The Mad Killer Of The Moors

The Pennine Way takes us through landscapes which merit deeper investigation than most hikers’ itineraries allow. The fastnesses of the Cheviots where few ever tread, the secret country between Redesdale and Hadrian’s Wall, the archaeology of the area around the Wall itself, the lead-mining phenomena of the North Pennines, hidden Middleton in Teesdale, the special flora in the fields of Baldersdale; all those wonders are in the northern half of the Way, and all deserve more time than ever I’ve given them.

When will I return to explore in depth, rather than burning a direct line across the map? Could I tolerate a more sedentary holiday? I suspect I’d be itching to get my rucksack on and lope along some trail for the pleasure of feeling the miles go by. Maybe I’ll change, when I have to.

A glance at the guest books in bed and breakfast houses like Miriam’s along the Way shows visits by travellers from Germany, the Netherlands, the United States and Australia. What a different perspective on England they must get from staying in such places instead of hotels. How enlightening and entertaining. How different from the ‘quickie tour’ through London-Oxford-Bath, which is all that many trans-Atlantic package tourists ever know.

Like many tourists, I must confess to being poorly informed about some places off the beaten track, including the towns in my own backyard. For example, I have always scurried quickly through Hebden Bridge and its adjoining settlements. Whilst such haste was undoubtedly brought about by dedication to the Pennine Way, my upbringing was also responsible for a chauvinistic attitude towards this part of my native county. Many of us born in Wharfedale were raised to understand that our hometown was as good as any and better than most. Parents, grandparents and elders told us, ‘There’s nowt ovver theer,’ as they sneered in a southerly direction towards Leeds and Bradford, assuring us, ‘It’s best this side o’ t’ Chevin’.

There was method in their madness; quite apart from enhancing local pride, if they could persuade us that Wharfedale was best we wouldn’t stray any further afield than earlier stay-at-home generations. Their indoctrination was partly successful; for many years, if we weren’t in the Dales we felt in limbo and at risk of purgatory. Subsequent experience and travel have slowly leached out such prejudice, but what a lot I might have missed.

My day’s walk begins in hot sunshine at nine o’clock with that rare phenomenon, an early descent. In the hay meadows of Blackshaw Head, which perch like a Swiss alp above the steep valley side, I meet two local men and call out to them, ‘Who wants to buy some warm clothes?’

‘Who’s pinched all our flies?’ comes the quick counter, reminding me to think twice before crossing verbal swords with a West Riding man.

Very soon I can answer their question. As I make my way down through the trees the flies buzz multitudinous and persistent all the way to the river. They harass me thick and fast as I pass the sewage works and climb the opposite side of the valley. I try to ignore their tickling feet as they paddle in rivulets of sweat, but eventually I can contain myself no longer. I lash out into thin air and slap the itching places on face, neck, arms and legs. After far too long a torture I emerge from the woods and cross the high pasture to Stoodley Pike, proud and erect above the valley, where I stop for a drink and a bite, while the breeze and hot sun dry my sweaty shirt. The worst climb of the day is done, but ahead lies a long slog on the almost level route to the A58 road and the White House Inn at Blackstone Edge. There will be no respite from the high ground before Longdendale, more than twenty miles distant.

When I first walked this leg in 1963, we were nearing the end of our second day. Hard it had been, but not a patch on Day One. We were aiming for Mankinholes Youth Hostel, making good time along the side of the reservoirs, buffeted by a west wind that gusted sharp sand against our bare legs and stung us with a hail shower. By the time we dropped down the hill to the hostel we were more than ready for supper. We were virtually the only residents that Monday night, and a sorry sight we must have looked, stained with wet peat and soaked from the knee down.

‘Give us yer socks,’ said the warden’s wife. ‘I’ll get ‘em dry.’

Next morning she handed them back, still warm from the oven. That was virtually the only time we donned dry footwear throughout the journey.

I’m sure a European Directive or Nanny State Regulation now prohibits the rehabilitation of socks in appliances designated for the cooking of food for human consumption. Perhaps footpath restoration and the elevation of the Wessenden alternative to the status of Official Route have absolved the newly refurbished hostel from the need to offer such services.

Between Stoodley Pike and Blackstone Edge I come across two other hikers, a pair of young males. They are applying sunscreen and trying to fashion sun-hats from handkerchiefs and scarves. They look tired and shell-shocked; a heatwave was probably the last weather they expected. I shout a loud hello and wave a trekking pole in greeting but am rewarded with nothing more than a wary look. My guess, based on the time and place of our meeting and their bemused expressions, is that they stayed overnight in Littleborough, maybe even at the Sun Hotel.

I passed the night there in 1998, as did Gary a few weeks ago, claiming with a grin that he’d been frightened to death. So had I, on leaning over the bar and coming nose to nose with a German shepherd dog the size of a donkey.

‘You stay your side, he stays his,’ the landlady warned me.

She had no need to add the Tan Hill Caveat that the dog was not a vegetarian; there wasn’t enough vegetable matter in Lancashire to feed that monster.

The Sun Hotel provided adequate accommodation and offered an unusually early start, mainly for the benefit of contractors living there through the working week. Cereal and toast, followed by a huge fry-up garnished with grease, gave them enough food for a packed lunch as well as breakfast. Me? What do you think? I ate the lot before catching the 7.45am bus to the White House, and I was pushing the miles away fifteen minutes later. That’s what I like: a good feed and an early start.

