A walk from Littleborough to Todmorden

For my second walk during the hot and sunny Bank Holiday weekend, not wanting to endure the inevitably busy traffic, I decided to take the train over to Littleborough. I’d worked out a route that would take me over to Todmorden, taking in a stretch of the Pennine Way. It was a long walk but doable. As it happens I ended up extending it a little.

Arriving at the station, a short walk along the road I was on a minor road that crossed the canal and then became a track that was soon out into the fields. A path then took me through some woods, past a farm and then past the golf course with views of the hills opening up.

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The low cloud that was hanging over Wigan and Manchester had cleared by the time I reached Littleborough. It was sunny and becoming hot and there was barely a breeze. The wind turbines on the hills were completely still.

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The line of pylons carrying power cables that stretch out over the moors brought to mind a poem by Stephen Spender that I’d studied for my O Level in English Literature. Here’s an extract

The Pylons

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made,
And crumbling roads
That turned on sudden hidden villages

Now over these small hills, they have built the concrete
That trails black wire
Pylons, those pillars
Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret.

by Stephen Spender (extract)
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Can’t say I’ve seen many nude girls that look quite like that, mind!

I guess that the modern day equivalent are the Wind Turbines of which I could see plenty on the nearby hills during my walk.

I’d originally planned to climb up the “Roman road”, that would let me join the Pennine Way to the north of Blackstone Edge. As it happens as I reached the path that would lead me to the start of the ascent, looking up to Blackstone Edge I decided to divert and climb the edge, taking the path up to the south of the summit, adding 2 or 3 miles to my planned route.

Looking down to Hollingworth Lake as I climbed

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A couple of curious locals ahead

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The top of Blackstone Edge ahead

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It didn’t take too long to reach the top of the hill with it’s jumble of millstone grit bolders

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I stopped by the trig point for a short break and a bite to eat. Just like on Friday, long range visibility wasn’t so great but the views over the moors were still OK.

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I was now on the Pennine way so followed the path heading northwards. Looking back to the Edge.

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I reached the Aiggin stone

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The Pennine Way then descended down the “Roman road”

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before turning north by the drain – a waterway taking water from one of the reservoirs that feed the Rochdale canal

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It wasn’t too long before I reached the White Horse pub on the A58 which runs over the Pennines from Littleborough to Halifax.

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Crossing over there’s a short walk stretch of road before the Pennine way continues along a gravel path that’s used a a service road for a string of reservoirs.

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This path extends for a few miles and is pretty flat. It’s reputedly the easiest stretch of the Pennine Way. The lack of inclines means it’s also one of the least interesting stretches, but on a fine day there were good views over the moors and the water in the reservoirs was a lovely bright blue.

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About a mile along the track I reached this little bridge, which I crossed and then walked along to an outcrop of millstone grit in a former quarry

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Inscribed on the rock is a poem

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This one of the Stanza Stones – poems by Simon Armitage (the new Poet Laureate) inscribed on rocks on the moors between Marsden (his home town) and Ilkley, all about an aspect of the water which frequently falls on these moors. This is the Rain Stone

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Unusually (!) it wasn’t raining today, but it had been a few days before and the moors off the path were wet and boggy.

Rejoining the path I carried on heading north passing a string of small reservoirs.

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After passing the last of the reservoirs, the path continued over the boggy moor. Fortunately flagstones have been laid down over the boggiest section other it would have meant walking through a quagmire. There’s a reason why Simon Armitage located his Stanza Stones up here!

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Soon, Stoodley Pike came into view

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It didn’t look so far off, but sometimes your eyes can deceive you!

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Carrying on, Todmorden and the nearby villages came into view down in the valley

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and looking in the opposite direction towards Cragg Vale, home of the Coiners

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My plan was to descend down the Calderdale Way and follow it to Todmorden where I’d catch the train back to Wigan. Looking north along the Pennine Way, Stoodley Pike didn’t look so far off and I was tempted to continue onwards.

