Ponden

 My 8.05am Pennine bus sports the orange and brown colours of its venerable rustic predecessors, which used to convey us north and west of Skipton into the upper reaches of the Yorkshire Dales. My driver is a large middle-aged man; his uniform comprises flat cap, wire-rimmed glasses and sleeveless Fair Isle jumper. He so reminds me of the comic actor Jack Douglas that I expect him to shout ‘Way-Hey’ and twitch violently at any moment, swerving his bus into oncoming traffic or crashing through the bridge parapet and into the canal.

As if to sully fond memories of early expeditions aboard ancient coaches, Jack has issued me with a standardised ticket, produced on a modern machine, the ‘Big Brother’ type that shows the date and time of issue, the boarding point, the route and the fare. As we leave the town, I glance without interest at its techno-message, and a wave of pleasure almost overwhelms me when I see that only the left half of the ticket has been printed, the white half remaining insolently incommunicado. That strikes me as a lovely gesture by a company which, I like to believe, would embrace new conventions of modern procedure and technology only when it must, whilst raising the stiff finger of disdain towards unnecessary progress.

Nobody else is riding to Thornton in Craven, and when Jack drops me off with a grunt the village feels dead. The houses appear to have been modernised and then shut up, their owners elsewhere, perhaps concentrating on making money until they return to play no real part in the community they’ve joined or, more ominously, displaced. Lines from Goldsmith’s ‘Deserted Village’ sidle into my mind, and a grey dampness in the air augments my sense of dissatisfaction. A farmer makes no acknowledgement of my sacrifice as I step into roadside nettles to concede priority to his Land Rover on my way across the valley to ascend Pinhaw Beacon. I’ll be glad to get away.

I climb slowly through the still air. Behind and below, traffic buzzes like blowflies through the decorated bones of Thornton. Midges pester, cows stare, mist obscures the hilltop, and sweat runs down my face. It is a typical start to a Pennine day in mid-July, but ahead and above me a better world awaits on the ill-drained moor, where curlew and snipe call out as they take flight into the low cloud.

At Pinhaw Beacon I meet a mixed-age group of six walkers. ‘Damn!’ I think, but politely answer their hellos. They are Wayfarers walking from Lothersdale to Malham, their first straightforward day, but their urgency, spiked with agitation, contrasts with my calmness. I am three-quarters of the way to Edale, and I feel a powerful sense of the maturity of my journey, and of my own certainty within it.

Pinhaw’s gritstone ridge reminds me of early days on Otley Chevin and teenage visits to Ilkley Moor and Shipley Glen, where the hills define rather than divide the towns. Sand grains and quartzite pebbles line a narrow path of compacted earth, punctuated by foot-worn protrusions of bedrock. A thin strip of tough grass grows on each side, where generations of boots have displaced the surrounding heather. Nowhere else on my journey have I noted this combination of textures, a subtle trademark of my native territory telling me I am near my childhood home. Perhaps such fine distinctions in the air near our house stimulate Suzy’s nasal sensors, awakening her in the back of the car after hours of travelling slumber.

Further down the hill, low-slung farmhouses and byres crouch under heavy stone-flagged roofs. These buildings, typical of the narrow valleys in the former West Riding, match my mental picture of their original owners, whose male descendants I would recognise anywhere by their physical characteristics and inherited behavioural traits: solid, with a low centre of gravity, declining the opportunity to make an architect’s statement, keeping their heads down, saying nowt.

This unique and highly localised landscape will now lead me from the lush greenery of Craven to the moors and mosses and finally to Edale.

In the bottom of a steep-sided valley, Lothersdale nestles amongst pastures and residual patches of woodland. The mill chimney tells of past labours, whilst the frenzied rate of renovation and conversion of old buildings speaks of the present and immediate future: money returning without work. As in many a pretty place within commuting distance of the cities, property changes hands at prices beyond the range of most locals, paid for by the loose change rattling in the pockets of the nouveau riche. Lothersdale is losing its old identity as a farming and manufacturing community. Its new persona lacks vibrancy. It feels incomplete, disappointing.

