green spaces during the peak of the lock-downs. I’m not planning a long walk. I’m looking for trees. There are some fine ones here, some I know, some specimens I’ve read about, and which I’m searching for. This is my own Covid legacy, this late found friendship with trees.

We begin by following the line of the Goit. This is a shallow canal, between the reservoirs around Tockholes, and the larger Anglezarke and Rivington system. Just here it is natural in appearance, and pleasing, but becomes more industrial and dull, further upstream. We turn off, at the edge of the woods around Brinscall, and enter the still crisp, frosted meadows of the Goit valley.

Ash tree, Goit valley

There’s an ash tree here, looking beautiful with the sun caught up in its boughs. We try a few shots, then seek out a likely spot for lunch. There’s a mound of stones nearby, with some flat bits we can sit upon. So we sit, and dig out the soup pot.

The old maps tell us this was a farm, called Goose Green. There are tiny mushrooms sprouting from the mosses. I imagine their myclelial network feeding from the dissolving timbers, deep below us. Mycology is beginning to interest me. We’re taught to be terrified of mushrooms, except the ones you can buy from Tescos. And, fair enough, some mushrooms will kill you, but most won’t. That’s not so say I recommend foraging, unless you know what you’re doing.

The more secret mushrooms, the magical, psychoactive ones, aren’t difficult to spot. They’re especially profuse in England’s climate, so it’s puzzling they do not form a greater part of our story than they do. These particular mushrooms are not of the magical variety. But if they were, to pick one, and put it in my pocket, would put in me in possession of a class A controlled substance. Interesting. I make do with Chicken soup.

This is one of the many Lost Farms of the Brinscall Moors, as documented in David Clayton’s fascinating book of the same name. It looks centuries old, this ruin, but, within the memory of my grandfather, it was still standing, and these now bracken and reed choked pastures, fallen to bog, were being worked.

You couldn’t reach this place with a modern vehicle, but there are the walled remains of old track-ways, designed for horse and cart. Some of them are walkable, others have reverted to nature. Our way traces one such track, up the steep slope of the fault-line. From the looks of it, the mountain bikers have made a big dipper of it. It looks an exciting way to descend. We’ll see where it leads us.

There’s a sunken track, deep with ancient use, but now filled with tussocks and reeds, and heather. There are a couple of gate posts, indicating the way down to another of the farms. This would be Fir farm, I guess. The census records tell us it was home to a young couple, the Warburtons, in the 1880’s. Not bad going for paper records. I wonder what will be left of our digital fingerprints a century from now? Will there be any trace of us? Will there even be a machine to read them? I couldn’t read what’s on the 3 1/2″ floppies in my attic, and they’re not twenty years old.

One of the gate posts leans in at a precarious angle, and looks weathered enough to be thousands of years old, rather than a few hundred. The way down to the farm looks impassable. But what a beautiful place to have lived! It colours the moor differently, to know the name of the people for whom this place was home.

We stick to the high ground, following the narrow ways, that could either be the trod of man, or of sheep. As we close with the line of the ridge, the walk takes on an airy, exposed feel. It’s mostly imagined, but it lifts the mood. There look to be ancient ways up onto Brinscall moor, and worth exploring another time. Another pair of gateposts provide foreground interest for a grand old tree, stunted by the weather. After I take the shot, the sky darkens, as a blanket of finely textured cloud rolls in, and the perceived temperature plummets. Time to press on, then, to wend our way back to White Coppice. I’d forgotten that unforgiving bite of winter.

On Brinscall moor

It’s an intriguing area, one I’ve often passed through, on the way to somewhere else, but as with all these places, it’s worth the slowing down, and taking a closer look for stories in the composition of stones and reeds and weathered trees. Worth it too are the old maps, and the census records that retain the names of lost places.

So, to answer the question, what does all this mean to the passing of small lives? Well, from a rational, clinical, left-brained point of view, it means nothing. But we don’t have to look at things that way. We can layer the world instead, with a vision that is essentially romantic. It’s not difficult. You’ve only to sit a while to feel it. And then, no matter the changes that sweep our small lives away, there’s always a discernible trace that’ll make a difference to someone, as it has made a difference to me, this morning.