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But I’d extended my walk by a few miles already by tackling Blackstone Edge so I decided to stick to my original intention.

The path was an old packhorse trail and had been paved, making the walking relatively easy.

I was greeted by a couple of sheep as I entered the small village of Mankinholes

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It’s small village of old traditional Pennine houses, an ancient settlement, going back to the 13th century, and some of the houses were built in the 17 th century. They would probably have been originally occupied by textile workers, weavers and spinners, who worked from home, so the houses have the typical rows of mullioned windows that allowed maximum light into the first floor work rooms.

I reckon that later on, after the Industrial Revolution had killed off the domestic textile industry, the occupants probably went to work in the mill in nearby Lumbutts – there’s an old path across the fields between the two villages and that was what I followed.

Lumbutts isn’t as old, coming into existence along with the mill in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Reaching Lumbutts I passed the local pub which, on a Bank Holiday afternoon, was busy with customers enjoying a meal and a pint.

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Time was getting on so I didn’t stop but carried on to have a look at the village chapel

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It’s rather a large chapel for a small village but probably served the surrounding area. It was only constructed in 1911, replacing an earlier building. The ground floor was used for the Sunday School with the main chapel above it.

I rejoined the Calderdale way which carried on along the road and down the hill towards the old mill. The only thing left is the unusual old tower.

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The mill was water powered and the tower contained three water wheels, one on top of the other, powered from lodges on the hills above.

I carried on along the road for a while passing the rows of terraced workers’ houses

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A short while further on the Calderdale Way turned off the road to start crossing some fields. Looking across to Stoodley Pike

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I passed a number of old, traditional houses which are now expensive, desirable residences

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Soon I could see Todmordem, but it was still a way off

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I carried on along the Calderdale way through fields and along a country lane, eventually arriving at the small former textile town down in the bottom of the narrow valley.

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Todmorden used to split by the border between Lancashire and Yorkshire and the neo-Classical Town Hall actually straddles the border.

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Since Local Government reorganisation it’s been entirely in West Yorkshire, but remnants of the old loyalties remain. My walk had taken me from Littleborough in Lancashire (well, Greater Manchester these days) and across the border into West Yorkshire. But it would be difficult to tell the difference as the landscape and architecture across the South Pennines is essentially the same.

I’d run out of water a couple of miles before reaching the town (should have stopped at that pub!) so needed to get some cold liquid. It was nearly 5 o’clock and everything seemed shut but I managed to find an off licence were I was able to buy a couple of bottles of diet coke from the fridge for a couple of quid. The cold liquid and caffeine were more than welcome and I quickly downed the contents of one of the bottles saving the second for the journey home.

I didn’t have too much time to look round before the next train was due so I made my way to the station. It was running 10 minutes late and I might have otherwise missed it (although they run every half hour). Just over an hour later I was back in Wigan.

Another grand walk on what was probably going to be the last sunny day for a while. I also feel that September is the beginning of Autumn, so this was my last walk during this year’s summer. But Autumn can be a good time for walks too – so fingers crossed!

Anglezarke Circular

The beginning of the week after my rather damp (but enjoyable) break in Borrowdale, the weather changed becoming bright and sunny. Unfortunately I couldn’t take more days off work but I did manage to finish work early on the Tuesday so that I could get out for a walk. Despite the long days, I didn’t have time to drive up to the Lake District, so decided on a walk up on the West Lancashire Moors, starting from the pleasant hamlet of White Coppice near Chorley.

For a while now I’ve had it in mind to complete a circular walk around Anglezarke Moor and the long hours of daylight meant that was going to be possible.

After parking up my car I walked past the cricket pitch

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and then started the climb up towards Great Hill

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Looking back towards White Coppice, Chorley and the Lancashire plain.

