Friday, 5 April 2013

Elslack, near Skipton to Malham

Rosemary and Alan at the Double Arch bridge over
the Leeds to Liverpool Canal
Making our way past The Tempest again, we once more found our planned route blocked with snow. At least there was a ready alternative in the form of a footpath that ran along a stream to the Northwest. It was a better alternative, actually, as we had less road walking along the busy A59 before reaching the Leeds and Liverpool Canal – and rejoining the Pennine Way proper – just before East Marton. There we found the strangely – but aptly – named Double Arch bridge, which is actually two arches on top of one another rather than side by side. It was then just a quarter of a mile along the canal before striking out across country.

This was all sheep country: no other stock, and little arable farming. There were lambs everywhere, mostly still just days old. And it was still very cold, so it was not entirely surprising that Rosemary found a couple of dead lambs when she investigated some of those lying at alone at the edge of fields.

Me in Gargrave. What's done, and what's still to do (Pennine Way)
At Gargrave we stopped for a coffee at the Dalesman restaurant on the main road. This was a  welcome change from previous days, when there had been no opportunity for refreshments en route.

After Gargrave it was more cross-country farmland walking, and more sheep. This time we actually encountered a group of four walkers coming the other way – the first time we had encountered anyone on the Pennine Way apart from local dog-walkers. The route cut across country direct to the upper part of the River Aire, which we rejoined some three miles out of Gargrave.

Not quite ready for mint sauce
There it was time for a pleasant streamside lunch, observed by curious lambs from both sides of the river.

The remainder of the walk was along the banks of the Aire – here a beautiful, clear, upland stream. There were nervous Mallard, and some that were obviously well-used to people, a pair of Goosander, both Grey and Pied Wagtails, and several Dippers. There were also a couple of recently fallen dead oak trees. They had shattered where they fell, presumably loosened by the wet conditions earlier in the year and then been toppled by recent winds. No-one had yet gone out to gather what looked like excellent quality firewood.

At Hanlith we were offered the option of continuing to Malham by the Pennine Way, but rather perversely it’s routed up over a stretch called Windy Pike, which didn’t appeal, so we took the easy waterside option on the West side of the river all the way into Malham itself. This passes an isolated old mill house (where someone was practising on drums!) and the long millstream above it before crossing open ground into the village itself.

The headwaters of the River Aire below Malham

There we finished what had been a relatively easy day – particularly in comparison with the previous two days. It was through much more domestic country, with high ground only in the distance, and much of it very attractive by the River Aire. The ingredient that would have made it so much better – sunshine – was, however, in very short supply.

Susan arrived soon after us, and we had a very pleasant weekend exploring Malham, Hebden Bridge (after retrieving Alan and Rosemary’s car), and Hawes, where I left my car at the far end of my planned walk for the following Monday and Tuesday.

But this was not to be. I had been keeping a cold (just) at bay for most of the week, but on Sunday it really broke out in spades, so I was forced to abandon any hope of continuing the walk after the weekend. Even if the weather had been better than the forecast continued cold spell it would not have been sensible to continue then.

So on Monday Alan and Rosemary took us back to Hawes, where I recovered our car, and drove back down to London having accomplished only half of what I had hoped to achieve.

Particular conclusions?
  • Early April is really too early to be doing this high stuff, especially in a year like 2013 with a really cold March and snow only days earlier. We got away with it, but it was pretty marginal.
  • I need better boots, particularly for wintry conditions and moorland. Lightweight boots don’t cut the mustard.
  • Try to build a little more flexibility into the programme to cater for bad weather or over-taxing days (though this is difficult on the Pennine Way where the stages are pretty well defined and options are limited.)

I will now be revising the rest of the programme to get back on track – though it’s inevitable now that I won’t finish the whole thing until 2014.

Cloudy, with occasional sunny spells. A cold Northerly wind in exposed areas. 2 to 8C.  20.42km; 237m ascent, 210m descents. Mostly farmland.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Ponden to Elslack, near Skipton

Brenda, the owner of our B&B, had been unwell, so her friend Heather, visiting from Ibiza, looked after us. Heather’s son Chris had an even worse cough than mine, and had kept us awake for much of the night. So we were glad to be on our way.

The first part of the day’s trip was to the head of the Ponden Reservoir, across the stream, and then steeply up the opposite side of the valley. As for much of the day I found Alan and Rosemary getting steadily ahead of me as we climbed. It was a combination of my cough, which threatened to break out if I over-exerted myself, and their better levels of fitness. And perhaps I had allowed myself to put on a little too much weight over recent weeks: I am half a stone heavier than when walking last year.