Outside the pub a young couple from the Netherlands sit in the warm sunlight. It is too early for beer, so they are eating ice creams. They camped the previous night at Cowling, and, even for campers, their backpacks are huge. Like most of their countrymen, they converse with confidence in excellent English.

I suggest they could be carrying less weight.

No, they disagree; they need everything.

I counter that they might reconsider as their journey unfolds, then I leave them to review, if they wish, the opinions of the know-all ancient Englishman labouring up the steps out of the valley.

The repetition of short but steep ascents and descents make this a tiring section of the Pennine Way for me, but the field paths leading to Ickornshaw are an enduring pleasure, notwithstanding a shortage of southbound waymarks. My sights are set on the Black Bull, where two years ago I arrived just as the front door was being unlocked, and I fell hungrily upon bacon sandwiches and mugs of tea while listening to the landlord’s tales. He’d helped many hikers over the years, posting excess baggage, contacting parents, receiving packages and money for young walkers, and helping people get home when a few more miles might have seen them over the worst and able to continue to the end.

At eleven o’clock this Monday morning the door is locked, the curtains closed.

‘Well, Suzy,’ I say, ‘that’s a blow. You won’t get your bit of bacon today.’

I cross the road, climb into the field, sit down amongst the summer flowers, swig water and eat a Chunky KitKat. The locked door has set me a puzzle: where to get lunch. I can either detour along the road to Cowling or try my luck beyond Ickornshaw Moor. Keen to maintain progress, I choose the latter.

A little way up the hill I meet three youth-hostellers. All are mature men, and one looks even more mature than me. On what is now a warm and sunny morning, they appear overdressed in long trousers, shirts and sweaters, and their rucksacks look enormous.

‘We’re doin’ t’ Pennine Way,’ says the leader.
‘Me too,’ I respond. ‘I’m nearly home now.’
They look nonplussed.
‘Where have you come from today?’
‘Haworth. We’re on our way to Earby.’
‘Youth hostels?’
‘Aye. We’re stoppin’ i’ youth hostels all t’ way.’
‘I did that going north from Dufton, but I’ve stayed mostly in bed and breakfasts on the way back.’
They look even more puzzled, as if confronted by an alien concept. Then one says, ‘We’re doin’ some long days. Like Malham to Hawes.’
‘That’s a hell of a walk,’ I agree, and I tell them about shopping at Bellingham for the food they’ll need at Byrness Youth Hostel and on the Cheviots traverse.
‘Nay, we’re stayin’ at t’ Byrness Hotel,’ says their leader, looking surprised at my irrelevant remarks.

I don’t reply; he seems to be contradicting what he told me about youth hostels, but his walk is no business of mine. We part, exchanging good luck wishes and exhortations to enjoy the Way, and I agree to look out for them next time I visit Sheffield.

The track takes me past the waterfall at Lumb Farm, where ugly buildings and the attendant seepage of what is euphemistically known as agricultural effluent grossly disfigure what must once upon a time have been an exquisite spot. What could, with a little thought, have remained as pretty as Northumberland’s Fawlee Sike, is now a shit-hole, with an ugly concrete shed on one bank and the paraphernalia of farming all around. I have few quibbles with farmers, and I wish their current financial plight could be painlessly resolved, but I do regret that whoever staked a claim to work in the midst of such natural beauty failed to discover within himself the sensitivity to erect his structures a little further away. Even ten yards would have helped. The result implies as little respect for the countryside as the modern urban theorist accords to the countryman’s attachment to field sports.

My next task is to cross Ickornshaw Moor. This wet and trackless dome was a dire place in the years before paving. Accurate compass work was essential in misty conditions, but that of course offered no protection against the trip-wire stems of tough heather. Now a well-trodden path passes the little summer cabins where, on this warm day, people are sunning themselves in peace. I almost envy them; I could certainly help finish their pots of tea!

Paving ensures my easy progress across the sun-soaked top, and, after dropping down the south side through luxuriant rushes, I harvest bilberries and raspberries that were immature when I started my northbound jaunt less than three weeks ago. At the wall stile in the valley bottom, two girl campers pause on their northbound way. They are still at the struggling stage, and their eyes tell me they’ve found it hard, but I am persuaded by their confident pronouncements that they’ll win through.