At the top of the brew, the summit of Great Hill came into view

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A couple of locals were keeping an eye on me

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I walked past the ruined farm at Drinkwaters

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Looking across the moors to Winter Hill in the south with it’s TV and communication masts

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I soon reached the summit

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and stopped a while for a snack and to take in the views. It was a little hazy so the longer range views weren’t so good, but I over to the east I could see Darwen Tower and just about make out Pendle Hill

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and there were no problems seeing Winter Hill and Rivington Pike

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On good days it’s possible to see as far as the Lakes, the Yorkshire Dales, Snowdonia and the Irish Sea, but not today.

I set off along the paved path across the peat covered moorland heading south to cross Redmond Edge and Spitler’s Edge. When I used to walk over these moors as a teenager, this would have meant crossing a quagmire, even after a relatively dry spell, but some time ago the “engineered” path was laid, making this a much drier experience.

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The cotton grass (“bog cotton”) was coming into bloom

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Heading towards Spittler’s Edge

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Crossing the Edge

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Just before the Belmont Road, I turned off and started to head in a westerly direction over Anglezarke Moor

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passing the ruined farm at Hempshaw’s

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I continued across the moor

Looking back towards Redmond’s and Spitler’s Edges

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and across to Winter Hill

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Eventually, I reached Lead Mine Clough

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climbed the hill and then took the path towards Jepson’s Gate

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A short walk along the quiet road to Manor farm

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and I took the path across the field and then down to Higher Bullough reservoir

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I then took the path southwards along the much larger Anglezarke Reservoir

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Crossing the road, I followed the path parallel to the Goyt (the watercourse that connects the Roddlesworth and Anglezarke reservoirs back towards White Coppice

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Plenty of evidence of the industrial activity that took place on these moors many years ago

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Arriving back at the cricket field

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I headed back to my car for the drive home.

A fine 12 mile walk, making the most of a fine afternoon.

Spring Break

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It’s been a long haul from Christmas this year with Easter being so late – I wish they’d fix the date! So I was glad to be able to take a week off work last week to go away for a few days. We found ourselves a cottage for 4 nights just outside Cartmel at the foot of Hampsfell.

Cartmel is a small, attractive village to the north of the treacherous sands of Morecambe Bay, which is something of a “honeypot” with an old Priory church, old houses and other buildings, a number of touristy shops, a Michelin 2 star restaurant, four pubs and the smallest racecourse in the UK. The village is just to the south of the Lake District National Park, although our cottage, one of a small group of properties, was just inside the National Park boundary. Historically the Cartmel peninsula, together with nearby Furness, the other side of the Leven estuary, were part of Lancashire. Cut off from the rest of the county the area was often known as “Lancashire over the sands”. Following local government reorganisation in 1974 it was absorbed by the newly created county of Cumbria.

This old map shows the pre-1974 county boundaries and includes “Lancahire over the sands”

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Although seemingly cut off from the rest of the county the area was accessed via routes over the sands of Morecambe Bay. The tide recedes from the bay leaving behind a vast area of sand and mudflats criss-crossed by a number of river channels and notorious for it’s quicksands. Until the Furness railway was opened in 1857, crossing the sands was a major route of communication. It was a dangerous crossing, though, and many people were trapped by quicksands and a rapidly rising tide, losing their lives. According to Wikipedia Cartmel apparently means “sandbank by rocky ground“, from the Old Norse kartr (rocky ground) and melr, reflecting it’s location a few miles north of the bay.

We were lucky to have some decent weather – cool, but sunny – so managed to have a good break taking in some walks, a visit to a stately home and even some art! So, lots to write up, but for a starter here’s a few photos we took in and around the village and our cottage.

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A walk from Kirkby Lonsdale

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I had a week in Ireland this week cancelled and as I hadn’t anything particularly urgent that needed doing, I thought that, weather permitting, we might get out for a walk one day. Checking the forecast, Monday looked the best bet as it was expected to be a decent day, so that clinched it. Where to go? Given the limited hours of light in December we decided not to go to far and stick to a low level route, limiting the mileage. We’d not been to Kirkby Lonsdale before, even though it’s not so far away (just over an hour’s drive, M6 willing!), so after a little research decided on a route starting from there.

