The Pennine Way was England’s first official national trail, crossing three national parks along its 268 miles (430 km). Starting from Edale in the south, the Pennine Way climbs through the Peak District, continues through the south Pennines to the Yorkshire Dales, the north Pennines and then to the Northumberland national park, ending at Kirk Yethlom.
The Pennine Way has become one of the “must do” trails for any long distance walker or thru-hiker in the UK with its combination of wild and remote sections, picturesque villages and endless moors. As a must do trail I had no doubt I would want to walk it too, and I chose to hike it in sections through the autumn and winter of 2015-2016, walking over the weekend or on short holidays.
The Pennine Way Part 2 – Chasing Abigail From Hebden-Bridge to Thornton-In-Craven
My second section experience of the Pennine Way happened as a byproduct of high train prices: I booked train tickets a month in advance to try and save money, but ended going at the worst possible time. I left a sick child at home with a pregnant wife just to go walking during the tail of the second of the big storms that have been attacking the British Isles lately: Abigail. I spent a weekend on soaking wet trails (who am I kidding? the trail was a river!) with repeated calls home to keep my wife’s spirits up and my child entertained. I had a wet night in gales that were high – as high as 60 mph – with my tent spending a big part of the night so sideways it felt like it was hugging me.
I did end up walking a nice section that combines some very wild moors, farmland and small villages. The weather held me back from making much progress and covering my usual 20+ miles a day. Another big factor was the shorter days – light from 8:00 to 16:00 only gives me 8 hours of walking, if I assume packing up and setting camp in the dark, which is not ideal. I could see how the area could be amazing if the weather were to be kind, but alas, it wasn’t and I still had a good time!
Day 1 – Hebden Bridge train station to Thornton Hill
When I arrived in Hebden Bridge, the roads were wet from the recent rains, with a heavy grey sky and a promise for more rain. I left the station and headed back to the town center, crossing the bridges over River Calder and the Rochdale Canal, onto New Road. This is a steep climb on a paved road and I quickly took my waterproof jacket off as it was really hot. Just as the road flattens there is turn right off the road onto a small trail through a little gate. The trail contours Horsehold and walks into Horsehold wood. That morning the wood was very boggy, muddy, slippery and wet, with a couple of water crossings that are probably usually nothing but a trickle of water. The sun came out a few times and the walk was stunning, despite the perils.
As the trail meets the canal, you can either go down a steep trail to the lock and cross here onto the canal trail heading west, or continue in the woods until meeting the small road that crosses the canal over a bridge. From here it is a straight walk to the main road (A646, Helifax Road), crossing it and taking a right due east. After 20 meters turn left into the group of houses and go straight ahead under the rail tracks to climb the steep and narrow stone stairs.
Continue climbing up along the cottages that cling to the hill’s slope following the signs, until reaching the cemetery. Walk around the little cemetery (but not through the gate!) to find a small path going up and due north west. At Dove Scout farm, as you reach a T crossing at the top of the hill, take a right towards the small paved road and then right again, and you will find the Pennine Way signs again. Follow the clear trail signs as it continues deeper into the agricultural landscape, crossing grazing fields, remembering to close the gates behind you. At this point the wind picked up again with a vengeance, giving my lightly running nose an extra workout.
After a km or so the trail dips into the Colden Water and crosses over a small bridge, climbing back up to some more grazing fields. About a half km further, as you cross Edge Lane road, we finally reach the first moor. This is Standing Stone Hill (395m above sea level), and it is a truly windy and bleak South Pennine moor. With the tail of Abigail still present it was really boggy, turning the flagstone sections into pools and rivers.
After a couple of kms wild moors, the trail joins a 4×4 road heading due north near Gorple Lower Reservoir and the nearby Gorple Cottages. Pass around the cottages and head down to Graining Water on a short and slippery descent. The little stream had swelled dramatically when I was there, to disguise itself as a small river. Cross over two bridges and climb up the eastern slope onto the ridge, joining a paved road soon after the small farm. There is an opening from the field to the road, but I couldn’t find it so fund myself climbing over the wall to join the road. Walk down to the small parking spot and turn right to join another road towards Walshaw Dean Reservoirs.
The walk is pretty straight forward here as the paved road is clearly signed and newly paved, but the now-increasing rain got me settled into a slightly depressing, very wet walk. Huddled in my jacket with wet legs up to my underwear, I met several trail runners heading home for hot showers, coffees and plates of food. After a km I turned right off the road, walking on the south dam of Walshaw Dean Lower Reservoir to its eastern shore. From here it is a km of waking through tall grass (now my trousers were even wetter!) until leaving the reservoirs due north east.
The foot path leaving the 4×4 road is clearly marked and climbs onto another moor. The walk through Withins Highet was a repeat of the previous moor, but the relentless rain caused an increase of water levels on the trail. A sloshy walk up to moor leads to the “Top Withens” farmhouse, which is beautifully located over looking the South Dean Beck. Taking the route to the left (follow the signs), the Pennine Way continues on the ridge, and the unrelenting rain was causing a real drop in my morale. I was not even half way to the distance goal I gave myself and the low clouds were making the day darker than it should have been.
I continued down the ridge onto a farm road at The Height, staying on paved roads and following the signs, greeting brave dog owners that were out for a walk. The wind was picking up now even more, sending everyone indoors, leaving the flooded roads all to me. Past Buckley Farm I reached Pondley Reservoir, turned left and then right at the dam on the western edge, climbing a short section on broken asphalt. Rounding Ponden Hall and the all-too-tempting Ponden Guest House, I continued on a domestic paved road down the hill to New Laith road at the edge of the reservoir.