At their invitation, I relate my own tale, which they receive with incredulity, especially when I mention my recent daily mileages. I can hardly believe it myself; before leaving home, I thought in terms of fifteen miles a day, rather than the twenty or more I’ve been clocking up most of the way south.

I ask if they know whether the pub at Stanbury will be serving food at this hour or whether I’ll have to divert as far as Haworth. They look unsure about the facts and, possibly, a little nervous about how I might react to unfavourable news.

I decide to see if Brenda Taylor can help.

No ‘Refreshments’ board stands outside Ponden House, but Brenda answers the door, exuding cool serenity in the heat of the day. I ask if she’d mind filling my water bottle, and enquire whether she knows if the pub is open for meals. She looks at her watch, purses her lips, then asks, ‘Would a sandwich do?’

Would a sandwich do? My expression tells her all she needs to know.

‘Tea?’
‘Please. Wonderful. Thank you.’

I take a seat in the shade of a tree and thank my stars. As my Granddad used to say, ‘It’s better to be born lucky than rich.’ I look up at The House Brenda Built and recall my night there, meeting Jan from the Netherlands, Katrina from Finland and Jean from Devon, each of us enthralled by the calm ambience and the delicious food. Like many others over the Pennine Way years, I find Ponden the most fulfilling of all resting places. Here more than anywhere else, my hasty southbound passage leaves me regretting the price I am paying for my obsession with speed.

Brenda brings lunch and sees the Pennine Way South Guidebook open on the table.

‘That book’s wrong,’ she complains, finding the offending page. ‘It says that at Ponden Reservoir you have to go to Haworth if you want accommodation before Ickornshaw and Cowling. Well, that’s not true. There’s here! I’ve written to them, but they haven’t even bothered to acknowledge my letter.’
‘I’ll write as well,’ I say. ‘Ponden is an institution of the Pennine Way, and its praises should be sung.’

Ponden is a leafy haven between two bleak moors, offering shelter from storm and, on this rare day, from sun. Brenda and I spend a pleasant half hour discussing people we know or have heard of, the nature of the Pennine Way and its walkers, and what each of us might do next in our lives. I tell her about my 1963 adventure, my recent northbound finish, and my fast southbound walk.

‘You’ll meet yourself coming back,’ she observes.

Despite the heat, a shiver raises the hairs on my scalp and then runs down my neck and over my shoulders. Brenda’s words are a revelation. Instantly I understand why I am in such a rush. Despite my earlier intention to enjoy a leisurely journey, I have come up against my own youthful impatience and have been re-infected by it, as if inhaling spores that were left behind in my slipstream thirty-seven years ago. I started out as the hunter in pursuit of lost youth, but I became the hunted and am now hostage to my former self. The thrust of my actions is dictated by the boy who was never satisfied. I cannot arrest this uncontrolled southbound chase. All I can do is hang on, try to steer, and apply a little judicious braking.

Now that I finally appreciate what drives me, I race up the hill from Ponden with renewed vigour. I storm past Japanese tourists and European visitors who are using umbrellas as parasols where the hot sun warms Emily Bronte’s austere hills, burning off any sense of ‘wuthering’ from the ruined outpost of Top Withins. Standing briefly on the hillcrest, I pick out the distinctive profile of Otley Chevin, where my hiking began. To the north, Penyghent, Fountains Fell, Great Whernside and Ilkley Moor shimmer distantly in the turbulence of my spreading wake. Stoodley Pike and the Windy Hill mast rise to the south, an invitation and a challenge.

In 1963 we left Withins Height on a course that cut out Ponden and held to the higher ground. Our aim was to reach a shop en route to the self-catering Earby Youth Hostel for the third night of our walk. In improvising the diversion, we took no account of the ankle-snaring heather and the tussocks of mat grass, and consequently we finished the day exhausted.

We had by then tacitly accepted that we were trapped by our optimistic assessment of the number of miles we could walk each day. Arbitrary target setting was typical of our teenage hiking years; we pre-defined a goal, and we pursued it regardless. We sought challenges in the form of a peak or a circuit or a traverse, but we rarely started out for the simple enjoyment of a day in the countryside. We committed to walking the Pennine Way in less than a fortnight, and that objective, once set, existed only to be achieved.

