Pointers

I leave Windy Hill, feeling more satisfied than on my previous visit. Then I’d seen the flag being lowered and the tea-bar departing behind Brian’s four-wheel-drive, as I descended from White Hill across Bleakedgate Moor. I’d been fantasising for hours about a mug of hot sweet tea, but in the circumstances had to wait until I reached Littleborough.

Shouldering my pack, I march along the repaired path, making excellent time to Standedge, and take a rest by the car park where the A62 buckles a tight belt round this narrow waist of the Pennines. Here the hills are pressurised as nowhere else by the encroachments of industrial Lancashire and Yorkshire, which restrict nature to the highest ground. The towns squeeze in another sense, draining water from the sodden moors to satisfy industrial and domestic users, although, to be fair, they always leave behind enough to fill a walker’s boots.

I reflect on my 1963 experience. We started our second day from Holmfirth Youth Hostel with a long slog up the A635 into a brisk west wind and then crossed the treacherous pools of White Moss and the sodden peat hags of Black Moss. Standedge disarmed us with the pleasure of a brief gritty walk, but thereafter we stumbled through miles of tussocky grass all the way to Windy Hill (no tea bar in those days) and the bogs of Redmires, before the relief of sound footing again on Blackstone Edge. Rarely did we find a track. Waymarks and signposts were almost non-existent. We had to interpret the map, on which Neil had pencilled the Pennine Way, and work with the compass.

Countless feet had yet to inflict the motorway-wide scars which later necessitated the controversial footpath repairs. Today’s northbound Wayfarers who think it takes a long time to reach the Windy Hill mast should consider themselves fortunate. They face few navigational problems or underfoot difficulties, and they can enjoy a tea bar that didn’t exist in 1963. All right, I admit it, there was a transport café at Standedge, and yes, we did have a mug of tea before heading north, but if you want to know what it used to be like, try this: go up there on a misty day, head east from the path until it disappears from view, and try walking a parallel course to Windy Hill. Then tell me you don’t like footpath repairs!

At Standedge I make my bold decision: I will tackle the old Pennine Way across Black Moss and White Moss to the A635, then over Dean Head Moss to Black Hill, finishing at Crowden where I will hope to find a youth hostel bed. The day is relatively young with the time at 3.15pm, and the sky is clear. The only unknown is the definition of the old Way, less used since the Wessenden reservoir route became the official line. Official, but longer and involving a descent and re-ascent, and I can’t fancy the tedious drag up the reservoir track to the Meltham Road junction. So it will be the mucky trail across the tops for me, once I have solved what is becoming an urgent problem.

Having seen no other walkers since Blackstone Edge, I have no inkling as I head for Black Moss Reservoir that it will be problematical finding a secluded spot where I can have a crap. In my bid to escape prying eyes near the car park, I crest a small rise but unfortunately find myself in clear view of the sailing club, the pub, and the main road to Huddersfield. The dark and featureless hillside ahead offers no hiding place where a sensitive soul, reluctant to cause offence, can bare his white backside. The only private possibility is down beside a stream, which would be hygienically the wrong place to go, so I soldier on up the hill, carrying my uncomfortable burden until I feel that only a nosey-parker with binoculars and a perverse interest in coprophilia could see me. I dump my rucksack and am about to drop my shorts when a family party with a lively dog appears from nowhere. I curse them silently and haul my load over the brow towards Black Moss Reservoir where, at last out of sight of human eyes, I quickly achieve satisfaction. I leave the object of my erstwhile discomfort pointing long and straight and true to the north, a waymark for the next day’s travellers. It is the least I can do for them.

Two years ago I reached Black Moss Reservoir after a dreadful half hour. Starting at Crowden, I’d crossed Black Hill and stopped for a mug of tea and a piece of flapjack at the tea bar on the A635. By the time I reached the crossing of the Wessenden reservoirs I was struggling; my pack was growing heavier by the minute and cutting into my shoulders, and my legs felt leaden. At the waterfall on the north side of the reservoirs I felt drained of energy. I filled my water bottle and took a drink. I tried to go on, but after a few steps I was forced to sit and rest. I took another drink, but when I stood up I felt no better. It was only when, out of instinct, I started on my sandwiches that I began to recover. I then chastised myself for not remembering earlier that eating is nearly always the right thing to do. Suddenly I felt as right as a bobbin, as they used to say in the mill towns hereabouts, thousands of miles from where I’d first read the theory behind my distress.

