…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.
All my Pennine Way blogs start with separate sections on resources and navigation, followed by my trail journal. Information was correct in June 2016 but won’t be updated. You can jump straight to my journal by clicking here.
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; I’ve met several Wayfarers who’ve done just that. Since the Youth Hostel sadly closed the only accommodation at Crowden is Steve’s campsite, a detour from The Way but worth it. Ring and book if you like, but 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. 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 and deliciousness, and I’ve eaten a lot of pizza. Out of season I’d ring to check. It’s worth getting on the right side of Steve as he may, 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. A couple of bars of signal can be found by walking uphill opposite the site entrance.
Start this day as early as you can because straight out of civilian 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, which is frequent up here even in summer. 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. Contour along the diverse and rocky path northwards along the edge and apart from 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 just contour along the edge, then slither down a steepish descent 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 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; there’s another 150-odd miles of these irresistible unbouncy objects still to come. Did you remember your Sorbothane insoles? 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, but it’s quite 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.
In 1999 I got lost on Bleaklow 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 failed to spot the stone 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 non-trivial mistake. The blue starred ‘viewpoint’ on the NTG map (p. 36) is 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’.
John Track Well is where the two substantial streams meet; these may be intimidating after heavy rain. You need to cross them to an obvious path that climbs steeply on the far side and then contours along the shoulder of impressive Torside Clough. This is straightforward navigationally although hard, rocky going with quite a drop to your 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. 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. 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 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. 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 and I was serenaded all the way.
At the top of Jacob’s Ladder your virtuous dawn start may well be rewarded by the wonderful sight of a sunrise breaking over Kinder Scout – it’s a shame to sleep in and miss this. A beneficent universe further bestowed upon me somebody’s ugly but not inexpensive Rohan hat. I won’t be seen dead in anything Rohan, a brand I consider a tragic outdoor fashion crime, but I nonetheless carried it all the way to Kirk Yetholm as a trophy, thinking I might sacrifice it on the gypsy stone. I forgot; it went to a charity shop.
At Edale Rocks 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 aeroplanes 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 the pale bellies of sharks cruising above you in a clear, illuminated fluid.
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 infinite; it was ravishingly beautiful and profoundly quiet. On a bank holiday Saturday I had one of England’s most amazing places all to myself.
This was one of the very best mornings of my life. Even the miles of incongruous flagstones after Mill Hill seemed a blessing in the sunshine, not least because I knew from experience I’d be thanking and blessing the flagstone pixies for their hard work before the week was out. Also I’ve read Wainwright’s account of what this moor used to be like.
Bleaklow is another place dear to my heart, albeit less noted for views. A few years after my first embarrassing encounter with it I lived for a while in Sheffield and came to know it well. For most of the way up 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 foul weather I’ve generally met somebody interesting – a group of funny, friendly Yorkshire lasses at the cairn was a bonus this time. Wainwright ruefully accepts that perhaps he shouldn’t be 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 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 and successful work by the Moors for the Future project to re-vegetate the bare peat. 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, give them a pat and get back on The Way.
As Wainwright acerbically notes, Longdendale is dull after the hills. The reservoir is a marvel of civil engineering but, trust me, there will be plenty more reservoirs to marvel at. I stumbled on to the campsite, a friendly welcome and miraculous refreshment. Upper Booth Farm is a rustic site favoured by hip families in bell tents whose kids are highly enabled and vocally encouraged. 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 right next door to me!
Crowden is more of a traditional 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 the early-to-bed camping holidays of childhood and it certainly makes for a better night’s kip.