…in which I enjoy birdsong, sunshine, friendly company and unexpected pizza. Hang on, I thought this was the Pennine Way…
Upper Booth to Crowden, 16 miles.
One of several intimidating aspects of the first day is that there’s precisely zero accommodation or catering until Crowden, and even there only a minimal-sounding campsite. Upper Booth Farm offers pre-booked hot breakfast items (bacon butties, etc.) in summer but you’ll be leaving too early, won’t you? You’ll need to carry breakfast and lunch.
The only way to shorten this day or introduce external resources is to meet friends or family on the A57 at Snake Pass, and I’ve met several Wayfarers who’ve done just that. Since the Youth Hostel sadly closed the only official accommodation at Crowden is Steve’s campsite. This is a detour from The Way, but worth it. Ring and book if you like, but otherwise don’t be dismayed by fullness or the Camping & Caravanning Club signs, as Steve has an ‘always room for a Wayfarer’ policy, bless him. He also has a small but impressively diverse shop at which you can stock up for days two and three – try to support his enterprise. You can pay for camping with a card but it’s cash for everything else.
The site has showers, a drying room and more – in May 2016 they were offering teas, coffees, pop, ice creams and hot food, including astonishingly good pizza. The ‘Steve Special’ was staggering in its freshness, generosity and deliciousness, and I’ve eaten a lot of pizza. Out of season I’d ring to check what’s available. It’s worth getting on the right side of Steve as he may, at his discretion and subject to terms and conditions, invite you to a private party involving a bottle of cold beer. These kind people will charge your phone too and a couple of bars of signal can be found by walking uphill opposite the site entrance.
Unless you’re already hill-fit start this day as early as you can because straight out of normal life it’s a killer. In May/June I’d aim to be walking by five. Yep, five am, walking, not waking up. It’s easy to find Jacob’s Ladder and Edale Rocks but I wouldn’t bother with Edale Cross on anything other than a clear day. Once The Way has passed (to the right of) Edale Rocks, things can quickly get confusing in poor visibility. Don’t try to find the Kinder Low trig point in fog. It’s amazingly easy to get lost, you wouldn’t think so but somehow it just happens, Kinder’s like that. Just head towards the western edge of the plateau. You’ll pass the trig point just up on your right but don’t worry if you can’t see it. Simply contour along the diverse and rocky path northwards along the edge and apart from tactical diversions such as crossing Red Brook, neither gain nor lose height. You will inevitably (ha ha) arrive at Kinder Downfall, a great spot for breakfast.
The Way from the Downfall is similarly straightforward. Again you just contour along the edge, then slither down a steepish descent (finding out if you’ve chosen the right footwear) and, ignoring the crossroads in the saddle, go a little way up again to the right turn at an unimpressive cairn on Mill Hill. Then it’s seemingly interminable flagstones all the way to the A57. Take it easy on these and don’t stomp, your joints have to get used to the jarring. If you feel twinges in your shins, slow down and try to tread more lightly; there’s another 150-odd miles of these irresistible unbouncy objects still to come. Did you remember your Sorbothane insoles? You may think these stones are a bit annoying now, but you’ll be thanking and blessing the flagstone pixies before the week’s out. Practice not catching your poles in the gaps – lightweight poles may break if you don’t get the hang of this quickly.
Bleaklow can be intimidating. In 1999 I got lost up there badly enough to have to consult a GPS, how embarasssing. In thick fog I left the cairn in the wrong direction, having thought the starred viewpoint on the map indicated its location, and having failed to spot the waymarker. Hence I stupidly followed the fenceline further northeast instead of turning north-northwest, then I mistook Black Clough for Torside Clough. I’ve since met others who’ve also made this mistake – don’t, it sucks.
Subsequently I lived for a while in Sheffield and came to know Bleaklow well. It’s now one of my favourite places and very friendly if you know its secret – the delightful vintage stone waymarkers which are unique on the Pennine Way. Try not to miss them. There’s one in Devil’s Dyke, another at the big poled cairn where you turn north-northwest and another lurking at the next important change of direction around 093 966 although the path is quite diverse here so don’t fret if you miss the stone; pick a popular-looking route and trust your compass.
The blue starred ‘viewpoint’ on the NTG map (p. 36) is, as mentioned, confusingly not the summit cairn. The large, obvious poled cairn that unambiguously marks the vital ninety-degree change of direction to north-northwest is actually just after that starred ‘viewpoint’.
People worry about identifying John Track Well but the path through black peat along and down the north shoulder of Wildboar Grain is obvious. The Well is where the two substantial streams meet. You need to cross over them to the equally obvious steepish path that climbs upwards on the far side and then contours along the shoulder of what quickly starts to drop away and open out below the path into the impressive Torside Clough. More of an issue with John Track Well is that the streams may become dangerous or even impassable after heavy rain.
