Pendle Hill has an air of mystery about it. The hill dominates the view in much of Central Lancashire, but stands separate from the Pennines, the Bowland Hills and the Yorkshire Dales which surround it. At 557 metres (1827ft) altitude it falls short by 53 metres (173ft) of being classes as a mountain, but Pendle doesn’t really care about that sort of nonsense.
Recently I had a job to take care of in nearby Preston, but Border Collie ‘Mist’ had been in the back of the car for a couple of hours, and was ready to run off some energy – the nearest bit of wild country was good old Pendle Hill, so that’s where we went.
There’s a local saying, “If you can see Pendle, it’s going to rain – if you can’t see Pendle, it’s already raining!” For such a low hill it has a surprisingly bleak and wild aspect, and Pendle is frequently shrouded in mist. Its old name Penhul is ancient, with elements at least 1000 years old, with Pen meaning ‘Hill’ in the ancient language of the Britons and Hyll meaning exactly the same in Old English. The summit has an even older past, with the remains of a Bronze Age cairn, possibly 4000 years old.
However, the area is much better known for the famous witch trials of 1612. At its simplest level, the allegations of witchcraft in the Pendle area came out of a feud between two families. The two old women who headed the families were regarded as healers and ‘wise women’, but an ugly undercurrent of protection rackets set the scene for false and malicious accusations – religious intolerance and suspicion were added to the mix, and a total of ten villagers were hanged after being convicted of witchcraft.
A mere forty years later, George Fox found heavenly inspiration here – “As we travelled, we came near a very great hill, called Pendle Hill, and I was moved of the Lord to go up to the top of it; which I did with difficulty, it was so very steep and high. When I was come to the top, I saw the sea bordering upon Lancashire. From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered”. Thus inspired, George Fox went on to found the Quaker movement.
When I first started walking the moors of Lancashire, Pendle Hill was always in view somewhere. As a teenager I used a bicycle to get to the hills, and Pendle was far enough away from where I lived to make me ignore it for years, and it was only when I got the use of a car that I paid my first visit to the hill – I’ve been a fairly frequent visitor since.
The easiest and most satisfying route starts from Nick of Pendle, and follows Ogden Clough for a short while before heading for the summit at Big End. From there a soggy, muddy path skirts round the summit plateau, ending up at a huge bee-hive shaped cairn, built by local Scout groups to commemorate the founding of the scouting movement.
Despite its lack of height and its small area, Pendle is surprisingly wild and desolate, and it’s easy to see why the hill has become regarded as a place of mystery and inspiration, and when the mist creeps across the summit it’s easy to imagine darker times and deeds.
Text and images © Paul Shorrock