A 20kg pack on my back, an early farewell to the family and I was on my way not to be seen for another four days. The plan was to get the first stage of the Pennine Way under my belt and walk from Edale to Hebden Bridge, sleeping out upon the hills along the way. Walking towards Nottingham train station through crowds who were probably on their way to another working week added to the sense of escapism, it always feels good to leave a busy city behind and head off into the wilderness. Travelling by train also made for a nice change from driving and having to bother leaving the car somewhere and collect it. I joined a commuter packed platform in Nottingham changing to a dinky old carriage that set out from Sheffield across Dark Peak.
I’d planned on a pre-walk feed at the National Trust owned cafe at the train station in Edale but it was closed, boo hiss to them. Yay on the other hand for Coopers Cafe just past the post office which was not only open but also very relaxed, friendly and not too pricey. One coffee and flapjack later I passed the official start of the Pennine Way, it was 11:15am on a Monday morning and I had a full belly, a heavy pack and not a care in the world.
Two friends had been up on Kinder just 48 hours ago in what sounded like utterly miserable conditions, but now I was blessed with mostly blue skies, warm sunshine and the odd gust of wind. Lucky me? Taking the track to Upper Booth there was evidence of the previous weekend’s wild weather in the excessively slippy muddy paths and streams running faster, browner and frothier than usual. Some snow still clung to the tops of the hills and once past Jacobs Ladder the landscape became a little more wintry.
Kinder was bleak as ever up top and there was a biting wind racing across the plateau. I find it so easy to get lost up there, paths suddenly disappear and reappear and leave you confused as to whether they are paths or dried up streams or whether you were even on a path in the first place. For such a seemingly benign, compact and relatively flat space it’s deceptive in how easy it can be to seriously lose your way up there. The Pennine Way however, sticks firmly to the Western Ridge leaving little chance of venturing off into the peaty labyrinth.
All the drinking water had been turned a peaty brown, if you pretend its iced tea it takes the edge off. Mmmmm
At around noon, Kinder Downfall came into view. Only a few weeks ago an article described how the waterfall had been frozen solid and had been scaled by a couple of climbers. It was now fully thawed and running strong.
Across the waterfall was a man with long white hair and beard who looked to be in his late sixties tucking into a hefty lunch of soup, bacon, eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes and a can of Carlsberg. He told me that he was planning on spending a few days out around Bleaklow but had no particular plans to get to anywhere specific and was content to just wander and set up camp when it suited him. We were heading in more or less the same direction and crossed paths a few more times before nightfall stopping for a chat each time.
Some impressive views of the snowy North side of Kinder came from lower down on Mill Hill and the marshy ground that lays beyond. The older man who I’d chatted with before could now be seen steaming ahead in the distance, I thought I would have left him miles behind, I can only assume he was on some kind of performance enhancing drugs.
Although repetitive, the stone slabs that marked the track helped avoid some descents into the numerous waist deep peaty bogs. Every now and again I’d see how deep a bog was by pushing my trekking pole into it, being neck deep in a peat bog with nobody around for miles wouldn’t be much fun.
After crossing the Snake Pass around 5pm the track headed up towards Bleaklow. I had a place in mind to spend the night and with a steadily dwindling light it was time to drop off the track and set up for the long night ahead. I camped slightly higher up than planned to catch an extra half hour of sunlight, a flattish patch of short grass just next to a spring suited me very well.
A decent meal of chilli and rice with tea and a few biccies warmed me up as the temperature dropped just below freezing. Snow hares and grouse darted across the moor, the ominous call of the grouse sounds like a person yelping ‘go back go back go back’. A fiery sunset added to a cosy winter evening.
I was glad to be awake a little before dawn as the sunrise was too good to be true, with a hot cup of tea to ward off the morning frost I watched the sun creep over the horizon and flood the moor with a warm orange glow. My tent was covered in a thin white layer of frost and all my drinking water had turned to ice (it was still brown though).
I must have taken over two dozen shots of the sunrise, maybe I’ll do a separate post with them all, it was a real beauty.
After some peaty water infused porridge and coffee, the night frost melted away and it was time to move on. I took a brief detour to Higher Shelf Stones and came across the wreckage of the 1948 plane crash. In spite of being up on Bleaklow more than a few times I’d never seen it before, it’s a surreal sight with the rusty innards of the plane laying motionless on a high moor for six decades.
I rejoined the Pennine Way just below Bleaklow Head where the track descends to Wildboar Clough. The conditions were once again like a fine summers day, it made sense to pitch my tent and get my sleeping bag out to dry off the damp of the night which took a matter of minutes. The descent to Torside took longer than expected. I met one lone walker who was on his way up who professed to dislike the area with a passion, what a strange way to spend a day? I can see the argument against choosing to walk on Bleaklow, there’s little in the way of summits or changes in scenery. Whilst Bleaklow is a hill, it’s rather flat and spread out and you don’t really get any feeling of achievement of getting to the top. I think this type of terrain does have it’s charms though, they have a rugged beauty which can be challenging to slog away on for hours but offer much in the way of solitude and wide open space for mile after mile.
