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 café 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.

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