Standedge to Hebden Bridge
Updated: Jan 28, 2020
Pennine Way - Day 3 - 17.6 miles - 'Halfway'
Today is the summer equinox. As Britain swelters, winter's approaching.
It’s also – near as I’ll know for now – the halfway point of my long walk.
I’ll be more certain, of course, in hindsight, when I tot up the miles and divide them in two.
But even then it’ll be a guess. Because despite recording my daily distances on the OS App, Strava and using good old fashioned paper maps, each of them invariably throws up a slightly different mileage.
But give or take a day, I’d say i can probably have one more beer tonight.
While remembering that I’ve still got many miles left to walk.
Thunder storms were forecast. To the extent that I almost ran round today’s 17.6 miler praying lightning wouldn’t strike as I reached the exposed heath of Langfield Common.
Because though I’m a walker who’ll happily stride out in beating sun, driving rain, gale force winds and blizzard snow, I’m scared of lightning.
But the weather was better than expected. Bar a short shower just after lunch it was cloud with sunny spells and enough breeze to keep things cool. And no storm at all.
It's not just the weather that's been been better than expected since I left Edale. It all has. The accommodation. The walking. The Pennine Way, which – if it’s not clear by now – I’m pretty much loving. Good routes, big views, and interest springing up with the regularity of cotton grass.
I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this.
Why did I think the Pennine Way would be so grim?
Bad prep? Reading the wrong books? Ignorance?
Maybe it’s just got that reputation. For which I’m sure Wainwright is partly to blame.
To be fair, when he walked the Way it rained almost every day. "I came to pray not for fine days, which seemed too much to ask,” he writes, “but for gentle and not-too-wetting rain.”
“If I had not had this book to write,” he continues, “I doubt whether I would ever have left Lakeland to go wallowing in mud on the Pennines.”
It cannot have helped that he also nearly died on the peat bogs of Black Hill.
If you stick to the Way that would be impossible now. Not just because they’ve paved over paradise, but because the moors have been bought back to life.
Compare Wanwirght’s line drawings with what’s actually on the ground and you start wondering whether you’re doing the same walk.
The answer is that you are, but in the 45 years since Wainwright walked these heights a bog and heathland regeneration programme on a vast scale has been undertaken. Not just a few saplings planted here and there, but the biggest bog restoration in European history. Among bog lovers (they exist) these barren heights are the envy of the world.
The Pennines lost their trees to stone age settlers. This was the era of the wildwood – where it was said a squirrel could travel in treetops from the Severn to the Wash. When the settlers moved down into the valleys the trashed vegetation left behind rotted down in the marshy uplands, creating – over generations – a rich blanket bog.
Then came the industrial revolution, when the growing conurbations either side of the Pennines – Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds – began pumping toxic smoke from the factories.
Acid rain fell on the uplands, poisoning the peat and killing off the vegetation – the heather, bilberry, cotton grass and cloudberry – that had colonised it. The delicate peat was exposed to the elements and was washed away.
By the time Wainwright came to walk the Pennine Way in its early days the terrain he crossed was a dying mess of hags, pools and dark furrowed wastes.
The landscape hasn’t reverted overnight.
It’s taken decades of commitment – and cash (much of it from the EU) – to begin restoring this internationally rare ecosystem and increasingly important carbon sink.
All visitors today see are the results of those efforts: of the millions of tons of lime that have been dropped into the bogs to stabilise the soil pH; the thousands of heather plugs and cotton plants that have been carefully nurtured; of the work with local farmers to reduce grazing so that the tiny plants have a chance of surviving the winds and rains and snow.
But it’s working. Regeneration on a mountainous scale. I wouldn't say the results are beautiful as such. But, coupled with the endless limestone flagging, they make for easy walking. And now it’s not just grouse you see. It’s golden plovers. dunlins, pipits, merlins – on misty evenings maybe even a short-eared owl.
But the biggest surprise of the Pennine Way has been how social it is.
The heights may be lonely, but the walking isn’t.
Instead, a steady stream of day ramblers and long distance walkers pitting their wits against the Way – and all up for a chat. For this trail-worn LeJoger that company has been welcome.
Today I had breakfast with Ash. He’s ex-forces and ex-Met CID. He retired on Friday of last week. On Monday he set off from Edale to walk the Pennine Way – a dream he’s had since the age of 19. “I just needed the time to do it,” he says.
Then as I walked into Hebden Bridge, I bumped into Barrie – who I first met at the Old House on night one. He’s also retired, a keen biker and walker who wanted a a long-distance adventure over hills he knew just a little. We grab tea together, then bump into each other again later in the pub.
That’s the thing about the Pennine Way. At any one time there’s a motley crew of ramblers doing the whole thing. If you’re walking at a similar pace you keep meeting up and crossing over, finding each other in the same kitchens at the same accommodation or having lunch at the side of some distant reservoir where you swap notes about the trail and the B&Bs and other characters you’ve met while out.
And there are plenty of those.
Today a guy with a Dubliners-style beard carrying sleeping mat and a tent. He’d walked from his home down in the valley for two days to catch a music session near Hebden Bridge. He’d slept in the church doorway and was now heading home with memories of music and what sounded like a night I would have loved.
And then – vying for strangest encounter of the walk with Day 11's 'Seaside' Steve – a chap patiently guiding a remote controlled car up the rocky paths towards Blackstone Edge, a tiny little plastic man safely strapped into the car’s padded seat.
A steep descent into the wooded valley of Hebden Bridge and you feel like you’re walking back into civilisation after a long time in the wilds.
Narrowboats chug along the canal towpath that passes tight terraced alleys colourful with washing. In the centre kids are playing in the river, tourists and locals are sipping beer in the narrow stone streets and there’s a dizzying offering of organic tea shops, clog makers and boutiques offering every kind of alternative therapy.
It’s a buzzing town with a Glasto feel that has all kinds of unusual claims to fame: it is the fourth quirkiest place in the world to live and the lesbian capital of Britain. It is an important town in the growth of the co-operative movement, and – most crucially – it's the childhood home of Ed Sheeran.
I check into Mama Weirdigan's Vegetarian Eco-Hostel – true to the town’s form, a conversion of an old Baptist Church – which feels like it’s straight out of Kathmandu, with its shared veggie kitchen (no meat allowed but plenty of Muesli around), bunk rooms with showers in cupboards and even a little desk for hippies to work on their Mac laptops.
I love it.
Yet another surprise on this walk of surprises.