There was a brief return to civilisation at Torside to cross the busy A628 before disappearing past Crowden. The mediterranean conditions provided the excuse to have regular stops by streams for a little lie down and take a couple of lunches.
The hills were pretty empty though I did stop and talk to a sound chap called Russ from Saddleworth who was out with his dog for the day, he said he was a self employed scrap dealer and the day just seemed to good to be spent working. We like Russ.
As the afternoon progressed, the sky clouded over and lent a more gloomy light for the approach to Black Hill. I nearly lost a boot to one hungry peat bog and regretted not putting on gaiters as the cold black water soaked through my socks.
A few hours passed without seeing anyone and Black Hill came and went. I think they missed a trick by not having a black Trig Point. It was now near 4:30pm and I had a good 90 minutes or so of remaining light before finding a new bed for the night. Keen to get to a relatively secluded spot I decided to push on through Saddleworth Moor and over the A635. The home of naff sitcom ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ Holmfirth was visible on the right and I was disappointed not to see any pensioners racing down the hillside in a tin bath.
The Pennine Way passes a large number of reservoirs from this point, which makes sense given how wet the area can be. As I passed Wessenden the dusky light was slowly dropping, I had aimed to find a spot in Blakey Clough just out of sight of what looked like a farm. At this point my luck with the weather turned. Whilst I managed to find an acceptable place to pitch I had ended up quite high on Black Moss Hill with no shelter and some very strong winds started to howl over the tops of the hills. The Terra Nova Laser Comp can be a flappy tent in the mildest of gusts unless pitched perfectly, on a tussocky hill in gale force winds it was really bowing. When one of the pegs got torn out of the ground by the wind I felt it made more sense to depitch and relocate to a more sheltered spot to bivvy out in. Which would have been fine, if it hadn’t started to lash it down…..for the next 15 hours.
Not many photos of this morning, I woke at 06:00 warm and wet in a bivvy bag. I’d slept pretty well considering the wild weather. The wind had really picked up after I’d moved and the rain was torrential all night. Bivvy bags have a tendency to create a lot of condensation, unfortunately I was pretty soaked by the morning. There was no obvious shelter to make a brew or have any breakfast so at 06:30am I packed up as quick as possible and with bleary eyes walked though the driving rain and low cloud past some reservoirs that had breakers on them. The conditions were grim and relentless, I remember thinking how great it would be to stumble across a bothy at that point, even a bus shelter would have done. I got down off the hills to the A62 and ate a wet piece of malt loaf and felt really really rubbish.
I bumped into one chap who was out walking his two dogs, it was nice to stand and chat with another human being after a challenging morning. Halfway through or conversation I realised I was still wearing earplugs that I’d used to try and lessen the sound of the wind and rain in the night. I managed to get a few shots as the cloud slightly lifted.
A car park was shown on the map just off the appropriately named Windy Hill and I decided to force myself to stop and try to knock together some form of breakfast. With permanently numb fingers and and not much motivation I hadn’t really eaten since setting off four hours ago and was getting famished. Though there was no need, like a gift from the gods appeared John’s mobile snack van. I couldn’t believe my luck and within minutes I had a massive bacon and sausage cob and a mug of coffee, my hands were so frozen I couldn’t undo my zip to pay. John was very sympathetic and threw in a piece of fruit cake on the house whilst he regaled me with epic tales of running a mobile snack van. Apparently he’s there every weekday from 4am and you couldn’t meet a nicer bloke.
Feeling many times better it was back to the track and over the busy M62 before scrambling up towards Blackstone Edge, whilst the wind remained chilly and wild the skies grew gradually brighter giving some dramatic views over Milnrow and Littleborough.
Once past The White House pub it was on to the final leg before Hebden Bridge, this involved mostly walking on tracks next to reservoirs which meant keeping a fast pace but to be honest it was a bit dull to trudge through. Once past Warland Reservoir the Stoodley Pike Monument came into view bringing with it some great wild open moors and views of Todmorden below.
A very blustery walk up to Stoodley Pike marked the beginning of the end, and it was literally all downhill from there. The area around Hebden Bridge is a criss crossing labyrinth of footpaths and bridleways and its plain to see why the area is so popular for mountain biking. This final day brought with it a firm realisation that I could invest in some better waterproofs, my waterproof trousers are now 7 years old and despite a lot of reproofing didn’t do much me good on the Pennines. This could also be the swansong of my 5 year old Brashers, which have taken me across the Highlands, the Isle of Rum, The Lakes, The Peaks and Snowdonia and have always kept my feet warm and dry, but they had proved very leaky and the provided a squelchy soundtrack to most of the day.
A woody track wound down to the bustling town of Hebden Bridge with its cute and quirky shops and cafes. Tired and hungry I got a bite to eat before catching a train over to Leeds to spend a night with family, a hot bath and a huge roast dinner. Whilst the conditions had been hard going on the last day I counted myself lucky to have had two days of brightness, the Pennines don’t have a reputation of being dry and mild at the best of times. I’m looking forward to venturing further north and picking up where I left off in a couple of months……with some better waterproofs.