The snow-covred Pennine Way above Crag Top
The climb ended in a beechwood which circles Crag Bottom before you reach a track up past an old quarry at the beginning of a long steady climb across moorland. For the first few metres the snow had been compressed by some kind of tracked vehicle and it was relatively easy going, but then it became harder. The track was on the right hand side of a long, straight stone wall, and the snow had drifted against it to a depth of three feet or more. Most of the time we had to walk on the rough ground further away from the wall, but occasionally it was necessary to tramp through the snow itself. Most of the time it was sufficiently well packed to support one’s weight, but occasionally one would break through the surface layer up to the thighs. As I was the heaviest, this happened more with me than with Alan or Rosemary.

After Cat Stone Hill. At least it's downhill now.
After a long haul uphill we crossed a damp plateau called, rather appropriately, The Sea, before reaching a simple shelter at the high point of the crossing, Cat Stone Hill, at about 440m of altitude. After a refreshment break it was off down the other side. Initially there were flagstones, but these soon ran out, and we then had a very difficult descent across heather and sometimes quite deep snow before leaving the grouse moor. After a ruined house there was a series of half a dozen or so small wooden huts which presumably have something to do with the local shooting, but any track between them was completely obliterated by the snow. Had we known in advance just how difficult this stretch would be we might well have reconsidered the whole day’s walk.

After leaving the moorland proper there was a cross-country stretch just beneath the boundary wall, and then an opportunity for a further refreshment break
A Pennine waterfall in April 2013
where the track finally turned again towards the North. This was over a bridge and waterfall, which was mainly icicles even if the temperature was now above freezing. Then it was downhill – again snow-covered for much of the way - to the villages of Middleton and Cowling, which lie along the A6068 cross-Pennine road.

The Pennine Way then goes cross-country to Lothersdale, but with snow still very much in evidence we elected to do as much as possible by road. But even this proved challenging: after successfully following a well-ploughed road for a couple of miles we were confronted by drifting which completely blocked our progress. Fortunately the field to one side was free, so we were able to get to our next waypoint without too much difficulty. And the roads thereafter were clear up to the point where we rejoined the Pennine Way for a final cross-country stretch to Lothersdale. We almost lost our way on a steep corner of the field as we climbed down to the next valley, but eventually made out the correct waymarkers and corrected our course.

The final stretch across the moors
By the time we reached Lothersdale any thought of following the Pennine Way cross country for the remainder of our day’s walk was out of the window. Cross country walking had been very challenging all day, and there were roads that involved little more distance and little threat of heavy traffic. So it was up through the upper part of Lothersdale village, along Winter Gap Lane, and then Mitton Lane. I think Mitton Lane is indelibly impressed on all our minds: a steep, steady climb at the end of a long day. After that it was straightforward road walking – on the level or downhill – all the way to our B&B at Elslack.

We were welcomed with tea and cake, and wonderful, large baths for a good soaking. And though the Grange doesn’t do evening meals it was only a ten minute stroll to the local pub – The Tempest – which provided an excellent meal. I think we all felt that it had been quite a tough day, and perhaps rather too long, but the Tempest did at least cheer us up at the end.

Fine early, getting progressively more cloudy, though fine again late. Strong Northeast wind. 0 to 7C.  Lots of snow drifts. 22.77km; 691m ascent, 803m descents. Farmland in Worth valley, then very difficult going across moorland with plenty of snow, particularly on descent from peak at Catstone Hill. Then rolling farmland, with a final stretch of road walking across Thornton Moor down into Elslack.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Hebden Bridge to Ponden

Rosemary and Alan Towers at Badger Field Farm -
ready for a day on the Pennine Way
We were off at a few minutes before 10:00 – Rosemary, Alan and myself for rhe Pennine Way, and Mike by taxi to Hebden Bridge itself to catch a train back to Alderley Edge.

The path was just across the field from the farm, which was right at the crest of the ridge that separates the Calder valley from the Colden Water immediately to the North. So it was across a field where the lambs were sheltering from the brisk Northerly wind on the lee sides of their mothers, and straight to the North. Bright sunshine, and wonderful views – but downhill to a valley, with the promise of a climb up the far side.

This is attractive country. The crossing of Colden Water was a delightful little grassy area, a wooden bridge, with a rocky climb up the other side through trees. Too early for any sign of leaves this year, of course, but one could imagine it being a really lovely picnic spot when Spring does arrive.

The view back to Stoodley Pike, nearly ten miles away
The long climb up the other side saw us pass snowdrifts where local farmers were still digging out the lanes, a couple of terraces of three-storey houses that seem completely out of place in the midst of fields, and then fields with sheep which chased after me, seeming to think I had something to offer them. Altogether crossing the valley involved losing the best part of 200 metres in altitude before climbing back up to a slightly higher level.