Years later I became an outspoken critic of company directors who set ill-judged targets for their pet projects, and who were subsequently only too quick to blame others for failing to achieve what had never been possible. Today, however, my abnormally high level of fitness and newfound stamina intoxicate me. I see nothing unreasonable about beating the thirteen days we allowed ourselves in walking north so long ago. I have returned to my irrational youth, and I find myself emulating some of my less-revered bosses.
Filled with aggression, I plunge from Withins Height towards Walshaw Dean reservoirs. A young voice in my head tells me this is becoming easy; an older response advocates caution; Gary spoke of a southbound Wayfarer forced out by injury as far south as Standedge.

I dismiss the concept of failure from my mind. Indeed, by this time I have few thoughts of any sort. I avoid catching the eye of northbound walkers who look like Pennine Wayfarers and who might be seeking a chat as an excuse to rest on their dull slog over these sparsely populated moors. But I am intent on finishing, and my mind will not be diverted. I am the Border Collie, ignoring everything except its immediate task, and my young master is the demon of 1963.

Then, near Widdop Reservoir, I meet a northbound couple who look so disconsolate it would be inhuman not to pause and offer at least a word of support. They are Netherlanders heading for Haworth, struggling with the cumulative physical toll of the Way. After our short conversation, they carry on. They still have a long way to go this evening; she looks close to tears, and my heart bleeds. I wonder if they’ll pull out next day. Three years ago, near the same spot, I met two middle-aged Australians who were also finding it terribly hard. I know from experience that the Way can threaten the stoutest hearts, and that only a boost to your courage, the sort given by supportive colleagues, will carry you through to easier pastures, more stimulating landscapes and stronger legs. For the northbound, this is still ‘Giving-Up Territory’.

To spur me on for the final two or three miles I consume the remnants of Brenda’s sandwiches and most of my water. Ahead of me the evening sun picks out Heptonstall Church and softens the bleak uplands that rim the skyline. This is the best hour of the day to be out and about, if you still have the strength. Whatever dark passages of time these moors and valleys have known in the last two centuries, there is no denying they exude a sombre beauty all their own and deserve an inspiring recitation in the industrial and recreational history of England.

I walk into the New Delight Inn at Jacks Bridge, but they can’t put me up, which shoots apart my cunning plan for staying in a place where I can also eat dinner. The landlord is in the process of giving me local numbers to call when a man pokes his head round the corner.

‘If you’re looking for bed and breakfast,’ he says, ‘there’s a place called Badger Field Farm right on the Pennine Way. I walked past it today. Go down the lane opposite here, then south up the hill.’

I find the number, make a phone call and secure a bed, then sink a pint of shandy. I am not hungry enough for dinner, thanks to Brenda, so I chat for half an hour with my helpful informant who is camping northbound, then I brush my painful way between the stone walls lining a nettle-choked defile which here passes for one of Britain’s premier National Trails.

The wagging tails and lolling tongues of three Border Collies and a housedog greet my arrival at Badger Field Farm. Miriam Whitaker shows me to my room with its lovely double bed and a thick soft carpet. I pull off my clothes, peel the plasters from my feet, feel the sweat drying on my body and take a quick shower before returning to the pub.

It seems to take forever along the road. The tarmac is narrow, bordered in one section by a row of terraced cottages where people raise a hand and call a friendly greeting. The evening is jewelled with clear air and soft sunlight as I drop down the hill to the New Delight, passing an architectural melange of buildings erected when the Industrial Revolution was first revving up. Such richness merits serious exploration with the aid of learned journals and perhaps a local guide, but my priority lies elsewhere.

The pub is busy, and I am told there will be a wait for food.

I phone home.
‘Hi. How’s things?’
‘Fine, thank you. Where are you?’
‘Near Hebden Bridge. It’s been a glorious day.’
‘It’s been nice here. First decent day since you left. How many miles today?’
‘About twenty-one, I think. Did twenty-six yesterday, twenty-seven the day before.’
‘Really?’
‘Yes. Everybody OK?’
‘Fine so far as I know.’

