…in which I’m aghast at a lack of snacks, I’m afeared of teeming streams and I grumpily slumber in a grough.
Northern Rotcher to Bleaklow, 17 miles.
On the A635 at Wessenden Head there’s sometimes a snack van but this is unreliable and was frustratingly absent on this occasion.
Otherwise just the campsite at Crowden. In summer this offers a good selection of hot food and drinks as well as showers and a shop but out of season I’d phone and check what’s available. Unless you’re planning to camp there it’s a detour, at least 15 minutes walk each way. Having now tried wild camping on Bleaklow, I’d really recommend camping at Crowden instead. It depends what state you’re in. By now you should be hill-fit, but you may be experiencing wear and tear issues. The best campsites I saw on Bleaklow (the next morning) were in square 0996 (NTG p. 36) but note you’re pretty high up by this point and also that camping on Bleaklow is – ahem – not officially encouraged.
I went astray at Black Moss Reservoir, taking the old route across the dam by mistake. This is an initially alluring path southbound but after the dam it bafflingly peters out and subsequently regaining The Way took a lot of wet and tedious bog-hopping, it would have been quicker to retrace my steps. Don’t forget to turn left at about 031 089 (NTG p. 45, F).
Otherwise pretty straightforward now that Black Hill is entirely flagstoned. Your main worry is what to do if the stream in Dean Clough is impassable after heavy rain. I blundered across but it was tricky and not unhazardous. Southbound there is an alternative route via the Kirklees Way; study the signboard at the A635 and think on’t.
A further problem occurs after heavy rain at John Track Well, if Dean Clough is high, odds on by the time you get here the streams will be a bit bonkers too. Crossing them alone in near-darkness was a dodgy exploit verging on foolish. There’s nowhere to pitch a tent on the west side although you might manage in a bivvy bag at a pinch. Camping at Crowden – you know it makes sense.
Day sixteen had dawned, crikey. By this point my trusty Tesco ‘bag for life’ larder was looking distinctly ragged and its contents had deteriorated into a random mélange of debatably edible weirdness. A reduced item sandwich from the Gargrave Co-Op, how long had that been in there? Parkin and a very squashed steak pie from May’s. Some unprepossessing cashews already carried for 230 miles. An unknown number of free-range and increasingly sticky butterscotches from The Dalesman (Swizzles brand – some of the nicest butterscotch I’ve ever bought). Emergency Supernoodles, now rebranded as Superfragments. Those were the recognisable items. Had my food bag been struck by lighting, novel life-forms might well have started evolving. OK – sort out one lunch, one supper, one breakfast, one backup, eat the rest right now, whatever it is, yes even the squashed Virgin Trains biscuits, job done. And of course there’ll be a hot lunch at the snack van…
Randomly but adequately breakfasted I wandered down to the A62, which normally feeds Millstone Edge a steady diet of dog walkers and joggers. I had the place to myself; horizontal sheets of freezing rain might have had something to do with this. The fords on Rocher Moss were slippery and I was too casual at Black Moss Reservoir, as noted above. By the time I got to Blakely Clough the sun was breaking through and I briefly aired my tent on the mysterious tank before another squall buffeted me down and up the steep Wessenden valley. At the lodge another precious gap in the clouds let the sunshine in; it looked like a very brief opportunity so I didn’t dare hold out for the snack van. Humming poorly-remembered snippets from Hair, I tied my tent and sleeping bag to the railings to dry animatedly in the brisk wind and made a brew. A good call as it turned out – there was no snack van.
Reeling from the existential weltschmerz and cognitive dissonance of snacklessness, I gave the warning sign about Dean Clough but a passing glance and plodded on. It was raining heavily again, as it had done for most of the night. The comedy bogs traditionally found at the end of each section of flagstones were here the deepest I’d so far encountered, unavoidably knee-deep in one place. This should have told me something. When I got to Dean Clough the stream was – ahem – a little intimidating; more so than it looks in this photo as it was flowing quite fast and powerfully.
I explored upstream – deep pools, and I’m no long-jumper. I explored downstream – deep pools too, but one place at which the leaps looked manageable. I leapt. This was a bit silly as the bank on the far side turned out to be very steep. I’d assumed I could pick my way back along the rocks to the ford but there were deep swirling chasms between them and patches of bright orange quickmud into which I could poke a pole up to the handle and feel no bottom. Lawks. With hindsight it would have been safer and more sensible, as my feet were wet anyway, to roll my trousers up and just wade the ford. I used to manage a nature reserve with a small river in which I frequently had to wade, to retrieve dead sheep and suchlike, so I know the power of quite insignificant-looking water flows. I certainly wouldn’t have fancied the ford without poles.
I like Laddow Rocks even less than usual in a strong wind; luckily it was blowing me onto the top rather than off. Halfway along I met a father and daughter with enormous packs, hoping to section hike as far as Malham before things got too wintry. Dad looked concerned but his teenage offspring seemed cheery and up for anything, mind you this was only their second day. ‘We’re camping too’ she shouted gaily through the gale, rivulets of rainwater sluicing off her jacket. Dad looked even more concerned.
