The Pennine Way. Black Hill to Heptonstall
Day 3. 23 miles
I slept so well that I was wide awake at 4:00 today. I unzipped the tent and instead of the chilly mist that greeted me yesterday, there was a calm and warm dawn with orange sky at the top of Black Hill in the near distance. It wasn’t by complete chance that I’d pitched my tent facing east. I stayed in my sleeping bag for a while and boiled up a cup of tea with more water left over for my second pot of porridge, and enjoyed both whilst watching the sun rise. Then I dropped the tent and was back on the trail by 5:45. In addition to this pleasant start to the day, there was another reason or two that put an extra spring in my step, namely a pub lunch at the White House and all being well, a camp at Mays Shop in the Calder Valley. I didn’t want to get too ahead of myself, though. Today is a tough day with a whopping 23 miles to be undertaken. Nevertheless, the early start meant I could bash some miles out before the hot sun made an appearance, and the fresh legs ensured that the climb up Black Hill wasn’t hard work at all. The name of the said hill doesn’t do justice to how unrecognisable it is compared to years gone by. Not so black these days, the hill in fact is now green and with a garden of flowers. Flagstones lead up a fair chunk of the way before a rocky track leads to the trig point with, on this clear morning, views for miles to West Yorkshire and beyond. Aside from a solitary fell runner in front of me, I once again had the trail completely to myself and I bounded along without a care in the world. Thankfully also, my newish North Face Hedgehog GTX boots were like carpet slippers; a year ago when I walked this way, I’d hastily bought a new pair of boots that on the descent from Black Hill to the Isle of Skye Road in particular were pinching my feet something chronic and making the walk down the steps increasingly uncomfortable. Not so much of that today, I was at the main road in little to no time though it was with some disappointment, not entirely unexpected admittedly, that the snack van sometimes found at this juncture was nowhere to be seen, and in its place and coming towards me were two dozen teenagers seemingly on a school trip. The surly buggers barely acknowledged my existence, and it was with some relief that I left the roads and entered reservoir country in silence.
Until Ickcornshore is reached, a good 25 miles away, the Pennine Way heads past numerous reservoirs, the first one here being that of Wenssenden Head, where a solitary wild camper was the only sign of human life until I reached Marsden. The landscape that this part of the trail heads through may be man-made, but the calm water and rolling hills are always a pleasure to stroll through and it’s easy walking initally on lovely flat ground. Naturally, it’s from one extreme to the other as beyond Wenssenden Reservoir the path drops sharply down to and over Wenssenden Brook, before an equally almost vertical climb up the other side leaves you panting. It’s a good job there are a few fords up there, as it proved to be a good excuse to take the first break of the day and filter some water. The walk continues on uncomfortable rocky ground that leads eventually between two more reservoirs on a narrow footpath sandwiched between the waters of Swellands and Black Moss. The latter, in 1810, I read subsequently upon finishing the walk, broke its banks killing a family of five and a local mill worker that led to the subsequent waters of Swellands being built. Beyond, the trail nears the Marsden Road where at its eastern end lies the lovely Carriage House pub and rooms where I have previously stayed when up this way, and mercifully this time I didn’t have to walk down the grassy and litter-strewn verge of the noisy and awful main road to reach it.
The walking until beyond Blackstone Edge was under threatening grey skies that somehow didn’t break, and added some gloominess to the landscape that beyond the Marsden Road that up to and past the M62, isn’t – for me – the most picturesque of sceneries. The track is rocky and heavily eroded and uncomfortable to walk on, it always seems to be overcast and cold up there (admittedly I’ve only been through that landscape on three occasions), and the nadir was in between the A672 and the motorway which is seemingly a cross between a lorry park and a dumping ground where lies all kinds of rubbish, petrol cans and the rusty remains of a burned out car that was there when we first walked this stage in 2017. It was a relief to get over the noisy M62 and slowly climb up to Blackstone Edge. The path is a bit of a climb but once at the top, there are fine views out west and a wild landscape with stones and rocks and boulders that are scattered all over the ground. An old surface of a different kind follows half a mile later when a cobbled and grassy Roman road is followed briefly east, before the trail spins back north again and eventually to some civilisation and most importantly, a pub. It had taken just shy of six hours to reach the White House from Black Hill and it was only noon and opening time upon arrival, but already the place was busy with mostly retirees, with the odd walker scattered about, too. My first proper meal in days was a piping hot and very tasty lasagne and chips, though the accumulation of the early mornings and thirty odd miles walked already meant I was almost falling asleep at the table, and the two hours or so spent there were mostly with my eyes open (my brain most likely somewhere else), and I eventually had to pull myself away as there was still a long way to go to Calderdale, though at least by early afternoon the overcast and gloomy skies had been replaced by some lovely sunshine to warm my back on the way to Stoodley Pike.