Now, as I write, in this, during the dark of the new moon, it’s blowing a gale again. The rain rattles hard against the glass, and there’s a devil in it. It’s laughing at us, perhaps for what ecologists have widely hailed as the depressing, but the entirely predictable failure of the COP 26 summit. I have not seen the sun for days, which reminds me it’s all the more important to enjoy it whenever we can.

Oak tree, Goit valley

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In Sunnyhurst woods, Darwen, Lancashire

So, today we’re looking for trouble. We fell foul of disappearing footpaths on this walk last time, and today we’re not messing about. We’re well rested, tack sharp, and feeling assertive. We’ve also cleaned our spectacles in case we missed any obscure signage that would have seen us on our way. But since our last visit, there has been a mysterious and profuse flowering of the official green way-markers, which is frankly unexpected, since I have not yet reported any obstructions to the council. Perhaps someone read my blog? I feel my guns have been spiked, but in a good way, and whoever you are, thank you.

Thus, we are guided, without a hitch, through the formerly troublesome farmyard, and to a diversionary path. It’s not exactly as marked on the map, but it’ll do, and before we know it we’re smoothly on our way towards Tockholes. Then, at the gate, which we found to be locked last time, and had to be climbed, we note the gate is merely tied. So we untie it, and pass through with dignity. We then tie it up again with a boy-scout’s reef-knot, and a little bow on top – by way of thanks to our guardian way-fairy, for restoring safe passage. Except then, we turn to find we are greeted by a pair of magnificent horses, who must have heard us coming, and are curious. They’re big horses, too, which is a little alarming, as they canter down with purpose – their purpose being – well – us. Cobs, I think the breed is called. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to take their picture – such huge, beautiful creatures, not as big as a shire, but impressive all the same. Our alarm is uncalled-for, though. They are gentle, and their stillness invites our touch. Just mind their back legs as we get around them. Horses can sometimes have a quirky sense of humour.

It’s with some regret, then, we leave our new friends, and head off up the meadow to Tockholes. We’re going a little further than we did last time, pushing the walk out to eight miles, taking in Sunnyhurst Woods, at Darwen. I’ve not been there for ages, and it would be nice to see if it’s still as I remember it.

I put a short story up on the blog last time, wrote it for Ireland’s Own magazine, some twenty years ago. I did a lot of stories for them in the nineties and the early noughties, and, as I walk, I’m trying to remember the others. One in particular comes to mind. It was about this guy who’s aching to leave his home town and see the world. Then he meets a girl from the other side of the world, who’s travelled to his town, because she saw it on the map, and thought it sounded like a cool sort of place. Through her, the guy ends up seeing his home-turf in a new way, and he decides to stay.

Looking at the lush meadows here, as they sweep up to the shaggy moors, I’m thinking, it’s a small part of the world, this corner of the West Pennines and, beautiful as it is, it’s one I sometimes take for granted. Shall I go somewhere? or shall I just nip up the moors? But when I put out a photograph online, of Great Hill, or the spillway of the Yarrow reservoir, or when I write about walks like this, I don’t always appreciate how others from around the world, and for whom their part of the world is radically different to mine, will see them. Even the names of places, unremarkable to me, sound exotic to others, as their place names, unremarkable to them, sound exotic to me.

So, whilst it’s a pleasure, and an education, to travel, and I think we should always travel as much as we can, we’ll never know anywhere as well, and I mean as intimately, as our own allotted patch of God’s earth. So we should never feel there’s anything dull, writing about it, or photographing it. We are curating what we know, and what we love. Photographs of the landscapes of Iceland, and the Faroe Islands in particular, blow my mind, but I could never know those places intimately. Such grandness is for the Icelanders, and the Faroese, as this part of the world is for me, in all its understated beauty, also, it has to be said, its occasional ruin and imperfection.

