Crowden (Old House) to Standedge
Updated: Jan 28, 2020
Pennine Way - Day 2 - 14 miles - 'Bleak'
The A62 is a trans-Pennine highway that links Manchester and Leeds. Before the M62 was built it was the main route across the roof of England. It reaches its summit in a cutting just past Redbrook Reservoir. It’s a bleak spot: nothing but moorland and industrial spoil as far as the eye can see, the bulking form of Pule Hill dominating the wilderness.
Here, at the side of the road, nudging into the 1,200ft contour, is an old coaching inn sheltered by a few wind-bent conifers.
If you’d shown me a picture of it before today and asked me the location I might have guessed America, Canada maybe. Somewhere with bags of open space, and roadside motels you’d only use if you had no choice.
It’s the kind of place you might drive past late on a rainy night, see the lights as the wipers cleared rain, and wonder who in their right mind would choose to spend the night there. Salesman regretting their new job? Lovers looking for a supremely discreet location? Stranded motorist waiting for the AA?
I was starting to think the answer might be long-distance walkers when, in the space of half an hour, something extraordinary happened.
Of which more later…
It was a good day.
Sometimes it’s the walk itself - the mix of terrain, scenery, engagement. Sometimes it’s the weather. The amount of ascent and descent makes a difference. But the main decider on whether a walk will be enjoyable is distance, with lengths looking something like this:
Less than 10 miles: Barely worth getting out of bed for.
10–12 miles: Bliss. I’ll be done by lunchtime.
12–15 miles: A gentle day. 3pm finish.
15–18 miles: Starting to feel like a proper walk.
18–22 miles: A demanding walk that will take time to complete.
22–26 miles: Even with an early start, there’ll be a late finish. Generally, too long to be fun.
26+ miles: Not unless I really have to.
In idle moments (of which there are many) I wonder if it would be possible to craft a formula for the perfect walk that took into account length, weather, ascent, scenery and so on.
Something like (Scenery + Distance) x Weather - 1/Elevation = Walk quality.
Maybe it’s already been done, by the boffin who worked out that the third Monday in January – aka Blue Monday – is officially the most depressing day of the year. (He’s wrong, of course, 1 January is far worse. Stinking hangover and work the next day. Unless you’re a Scot.)
I’m not sure how today would feed into my formula, but I had good weather (the sun punishing the south of England didn’t appear all day. Instead visibility reduced in a cool and breezy haze, low and high level cloud knocking out the heat), the scenery was varied and, in its own Pennine-y way, engaging, with surprising highlights.
More importantly, it was just 14 miles, ending at just shy of 3pm.
And a walk gets bonus points if you get an afternoon in which to chill / wash clothes / write this blog / have a beer or two.
Day two of the Pennine Way was much like day one – it kept punching above its repetitional weight.
From Crowden the trail climbs north to Laddow Rocks, Crowden Great Brook snaking down the valley below. Trees, ferns and heather soften the wide valleysides, with rocky outcrops breaking the skin to add (Limestone) grit.
What strikes you most as you climb is the scale. I felt it yesterday on Kinder Scout, but even more today. These are big hills. Seriously big hills. Not high – but bulky. So that after six miles of walking I was still approaching the watershed.
Higher up that scale is magnified. Where the detail of the valley gives way to rough moorland, the sense of space deepens. True wilderness can't be found in Britain. But this comes close. There's nothing up here but heather, bilberries and the occasional flourish of cotton grass. Below them blanket peat fields. Look east, west, north or south the view is more of the same, on greater or lesser heights that recede into the Pennine murk.
When walking most of this country you can always escape if the weather turns.
Not here. You either go back, or carry on forwards over the vast expanse of moor.
This scale is something I’ve not experienced yet on LeJog.
Up and up and up, slow and steady progress, until the white trig point on Black Hill. In Wainwright’s time this was a miserable place: a surreal hilltop with nothing on it but black peat and its single triangulation column – mounted on boulders to keep it from being claimed by the bog.
No more. Grasses and heathers have somehow taken root in the acid soil and turned Black Hill green.