From the road take the right (following the sign) up the hill following Dean Clough until meeting Dean Edge Road. It was getting darker now and I was starting to get a bit desperate to find a place for the night before it got truly dark. The rain decided to take a short break, allowing me to reach Crag Top and decide to push a bit further and higher onto Thornton Hill. 200 meters up the hill I found a junction of walls that blocked some of the wind with enough flat space and relatively drained patches of land. I pitched my tent at 16:00 as the day was growing deep cobalt around me.
I quickly made a few attempt to communicate with home and set all I needed for the night to limit my time out of the tent. The wind and the rain returned with a vengeance, at times flattening the tent with some gales. I managed to get in touch with home, somehow cook dinner and even try my new Pat’s Backcountry beer kit (I had a pale ale with my dinner) and mostly just stayed in my sleeping bag, trying to stay dry. The night was wet, windy and very unpleasant, but I managed to get some sleep in between wind gusts and my imagination….
Day 2 – Thornton Hill to Thornton-In-Craven
I woke up to a damp and foggy morning that was very far from sunrise (that would come at 8:00). I made coffee while in my sleeping bag and started to assess how wet my gear was – it was all soaked. The condensation and the constant shaking of the tent caused a feeling of rain indoors, even though it was not as wet as outside. After my coffee and some cookies I made a hasty camp break, just before the rain started again, and I started walking. I very quickly got even wetter as I followed the Pennine Way as it went north along a wall through long grass. The trail itself turned into a stream and many parts were knee deep.
From Old Bass to Cat Stone Hill the trail turned into a fully flowing river, with more streams flowing into it. Many times I had to walk around the trail as the water was deeper than I was willing to sink my poles into (deeper than 1 meter). I eventually made it to Grouse Butt and then to the stalking huts near High End Lowe. By 10:00 I had covered just over 4 km and I was already drained and tired. I found shelter in the front porch of one of the stalking huts and made coffee, had some food and made some calls – I was ready to call it the day. The extremely wet conditions and the battering wind got to me, which is very rare, and I decided to cut the trip short.
After some food and coffee, I continued down the trail in the moor, turning left (west) to Eller Hill. At this point the trail became a full river, especially at the spill point of the small waterfall, making the walk down to Lower Summer House farm very challenging. From the farm it is a straight forward, marked walk down to the western edge of Cowling (Ickornshaw?) with a quick cross over an old bridge. Turn left after the bridge and follow the signs through the farming lanes.
Just past Gill Top farm (when you are on a paved road that is framed by walls), turn left with the road and into the field straight ahead. Don’t be tempted to walk to the stream ahead but head a bit to the right (north west) to the meeting point of 3 streams – this is the crossing. Get to the bottom of the hill and head to a slightly angled metal gate and pass through into the grazing field. From here follow the signs as you get into and out of sheep grazing fields.
The fog had settled again but the rain ceased, tempting me to continue walking. Passing the farmland and getting to Lothersdale, I told myself that if the pub was open I would stop there and after a couple of pints, catch a train home. When I arrived to Lothersdale, I found the village completely deserted but for a few passing cars, and the pub completely shut despite it being lunch time. Alas, I decided that the closed pub and the fact that the rain stopped were good enough signs for me to continue my walk, so I did.
From just past the pub (on the main road in Lothersdale), the trail joins a new farm road that leads north but leaves it after 100 meters to start climbing through some more farm land. After less than a km the trail crosses White Hill Lane and heads north west to enter Elslack Moorvia, the Kirk Skyes farm road. Pass the gate and angle around the wall to get some open and wild space again. The trail was again deep in water and to prove my stupidity of choosing to continue walking, the rain and wind returned with as much force as ever. I was heading west now towards Thornton Moor and the wind and rain were blowing head-on.
I huddled into my hood the best I could and pressed on to get out of the strong wind. The trail was clear and as I passed Pinhaw Beacon, it got slightly better. I joined the wide trail heading west and onto the paved Clogger Lane. After 500 m the trail leaves the lane and follows a wall that, in good weather, would have been amazing, but in the conditions I faced was soggy and depressing. Shortly the trail enters a grazing field and you need to head to the wall and the broken gate. After that just head to the stream and the Spring Barn house ahead. This is a diary farm and there many cows around, most of them curious, which also means muddy, dung infested walk into the farm. The area around the farm is badly maintained and the farm itself is very much a working farm – a true eyesore.
Past the Brown House farm it is a nice walk on a paved round under a bridge and into Thornton-in-Craven. As I
reached the valley I found that the whole valley was fully flooded with fields upon fields under water – I just thought it was a lake when walking down until I checked the map! Thornton doesn’t offer much and on Sunday afternoon it had even less. I could have headed to one of two pubs, one a couple of miles to the east and one a couple of miles to the west, but I found a bus station with only 25 minutes wait till the next bus to Skipton, so that was my choice.
I will be returning to Thornton-in-Craven soon to continue my journey on the Pennine Way, hopefully in slightly better conditions. After so much rain and 60mph winds I doubt I will encounter anything so violent, but you can never know.
An extra note about the flooding: it took me 6 hours to get from Skipton to Leeds to catch a train south, a ride that usually takes 50 minutes in total. The flooding stopped all trains to Leeds from the west and north. If you are planning a trip in similar conditions, make sure to plan for more travel time.