At last, we come down to Sunnyhurst Woods. It’s a public park, actually, on the edge of a once industrial Darwen, but also on the edge of the moors. Bought out of a public-spirited ideal, and planted up in the early 19th century, it’s now a ruggedly mature gem, natural in style, well-kept and well-loved. We’re beyond peak autumn, now, with most trees are looking bare – just the occasional beech still hanging on to its coppers, and the stubborn oaks. And yes, it’s all pretty much as I remember it, and gorgeous.

There’s a pretty waterfall here. We try a shot, but the light is poor. Maybe we can tease some colour out of it in post-processing. There’s a park bench. We sit, retrieve our soup-flask from where it has settled, deep in the sack. Bacon and Lentil today, made in Wigan. Kitt Green. We do still make things in Lancashire, just not as much as we used to do. But still,…

In Roddlesworth Woods

From Sunnyhurst, we pick our way over to Ryal Fold, where we enjoy another break, and a pot of tea at Vaughn’s Café. Then it’s down through the plantations at Roddlesworth. Gone is the gold of just a few weeks ago. All is bare, now, and autumn firmly on the ground. The season is still worth some pictures, though. I’m glad to have found a properly marked way through that farm. The public rights of way network is a thing of immense value, protected in law, and a freedom not enjoyed in other parts of the world. An understated resource, it costs nothing to enjoy – good for the body and the soul, and no gym membership required.

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In the woods at Roddlesworth

Today, we’re going to walk from Abbey Village, to Tockholes. Then we’ll circle back through the woods at Roddlesworth, which should be in peak autumn now. First, though, I want to visit the war memorial, here in Abbey, to remember a great uncle who was “lost” in the first war. Then we’ll have a wander through some meadows I used to walk with my mother. And if we make it over to Tockholes, we’ll visit the mysterious “Toches”, or “Tocca’s” stone.

I say “if” we make it, because the route leads through farms, where rights of way have a habit of disappearing. The path I’ve chosen seems the most direct and quite obvious on the map. But over recent weeks, when out and about, I’ve discovered a knack for finding rights of way that no longer exist on the ground, and I’ve learned it pays never to be too cocky setting out on paths you’ve not walked before.

My mother grew up in one of the long line of mill terraces at Abbey, so she knew this area well. I have memories of visiting my grandmother here, and aunts who were not aunts, but we called aunts. Ditto cousins, who were not really cousins – this being an era when it was claimed everyone in Abbey Village was related. From the roadside, the terraces at Abbey have rather a dour look about them. But those where my family lived, open onto meadows, and to stunning views of the Darwen moors.

Perhaps it’s because I’m still not getting into town much this year, on account of abiding Covid fears, but I’m less aware of the build-up to November’s armistice remembrance. Recently, the event has found itself caught up in the culture wars. Those of the right who would glorify war, and those of the left who would disband the forces altogether, are the two most vociferous extremes. The rest of us, I guess, including the man on the Clapham omnibus, are somewhere down the middle. I think about the half century or so of life my great uncle missed, and I wonder about the difference it would have made to the present day, if he’d found his way home from Mesopotamia. The tide of history can be cruel for everyone, but it sweeps away the poor in disproportionate numbers. Anyway, I like to come here around this time of year. I leave my small token at the memorial, then head down the backs of the terraces, and set out on the walk.

First we head across the meadows where my mother used to play, then down the dip to what I always knew as Abbey Bottoms. Sure enough, at my first encounter with a farm, the right of way disappears into an enclosure, and the only way out of it is to straddle a fence. This is tedious, coming so early on in the walk. There are cars about and the dogs are going bonkers. I wander around, looking for an opening, but there are none, and I’m beginning to feel a fool. If I want to make way, I’ll have to straddle that fence or turn tail already and call the walk off. Fine, then. I drop a pin on the GPS, make a note: “Way blocked here” and then I go for it.

Free of the farm, and with trousers intact, it’s obvious the path beyond’s not been walked in ages. But it follows the line of an ancient hedgerow, and is reasonably obvious. In other times this would be a beautiful route, pastoral, with wide-ranging views of the Darwen moors. But I’m in that liminal zone now between where I am entitled to be, and where I feel others would rather I was not. And that’s not a comfortable place. I’m aware my last three walks have landed me in a similar muddle to this, and I’m starting to repeat myself.

