The Silent Heart Of Black Hill

Neil and Obie and I began our first day on the Pennine Way in Edale Youth Hostel, and, true to form, we didn’t hurry into an early start. I could claim that we were governed by hostel breakfast times, but that would be a red herring; we never rose from our beds or left a hostel earlier than we had to. And we were cocky; we thought we knew everything about hill walking. We saw no reason for concern or apprehension about tackling new ground. Our experiences in the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District, where we’d battled through some long and hard days in appalling weather, had led us to conclude that lower elevations like Kinder Scout, Bleaklow and Black Hill would present nothing harder than routine walking, and that a thirty-mile day was something we could take in our athletic stride. And as the hills were south of Wharfedale, in our opinion they couldn’t amount to much.

We met another Peter over breakfast. He was older than me but younger than the other two, and when he heard us talking about the Pennine Way he asked if he could tag along as far as Tan Hill. The four of us raced up Grindsbrook, and once on top in the low cloud we set off along what seemed like a path. After a while we realised our path was winding about; it was really a drainage channel, something we later called a grough but which for some time we accorded a range of less printable names. The peat rose above our heads on both sides so we decided to climb out and see what was up above. We struggled up the slippery crumbling banks to behold an alien landscape of groughs and heather and cotton grass fading into the mist. We struck off in the direction we’d last been walking when in the bottom of the grough, crossing a multitude of those horrible impediments to progress and pleasure, our muscles straining, lungs burning, white sea-boot stockings rapidly turning black, feet getting wetter, rucksacks - without waist belts in those days - hitting us in the back of the neck when we crash-landed after leaping the narrower channels, as we tried to knock off the thirty miles to Holmfirth. After ninety minutes on the plateau we emerged on the edge.

‘We’ve made it across! Neil shouted. ‘We’ve taken a short cut and we’re just above Mill Hill.’ He pointed to the left and declared, ‘We go that way.’
Obie looked over Neil’s shoulder at the map. ‘Hold on, Neil. There’s a reservoir down there. We’re on Kinder Low. We’ve got to go right.’
Obie was correct. My shoulders sagged. My spirits slumped. We’d put in a huge effort to get to the wrong place.

Neil retrieved the situation.

‘OK,’ he yelled. ‘Let’s follow the edge to the Downfall, then we’ll be back on track.’

We set off running between the gritstone boulders as the rain started to fall. When we reached Mill Hill, we decided to cut straight across to Bleaklow Head on a bearing that took us north of the official route, across the tussocks and wet ground of Featherbed Moss and down into a deep gully west of the Snake summit. Early in the afternoon, we scrambled up to the road and ate our inadequate packed lunches, supplemented by dry bread purloined from the breakfast table. We were tired, irritable, and behind schedule; we should already have been leaving Bleaklow. My heel was hurting so badly I wondered whether I could keep going. As the youngest, I was desperately keen to prove myself, so I stuck at it, determined not to return early and expose my fallen pride to the sniggering remarks of stay-at-home contemporaries.

On Bleaklow we belatedly used the compass and found our way to the summit late on a wet and gloomy afternoon. Then we tried to be clever again, taking a short cut and descending east of Torside Clough through a steep and dreadful confusion of boulders and heather and wet bracken. On reaching Longdendale we made the only sensible decision; we would walk the Holme Moss road, rather than setting off across Black Hill when darkness threatened. We arrived at Holmfirth Youth Hostel late in the evening and ate ravenously before sleeping the sleep of the exhausted. We learned that day what the Pennine Way could do to the unwary and over-confident. Our lesson was a hard one to swallow, but that early failure helped us to complete our walk.

A few boot prints and marker posts point towards Black Hill, but they lead into ominous patches of shivering ground. The tracks look several days old, implying infrequent use of the route. I don’t fancy becoming stuck; help might not arrive before the weekend. Feeling small in the vast landscape, I deviate round the worst traps until, late in the afternoon, I take a rest amongst wizened bilberry bushes on the dry slope just below Black Hill’s infamous flattened dome, where I consume the remaining contents of my lunch box under the unblinking gaze of a posse of sheep. Far away, homebound traffic speeds soundlessly along the A635, and I feel a deep satisfaction that I’ve abandoned the paving to walk the old route. It has been a memorable experience, one that epitomises for me the unique pleasure hard-won from the emptiness of the hills.

‘Come on, Suzy,’ I say, as I repack my rucksack. ‘Final lap now.’

I climb the last few feet and cross the summit peat under a pale blue sky. Taking a compass bearing from the triangulation pillar, I begin my descent, and then I stop and look about me, sad to be approaching the end of a superb day and reluctant to leave this silent place. Nowhere on the entire Pennine Way exudes a more powerful atmosphere of loneliness and isolation than the southern flank of Black Hill. The only human presence is high above, where planes drone towards Manchester Airport. I am further from roads than in the Cheviots, and escape routes are long and hard to find. There is no defined ridge, no shelter in a tributary valley, and no glimpse of the lowlands as a symbol of eventual salvation. There is no reassurance on Black Hill.

Those are my reflections as I walk contentedly towards the paving that leads downhill over the mosses to Crowden Great Brook, where I splash contentedly through the scummy, peaty flow, humming a tune Dad used to sing on homeward journeys. My tough day grows hard again on the narrow climb to Laddow Rocks, where the sense of exposure is rivalled only by Malham Cove and High Cup. Late sun throws my long shadow across the valley, and a soft light soothes the rough hillside like a bedtime story. The steep descent picks and gnaws at the aching muscle above my left knee, but gushing springs cool and water me on the final mile of a warm dry evening. In front looms as dramatic a mountain scene as you’ll see in the Pennines: the sunless, beetling brows of Bleaklow, its uncompromising north face confronting me with the warning, ‘It ain’t over ‘til you’ve got past me!’

Enthralled and elated by this wonderful end to a great Pennine day, I fight my way down to the youth hostel to find the message ‘Plenty of beds for tonight’. It is the last week of school term, so there are no parties of kids, just lots of vacancies for ordinary walkers.

Hooray!

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