At the top the countryside changes completely from nice tidy fields to open moorland. The next two miles or so were fairly level, but snowy and wet. In places there were flagstones, but there were also piles of stones on pallets yet to be put in place. And at one point I went straight through the surface layer of apparently solid ground and managed to get both boots wet, so that I spent the rest of the day with squelchy feet. Rosemary and Alan had better boots – and perhaps also better luck – and stayed dry.

Crossing the streams on teh Pennine Way
At the end of the moorland stretch the Pennine Way joins the Pennine Bridleway for a quarter mile or so, before the two part company again for the Pennine Way to cross a couple of streams where they join. Then there’s a stretch where you join a road briefly before taking a track described as part of the Calder/Aire Link across to the next valley. This, though, is not the watershed, as the streams in both valleys flow South to the Calder.

It was fine and bright, if windy. The fields were alive with birds who had moved in to breed – lapwings, curlews, oystercatchers, common gulls. I chatted to a birdwatcher, who said that he hadn’t yet seen any long-distance migrants such as wheatears or ring ouzels. Just too cold this year, I suppose – though I did catch a  glimpse of what might have been a ring ouzel an hour later. That was after we’d walked past most of the second of the Walshaw Dean reservoirs and struck off across the moorland to the Northeast. This was grouse country, and we saw a number of red grouse as we climbed. They are pretty wary, and don’t allow you to get too close, though occasionally a cock bird stands up on a distant clump of heather to advertise his presence to the ladies.

Bronte Country
Over the top of the moorland, after a 100m climb, we eventually reached Top Withers. This is a ruined farmhouse, frequently cited as the model for Wuthering Heights. It had been advertised first from the top of our first climb, at a distance of 6 ¼ miles. It’s an attractive spot, and signifies the beginning of a relatively easay descent into the valley of the River Worth.

The next couple of miles were pretty easy, but at the point where the Pennine Way turns sharp left all we could see was huge drifts of snow. So instead of following the prescribed route we took the road down almost to Stanbury, and then down towards the bottom of the Ponden reservoir. The consolation was that we were able to stop for a drink at the strangely-named Old Silent Inn before finally rejoining the Pennine Way and reaching our B&B at Ponden House.

The view from Top Withers: just five miles to go!
A fine, bright, cold day, still with a strong East wind. 0 to 8C. Plenty if residual snow in hollows. 19.20km; 494m ascent, 569m descents. Initially attractive farmland, but then largely open moorland. Some paved sections later on.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Sandedge to Hebden Bridge

The beginning of the new year’s walking was to be with our long-established friends, Rosemary and Alan Towers, who are great walkers, preceded by a day with Rosemary’s elder brother, Mike Tobias. Mike lives in Alderley Edge, just South of Manchester, and had offered to put me up before the first day’s walking. He’s a retired anaesthetist, who has worked for most of his life in and around Manchester, but who we had met previously in Tortola, BVI, where he was working on an interim basis after finishing up with the NHS. Like his sister, he’s a great walker, and often leads a local group.

With March having been the coldest for more than fifty years it had seemed unlikely that I would be able to start on schedule. After all, it had snowed the previous weekend, and there had been little opportunity for any thaw. And the next few stages on the Pennine Way were high stretches, often above 500 metres in altitude.

So I had almost decided to defer the whole plan by the time that Mike Tobias and I talked over the weekend. He had scouted a walk further South – in Staffordshire – and found himself wading through snow up to his thighs. But it might be better in the South Pennines.

So I decided after all to give it a try, and travelled up on Monday to meet Mike and his girlfriend Helen in a cafĂ© in Malham, next door to the B&B where I was due to spend the following weekend. After a snack in Malham we left my car and drove back to Hebden Bridge, where I left my bag at the B&B at which we would all be staying the following night. Then it was back to Alderley Edge via Cragg Vale (“the longest continuous road ascent in Britain”) and the A58 where it crossed the Pennine Way at Blackstone Edge. It didn’t seem too bad on the tops, and the weather forecast for the following day was promising: cold, but dry and bright.

I spent a rather restless night with Mike and Helen at his home in Alderley Edge. His clock chimes at fifteen minute intervals: if I missed any, I’m not sure which they were. So it was up at 6:00, and off in Helen’s car to Sandedge, where I had finished in 2012, at 7:15.