The Toches Stone

Then, where the map shows an exit from the meadow, a locked gate blocks the way. There is no stile, not even a rotten one. I can see a stile on the other side of the gate. It leads off on the next leg of the journey, but the only way to get to it is to climb the damned gate. Have I become so incompetent and doddery a rambler, I can no longer find my way around? Clearly this is not a route for those of limited mobility, and, given the crisis in A+E at the moment, it gives one pause climbing anything. But needs must, so up and over we go. Another pin goes on the GPS. “Effing gate blocked here.”

It’s been a struggle then, but we’ve stuck to our guns, and finally made it across the vanishing ways to Tockholes. These are paths my mother and her family would have known. My great, great-grandfather would have walked them from his weaver’s cottage in Hoddleston, to Abbey seeking work, and where he settled. They are historically significant ways, and need protecting, need walking. When I look back on my life, I see traces of the places I knew disappearing, being overwritten by novelty. Of my mother and her family’s past, here, there is now barely any trace at all.

Anyway, Tockholes is a curious and attractive hamlet, tucked out of sight. I meet a few other walkers on the road here, and we exchange greetings. The atmosphere changes from one of oppression, to welcome. Tocca’s stone is in the churchyard at St Stephens. I once drew it for an illustration in a friend’s book on the magic and mystery of Lancashire. It’s a curious monument, a mixture of early Christian and pagan. Of the facts, we can say the tall bit is probably the remains of a seventh century preaching cross. This sits atop an old, repurposed, cheese press, this in turn sitting on an inscribed plinth of Victorian vintage. And then, next to the cross, there’s the peculiar Tocca’s or Toches’ stone, from which the parish takes its name. There are scant references to it online, and they all seem to quote each other. My friend, who trawled the historical records in libraries all over the county, in the days before the Internet, is also rather vague.

The stone is said to have connections with the ancient British tribe who inhabited the valley, and one ruler in particular, the titular “Tocca”, or “Toki”. It’s also said to have magical or healing properties, and was, at one time, worn smooth by the hands of pilgrims, come to touch it. It isn’t very smooth now, so I guess the habit has fallen out of fashion. In short, little can actually be said about it at all, at least nothing that’s guaranteed to be historically accurate, but as a piece of local myth and legend, it’s quite the thing, if you believe in it, or not.

Do I touch it? Well, after the trouble I’ve had getting here, you bet I do.

Autumn in Roddlesworth Woods

And it works. We have no trouble the rest of the way, the way being over the moor to Ryal Fold, then down into the autumn-gold heavens of the Roddlesworth plantation, where the season is a revelation. We’ve had such a poor week, thus far, with torrential wet. One night it rained so hard the gutters burst and I swear I could feel the house shaking. And then today, it’s warm in the sun, we have clear blue, and plenty of water in the brook, so the falls are running. The world has the fairy tale look of an impressionist painting. Out comes the camera.

Autumn in Roddlesworth Woods

I’ll be reporting those obstructions. I’ll also be repeating the walk, because, in spite of a few local difficulties, it’s a good circular route – about seven miles – of varied scenery, in a beautiful part of Lancashire. And if no one walks the paths, the landed will take them from us, swear blind there was never anything there in the first place. And they’ll get away with it.

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The Ribble at Marles Wood

I’ve just come a cropper on the Ribble Way. I seem to have discovered the knack, this year, of navigating rights of way that no longer exist, other than on the OS map. I’m using the latest mapping, and GPS. X marks the spot, and yes, it looks like there was a path through here once. I see shadows of its former self in the lie of the land. But it’s adopted now as part of the expanding grounds of this big old house. Mystically speaking, I’m standing in a liminal zone, then. We’re somewhere between the deep past, and a future in which the path isn’t even a memory in the most venerable and crustiest of walkers heads. Technically I’m not trespassing on private property, because the map says I’m not, but I doubt the owner would see it that way. After some desperate manoeuvres in the undergrowth, all efforts end in barbed wire, and I concede defeat. This is becoming a habit.