Not only was it sunny, but for a few miles the walking was as flat as it gets on the Pennine Way. The path headed up and along Cows Head Drain and numerous reservoirs before the flagstones lead the way through the long golden grass of Coldwell Hill and en-route to Stoodley Pike. In clear weather, the first sight of Stoodley can be seen on the approach to the M62, and even when it comes more into view miles later, it still seems to take an age to reach it. Once there, there are lovely views back over Todmorden though as usual, it was blowing like the clappers up there but this wasn’t entirely unwelcome as by now it was baking hot. I took my inaugural trip up the winding dark steps in the tower to see the same lovely views from a slightly elevated position, before back on ground level I lay on the grass outside and enjoyed the warm breeze washing over face and cooling down in the midsummer sun. The wind machine though is very quickly turned off shortly after the descent away from Stoodley, and it’s quickly into dales scenery for a mile through farms and fields, as the trail approaches the Calder Valley. At this point there is the option to follow the Pennine Bridleway into lovely Hebden Bridge. For me though I had no need to head into town and so as quickly as the path instead descends to the A646 in Mytholm, it quickly rises again with the little hilly maze of narrow lanes that wasn’t hard work at all at this point on Pennine #1, but after twenty miles and in baking hot afternoon sunshine - and with my water reserves depleted to next to nothing - this part of the walk was somewhat exhausting. My walking pole became much more of a crutch than it had been before as I lumbered up the narrow and cobbled lanes, and it was with poetic timing that after turning yet again into a sweaty mess, I heard the beautiful sound of running water. Coming from a cottage at the top end of an another narrow walk way, the water headed underground before gushing out overland and down the rocks and stones below. Separated from the path by a couple of thin iron bars, I tried unsuccessfully to reach over with my filter, but I didn’t have the arm length to be able to collect the water. I was damned if I wasn’t getting any - absolute thirst had taken over by now - and so I climbed over the bars, leaving just my left leg wrapped around the barrier and just about managed to collect over half a litre, which I then lovingly filtered into my bottle. My word it tasted good, more so having had to work for it like I had done. I made a video at this juncture and watching it back, such was the sweaty state of me that it looked like my whole body had gone in the water, never mind just my bottle. With the worry now evaporated of my arriving at Mays gasping for a drink, the rest of the late afternoon was tiring, but lovely and scenic as the route steadily headed up through fields up to Scammerton and Badger Fields Farms then through the narrowest of corridors, the way sandwiched between drystone walls and knee deep in overgrown ferns and shrubs. My pole was very handy here, with it testing the ground for hidden steps and potholes, of which there were several.
It was bright sunshine and blue skies all the way to the end as I headed through Colden. I enjoyed a brief conversation with a retired American couple I bumped into whilst crossing the lush green fields that took up the majority of the last couple of miles before reaching Highgate Farm. I’d barely said hello to them before I was presented with a business card advertising a hiking trail in Oregon. “Do you like hiking? Ron, I learnt of his name, asked upon approaching me. “I have a trail in the States if you’re interested? What’s your name?” Upon my announcing my christian name he stared at me expectantly for a few seconds, or what seemed a lifetime. “James…who?”. I mumbled my surname, to which as quick as a flash he thrust his hand in mine and cheerily announced “Ron…Ron Strickland!” Oh, well, nice to meet you Ron Strickland. I headed off just as Ron Strickland pulled his card out of his pocket (I admired how readily available it was). Walking in the States is certainly an ambition, but the scale of some of the trails there I cannot get my head around – the 253 mile Pennine Way is merely a walk to the shops compared to some of Americas most famous hikes.
In any case, back to the here and now and I felt like a pilgrim reaching the promised land when I saw the sign for Mays Shop at Highgate Farm, being as it was 300 yards away through a final field and then a short hop down Cinder Lane. Concerning thoughts filled my mind that they may be closed or the field was already full of campers but fear not, on arrival the young girl in the shop informed me that camping is available and is also free of charge for Pennine Wayers. I was shown to the small and empty field above the shop where I pitched camp and got myself settled for the night. The shop, also nicknamed Aladdin’s Cave for selling pretty much everything a walker needs, and more, is legendary among Pennine Wayers. I bumped into the lovely May upon heading in there to buy some supplies where I treated myself to a pint of tea (yes, a pint), a delicious hot steak pie and a freshly made sausage roll, plus some snacks. I was like a kid in a candy store. Having not seen a shop for 48 hours, it was fill your boots time. The sunny evening was spent sitting on the grass and soaking in the southerly view, with the omnipresent Stoodley Pike in the far distance overlooking the valleys and dales beneath.