Kirkby Lonsdale is a picturesque market town in Cumbria, close to the boundaries of both Lancashire and North Yorkshire and just inside  the Yorkshire Dales National Park. It’s noted for it’s olde worlde town centre, a viewpoint beloved of Ruskin and Turner and an old bridge. 

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There’s plenty of free parking on the edge of town, either side of the “Devil’s Bridge” but when we arrived on a Monday morning in December, I was surprised to see how many cars were parked up. However, there were a few spaces left so we parked up and donned our boots ready for a walk. I was expecting it to be muddy so we’d brought our gaiters and a couple of walking poles – it turned out that this was a good move!

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Before setting off we had a look at the Devil’s Bridge which was built in the 12th or 13th century, and is now a scheduled ancient monument.  At one time it was the only bridge over the Lune for miles around.

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There are quite a few Devil’s Bridges around the country, all built around the same period and all have a story associated with them explaining the name.  At Kirkby Lonsdale the tale goes that one night a cow belonging to an old woman strayed across the river and as there was no crossing point on the wide, fast flowing river, she couldn’t get it back. The devil then appeared and offered to build a bridge overnight t if he could have the soul of the first one across. However, the old woman fooled him by sending her dog across first. The devil was so angry he disappeared in a cloud of smoke never to return. 

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The bridge is a popular spot over the River Lune for “tombstoning”, which involves leaping from height into water. Over the years a number people have been killed here and there’s a local bye-law forbidding the practice, but, apparently, this doesn’t stop some foolish thrill seekers. So perhaps the Devil has had the last laugh.

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We set off , crossing the main road and then heading off south through the fields. There was a good view over to the Kentmere horseshoe.

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Passing a small group of cottages we followed the track which led towards Sellet Mill. 
The narrow footpath passed between two stonewalls and was clearly an old right of way which looked like it had been cobbled at one time. About a third of the way down a stream came in from the left and the path continued alongside it. “I wonder if it ever gets flooded?” We soon found out. Not much further on the path was covered with a fast running stream. Should we turn back or chance it and continue? We took the latter option. We almost regretted this decision as the water was quite deep in places and  it wasn’t easy to avoid getting our boots submerged or slipping and falling over. The walking poles now came in very handy and we managed to stay upright and not get too wet thanks to the gaiters. After what seemed a long way the path re-emerged on the right hand bank and we were able to continue on dry land until we reached Sellet Mill. 

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From here we took the path heading west through the fields until we reached the road and then followed a narrow minor road towards Whittington, a pleasant old village. There were good views over the fields across to Ingleborough and other hills in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

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and we passed some interesting old buildings.

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Reaching the old church, which stands on the site of a Norman motte and bailey castle, we decided to stop and have a bite to eat. We had a quick look inside the church. The oldest part is the tower, which dates from the early 16th century. The rest was largely rebuilt in 1875 in the usual Victorian Gothic revival style. 

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There was some rather nice stained glass.

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Afterwards we found a bench in the graveyard and sat down to eat our pork pies, taking in the view on a pleasant, sunny, afternoon.

Well nourished we resumed our walk, taking the road through the village and then followed a path that cut eastwards across the fields towards the River Lune.

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After recent heavy rains, the river was deep and flowing fast and the banks were muddy and slippy. In a few places it was close to the river and we were once again glad I’d put our walking poles in the boot of the car that morning.

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We followed the river bank back to Devil’s Bridge and then continued on the riverside path as we wanted to have a look around the small town and also to visit the viewpoint known as “Ruskin’s View”.

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After about a mile we reached the “Radical Steps” that would take us up to the viewpoint. The steps were built in 1819 by Francis Pearson, a local Liberal. The locals came to call them the Radical Steps on account of his political leanings. There are allegedly 86 stone steps, although we didn’t count them. They were rather steep and uneven and probably easier to go up than down.

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At the top of the steps we reached the edge of the churchyard and were able to take in “Ruskin’s View”. Painted by Turner, in 1875, John Ruskin described the panorama as ‘one of the loveliest views in England, therefore in the world’.