The path has been unofficially rerouted. I’ve missed the opening, which I discover a little higher up the lane. So, I drop a pin on the GPS to remind me of the location where the path disappears, should I ever come this way again. I’ll not bother reporting it. It’s not my patch, and I’ve got a few reports on the County Council’s PROW website already. I’ll be getting a reputation as a pedantic nutter. Besides, the re-route is as plain as day if you know what you’re looking for, which I didn’t. But here we are. On we plod.

We’ve got a moody sky and light rain today. Pendle hill was the plan this morning, up the Big End from Barley. But it looked like it was promising a soaking, so we came off the A59 and worked our way along the little lane to the car park at Marles Wood. I was there in the summer, delighted by the stretch of the Ribble, upstream to Dinkley Bridge. It was the same today, very picturesque, though looking less autumny that I would have thought for the time of year.

Just down from the car park, we encounter the Ribble at its most lovely. It emerges from a rocky ravine overhung by woodland, before taking a wide bend into open country. There were cormorants and egrets fishing from a distant clutch of rocks this morning. I remember trying a photograph there in the summer, with the big camera, which didn’t come out very well. I’ve got the smaller Lumix today, which usually makes light work of murky conditions. We’ll see how it does.

The walk goes upstream, takes in the Dinkley Bridge, then downstream along this section of the Ribble way to Ribchester, before looping back to the car. I’d given up on it in the summer, in the heat, made do with the Marles Wood stretch, and I’m glad I did. I’m far less enchanted by this return leg on the Ribble Way, but only because my pride is dented. I don’t like mucking about in mud and brambles around farms, and posh houses. I’m sure the occupants don’t like it either. But a little friendly signage would go a long way towards helping everyone out. I have the impression the wealthy find the footpath network annoying, even a little socialist, and would rather have it done away with. Or is that the politics of envy talking?

Ribble Way signage, resting in the mud.

Speaking of signage, I come across a fallen footpath marker a little further on. I’m getting the impression the Ribble Way isn’t a well walked route, or not well liked by landowners. Anyway, we muddle through, make it finally to a line of fishermen by the bridge at Ribchester, where the air is suddenly funky. I’ve no idea what other narcotics smell like, but cannabis isn’t exactly discrete. If it’s ever legalised there’ll be an outcry against the smell alone. Odd, but I’d never have thought to combine whacky baccy with fishing.

The rain is coming on heavier now. I had planned to take the rights of way that cut up through the environs of New Hall, then up the valley side, into the woods – more new ground for me. This might be straight forward, or it might involve another mysterious re-route. With the weather coming on, I’m in no mood for that, so take a short-cut and brave the traffic along the Ribchester Road. A pleasant diversion for a wet day, about five miles round, and worth it for the section between Marles Wood and Dinkley bridge alone.

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Pot Scar and Smearset ridge

I’m sitting on a big piece of limestone that was once part of a dry-stone wall, here on the Dales High Way. It’s been in the sun, and it’s nice and warm. The wall has eroded to no more than knee height but the line of it is distinct enough, and leads the eye unerringly up the green fell side, to a crown of limestone crags. Just here, it’s been brought down flat, and the path runs through it. We’re a mile out of Feizor, heading for Stainforth, but the view has pulled me up and sat me down. The scene, the air, the sun, and this faultless blue sky, all of it makes for a feel-good day, as most days are in the Yorkshire Dales.

As the days shorten, and good weather becomes less frequent, the light takes on a magical quality. The sun is rendering the line of crags from Smearset Scar, to Pot Scar in bristling detail. I’ll never do it justice with the camera, not the way I see it and feel it, right now, but I’ll give it a go anyway, maybe a little higher up the valley. But, for now, we’ll just rest awhile, and soak up the atmosphere. Who knows when we’ll pass this way again?