By Crowden it was raining even more heavily and I dithered and dithered about whether to stop. I was worried about Simon Armitage’s having found the last climb up to Kinder one climb too many. I’d been feeling a few twinges in my knee and was anxious to press on, leaving as short a final day as possible. A childish ambition to bag all the 2000-plus foot summit camps along The Way was a factor, I admit. But I also had to wrestle with my conscience as I know perfectly well Bleaklow is a sensitive and degraded landscape and camping up there doesn’t exactly help the people who are working hard to restore it. I promised myself I’d camp sustainably, easily finding one of the nice firm grass patches I’d seen on the way down in June, to which a lightweight and very brief spot of dossing would do no harm at all. I’d certainly avoid damaging any fragile peat. Unfortunately things didn’t quite work out that way.
A large herd of enormous cattle were gathered at the top of the steep climb up from Reaps; they glared at me miserably through the curtains of rain and allowed me the use of the stile only reluctantly. Torside Clough became increasingly ridiculous; the trickles that normally toddle across the path had swollen into streams. The streams that normally amble across it had morphed into torrents. Several sections of the path were continuous flowing water.
Near the top and in near darkness I was shaken by a sudden and disconcertingly complexioned apparition. I thought it was a military type in camo paint but as this young man approached I realised his unusual facial pigmentation and texture were peat-based. ‘Fell over’, he explained, gathering the energy to speak only with a visible effort. He may have used additional words but they were carried away by the hoolie. I nodded, sympathetically but uselessly, as he raised a hand to his encrusted cheek and rubbed a large amount of peat into his right eye without appearing to notice. Either he was too exhausted to care or there was already insufficient light for him to register this additional optical challenge. His parting words as he stumbled past me into the gloaming were ‘Bleaklow’s sh*t tonight, mate’.
I was starting to feel a bit flaky and anxious to camp but the whole west side of the clough was steeply sloping, rocky and increasingly resembling a waterfall. It was clearly essential to get across John Track Well, so my heart sank at the (retrospectively predictable) observation that both the streams were almost impassably high, their junction a roiling maelstrom. I had to pick my way some distance upstream along both branches to get over and even then it was a bit hairy, considering I was alone in near-darkness and in the middle of nowhere. Cowed by my own foolishness I wasted precious time trying to pitch the Stealth on a small island above the roaring rapids. There just wasn’t enough room, I had to pack up again and press on. The wind strengthened and the rain assumed a generally sideways trajectory.
As Wildboar Grain started to flatten out there was still no sign of a sensible campsite and night had very much fallen. It got colder and colder, I began to wonder whether I was verging on a survival situation. A sloping peat grough marginally sheltered by its hag had been carefully and expensively re-seeded by the Moors for the Future people; guiltily but somewhat desperately I disrespected their hard work by slinging the Stealth up on top of the new grass. As soon as I got the flysheet stable and could crawl under it out of the wind I felt lightheaded with relief at the sudden shelter. I think it’s possible to become almost hypnotised by walking for a long time in strong wind and buffeting rain, to the point that that we don’t realise how profoundly it’s affected us psychologically let alone physically, how it’s taken us to a point almost beyond caring.
A sleeping bag and some random cold snacks had me almost giggling as sleet battered the tent like gravel. My phone battery had been out all afternoon (hence no photos) but I dug out the spare and was overcome by a sudden urge to call home, feigning nonchalance at my situation and expressing relief at my imminent return to civilisation. The truth was I could hardly have felt happier than I did right then, lying under flimsy wind-whipped and rain-hammered fabric, in pitch darkness, on a sub-optimal and irresponsible campsite up a high hill in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing like a sudden contrast between exposure and shelter to cheer you up. When I got home, my partner told me she’d been entirely unaware from the tone of my phone call that I’d been in any difficulty. I wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or disappointed.
In truth, this was a short night that seemed long, a night of, as Ronald Turnbull puts it in The Book of the Bivvy ‘interesting misery’. Not so far away from where I pitched my tent is the crash site where thirteen young American airmen died in 1948 when their routine flight carrying mail and pay ploughed into Bleaklow in fog. I’ve visited the site several times and one of the spooky things about it is how the metal shifts about. It disappears into the peat, then reappears. People assemble it into sculptural formations. I assume it’s people. You can see amazing photos of the remaining wreckage on Paul Shorrock’s blog here.
To keep any wraiths away from my tent, while lying awake in the cold I honoured them with a poem. It references the meme that every glass of water holds one atom that passed through Napoleon. Google can take you to explanations of this, and even to supporting calculations. An oven bottom breadcake is a flat, tasty bread roll, a speciality of South Yorkshire. ‘Aluminum’ is pronounced American-style, to scan. The name of the plane was Overexposed.
In the whitening season, hares
Hunkered in the heather, plovers moaned.
With sudden, frightening unreason, their
Aluminum oven bottom thrown
Into the breadcake of Bleaklow’s
Bare peat, a baker’s dozen burned.
Over exposed, a peepshow
Of metal shifts about, unreturned,
Unburied, as I rig my house
Temporarily by a river.
They fell and burned inglorious as grouse.
Tonight I resent them for the shiver
That repeats despite my sleeping bag.
Gotten through the war, the lucky ones.
With doggerel I bless their grieving flag
And brush from my tent some young Napoleons’
Atoms, passing in the cold spray.
Smashed for a load of mail and pay.