I press on steadily southwards, determined to maintain a sensible pace and not to overdo things. Ahead are a lone figure and his dog. Gradually I catch up. As I pass them, I call hello and smile. He glances my way, and a shocked expression crosses his face. He nods and mutters, then stops and calls the dog to him, letting me get well ahead before continuing his stroll.

After miles without passing a building, I see a roof. I am sure it is the White House Inn, but the habitual treachery of the moors and mosses deceives me; it is a separate structure, a grey blockhouse of a place beyond the main road, symbolic of the inherent hostility of these high places. Shortly afterwards, however, the longed-for hospitable white walls come into view, signalling the imminent end of my morning’s walk.

I notice a couple leaving the inn car park, walking briskly up the road towards the gateway where the Pennine Way meets the A58. They obviously aren’t Wayfarers, but they are coming in my direction. It becomes clear that, by dint of our respective rates of progress, we are fated to meet at a kissing gate. One party will have to give way.

The man looks in my direction then speaks to his wife. I imagine him saying, ‘Get yer skates on, or we’ll ‘ave ter wait fer this bloke ter get through t’ gate.’

I see her quicken her step, and they arrive a split second before me, triumphantly seizing control of the strategic crossing point. He wears the victor’s smile, whilst I nurse a wound of irritation that these half-day trippers should flout my right, earned by more than two hundred miles of foot-slogging, to continue my unimpeded progress. Before long they’ll be sitting in their sedate saloon car, en route to their comfortable home in the suburbs of Manchester, while I probably still won’t know where I’ll be laying my head.

I stand and wait, leaning on my poles as she struggles to work her hips and day-pack through the constriction, taking far longer than I would, while his smirk turns to a look of exasperation at her slowness.

With heavy emphasis I say, ‘You might know it. In the last two hours I haven’t come across a stile or a gate, then when I do there’s somebody blocking my way.’

Exiting shamefaced, she looks at me just as I soften my harsh words with a smile, which, because I don’t mean it, just might look more like a leer. She gasps and backs away. He lumbers awkwardly through the gate and then glances in my direction. His regretful and embarrassed expression is replaced by a look of apprehension. He mumbles an apology, and they both scuttle off as I waltz through the gate and onto the road to the White House Inn.

I leave my rucksack and poles at the door then bend my no-alcohol rule with a midday pint of shandy and a bag of crisps. The surly barman gives me the Kirkstyle eye contact, and I go outside to sit on a bench where I quickly polish off my snack before returning the empties. A barmaid hears my steps, comes through from the lounge, thanks me and then gasps and turns back.

Whatever’s wrong with her?
‘I won’t bite you,’ I call, as she retreats.

I push open the door of the Gents and come face to face with the Mad Killer of the Moors. A trickle of dried blood from a re-opened shaving cut runs from one corner of his mouth, while the smeared body-parts of bluebottles decorate the sunburnt, sweat-streaked face of a wild-eyed man who will not be denied the success of his senseless pursuit.

I study my reflection. Do I want to be this character? I rather think I do. Then, just in case there is a real murderer at large in the area, I reluctantly wash off the damage of the morning and emerge into the sun as nothing more dangerous than a demented hiker, obsessed with his walk rather than with the remains of his bloodied victims. I know I’ll meet uglier characters within the hour.

Cars race up the A58 towards Yorkshire, swerving round wandering ewes and lambs in their haste to escape the Red Rose County. Equally determined, if not as fast, are four Pennine Wayfarers who started their day at Standedge and are hastening to the White House to slake a thirst cultivated through the hot morning.

The path beside the aqueduct leads me to Dhoul’s Pavement, an ancient stone-surfaced trans-Pennine route sometimes described as a Roman Road. I climb quickly to the rocks of Blackstone Edge, where I wave to a couple consulting their map and another pair taking lunch in the sun. The Manchester conurbation sprawls away westwards in remarkably good visibility, and I lengthen my stride across the paving of Redmires towards the roar of the M62 trans-Pennine motorway, the landmark of the Windy Hill transmitter, and Brian Scatcherd’s tea bar.

Approaching this noisy oasis four hours after leaving Badger Field Farm I am ready for lunch, but two Geordies sitting in a pick-up intercept me.

‘Canny walk?’
‘Aye.’
‘How far, like?’
‘From Scotland. But not all today.’
He gives a gurgling laugh, his eyes disappearing in the wrinkles.
‘How long’s that took yer?’
‘Eleven days, including today.’
‘Wor. That’s goin’ some.’
‘Aye, I’ve lost a bit of weight too. The wife won’t recognise me - that’s if she’s not already left home!’

He gurgles again and settles down for a sleep as I head for the counter. I order two bacon rolls and two mugs of tea, then sit back to eavesdrop on the chat between Brian and his lorry-driving customers. Most of their complaints are directed against the obstructive bureaucracies they all have to tolerate in making a living. On the balance of what I hear I think I sympathise, although nobody in a bowler hat and pinstriped suit appears on behalf of the defence.

I return the empty mugs.

‘Goin’ to Standedge?’ Brian asks.
‘Further than that,’ I say, ‘but I still can’t decide whether it’s Holmfirth or Crowden.’

He nods and returns to his audience and their common interest of knocking the powers that try to be.

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