Our peace is disturbed by a large walking group coming over the ladder stile, a little way off. They number around thirty old guys with craggy faces and outdoor complexions. We exchange greetings as they pass. This is Yorkshire, so greetings are hearty and often delivered with a touch of dry humour. Then comes the tail end guy. He’s a tall, bearded and somewhat distinguished looking gentleman, a good few minutes behind the rest. He comes up to me and then he stops.

“An erratic, you know?”

I admit, that’s not what I thought he was going to say.

“Em,…”

“The rock I’m standing on,” he clarifies. “Gritstone, you see?”

“Really?”

“Glacial erratic. Erratified even further by whoever put it in this drystone wall.” His accent, like his compatriots, is Yorkshire – but posh Yorkshire.

“Well spotted. You’re a geologist, then?” He does have the look of a geologist – don’t ask me why I think that. He nods. Yes, he’s a geologist.

He looks at me, and something registers with him. “Ah,… you’re not part of our walking group, are you?”

“No, they went that way.”

“Oh,… well,…. em,…. nice talking you. Enjoy the rest of your afternoon.”

“I shall. You too.”

Actually, I have a bone to pick with him and his mates. They’d taken over the little tea-room in Feizor, leaving me nowhere to sit. That makes it the second time I’ve walked over from Stainforth with the idea of getting a brew, only to be denied it by ravenous crowds. It’s a popular tearoom, though Feizor itself strikes me as being one of those pretty little places that only comes into existence for a day, and only once a century, if the moon is right.

The weather has been appalling all week, and I was doubtful today’s forecast of fine weather would materialise, but it did. Then, the fuel shortages that rattled everyone last week seem also to have passed over, at least in the north-west. Anyway, we filled the tank, and here we are.

The little blue car is down in Stainforth. We had a good run over from Lancashire. Confidence in the old girl is restored, after the mystery of the loose wheel-nuts – though the mystery itself remains unsolved. In fact, she went like a rocket, though mainly on account of aggressive tailgating by monstrous, thundering hardcore wagons. They’re an intimidating presence on the route from Clitheroe to the limestone quarries, near here, and always put me in mind of that old film, Hell Drivers, but with much bigger wagons.

So, we managed to keep our tails from being trodden on by the Hell Drivers, and we parked on the National Trust car-park at Stainforth, (£4.80, card payments accepted) and we set off for Feizor. I was in Stainforth, back in August, and failed then to get a decent shot of the impressive falls on the Ribble, here, due to holiday crowds. It’s quieter today, and, what with heavy rains, I’m thinking they’ll be worth another visit. But as I cross the little bridge over the river, I see the falls have been colonised by a large group of photographers and film-makers. All we’re likely to get there is a shot of the backs of their heads. So, we plod on.

Penyghent, from Little Stainforth

At Little Stainforth, we go north, along the narrow road. The views across Ribblesdale to Penyghent from here are stunning today, crackling with detail in an extraordinarily clear light. The meadows are a lush, soft green, and the sun, struggling for altitude now, is picking out the crags and the wiggly lines of dry-stone walls. We sometimes forget man is part of nature, that when he’s not busy destroying it, his presence can add something special to the land in reducing some of its bleakness. The enclosures do have a lovely, pleasing quality to them – natural stone, all higgledy-piggledy, following the contours. I suppose, however, if we were to replace them now, it would be straight lines and barbed wire.

So then we pick up the path that takes us west, over the fell. Smearset Scar is an imposing lump, as you come up from Stainforth, but it’s all bluff, at least if you approach it from its northern face. From the south and west, it’s more precipitous. At a modest 1200 feet, it still manages to impress, being dramatic, and airy, with tremendous views all round.

As a lunch spot, we can do no better than this. Eleven forty-five, on a midweek morning, not a soul in sight, and we’re on top of the world. This time last year we were still working, and doubting we’d see the end of it. Now, none of that is our problem. I’d wondered if I’d still be waking in the mornings, thinking I should be heading out to work. I was warned I might have trouble switching off in retirement, but I think the major part of me had switched off long before. Or rather, I had already moved on, in my head, to what I’m doing now. I’ve not thought about the day job at all, except on mornings like this, to appreciate the freedom to simply be.