Hiking to the Colorado River at the bottom of Arizona’s Grand Canyon is an outstanding experience. The descent is five thousand feet, the distance ten miles each way. The return journey therefore amounts to a serious one-day expedition, and National Park Rangers advise against attempting the two-way hike in one day. The Grand Canyon is cut into a desert plateau, so preparation for the walk must anticipate exceptional heat, and the temperature rises as you descend. The Rangers liken a two-way journey to running a marathon. They display annual statistics of the numbers needing rescue. They warn you about the cost, which is chargeable to the victim, of a helicopter evacuation. They emphasise that deaths occur every year.

Even if you go into the Grand Canyon for a shorter hike, you need to protect yourself against heat and sun, and you must drink plenty of water and eat complex carbohydrate; that means bread rather than sugar. In very hot conditions, you are advised to pour water over your head and soak your clothing. When resting, it is best to place the feet higher than the head, to speed the flow of toxins away from the leg muscles. On the ascent you should walk slowly; if you are going so fast that you can’t hold a normal conversation, you must slow down. Finally, they warn you, the Grand Canyon is not a test of your fitness; it is a test of your intelligence.

Wise words, and I did all I could to follow them when I made my own expedition to the river and back - except that I defied the warning against doing it in one day. Ever since, I’ve tried to apply similar rules to my walking in Britain, but those lessons slipped my mind for a few wretched minutes at Wessenden, when I was unable to figure out what was happening to me and I just wanted to lie down and expire. Of course, if I’d taken any notice of my parents I’d have remembered that ‘hunger bonk’ or ‘hunger knock’ was well known to cyclists before the Second World War, and I would have eaten straight away; but who accepts parental wisdom until after their own painful experience?

Before setting off across Black Moss I check my route card and compass bearing and then march in the boot prints and bicycle tracks of recent predecessors, aiming first for a cairn, then for a distant stake, pushing uphill through the disorientating chaos of solidified brown waves, the remote landmark of Holme Moss television mast a rough pointer to my dreadful objective, Black Hill.

I have to admit it isn’t as bad as I remembered. I find reasonable footing, and the compass confirms that the occasional stakes and the tracks on the ground are a fair guide. Progress may not be as easy as on the repaired footpaths further north, but the peat is dry, it feels soft on the feet, and the walking is pleasurable. I reflect that this is probably as good as the old Pennine Way had ever been. Where the gradient eases and the cotton grass blows white in the warm breeze, I locate the start of the paving over White Moss. The evil-looking pools that confronted us in 1963 are dried out or bridged and bypassed. With general direction-finding and detailed route identification greatly simplified, I march to the A635 with a sense of anticlimax.

I shouldn’t feel disappointed. This is probably the bleakest of all the Pennine crossings, with a featureless expanse of peat on both sides of its flat summit. In winter conditions, when snow degrades to dirty slush at the roadside and a raw wind sucks the heat from your bones, it is no place to linger.

For now, the excitement of crossing the fast road is enough to tax me, and on the other side I omit to refer to the map. Expecting no stiles, signposts or waymarks and wrongly assuming my way is straight ahead, I rely on a compass bearing from my route card and spend a frustrating few minutes trying to detour round some nasty quaking ground. Eventually, I realise my error and walk a short distance east along the road to the new stile provided by the Peak District National Park. That little nameplate makes me feel I’m nearly home.

I continue over Dean Head Moss towards Black Hill with renewed confidence, but suffering no illusions about how tired I’ll feel by the end of the day. I know the descent to Crowden will be long, like walking south to Hawes from Great Shunner Fell. To succeed, I still have to maintain my discipline, but there is plenty of daylight, the weather is perfect, and I am certain I have the energy and the stamina I need. In 1963 we should have crossed this vast basin late on a long wet day. Then it was a rarely trodden waste. In the event, we didn’t touch it, as a consequence of one of the most chastening experiences of our walking careers.

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