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Even though the river valley was now in the shade, it was certainly a lovely view, but I think Ruskin was rather overstating it.

After taking in the view we walked through the church yard and had a quick look around inside St Mary’s church

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and then wandered into town where we found a cafe to have a brew before heading back to the car for the drive home. It was only 5 o’clock but the winter sun having already set it felt much later. But we’d had a good day out.

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Pendle Hill from Downham”

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Last Wednesday I managed to take an afternoon off work to get out for a walk, making the most of a fine day. I decided to drive over to Shazza country and head up Pendle Hill. I’d been up there for a walk earlier this year during the heatwave, but this time decided to tackle a circular route from the village of Downham which is only 30 miles and less than an hour away from home.

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Downham is a very pretty village and somewhat lost in time. The properties are all owned by the Assheton family who rent or lease them out and they don’t allow residents to install overhead electricity lines, aerials or satellite dishes. This has made the village a popular location for filming period TV programmes and films, including the BBC One series Born and Bred. More notably it was the main location for the 1961 Bryan Forbes film, Whistle Down the Wind, which, although rather sentimental, is one of my favourites as it very much reminds me of my childhood – the local children who used as actors and extras are of my generation and also spoke rather like I do!

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I parked up in the free (!) car park and bought myself a few supplies from the small café cum ice cream and snack shop and set out following a path southwards which took me across some fields towards Worsaw Hill and Worsaw End. The farm lying at the foot of this hill was used as the home of the main characters in Whistle Down the Wind.

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I then took the path past the farm that headed east towards Pendle Hill. After a short section of tarmac I was back on soft ground passing along a narrow path between hedge boundaries

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and then starting my climb up the flank of the hill.

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Looking back there were good views of Worsaw Hill

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With Ingleborough and Penyghent in the Yorkshire Dales clearly visible in the distance.

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It’s a steep ascent, so it doesn’t take too long to reach the top of the ridge (although not quite the summit of the hill)by the large cairn erected to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Scout movement.

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I then set out along the ridge heading for the “Big End” which is the highest point of the hill. It was over a mile, mainly walking over soft peat which is inevitably normally muddy and gloopy underfoot, but the long dry spell from May to the beginning of August (although now seeming like a distant memory) meant that despite some recent rain the going wasn’t too bad.

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Visibility was reasonably good so there were views in all directions
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about half way along the ridge I passed this round shelter, which rather looked like it had been created by Andy Goldsworthy

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After crossing a wall and passing this recently constructed seat come wind shelter

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The Big End was in view

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Quite a lot of work has been done recently on the paths which is necessary on such a popular peat covered hill to control erosion. Some people don’t like this but I’m afraid it’s necessary.

It didn’t take long now to reach the trig point at the summit

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Time to stop for a little while, grab a bite to eat and soak up the views, looking down to Barley

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After my short break I retrace my steps along the engineered path back to the wall

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and then took the path which descended diagonally down the hill back towards Downham

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Descending is harder on than knees than climbing, but it didn’t give me too much trouble this time.

Looking back from the foot of the hill

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and looking ahead

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An easy stroll of about a mile or so over the fields alongside the small river took me back towards Downham

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Looking back to Pendle Hill

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Passing through this gate took me back into the village

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The cloud had cleared during the course of my walk and it was now a bright sunny late afternoon.

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I spent half an hour or so mooching around the village and taking a few snaps (I’ll probably include them in another post) before heading back to my car, changing out of my boots and setting off back home.

A walk up Pendle Hill

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As .. I .. travelled, …I …came near a very great hill, called Pendle Hill, and I was moved …….. to go up to the top of it; which I did with difficulty, it was so very steep and high. (George Fox, 1624-1691)

Trying to make the most of the long days and good weather (while it lasts), last Tuesday I started and finished work early so that I could get out for a walk. It took me about an hour to drive over to Barley in Pendle where I parked up and set out to climb Pendle Hill. The area has two major claims to fame. It was there that George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, had a revelation which led to the founding of the Society of Friends. But it is probably best known for its association with the Pendle Witches who were executed 400 years ago in 1612.

