A few weeks ago I was up north with a few days to spare, the end of summer and beginning of autumn made for a fine opportunity to head somewhere new, I made for the Forest of Bowland to walk out to remote spot for a wild camp. I made a promise to myself at the beginning of the year to walk and sleep out in as many as new places as possible, making an effort to avoid anywhere I’ve been before. An OS map of the overlooked Lancashire uplands has been gathering dust on the shelf for years, unfolded occasionally to stare at and ponder some long sprawling routes over the vast spread of high peat moorland and gritstone hills but, for some reason or other, it never happened. Perhaps Bowland sees a lower footfall because of its better known northern neighbours of Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales. It has AONB status but isn’t a national park and despite covering a huge area it doesn’t seem to be particularly well recognised and remains a well kept secret (so don’t tell anybody about how good it is). Leaving the narrow stretch of tarmac where road bikes outnumbered cars by a healthy ratio I took a route following Tarnbrook Wyre and over to Ward’s Stone where two trig points sat a kilometre apart. A landrover track snaked up and over the moorland but it was far more satisfying to get wet feet and find an alternative way to the plateau through the chest high grass, pink heather and bracken.
The light shifted around constantly throughout the day, thick grey clouds passed overhead with occasional bursts of bright sunshine. From the top of Ward’s Stone the sea around Morecambe Bay shone bright in the sunlight, further inland to the north I could see the fuzzy profile of Pen Y Ghent through the haze. There wasn’t a single soul out today, I walked for the entire day and didn’t pass another person, aside from the occasional trap laid out by gamekeepers and the odd boot print in some on the muddier ground there was no sign that anyone ever comes up here. A long dry stone wall guided the way east from Ward’s Stone to the lonely summit of Wolfhole Crag, where the ground elevates slightly and a cluster of large gritstone surround a trig point. The views from this point are supposed to be well worth the long walk in but the sunshine had long given way to cloud and hazy light leaving only distant shapes of other hills and a strip of silver light where the sun had found its way to the sea. As the sun started to drop I pitched up on a patch of grass, rare in that it was both flat and dry. The land was still relatively featureless, gently sloping south about a mile south of Wolfhole Crag, a little further south the moors start to split and spill into deep valleys. There was plenty of light left and I cooked outdoors a very satisfying meal of lentil dahl, rice and fresh naan on the nearby rocks whilst the sun set. With a little light left in the sky, I left the tent with my camera and walked a few hundred metres to slightly higher ground to watch the sun drop down for the night.
I walked for a short distance to a small rocky outcrop, no more than a few hundred metres from the tent and stayed to take photos and watch the sun disappear. Thick mist had started to roll in and over the surrounding hills, within a few minutes most of the colours of the sunset and been engulfed causing the light to drop sharply prompting a retreat to the tent for the night. Which would have been great but it suddenly became apparent that I wasn’t quite sure where the tent was. I walked back in what ‘felt’ like the right direction, the mist had grown thicker and there was no tent, looking back to where I had come from was useless, as visibility had reduced to about five metres and it felt like it was getting darker and colder by the second, I was wearing a base layer and a fleece, all my warm clothes were back at the tent leaving me with no map, no compass and no torch on a featureless plateau, not a great situation to find myself in. The options were pretty limited, use what little light there was to try and backtrack to the rocks and find the tent or follow the very gentle incline to lower ground where I knew there would be water to follow down to the valley where there was shooting cabin a few hours walk away. Thankfully, the former option worked out, before darkness properly settled in I returned to the rocks and set back out and found the tent straight away, it was literally no more than a minutes walk from the rocks. The relief of finding the tent was slightly undermined by walking straight to it over wetter ground and plunging waist deep into a freezing peat bog. Shivering and cursing myself I changed into dry clothes in the tent and put water on the stove to make a much needed hot drink. The whole experience was a chilling reminder of how quickly and easily things can go wrong even in the most innocuous of settings and the need to always have some consideration of the risks off travelling alone in a remote place. Wrapped up warm and dry with a hot cup of tea, I looked out from the comfort of the small tent, the mist and had now swallowed up all but a few metres of visibility and the air was cold and damp, without torchlight I couldn’t see a thing. I remembered reading about the death of Bill Smith, an experienced and accomplished fell runner who had lost his life nearby after falling into a peat bog around Saddle Fell. The absence of more explicit risks, sheer drops and narrow rocky ridges, distract from the more insidious dangers of remote moorland, soft grassy tops hide deathtrap bogs and miles of featureless terrain in bad visibility can cause endless loss of bearings.
Lesson learnt and panic over, I slept soundly through the night and woke at dawn to a fine misty sunrise and a renewed appreciation of knowing exactly where I was. A swarm of bloodthirsty midges were waiting in ambush when I unzipped the door to a still warm morning. Rather than getting eaten alive I covered everything and packed up to give them the slip and headed down to a stream for a much needed coffee and breakfast before a further cloud of midges descended to make a breakfast out of me. The distant hills over the Trough of Bowland were draped with white creeping mist for the walk back out. A pathless route over boggy moorland left me with wet feet and an obsessive level of map checking just in case the mist decided to creep over again.