If you like your spaces to be ‘wide open’ ones, you could do a lot worse than the Forest of Bowland, a tiny bit of wildness tucked away between Lancaster and the Yorkshire Dales. Go expecting trees and you will be disappointed, as it’s an ancient hunting forest. Instead, expect to find empty peat moors with isolated gritstone edges. It’s not particularly pretty (though it does have a wild grandeur) and there’s little drama. For me, though, these are the hills of home.
I had really enjoyed last weeks visit to the north of the Peak District, as it reminded me of my earliest hill-walking days. In my early teens I cycled with my mate Sam to the hills near Dunsop Bridge – Sam was keen on birds (feathered ones, but we were only 13 at the time!) and he wanted to look at a gull colony on the high moors. We biked about twenty miles then started walking. At the time I hadn’t a clue where we were going, and neither I suspect did Sam, though I can now trace the route on the map.
One thing I do remember about that trip, though, is not wanting to turn back – I just wanted to carry on, to see what was over the next horizon. I’ve been doing that ever since. I suppose it’s what you call a ‘life changing moment’.
My early wanderings were mostly in the southern part of Bowland, and I hadn’t returned to the northern bit since that trip with Sam – well, there’s a limit to how far you can explore when you’re 13 and using a bike to get to the hills. By the time I had a driving licence I wanted to visit bigger and more dramatic hills, so despite the fact that the hills of Bowland are the hills of home, there remain sections that I have never walked.
It was about time I returned to unfinished business in Bowland, so Chris and I (and t’dog of course) set off to Slaidburn to fill in a gap in my Bowland experience. We started up over Dunsop Fell, heading for the lonely farm at Whitendale, a short distance but over typical gritstone moors – a combination of peat and water!
From above, Whitendale farm looked incredibly tidy and well kept, an impression reinforced on arrival by some of the neatest drystone walls I have seen. From there we set our course to continue up the valley of the Whitendale River, heading for the Hornby Road.
The Hornby Road is an ancient track over the moors between Slaidburn and Hornby, and is sometimes known by the alternative name of the Salt Road or Salter Road, a reference to its previous history as a packhorse route used to transport salt. The route is much older than that, however, and the section we walked was part of the Roman road network linking the important military bases of Ribchester and Carlisle
In fact, these quiet hills are full of history, some ancient and some less so. Our route on Hornby Road was less than 1 kilometre from the site of an aircraft crash on Baxton Fell on 26 January 1943, following the collision of two American P38 fighters flying to Northern Ireland to be modified for desert conditions – the second aircraft crashed on Dunsop Fell near to our outward route. Both pilots were killed in the accident.
Old instincts surfaced on this section of the walk. ‘Mist’, our Border Collie, is trained to be safe near sheep, cattle and horses, but a couple of hundred years of selective breeding by shepherds leaves a legacy, and several times she went into an instinctive ‘collie crouch’, giving the sheep ‘eye’ – the sheep, likewise, obeyed an older instinct to herd together when faced by a ‘wolf’! A quick word of command reminded the dog that her herding instincts are now redundant.
We followed this section of the Hornby Road for about five kilometres, allowing rapid progress, especially when compared with our outward route picking a way through the peat bogs of Dunsop Fell. Before long we were back at the waiting car, ready to rejoin the modern world again.
p.s. Busy week this week (hopefully!) Good weather forecast, and we’re in North Wales. I’m hoping to knock off a couple more routes for the Snowdonia Guide for Discovery Walking Guides – the only cloud on an otherwise cloudless horizon is a knee injury that has been a nuisance for the last few days, so I’m travelling hopefully!
Text and images © Paul Shorrock