My earlier acquaintance is deep in conversation with two others who look as if they might also be camping in the pub field. I sit at another table and work out my remaining distance: roughly forty-two miles left, which would split into two almost equal days if I leave the Way for a bed at Holmfirth. Or I could do a long day and a middling one if I break my journey at Crowden. My other option would be a short day to Standedge and a very long one to finish. I still don’t know what I’ll do, so I decide to wait until tomorrow, when my legs and feet will tell me the answer.

Soup arrives; it is delicious, thick and homemade, with mushrooms, herbs and spices. Then comes chicken, with baked potato, peas and salad. The landlord and barmaid fuss round me, making sure I have all the condiments I need. When I want another shandy, they give me table service; all this in the middle of nowhere in a stone-floored pub with iron-framed tables on a Monday evening.

Do I look important?

Have I acquired the status of a real walker during my return journey?

Or has the word been flashed south from Horton that I am likely to wreck a bar if left to my own clumsy devices?

Whatever the reason, it makes me feel extraordinary. Perhaps my fame really is spreading. At this very moment, a balding news editor in a striped shirt, wearing braces and thick glasses, chain-smoking full-strength cigarettes, might be shouting to his top reporter that it is the Silly Season and he’s just heard of someone exceptionally silly on the Pennine Way, and would he get off his backside and do an interview with the prat!

The other three Wayfarers invite me to join them. My B & B consultant introduces me as ‘The Chap Who’s Doing It Both Ways’. He and his fellow travellers are comparing notes about their journey from Edale: where they’ve gone wrong, what they’ve found difficult, where they’ve camped, who they’ve met. They are reliving their discoveries about the early stages of the route and about themselves. All are experienced backpackers with many trails behind them, but despite their maturity they need to talk over recent tribulations as a form of post-traumatic stress relief to prepare them for the miles ahead.

As for me, I can relate to their conversation but I feel detached, as if on a higher plane; I still have to do in reverse what they have just done, but I know what to expect, whereas they didn’t. I feel confident my legs will speed me through, despite doubts only two days earlier on Great Shunner Fell. When one camper warns me, ‘You’ve still got the bogs to cross,’ I feel no concern; I’ve achieved so much already, and familiar ground waits nearby. When they talk about what lies ahead for them I try to avoid appearing a smart-arse who can smugly tell them it will be no problem if they follow my advice, but I do ask them to call at Ponden and Hetherington.

At the bar I fall into conversation with another drinker. He is doing what I half-wish I’d done: taking his time, looking at the scenery, and understanding the history. Assisted by alcohol, we wax philosophical around the theme of freedom of choice, and in doing so we reveal glimpses of our respective backgrounds. It transpires that we have both been involved in information technology system development, not as technicians but as business managers.

I say, ‘I was thinking about my old job when I was coming over the last hill. The bosses forever insisted on setting final budgets and end dates before we could do a preliminary study. We were always having to finish things by arbitrary dates, like Easter.’

He takes a swallow of his beer.

‘Ah, Easter,’ he reminisces with a jaundiced half-smile. ‘Good old Easter. That’s why God gave us Easter, you know. It’s a time to get things done by.’
‘They were never happy with anything we gave them,’ I continue. ‘But the next year they’d do the same thing again. Pluck end dates and budgets out of thin air. Then it was our fault if the system didn’t satisfy them.’
‘Mmmm,’ he says. ‘You know, some people believe senior managers are prone to what’s really a new industrial disease. They actually become addicted to developing unsatisfactory software. It’s a sort of demonic possession. After a while, they go into a new project knowing it won’t turn out right, but they can’t help doing it. I’ve heard tell it’s like buying sex from prostitutes - hardly ever satisfying in reality, but addictive because of what the punter believes it could be. But the silliest thing about this disease is that if they do have a success they don’t get any more pleasure from it than they get from their failures. It’s the process they enjoy.’

I wonder if the Pennine Way is like that for me: enjoyable as a process rather than a result. Will I be back next year?

The light is fading as I return to Badger Field Farm, where Miriam is dead-heading flowers in the company of her dogs. We admire the view across the valley to Stoodley Pike, and we wonder why Mankinholes Youth Hostel doesn’t open on Monday and Tuesday for the benefit of weekend starters from Edale. Then I excuse myself and sleep soundly, preparing for the decisions of the coming day.

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