Hebden Bridge to Cowling
Updated: Jan 28
Pennine Way - Day 4 - 17 miles - 'Brontë'
Today I did something naughty. I abandoned The Pennine Way, that has guided me so faultlessly for three days now, to do my own thing.
Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.
Some Pennine Way walkers frown on this. Ash – who I met at the Carriage House two days back – is planning to walk every step of the official path. Barrie, meanwhile, who I’ve walked with on and off since Crowden, knows the area well and is riffing off the Way when he feels like it to follow his interests. As long as he does the Way in spirit, he says, that’s fine.
Every long distance walker has their own unique rules. I can’t use ferries to get from Land’s End to John o' Groats and if I use any public transport to help with stopovers I have to pick up the trail at the exact spot I left it. But while I will end up walking 99% of the Pennine Way, a few diversions here and there are within my rules.
Today, for example, there was the chance to follow the Way proper up and over more soggy tops, or heading up the local beauty spot of Hebden Dale, with its National Trust Mill, famous crags, waterfalls and miles of riverside woods. Not only was it easy going – it was a beautiful walk.
Which kind of begged the question; why on earth would the Way miss it out?
The thing is, while The Pennine Way has been a revelation, it suffers from the problem that all these trails do: they are born of a host of factors, including social and political context of the time coupled with the vision and walking interests of their creator, but also – and probably most of all – a hefty dose of pragmatic compromise.
It was in 1935 that the journalist, walker and access campaigner Tom Stephenson wrote an article for the London Daily Herald entitled 'Wanted: A Long Green Trail'. Frustrated that Britain had nothing like America’s Appalachian Trail, he called for “a Pennine Way from the Peak to the Cheviots”.
It would be a further 30 years – on April 24, 1965 - that the final section of the trail, from Wooler to Kirk Yetholm, would be opened. It was a big day for the UK, for the rambling movement and, of course, for the dogged campaigner who had spent so long bringing the national trail into existence.
While one can debate forever the ‘best’ route over the Pennines (there’s no such thing), it’s impossible to seperate the chosen route from the political context – and ongoing access frustrations – of the time.
By 1965, a whole three decades after the Kinder mass trespass of 1932, public opinion on access rights were broadly on the side of the rambler. But while the national mood may have changed, the Peak District National Park only came into force in 1951, and a full, comprehensive right to roam had to wait a further half century, when the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW) gave the public the conditional right to explore downland, moorland, heathland and coastal land.
Tom Stephenson, therefore, had nothing like the free hand he dreamed of when plotting his long green trail.
A case in point is Boulsworth Hill. Boulsworth Hill, and its summit Lad Law, is the highest point on the South Pennines. It is also one of the finest viewpoints in the area, with panoramas over Pendle Hill, the Forest of Bowland, the Yorkshire Dales, the South Pennines – even the Cumbrian fells and Blackpool Tower. It is a hill Stephenson wanted his Pennine Way to summit. Imagining the journey of "carefree youngsters" (that's me that is ;-) ) he wrote of them "steering between the industrial blackspots, on beyond the vale of Cliviger, they would stand on Boulsworth, and behind, on one side, the level brow of Pendle... and on the other the dark moors which inspired the Brontes."
Alas, his vision was not to be. Landowners would not give him the access he needed to Boulsworth, so the Way is routed, instead, a few miles to the East, past the string of Walshaw Dean Reservoirs. Fine walking, for sure, but yet another compromise forced upon the campaigner by the landowning class.
It is an interesting exercise wondering what Stephenson might have done if he were free to replot his Way now – with the right to roam freedoms that we're blessed with. We can say with confidence, I think, that he'd head over Lad Law en route to Cowling. Might he also have headed up beautiful Hebden Dale as well?
From the woods of Hebden Dale then Black Dean I enter the hidden side valley below Pailer End Slade on a terraced road to nowhere, overhung by oaks then transitioning to moor, that finds the Pennine Way at the Walshaw Dean Reservoirs.
There's a stiff breeze blowing by now, making the couch grass sing. Birds are constant companions: oystercatchers picking through waterside stones, skylarks on the grass, plovers on the wing, then, on the moors higher up, flurries of grouse from the heather, panicked by human footfall.
Across the waters of the reservoir lies The Lodge, overawed by the shadow bulks of Heather Hill and Greave Height, wind whipping waves on the waters. When the sun goes in the rambling stone house looks like the moody setting for an Agatha Chrisite whodunnit: which of the guests from the shooting party did away with with the Baronet? Originally meant to be a humble keeper's cottage, the size and regal construction kicked off its share of controversy when complete.
Then one of those transitions that the Pennine Way does so well.
One minute the crazy paving stones are guiding you over heather moor at its bleakest, the next – just over the barely perceptible Round Hill watershed – the horizon opens and new valleys and vistas open up on all sides. Today visibility is pristine, and ahead, for the first time, are the grand rounded bulks that cradle the Yorkshire Dales.
I stop for a few minutes to drink in the big sky panorama and find myself smiling at no-one.
Just down from Round Hill a tumbledown farmhouse on the Way announces the entry to Brontë country... kind of.
The house is Top Withens, which a carved plaque on its wall announces 'HAS BEEN ASSOCIATED WITH 'WUTHERING HEIGHTS'. THE EARNSHAW HOME IN EMILY BRONTE'S NOVEL'.
The sign continues: 'THE BUILDINGS, EVEN WHEN COMPLETE, BORE NO RESEMBLANCE TO THE HOUSE SHE DESCRIBED.'
Which is something of a volte face; the same plaque could have been placed an any number of other abandoned farmhouses on the moors that also BEAR NO RESEMBLANCE TO THE HOUSE SHE DESCRIBED. (To see why Top Withens differs so wildly from Withering Heights, these floorpans make for interesting reading.)
Despite there being NO RESEMBLANCE, Top Withens has unaccountably become a place of austere pilgrimage for Heathcliff fans – as much a part of the Pennine literary trail as the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth. Carved waymarks along nearby paths are in Japanese as well as English.
I listen on the wind for Cathy's lament and look through the stoned windows for ghostly signs of Heathcliff on the moor, but it's too sunny, the only sounds of rippling grass and skylarks frolicking.
It's a spritely tramp from the farmhouse that is but isn't anything to do with Cathy and Heathcliff.
There's fun to be had in the lush valley cradling Ponden reservoir, there's another paved moorland up-and-over between Little Wolf Stones and Maw Stones Hill where cotton grass grows in monochrome fields.
Then it's down past a dozen shooting huts to the pastoral backwater of Cowling, a terraced wander to the falls on Dean Brow Beck throwing a last dash of variety into a walk that has offered a little of everything.
The first person I meet as I enter Cowling is Ash – last seen on the morning after the crazy night before on Standedge. The next, arriving shortly after we find the Woodland House B&B, is Barrie, who I walked with through Ponden.
Hosts Sue and Sandy – seasoned walkers and Pennine Way veterans – serve tea and lemon drizzle cake. Then, for the fist time since I left Land's End there's the walkers' equivalent of a lad's night out: the three of us head down Cowling's quiet high street for a couple of pints and meal in the all-but-empty local.
It's a nice end to a nice day. But as I settle down to sleep my mind can't help but think back to the big views spied from the Round Hill horizon: the heights of the Dales ahead, and the big stuff.