(Black Hill, incidentally, is also the place in which Wainwright nearly met a sticky end. If it wasn’t for his companion who pulled him from the bog, he writes in his Pennine Way Companion Notes in Conclusion, he may well have stayed forever on the hill. Which, ironically, would have meant his own (more popular) long-distance footpath, the Coast to Coast Walk, would never have been conceived.)
Another association at the middle-of-nowhere A635 crossing. This is Saddleworth Moor, burial site of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley's four victims.
Just off route is Chew Reservoir, near where the body of 67-year-old David Lytton was found in December 2015. Before his formal identification the man had remained a mystery. But his death – from strychnine poisoning – remains so. A loner in a lonely place who appeared to walk voluntarily into the rainy wilderness to die.
A tumble-down walled enclosure on the map at Wessenden Head keeps its silence. But this was for years the site of the Isle of Skye Hotel.. The name, it is thought, comes from its remoteness. Though the heights around are hardly the Cuillins. And there's no crystal sea to lift the spirits.
The scenery improves as the trail descends to Wessenden, a rural backwater once a playground of the industrial north. Now it’s all but deserted, the lodge that once served refreshments locked up. But there’s beauty here still, despite the reservoirs. Rhododendrons splashing pink on the valley sides. Waterfalls. An exhilarating climb above them.
From there it’s easy walking over White then Black Moss.
Here yet more reservoirs have a story to tell: they’re part of one of the biggest civil engineering feats of the last century.
Some 500ft below the moor are the Standedge Tunnels, carrying the longest, deepest and highest canal tunnel in the country (at 5415 yards) and three railway tunnels – each of them three miles in length. You’d not know if you hadn’t been told where to look: at the greened-over spoil heap, the hillside tunnel that every few minutes spews smoke – and those reservoirs.
On finally to to Redbrook Reservoir, Standedge and the Carriage House: my B&B in the middle of nowhere.
When I reach The Carriage House it’s deserted. Not a car in the car park, lights off inside. It could be the set for a B-movie. A slasher flick, a From Dusk till Dawn-style shootout.
I try the front door, the side door – then wander round the back.
No way in. The place looks like it’s been closed for weeks.
I call the telephone number on the welcome sign. No answer.
Then I notice the opening hours. TUESDAY: CLOSED.
My heart sinks. Somehow I’ve screwed up, I think, booked the wrong day. That could mean another five miles to the next village – if I can find somewhere that’s got vacancies.
I wander round for a second time and find a handwritten sign: “If no answer, call my mobile on…”
So I call the mobile.
“Sorry mate. Be with you in two.”
Twenty minutes later the owner swings into the car park and opens up. The room’s clean but not exactly ready. Towels, teabags, soap are dropped into the room at ten minute intervals.
I rest for a while.
Have a shower.
Start to think about tomorrow’s route.
As I leaf through maps, I hear noise outside. People talking. Laughter, Engines revving.
The noise grows.
At six o’clock I go downstairs.
And the whole place is transformed.
In the space of an hour the empty car park has filled with vintage cars, delivery lorries, tractors, camper vans, motorbikes, jeeps, a gritting truck – and a couple of tanks.
Not just a few but… hundreds, filling every inch of the car park and overspilling as far as the eye can see on either side of the road stretching up and down the valley, still wreathed in mist.
There’s families and photographers and owners and collectors and mechanics and everywhere leather. The bar queue’s 30 people deep.
I ask a guy waiting to be served what’s going on. He’s grinning from ear to ear. “It’s a meetup,” he says, which means nothing to me. “Look in the diary, you’ll find one every week this time o’ year.”
He’s surprised I didn’t know.
I’m surprised that there’s a meetup – which seems to be a kind of flashmob for fans of Top Gear – at this moorside B&B in the back end of nowhere, on a Tuesday night.
Petrolhead and walker speaking different languages.
I tell him my story. That at 3pm the place was locked. That I’m walking the Pennine Way. He finds it hilariously funny: “You didn’t know it was a meetup?”
“Just wanted a bed for the night. Not that I’m complaining.”
“You’ll like it. Good folk. Never any trouble at these events cos we all love the same thing.”
No question there are good vibes. People wandering from rare vehicle to rare vehicle with questions, respect, advice and smiles.
It’s all you need to transform the wilderness into a party: a reason to turn up.