The start - not really Spring!
There was sporadic sunshine, but as we approached the Pennines the clouds closed in. At the car park we were surrounded by mist, whipped on a strong wind down towards the valleys beneath. But there did seem to be some sunshine around, and we were promised more, so we decided to make a start. It was on with the studs (difficult to attach to walking boots, and Mike initially got his on the wrong way round) and off up the Pennine Way. Fortunately we were already at more than 400m in altitude, so there wasn’t much climbing to get to the first peak. And by that time the cloud had blown through, and while there were still some scudding low patches it remained pretty clear for the rest of the day, with excellent views to the West over Manchester and beyond.

The going underfoot was icy, and we were glad of the studs. The path is usually fairly easy to follow, not because of waymarks but simply because it is heavily trafficked and well worn. But we still managed to lose our way rather rapidly. At one point there was a fine stainless steel plaque stating that we were on the Pennine Way, yet a couple of hundred metres later the next referred to the Oldham Way. Reference to the map suggested that the Pennine Way and the Oldham Way were one and the same for a mile or so, but we should have realised that the absence of any mention of the Pennine Way, and the lack of an acorn, were critical. So we persisted in our error for too long. The moral is that one really should double check in such circumstances, and actually get out a compass and take accurate bearings, if there is any doubt.

Getting back on course after losing our way - A640, with the
Pennine Way on teh top of the hill
Eventually we realised the error of our ways, saw the A640 (Huddersfield Road) down below, and set off cross-country to correct our mistake. This proved to be heavy going through heather and snow, and then meant a long (uphill, of course!) tramp up the road to get back to the Pennine Way. It must have cost a couple of kilometres and the best part of an hour.

After that it was a long cross-country tramp across the bare gritstone trail, first past White Hill at 466m, then across the M62 on a high footbridge with traffic thundering beneath, and then Robin Hood’s bed at 472m. There we passed a group of about 30 walkers coming up the other way from Lydgate. At least we weren’t the only people walking the high hills that day! A final stretch across Blackstone Edge Moor took us to the pub on the A68 where we had inspected the route the day before. It was more than an hour later than we’d have liked, so it was just a pint, a quick drink for Mike, and then back on the trail.

The next part was straightforward, on level tracks that border three reservoirs, where there were actually dog walkers sharing the heights. After the last of the reservoirs you can see the Stoodley Pike Monument in the distance. It seems an endless tramp to get to it – and the last bit involves a steep descent and climb to cross Withens Gate.

Stoodley Pike monument
When we reached the monument we realised just how huge it is. The original inscriptions are all faded, although there are Manchester City graffiti scrawled all over it. Subsequent research revealed that it’s 121 feet high, and replaced an earlier obelisk which was financed by public subscription, and celebrated the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The original memorial was destroyed by lightning and replaced in 1859.

There we were astonished to meet a young Chinese (or Japanese?) man who had climbed up from Hebden Bridge to the 402m level of the monument. It was now 4:15, he was wearing only trainers, light clothing including (much to Mike’s horror, as a City supporter) a Manchester United jerkin, and asked the way to Todmorton. He didn’t appear to have any map.  (Todmorton was actually four miles away down below in the valley, but would involve a very steep descent on a North-facing slope which could well be icy in places.) We counselled him to go back the way he had come, but we didn’t see him again, do he must have decided to go on. Or is there some missing Eastern gentleman frozen in the Pennines?

After that it was downhill all the way, often snowy at higher levels, and now muddy where there had been some thawing in the warmer conditions of the afternoon. There was one point where we could see that the snow was really deep, so we elected to take the other two sides of a square to reach the path beneath. But while we passed a parked Landrover, it was a false portent: we still had to traverse part of the lane where the snow was really deep, and we had to clamber across it for fifty yards or so before reaching the point where a farmer was digging it out of the roadway.

Crossing the Canal - physically the low point of the day
Then it was down through woodland to cross the canal, river, road and railway at Callis Bridge, a couple of miles West of Hebden Bridge. And – the (not) ideal way to finish the day – a long, steep, uphill climb to reach our B&B at Badger Field Farm. This was described by Miriam, our host, as the steepest short climb on the entire Pennine Way. I’m not sure precisely how this is defined, but at 230m in a kilometre and a half it was certainly arduous.

Rosemary and Alan Towers were waiting for us at the road to the farm, and we were hardly able to shed our boots and outer layers before it was time for dinner. Mike and I were both pretty exhausted, but at least we had completed what had always threatened to be a difficult day’s journey.

The forecast promised a fine, cold day with a strong East wind. This was not evident initially, when it was frozen and mist-shrouded, but duly became reality after an hour or so. -2 to 6C. Icy underfoot, with plenty if residual snow in hollows. 29.80km; 677m ascent, 775m descents. Open country – lots of rocky, head-down walking, but better going on paths for much of the second half.