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It’s an interesting curiosity that “Pendle Hill” actually means “hill hill hill”. The following explanation is from Wikipedia

In the 13th century it was called Pennul or Penhul, apparently from the Cumbricpen and Old Englishhyll, both meaning “hill”. The modern English “hill” was appended later,

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The summit is 557 metres (1,827 ft) above mean sea level. So it doesn’t qualify as a mountain, but it’s a stiff climb up the steep main path from Barley. The hill doesn’t have a distinct summit. Its a long ridge. There’s a trig point at the highest point which is known as the “Big End”.

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Reaching the trig point there were extensive views down to Barley and beyond to the east

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and over to the Bowland fells to the north with glimpse for the Yorkshire Three Peaks through the haze to the north east.

I set off along the plateau, following the Pendle Way, to descend by Boar Clough. (“Clough” is a local term used for a steep valley or ravine.)

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Usually this route would be much more difficult underfoot but the recent warm dry spell meant that the ground was firm, rather than wet and boggy, and the stream that has carved the clough in the hill side was  just about dry.

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I descended down into the larger ravine of Ogden Clough

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Following the valley I reached the first of the small reservoirs

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I carried on down the track and just before the second reservoir cut across the valley through some woods. I was still following the Pendle Trail but the section also forms part of the Lancashire Witches’ Walk, a 51-mile (82 km) long-distance footpath between Barrowford and Lancaster, opened in 2012 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the trials of the Pendle witches. The poet laureate,  Carol Ann Duffy, was commissioned to write a poem for the trail and Ten cast iron tercet waymarkers, designed by Stephen Raw, each inscribed with a verse of the poem the have been installed at sites along the route. I passed the second of these.

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Looking closer at the inscription

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The whole of the poem is inscribed on one side of the waymarker, but it’s not so easy to read, but you can see it here.

My route now took me up  the hill on the opposite side of the stream

Looking back

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and up through and then besides Fell wood before following a path eastwards through the fields towards the small village of Newchurch in Pendle.

There was a good view across the valley to Pendle Hill

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Continuing to follow the Witches’ Walk

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On to Newchurch

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I paused to take a look at the “new” church (well, it was new in 1740).

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I passed the souvenir shop (which was closed as it was now well after 5p.m.)

I love the inscription above the door. It’s in Lancashire dialect. “Gerrit Spent” looks like a Dutch gentleman’s name but it translates as “get it spent”. The rest of the transcription meaning “they don’t put pockets in shrouds”.

The final leg of my route took me across the woods and fields towards Barley

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with Pendle Hill in view as I walked along the track back to the village

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Another good, varied walk (just over 6 miles)  during the late afternoon and early evening on a fine day.

A Rose in Wigan–Part 2

Between mines and mills and factories, there are more steam engines per person in Wigan than in London, Pittsburgh, Essen or anywhere else. It happens to fit nicely that the palm oil we import from Africa lubricates those engines. The world runs on coal, and Wigan leads it. As long as we have coal we will continue to do so.’

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve just finished reading Rose, a novel by the American thriller writer Martin Cruz Smith set in Wigan in the 1870’s. It tells the story of one Jonathan Blair, an American mining engineer who, on returning from Africa in disgrace is employed, reluctantly, to visit the town to investigate the disappearance of a curate who was engaged to his patron’s daughter.

The author had certainly done his research and weaves details about working class life in Wigan 19th-century into his story. He visited the town and met with local historian and some former pit brow women. Here’s a cutting from the local paper

Pit Brow lasses meeting Martin Cruz Smith

In an interview in 1996 he reveals that he was a fan of George Orwell and had read The Road to Wigan Pier. and I’m sure that it’s no coincidence that his hero is called Blair, the real name of Orwell was Eric Blair.

Wigan, a working class town built on coal and cotton, wasn’t a pretty place during Victorian times and I’m sure his description of Wallgate is accurate

The thought occurred to Blair that if Hell had a flourishing main street it would look like this.