On Smearset Scar, looking towards Pot Scar

So, from Smearset Scar, the feet are naturally drawn westwards, along the ridge to Pot Scar. This is an area without any substantial paths, though it’s criss-crossed by what looks like the tracks of a farmer’s quad bike. There’s probably a simple way down though the crags, directly to Feizor, but I’ve yet to find it, so we rejoin the path coming over from Stainforth, disturbing a fox in the process, which bolts to a hidey hole on a limestone pavement. The path swings south, through a nick in the crags, and brings us down to the tea-shop in Fiezor.

Feizor

Unable to get our coffee, without what looks like a long wait, we make do with a swig from the water bottle, which is what I remember we did last time, and we start on the climb back towards Stainforth, along this lovely bit of the Dales High Way. Then we pause, on a rock, by another rock, which our new friend points out is a glacial erratic. The area is well known for them. Some, the Norber Erratics, are spectacular lumps of stone, up on the limestone pavements around Ingleborough. They were deposited here by retreating ice sheets, and probably came from the Lake District. The word derives from the old French erratique, and from the latin erraticus; it means, literally, “wandering, straying, roving.”

Anyway, we say goodbye to our geologist friend, give his walking group a good fifteen minutes start, then follow them back to Stainforth. The encampment of photographers and film-makers is still there at the falls, so we’ll give it another miss. I wonder if they’re photographing salmon leaping. October, November, after rains, I’ve read are best. Good luck to them, but I prefer to keep moving on my days out, keep wandering, roving. That makes two erratiques then, today, on the Dales High Way.

So, now it’s time to join the Hell Drivers, on the road back to Lancashire, and see what we’ve got in the camera. On past performance, it’ll be mostly blurred, I suspect. Others, I’ll be wondering what on earth I thought I was looking at. But, with luck, one or two will have some potential as a reminder of another good day, in the Dales.

I wish I’d taken a picture of that rock, though!

“An erratic, you know.”

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Pendle Hill, from Downham

At 1827 feet, Pendle is a hill of considerable stature. It’s also a shape-shifter. From the A59, as you zip by Whalley, it calls, to my mind, the shape of a crouching lion. From the east, say from Barley, I think it has more the profile of a whale. From Downham though, where we’re heading today, it looks more like one of those Pictish hog’s back stones, complete with mysterious pictograms.

The simplest, and most direct route to the top of Pendle is from Barley, up the big end, but I have a vague notion of trying something more meandering today. I say ‘vague’ because it’s a mystery how I come to be here at all, actually. The original plan was to meet a friend in Kendal, but he was pinged at the last minute by the test and trace app, so he’s in isolation now. I’d thought to head over to the Dales instead, which, when in doubt, is what I usually do. That was definitely the plan on setting out but, as is sometimes the case, the grand old lady Pendle seduced me in passing, so the little blue car and I found ourselves swinging off the A59 at Chatburn. Now we’re on the car park, at Downham, just coming to our senses, and with the feeling of having been bewitched.

Downham is an unusual place, at least now, in twenty-first-century, rural Lancashire. It’s an estate village, owned in its entirety by the hereditary Baronet, Lord Clitheroe, who also owns the hill. What strikes you about the place is not what is present, but what is missing – no telegraph poles, no road signs, indeed nothing that speaks of any modernity beyond the nineteenth century, and with only the passing cars to reassure you you’ve not fallen through a timeslip, into an alternate universe. The way to the car-park is also secret, and unsigned, except at the last minute, and then only discreetly. You either know your way, in Downham, or you don’t.

So anyway, here we are.

The light is stunning at this time of year. Photographers have a thing about the golden hour – this being the hour before sunset, when shadows run long, and the light becomes dreamy. Some would never think to get their cameras out at any other time of day. But in September, the golden hour lasts from dawn till dusk, so long as the sun is shining. And it’s shining today. The colours are rich, the contrasts deep, and there’ the sense of the year holding its breath, holding on to the very best of things, as the leaves hover on the edge of crispness. It’s been a long time coming, a long time building, and here it is: the year’s perfection, golden and gorgeous. The oppressive heat has gone out of it, the air is fresh for walking – a beautiful day to be on the hill, or indeed anywhere out of doors.