There’s a couple of stone waymarkers along Torside Clough but that’s straightforward navigationally although hard, rocky going with quite a drop to the right. At the bottom of the final steep descent turn left at the fingerpost and follow the rhododendron-edged track down all the way to the next fingerpost at the B6105, there’s no short cut off to the right that I can find. On the north side of the road, I’m convinced there must be an unmarked shortcut to the sloping track down to the dam but on three Pennine Ways I’ve always missed it, gone along the road and back through the gate. A surprisingly long walk remains, over the dam, through a pine plantation, across a nasty, busier road then along a tarred track. Some find the detour to the campsite intolerable and continue on The Way to wild camp. It’s not really that far, there are showers, there’s usually tea and did I mention pizza?
I can’t overstate how worthwhile and rewarding an early start is on Day One. It will set the tone for your whole trek and transform these sixteen miles from an arduous, superficial slog to a considered and vivid interaction with some of our country’s most interesting and memorable landscapes. In April 1999, I was only 39 but working full-time in an office and walking very little betweentimes. I found a deathly quiet, grey and icy Jacob’s Ladder a discouraging struggle. In May 2016, as I approached the Ladder older but fitter in a warm and limpid dawn, a Willow Warbler suddenly sang. Then another, then a Blackcap. I didn’t exactly breeze up, but it wasn’t hard either and I was serenaded all the way.
At the cairn just after 6.15 the sunrise broke over Kinder Scout behind me, an utterly wonderful sight. A beneficent universe further bestowed upon me somebody’s ugly, but functional and not inexpensive, Rohan hat. I won’t be seen dead in anything Rohan, a brand I consider a tragic outdoor fashion crime, but I carried it to Kirk Yetholm as a trophy, thinking I might sacrifice it appropriately on the gypsy stone. Inexplicably, I still seem to have it.
At Edale Rocks I must have strayed into the Northern Powerhouse as my phone suddenly bleeped after 24 hours of silence to indicate full strength 4G, a phenomenon rarer than dragons in Norfolk. I rested and Facebooked – equally important to a modern oldie. The entire Kinder plateau was bathed in bright sunshine as I pottered around the trig point, which in 1999 had eluded me entirely in thick fog. I nearly broke my leg trying to scuttle up it for a selfie – that would have been a good start.
Massive planes laboured loudly up from Manchester at implausibly steep angles, intrusive predators of the peace but undeniably awesome. It was like being in one of those modern aquaria where you stand among the tanks and see sharks’ pale bellies swishing above you.
At the Downfall I spread my soaking tent to dry on the sunny rocks, brewed coffee from the interestingly coloured stream water and enjoyed a lavish if unconventional breakfast of assorted last knockings from the fridge at home. From this first bit of real elevation, the views seemed thrillingly infinite; it was ravishingly beautiful and profoundly quiet. On a bank holiday Saturday I had the whole of one of England’s most amazing places to myself. This was one of the very best mornings of my entire life.
Bleaklow is another place dear to my heart, albeit less noted for views. For most of the way up it you’re trudging along the bottom of a blooming great ditch, which at least makes it hard to get lost. The top is atmospheric though and surprisingly sociable. Even in the foulest weather I’ve almost always met up here somebody odd or interesting or attractive or all of the above – a group of six funny, friendly Sheffield lasses at the cairn was a bonus this time. Wainwright was by his standards ruefully accepting when he acknowledged that perhaps he shouldn’t be so rude about this remarkable and unique place, the largest remaining patch of English land still undefiled by any road.
The distance on to Crowden looks deceptively short on the map but Torside Clough is a slog and there’s quite a hike north of the reservoir. Exploring Bleaklow properly, although rewarding, has to wait for a dedicated visit. Be amazed by the black and silver summit. Marvel at the groughs and hags. Be impressed by the hard, expensive but evidently successful work by the Moors for the Future project to re-seed the bare peat with grass and heather. Wonder why there’s no Mountain Hares – they used to be easy to see up here – and no birds of prey. Listen to Golden Plovers crying ‘ooh deear, oooh deear’. Eat the last of the fridge leftovers. Find the little stone waymarkers, these are your friends, give them a pat, take a selfie and get back on The Way.
Longdendale is, as Wainwright acerbically notes, depressing after the hills. The reservoir is a marvel of civil engineering but, trust me, there will be plenty more reservoirs to marvel at. Stumbling on to the campsite, I received there a friendly welcome and miraculous refreshment. The character of this Caravan Club site differs from that of Upper Booth Farm, a rustic site favoured by hip families in bell tents whose kids are highly enabled and vocally encouraged. Back there, I’d been considerately placed in the ‘quiet field’ and very quiet it was, until a yummy mummy announced ‘we like your quiet spot, we’re coming to share it’. With a menagerie of acquaintances, pets and children including an infant that cried literally all night, she’d relocated her family’s tent next door to me!
Crowden is more of a caravan site and you get the impression the kids here are somewhat less enabled, behaviourwise. The impression in fact that in some of these caravans nocturnal vocalisation might elicit an old-fashioned response. Whether that’s better for the kids is debatable. For an exhausted Wayfaring Oldie, it feels comfortingly familiar from early-to-bed camping holidays of childhood and certainly makes for a better night’s kip.