I found it fascinating to read the names of places I knew in the book. His hero stayed in the Minorca Hotel on the corner of Wallgate and King Street. It’s still there, but has gone through several name changes over the years – it’s now called the Berkeley and at one time was known as Blair’s. Here’s how it looked in about 1900

Minorca Hotel.

The Minorca Hotel on Wallgate (from Wigan World website)

Various pubs are mentioned, there were a large number in Wigan, including the one nearest to where I live, the Balcares (now renamed the Crawford Arms) on Scholes – the name of both a thoroughfare and a district of the town just west of the town centre. In fact much of the novel is set in Scholes, which at the time was populated by miners and other workers packed in back to backs and houses built off dark, narrow courtyards.

Scholes, Wigan, 1890’s (from Wigan World website)

The slums were cleared in the 1960’s and I lived there for a few years in a Council flat. And now I’m only a few minutes walk away from the district. So it was rather odd to be reading about the same streets and Scholes bridge, which I still cross regularly, in a novel by an International renowned author.

His descriptions of working in the mines are excellent, and really bring the experience of going down a mine to life

The cage started slowly, down through the round, brick-lined upper mouth of the shaft, past round garlands of Yorkshire iron, good as steel, into a cross-hatched well of stone and timber and then simply down. Down into an unlit abyss. Down at twenty, thirty, forty miles per hour. Down faster than any men anywhere else on earth could travel. So fast that breath flew from the lungs and pressed against the ears. So fast that nothing could be seen at the open end of the cage except a blur that could whip away an inattentive hand or leg. Down seemingly for ever.

Mains Colliery, Bamfurlong 14th Dec 1892

Mains Colliery, Bamfurlong 14th Dec 1892 (from Wigan World website)

Blair crawled out into a narrow tunnel, the length of which was populated by shadowy figures wearing only trousers and clogs, some only clogs, covered by a film of dust and glitter, swinging short, double-pointed picks. The men had the pinched waists of whippets and the banded, muscular shoulders of horses, but shining in the upcast light of their lamps what they most resembled was machinery, automatons tirelessly hacking at the pillars of coal that supported the black roof above them. Coal split with a sound nearly like chimes. Where the coal seam dipped, men worked on knees wrapped in rags. Other men loaded tubs or pushed them, leaning into them with their backs. A fog of condensation and coal dust rose from them.

Miner hewing coal.

Miner hewing coal (from Wigan World website)

Given my line of work, I was particularly interested to read his descriptions of the dangers posed by firedamp and the way that miners could “read” the danger using their Davy Lamps

From the German Dampf. Meaning vapour. Explosive gas.’ ‘Oh,’ said Leveret. ‘Methane. It likes to hide in cracks and along the roof. The point of a safety lamp is that the gauze dissipates enough of the heat so that you won’t set the gas off. Still, the best way to find it is with a flame.’ Battie lifted the lamp by a rough column of rock and studied the light wavering behind the screen of the gauze. ‘See how it’s a little longer, a little bluer? That’s methane that’s burning.’

And there were other “damps” too

When firedamp explodes it turns to afterdamp. Carbon monoxide. The strongest man in the world could be running through here at top speed, but two breaths of that and he’ll drop to the floor. Unless you drag him out, he’ll die. In fact, I’ve seen rescue attempts where one, two, three men will drop trying to pull one man out.

The Davy Lamp (By Scan made by Kogo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In designing his lamp, Humphry Davy was largely motivated by a desire to save lives (although the search for glory was a factor too, it has to be said) and he refused to take out a patent, even though strongly encouraged to do so. He wanted his lamp to be freely available. Sadly, although the lamp was intended to save lives it has been said that it actually caused the death of more men because the mine owners used the lamp as an excuse to send their workers into more dangerous workings.

The novel was well written, and not just the details about Wigan and life as a miner. It was a gripping story, if a little far fetched. The ending certainly was. But a good read nevertheless.