Worsaw End Farm

The map tells us the way is clear enough. We take the path that runs by Worsaw hill, one of Pendle’s many curious little limestone outliers. Then it’s down by Worsaw End farm, famous as the main location for the 1961 film “Whistle Down the Wind” which starred a young and ruggedly bearded Alan Bates, and an even younger Hayley Mills. From here we follow the narrow lane, which peters out into a track and then becomes a path up the moor, meandering at first, then arrow straight, as it joins the curiously named Burst Clough. The contours are close together here and the path intersects them at right angles, so the going is very, very steep.

I remember coming down this way, late one winter’s afternoon, with a weak sun putting in its first appearance as it dropped below the level of the clouds, yet with only minutes from setting. The light was eerie, and I’ve never forgotten it, nor have I forgotten how glad I was not to be going up by this route. Now here I am, over a decade later, going up. But it’s a glorious day, much earlier in the day, the sun is dipping in and out of the clouds, and the undulations of the land are preening cat-like, as the dynamic shadows stroke it.

I don’t know what it is about hills. I’ve not been doing too bad this year, tackling the more substantial climbs in my locale, but I never seem to hit a peak of fitness, when a climb like this wouldn’t be a struggle, one that involves several stops to admire the view and to catch the breath. Maybe if I climbed a few thousand feet every other day, I might make it to the supreme level of fitness that seems to come easy to others, who only walk a big one once a year. I think they call it mountain form, and I suspect no matter how many miles I put in, mine will always be middling. You have it or you don’t. And if you don’t, you just do the best you can.

The path eventually cuts the contours at a less punishing angle, and we reach the massive Scouting Cairn, a hard one to miss, even in atrocious weather. Here, the vast plateau that Pendle hides, become evident, and mercifully level. The path from here hugs the edge of the hill, takes us north-east, then east, with stunning, airy views of the Ribble Valley, the Bowland Hills and the Dales. Ingleborough, where we were a few weeks ago, is glimpsed now through a buttery haze.

The going is easy on the legs now, and impressive, ample reward for that slog up Burst Clough. Eventually we meet another distinctive path coming more directly from Downham. We’ll be using this on return, but for now, while we’re so near the big end, we’ll strike a bearing south for the main top – not that we need to strike a bearing here, not even in mist, I imagine. The paths here are broad as day, and easy to follow.

Pendle summit

I’ve seen only a few people on the hill, and likewise even manage to get the summit trig-point to myself for a bit. It’s good to welcome back that old rush you get from making the top. But it’s more than that. For a time, on a big hill, with all the land spread out below your feet, there is a sense of transcending the every-day. You think and feel differently on a big hill.

I don’t know where I would have ended up if I’d carried on to the Dales – Malham probably, Pikedaw, possibly, and a good day would have been had, because all days in the Dales are good days. But Pendle made her play, for reasons best known to herself, and I was not disappointed.

The way down seems a long one, as it always does, when one turns for home. We can see the village of Downham miles away, pinpointed by the prominent tower of St. Leonard’s Church and, on wearying legs, we wonder if we will ever reach it. But the way is pleasant, first the meandering path across the moor, then the greener, meadow ways, by Clay House. Then it’s Downham’s timeless and ever gorgeous welcome, and those last few strides to the car. I’m glad to have the little blue car back on the road, after a few weeks of uncertainty. Runs out to places like this really aren’t the same without her.

But the day goes to the grand old lady, Pendle herself. She’s beautiful, at times mysterious, occasionally treacherous, but forever beloved of Lancashire. If you’re not from Lancashire, and you wonder what we sound like here, I can do no better than refer you to Whistle Down the Wind. I can’t believe we were really as innocent as this in the ’60’s, and the kids so sweet, but I was there, and I have a feeling, actually, we were.

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